Thursday, March 17, 2011


Just in the past week, since the start of Lent, I’ve been asked to pray for at least three people in their thirties or forties who are dying of cancer, for two young men trying to escape the clutches of drug addiction, and for several other people who are in the depths of pain whether physical or emotional. Then, of course, I keep seeing horrific images of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the nuclear reactors that are threatening to make the tragedy even worse. Some week!

What are we Christians supposed to do in the face of all this depressing suffering? Because this was the first week of lent, my mind naturally went right away to a powerful lenten metaphor that I referred to in lent of 2009. I've found it so useful that I’d like to share it with you again. It has to do with the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness.

Wilderness as a Metaphor

We all know the story of how, after the tenth plague in Egypt, Pharaoh at last consented to let the Israelites go into the wilderness to "offer a pilgrim-feast to the Lord." At that point Moses led them on a daring dash for freedom, through the Red Sea and out into the wilderness in what appeared to be a charge into the open jaws of death. In this wilderness there was little water and no food, only hostile tribes and poisonous snakes.

"Wilderness" translates the Hebrew word, midbar, which is sometimes incorrectly translated as "desert." My Hebrew dictionary says that midbar means "tracts of land used for pasturing flocks and herds; uninhabited land." The word conveys the sense of a land that is still wide open space, un-surveyed, unmapped, undomesticated by humans. The wilderness is land that is still relatively free of human control. In Exodus theology the wilderness represented divine presence, lack of human control -- and freedom.

In sharp contrast to the wilderness stood Egypt, which was very much under human control. In fact, the Egypt of the Pharaohs was famous for its order and neatness. So Egypt represented human rationality, human order -- and slavery. Thus in Israel's tradition the wilderness came to symbolize the unpredictable and unfathomable side of life, the mystery of God. This contrast between Egypt and the wilderness is crucial to a Christian view of troubled times.

The Wilderness as "God's Country"

We can use the word "wilderness" to refer to any and all of those difficult times we ourselves experience, as well as the times when we are experiencing the pain of others second-hand as I have been this past week. To live in the wilderness means living in mystery, where things are beyond my understanding and my control; it is to live in "God's Country."

There is another important dimension to the wilderness symbolism. In Hebrew thought, history is experienced as linear, not cyclical: it starts with creation and moves relentlessly toward its fulfillment. We individuals are born into that flow and are called to shape it by our decisions. We are moving onward with the flow of time toward the future. God gives us the future and we accept it from his hand. When Israel was called out of Egypt, she was also called out of the past and asked to move joyfully and trustingly into God's future. The wilderness, then, was not only a symbol of divine mystery but also a symbol of the future. Each of us is called, like the Israelites, into an unknown future; but if we don't know God's goodness or trust in God's love, we experience the future as a threat. On the other hand, if we trust in God's goodness and love, then the future is transformed from a threat into a promise. The wilderness as the unknown future is in a special sense God's preserve, it is par excellence "God's Country."

Take off your shoes!

So, if I had to say a word of comfort to any of the people I’ve been praying for, I’d probably say something like this:
"I see that right now events in your life are completely beyond your control, and the future is unknown and terrifying; you are in the land of darkest mystery. Well, take off your shoes, because you are on holy ground. Welcome to the wilderness -- welcome to God's country! This is where the Lord is expecting to meet you and love you and deliver you."

Let’s all pray for the people of Japan , and for victims of every mysterious kind of tragedy around the world who are right now wandering in a land of fearful mystery. May they experience the reassurance that comes from realizing that the trackless wasteland in which they find themselves is indeed God’s mysterious country, and that God fully intends to meet them there – and probably already has.

Here is an excerpt from "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink

Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand

If there were only water amongst the rock

Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl

From doors of mudcracked houses

If there were water

And no rock

If there were rock

And also water

And water

A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only

Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock

Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees

Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop

But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman
- But who is that on the other side of you?

-- from T.S. Eliot “The Wasteland”
...............................Louisa McElwain "Desert Rain God"

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