Today is Wilderness Sunday. Every year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear accounts of Jesus being driven to or, as is the case this Sunday, led into the wilderness. There are those who see the Wilderness as a place of trial and temptation; there are those who see it as a place where folks can drill down to the essentials of life; there are those who see the Wilderness as a place to be avoided at all costs. It’s just too darned dangerous.
But Wilderness times and places really can’t be avoided. Wilderness comes to each of us and to all of us collectively. Wilderness of disease and despair. Wilderness of a job lost, a friendship ruptured, a relationship gone off the tracks. Wilderness of fear, of loneliness, of addiction. Wilderness of failure, confusion, guilt. The many shapes wilderness takes in the lives of individuals. But wilderness comes to communities too—the wilderness of broken promises, failed leadership; the wilderness of lost values, skewed priorities, limited imagination; the wilderness of war and threats of war; a wilderness turned ashen through indifference to our shared humanity.
Wilderness times—we can’t avoid them, so we best learn how to live in them.
Everything—well maybe not everything—but a lot of what I needed to know about living in Wilderness times, I learned at Camp Widgiwagen—a canoe camp based in the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota.
A wilderness of rough trails, muskeg and sinkholes, hordes of swarming mosquitoes and lakes and rivers that, though providing cooling relief on hot and humid afternoons , also housed blood sucking leaches and treacherous rapids; a wilderness of head winds and long portages and frightening night sounds, but also a wilderness of gentle beauty and tranquil streams meandering through grassy swamp lands. A wilderness I encountered in community—a community of seven adolescent girls and their seasoned guides.
In that wilderness I learned some valuable lessons—
*Come prepared as best you can
*Pack only what you really need (you have to carry what you pack)
*Get the best maps you can and learn how to read them
*Trust your guides(they’ve been that way before)
*Watch for the handholds and use them
You and I, we don’t need to go to the wilderness. It has come to us and likely will again. It behooves us to learn the lessons of the wilderness. To draw on the wisdom of our forebearers—the wisdom of Moses, the wisdom of the psalmist, the wisdom of Jesus. They offer us handholds we can grab as we make our way through the wildernesses we encounter here and now. Handholds that help us remember God’s role in our shared past Handholds of story, scripture and promises made and promises kept.
Moses reminding God’s people of their shared story—a story of a wandering Aramean who set out into a wilderness and became the father of a people, a story of God providing for them as they themselves wandered in the wilderness.
The psalmist reassuring the people of the exile cut off from all that was familiar, carried away in a maelstrom of violence. A people who saw everything they loved destroyed—families, homes, their temple. A people who wondered if God had abandoned them. The psalmist reminding them of God’s promises to be with them and to hear their cries.
Jesus, sustained by the Holy Spirit and turning to scripture as he struggles against the powers that threaten to destroy him.
You and I we live in wilderness times. Seemingly intractable conflicts span the globe. Our earth is burning up. Divides of rich and poor, safe and vulnerable widen.
Daily, those who would be our leaders deny both our shared humanity and our shared divinity. Fear stalks the land. And yet….
This season of lent offers us the opportunity to live the lessons of the wilderness:
*to come prepared with open hearts
*to pack only what we really need for the journey
*to get and read the best maps available—the maps we encounter in sacred story
*to listen to and trust the wisdom of those who have walked this way before
*to grab tight the handholds of shared story and sacred scripture
*to trust in the promises of God
*to remember that our story ends not at the Cross but with the Resurrection.
It is as Christians that we encounter the wildernesses in our lives. We follow Jesus of Nazareth. We share his handholds—a deep and abiding sense of the presence of God, the lessons of sacred scripture—songs of the psalmist inscribed on his heart (and ours), the wisdom of the prophets echoing in his ears and ours , the lessons of our progenitors in faith imprinted on his memory and ours. Jesus is our primary guide in the wilderness. But there are others—those who have walked the ways of the wilderness before and those who walk with us now—theologians and saints, poets and prophets, the neighbor across the street and the person sitting next to us in the pew. Each carrying with them stories of wandering in the wilderness, of carrying their cross, of emerging into the light.
This season of Lent offers us the opportunity to remember our own wilderness stories, to draw on them as we face our days, and to hear the stories others have to tell.
Each and every session at Camp Widgiwagen ends with a big bonfire built in the center of a circle. Campers sit or stand around the fire and tell their stories of encounters in the wilderness. There’s lots of shared laughter and lots of shared tears. Somehow each story told around that fire echoes and enlarges the other stories shared and heard. In the telling and the hearing of stories both young campers and seasoned guides grow closer to one another and to the One who is with us always—even to the End of the Age.