The Wilderness is Where We Came to Be

nativity-story_282_resizedScripture Text:  Luke 2: 1-7

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

Oh not this!  How can you call this beautiful story the wilderness?  But the truth is, Jesus was born into a wilderness.  Joseph and Mary had had to travel some distance to get to this place.  And the setting, for all the wonder and awe that it holds for us was not idyllic—forced occupation, taxation without representation, poor couple, long trip under less than favorable circumstances, and, then, no room when they got there.  See, in our haste to welcome the child each year and celebrate once again his arrival into the world, we forget the circumstances into which he came.  We forget that he first appeared in the dim lights of a grotto drenched with the waters of new Creation, with the smell of God still in his breath.  We forget that Mary was probably in tears most of the night as she tried to be strong, entering a realm that she had never entered.  And we forget that Joseph felt oh so very responsible and that the weight of that responsibility, the responsibility for essentially birthing God into this world, was heavy on his shoulders.  We remember Jesus’ birth, the moment when we came to be.  But we forget that the wilderness is where we came to be.

Now this is, of course, not the first time that God has appeared in the wilderness.  Incarnations were happening all along.  God came as winds sweeping across the waters, burning bushes, and thick clouds that shrouded mountains.  God came in dreams and whirlwinds and strange manna appearing in the wilderness.  God always came.  Perhaps we were too busy with our lives to notice.  So, on this particular night in this particular place, God called us into the wilderness of our lives so that we would finally notice.  God seeks us out, showing us the sacredness that had been created for us, the holy that we had missed all along.  On this silent night, in the thick wilderness of night, God comes and dances with humanity, crossing the line between the ordinary and the Divine if only for a while.  God comes to us.

Haven’t you always thought that it would have made more sense for Jesus to born into the establishment, perhaps into at least moderate wealth, in a place where it all would have been noticed?  OK, really?  So what would have happened if Jesus had been born into a single-family McMansion in the suburbs?  See, God always comes into the wilderness.  God chooses to call us into the wild where we will notice that God is there.  God calls us away from what we know, away from those places where we get comfortable and close ourselves off.  God calls us to the place where we are open to newness, open to encounter, open to walking toward rather than closing off.  And on this night, on this beautiful silent night with angels singing and stars shining, the walk to the Cross began.  The wilderness is where we can come to be because it is the place where we know nothing else other than to walk forward.  This season of Lent, this season of walking to the Cross did not just begin this last Ash Wednesday.  It began long ago on that silent night in the wilderness.  It began in the darkness of the wilderness when we came to be.
It gets darker and darker…and then Jesus is born. (Ann Lamott)

FOR TODAY:  Leave the comforts of your life and walk into a wilderness.  What do you see?  Who do you encounter?  Now keep walking.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Vision Quest

Vision QuestScripture Text:  John 12: 20-33

 20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

 

In some Native American cultures, a vision quest is a rite of passage, a time of coming of age. In many tribes, a vision quest requires that a person spend at least four to five days secluded in nature, in the wilderness, so to speak. During that time, the person participates in what is characterized as deep spiritual communion. It is a time of transition, perhaps of “finding oneself”. It is a time of finding one’s direction, a turning toward who one is supposed to be.

 

We know this Scripture passage well. It is the point where Jesus metaphorically, if not literally, turns toward the Cross. It is the point where Jesus begins walking and beckons others to follow, to let go of all to which they are holding and follow. But I think I have often sort of skipped over the first two verses. What an odd interplay. Greeks, outsiders, come to worship at the festival. Now I guess you could assume that they were Jewish if they were coming to worship. But they are still not part of Jesus’ inner circle. And they head right up to Philip. The passage makes it clear that Philip, too, was on some level an “outsider”. He was from Bethsaida, the “house of fishing”, the place on the Galilean Lake where Jesus had probably called him to follow, along with some of the other disciples. And to Philip, the Greek questors make their request: “We wish to see Jesus.”

 

On the surface, it is a simple enough request. But when you consider that they were Greeks, accustomed to knowledge and learning, probably used to the more pragmatic way of looking at things, the notion of “seeing” Jesus is interesting. And there is no answer given. Jesus goes right into laying out what is about to happen. Maybe the idea is that wishing to see is a way of seeing, that desiring to be close to Jesus brings one closer, that one’s awakening to Jesus’ Passion is what brings one into it.

