Wilderness

I remember it well. One day in late February or early March, classmates showed up at Fairview Elementary School with what looked for all the world like a smudge of dirt on their foreheads. I was mystified – and fascinated. There was a large Roman Catholic population in our industrial, railroad town. I didn’t put it together at first, but it was my Catholic mates who had dirt on their foreheads.

I asked my mother and she explained that it was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, an important day and season for our Catholic neighbors. And the “dirt” was actually ashes, placed on foreheads by a priest. Back then Presbyterians and lots of Protestants didn’t pay much attention to Lent, Ash Wednesday. And we didn’t do anything as exotic, and interesting, as walk around with dirt on our foreheads.

Happily, things are very different now. Presbyterians, Methodists and many other Protestants have come to appreciate the richness of ritual and liturgy, how physical actions such as crossing oneself, kneeling, or having ashes imposed on your forehead can be deeply meaningful. Happily, many Protestant Churches observe Ash Wednesday and Lent and have special worship opportunities for the imposition of ashes.

So, it is the First Sunday of Lent, forty days – not counting Sunday’s – before Easter. The purpose of Lent is to get us ready for Easter. The almost unspeakable joy of Easter requires a little preparation, pondering the human condition, acknowledging human mortality, and the reality that resurrection doesn’t happen in a bubble but after very real suffering and death. During Lent Christians identify with and travel with Jesus on the way to the cross, sometimes attempting to experience his suffering by making personal sacrifices – giving up something for Lent. Although experiencing Jesus’ suffering is almost impossible to do, and surely would be more profound and not as trivial as giving up sweets.

The way Jesus’ journey begins is with his baptism in the Jordan River at the hands of his cousin, John, John the Baptist. It is a powerful experience for Jesus in which he hears a voice assuring him that he is loved totally, unconditionally by God. He is God’s child, the Beloved. And then, of all things, he is driven into the wilderness, 40 days, alone in the wilderness. And that too is one of the major themes of Lent.

Wilderness is an interesting, provocative concept in the Bible. In one of our oldest stories Moses is tending a flock of sheep “beyond the wilderness of Midian” when God appears, accosts Moses in a burning bush and sends him back to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery into freedom. That’s the kind of thing that happens in the wilderness.

And when Moses succeeds and is leading the people to the promised land, it’s back to the wilderness, forty years, twelve tribes wandering around in the wilderness of Sinai, during which the tribes become a nation, enter a covenant and are given a law. That, too, is what happens in the wilderness.

New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright says, “You are never far from the wilderness when you are in the promised land.”

As we look back longingly, just a year ago, it seems like we were in the “promised land” and weren’t aware of it. We could visit our friends, in fact we encountered friends in the hallways, all day every day, certainly on sometimes happily crowded elevators, and during meal times in the Bistro, Grafton and Lounge. We were free to be together, have lunch or dinner together, go to restaurant, a movie, to listen to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra live and in our subscription seats, the Lyric Opera, Joffrey Ballet, Shakespeare, Goodman, Steppenwolf – and Wrigley Field. We could hug our grandchildren, go their games and recitals. Sue and I have been blessed by the birth of our third great-grandchild, Cassius Phillip Hill Andrew. He’s five months old and we haven’t really gotten our hands on him, introduced ourselves, talked to him. We could shop, go to church, get a haircut from our favorite barber. We know now that we were gloriously free, blessed to be living in a lovely “promised land.”

Covid-19 is our wilderness.

The New York Times recently asked readers what they were looking forward to after the pandemic protocols are lifted. The response was overwhelming and familiar.

Here’s a sample:

Kristina wrote:  I want to see a movie in a theater, sticky floors and stale popcorn and all…I miss the whole experience…when we all clap in unison during the credits and stay until the lights come back on.

Laurie from Wisconsin: Seeing people’s faces again. Their whole face. The white of their teeth when they smile or how they chew their bottom lip when deep in thought.

Patricia in Florida: I am most eager to spend time with my grandchildren again, to hug them tight and read to them and discuss dinosaurs and assemble Lego’s with them again.

Phyllis in Maine: Flying to California and hugging my 90-year-old mother.

Lynn in Texas: I want to see live performances again – whether it’s dressing up and sitting in the Symphony Hall and listening – or sitting on the lawn in the park seeing Shakespeare…

Sarah from Natchez, Mississippi: I’m looking forward to hugging my father, the kids I teach, my adult son. I want to hug them all, then have a great big dinner party where our friends come and gather and linger and watch each other smile mask-less.    

