Sunday, December 11, 2011

Voice in the Wilderness

St. John in the Wilderness,
Geertgen tot Sint Jans
If we really want to pray,
we must first learn to listen,
for in silence of the heart,
God speaks.
    Mother Teresa of Culcutta

Is wilderness a place of exile, or a period of preparation?

Is it a time of punishment, or a season of promised rest?

Is it a barren burden to be suffered, or a beauty to be longed for?

Advent is always a puzzle. We wait for the lovely story of God’s light shining in the darkness, but read the unsettling texts of John the Baptist’s call in the wilderness. We dream back to a silent village and the inescapable angel song, while around us the pace is faster and faster, the noise and distraction louder, always louder.

As we struggle to keep up, as we make our lists and check them more than twice, somewhere inside we know there is something we’re missing. Something that has nothing to do with tinsel, or cookies, or the carefully decorated tree.

In Matthew 11 and Luke 7, Jesus, reminding the crowd of John’s time in the wilderness, asked “what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces.”

Walter Bruggemann, in Journey to the Common Good, as well as in sermons and essays, describes the wilderness as a place to experience God’s alternative kingdom. God invited his people out of Egypt, the pharoah’s kingdom, into the wilderness, where he showed them his provision and protection.

In the wilderness, God heard and cared for weeping Hagar, a slave woman with no status and no defender. In the wilderness he met and ministered to Elijah, the fearless prophet who faced down bloody King Ahab and the prophets of Ba’al, then collapsed in exhaustion beneath a broom bush and prayed that he would die.

Jesus prepared for ministry in the wilderness, faced temptation in the wilderness, and demonstrated God’s provision by feeding thousands in the wilderness.

Brueggemann points to text after text that call God’s people to step away from their dependence on armies, wealth, stockpiles of food, economic maneuvering:   
“Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” Jeremiah :23-24.
St. John in the Wilderness, Thomas Cole
The people who went out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness went to see if another way of life was possible. As Jesus pointed out, if it was the status quo of power and wealth they were seeking, they would have gone somewhere else.

But now, December 2011, here in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, there is little wilderness nearby. And no voice that I can hear offering an alternative way.

I pause as I type that. The other night I sat in a Quaker meeting house with a small band of local Occupy Wall Street supporters. One young man spoke with great feeling about a desire for a culture based on something other than selfishness and hoarding. He had read about indigenous gift economies, in which surplus was dispersed through celebrations and lavish sharing of wealth. He was grieving a culture where money is the prime motivator, where value is assigned by net worth, where work is done for a meager paycheck rather than for the love of the task.

He was describing the kingdom Jesus came to offer. The kingdom of freedom, rather than enslavement. Of generosity, rather than scarcity. Or love and kindness and welcome, rather than fearful protection of boundaries and anxious exercise of power.

And yet – here is the great grief to me – the Christian church, as it presents itself in this place and time, stands firmly with the pharoic kingdom, the kingdom of scarcity, and power, and fear. So much so that those who stand outside consider any statement of faith an act of aggression, or exclusion.

Thomas Merton, a Jesuit monk, wrote “There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. .  . .There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.” - From No Man is an Island

My one little patch of wilderness is a overgrown margin around a small pond not far away. As I wander there, watching for blue heron, smiling at the marsh hawk that flies low above the grasses, I find myself praying, and wondering. What would the voice sound like, clear enough, and firm enough, to call a self-satisfied, self-righteous church back to the wilderness? Where is the voice kind enough, convincing enough, to speak to those who have written off the Christian faith because they’ve see so little compassion, so little mercy, so little wisdom?

Elijah in the Wilderness, Frederic Leighton
As I think, and grieve, and pray, I’m reminded that across generations, across continents, God has preserved a faithful witness. Elijah. John the Baptist. Tertullian. Perpetua. Jerome. Patrick. Monica. Aidan. Francis. Clare. Mother Theresa. The list could go on and on: faithful voices that stood outside their cultures and pointed the way to something very different. I’m thankful, beyond thankful, for those I’ve had the privilege of knowing, for the faithful voices that dared to call me toward the wilderness.

I’m thinking of one voice that crossed my path when I was wandering in a particular season of wilderness. Gene Denham, a leader with Students Christian Fellowship and Scripture Union in Jamaica, came to stay in our creaking old house in West Philly for several weeks when I was a grad student and young mother. Gene was not much older than me, but stronger in every way. She had known deep poverty in Jamaica, had been shuttled from one meager household to another, had experienced great inequity and great injustice. Yet she had a personal knowledge of God as loving father so strong it propelled her work with children and youth all over Jamaica and motivated her to travel to share her work and vision.

I remember the insightful questions she asked, the penetrating observations, the energy she invested in everything she did, the buoyant laughter. I had begun to wonder if it was possible to live as a just, free, faithful follower of Christ. Yes, Gene said. And gave me just a glimpse as we shopped Philly porch sales together, gathering shoes and clothes she would take home to Kingston for her mother and sisters, and as we talked together over tea in the time she had between speaking engagements and visits to donors.

Gene died in her forties of an aneurysm on a much-planned trip to South Africa. At her funeral, over three thousand Jamaicans gathered to sing, dance, share stories of her influence and extravagant generosity of time, energy, and resources, and to pray for courage to be faithful voices in God’s service in the way that Gene had been. Traveling to Jamaica several years after her death, I was moved to meet many of her friends, and to be included in their circle of friendship just because I, too, had known and been shaped by Gene.

Not long before she died, reading the story of John the Baptist, Gene wrote in her journal: “A revolutionary messenger with a revolutionary message for revolutionary times. Lord let my life this year show  a 100% revolution towards holiness so I can be completely your messenger in every way.”

Yesterday was my birthday, a day of celebration and thanksgiving. Today, as I look toward the year ahead, I wonder what kind of revolution in me would allow me to be God’s messenger more fruitfully. And what kind of revolution, in all of us, would allow us to hear more faithfully the voice of God, calling us to, and through, the wilderness. 

Israelites Passing through the Wilderness,
William West
A voice of one calling: 
“In the wilderness prepare
   the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
   a highway for our God.
Every valley 
   shall be raised up,
   every mountain and hill 
   made low;
the rough ground 
   shall become level,
   the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord 
   will be revealed,
   and all people 
   will see it together. 
For the mouth of the Lord 
    has spoken.”   (Isaiah 40)

I wonder: Whose voices have called you to, and through, the wilderness? And how has wilderness, for you, been preparation, rest, a chance to see God's provision? Your thoughts and experience in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below.