I was the recipient of three nature stories in the past week. I spoke on the phone with a woman I have not yet met, my chaplaincy work supervisor in Edmonton, Bonnie. She had been down in the Bow Valley recently and had done some cross-country skiing near the Mt. Lougheed area. Her memories of the day were filled with awe and gratitude, a wondrous time of physical exertion and spiritual centering. Another friend, with a broad smile on her face, shared of how incredible it is to hike up Sulphur in the winter, in the morning. An admittedly tough cardio hike in summer months, I continue to be impressed by this senior’s ability to make it up and down two or three times a week, in winter months! Finally, a long-time friend of mine, often known in town by the moniker “Crazy…” (I refuse to call him this and never will) overwhelmed me with his most recent tail of adventure via cycling and hiking in his beloved mountains.
We love the mountains, the glory of our surroundings, the gift of living amid the majesty, wonder and indescribable beauty of the wilderness we are somewhat a part of. Some people prefer Banff/Canmore for the small town idiosyncrasies and the strong friendships. For others, it’s clearly nature in all its glory, with all its opportunities. Do we ever take it all for granted? I think not. I told a friend recently that I’d gone up Tunnel more than 800 times over the years. She looked me up and down with skeptical eyes, but it’s true!
In the Bible, the notion of wilderness or nature isn’t quite so appealing or romantic. For the first Sunday in Lent (from the German word “lenct” referring simply to the lengthening of days in springtime), the Gospel lesson is usually the intriguing story of Jesus and his 40-day wilderness ‘retreat’ out in the desert. He has been baptized by John, so the story goes, but before launching into his mission and ministry, some time away is required, some training, as it were, in the wilderness. We soon learn, in reading the story, that for ancient Hebrews ‘wilderness’ had far different connotations than we moderns tend to attach to the word. Nature, wilderness, was not the place to “get away from it all”, to escape the rat race and commune with God or just with one’s own thoughts. Rather wilderness was viewed as the home of evil spirits and demons where the forces of chaos and destruction lived, a place to be avoided not sought out. Into this kind of “nature” Jesus is compelled to sojourn for 40 days. It will be a time of solitude, introspection, torment, discernment, and testing for him as he solidifies both his relationship with God and his own understanding of his particular calling.
Lent is a wilderness. Or at least it can be for those who thrust themselves, heart and soul, into its invitation and danger. Spiritually, in Lent, we are encouraged to consider Jesus, plain and simple. Jesus the cornerstone, Jesus the good shepherd, Jesus the miracle-worker, Jesus the radical justice-seeker, just to offer a few descriptions.
It has become popular these days, in secular, atheist, and even some church circles, to trash church tradition or anything hinting of institutionalism. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (a brilliant, entertaining debater/thinker who sadly passed away recently), Dan Brown and, I would argue, John Dominic Crossan, and a host of other aggressive commentators have all attempted to jump on the bandwagon of what some are calling an era of neo-persecution of the church. To some degree these commentators have been successful, in the minds of some, in relegating religion in general, Christianity in particular, to the category of ancient, naïve myth and legend. Yet at the same time, contrary commentators and theologians such as N.T. Wright and Alistair McGrath, and Nobel Prize winning physicists like Sir. John Houghton have continued, under much criticism and at significant professional cost, to proffer the fact of Jesus – his life, his continuing relevance in relation to the human condition, his vision for a world more reflective of what God had/has in mind, his highly significant act of dying on a Roman cross, and his rising again.
During Lent it has become customary that many Christians pledge to give up something during the season in acknowledgement of all that Jesus gave up for humanity through his Passion. Common things given up for Lent? Chocolate, meat, smoking, gossip, anger, lying. Others, reflecting a fairly new approach, pledge to take on something for Lent instead (volunteering at the Food Bank, increasing their level of compassion for others, trying forgive more liberally, smiling more).
May I suggest another option? Jesus. For Lent why not commit to yourself to get to know him better, to reacquaint yourself with his preaching and teaching? Read the Gospels again. Reflect on his parables. Try putting his teachings into action in your life and see what changes come about. Consider his claims.
Lent is not firstly about the church, not about ministers and laity, not about thrift stores and alternative worship services, not about board members and meetings, budgets and strategic plans. This season of Lent is about Jesus. Is it time to take another look at this ancient figure we may mistakenly think we know everything about already? Time to re-examine his wisdom and claims, his vision and promise? Still to this day over a billion claim him as significant for daily living. Are you one of them?
Lent is a wilderness. Spirituality sometimes is as well. May you be blessed out there, in the desert, perhaps with Jesus, this Lent.
God of all our yesterdays and tomorrows, God who launched the intricate combinations of elements to create the universe, God whose love transcends all our notions of divinity and the earthly, God who sent Jesus into one minute, ancient context that people of all contexts might find Life, bless us on the journey, we pray. As we invest our spirits in this blessed season of Lent, may we discover or rediscover all that you have in store for us. Fill us with the love of Christ, that we might be his witnesses, his disciples, his ambassadors, in this world you so love. Amen.