That’s our wilderness. We are in a new place, a place none of us wanted, an unsettling, frustrating place….And yet….And yet….there is that promise, that beautiful assurance that when Jesus was in the wilderness angels came and ministered to him and cared for him and strengthened him for the days ahead.

And so, difficult as it may be sometimes, angels do come; God comes in the wilderness, and there are always possible redemptive and healing outcomes. The wilderness can teach us, remind us of our core values. Wilderness will make me – make all of us – more grateful than ever for the common, everyday stuff of life – for our life together in our community, for our dear ones to hug and cherish – for our friends and the simple joy of a shared meal, a lively conversation: for music and books, for our neighbors, for this amazing city and for our nation hopefully through the worst of trauma and violence and brutishness and cruelty and lies and bullying, with a new direction, a new spirit, a new hope.

God comes into our wilderness. That is the promise. We are not finally alone there. In the lonely wilderness of isolation, angels come, friends are there reaching out to touch and comfort and hold us: Reminders that God is there, that we are held tightly by the One who loves us.

Angels came to Jesus in the wilderness, reminding him of the voice he heard that day before wilderness – “You are my beloved Son: with you I am well pleased.”

That is the message, the very good news that you and I are blessed to hear. You are a beloved child of God.

That is the news that ripped open the heavens that day long ago when Jesus was baptized and driven into the wilderness.

And that is the news: you are a beloved daughter – a beloved son of God in whatever wilderness you find yourself this morning. In Jesus Christ we are all God’s beloved children.

And Lent – Lent will end with Easter morning. 

Comments

  1. Barbara Fountain says:

    I am praying that God will lead us out of this wilderness soon. 🙏

  2. Reading your words is like being in Fourth Church, sitting in the seventh row, starboard side, and hearing your voice. I now live in New Mexico. I write a column for The Las Vegas Optic. Next week my theme is Lent. May I quote you?

    Warmest tegards, Beth Urech

    I’m an active member of the First United Presbyterian Church here and give a devotional every Tuesday via YouTube. May I quote you there as well?

  3. Thank you so much. Your mention of angels coming to minister to Jesus in the wilderness reminds me of a Rembrandt print I visited often when I worked at The Art Institute (during a temporary Rembrandt exhibit). Rembrandt portrayed how angels came to minister to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

    The picture shows Jesus being hugged by an angel.

  4. Allona Beasley Mitchell says:

    Thank you…I needed your comforting words.

  5. Becky Willard says:

    “And that is the news, that you are beloved” – sometimes that is so hard to remember…this wilderness becomes so hard somedays. Thank you deeply for bringing me to a better place today.
    (I miss you so much, John)

  6. Wanda Hobart says:

    Beautifully expressed and so timely.

    With gratitude,

    Wanda

    >

  7. Dianne Bowman says:

    I cherish your thoughts and words, John. They bring peace and comfort. I miss you and thank you.

  8. Maria Jarvis says:

    On Fri, Feb 19, 2021 at 5:30 AM Hold to the Good wrote:

    > John M. Buchanan posted: ” I remember it well. One day in late February or > early March, classmates showed up at Fairview Elementary School with what > looked for all the world like a smudge of dirt on their foreheads. I was > mystified – and fascinated. There was a large Roman Catholi” >

  9. Thank you, Good Doctor. Excellent sermon. I believe our wilderness is wilder than the pandemic, but your words lifted my spirits. I particularly enjoyed these two beautiful (and hilarious) sentences, “God appears, accosts Moses in a burning bush and sends him back to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery into freedom. That’s the kind of thing that happens in the wilderness.” And you remind me why I choose to hike into the wilderness every year, whether or not other, more metaphorical wildernesses find me first. Thanks again for the good words.

  10. Cynthia Casteel says:

    Thanks for putting this painful socially distanced time in perspective.
    And thanks for reminding us of the “almost unspeakable joy of Easter.”

  11. bandhdmitchellbmm0226 says:

    Among other high points for me here is your NT Wright quote. That’s worth pondering and going back to after the sermon. And your concluding affirmation: Good and I’m holding on to it. Thanks John, HD

    On Fri, Feb 19, 2021 at 7:30 AM Hold to the Good wrote:

    > John M. Buchanan posted: ” I remember it well. One day in late February or > early March, classmates showed up at Fairview Elementary School with what > looked for all the world like a smudge of dirt on their foreheads. I was > mystified – and fascinated. There was a large Roman Catholi” >

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