29 March 2011

We Are God's Work of Art

Isaiah 64:1-8 and Ephesians 2:1-10

Third Sunday in Lent/ 27th March 2011

For artists, art historians, and general lovers of art, it’s probably fair to say nothing compares to the city of Florence, Italy—the birthplace of the Rinascimento, the Renaissance.  Renaissance, rebirth—that revolution in arts and letters, architecture and science in the 14th and 15th centuries, spurred on by a rediscovery of classical Greek culture during the so-called “dark”ages; the Renaissance, with its celebration of the human form and a desire to live well in the present, to create environments, communities where humanity might flourish, hence the birth of humanism—all this is associated with Florence.[1]

I’m grateful for two visits to Florence, a city in love with art.  One really needs more than a week there to appreciate the concentration of art in that place.  I got up early and took advantage of the day, taking in as much as possible, like a sponge.  When I went to sleep that evening I was on sensory overload.  I got into the Uffizi Gallery that has the largest and most valuable collection of Renaissance art in the world.  I just walked around with my jaw wide open in awe, seeing the paintings one studies in art history class, never expecting to see them in the flesh.   Of course, I visited lots of churches:  I saw the cathedral or Duomo with its famous dome by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and its 11th century baptistery,  I went to the Basilica of Sante Croce which contains the tombs of [Niccol√≤ di Bernardo dei] Machiavelli (1469-1527), Galileo [Galilei] (1564-1642), a tribute to Dante [Alighieri]  (1265-1321) (who lived in the city), and the tomb of Michelangelo (1475-1564).

There’s something that has stayed with me since Florence.  It was the work of Michelangelo that particularly struck me, not only in Florence but throughout Italy.  Michelangelo left the imprint of his psyche, his soul on everything he did.  Whether it was his painting of “Creation” in the Sistine Chapel, or the sculpture of “Moses” in Rome – which is breathtaking, a piece that overwhelmed and disturbed Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) on his visit to Rome, a sculpture that confronted Freud with his religious past that he was in many ways denying in his writings on psychiatry (it was the inspiration to his classic text, Moses and Monotheism[2]) - or Michelangelo’s famed statue “David” - you can tell it’s his work. 

At the Accademia Museum in Florence, “David” is situated at the end of a long corridor lined with five massive sculptures, all by Michelangelo.  They all lead to “David.”  It’s the sculptures lining the corridor that were particularly striking and powerful for me.  They are known as the “Prisoners,” and each has a name: Atlas, Young Slave, Walking Slave, Bearded Slave, and St. Matthew.  What’s distinctive about these sculptures is that it’s tough to know whether they’re complete or not.  They look unfinished.  You can see the block of marble all around them, but you can also see the figures.  It’s as if all of these forms, particularly “St. Matthew,” are struggling to break free from the stone and come to life; it’s as if these forms are emerging to life, coming alive, struggling to step out from the stone.  It’s called the “technique of the unfinished,” in that they are not free-standing forms, but, again, coming from the stone. It was a way to demonstrate movement.  Are they finished or unfinished?  How do you know?  The artist knows. 

And this is what struck me, it was Michelangelo’s spiritual attitude toward art, particularly sculpture:  he believed within every block of marble is a hidden figure and it’s the work of the artist to set it free.  With his chisel and hammer he cut away the excess stone, allowing the stone to speak for itself, telling Michelangelo what needs to be cut away—some here, a little there— in order for the figure to be born.  These prisoners in stone are being liberated by the careful love of the artist, bringing something new to life.

Now, there are plenty of “God as Artist” analogies around.  But, to be honest, I’m usually leery of people who try to prove the existence of God by saying the beauty of the creation points to the creator, the artist.  I’m usually skeptical when people try to reason their way into proofs for God, because it can’t be done.  It’s questionable how much nature really tells us about God.  One knows nothing about God’s forgiveness by looking at a sunset or the redemptive love of Christ by looking at the ocean.  There’s a lot in this broken world and in broken, fallen, human nature that I don’t think God necessarily wants to take credit for as the artist.

