Sometimes you have to move away in order to understand how much you are formed by place. Wilderness was part of my upbringing, my formation as a human being. A native Coloradan, as a kid I camped and backpacked in the Rockies. I went to college out in California. I swam in the Pacific and spent some time falling off a surfboard or two. I even climbed a bit in the desert at Joshua Tree. Then after all my years out West, I moved to Washington, DC for seminary and stayed there to serve my first church. I have to tell you these days I am grateful to live back on this side of the “gateway to the West.”
When I lived on the East Coast I travelled a fair bit, through Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas. There’s beautiful country out there, but I couldn’t escape the impression that people lived too close together. Out East you can scarcely find an unsettled valley. As I grew to know the East Coast, I realized I would never be totally at home. I would always feel a bit crowded.
Maybe you’re like me, and when you heard Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey say to Mary, his oldest daughter (who has just failed again to secure a marriage): “Go out to America, bring back a cowboy from the Middle-West who will shake us all up,” maybe you also thought, “I resemble that remark!” Maybe. One of the gifts we have out here, out in the West is Wilderness. We are still a little wild out here.
Today’s Gospel begins: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Notice the prepositions: “up and into.” The Spirit of God isn’t leaving Jesus “down and out,” words you might expect of someone walking away from polite society. Nope, the Spirit is leading Jesus up and in. “Into the wild” those words express reason, purpose. Sometimes you have to leave behind the busyness of life, the hurry, the crowds. Sometimes you have to go somewhere quiet. The literal translation of the word in Matthew’s Gospel is “a lonely place.”
In the wilderness that we are free from human constructions of reality. Out of the cities and societies we create and manipulate we find reality a bit more raw, untouched by human hands. I remember coming back from backpacking trips in my teens to return to the “real world,” and wondering which world was more real. We are invited out from under the fluorescent lights of the shopping mall, out to bathe in the darkness of a star-lit night.
I spent a number of summers working sleep-away camps in Colorado. One particular summer, I was assigned to the ropes course staff. Each day we were assigned a group of teenagers and sent off in the morning to the “low ropes”, a series of games and challenges designed to build the team. In the afternoon, we got to take the kids up to the high ropes, help them put on helmets and harnesses. They climbed walls, walked tightropes, and eventually leapt from a platform 60 feet in the air and almost unfailingly screamed as they sailed on a zip-line down through a mountain valley. It was a great job.
In the transition time over lunch, between the low ropes and the high ropes, we had the group sit on the pine-needle covered forest floor around a giant wooden circle. Painted on the circle were three more concentric circles. The outer ring was deep green, and it was labeled “safe zone.” The innermost ring was labeled “danger zone” and was painted bright red. Between the two, in yellowish orange, was an area we called the “challenge zone.” We explained to the teens that the hope of the whole ropes experience was to bring them into the “challenge zone.” We didn’t want you to feel like you were in danger, but we also didn’t want you to be totally comfortable. Human beings tend to grow when they are challenged. You can fall asleep when you’re safe. You freeze up when you’re petrified. You can learn about yourself when you’re nervous.
For someone living at the time of Jesus, the wilderness was a challenging place. Away from the safety and security of your tribe, in the wild you were vulnerable to robbers and predatory animals. Galilee and Judea are surrounded by desert. Water is not always easy to find. What Jesus was doing could be dangerous. But this episode is just the first of several in the Gospels where Jesus goes away by himself, to a lonely place. Jesus often heads out alone to the wilderness. Like his cousin John the Baptist out there with the locusts and wild honey, the faith of Jesus is nourished by time apart from the safety and security of his group.
Now, some of you might be wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about the devil. What I find interesting about this devil is following the names for Jesus’ adversary. An interesting progression happens in Jesus’ awareness of the character in this chapter. Matthew references the character as “The tempter” when he first appears to Jesus, famished after 40 days of fasting. After the first temptation, the name changes to “the devil,” the diabolical one. That Greek word is still a little diffuse. Where “devil” in English is more specific, diabolos in Greek can mean “adversary” less specifically. Diabolos can even mean “lawyer.” By the end of our reading Jesus yells “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus calls out Old Scratch by name. Out there in the wilderness, I wonder if it took Jesus awhile to discern with whom he is contending. But when Jesus knows the name, he can say “away with you!” When you know the name of your demons, are you able to banish them?
