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Hope in the Wilderness

February 29, 2020

As we begin our Sunday Lenten Journey we encounter Jesus’ Wilderness experience. I can’t even imagine how desolate that place was in a physical and a spiritual sense. As I thought about wildernesses, I ended up reflecting on a trip we took in 2018 to the Badlands in South Dakota. We were on a paved road with other people in the park yet it was still a bit overwhelming. This journey may not always be easy, but we are never alone.

Wilderness journeys are seldom easy. I remember flying over Death Valley in the back seat of a USAF Thunderbird F-16 after finishing my time as their Chaplain. Lt Col Mike Byrne who was the advance pilot (he flew ahead of the team to make preparations for the show and was the narrator) took me on my incentive flight. We flew over Death Valley and we both became a bit philosophical as we looked down at the Valley and saw the wagon wheel ruts. Flying at Mach 1 in an air conditioned cockpit, we thought about the early pioneers making their way across such a wilderness as they moved west to California. Yes, it was a harsh and unforgiving wilderness/desert!

The wilderness experience of Jesus which we remember on the First Sunday of Lent also takes me back to my first assignment on Active duty at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas. While there I was able to attend a concert with Michael Card. I was in a difficult spot at that point. Worn down by the amount of counseling I was offering to our young Airmen and by some of the fights I had with senior ranking officers as I stood up and spoke out on behalf of young airmen who were being, quite frankly and bluntly, run over by the “system!”

I arrived at the concert quite wiped out and burned out. Michael talked about the wilderness experiences in our lives… about the times when you just didn’t know how to pray or what to pray for. That, my friends, is the wilderness. He then sang his song, In the Wilderness

In the wilderness
In the wilderness
He calls his sons and daughters
To the wilderness
And he gives grace sufficient
to survive any test
And that’s the painful purpose of the wilderness

In the wilderness we wander
In the wilderness we weep
The wasteland of our wanting
Where the darkness seems so deep
We search for the beginning, for an exodus to hold
We find that those who follow him, must often walk alone

In the wilderness
In the wilderness
He calls his sons and daughters
To the wilderness
And he gives grace sufficient
to survive any test
And that’s the painful purpose of the wilderness

In the wilderness we’re wandering
for a way to understand
In the wilderness there’s not a way
for the way to become a man
and become the exodus, the way to holy ground
But wandering in the wilderness is the best way to be found

In the wilderness
In the wilderness
He calls his sons and daughters
To the wilderness
And he gives grace sufficient
to survive any test
And that’s the painful purpose of the wilderness

Groaning and growing amidst the desert days
the windy winter wilderness can blow the self away

In the wilderness
In the wilderness
He calls his sons and daughters
To the wilderness
And he gives grace sufficient
to survive any test
And that’s the painful purpose of the wilderness

And that’s the painful promise of the wilderness In the Wilderness video

That wasn’t my first time in the Wilderness nor was it my last. Over 21 years of active service as a Chaplain I would encounter the Wilderness again and again. Over time, I would come to appreciate Jesus’s experience in the wilderness and take both comfort and lessons from his experience.

In Psalm 32: 1-7 we read the following: Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

These words of scripture surely comforted Jesus in the midst of his wilderness journey. I know that they comforted another singer whom I admire during his wilderness time. John Michael Talbot, during a dark and difficult time in his own journey spoke to the challenge of the wilderness in his song (based on Psalm 32) “The Hiding Place.”

You are my hiding place, O Lord

You saved me in my distress

You are my hiding place

You save me from distress

You surround my soul

With cries of deliverance

Let every good man pray to You

In his hour of need

Flood waters may reach high

But him they shall not reach

Let every good man pray

In his hour of need

You are my hiding place, O Lord

You gaze into the secrets of my soul

A hidden secret wastes my frame

I groan through the night and cry

Through the day

I will confess my sin

My guilt I will not hide

I will confess my pride

And God will forgive

You are my hiding place, O Lord

You gaze into the secrets of my soul

You are my hiding place, O Lord.

The Hiding Place video

So many wilderness experiences. But all pale in comparison to the wilderness experience of Jesus. In Matthew 4:1-2 we read the following: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

I can’t even begin to imagine that experience. Not only the isolation but the fast from food!! When Jesus was at his most vulnerable he was tempted by the Devil. Follow me and I will give you all the power and prosperity you can imagine! I believe that this is where the concept of “selling your soul to the Devil” comes from. However, in Jesus’s case, he did NOT sell his soul to the Devil!

In the wilderness he found strength and hope. This hope and strength would nourish his soul as he faced the last weeks of his earthly life. It is what would give him the grace and strength to say from the cross: Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

By the grace if God and with the support of my colleagues and faith community, I was able to find hope in my own wilderness.

In his book, No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton said the following about the wilderness from a slightly different perspective:

Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep an individual from entering into him or her self and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual men and women find themselves exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops, the everlasting suggestion of advertising and propaganda. The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis.

We encounter so many different forms of the wilderness in our daily lives just as Merton said. My prayer for you, dear reader, is that you will find hope in the midst of your own wilderness.

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