But what struck me in Michelangelo’s philosophy of sculpture is that it’s dynamic, interactional, relational, and reflects something, I believe, Paul is lifting up here in Ephesians:  “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Eph. 2:10).  This is a very significant verse, often overlooked because we Protestants are always quick to quote verses 8 and 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  This is all true, of course.  We have, through what God has done through Christ—already—come to know the “immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  You see, through Christ, we have already inherited a new way of life and are living in faith by virtue of that grace, and not works.  That is, we are accepted by God not through any good deed, act, or charitable endeavor, but purely, wholly, through the generous goodness of God through Christ.  This is all true.  This is how rich we are in grace, now, not in some distant future if we make it through the Pearly Gates.   We need to embrace this, to “accept our acceptance,”[3] as theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), so aptly put it, and then realize there’s more to be done.  Grace is significant, but it’s only the beginning.  Grace is the starting point and verse ten points to what comes next.

Again, verse 10: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  “For we are what he has made us.”  Behind this English text is the Greek word poesis, from which we get the word “poem,” meaning “creating,” “composing,” or “making.”  Another way of saying this verse is, “We are God’s work of art.”  The Christian’s self-image should be shaped by this understanding, that who we are and are becoming, our identity in Christ, is the result of God as Artist, who not only created us and endowed us with God’s image, but through the power of Christ at work within us and among us is still creating us, still making us, still forming, and still reforming us, as a potter molds the clay (Isaiah 64:8).  Don Postema so aptly put it in his book, Making Space for God, “We are being created and recreated by the saving touch of Christ, who, [as the artist] Van Gogh (1853-1890), said, ‘is more of an artist than the artists,’ who working in living flesh and living spirit, made living people, instead of statues!”[4]

The point is this:  God the Artist isn’t finished with us—no matter what our age might be.  We are on the way of becoming who we are through Christ Jesus, whose Spirit will form us, if we let him.  If you’re still breathing, then the Spirit is still forming you.  Like Michelangelo, calling forth a figure out of stone, the Spirit of Christ, working with flesh and blood is trying to bring us to life, trying to free us from our own individual blocks of marble that imprison us.  The Spirit as Artist longs to bring us to life, so that we emerge into figures, into living people, authentic human beings who will do good things in the world, people who will bring life and beauty to birth for the sake of the world, forever being and becoming people of renaissance, of rebirth, people of resurrection, of new life, people coming to life, giving new hope, new possibilities for this is our way of life, this is why we have received such grace.

To me, all of this is part and parcel of the gospel; it’s what makes me “tick,” it’s my view of the Christian life.  Not everyone shares the same image of God (nor should they).  But our images of God are enormously important.  Our images of God inform the way we see ourselves and the world.  I was troubled when I read these statistics in an issue of Time magazine several years ago.  85% of the American population says they follow the Christian faith. But we don’t all view God in the same way.  24% believe in a Distant God who does not interact with the world, but observes from a distance.  God is more of a cosmic force that set the laws of nature in motion.  Curiously, 37% of those with household incomes over $100,000 a year take this view—I guess with such economic security, who needs God?  31% of Americans believe in an Authoritarian God who is deeply involved in daily events, but a God who is perpetually angry at sin, punishing the unfaithful or ungodly.  16% believe in a Critical God, who does not really interact with the world but is unhappy nevertheless with its current state and will exact divine justice, meaning punishment.  Finally, only 23% believe in a Benevolent God who is deeply involved in daily life and world events, who is mainly a positive force reluctant to punish.  Sadly, within this number, people under thirty are the least likely to hold this concept of God, just 13% do.[5] 

My guess is that the image of God the Creator, the Artist, the Poet forming human beings in kindness, for goodness, probably resonates with only about 23% of the American population.  If God is authoritarian just waiting to punish us, or critical, about to unleash harsh judgment, or simply distant and doesn’t really care, then how can grace—the most significant message of scripture, especially the New Testament—make any sense?  What a different world it would be if people believed that God really wants to do something beautiful with their lives.  What a different world it would be if people really believed God was on their side, instead of believing that God is fundamentally against us, angry with us because we don’t measure up.  What a different world it would be if people really believed God was for us, on our side, trying to bring us to life?

Do you see yourself as God’s poem? What will is take for you to see your life as God’s work of art?  Do you believe through Christ, God is making, forming, creating something beautiful in you, for you, and through you for the world?  Or maybe you think God has done just about all that can be done with you.  Maybe you think you’re not good enough for such generosity.  Some, I fear, think there’s too much ugliness within them or in their lives for God to possibly do anything beautiful through them and have given up hope. 

