The Way of the Wilderness: The Way of the Light
Part One—Comfort and Peace By Dr. Ingrid Scott
Advent this year, especially and uniquely, is a time of walking through our own personal wildernesses, as Dudley spoke of so beautifully last week. We know it’s the wilderness any time our life, or some aspect of it, feels completely out of control. It’s aptly called the wilderness because in it we feel utterly alone, forsaken and totally without resources.
It’s these wilderness times that try our souls, that get us in touch with our own helplessness, our own powerlessness. We’re powerless to change situations, to change others. And, powerless, especially, to change ourselves.
In fact, the only way we can be deeply changed is not by doing, but by allowing–allowing ourselves to be changed, by giving the Spirit permission to do Her work in us.
Sadly, though, our can-do spirit is so strong; we’ve been taught from little on that self-reliance is the mark of maturity. But allowing means feeling helpless, waiting in uncertainty, depending on someone else. Not knowing where we’re being led. Not wanting to be led at all. This is the kind of dependency we’re so loathe to submit to. It doesn’t feel good. It throws us off our game.
But, when allowed, what the wilderness does is whittle down our ego— “ego” defined here as anything that keeps us from getting closer to God. It’s our ego that prides itself on self-sufficiency, on having things our way. It’s our ego that, quite subtly and pervasively, gives us what we have proudly learned to call our “self worth.” Worth as defined by ourselves. Not by God.
Sadly, this ethos of the ego is the mantle our country has wrapped itself in from the beginning. The American can-do spirit! The glorification of those who “make it,” and the subtle, but real, prejudice against those who do not—the poor, the addicts, the mentally ill, the ones who just by god can’t pull themselves together! The ones it’s so easy to label as “lazy” and “good for nothing.”
As a side note, what’s so ironic about this virus, this plague, is that it might very well be the great equalizer, the modern-day wakeup call in our times that the Biblical plagues were to the Egyptians. The winnowing fork of us all. Because now, today, in a real sense, we all, collectively, have become the “have nots,” the helpless ones, for there is little about our circumstances that we can change. Today, we’re here in this wilderness along with everyone else. We’re helpless to do anything but stay inside—and wait.
How appropriate. Staying put. Waiting. Waiting on the Lord—the true task of Advent. In that sense, the timing couldn’t be better.
All we’re missing, it seems, is the joy of Advent. It would be remiss, though, if we thought of the wilderness as primarily a joyless place, for there is great joy to be found in its spare and sparse landscape. It’s the joy that comes in surrender. The quiet, subtle and peaceful “all-is-well” feeling that pervades us from the inside out once we’ve stopped struggling against what God wants and have said “Be it done to me as Thou will.” In fact, I would venture to say that the wilderness experience is the fastest route to true peace and deep joy in God.
I know we’ve all have had our treks through our own wildernesses. I’m going to talk today about one of mine, not because it’s mine, but because it’s ours. Not because it’s so unique, but because, as a story of pain and joy, it’s so ordinary. It illustrates what I’m talking about. It feels a bit weird to do this, so please bear with me. I was 23 when this incident began, just finishing up in graduate school. It was during a routine visit to the campus health clinic that I was diagnosed with cancer and told to report to the hospital within the hour to prepare for surgery. Afterwards, I would have to learn to walk again, have to leave grad school without my degree, have to deal with a marriage that never quite got past that traumatic experience.But first there was the waiting. I would have to wait three days for the surgery, the time it took to get the heart lung machine from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. I would have to wait eleven days after that to get the pathology report. The wilderness is a place of waiting, as I was finding out. I was terrified—so terrified that I threw up in the clinic bathroom that first day. From the beginning, I was convinced I was going to die, to die before I had even lived. Some of the doctors had the same for-boding. To say I felt completely alone doesn’t even come close. I was the one who had to go through this. No one could live—or die—for me. I knew it was up to God, but, by then, I had been ignoring God for several years. I lay in that hospital bed for three weeks, sobbing alone at night when no one was around.
