27 February 2012

Finding Grace in the Wilderness


Mark 1: 9-15

First Sunday in Lent/ 26th February 2012

We begin with Jesus in the wilderness.   The lectionary for this First Sunday in Lent considers this the proper place to begin our journey through these forty days plus Sundays.  But why here?  Why in a wilderness? This is the only question I want explore this morning. Why a wilderness?

Mark’s Gospel is marvelously simple.  It’s the shortest.  He’s brief and to the point in the telling of a story.  And he’s fast.  The pace, the movement of the Gospel is swift.  We only heard six verses this morning, yet these verses covered Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, Jesus’ temptation over forty days, and then the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  The narrative flow here also demands of our attention.  Mark crafts his Gospel, explicates his theological bent by the way he orders the events.  Again, just look at the flow of these six verses; we could characterize them this way:  Baptism—Wilderness—Purpose.  We could say:  Baptism— Temptation—Purpose.  But note that Mark doesn't seem to make much of the temptation itself.  There’s no reference here to three temptations, no exchange between Jesus and Satan.  All Mark says is that “He was…tempted by Satan.”   But twice here in just two verses, and given Mark’s economy of words, twice we find reference to the setting:  wilderness.   And then there’s a reference to “wild beasts,” the inhabitants of the wilderness.  That’s why I prefer to speak here of Baptism—Wilderness—Purpose.

            Why the wilderness?  Where is this wilderness?  It’s probably the harsh, desert region of Judea not far from the Galilee.  We don’t know for sure.  It’s definitely a place; but it’s also more than a place, it’s a word that looms large in Israel’s imagination, being a people that lived on the edge of the desert.  The wilderness is a metaphor for everything that is untamed and wild in creation.  It’s dangerous.  It’s difficult to live there, for anything to live there long.  It’s devoid of water.  It’s a place where very little grows, at least little that one can eat.  Hence it doesn’t easily sustain human life. Because it is devoid of human life it’s perceived as a place that has received God’s judgment.  The wilderness could describe what the opposite of God’s blessing looks like, feels like.  But it’s also the very place where God chooses to show up and surprise us.  Just this past week in the Thursday morning Bible study we were reading Isaiah 35, which describes the future blessing of Yahweh this way:  “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and signing.  …They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God,” in the wilderness.  “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,” Isaiah affirms, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; …” (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6c-7b).

            But why a wilderness for Jesus?  A surface reading of Mark's Gospel gives us at least two reasons:  first, because Jesus was baptized and, second, because the Spirit sent him there to be tested.  What is it about baptism that leads him to the wilderness?  What is the connection here?  What is it about being identified as a child of God that then requires such a journey?  Is this where baptism leads, into the wilderness?  And what is it about the wilderness that from this experience – and only after plumbing the depths of this experience – that Jesus is able to emerge with a clearer sense of his purpose, of his mission?  Only then can he preach with conviction that the kingdom of God has indeed come near and thus calls everyone with ears to hear to believe the good news.  The wilderness is essential.

            Why is Jesus in the wilderness?  He’s there because the Spirit sent him there.  Not as a punishment or judgment.  He’s send by the gracious Spirit of God to that place, for a time – a pivotal time – in Jesus’ life.  He doesn't resist the pull to go there or avoid it or run from it.  Led by the Spirit, he enters it; he faces it, and discovers something there that shapes the rest of his life.   He discovers there, I suspect, a wisdom that can only be known in the wilderness.  Perhaps that is why the Spirit leads him there—because there are things that can only be known there.  There are things Jesus needed to learn there.

            The wilderness can be a place “out there,” a place you go to visit or a way to describe what is all around you; an external place.  The wilderness can also be a place “in here,” within one’s heart, or mind, or soul.  Whether it’s a wilderness “out there” or “in there,” most Christian mystics are unanimous in affirming that some kind of wilderness experience is required for us to really discover the full implications of our baptismal identity as children of God.  Some kind of wilderness experience is required for us to discover the depths of God’s love for us, to discern the reach of God’s claim upon our lives, to know the purpose, the calling of our lives.  We cannot discover these things apart from such an experience.

            Sometimes we have to go, literally, to wild places, to fierce landscapes in order to discover or acknowledge what’s going on in the wild, fierce landscapes of our hearts and souls.  There’s so much in our day-to-day living that distracts us from listening to our hearts, that hinders us from attending to the needs of the soul, that prevents us from experiencing God’s love, that therefore hide from us the purpose and calling of our lives.  We will not discover these things by staying home.

            Perhaps that’s why by the third or fourth century Christians, known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers, started leaving the cities and towns of the Roman Empire and went deep into the deserts of Syria and Egypt to discover God there.  This movement became the seed for the development of monasticism. The Protestant Reformation took a dim view of monasticism, we know, and broke up these reclusive communities.  But you don’t have to become a monastic to know that these wild, remote, fierce places serve a purpose. 

Because, you see, there are things that only the wilderness can teach us.  Nudos amat eremos, Jerome (c.347-420) wrote in a letter to Heliodorus.  Nudos amat ermemos.  “The desert loves to strip bear.”[1]  It strips bear the ego as we quickly learn there that we are not at the center of our universe or any universe.  The Desert Mothers and Fathers often talked about apatheia, apathy or indifference.  The wilderness or desert is completely indifferent to us.  It doesn’t really care about us.  It doesn’t care if we exist or not.  It’s silent.  And in the silence of such places we have nothing to say, nothing to prove, nothing to think, nothing to defend.[2]  We come to face ourselves.

