Growing in the Wilderness (First Sunday in Lent)

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One of the prevalent themes of Lent is wilderness: Jesus in the wilderness, Satan in the wilderness, the wilderness we find ourselves in, and the wilderness that lives within us. Typically, when we think of the wilderness our imaginations conjure up trappings and dangers that may lurk in the shadows to tempt us, or the possibility of wild beasts who lie in wait in the darkness of the unknown. It isn’t a friendly place. The wilderness, as even Jesus will attest to, houses haunting questions which send reverberations throughout our bones. The devil makes sure that wildness of the wilderness echoes throughout our days, even when we ‘escape.’

Sometimes when I’m deep in the wilds, it can feel terrifyingly alone. As if nobody has ever set foot in these places; no map has been forged to mark the way; it’s all up to me to find my way out. Satan peppers Jesus with endless questions about what kind of God he is…

But for me, the accusing statements and big questions arise from my very being. Because, in the dark of the night, in the wasteland within my heart, from the tangles of my intellect that the questions come…
What is my purpose?
What does God have to say to me?
Why is life so hard?
How will I get up tomorrow?

Where is God?
Which is of course, always leads to the annoying voice from within asking, Why can’t I sleep?

Maybe the devil is behind them or maybe they’re from myself. I don’t know. All I know is I hurl all of these wonderings at the night sky. Predictably, the sun falls and the darkness comes – both literally and figuratively. And I, unlike Jesus, am not as resolute, not as faithful, not as quick on my feet, in responding to the beasts of the night. That’s how it is with me, I always think of the clever quip hours after the fact, and beat myself up, because somehow my quip – had it been said – would’ve protected me from the world’s assaults. Which is honestly fine, I mean mostly, smart comebacks and sarcasm will only get you so far – except when it’s the devil who is paralyzing me in my tracks, or worse: my own self.

When the night sky is without end, and my worried heart starts to pound, and I wonder which way to go… I have to remind myself; I am not the first to be in this land and I am not alone.
For as long as there has been creation, the wilds have existed. Even before there was creation.

Because first, there was the endless void, a dark chasm of nothingness, that God – in their infinite wisdom – looked upon and painted bright goldenrod upon the desolate backdrop. God took the blackhole, which sought to swallow up all light and matter, and tended it into a garden – a garden which grew hope and promise. A garden which held fascinating creatures and beautiful people. But, note – that garden was planted smack dab in the middle of the wilderness.

You’d think I could remember the way back… for all the times I’ve bushwhacked briars and wrestled with bears… you’d think I would know the way back to the garden. And yet, I get just as disoriented today as I did the first time I lost my way.

I remember the confident kindergartner that emerged within me when I could finally recite my home address by heart: 815 Edgebrook Drive, Shorewood, Illinois 60435. And yes, that’s the actual address of my childhood home from kindergarten through seventh grade. It is etched on my heart and memory – never to be forgotten. I believed that no matter what happened, I could get home. If I can remember that, you would think I could learn my way out of the wilderness of life.

I’ve climbed mountains, confident that over the crest, home will be on the horizon, only to find more mountains.
I’ve tried waiting dutifully and patiently, only to find I’ve been standing in some godforsaken purgatory line.
I’ve crossed rivers of blood and tears, only to be subsumed by an undertow, which seeks to suck me away from God.

Like the Israelites who wandered for forty years, I seem destined to spend most of my days navigating the wilderness, which irritates me a tiny bit. Ok. Maybe a lot. The days either seem too short – I’ll never find my way; or too long – I’m too tired to find my way.

Jesus may not have needed God’s mighty angels to tend to him in the temptations and trials of the wilderness. But, I do. 
When the devil taunts me, whispering, “Where is your God?” as he points to atrocity after atrocity, I need the angels, because I can’t go it alone.

Fortunately, the angels of God reside within the wilderness, too. They hang in the balances of the cosmos and in the cracks of the earth’s crust waiting to speak truth to the devil when we cannot, willing to linger close when beasts begin to track us, and swoop into our hearts when they begin to harden.

These heralds of hope never leave. I think God made sure to paint them into the wilderness from the very start. Maybe just knowing they were there mattered to Jesus, too. Because, as much as we may feel we are alone in the wilderness, the truth remains – we are not.

Although, it doesn’t mean we don’t feel alone.
It just means we aren’t.
The devil may try to convince me to eat fruit that will poison my body and that in the wilderness I will die. But, as much as I may not want to admit it, like the garden of Eden, the wilderness is where I grow. It’s where God tends my wounds, stakes me to his side, roots me in promise, and sustains me with his very being.

Where is my God?
In the whole of this universe, where is God and what kind of God is He?
We point that sneaky snake to the wilderness and say:
There. God’s there in the wilderness. 
God is in the big, night sky.
And God is in my worried heart.
God is in my questions –
And in His answers.
God is the truth that we are not alone –
And in the angels He sends among us.
God is in this untamed world –
And in the hushed peace of the wind.
God is the wilderness of the cross and God is the dawn of the horizon.