Tag Archives: wilderness

The word in the wilderness: The fruit of the isolation we fear

I am not sure how it happened. But I realized early on that loneliness and my sense of isolation as a Christian had a lot to do with my infantile sense of being the center of the universe and unattended by those upon whom I was dependent. Later on I met God through Jesus Christ and I realized I was mistaken. In him is life. When I am alone I am actually alone with God. This experience completely changed my life. But it did not change without a process, like Lent. Thank God the season will be here again, soon.

Lent is a fruitful wilderness

Lent grows people who know they are one with God in their isolation and can act out of that oneness, even when they feel lonely. We know about many examples of people with the spiritual capacity to listen in the wilderness and then and act out of the oneness with God they find there, especially to speak what needs to be said to people who need to hear.

I offered a few stories about this to North Broad in December. Let me revisit two, starting with my own experience of the wind in the wilderness in my splendid and disturbing isolation one summer.

Palmdale without Palmdale

Back in the day, when I was in my early thirties, I spent a few retreat times alone in the Franciscan Spirituality Center outside Palmdale CA. Retreating made me a little strange, but I learned to love my wilderness experiences, especially in the desert. I love the desert. I have often met God there. The monks would give me the room of a visiting monk, which was pretty nice compared to the other rooms. I was often there all alone. It was a splendid kind of isolation.

One time I drove out to the center and I just felt terrible. I think I was having some kind of marriage issue. I think my close friendships were in a mess. And I was in a general thirtysomething angst fog. I got to my room and collapsed on my knees next to the bed. I felt blank. It felt like I needed to force myself to stay there on my knees, since I was on retreat and all. But I had no prayers. Not even “Help.”

After a few minutes I began to relax and felt so tired. I lay my head on the bed. Almost immediately I felt a little breeze. I looked over and the window was open a crack — for fresh air from some thoughtful Franciscan. I instinctively laid my head back down on my praying hands, and there was the wind. Dry desert wind gently blew over me until I began to feel it filling me and blowing through me, moving my feelings and reminding me that the Spirit of God was with me.

It was the beginning of a significant retreat. I went away with a marriage change to effect. And I went back with a direction: get beyond yourself and give my word to people. I experienced for myself a pattern often recounted in the Bible. The word of God comes to someone in the “wilderness.” Then the word of God comes through someone as they speak it with passion, authority and courage (although sometimes reluctantly). This all results in the person having a real relationship with the Word of God, Jesus, himself in a deeper and more satisfying, if often trying, way.

Over and over God meets people in their wilderness

Throughout the history of the church, we see again and again how God finds these out-of-place individuals, a bit wild like John the Baptist, nervous like Gideon, incapable feeling like Moses, scared like Peter. They are all thrust into the wilderness in one way or another, receive the word, bring it, and change their world in significant ways. We aspire to be those people. That’s why we remember them in our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body blog.

On November 18 we admired Odo of Cluny (a French way to spell Otto). It is a high-minded name, usually for the upper classes. It means “possessor of wealth.” The Cluny region in France, where he ended up, has always been a little hotbed of edgy Christianity. Today Cluny is about twenty minutes from Taize (whose music we sing), not far from Citeaux (home of Bernard of Claivaux), and Lake Geneva (where John Calvin built his community).

When Odo, was a young priest in Tours, he read The Rule of St. Benedict for himself for the first time. He was stunned. He realized he was not much of a Christian. He decided to leave his home town and become a Benedictine monk. You can imagine how this made him a little strange. In 909 he went to Beaume, a monastery (unlike many) where the Benedictine rule was strictly observed, and Abbot Berno received him into the community.

That same year, Berno started a new monastery at Cluny in Burgundy. He established it on the pattern of Beaume, insisting on a rigorous application of the Benedictine rule, which, to be honest, is not that rigorous compared to other rules, so you can see how lax and lifeless communities can get (note to self). In 927, Odo succeeded Berno as Cluny’s abbot and spread its influence to monasteries all over Europe. It turned out to be a huge influence, probably one of the most amazing movements of the Spirit you have never heard about.