 

What if this season of Lent became our vision quest? What if here in the wilderness that leads to the Cross, where our plans go awry and we are at the mercy of circumstances that we cannot seem to control to our liking, we see life, we see Jesus, we see ourselves in a different way? What would it mean here, in a place to which we are unaccustomed, we were to ask to see Jesus—not just assume that Jesus is there, not just walk through Passion and Holy Week the way we always have, but to truly, in the deepest part of our being, desire to see Jesus, to know Jesus (not the Jesus that picks us up, not the Jesus who we like to call our brother or our friend or whatever word implies a close friendship, but the Jesus who has turned and walked away toward the Cross and now beckons us to follow.)? Now is the time. Now is the time for your own vision quest.

 

Every question in life is an invitation to live with a touch more depth, a breath more meaning. (Joan Chittister)

FOR TODAY:  Go on a vision quest.  Learn to see anew.  Wish, in the deepest part of your being, to see Jesus—not the one that you’ve been so comfortable seeing, but the one who beckons to you to follow.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

The Wilderness of Ourselves

Three Crosses and Silhoutted Person in Prayer at SunriseScripture Text:  John 3: 14-17

 

14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This is it: THE verse.  So what we do with THE verse?  It’s on street corners and billboards and T-Shirts and tattoos and faces and signs at sporting events.  I think it is often read as some sort of great reward for doing the right things.  You know, if you do everything you’re supposed to do, you’ll be rewarded when it’s all said and done.  And if you don’t, well you’re just out of luck.  So, look at me…do what I do, go to church where I go, be what I am, look like I look.  I’m saved; are you?  (I hate that!)

But we’ve read it wrong.  For God so loved the world—not the ones in the right church or the right country or the right side of the line—but the WORLD.  God loved the world, everything about the world, everyone in the world, so much, so very, very, VERY much, that God came and walked among us, sending One who was the Godself in every way, to lead us home, to actually BRING us home, to lead us to God.  Are you saved?  Yes…every day, every hour, over and over and over again.  I’m being saved with every step and move and breath I take.  I think that’s what God does.  God loves us SO much that that is what God does.  God is saving us.

God came into the world to save the world.  So why would we interpret this to mean that God somehow has quite loving some of us or that we have to somehow bargain with God to begin loving us or that “being saved” is a badge of honor?  See, God loves us so much that God is saving us from ourselves.  It’s back to that snake thing.  OK, kids, you think your main problem is snakes?  Alright, here it is, look at it, hanging there on a tree.  Look at it, really, really look at it.  Quash your fear, let your preconceptions go, just do it.  There now, all is well.  No more snakes.

OK, kids, what is the deal this time?  You have let the world order run your life.  You have become someone that you are not.  You have allowed yourself to be driven by fear and preconceptions and greed.  You have opted for security over freedom, held on to what is not yours, and settled for vengeance rather than compassion and love.   I created you for more than this.  I love you too much for this to go on.  Look up.  Look there, hanging on the tree, there on the cross.  Stare at the Cross.  Enter the Cross.  See how much I love you.  In this moment, I take all your sin, all your misgivings, all your inhumanity and let it die with me.  All is well.  All is well with your soul.

In this season of Lent, we inch closer and closer to the cross.  We shy away.  It’s hard to look at.  But perhaps it’s not the gory details, but the realization that we are the culprits.  Lent provides a mirror into which we look and find ourselves standing in the wilderness of ourselves.  But the Cross is our way out (not our way “in” to God, but our way “out” of ourselves).  Because God loves us so much that God cannot fathom leaving us behind.  But the Cross is the place where we finally know that. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 

 

First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX
First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX

In Christian language, to be truly human is to shape our lives into an offering to God. But we are lost children who have wandered away from home, forgotten what a truly human life might be. When Jesus, our older brother, presented himself in the sanctuary of God, his humanity fully intact, he did not cower as though he were in a place of “blazing fire and darkness and gloom.” Instead he called out, “I’m home, and I have the children with me.” (Thomas Long, from “What God Wants”, 19 March, 2012.)