I was completely miserable until, late one night, I began to remember some hymns I’d learned in church when I was young, and I started to sing them to myself. The one that spoke to me most deeply was my mom’s favorite. My sister’s joining us from Oakland, and she knows which one—“Be Still My Soul.” It goes like this:
“Be still, my soul. The Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently, the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to Thy God to order and provide.
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul,
Thy best, thy heavenly friend,
Through stormy ways,
Leads to a joyful end.”
The whole wilderness journey is all there in that hymn, and that’s why I’m talking about this today. There is the invitation to still ourselves. The reality that the grief and pain must be borne. The truth that we have to let God order things—because He orders and provides. That in every change, He is faithful and unchanging. That He is our best friend, our heavenly friend, the One who leads us through ways that are stormy. But ways that always, always lead to a joyful end—joyful because He is with us, He adores us, and He walks with us, hand in hand, every painful step. This was my first introduction to the wilderness, the first time I learned that our God is a God of comfort. It has not been my last. And, for that, I am grateful, because it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over. Deeper and deeper. Before we close part one of this two-part homily, I’d like us to listen to one more wilderness song, “Holy Darkness” by John Michael Tabot, available on YouTube.
Again, the whole experience is there. Notice that heaven has an answer: it’s just “hidden from our sight.”That as we await Him, we “embrace His night.” His “holy night.”That it’s “in the barren soil of our loneliness” that He “plants His seed.” That it’s in “the deepest hour of our darkness [that He] gives us wealth untold.” That it’s only “When the silence stills our spirit” that His “riches fill [our] soul.”
Some experiences are universal. Suffering is universal. Some things come to us by invitation. We are invited to allow God’s presence. Some things come as a result. The result of our allowing is peace. Our God of the desert truly is our God of comfort. Our God of peace.
As these days of Advent dwindle down, I pray that we, ourselves, commit to embracing our own wildernesses, whatever they may be, whenever they may come. It’s only then that we can comfort as we have been comforted. That we may become tthe peace to others that our God has been to us.
Always and ever. Comfort and peace.
Comfort and peace. Amen.
In the Wilderness 2nd Sunday of Advent By Rev. Dudley
In last Sunday’s gospel Jesus responded to his disciples’ being impressed by the permanence evidenced in the massive stonework that defined the Temple’s
structure, by saying, “In those days the sun will be darkened, the moon will no longer give its light, stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”
He invited them to see the Temple and its destruction as a metaphor for the vulnerability of temples or structures and the vulnerability of myths and stories of our personal and communal lives. You know, what we tell ourselves about ourselves, our relationships, our families, our communities, our world and, yes, even our God. The rhetorical structure or words we use to hold our view of the reality of each of these things in our consciousness.
The First Sunday of Advent begins with an ending. It is not the end of the world or the end of life. It is rather an ending of all those temples or stories upon which we depend. All those events and experiences that have shaped and continue to form who we are, how we are, and the ways in which we see and relate to God and the way we relate to the world, each other, and ourselves. Our stories do for us what the Temple did for the people of Jesus’ day. They give meaning, identity, direction and security.
Sometimes our stories no longer support our lives. Instead of growing our lives they stunt our growth. It’s not that they are necessarily bad or wrong, it’s just that we need a different story, a bigger story, a life-giving story. That means we must let go of our story so that a new story can be told, a new life can be lived, a new structure can be revealed, and “the one who is more powerful” can come to us.
The deconstruction of our reality can be painful. Most of us hold our stories pretty tightly even when they are no longer helpful and sometimes, in spite of the harm they cause us. We cling to our stories believing that any story is better than no story. You know, “This is my story, and I am sticking to it”. Letting go of our stories is what today’s gospel calls “preparing the way of the Lord.” It’s the way by which we reorient our lives to “the one who is more powerful and more important.”
If last week’s gospel revealed Advent to be a season of necessary endings, then this week’s gospel reveals Advent to be a season of time in the wilderness. It’s not by accident that today’s gospel takes us to the wilderness.
This movement from an ending to the wilderness reflects the reality of our lives. It is a sequence we know well.
