It is common in Lent for Christians think about this season as a wilderness journey or to reflect on our experiences in the wilderness. When Christians talk about the wilderness, we’re not talking about a backcountry hiking trip. We’re talking about an experience of trial and stress- life challenging and life changing.
In the Bible, when people go into the wilderness two things happen. Being in the wilderness is a time of danger. There is scarcity of food and water. There are wild animals. When one is in the wilderness, one is separated from the protection and comfort of community.
But also, God is present in the wilderness. Now Christians do believe that God is everywhere. But we would also claim that God is present in particular, life changing ways in the wilderness.
The Bible is full of wilderness stories. In the first chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve are sent out of Eden into the world beyond and in some ways the rest of our story is about life in the wilderness, trying to find our way home.
In the ancient world, when you stop to think about it, there was more actual wilderness than there is now. There were cities and villages linked by a trail, perhaps a road, and the rest was wilderness. Wilderness was a fact of life. In the ancient world, people needed to be alert and wise to be kept safe from the wilderness.
Wilderness today isn’t necessarily less dangerous than it used to be, but there certainly is less of it. In our world, it’s mostly cities and towns with lots of roads. In between our towns, there’s farmland,- cultivated, ordered. Most of us don’t encounter wilderness unexpectedly. Now wilderness is marked off, kept safe, behind a fence. We don’t encounter the wilderness as soon as we step out-of-town,leaving on a journey. But wilderness is still out there.
I wonder if we are more surprised by the wilderness than ancient people? We often seem shocked when wilderness experiences enter our lives. I wonder in ancient times if people expected wilderness times to come into their lives?
I wonder how our encounters with the physical wilderness, or the lack of them, shape our encounters with the spiritual wilderness? Does our relative physical safety lead us to expect emotional and spiritual safety?
If you have spent time in the spiritual wilderness, you are for the most part very glad to leave. At least I was. When you left your wilderness, how far away did you go?
I have discovered that upon leaving, I didn’t go far. My life now is lived within view of the wilderness. I’m out, but not too far removed. The wilderness is there, at the edge of my sight. I look up across the way and I remember my time in the wilderness. I know what I have to do to stay out of that particular wilderness. My view of the wilderness helps me remember. It is important that I don’t move too far away. If I don’t keep the wilderness in view, at least in my peripheral vision, I’ll loose my way and find myself back in the wilderness. The decision to live near the wilderness shapes me almost as much at the journey into the wilderness itself.
Often we speak of wilderness journeys as solitary experiences. It is true that each person’s journey is unique. Your wilderness journey may be similar to mine but it is not identical.
But sometimes, we enter the wilderness with someone as their traveling companion. We can, perhaps, recognize some landmarks and offer some guidance. Mostly though, when we enter the wilderness with another, all we can do is travel along with them. We can’t find their trail. We don’t have a special roadmap to pass on. We can’t point out the shortcuts because there are no shortcuts.
All we can do is to be with them. Be hungry when they hunger. Be thirsty when they thirst. Be sad when they are sad. Hurt when they hurt. Pray with them. And pray for them when they can’t.
When we enter the wilderness as companion we practice hesed – steadfast love. Hesed is the word the Bible uses to talk about God’s faithfulness, God’s decision to stay with us, no matter what. And hesed is what we bring when we enter the wilderness with another, steadfast love, faithfulness, presence. Some days it doesn’t seem like much. Some days it takes every bit of courage and love we have. In the end, it’s all we can offer. Ourselves. Our presence. Our love.