This episode is perplexing. Why would the Spirit of God lead Jesus out to face Satan? I know, and I bet you know dogmatic answers to that question: “It was so he could be tempted in every way as we are, yet not sin.” Congratulations, we pass catechism class. But I’m not sure passing catechism will help us follow in the way of Jesus on this one.
Jesus, just two chapters from now, tells his followers when they pray to include the line “lead us not into temptation.” Even as an adult Christian, I stumble on that line. I’ve never liked the idea that God could lead us into temptation, that we have to pray to ask God not to do so. This morning, I find myself wondering whether Jesus had this experience in mind when he gave the disciples that line of prayer. Did Jesus’ time in the desert in chapter four influence his prayer in chapter 6? Was Jesus shaken by what he saw out there in himself?
Really, as some of you know too well, we sometimes don’t choose to find ourselves in that lonely place. When we discover ourselves suddenly out there, in the desert, not of our own choosing, it is important that first we get out of danger. Make your way out of danger, but then step two is important as well. Learn from the discomfort. We often rush that second step.
I’m a novice when it comes to contemplative prayer. The particular way of praying I’ve been practicing for a few years now is called “Centering Prayer.” It’s a form of Christian meditation where you attempt to totally quiet your thoughts.The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian. Centering prayer teaches you to gently let go of the thoughts, to return to the quiet.
Once I was caught a bit off kilter in Centering Prayer when I was able to sit for several minutes with remarkably few thoughts. I didn’t even congratulate myself for my lack of thought, which I often do. This time I was just quiet. Then I teared up. I just started crying. I didn’t know why then, I’m still not totally sure what the tears were about.
Thomas Keating, the principle teacher of Centering Prayer, often tells folks not to be surprised if they are suddenly overcome by emotion. Many of us keep ourselves so busy that we don’t fully experience the moment. We don’t allow ourselves to fully feel the feelings of stress, loss, and general frustration in our day to day life. When we face a particular trauma, we often rush through, busily moving to the other side of the experience. Keating says he’s sometimes found it helpful to have a grief counselor at Centering Prayer retreats, because when someone is able to find that contemplative silence, old traumas can resurface.
“Lead us not into temptation” makes some sense from this perspective. What loving leader wouldn’t want to spare his or her followers the pain, if they could. But Jesus knew himself well enough to know he needed the time apart. He needed to wrangle his demons.
Brene Brown is a professor of Social Work and an Episcopalian. Her books and TED talks have become incredibly popular over the past few years. Brown talks about the courage it takes to be vulnerable, to open yourself up, to really talk with people about what you’re facing. She says that to really be embraced in a community we have to have our sufferings and our pains embraced as well. We can’t just say, “I’m doing fine.”
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes guts to say, “I’m struggling over here.” But folks, we all struggle. It takes temerity to admit imperfection.
This is the first Sunday of Lent, the beginning of a long journey with Jesus. In the end we encounter suffering and sacrifice. I wonder, could this Lent be an invitation? Could we ask: “Where is your wilderness?” Where can you go to be vulnerable? Where will you face your demons?
Will you venture into the literal wilderness? Will you sleep a night out under the stars in the quiet? Or perhaps, Will your wilderness be more metaphorical? Will you spend some time in silence? We’ll have opportunities for contemplative prayer here at the church on Mondays. We’re going to start church with some silence each week, and you’re allowed to get to church early. Really, you are.
Wherever you find wilderness, will you take the time to be vulnerable, to name your demons, to step into the more challenging aspects of your life?
If you decide to undertake a wild journey this Lent, I wish you every blessing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Know that Jesus has gone this way before. Know that God will never leave you. In my life, I have found God more easily in the “lonely places,” than in the busyness of life. Wilderness has value. Journey safely, just not too safely.