Whenever I have accepted an ending of one of my stories, I ended up in the wilderness. I felt overwhelmed and lost, vulnerable and at risk, afraid, angry and resentful. The old story had ended, and the new story was not yet clear. I was in that in-between space waiting to see what might be. This certainly was my experience when after 9 years of preparation and 7 years of ministry, I chose to move from being a Catholic priest to a lay person in a foreign country, without a dime in my pocket, without a roof over my head or a bed to lay my head. Whether or not I knew it, I was in the wilderness, waiting for “the one who is more powerful.” Many of us are in the wilderness right now in terms of our health. We no longer breathe as we once did. We wait for “the one who is more powerful. You could say that our country, the United States of America is in the wilderness right now. One story is ending and another beginning. We all wait in the wilderness with the hope for the most powerful to once again bring us together.
I suspect each one of us could tell about a time in the wilderness. I’ve watched some of you move to the wilderness when one of your stories ended. I’ve heard it in your questions. I’ve seen it in your tears. I’ve felt your fear. I’ve echoed your cry for comfort and your longing to hear some good news. Think about your own stories – the ones that have ended or the ones that are ending – and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. The most significant changes and transitions in our lives lead us to the wilderness.
As difficult as the wilderness may be, it is the place in which we “prepare the way of the Lord”. After the Israelites left Egypt they went to the wilderness. It was their preparation for entering the promised land. After Jesus was baptized, he went to the wilderness. It was his preparation for his public ministry. And in today’s gospel John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness helping “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” prepare for the coming of “the one who is more powerful.” That’s what time in the wilderness does. It prepares the way of the Lord.
Time in the wilderness, it seems, is the norm for God’s people. Wilderness time does not make “the one who is more powerful” show up. It ensures that when he does show up, we will be there, we will be ready, and that we will have shown up.
The wilderness I’m talking about is not the geography around us but the geography within us. It is an interior landscape. There is nowhere to hide in the wilderness. There are no illusions or distractions. The wilderness strips us of all pretense and we are left to face up to ourselves, to examine our hearts, and confess the truth about our lives.
This wilderness isn’t so much a place of exile or punishment as it is a place of self-discovery. We discover that we can no longer live by our own self-sufficiency. That doesn’t mean we are deficient or insufficient. It means there is more to life and more to us than what our own self-sufficiency can give.
Many of our stories have, however, convinced us that we are or should be self-sufficient. The wilderness always proves otherwise. In the wilderness we ultimately discover that we are in need and that we have nowhere else to turn but to “the one who is more powerful.” It reveals our lack of self-sufficiency.
Maybe that’s why John the Baptizer is our wilderness guide. Maybe that’s why he is called the Forerunner of Christ. Maybe that’s why he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John knows what he is talking about. Look at him – clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and honey. That’s more than a description of his wardrobe and diet. It reveals John’s interior condition, the state of his heart. It shows him to be one who has let go of all pretense, preoccupations, and accumulations. He knows his own lack of self-sufficiency and entrusts it to “the one who is more powerful.” So much so that he declares himself unworthy to even untie Christ’s sandals.
The lack of self-sufficiency revealed by the wilderness opens our minds to a larger story, opens our heart to a new life, and turns our gaze to “the one who is coming”. It frees us of pretense, preoccupations, and the accumulations of life that weigh us down. It restores to us the original beauty of our creation and creates space and place for “the one who is coming”.
Today’s gospel begs us to ask the question, “Where have I become overly self-sufficient? What might a lack of self-sufficiency look like in my life? What does letting go of pretense, preoccupation, and accumulations mean? Maybe we begin to get at this by looking at the ways we or try to live self-sufficient lives”?
Here’s what I am wondering.
- I wonder if our self-sufficiency is sometimes disguised as business, calendars that have no free space, never ending to do lists, and the exhaustion that permeates so many of our lives.
- I wonder if our self-sufficiency is revealed in the comparisons and competition that often hide in our relationships and interactions with each other.
- I wonder if self-sufficiency is at the core of many of the judgments we make about others.
- I wonder if the unending search for approval, recognition, and accomplishment is driven by a temple story of self-sufficiency.