The American painter Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930), who ran the famous Cape Cod School of Art said to his students, “Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision – it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so.  …We must teach ourselves,” he said, “to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace.  …In every town the one ugliest spot is the railroad station [or bus station], and yet there is beauty there for anyone who can see it.”[6]  

Others, I’m sure, feel they’ve messed up their lives so much they’re beyond hope.  But I’m convinced that God does amazing work—maybe God’s best work—with the messiest among us, maybe especially there.  Have you ever seen an artist’s studio that isn’t a wonderful chaotic mess? 

When I read Ephesians, I see God working with the ugly parts of our lives, a God whose love can transfigure all for the sake of beauty and goodness and kindness.  To create and make something beautiful with us—with all of our foibles and hurts and pains and disappointments, all of our stupid decisions and regrets and rejections—that is grace.  And we experience this, and know it is true, discover it for ourselves, in relationship with the Artist, when we stay close to the Artist, when we work with the Artist.

When Michelangelo began his work on “David” he chose a crooked, misshaped piece of marble, marble from a heap that had been rejected time and again by other sculptors, marble that had been thrown away,  judged worthless, useless and impossible to work with.  That’s what he chose to work with.

If that’s what Michelangelo could do, just imagine what God can do with us.

[1] Within my own theological tradition, John Calvin (1509-1564) was a student of humanism, and so the Reformed tradition, to a considerable degree, is a child of the Renaissance.
[2] Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion, 1939
[3] From Tillich’s seminal sermon, “You Are Accepted,” in The Shaking of the Foundations (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955). 
[4] Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, B9, III, 499, cited in Don Postema, Making Space for God:  The Study and Practice of Prayer and Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI:  Bible Way,1983), 19.
[4] Time, October 30, 2006.
[6] Charles Hawthorne, Hawthorne on Painting.  Introduction by Edwin Dickinson; Appreciation by Hans Hofmann (New York:  Dover Publications, 1960), 17-18.

21 March 2011

Lifted Up

Lifted Up
John 3: 1-17

Second Sunday of Lent/20th March 2011

He arrives in the dark seeking light.  He arrives at night, afraid of what others might think if seen during the day.  He comes searching for insight, for wisdom, for some answers.  He’s heard rumors about what this man can do:  signs and wonders, imbuing the presence of God. 
      He’s not new to the world of the spirit, to the religious life.  He’s well-educated, raised in the faith; he rose up through the ranks and now sits as a religious leader among the people. He’s a powerful man, a man of influence, with authority.  All of which makes his appearance—at night—all the more mysterious. 

            And Jesus knows why.  Jesus knows his heart.  Jesus knows his thoughts.  Jesus knows the stirrings of his soul.  Jesus knows that he seeking something more.  He’s a religious professional, knows the stories of his people, grew up in community, went to Sabbath school, but it wasn’t enough.  He was religious by nature and by practice.  He worshipped Yahweh on the Sabbath, observed Torah, and made sure others did the same.  But then he goes to Jesus with a seeker’s heart, a spirit of curiosity, and the hunger for something more, undercover at night, so no one else would see. 

            “Here’s the truth, Nicodemus.  I’m going to level with you and cut to the chase.  I know you’re looking for the kingdom of God.  I know you’re searching for a world shaped by God’s justice and righteousness.  I know you’re looking for something more, for a better a world, for a deep connection to your soul.  I know your faith and your religious practices are growing stale and tired, I know they don’t speak to you anymore.  Here’s the truth, Nicodemus: no one can see the kingdom of God without being re-educated, re-newed, re-born.”

            “Reborn”  “Born-again.”  “Born from above.”  Whatever way you want to say it—and any of these is correct—the point is you have to start again.  You have to go back to school.  You have to unlearn some things in order to learn new things, kingdom things, about God, yourself, and the world.  This way of God does not come naturally.  You don’t reach the kingdom through a developmental process or evolution.  All the human wisdom and reason in the world can’t lead you to that place.  All the religious wisdom of the world can’t lead you to that place – it might even stand in the way.

            “How can this be?” Nicodemus said.  “I don’t understand.” 

