The Wilderness of Fear

peter-adams-statue-of-jesus-known-as-cristo-redentor-christ-the-redeemer-on-corcovado-mountain-in-rio-de-jaScripture Text:  Genesis 28: 10-17

 10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”   16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”


Jacob came to a certain place, a certain place in the wilderness. I don’t think it was a magical place. I’m not sure that it was even “destined” for him to be there. It was just an ordinary place with an ordinary stone. But then Jacob dreamed. And what a wild dream that was! Now, remember the “back story” of this. Jacob is not just wandering through the wilderness to get a little exercise. He is actually fleeing from his family and fleeing from the hatred of his brother Esau (you know that one that Jacob tricked into giving up his birthright.) So Jacob is also fleeing from himself, from his trickery and his duplicity. Perhaps he has had enough of himself. He is at the lowest point of his life. He is afraid, afraid of what will come next, afraid of Esau, probably a little afraid of God. The wilderness was nothing but for the fear.


And then a dream, a remarkable dream, probably the world’s most famous dream, fills his night.  He dreams that a ladder or, as interpreters claim is more likely, a stairway or a ramp extends from earth to heaven.  (Although, that really messes up that song!)  The Hebrew word is sulam, which is from the same root as “to cast up”, and so a ramp or a stairway probably does make more sense.  And on this ladder (or stairway or ramp or ziggurat or whatever it was), there were divine beings traversing up and down.  In this dream, we on earth were not left, as we sometimes think, to our own devices, to wander in the wilderness alone, and the place of the Divine, the Sacred, Heaven, or whatever you want to call this realm, is no longer off-limits to us.  In the wilderness, the two are intertwined, a part of one another.


The point is that, when the dream had ended, God was there.  The Hebrew is a little ambiguous.  It’s not clear if God was “before” Jacob or “beside” him.  I think maybe the ambiguity is the point.  No matter where we are, God is there.  And then, Jacob, this trickster, this one who is always looking out for himself, is given the promise that those before him had been given—land, prosperity, presence, and, homecoming.  God promises to bring Jacob home.  Upon awakening, Jacob realizes the importance of his dream and he proceeds to interpret its significance.  He recognizes that he has a completely new idea of who God is.  He has moved from revering and even fearing the God of his family, the God of Abraham and Isaac, to realizing that God is present even for him.  He also realizes that he has to respond to this God of Jacob, because he has encountered God.  So Jacob takes God’s promises and claims them as part of who he is.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Jacob was still Jacob.  He was not miraculously healed of his own sinfulness.  Jacob was still “the trickster”.  The experience does not make Jacob perfect or even, I would say, all that righteous.  It does not give Jacob early access to heaven.  God is God; we are not.  But what it does is opens his eyes to the realization that God’s presence is always and forever with him.


We are like Jacob.  Sometimes we, too, are wandering in fear—fear of being found out, fear of our past and what we’ve done, fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear that it will not go as planned.  Perhaps we are afraid of what it means to encounter God, to follow Jesus, to come near to the Cross (not the cleaned-up one…the Golgotha one).  Perhaps we are afraid that our lives will change beyond our control.  We want to encounter God but we want to do it on our terms. And we don’t want to overstep. We don’t want to overreach. We don’t dare to even imagine that we could possibly do what God is calling us to do. And so we stay here, feet firmly planted in what we know. In her book, “A Return to Love”, Marianne Williamson contends that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate…[but that] we are powerful beyond measure.” She reminds us that “playing small does not serve the world…We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” In other words, we are born to scale to new heights because that is the way that we encounter God. That is the way we find the God who has been with us all along.


That is what this season calls us to do—to scale new heights.  I’m not sure that we are called to let go of fear.  After all, it’s a normal and a sometimes healthy human emotion.  Personally, as I’ve said many times, if I quit being a little nervous about what I do, if I don’t fear just a little every time I step into the pulpit, then I need to go do something else because this is a really big deal!  Maybe God’s “fear not” (That supposedly occurs 365 times in the Bible! I haven’t actually COUNTED them, but maybe that means that you can only fear on leap day!) is not asking us to stop fearing but rather to let the God who will never leave us take our fears and turn them into who God envisions us to be.  Maybe “fear not” is calling us to encounter the God who walks with us.  For surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!  I was so wrapped up in fear that I did not realize that God was holding it.


Be patient.  When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness.  Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off.  Let it teach you in wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving.  Gradually you will become one, and you will find that [God] is living in your heart and offering you all you need.  (Henri J.M. Nouwen)


FOR TODAY:  What do you fear?  What stops you from being what God is calling you to be?  No more excuses.  Give God the fear and go forward.


Grace and Peace,


Sheltered in the Wilderness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScripture Text: 1 Samuel 23: 14-17

14David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the Wilderness of Ziph. Saul sought him every day, but the Lord did not give him into his hand. 15David was in the Wilderness of Ziph at Horesh when he learned that Saul had come out to seek his life. 16Saul’s son Jonathan set out and came to David at Horesh; there he strengthened his hand through the Lord. 17He said to him, “Do not be afraid; for the hand of my father Saul shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second to you; my father Saul also knows that this is so.”