            Presbyterian theologian Belden Lane has written extensively and beautifully on the centrality of what he calls “fierce landscapes” in the Jewish and Christian traditions.  The wilderness or the desert is a metaphor for “that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending.  Yet it does.  And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed.”[3] 

            We “cross its sands,” he writes, “unwelcomed, stripped of influence and reputation, the desert caring nothing for the worries and warped sense of self-importance dragged along behind us.  There in the desert everything is lost.  Absolutely everything.  The extent of its unrelenting indifference is devastating.  This awareness, at first, is terrifying.”  Lane has spent a lot of time actually camping, hiking, living in the desert.  His exploration of physical terrain parallels his own personal, individual deserts of human suffering and loss.  Through his time in the wilderness and the desert he discovered something, however, that only makes sense to the one who has ventured there.  He says, “… if we stay long enough, resisting the blind panic that gnaws at our minds, we discover, beyond hope and all caring, that ‘in the end we’re saved by the things that ignore us.’”[4]  What he means by this is there’s a kind of blessing that comes when we are no longer driven and caught by the wishes of our egos, egos that love to be at the center of attention.  And what that happens we discover that who we really are is deeper than our egos, deeper than the masks and personas we create—often in fear, often to hide from our woundedness or brokenness or shame.  We’re saved by the things that ignore us—and nothing ignores us like the wilderness.  The desert doesn’t care about drives of our egos.  Evagrius of Pontus (349-399) said, “Desert apatheia (indifference) has a daughter whose name is love.” Love is borne and born by indifference.  When we then discover that there is a part of us that is deeper than the ego, that deeper than the ego and the persona is a soul, a true, core self and that soul or true self is loved unconditionally, not for what you and I can achieve or do, but for who we are, you and I, as a child of God.

            The wilderness can then become the place of grace, of healing, of transformation.  This was certainly true for Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the noted Swiss psychoanalyst of the last century. Jung was one of the first innovators in the field of psychology at the beginning of the 20th century. He was born into a long line of Reformed pastors, but felt troubled by the lack of passion and conviction in his father’s faith and the general hollowness of the church.  He studied medicine at the University of Basel and then eventually specialized in psychology and worked at the Burgh√∂lzli Clinic in Zurich where he treated patients and developed some of his theories.  In time he became very good friends with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and used his psychotherapeutic theories with patients at the clinic.  Freud considered Jung to be his “disciple,” (Freud’s word) his successor in the field of psychiatry.  Jung wrote extensively on psychiatry and became a shining star in the field.  But Jung and Freud had a falling out, a major split in 1912, primarily over matters of religion.  Jung wasn’t attending church by this time, but he saw wisdom in things of the spirit.  Freud considered religious faith and obsessions as neurotic.  Freud was a materialist; Jung believed that human beings are more than just matter.  They broke their professional and personal friendship.  This was very painful for Jung, who viewed Freud as father figure.  And then Jung went into a deep, deep depression.  His life fell apart all around him.  He had everything one could ask for, everything to make his ego happy – professional success, power and influence in the world, wife and children, he married into money (a whole lot of money).  He entered into a time of deep darkness, of foreboding dreams and visions.  Then on the 12th of November 1913, at his lowest point he wrote these words in his journal:  “Meine Seele, meine Seele, wo bist Du?”  “My soul, my soul.  Where are you?”  “My soul, where are you?  Do you hear me?  I speak, I call you—are you there?  I am weary, my soul.”    Courageously, he entered into what he described as a wilderness, a desert, and allowed himself to be stripped bare.  “My soul leads me to the desert, into the desert of my own self.”  He went into the desert;  he wrote, “to find their souls, the ancients [meaning the Desert Mothers and Fathers] went into the desert.”  He writes, “I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot desert, dusty and without drink.”[5]  He went down into his depths, below the ego, into the core of his being, to listen to his soul, his core self.  From this period, which lasted for years, he emerged with most of his psychoanalytic theories that he then spent the rest of his life exploring, writing about, and applying.  A substantial part of what Jung is known for today came from that wilderness experience.  He discovered there something of the grace of God and wrestled with his demons and emerged with a strong sense of who he was (and who he wasn’t) and a clear sense of his calling in life.

            I share this story because it’s striking that Jesus went through a similar process.  From his time in the wilderness he emerges with his purpose intact, proclaiming and preaching the good news of God.  He knows the good news, not in the abstract, not because it was taught to him in “rabbinic school,” but—I have to believe–because of something he experienced and knew to the very core of his being.  The Kingdom of God’s love is near – very near.  There is good news for people in the wilderness, but we have to enter the wilderness to find it. 

            This is the truth that the wilderness teaches and it can only be known there.  You can’t find it in books, coming from a pulpit or sitting in the pews or from the most loving church school teacher in the world, you can’t find it in a university, it can’t be taught except by experience.  You have to experience it yourself.  The desert calls us to give up our hold on life[6] – to discover there who we are and whose we and then allow our lives to be shaped by this grace.  This can only be found in the wilderness.  And by God’s grace the Spirit intentionally sends us there.


Image:  The Great Escarpment, Namibia.
[1] Cited in Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998), 23.
[2] Cf. Richard Rohr, The Naked Now:  Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York:  Crossroad, 2009), 54.
[3] Lane, 195.  
[4] Lane,  195.
[5] Carl Gustav Jung, The Red Book/Liber Novus, edited and introduced by Sonu Shamdasani (New York:  W. W. Norton & Co, 2009), 232-236. I had a chance to see his Black Book, opened to these words from 12th November 1913, when it was on display at the Rubin Museum in New York City several years ago.
[6] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin, “How much can you give up? the desert asks.  And how much can you love? Only in offering the severest answers to these two questions does one ever discover, at last, the solace of fierce landscapes.” Lane, 230.

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