            Being a literalist, he misses the point—as literalists often do, trying to be, well, literal, choking out truth with the facts. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” 

            To which Jesus says, a second time, “Here’s the truth, Nicodemus.  Listen to me.  You won’t find what you’re looking for if you don’t open your eyes to what you cannot see.  You can’t enter into the kingdom, you won’t see the world as I see it, live in it the way I live in it, love it the way I love it, without becoming the child of the Spirit who wants to birth something new in you.  If you want to live in the natural world, be a materialist, focus on only the things you see—the flesh—that’s what you’ll get.  If you want to see what you cannot see, if you want to live in the world of God’s Spirit, and be a part of something infinite and wondrous and holy, then you need help, you need the Spirit.”

            That’s not what he expected to hear.  Stunned.  Picking his jaw up from the floor, Nicodemus tries to collect himself, shocked by what he heard.  Jesus knows what he’s doing. Jesus knows that he is dismantling the foundations of Nicodemus’ life and world.  Jesus is intentionally throwing him into deep existential conflict—because that is how we learn and come to life. [1] Jesus doesn’t let up, but drives the point home, drives him deeper into himself.  “Do not be astonished, Nicodemus,” that I said, “You must be born from above.  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is goes. That’s what it’s like for everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8)—open to something wild and wondrous and completely beyond your control.

            “But how can these things be?” Nic objects.  “You say you’re a teacher, and yet you do not understanding these things?” 

            And for a third time, Jesus “verily” says, “Here’s the God’s honest truth, Nicodemus.  Listen to me.  How can you ‘get it’ if you’re not being open to what I have to say?  I have to explain to you how the wind works, how are you going understand how the Spirit works?  I have come to bring to you the way of the Spirit, the way of heaven, the way of God’s kingdom.  I have been sent to show you, to teach you, to love you into the kingdom.”

            In order to see it, Jesus says to Nicodemus, you have to look at me, keep your eyes fixed on me.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have the life of God.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have the life of God.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:14-17).

            And then the voice of Nicodemus goes silent.  Does he leave Jesus at night or do they wrestle with the truth until the dawn?  The text doesn’t say.  The next time Nicodemus shows up in John’s gospel, however, is on the Friday of Jesus’ crucifixion.  “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night,” John tells us, “also came,”—now in full light for all to see—“bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths…” (John 19:39, 40).  By this time Nicodemus is a follower and a believer, open to the movement of the Spirit, a witness to the crucifixion, who saw the Son of Man lifted up; with eyes transfixed upon him, high and lifted up, Nicodemus saw the love of God descending through him and through him to a world, not to condemn, but to save.  For here’s the point:  to see what’s happening through this man lifted up on a tree, on a cross, to “see” what’s really going on in him, is to be born from above and so born again, reborn, reeducated by the Spirit, transformed.

            John wants us to keep our eyes fixed on him.  His favorite word for this is “believe.” It’s all over chapter 3.  It’s all over the gospel.  By “believe” John doesn’t mean “faith.”  That’s too passive for him.  He wants us to believe.  “To believe” doesn’t mean have “beliefs,” that is,  ideas about Jesus, about God, about the Spirit, about the cross.  Beliefs are helpful, up to a point.  Nicodemus had beliefs, too, but they got in the way.  John calls us toward active participation in the one upon whom we transfix our eyes.  To believe involves active looking so that in time the scales fall from our eyes and we will truly see that in the lifting up a man, a very good man, upon a cross which he didn’t deserve, but willingly chose to embrace to make a point (see John 10:17-18), is none other than the very source of life, the messenger of God who wants us to see and know and feel and claim for ourselves that “God so loved” in him. 

            That’s why John is always trying to pull us out of our comfort zones, our orbits of knowledge, our assumptions; he’s always drawing us out from our self-centered preoccupations, drawing us away from distortion and darkness into the truth and light.  It’s illustrated by this mysterious allusion to Numbers 21, an odd story from when Israel was in the wilderness attacked and bitten by poisonous snakes.  God told Moses to create a bronze serpent, place it at the top of a long pole.  Every time someone was bit by a snake, they were to look up at the serpent on the pole—to look upon it and live.  Here in John 3, the parallel is clear.  The serpent lifted up becomes a sign or symbol of what Jesus will experience, lifted up on a cross.  There’s something about the lifting up that saves.  The serpent is lifted up to save an entire race of people.  The Son is lifted up for the world. 

