Stephen Cook: Wilderness Time


Once when I was pastor of a church between youth ministers, I stepped in to lead the young people in that interim season. We were getting close to Easter, and I announced one Sunday night that I had a surprise for them. We were going on a field trip. We loaded the church van and took off.

You get the picture, right? A lot of excitement because we were doing something different, unexpected, out of the ordinary. It felt spontaneous which, if you hear that word, you certainly don't associate it with my name. You can ask my wife about our first date, and she'll give you the scoop. I had a van full of teenagers, and they were happy to be doing something special.

Imagine their reactions when I pulled up at our destination: an old cemetery not far from our church. Some of the youth thought it was kind of cool. Some of them thought I wasn't serious, and some of them thought it was downright creepy. It was almost Easter, and I had been telling them about how important the resurrection is for our lives. In the midst of that, I read a great line from that great preacher we all wish we could craft words like, Barbara Brown Taylor. Somewhere she wrote that you can't get to Easter without going through a graveyard. And, of course, she's right. She's absolutely right. 

So I took the youth to a cemetery. I drove them over there to remind them that Easter's resurrection celebration is only meaningful if you remember that someone had to actually die first. A lot of us would just as soon have Easter without Good Friday. But as Brian Erickson has noted, "following Christ cannot be a part-time hobby."[1] If we are going to be serious about following Jesus, then we had best be ready to go some places we might not otherwise choose on our own.

Today I want to extend an invitation to you: an invitation to enter a season of prayer and spiritual discipline. A season of thoughtful reflection and intentional remembrance. It is a season for pondering our proximity to God--how close, or maybe how far--we find ourselves from the One who is our source of life. I am inviting you to come into a wilderness time during these days of the Lenten season.

You see, in the same way that you can't get to Easter without going through a graveyard, we cannot get into Lent without going through a wilderness. There is no getting around it, really. The only way through this 40-day trek to the resurrection is by way of the wilderness.

Remember where the Spirit drives Jesus after he emerges dripping wet from the baptismal waters? The wilderness. God's voice is still ringing in his ears. His hair is still not dry. Next thing Jesus knows, he's in the middle of nowhere, alone and tempted like never before.

And Jesus' journey into the wilderness isn't the first desert excursion God ever orchestrated. The story of the Hebrew people hinges on what happens where? The wilderness. Word comes to them from God that there is a place for them, a good place, a place to call their own and to live their lives to the fullest there. But to get there they have to go through the wilderness.

Psalm 25 is one among many from the Bible's prayer book that remembers the long, lonely trek through the wilderness. There may not be a better prayer out there for days like these than this very one. After all, if days like these are an invitation for us to seek God, to learn God's ways and God's paths--as opposed to assuming we know all we need already--then this passage might need to be the first place we turn.

I love the way the Common English Bible renders Psalm 25:1: "I offer my life to you, Lord." The person praying this prayer has elected to give her life to God. This is an individual making an offering; saying, "Here I am, Lord. I am yours. I am nothing other than yours. I am not my job and my job is not me. I am not my money or my reputation, my education or my social status. I am not defined by the good I have done and the accomplishments I have achieved. And neither am I defined by what I have left undone; the places I have fallen face forward into the ground; the wrongs I have inflicted on others and myself. I am none of these things. I am nothing other or else than yours, O God. I offer my life to you, Lord."

Brian Erickson also says reading the psalms is like "spiritual eavesdropping."[2] Listening in on this pray-er's prayers, we get the sense this is someone who is beyond playing games with God. I wonder if during this Lenten season we might covenant to pray like this person does. Is there anyone besides me who needs to keep working at giving every part of my existence over to God?

There are some things I am not yet ready to let loose of. There are some habits that I just am not ready to break yet. There are some parts of my life, in the everyday comings and goings, that I know I ought to do something about; but I keep finding excuses for why now just isn't a good time. Does anyone else ever feel something like that?

On the Church calendar we have different seasons that we designate. In the Baptist congregation I serve as pastor, we give differing levels of attention to the liturgical year in our worship and study together. We mark the four weeks of Advent and twelve days of Christmas, though we do like to blend the two together! We observe Ash Wednesday and then forty days later--not counting Sundays, of course--we have Easter. Fifty days after that--including Sundays this time--we celebrate the day of Pentecost. And then there is a long stretch of time called ordinary time, too.

I wonder if this time, this season of Lent, might just as well be named "wilderness time." In wilderness time we have the chance to turn away from the spaces and places, patterns and habits of where and how life is normally lived. In wilderness time we intentionally offer our lives to God, such as they are, and return to the bedrock belief that we belong to God and that God will never let us go.

Practicing a faith like that--really, actually doing faith like that--that requires harder work than most of us want to slow down and take the time to do. There are so many other things that seem more pressing, so many other things that occupy our interests. And when the preacher preaches about such things, we might be inclined to think, "Well, life's not perfect. Never has been and never will be. But things are okay enough. Sure, there could be room for some things to be better. But why run the risk of changing anything? What if more gets messed up and stuff gets way out of sorts? Then what?

I was taking a seminar up in the mountains of North Carolina several years ago in the late days of winter. I was at Montreat, that idyllic little town nestled in among the hills. 

There's a lake at Montreat--Lake Susan--where I watched two beautiful white swans swimming around on the water. Only at that time of the year, up high in the mountains with the temperatures as low as they were, there was a lot of ice on the lake, especially around the edges. Swimming wasn't so easy for those swans.

I stood watching the swans. These big, beautiful birds were absolutely determined to get to the middle of the water. Out in the middle, at the deepest part, there wasn't any ice. Out in the middle, they could swim and enjoy doing what--as best I can tell--swans are made to do. They could pursue what their real purpose is, which is to swim.

In wilderness time we remember our original purpose. We go off the deep end in pursuit of the God to whom we belong. We remember that the words we speak, the actions we take, the feelings we feel, the thoughts we think: they all belong to God. We remember that our God has an open invitation to step out beyond the comforts of the same old, same old. We wander out into the wilderness, and there--only there--do we find the way to new life.

Let us pray: God of our comings and goings, as we enter this wilderness time and devote these forty days to you, we call on you to prepare the way of your Spirit's work in us and through us, so that we may be ready to confront whatever awaits in our pursuit of you. Amen. 


©Stephen H. Cook.  All rights reserved. 



[1] Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.  Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, vol. 2.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 33.

[2] Ibid.