“the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” Barbara Brown Taylor
I grew up hearing sermons and bible lessons that talked about God leading us into the wilderness in order to teach us something – about Him, about ourselves, about the world we live in. The “wilderness” was another word for suffering and the reason (they said) God led us into suffering was because in the midst of suffering he was able to get our attention, to cause us to trust him and to make us teachable and transformable.
I believed it and it made me very afraid of God.
Whether it was a relationship problem or an illness or unemployment I didn’t just have the anxiety of the problem at hand to deal with – I also had the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God was making me suffer in order to get my attention so I could be transformed.
I don’t believe that way anymore.
Now don’t get me wrong – I believe there are things I can learn in the wilderness and I believe my wilderness experiences do change me. I even believe God can bring good out of wilderness situations – I just don’t believe God is causing or orchestrating my suffering. Of course I still battle those beliefs that set God up as my adversary but after I talk myself into remembering God isn’t causing my suffering I can more easily trust God in the midst of my wilderness. And for as much as I dislike wilderness experiences and spend a fair amount of time and energy avoiding wilderness experiences it is in the wilderness where I have found out the most about who I really am and what my life is really about. Not so much because of the suffering that takes place in the wilderness but because of the self awareness and self examination it causes, because of the focus it produces, because of the questions it births, because of the humility it generates. And that is why I am willing to create a sort of prototype wilderness for myself during the season of Lent.
By eliminating some distraction, creating a situation that forces me to focus, giving up a habit or convenience that typically acts as a painkiller and keeps me from entering the wilderness of the present moment where I can know what it is really like to be living the life I am presently living … and, if I am willing to push myself to stay with it for 40 days (because it takes a while to transition from being in a deep sleep to being fully awake) while remembering to connect with God through prayer and contemplation… it is there, in my prototype wilderness, where I just might discover (or rediscover) how to get free of something keeping me from being who I was meant to be, of living the life I was created to live, of realizing my place in the world I am living in.
It was during one of these prototype wildernesses when I discovered God wasn’t the perpetrator of my suffering – that I didn’t need to be punished for who I was and it was okay and good for me to be me.
Not long after that particular experience I ran across the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and fell in love with it … not just because it is a beautifully crafted message but because it reminded me of the beautiful truth I had just discovered while wandering in my prototype wilderness with God.
I leave you with Oliver’s poem in hopes that you too will discover something beautiful about yourself, about God, about the world you live in during this season of Lent.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986
This post is part of the March Synchroblog “Experiences In The Wilderness” (in the spirit of Lent).
Here is a list of other stories from the wilderness:
Katherine Gunn at A Voice in the Desert writes What is Wilderness?
Wendy McCaig giving us a View from the Bridge brings A Voice Calling in the Wilderness
EmmaNadine who describes Life By List wonders about Life in the Wilderness
Tammy Carter of Blessing the Beloved is taking a rest as she Puts down the axe
Jeremy Myers writing at Til He Comes ponders The Gaping Chasm of Suicide
kathy escobar shares the carnival in my head and writes about belonging
Steve Hayes of Methodius describes Anatomy of exile
Marta Layton at Marta’s Mathoms writes On Sabbaths, Mountain-Tops… and Brothers’ Keepers
Liz Dyer at Grace Rules discovers Beauty In The Wilderness
Christen Hansel of Greener Grass offers up Snapshots of the Desert