            There’s a difference, however.  In Numbers, the serpents were the source of pain and suffering, but not in John 3.[2]  The story in Numbers reflects our general attitude toward those slithering beasts. We associate the snake with the devil, with the tempter in the Garden of Eden, the cursed animal without legs.  We flinch and maybe run in terror when we think of snakes or see one slinking through the garden.  We almost have this natural disposition to hate or distrust snakes. 

In John, however, Jesus is compared to a serpent lifted up by Moses. It doesn’t say Jesus is a serpent, but there’s some kind of comparison going on.  In the long history of biblical interpretation, many have missed the connection here because of our negative associations of the serpent as being evil and menacing.[3]  Because of these associations, the comparison with Jesus is often lost.  But, strange and disturbing as it might seem to us today, in Jesus’ time, in many quarters, the snake or serpent was not feared, but actually a symbol of renewal, transformation, and even resurrection.  Snakes adorn many of the frescoes in the ruins of Pompeii.  The snake was actually worshipped in the temples of Apollo, Athena, and Asclepius—the Greek god of healing and medicine.  The temples to Asclepius, like the large one in Pergamum (Turkey), were often spa-like, with therapeutic water pools and even mental health facilities, including dream interpretation.  The rod of Asclepius—a single pole with one snake wrapped around it—can still be found in the symbol of more than 60% of all medical organizations, including the American Medical Association.  Other organizations use the symbol of the Caduceus, two intertwined snakes with wings, which is associated with Hermes/Mercury, and not Asclepius.  Both Jesus and John and his community would have been familiar with the meaning of these symbols.  Here, Jesus is like —not is—a snake, lifted up, who brings life—renewal, eternal life, God’s life. 

            The focus here, throughout John 3, is renewal, transformation, what it takes to experience being born again/from above.  It’s about life, new life, God’s life.  The focus is upon Jesus himself.  John wants us to look at him, lifted up—to even see the act of lifting up connected with the meaning of 3:16 & 17. [4]

            For John, Jesus’ crucifixion is also his exaltation.  He wants all eyes on him, believe on and in him. For the more Jesus is lifted up the more people will be drawn to him.  Indeed, we find Jesus saying later in John’s gospel, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12: 32).  Here the lifting up includes the crucifixion and then the lifting up from the earth, the resurrection.  They are all of a piece for John. 

            Jesus’ crucifixion is not a failure and defeat for John, but just one more expression of the extent to which Jesus will go to demonstrate the reaches of God’s love for the world.  The only way we will “see” this, understand it, is to stand under it and look up, believing in him—again and again, by being born—again and again and again by the Spirit.

            This is the gospel: to see what’s happening through this man lifted up on a tree, on a cross, to “see” what’s going on in him—“God so loved” in him—this is to be born from above and so born again, reborn, reeducated by the Spirit, transformed.

Image:  K√∂ln/Cologne (Germany): mural after Rembrandt’s etching “The Three Crosses”at the Kreuzkirche (Church of the Cross).

[1] See the work of James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, 2nd edition, (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), who identifies conflictual experiences as integral if not essential to the process of transformation and growth. 
[2] The most exhaustive study on the symbol of  the snake in the Bible and in antiquity is James H. Charlesworth, The Good and Evil Serpent:  How  Universal Symbol Became Christianized (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).  See, in particular, his thorough analysis, “The Symbolism of the Serpent in the Gospel of John,” pp. 352-314.  I’m relying on many of his insights in this discussion.
[3] Charlesworth’s claim, 362ff.  “The possibility that the Fourth Evangelist is drawing some analogy between the serpent and Jesus is unthinkable if the serpent symbolizes evil.” (362).  However, Charlesworth has shown that orphidian symbolism within John does not contain this understanding.
[4] Cf. the quote from worship bulletin:  “While the world was looking on, the serpent shouyld be slain on high upon the Cross, herein is the marvel.”  Archbishop of Constantinople (c. 349-407), Homilies on Colossians, quoted in Charlesworth, 402.

14 March 2011

Wilderness Wisdom

Matthew 4: 1-11

First Sunday in Lent/ 13th March 2011

This Sunday we begin the Lenten journey with Jesus in the wilderness of Judea.    We probably know this text quite well.  We know about the temptations and the design of the tempter to tear Jesus away from his identity.  Jesus comes away after each temptation with a stronger sense of who he is and the focus of his calling.

