Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Survival in a Spiritual Wilderness

I was asked to give a talk last weekend on surviving in a spiritual wilderness. While I was able to lean into a couple of biblical stories related to wilderness, much of what I had to say came out of my own experience of God in the wilderness.

It may be appropriate to lean into the post-Exodus wandering of Moses and the children of Israel through the wilderness . . . a wandering that included God's provision of manna and quail, water from a rock, and the Ten Words (Decalogue or Ten Commandments) . . . but a wandering that also included complaining and grumbling (literally, "murmuring") to God about their situation in the desert. This wilderness period of the children of Israel lasted 40 years before they entered the Promised Land.

Also, it may be appropriate to lean into Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness immediately after his baptism, those days of fasting and prayer and going through the refining of wilderness. Note that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (find it in Luke 4:1 - 13), so this was not some evil machination that was contrary to God's design for him. Wilderness is a time to engage God and to find resources for life, and it was in the wilderness that Jesus experienced the depths of his identity in God as the beloved of God, the delight of God's heart.

Spiritual wilderness is a fact of life for those who undertake the spiritual journey. In fact, journey can be a helpful metaphor for the spiritual life, as it suggests movement and change. And that movement will lead us -- most often unwillingly -- into wilderness. There are some things that happen to us in the wilderness that we keep at arms length the rest of the time.

The idea of wilderness may seem foreign to you, but if we used some other words for it, you might more easily find your connection . . . dry, arid, lost, lack of resources, scarcity, sparse . . . you see what I mean. Who among us has not described their spiritual state as "dry" or "arid"? If you have never used those words, at some point you will.

We need, then, to demystify the wilderness and to consider how we might survive -- and thrive -- in it. Last weekend I offered five touchpoints for discovering the wisdom offered in spiritual wilderness.

1. The goal in a spiritual wilderness is not to escape the wilderness, but to be faithful in it.

"Escape" is the first thing that comes to most of us. We experience dryness or the feeling of being disoriented. The spiritual practices that at one time brought good feelings and consolations no longer produce those same feelings. We sense that we are in a desert, and we want to be fruitful again. We want out of the wilderness.

But God did not let Moses and the children of Israel out of the wilderness until they were ready for the Promised Land.

Jesus in the wilderness did not try to escape from his 40-day experience. In fact, that he was led into this experience by the Spirit suggests that there was a larger, divine plan in it.

In the wilderness, the songs that used to move you no longer move you.

You worship and feel nothing.

Sermons are stale and dry.

Your prayer is monotonous.

The things you've done in the past are no longer "working".

Your "felt experience of God" has shriveled up.

The first impulse is to escape, to return things to the way they used to be. Instead, the wilderness invites us to engage God where we are, to stay connected to God in a way that helps us stay open to whatever God is doing within us in the wilderness.

2. Our honest speech about the wilderness is the groundwork of prayer.

The beginning place of prayer is dialogue with God about how life really is with us, not how it should be or how we think it is with someone else. We tell God how we really feel.

"This is where I am, God," and, "This is how I feel about it."

Prayer begins in honesty. "God, I'm dry right now." "God, I don't feel a thing." "God, I don't know where I am right now." "God, I don't want to be here."

Remember, the goal is not to change the situation, but to stay engaged with God in the midst of the situation. To be sure, the way we feel is not necessarily reality, but the beginning of prayer is honesty about what we feel.

3. To survive in the wilderness, you have to be willing to let go of extra baggage you are carrying.

In a literal desert, you can't pack heavy and survive. You cannot carry enough in your backpack to cover every contingency. If you do pack heavy, you'll have to jettison some things to survive.

If that is truth in the literal wilderness, it is also true in the spiritual wilderness. It's why Jesus' time in the wilderness was a time for fasting. Fasting is literally a time for letting go of some things we've carried into the wilderness.

In fact, one of the gifts of spiritual wilderness is that you see there are some things that do you no good there. You learn to hold onto what is necessary, to what is essential, and to let go of the rest.

For example, in a literal wilderness your checkbook does you no good. It doesn't matter how many accolades you've received, or how much education you have . . . how much stock you have or what your retirement account looks like . . . how much you've achieved or what other people think about you. None of that will help you survive the stark conditions of wilderness.

In my own experience of spiritual wilderness, I've found that some of the things I've believed about myself don't really work. Some of the things I've believed about God don't help me survive. Some of my assumptions about life and what it takes to be happy really aren't relevant.

The wilderness is a time to see what is essential and let go of what is not.

4. There is no such thing as "lost" in the wilderness.

You may not know where you are, and you may not be comfortable not knowing where you are, and you may not be able to find yourself on a map, but wherever you are is a place, too. Wilderness does not give in to your "need-to-know."

My poetry from times of personal wilderness reflects this. During one time of wilderness dryness and lostness a few years ago, I wrote these lines:

lost is a place, too
the place from which
you take the next risky steps
into your life

From that same period of my life, I wrote this in another poem:

sometimes you have to get off the map
to find your way
through cloud and darkness

We may not be where we planned to be, or where we would like to be, but what feels like "lost" to us is actually working something much larger and significant in us. It may feel terrible, but we are learning that we are somewhere, and that where we are right now is the only place in which we can encounter God.

5. Most of what you need to survive in the wilderness is already inside you.

This, I believe, is the essence of what happened with Jesus when he went into the wilderness directly from his baptism. In baptism his identity was confirmed by God, the heavens opened and he experienced the coming together of his vocation with everything around him. The world and his calling all merged in his identity. Then he went directly into the wilderness, where the fasting and temptations were the contexts in which he began to live out of and into his own deepest truth and reality. This is who he was in God, who God had created him to be.

Wherever you are, at a soul-level you are already connected deeply to God. No matter what life feels like around you, you are tethered to God. At crucial times in the wilderness, the wisdom is: “You already know what to do.” You simply have to learn to uncover and listen to the wisdom that God’s Spirit speaks within you.

We might call this the work of God's Spirit within us. Quaker spirituality calls it the Inner Voice, Inner Light, Inner Wisdom, or Inner Truth . . . all ways Quakers speak of the Holy Spirit mingling with our souls. In the Quaker's language, then, our challenge in the wilderness is learning to “listen to our life” or to “let our life speak.”

As we learn to listen for this wisdom and to trust it, we will allow God to use the spiritual wilderness to shape us.

The wilderness is essential to experience the fullness of who God created us to be.

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