Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the 40 days of which are based on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness between his baptism and the commencement of his ministry. The key word here is “wilderness”. God formed the Israelites into a people in the wilderness of Sinai. Here, Jesus himself validates his own call in the wilderness of Judah. The case may be made that the ascetics who followed St. Anthony out to the caves of the Egyptian wilderness in the 3rd and 4th centuries saved the church from its own success. Clearly, there is something about wilderness that is inherent and foundational to Christian faith and discipleship.
I have been listening to the audiobook of Edward Abbey’s ecological classic, Desert Solitaire. Written in the late 1960’s, the book is an account of the author’s service as a semi-ranger in a National Park in Utah called The Arches. The book mostly narrates his experiences; but it is augmented by sometimes lengthy rants against the forces of modernity and progress which threaten the wildness, purity, and beauty of desert places like The Arches.
Near the end of the book, he goes into one of these screeds where he mimics the most crass attitudes of those who favor opening up the parks, making them super-accessible, convenient, comfortable, inviting, profitable, and entertaining. The proposals include putting in paved roads to every corner of the parks, using advertising to get more people in, charging higher admission, replacing the boring and drab rangers with pretty girls, and bathing the features of the park in spectacular light shows at night. I find it alarming that some (thankfully not all) of these have actually come to pass in the decades since Abbey wrote his book.
But what struck me upon hearing this is how much it sounds like the advice of church growth consultants, at least in spirit if not every detail. He reminds me of why I am somewhat suspicious of anything advocating “progress,” including “progressive” forms of Christianity (believe it or not). And I am led to consider the parallels between wilderness and what the church is about.
After 2000 years of rigorous domestication, most Christians have completely lost any consciousness of God’s wildness. We have long ago tamed, developed, caged, processed, and made super-accessible, convenient, comfortable, inviting, profitable, and entertaining what is originally and essentially an encounter with the living God.
Can anything be more wild, dangerous, unpredictable, threatening, and transforming than an encounter with the living God? (It’s a rhetorical question.) Of course not! Can God be contained in books, doctrines, buildings, rituals, rules, matter, energy, or the human mind? No.
When church growth experts recommend churches “add value” to their message through entertaining gimmicks, fancy buildings, and attractive advertising, or when traditionalists want the church to stay comforting and familiar to them, isn’t that kind of like subjecting Devil’s Tower to a light show, or putting pretty bows in the mane of a lion in the zoo? Aren’t these just “improvements,” domestications, and attempts to control a wild and unknowable Creator?
After his baptism, God did not send Jesus on a cruise or to a spa. The Lord went into the desert.
To what degree does the church need to in some sense be a desert, or provide desert experiences for people? What would happen if we stripped away all the comforts and shelved our endemic niceness? I am not saying we need to become nasty and unwelcoming, of course. I am suggesting finding ways of realizing in our own experience and gatherings the challenging wildness and raw beauty of the Lord.
Jesus emerges from the wilderness, after weathering the three temptations of Satan, a wild and free figure. What he said and did in his ministry was and remains fundamentally outside of all religious and political boxes. He was an equal opportunity offender of all agendas: conservative and liberal (to the extent that analogs of these approaches existed in his time), Jews and Gentiles, establishment apologists and revolutionary reformers, imperialists and nationalists. He identified with the poor, sick, and powerless… which is to say those who were always living like desert-dwellers, having little or nothing, who were always on the edge, the margins, and conscious of their own mortality. He repeatedly insists that these people are closer to God than the successful and the religious.
In Lent we don’t necessarily transport our bodies to the desert. But Christians have historically sought to bring some of the desert into their lives through fasting, abstinence, deprivation, introspection, and prayer. It’s not supposed to be self-hating or masochistic. Pain is never a good thing.
But, like the Irish monks who worshiped outdoors in all kinds of weather and recited the Psalter while chest-deep in cold streams, contact with the wildness of nature can help to wake us out of our unconsciousness and deliver us to the living, unadulterated, wild present.
In the end, like Abbey – and like Moses, Jesus, and Anthony – we in some sense “go to the wilderness” not for entertainment, recreation (in the conventional sense), or vacation. We come not as tourists, but as pilgrims seeking an encounter with the real, the basic, the true, and the wild. We come to awaken to the freedom and wildness in our own selves.
In short, I hope we emerge as fearless and feral followers of Jesus, guided by the Spirit, the breath of God, that blows wherever it wants.