Instead of focusing on the temptations, instead of seeing Lent as a time to wrestle with the various temptations we struggle with, those things that cause us to forget who we are and the focus of our calling, instead of focusing on that—I want to look at the setting of this text.

I’m struck by the fact that all of this takes place in the wilderness.  The tempter could have tempted him in a village, like Capernaum.  It could have happened in Nazareth.  It could have happened in Jerusalem. It could have happened at prayer in the synagogue or maybe in the inner recesses of his heart.  The topography of the terrain is significant.  The terrain almost becomes a character in the drama unfolding before our eyes.  There are places in the world that, odd as it may sound, have a certain character or feeling about them—whether it’s the Eastern Shore or the mystical rolling hills of the Blue Ridge, the plains of Dakota, the open deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.  And when we’re in those places, the land, the setting has an impact upon us, it touches us, moves us, fascinates us.  There’s something about certain locations that strike something deep and profound in us. There are places that speak to us like no other.  When we’re in those places, we feel different—we might feel more alive or more at peace, we might feel like a child again, we might feel a sense of mystery and awe, we might feel we’re on holy ground, that we have to take off our shoes  and bow our heads.

            Throughout the Bible it is the wilderness that takes on a significant character and role in the drama of God’s people.  The God of Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob was first “introduced” to Moses,  not in an urban setting, not in a city, not in a suburb or village, but in the wilderness of the Sinai.  It’s in the wilderness, on a mountain, that Moses first discovers the name of the nameless one, the name of Yahweh—the great “I AM.”  It’s in the wilderness that Israel then wrestled with what it means to be children of Yahweh.  It’s in the wilderness, the place in-between Egypt and the Promised Land that Israel discovered its identity and discovered that God was faithful.  What they needed to know could only be discovered there—not in Egypt, not in the Promised Land, but in this no-man’s-land, in this place of transition, between departure and destination. 

            What we need to remember is that the wilderness was really wild—and dangerous and scary.  In our age, we have done a good job taming many of the places earlier peoples considered wild.  We have maps, really good maps. Thanks to Google and a smart phone, iPad, laptop or a GPS system, we rarely worry about getting lost, we can find our way.  Every region of the earth has been digitized thanks to satellite imaging, except for perhaps the deepest recesses of the ocean floor.  There’s something about us that wants to tame the wild places, remove them altogether, build cities, sprawling suburbs, pushing the country, the wild further and further away.  There’s a place for civilization, of course.  Communities, cities matter—the Bible is pretty clear about this.  While the book of Genesis might begin in a garden, the Bible ends with Revelation’s an image of the new city of God (Rev. 21-22). Cities are holy places for God.

            But the city is not the only place where God likes to show up.  Perhaps the most profound encounters with the holiness of God are found in wild places, in what Presbyterian theologian Belden Lane calls “fierce landscapes.”  The “wild God of Israel” is first known in the wild places, the wilderness places, like deserts which aren’t safe and secure and tame.  “The God of Sinai,” Lane suggests,” is one who thrives on fierce landscape, seemingly forcing God’s people into wild and wretched climes where trust must be absolute.”[1]  Indeed, the three, main monotheistic religions of our age all have their origins in desert environments, rooted in experiences of God in these landscapes:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

            In fact, Lane argues “Talk about God cannot easily be separated from discussion of place.”[2]  The setting shapes how God is understood.  Some of us are preternaturally drawn to such places; some of us experience the holy there.  As for me, as I’ve shared before, it’s the wild and bleak highlands of Scotland that stir my soul, or  being on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a raging Nor’easter, or, more recently, discovering God’s presence in the vast terrain of Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.    Everyone isn’t drawn to such places.  God is certainly found in non-wild places.    But there’s something about these places, deserts and mountains, which become the place of meeting, the setting of revelation, the location for a profound and life-changing encounter.  We gravitate away from such scary places because of the threat they pose.  But they can and do become holy places when we risk going there.  “Desert and mountain places,” Lane explains, “are often associated with the ‘limit-experiences’ of people on the edge, people who have run out of language in speaking of God, people whose recourse to fierce landscapes has fed some deep need in them for the abandonment of control and the acceptance of God’s love in absolute, unmitigated grace.”[3] 

            In fact, sometimes we have to be brought to those limiting places; we have to go to the periphery of our lives to rediscover the center or core of our lives.  Sometimes we have to go into exile, wander in the desert, get lost, and disoriented in order to find our way home.  Often, the most profound knowledge of ourselves and of God cannot be known from staying in the center, by staying home, remaining in safe, secure places.  We have to be brought or sent to the limit or the edge – to liminal places.  Liminal, from the Latin, limen, means “threshold.”  It’s in the liminal places, threshold places, in-between places, edge places, wild places that we discover what we ordinarily cannot see or do not wish to see.

