I was watching a TV show about game wardens in New England. One day they got a call from an anxious family reporting a loved one missing. She was an “elderly” lady (about my age at the time, I noted!), an avid hiker, someone very familiar with the mountain trail she was hiking on alone. She had dutifully reported in to her family regularly. But on the fourth day, when they didn’t hear from her, the family reported her missing. Soon hundreds and hundreds of volunteers were combing the trail and surrounding area where she was last seen. For weeks they searched for her. Think helicopters, bull horns, canines. But to no avail. When the harsh winter began to set in, the authorities were forced to make the painful decision to call off the search. Many months later, in the summer, other hikers, who were walking off the trail, stumbled upon a small campsite. Inside the tiny collapsed tent, were the remains of the missing woman. After determining there was no foul play involved, the authorities concluded that she had somehow become lost, eventually ran out of food, and met her death in the New England wilderness.
I remember thinking, Wow! Even someone with decades of experience on that mountain trail could get so disoriented, they could die! I concluded, the wilderness is a scary place. The wilderness is a dangerous place. The wilderness can kill you! In his book, Drink Deeply with Delight, Howard Hanger says this about the wilderness: “The problem with the wilderness is that you’re not in charge. The problem with the wilderness is, things aren’t organized. The problem with the wilderness is, life doesn’t run on schedule–or at least your schedule. The problem with the wilderness is… it’s wild.”
But can the wilderness also be a holy place?
I find it very significant that before Jesus called his first disciples, preached his first sermon, or healed his first leper, he deliberately chose to spend 40 days in the wilderness–certainly without a compass and probably without a tent. Why did he do this? Howard Hanger gives this clue: “When it comes to discovering who you are and what you’re about, never discount the value of a little time on the wild side.” Jesus was on the verge of discovering who he really was and what he should to do with the rest of his life. Perhaps he instinctively knew he needed time alone with his God, stripped of all the familiar people and trappings of his ordinary life. He needed to encounter not only himself, but also his God “face to face” (in a way). He needed to trust God to show him the next step to take in his life.
We don’t have to be in the New England woods or on a Galilean mountainside to experience the wilderness. Sometimes the wilderness can be our own hometown or even inside our own house. Just think of those times in your life where you felt lost, alone, not in charge. Times when your life seemed completely disorganized and nothing was running on your schedule. Here’s an example. Although I’ve never had a child, I think the birth of a first child can be a wilderness experience for parents. When my nephew and his wife had their first child, little Reece, and were packing things up to take him home, their doctor walked in and asked them how they were doing. My nephew, looking down at their day old, helpless little son said, “You know, Doctor, this is going to be a daunting task.” The doctor smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Chris. Remember: cave men and women did this!”
Other wilderness experiences might be: moving to another city or country, going off to college, making a retreat, starting a new job, going through a divorce, facing retirement, being diagnosed with a serious illness, losing a loved one. As discombobulating as it may be, the wilderness can be a holy place.
Perhaps we can look upon the 40 days of Lent as a wilderness experience. No, we need not seek out a cave or pitch a tent in a local forest. But perhaps we can set some time aside these days to do what Jesus himself did in the wilderness: to get in touch with who we really are OR who we really want to be (start with a child of God… a disciple of Jesus… a better spouse, parent, grandparent, adult child, friend, vowed religious man/woman, priest, human being!)… to re-appraise our priorities (One hint of our real priorities: how are we spending our time and our money?)… how might we deepen those relationships that we say mean so much to us? (Carving out time for our spouse… zooming an old friend… visiting an elderly relative…)… how might we grow in gratitude for all the gifts we have received in our life so far?… and (in the end) to formulate a plan for what we want to do with the rest of our life.
The wilderness can be a scary place where we are not in charge, where we do a lot of waiting, where we experience loneliness. But it can also be the place where, like Jesus, we encounter God in a new and life-changing way. For God is always with us in the wilderness. It is the place where God does some of God’s most creative and beautiful work!
I wish you all a rich and blessed Lent!
Have you ever had a wilderness experience? If so, what was that experience like for you? Did you experience God there? Did anything good come from that experience?
Have you ever been able to help someone else who was experiencing the wilderness? If so, how were you able to help?
How do you plan to “celebrate” Lent this year?
Our video today is a beautiful song called “The Wilderness.” It is sung by The Isaacs, a bluegrass southern gospel music group. Some of my favorite lines are: “You might have to wait… and pray more than you usually do… God won’t lead you where he won’t keep you… God says, ‘Remember who I am’… and keep movin’ on.”
I invite you to write a comment below–about the reflection itself, the reflection questions, the video, or the photos. Our readers are always happy to hear from you! And so am I!