Monday Matters (March 2, 2020)


He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap.

In the daytime he led them with a cloud and all night long with a fiery light.
He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.

He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

-Psalm 78:13-19

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness

-John Muir

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken.

But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.

-Frederick Buechner

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-Thomas Merton

Can God set a table in the wilderness?

It’s one of the persistent images in scripture. Moses spends 40 years in the wilderness before he is called to liberate the children of Israel from Pharaoh’s oppression. Once delivered, after marching through the Red Sea, the children of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness, tracing a rather circuitous route. Israel in exile sought a path home through the wilderness, a trackless waste with no cell phone or GPS.

Episcopal Church Memes
(Cartoon by Dan Reynolds)

The voice of John the Baptist was heard crying in the wilderness. And immediately after his dramatic baptism replete with heavens opening, doves descending and divine voices booming, Jesus is driven in the wilderness by the Spirit where he is tested by the devil, as we read yesterday in church. The season of Lent, now underway, is compared to several of these stories, a time spent in the wilderness, wandering and all the while wondering in the language of Psalm 78: Can God set a table in the wilderness? Good question.

The fact is, we don’t need the Bible to tell us about wilderness experience. I suspect we all know something about it, even those who are not exactly outdoorsy types. Some of my wilderness moments came in densely populated urban settings, lots of people around but no one around.

Wilderness can come when we enter uncharted territory. Wilderness can come when we contend with isolation. Wilderness can come with all kinds of experience of deprivation. Wilderness can come in response to a crisis of health or finances or employment or relationships or meaning. Wilderness can come with the sense of abandonment that accompanies grief. Just a few examples, illustrating wisdom I’ve shared before from one of my mentors who told his congregation: Suffering is the promise life always keeps. We’re all way too familiar with wilderness.

The church, again, presents Lent as a journey through the wilderness, a time marked by challenge. At the same time, for Moses it was the place where he received his call via a conversation with a burning bush. It was the place where the children of Israel were painstakingly formed as a nation. It provided a pathway home for a people in exile. It was the venue for John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Messiah. And it launched Jesus in his public ministry.  So the answer, sometimes hard to believe, is that God can indeed set a table in the wilderness. In other words, it is a place from which something new can emerge.

Think of a time when you have felt like you were in the wilderness. What was that like? What brought you through? What did you learn?

The fact that we make our way through this season of Lent together means that on some level, we are all experiencing wilderness. As you navigate this journey, make it more than a season to just feel deprived, to feel more miserable-than-thou. See what God might have to teach you in this time. Ask for that kind of teaching. Put yourself in a place to hear that teaching. Maybe some quiet time each day. Maybe some reflection from people you think have wisdom. Maybe some act of kindness, accompanying someone else on their wilderness journey.

The children of Israel discovered that God could indeed set a table in the wilderness. Perhaps we can discover that too this week.

-Jay Sidebotham

Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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