Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
--Isaiah 32:16-17 NRSV
I have wondered at the preponderance of TV shows about dropping people in the middle of a wilderness. Why are they so popular--Man vs. Wild, Survivorman, Survivorwoman, Naked and Afraid, and more? I guess they are popular for a lot of the same reasons adventure books and movies always have been--they are a vicarious look at someone forced to survive in extreme conditions. We get to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation? (In case you are wondering, my answer is “I would die.”) Also, I believe their appeal is about being fully present in the moment. There is no time for regrets, shame or anxiety about an unknown future; all one’s energy is devoted to surviving in this moment. One is awake to the fragility and the wonder of life.
Most of us don’t literally go on reality TV shows into an extreme wilderness, but we can find ourselves at the end of our ropes mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We can reach points when we wonder if we will survive to make it through to the other side. These are wilderness moments. Most of us--myself included--spend a lot of time, energy and money to not think about how close we are to experiencing such moments. We find lots of ways not to consider what we are really made of, what really matters and who and what can we really depend upon?
Walter Brueggemann, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament), writes that the purpose of a prophet is to wake up a society. He says there are forces that “narcotize” people so they will ignore the abuse of power, the ways people in power attempt to play God with people less powerful and the oppression of the many for the enrichment of the few. I had never heard the word “narcotize” before I read Brueggemann’s use of it. I discovered it’s a great way to describe our human dilemma when I read the definition: “stupefy with or as with a drug.” In the way a narcotic can stupefy someone or make them insensible, so also can social, political and theological levers pushed by people who wish to profit from them do the same to our mindsets, perspectives and awarenesses.
Lent is a season that is supposed to wake us up, to shake us so that the things we depend on to just get by lose their hold upon us. The idea of giving up something for Lent has its origin in this kind of spiritual discipline. Unfortunately, Lent has become just another motivation tool for only dieting or self-improvement rather than a way to become more spiritually connected to the Divine. Lent begins with reflection on Jesus in the wilderness--a time where Jesus is without the normal comforts of life. In wilderness moments--moments of pain, struggle and uncertainty--we find ourselves without the usual stuff we depend on to get by. In other words, what we normally use to “narcotize” ourselves no longer works--stimulation of media, sex, alcohol, drugs, a gallon of coffee each day, sleeping pills at night, codependent relationships, mindgames and more. What's your favorite narcotic? Mine is either doom scrolling on my smartphone or worrying about the future; I can't decide which one I do more.
In his book Eyes Remade for Wonder, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes,
The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself. In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.
Part of the reason our culture is filled with resources to help us “be mindful” and “present” is because we recognize how unfulfilling it is to remain narcotized--in a stupor--asleep to the danger and wonder of our world. Being out in nature is a great place to wake up to living, but that is not the only place such moments are possible. A wilderness moment can happen anywhere and at any time if we are courageous enough to stop, breathe and allow God to speak to us in our stillness.
Rev. Ann Sutherland Howard says in a sermon preached on the radio show and podcast Day1 That such wilderness moments are available to us all the time. She says wild spaces exist in each of us awaiting our discovery.
Wild space is that part in each one of us that does not fit our consumer culture's definition of the good life.... It's the wild space in each of us that allows us to question the patterns of our lives so that we might begin to break free of the conventions, addictions, protections and consumptions leave us feeling filled to the brim but empty deep inside, that keep us from recognizing our deepest need and the deep hunger all around us.
I work hard not to be alone with my thoughts, much less to still my thoughts so God can speak to my deepest self. I have all kinds of ways to narcotize myself, so I don’t have to think about the most important things about life--things to which I am usually not devoting myself. Maybe it will take me travelling out into an actual wilderness to do better, but I believe that step isn’t truly necessary. I just have to wake up to the wonder of the present moment which God is always offering me but I am so reluctant to accept.
On this Lenten journey, I hope you will accept God’s invitation to pursue the wilderness inside of you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851