David is one that spends a lot of time in the wilderness according to the Scriptures. He seems to always have issues. (You think?) Here, he is running, running for his very life. He knows that Saul is coming after him. So, he runs into the “strongholds of the wilderness”. Isn’t that interesting that this place that holds such danger, such peril, such forsakenness, is, here, a place of protection? David stays there, hidden away, as the wilderness surrounds him and holds him. I suppose given the alternative (you know, like when a really angry man with an army is chasing you), the wilderness appears to be a very attractive place. And it becomes easy to enter its wilds and close ourselves off to the world.


You know, with all this talk about wilderness, it would be easy for us to think that the wilderness is a place for us to stay. Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I would like nothing better than to close myself off and not have to deal with my part of the world. Sometimes, I would love to just stay in my room for days on end and write. But even though God calls us into the wilderness in certain seasons of our lives, the wilderness is not meant to be home. The wilderness is not a place where we put down stakes and plant roots. The wilderness is not a home; it is an encounter. It is the place that pushes us. If a wilderness begins to offer us solace, we have, sadly, tamed its wilds.


I’ve thought again about those early Desert Mothers and Fathers, who spent the better part of a lifetime wandering in the wilderness, communing with God, and writing the tales. But they did not live in the wilderness as a home; they did not tame it enough that they could close themselves off. Imagine them moving in a way that their feet never really touched the ground. Maybe that’s the operative word…moving.


When you think about it, the Bible is a story of movement. God creates life and just as quickly pushes it into the wilds. The creatures wander for a time and then they begin to plant their feet and build walls and boundaries (and dress themselves). So God, with loving hands, pushes them farther out into the world. They wander and then they begin building. The Bible is a story of the rhythms of God driving us into the world and our building of walls and boundaries. It happens over and over and over again. It is no different here. David is driven into the wilderness and then decides, “you know, I’ll stay awhile and let it offer me solace and protection”. It did not last long.


Lent, like the wilderness, is not meant to be our home; it is meant to be our way of life. Because when we wander in the wilderness, we are free, we are vulnerable. University of Houston’s Dr. Brene’ Brown tells us that connection begins by allowing ourselves to be seen; in other words, being vulnerable, allowing ourselves to be seen, leaves us open to encounter. If we quit wandering and sit down and plant our feet and build a home that is not meant to be, that is not ours, we close ourselves off to encounter. We close ourselves off to God. So, if you feel the need to stay where you are, to build a home, to wall yourselves off, at least an opening so you can see the sun and breathe the air and know that God is always there.


“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” (Madeleine L’Engle)


FOR TODAY: Stop. Quit building your shelter. Feel the sun; breathe the air; encounter God.  Let yourself be seen.

(And you can hear Brene’ Brown’s TED TALK, “The Power of Vulnerability” at


Grace and Peace,


When the Lord Spoke in the Wilderness



Traveling in the WildernessScripture Text:  Numbers 9: 1-3

The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: 2Let the Israelites keep the passover at its appointed time. 3On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall keep it at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its regulations you shall keep it.

Well, we’ve been wandering in the wilderness awhile.  Have you heard God speak to you yet?  If not, maybe we’re still not traveling light enough, still dragging baggage with us over the rough terrain, so afraid that we will be without something.  I, personally, am a terrible over-packer.  It’s not so much that I’m afraid to be without something; it really has more to do with preparation.  In my swirling life, if I wait until the last minute to pack (which I often do), I end up just throwing things in a bag.  Without taking the time to think things through, I tend to over-compensate.  And, more times than not, the bag that I planned to bring turns out not to be big enough or I have to add another bag.

The wilderness requires preparation.  The wilderness requires that we be intentional about what it is we do.  Why do you think God was so specific about the preparations for the Passover?  The Scripture doesn’t say to make sure you cram the Passover into your schedule once a year at a time when it’s convenient or when the weather is right or when you can find time on the church schedule.  Sometimes living our faith is NOT convenient.  Sometimes it gets in the way of our plans and our lives.  Thanks be to God!

Traveling in our wilderness requires that we pack light, that we leave ourselves nimble and with enough room for what we find.  The truth is, God is always speaking to us in the wilderness.  God is always speaking to us everywhere.  But in the wilderness, unencumbered by our baggage, we finally hear.  In the wilderness, we have to be aware, we have to be prepared, we have to present.  The way we prepare for the wilderness, the way we be present in the wilderness is to become aware of everything, to hear every sound as if it was our first sound, to taste the dust as it flies up and makes its way between our lips, to feel the thirst in every molecule of our body, to know what we need and to, finally, need it.  Preparing to travel light, preparing to feel, preparing to thirst is how will finally pay attention to the God who has been speaking all along.

On this Lenten journey, I hope that you have packed well and only brought what you truly need.  I hope that your bag is light enough for you to keep moving, to be prepared to encounter God at every turn.  Martin Buber said that “all actual life is encounter.”  The wilderness journey will teach us what we need.  In the drought, we will learn to thirst.  The wilderness teaches us to encounter; the wilderness teaches us how to live.

All your love, your your stretching out, your hope, your thirst, God is creating in you so that God may fill you…God is on the inside of the longing.  (Maria Boulding)

FOR TODAY:  Set your baggage down and listen…just listen.  Feel your hunger; feel your thirst.  Encounter God.

Grace and Peace,