 

FOR TODAY:  Bask in God’s love.  Look up.  What do you fear?  What is wrong?  Look at the Cross.  All is well.  All is well with your soul.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

With My Mind Stayin’ on Jesus

 

Kneeling at the CrossScripture Text: Mark 8: 31-38

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So many of us are like Peter. We want to “fix” things, to make sure that everything and everyone is safe and alright. We want things to be OK. We want to get this wilderness place cleaned up and ready for show. But that was never part of the promise. I think Peter actually DID understand that Jesus was the Messiah. He just didn’t fully grasp what that meant. For him, the Messiah was here to fix things, to make it all turn out like it was supposed to turn out. And now Jesus was telling them that the way they had thought it would all turn out was not to be, that instead this Messiah, this one who was supposed to make everything right, was to be rejected and would endure great suffering.  “No, this can’t be!” yelled Peter.  This cannot happen.  We have things to accomplish.  We are not done.  This ministry is important. It cannot go away.  You have to fix this. You have to fix this now! We are not ready to do it alone. We are not ready to be without you. 

Now, contrary to the way our version of the Scriptures interprets it, I don’t think Jesus was accusing Peter of being evil or Satan or anything like that.  More than likely, this was Jesus’ way of reprimanding Peter for getting hung up on the values of this world, getting hung up on our very human desire to save ourselves and the way we envision our lives to be, to fix things.  But what God had in store was something more than playing it safe.  I think that Peter, like us, intellectually knew that.  We know that God is bigger and more incredible than anything that we can imagine.  And yet, that’s hard to take.  We still sort of want God to fix things, to make things comfortable, or at least palatable.  We still sort of want God to lead us to victory, to lead us to being the winning team.  Face it, we sort of still want Super Jesus in the story.  And, of course, Peter loved Jesus.  He didn’t even want to think about the possibility of Jesus, his friend, his mentor, his confidante, suffering, of Jesus dying.

You know, there is a danger in our thinking that God is here to make life easier for us, to keep us safe and warm and free from harm. After all, there’s that whole Cross thing that gets in the way. If we think that God came into this world, Emmanuel, God-with-us to make life better or easier or grander for us, then what do we do with a crucified Savior? What do we do with the cross?  Well, let’s be honest, most of us clean it up, put it in the front of the sanctuary, and, sadly, go on with the security of our lives.  So, what does it mean to “take up your cross and follow”? What does it MEAN to follow God not just to the altar where that gleaming, cleaned-up cross sits, but to follow Christ to the hills of Golgotha, to walk with Jesus all the way to the Cross?  I think it means that sometimes faith is hard; sometimes faith is risky; in fact, sometimes faith is downright dangerous. And, to be honest, faith rarely makes sense in the context of the world in which we live. After all “denying ourselves”, “losing our life to save it”, and “letting go to gain” make absolutely no sense to us. They don’t make sense because we are setting our minds on the human rather than the Divine.

There’s a old Gospel song with these lyrics:  (Hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xit39G0lIk4)

Well, woke up this mo’nin with my mind, stayin’ on Jesus

Woke up this mo’nin with my mind, stayin’ on Jesus

Well, woke up this mo’nin with my mind, stayin’ on Jesus

Halleluh, halleleluh, halleleluh

 

In all probability, none of us will be physically crucified for our faith.  But it doesn’t mean that we should clean it up and put it out for display either.  Sometimes our journey will take us through waters that are a little too deep and torrential; sometimes we will find ourselves bogged down by mud; and sometimes faith takes us to the edge of a cliff where we are forced to precariously balance ourselves until we find the way down.  The promise was not that it would be safe; the promise was that there was something more than we could ever imagine and that we would never journey through the wilderness alone. The promise was that a Savior would come, not to save us from the world or to save us from evil, but to save us from ourselves.

On this Lenten journey, this journey that takes us through the wilderness all the way to that place beyond the wilderness, to the Cross, we are called to follow Christ. We are called to begin to wake up in the morning with our minds “stayin’ on Jesus”. It will not lead you to safety; it will lead you to Life.

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside…He speaks to us the same word:  ‘Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time…And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, [God] will reveal {Godself] in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in this fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who [God] is.  (Albert Schweitzer)

FOR TODAY:  Put your plans aside.  Let go of the images of God that you have conjured up.  Let go of the notion of a Savior who will fix things.  Close your eyes.  Then wake up…wake up with minds stayin’ on Jesus…all the way through the wilderness of Golgotha to Life.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli