Embrace the wilderness


Reflections

The Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent recounts Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Mark tells us “just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came down from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1.10-11; NRSV). This account calls to mind the words of Isaiah, the prophet: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64.1; NRSV). At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were torn open and God’s Spirit descended.

We tend to think of the Spirit as bringing peace and gentleness. Indeed, another name for the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. But what does Mark next recount? “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1.12-13; NRSV). Although God was “well pleased,” God saw value in subjecting Jesus to the wilderness experience. So much for comfort!

When Jesus returned, he began his public ministry. In Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus set forth the principles upon which the Kingdom of God would be founded. I have no doubt that many of those principles were formulated while he was tried and tested in the desert.

Many Christian organizations and institutions do everything in their power to keep people from experiencing the wilderness, the desert. I often wonder if their goal is to develop “hothouse Christians.” In my experience, those Christians who have experienced the wilderness, who have lived among the “wild beasts,” those who have been tested and tried, and yes, those who have failed miserably and have sought forgiveness, speak of how their experience resulted in real growth and transformation. They are better equipped to weather the storms. Such Christians are typically humbler, more accepting of others’ faults.

Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure” is a “good read.” By “coddling,” Lukianoff and Haidt mean overprotection; they warn of “safetyism” in which safety trumps everything else and contributes to the development of persons who are overly fragile and less resilient. Is our culture, wittingly or unwittingly, producing “hothouse people”? Our inability to engage in healthy debate without taking offense suggests the answer is “Yes.”

One of the philosophers I studied in great depth, Soren Kierkegaard, observed that as he looked around to see what he could contribute, he discovered that everyone had attempted to make life easier for others. Thus, he concluded, his contribution would be to make life more difficult, but no more difficult than it actually is. Maybe, just maybe, the Church should encourage more people to embrace the wilderness, to go into the desert, while standing ready to serve as a ministering angel.

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