Odo went to existing monastic communities and talked them into returning to the original pattern of the Benedictine rule of prayer, manual labor, and community life under the direction of a spiritual father. Imagine how hard it is to get our congregations to change how they do stuff. He was a change agent when he came to visit. Under his influence, monasteries chose more worthy abbots, cultivated a more committed spiritual life, and restored the depth of their daily worship. Odo helped lay the foundation for a renewal movement that went on for 200 years and reformed more than a thousand monastic communities. Those communities transformed the religious and political life of Europe.

The word of God came to Odo in the wilderness of his nominal Christianity. Then the word of God came through Odo as he spoke it with passion, authority and courage — so much so that he started a revival and became a peacemaker between warring kings. All this because the word of God, himself, the risen Jesus came to him to get his mission started.

Where do you think the Spirit is leading now?

The same Spirit that moved thirtysomething me, Odo, and others brought us together as Circle of Hope. The word of God came to us in Philadelphia, in the wilderness of postmodernity and vacuous expressions of the church.

Those strange people at Tenth and Locust

That Spirit also isolated us in ways. While we might seem normal to us, the reforms we instituted make us loved and resented in the BIC. A man is flying in from Kentucky to consult with us this month because he thinks he is as strange as us. But our bishops are never sure we are really team players. We don’t get along with Trump Christians, we deploy women pastors. We welcome gay people, accept cohabiting people as married. We listen instead of fighting and think reconciliation is more important than being right. We love psychotherapy. We believe black lives matter. We abhor war and suspect guns. We love immigrants. We talk about Jesus all the time to liberals and celebrate Lent with our spiritual ancestors. We practice contemplative prayer and don’t put men or anyone else at the top of a pyramidical structure. It goes on.

We are ambitious. We might go to your monastery tell you what God showed us. We might follow a radical rule of life together right in your backyard. So we might get as isolated like Moses, feared like Odo of Cluny. That might be Lent for many of us – receiving the wind of suffering, struggle, change, and reform that often isolates the reformers while they are bringing people together in Christ.

What is the word that Jesus wants to get out there now? — any new mouthpieces being grown up in the wilderness around here? I know there are. Do not let anyone shut you up. Tell the truth no matter what it costs. Love your hearers even if they don’t understand you right off. Give them what they need even if they throw it back in your face. The message is old. It came as a variation in the 900s and 1980s. But it always has a unique slant. What are you feeling? What does the wind of the Spirit blow into your mind and heart? Trust it!

During Lent we deliberately open ourselves to the disruption of death and resurrection. The discipline season leads us to the end of ourselves so we can rise again. We become isolated so we can be joined with God and others in a new way. As we have repeatedly experienced, through our times in the wilderness we end up being the vehicles for the Spirit, who come with a word from Jesus uniquely tailored to the needy world of today. What an honor! No matter where the wind of the Spirit blows me, I am always honored to feel it at all.

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Disentangling from Addiction

When Jesus spent his “Lent” in the desert, I think he went into the wilderness to face the utter absence of anything that was familiar, to experience being saved in his vulnerability before he went back into a world fraught with attachments.

Old Foss Cemetery
Old Foss Cemetery

When I was pondering this after Ash Wednesday, I had a surprising image come up in my mind. I remembered visiting western Oklahoma with my family, the very towns in which my father grew up. Receiving that image was almost like the Holy Spirit drawing me back into the wilderness of my father’s life and the emptiness from which I came. My mind went back to the time we stood in Old Foss Cemetery. Our steps on the brittle grass invaded the hush as we explored. My father found a family plot enclosed by an old iron fence. The rusty gate creaked in the wind as big black storm clouds blew in. The place was silent, desolate, and I felt the ache of my silent, desolate  father. I felt his unmet yearning. I still feel his yearning like I felt my unmet yearning for him. I think Jesus was feeling that absence and yearning in the desert.

I think Jesus was in the wilderness to experience the yearning all people feel and to enter the ache of their wilderness, the pain of their emptiness. And in that vulnerable place he was tempted by the devil like we all are. He went there to do battle, like we all are doing battle in our most vulnerable places where we long to attach, to be loved and to love. Most of us will do almost anything to avoid going to that hurting place, so the devil often wins the battle because we don’t even show up.

Cross at St. Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo
Cross at St. Andrew’s Abbey, Valyermo

I have been to the geographic desert many times to try to show up, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Not too long ago Gwen and I made a return visit to St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo where Gwen, especially, had some significant experiences of grace as she battled her temptations with Jesus.  For most of us, spending time in the geographic desert can be rare. Our geographic deserts mostly take the form of temporary, silent, solitude in a simple yet comfortable retreat center or hermitage. For everyone, however, the desert of the heart remains unchanged. And we can visit it anytime we dare. It is not comfortable. I have visited parts in me that are like a desolate, abandoned graveyard in Oklahoma.