- I wonder if some of our fears, worries, anxieties, and anger come when we think our self-sufficiency is being threatened.
- I wonder if the many expectations we place on ourselves and others about how our life should be begins in an attitude of self-sufficiency.
I’m not suggesting that we are helpless. We’re not. We have resources and abilities. However, to the degree we live overly self-sufficient lives we close ourselves off. We isolate. We declare the way of the Lord to be a closed road. Maybe the greatest tragedy is that when we live from a place of self-sufficiency, we make ourselves the more powerful one and we have no need of each other or of Christ, the one who is coming. Maybe our self-sufficiency is really the only thing that ever keeps Christ from coming to us.
Let’s not leave our Zoom Mass here today as self-sufficient as we came. What if we were to trust the wilderness of Advent? What if we were to begin to live from a place that owns our lack of self-sufficiency? And what if we were to entrust that lack of self-sufficiency to Christ? That just might be for us the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We would discover that our lives are sufficient for God. We would know ourselves to be God-sufficient rather than self-sufficient people.
Homily: First Sunday of Advent 2020. Rev. Cindy
November 29, 2020 Isaiah; 1Corithians-14, Mark:13
Like many people when times are complicated and bewildering, I take comfort in reading personal accounts of ordinary people in ordinary times. Lately, I ran across an article written in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard titled, “A Message to Garcia”. This is a simple article written during the Spanish American War that is based on a true story.
It relates an incident during the American Presidency of McKinley. President McKinley urgently needed to get a message to Garcia, a leader of a rebel group in Cuba to secure his cooperation. Garcia was somewhere in the hills of Cuba. No one knew where and he could not be reached by telegraph or mail. What struck me most about this incident in HOW the messenger, Lt. Andrew Rowan, carried this urgent message through very hostile territory? “In an oil-skinned pouch, strapped over his heart”.
This image came back to me when I read the scriptures for today. The image of an ordinary person with a message strapped over his heart going into a turbulent world that was full of violence, misunderstandings, and hate. This image gave me pause to remember that Isaiah, the prophet, writes during turbulent times of the Babylonian exile of the Jews; Paul writes a little before his execution by the Roman Emperor; and Mark, the Evangelist puts front and center in his Gospel, John the Baptist; All Three Prophets had an Urgent Message Strapped over their hearts.
I also reflected on how our messages that are strapped over our hearts, fair in our day and technological world? In these times of instant messages, chat rooms, and other virtual but very real communications between friends, lovers, business partners, teachers and their students.
Where does one get a chance to even differentiate urgent messages from the mundane (The feelings I get using the delete button is interesting!) Does anyone really find time to strap any message, let alone an urgent one over one’s heart? Getting modern day human messages across to others can often be more complicated than anticipated. I, like many of you run across this when we want to notify people of someone’s accident or death. Do I leave a message on their cell phone? On their home phone. Do I email the message? Do I instant message them with this timeless message? Or Do I show up in person.
My take on the readings today is that God wants us to hear loud and clear that OUR GOD HAS A MESSAGE FOR EACH OF US TO DELIVER and like Isaiah, and Paul and John the Baptist, we are simply asked to do our job….. And that is to deliver it, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey.
I believe that we find out today that the Judeo-Christian journey is a risky one and always has been and our journeys never end until it ends.
Waiting for God takes watchfulness and trust. For us To go out into our wilderness preaching patience, forgiveness and gratitude….using tender words and remembering that no matter what has happened to us or what we have done, we are created to be good, merciful, and patient people is a difficult and risky job, especially for the human ego.
Sometimes it is even risker to believe that we are all created for peace and joy and Advent comes by every year to remind us that if we haven’t found peace and joy yet, then we have to ask ourselves why and then begin to search for peace and joy inside ourselves.
This, I believe, is the Urgent Message this First Sunday of Advent: That we are called to strap over our hearts the Good News and deliver it to one another// but also mainly to ourselves. Now that takes courage. AMEN
—Rev. C. Yoshitomi November 28, 2020–St. Anthony’s Catholic Community Santa Barbara.