When I was a young kid, we spent a part of every summer on the north shore of Lake Superior. Most days we’d walk on the beach, skip rocks, wade in the ice cold water, dry off in the warm August sun, pick blueberries on the granite hills, and head back to our cabin before the mosquitoes came out in force. But at least once every summer my dad got it into his head that we should go to the end of the Gunflint Trail—a ninety-mile ride along a dirt road through mosquito ridden woods just south of the Canadian border.
I probably don’t need to tell you that I am a city girl and proud of it. Even as a child I preferred paved sidewalks to trails through the woods. You can imagine how I felt about even the prospect of a ninety-mile ride along a dirt road through mosquito-ridden woods on a hot, humid Minnesota summer day miles from any lake breeze. As our car pulled away from the cabin where we were staying, I began to plot my escape strategy. I practiced my whines in my head getting the tone just right. Too strident and they would know it was an act. Too muffled and they wouldn’t take me seriously. I needed a compelling argument to go along with the whines. One they couldn’t refute.
I knew they would meet “I don’t want to” with a chorus of “It’s not about what you want.” I figured they would not buy my attempt to distract them with a trip to Joines’ Hardware Store. After all, by that point in our vacation we had made many trips to Joines Hardware. I was sure my claim that the Gunflint Trail could not approach the beauty of Highway 61 would be met with the substantial (and to my mind untrue but impossible for me to refute) claim that I had no basis for judgment. So every year I fell back to my most effective argument—an urgent statement that I had to go to the bathroom and would not consider a stop in the woods. It worked every time. I haven’t yet seen the end of the Gunflint Trail. I have no idea what I might be missing.
The wilderness is not a place where I go willingly. It frightens me. It bewilders me. It confuses me. I find it hard to get my bearings in the wilderness. I believe I am not alone in this. Even Jesus had to be driven into the wilderness. And no wonder, for the wilderness is a place filled with wild things and tempters and all sorts of threats to one’s security and tranquility and comfort. The wilderness is a dangerous place. An unpredictable place. A place where even your sense of self is shaken to its core. It’s a place I don’t even like to visit or revisit.
And yet. And yet we can’t escape those wilderness times in life. They are a part of every life. To some of us they wear the guise of failure. To others the clothes of deep grief. Some find their wilderness in an unexpected loss. Others in disappointment. Many of us walk in the wilderness of a diagnosis that knocks the air out of our lungs. Bullying at school is surely a wilderness our children face. Wilderness is a part of life. We can’t escape it. And we can’t escape the temptations that come with wilderness.
The temptation to duck and cover, to avoid engagement with that which threatens to overwhelm us. The temptation to escape through work or drink or sleep or any one of the myriad of ways people numb themselves. The temptation to accept other people’s definition of us. The temptation to pretend we aren’t even in a wilderness. But when we yield to those temptations we loose a part of what we might be and what we might become.
Sometimes I wonder just what were Jesus’ temptations. Do you think he was tempted to chuck it all? Surely he must have suspected the cost of the road he was called to walk. I wonder if he doubted his own gifts, his ability to live into God’s call to him? I bet he was afraid. Maybe giving into fear was one of those temptations. After all—he was fully human. A guy new to his work. A guy new to his sense of himself. A guy new to the call of God.
On the morning of the day I was ordained to the priesthood, I took the dogs for a long urban walk. Just as we were turning the corner of Rose and McGee not far from our house in Berkeley, a line of scripture came into my head. It’s from Hebrews. It goes like this: “It’s a fearful thing to be in the hands of the living God.” I think Jesus knew that. I think he knew it the moment the heavens were ripped open and that Spirit descended into him. I suspect he was afraid. I know I was and still sometimes am.
Yet remember the last words Jesus heard before he was catapulted into that wilderness. “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” That makes all the difference in the world. In those times of fear and temptation, in those wilderness times when it feels like we have nothing to hold onto, we, like Jesus, have those words, “You are my child, my beloved. With you and you and you I am well pleased.” The love of God—it can get you through the day, it can get you through the night, it can get you through the moment. And it can get you through the wilderness times.