Embracing the Wilderness

Posted on: September 14, 2020, by :

[An edited transcript from the online gathering of the
HeartWell Community, Sunday 13th September 2020.

My first experience of the wilderness wasn’t really the wilderness at all: it was the forest between Monbulk and Olinda! But I was only about 7 years old, and the trees were so tall you couldn’t even see the sky and the wind was howling and the light was fading, and then it began raining, and then hailing, and then lightning and thunder, and the wind went from howling to roaring, and trees began crashing down around us – oh it was the wilderness alright for a 7 year old! Just as I felt myself about to give way to the panic that was bubbling up inside, however, I was scooped out of the mire and lifted onto the shoulders of one of the young guys who was part of the youth group my parents were leading on this supposedly gentle bush walk.  And sitting there on Frank Perry’s shoulders the storm didn’t seem so frightening, the wilderness wasn’t so overwhelming, and the world started to feel safe again.  Wet, very wet, but safe.

I’ve experienced other wilderness moments along the way, some geographical and some metaphorical, but that first experience has remained etched in my memory and become something of a touchstone, an experience I dip back into when I need to be reminded that the wilderness is better embraced than avoided.

For many of us, the current COVID isolation can feel a little like wilderness. It would be so much easier if we could simply avoid it, but deep down we know that is not the way life goes.  The wilderness moments – those challenging, sometimes overwhelming, experiences of insecurity, anxiety, uncertainty, disruption – are part and parcel of the journey we call life. 

So, do we simply endure them, or is it possible that we can learn to embrace them?

One of the best wilderness stories I know is told about Jesus.  We read it on the first Sunday of Lent every year as we begin that metaphorical 40-day wilderness walk toward Easter.  It’s the story where Jesus is ‘led into the wilderness by the Spirit’ to grapple with questions of meaning and purpose (see Matthew 4:1-11).  The way the story is told this is a time of real torment, deep anguish – characterised in the text as being ‘tempted by the Devil’.  The story takes the form of a dialogue: the Devil throws out a challenge and Jesus responds by quoting from scripture.  What’s going on, of course, is a profound quest for self-understanding – it’s like one of those corporate retreats, or pre-season team-bonding camps for a footy club!  The story is instructive, and today I want to quickly draw from it three practical tools that enables Jesus to embrace the wilderness.

The first is TRUST.
We saw this at work in Psalm 13 which was read during yesterday’s online gathering. In the midst of anguish the cry goes up, ‘How long?’ (another pertinent COVID parallel) ‘How long before this ends?  How long before you do something to make it right?’  But even as the cry leaves his lips, the Psalmist is remembering God’s past faithfulness – to him and to others – and affirming his trust that they will get through it.  We’ve survived similar things in the past and we’ll survive this.  This too shall pass.  I trust that this is not the end.  Reminiscent of the line from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – “Everything will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, then it’s not yet the end.”

For those who, like Jesus, hold to a faith, that trust may be anchored in God, whatever our understanding of God might be.  For those who don’t hold to a faith, it may be anchored in their past experience, their ability to get through similar situations intact.  But wherever it is anchored, the exercise of TRUST is an important first step in embracing the wilderness.

The second word is LEAN.
The phrase ‘lean into’ has become part of our vernacular as a way of affirming the ability to face up to challenges rather than flee from them, to step up in courage rather than to draw back in fear.  There is a definite wisdom in that application: ‘leaning into’ the wilderness rather than cowering away.

But I have a different take on LEAN, a more traditional take perhaps.  I want to encourage you not just to ‘lean into’ but to ‘lean on’.  Too often, when confronted with upheaval or stress in life – finding ourselves in the wilderness – we withdraw, isolate ourselves, go into our shell.  Embracing the wilderness requires being prepared to ‘lean on’ those around you, taking advantage of the wisdom of others who may have travelled the same path, and drawing on the strength, encouragement and love of those who are there for you.

That’s exactly what Jesus was doing in the gospel story – in quoting scripture he is drawing on the experience and wisdom of his ancestors, leaning on their bravery as a means of summoning his own.

It is not a sign of weakness to need support: it is a sign of wisdom to seek it.

To TRUST and to LEAN creates the climate for the final word: LEARN.
The wilderness offers the opportunity for growth, growth in personal awareness, growth in understanding the world around us, insight into the way we relate to other people. And suddenly the wilderness becomes not a place of foreboding but a place of insight and discernment.

TRUSTLEANLEARN may empower us to embrace the wilderness rather than fear it.

I encourage you to go away and read Psalm 13, read Matthew 4:1-11, and see how these themes of TRUST, LEAN & LEARN are woven through those stories.  Read the biographies of people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and see how the themes of TRUST, LEAN & LEARN enabled their wilderness journeys. 

And then reflect on your own wilderness experiences and you’ll probably see how those themes have already been at work in your journey too!
TRUST, LEAN, LEARN and embrace the wilderness.

David Brooker

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