            That’s why I’m drawn to the setting of this text.  Because right after Jesus’ baptism, Matthew tells us, the Spirit of God sent Jesus out into the wilderness of Judea to be tempted.  It’s the Spirit of God who sends him there, intentionally.  He’s thrown into the wilderness, not to be punished, not out of judgment, but in order for him to discover something new – to reclaim his identity and his trust in God and God alone.

            Sometimes the Spirit does the same with us today.  Sometimes the Spirit sends us, throws us into the wilderness.  Sometimes we need to be knocked off-center and the knocking is an expression of grace. Sometimes our lives are too predictable and they need to be destabilized and that destabilization too is an expression of grace. Sometimes we need to go to the edge, to the periphery, to fearful places, places of transition, of threshold.  Sometimes we have to leave home and go into exile and wander away for a while in order to find the Promised Land.   I’m not exactly sure why it has to be this way, but this is the way it is, at least when the God of the Wilderness is involved.  It’s God “MO,” God’s modus operandi, God’s way.  I’m not sure why, but the Bible is pretty clear that there’s a pattern here—not to punish us, not to judge us, but in order for us to discover something about the purpose and direction and meaning of our lives and to discover something of the awesomeness of God.

From the wilderness we discern this wisdom, this truth:  the place of apparent absence can become, by God’s grace, the place of presence, the place of meeting, the place of discovery, the place of grace, and the place where God’s angels come and attend to us in our need.

Now, this is a heavy wisdom to discern.  I’m nervous about how to talk about all of this. There is divine wisdom found in these experiences.  But we have to be very careful here.  It’s a wisdom that we can only discover for ourselves.   We can’t offer that wisdom to someone else.  It’s not something we can say to another, especially when some are already in the wilderness.  For, there are people who don’t want to be in the wilderness, who experience the wilderness not as a means of grace, but more like a curse.  For some there’s nothing good about the wilderness. 
Not every wilderness experience is God’s doing.   The unimaginable pain and horror experienced by the people of Japan is not to be seen as God throwing them into wilderness, literally, destabilizing their lives in order for them learn something about themselves—that would be a cruel way to get someone to learn a lesson.  There are people who live in the wilderness of terminal and chronic illness. That too, must not be seeing as God “causing” something to happen in order to learn a lesson or as an act of punishment or judgment or abandonment by God.   So, we have to be careful in the way we talk about wilderness.

At the same time, however, we cannot deny the fact that the God of the Bible, as Jesus knew, has this uncanny ability and desire to show up in the places of desolation and in our cries of dereliction, a God who remains affixed to the many crosses of our lives, present in our tears and in our worries and our fears, when we feel lost and desolate and disconsolate, when we have difficulty wandering through the wilderness, when we want to go back to the way things used to be and have no clear sense of where we’re going.  It’s precisely in those wild places, those in-between places, when everything seems unhinged, when “things fall apart,” as [William Butler] Yeats (1865-1939) said, “when the center cannot hold,” in the scary places that God’s face is known.[4]

The places seemingly devoid of life and hope and possibility become places that are full of meaning, and holy, the place of encounter where we’re given the graceful awareness that we are not alone.  This is the deep wisdom of the wilderness that we know in the life of faith. It’s a kind of knowledge or wisdom about God that can only be found in such places—not through human reason or a text book or even the best book on theology.

The place of God’s apparent absence can become the place of God’s presence, where we discover who we are and the meaning of our lives and the awesome holiness of God.  As we move through Lent, let us remember it’s the same wisdom we find in the wilderness that is the cross:  the cry of dereliction, the place of crucifixion, the place of God’s apparent disappearance and forsakenness, is, at the same time—at the same time—none other than the very throne of God.

Image:  Ghost Ranch, August, 2009. Photo:  K. E. Kovacs
[2] Lane, 9.
[3] Lane, 20.
[4] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 in the aftermath of the Great War. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York:  Scribner, 1996).