Saturday, March 12, 2016


I have to economize somehow this morning, because I'm about to lead a day of reflection for the Oblates of our community. So I'd like to share a chapter of what I hope is an upcoming book of reflections for the Easter season. You may recognize the material from a previous post (I told you I was economizing!).If you're looking for something more Lenten, then check the labels in the lefthand column under Lent.


A bright flash of color catches my eye: on a nearby tree a yellow sign in big black letters warns, "You Are In Bear Country!" I peek warily over each shoulder but don't see anything resembling a bear. I'm sitting at a picnic table in a campsite in the forest, enjoying a short rest on the hike that's part of my private overnight retreat at our monastery's house in the forested mountains of Northern New Jersey. 
I’m not really concerned about bears, since the only people who have had serious run-ins with bears around here have ignored one or another of the rules on that sign. I stand up, shoulder my knapsack, and continue down the hiking trail, watching for trail markers -- small metal discs nailed to the trees. I start repeating to myself in a deep voice,  "You Are in Bear Country!" I like the stern, ominous sound, "You Are in Bear Country!"

People like to joke about their home state or region as being “God’s Country.” It's kind of nice that so many people think of themselves as living in “God’s country.” But, what if you actually took seriously the idea of being in “God’s country?” Imagine a big yellow sign with black letters declaring, “You Are in God’s Country!” What could that possibly mean? I try saying it out loud as I hike, in my best commanding classroom voice:  “Yo! You Are in God’s Country!”
The steep hill that I’m climbing makes me stop practicing my classroom voice and start concentrating on deep breathing.

The concept of “God’s country” was familiar to the Israelites of the Old Testament -- they called it “the wilderness.” For forty years they trekked around in that trackless terrain that was untamed, unmapped, with no roads or any other traces of  human presence. They didn’t need any signs on trees to tell them that the territory they were in was not theirs but “God’s country.”

What must it have been like for the Israelites as they charged into the wilderness after their escape from Pharaoh? They found themselves with no plan, no sense of what was coming next. Just a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

As I follow the markers across a field of sharp rocks, I remember a time when I was in “God’s Country” myself. When our monastery’s school went down the tubes in 1972, we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. It was like driving a car full sped into a dense fog bank while knowing that somewhere up ahead was a cliff that plunged into the sea. I wince at the memory. That had been a wilderness experience, a pretty rough journey through”God’s country.”  

Any of us Christians can find ourselves in the same situation as those Israelites were during the exodus: we feel like we’re in the wilderness, with no roads, no trail markers, no idea where God may be leading us, and not a clue what he has in store for us.

Suddenly I blurt out in a loud voice “And I hate that! I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen next!” Luckily I’m all alone on the side of a mountain in the middle of the forest. Near the top of the mountain the trail starts to flatten out, so I pick up my pace. The thought crosses my mind, “What would I do if I met a bear right now?” But I just ignore the idea and keep hiking.

Not knowing what was coming next was an important part of the wilderness experience for the Israelites. In later ages, in fact, the wilderness would become for them a symbol for the unknown future.

If I need to be in control of everything all the time, then the future is always going to be a threat. But if I have faith in the mystery of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and can trust God’s providence, then the future can become something entirely different for me: the future is transformed from a threat into a promise.

Christ has already won the victory, after all. By sharing in his cross and resurrection, I have already conquered, too. I may still have to walk in the wilderness at times, maybe even for long periods, but at least I’m sure that I’m walking in God’s country, a land where my loving Lord is in complete control, and where my brother Jesus is walking right beside me at every step.

Suddenly I step into a wide clearing, with a high cliff to my left. Smiling with delight at the breathtaking view, I stop to enjoy the gorgeous panorama of mountains and valleys.  “God’s country,” I say to myself. From this height I can easily see for dozens and dozens of miles, as the mountains of New Jersey and Pennsylvania roll off toward the distant horizon. Far off to the west I see a few clouds that may eventually bring a rain shower this way.

A bright flash of color catches my eye: on a nearby tree a yellow sign in big black letters warns,  "You Are in Bear Country." I turn and look down the trail as it heads back into the woods, but I can only see a few yards down the mountainside.

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