The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness are an intentional parallel to the Hebrews’ forty years of exodus. Lent is an intentional parallel to both. We are led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. There, while hungry and vulnerable, we are tempted by Satan. The three temptations Satan offers Jesus are all about desire, about yearning, and we will meet those same kinds of temptations ourselves. Because everybody has an inborn desire for God, whether you are consciously religious or not. This yearning is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. Some of us have repressed this desire under so many competing interests and fears that we are mostly unaware of it. Or we may experience it as a longing for wholeness, completion or fulfillment of our potential. Regardless of how we describe it, it is a longing for love. We hunger to love and to be loved and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of what people call the human spirit. It is the origin of humanity’s highest hopes and dreams.  (Read Gerald May’s Addiction and Grace, please).

We describe this desire as God given. So Paul says in Romans 5: “We boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” The Bible is full of people yearning for God and God yearning for his people. Because in an outpouring of love God created us and planted the seeds of this desire for love and loving in us. Then God nurtured this desire in us toward fulfillment of the two great commandments: Love God with all your heart soul mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

But something gets in the way of God’s desire. We don’t fulfill the commandments even when we want to. We are usurped by forces that are not loving; we are captured. Our desires get repressed and stifled. Repression is one thing, but something even worse happens, our desire attaches to something or someone other than God, something other than true love. We get addicted.

Addiction enslaves the energy of desire to specific behaviors, things or people. The objects of attachments become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives. They become gods. The psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of addiction are actively at work in every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addictions to ideas, work, relationships, power , moods, fantasies and so on.

The temptations that the devil presents to Jesus in the wilderness or to us in our wilderness, in the  emptiness we choose or the emptiness in which we are stuck, or which we inherited, all have to do with desires being attached, being nailed to something else.

Throughout these temptations, Satan was hoping Jesus’ desire in his vulnerable state would lead him to attach it to meeting his own needs, using his own power, or relying on the material world. Satan was trying to lure Jesus into the “I can handle it” trap, and Jesus could have handled it. But instead of giving in to the massive power of temptations to convince him to attach to something other than His true self in the love of God, Jesus stood firm in his own freedom, in his faith and in grace.

Jesus was truly vulnerable, but the way he responded to Satan’s temptations reveals how people attached to God get through their deserts and get home. 1) He stood firm. He met the adversary, faced the temptation, and did not run away or rationalize. 2) He acted with strength: he claimed and used his free will with dignity. 3) He did not use his freedom willfully. None of his responses to Satan were even his own autonomous creation. He relied upon the truth that had already been revealed in love by quoting from the Torah. We are all working on being that free every day.

We go off into our wilderness of Lent to keep practicing being free, because we are still tempted. What’s more, like me realizing at a very young age out on a hill in Oklahoma, I have an emptiness in me yearning to attach and I need to be careful about what it latches on to.

It is an uncomfortable process to not merely avoid the pain. We have a proverb around Circle of Hope that speaks to that: We are all recovering from the sin addiction, expect conflict.

Recovering causes problems. It puts us in conflict with the whole society, which has notable addictions, en masse. I think, in general, the nation is addicted to fear, to carbon-based everything, to narcissism, to war, to radical self-reliance — even for poor people who aren’t allowed to be self-reliant, to freedom based on earning power. We live in a wilderness we did not choose in so many ways.

There is going to be trouble every day. As if where we live was not tempatation enough, we all have our own personal drugs. Some are substances or habits like alcohol or sugar or painkillers or porn or Facebook. Some of them we don’t even see as addictions yet, because our desires are so trained by them, we are so enthralled to them, that they just seem like “us,” nothing else.

We need to get disentangled. Lent is a great time to face it all like Jesus in the wilderness, a great time to talk back and act back. Lent is a great time to exercise some freedom as members of an alterantive society by going without addicted behavior we can recognize or to exercise some freedom by taking on new habits that come from grace, not bondage. Lent is for suffering the wilderness with Jesus, for aching. It is hard to show up for that battle, but losing by default is worse.

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