The Wild Places
The Opportunity in Every Problem
Mar 10, 2019
Unfortunately due to a technology malfunction, we aren’t able to post audio of this week’s sermon. The below are the preacher’s prepared remarks (not an exact transcript).
Well, today churches all around the world celebrate their first Sunday in a 40-day season that we call Lent, which is an old English word for Spring. Right now beneath all the snow outside, under the ground, there is all this activity – roots getting nourished, pushing down deep, that in just a few weeks will lead to buds and flowers and leaves and all the other signs of spring. And Lent, the 40 days before Easter, is one of the opportunities in the rhythm of a church’s year to go deep and prepare for growth as well.
Last week I talked about Lent through the metaphor of pilgrimage – when you take a trip somewhere to learn something about yourself, maybe even to meet with God, or encounter the sacred or divine, however you understand that. But I said the other thing that often happens on pilgrimage is that we learn something not just about where we’re going, but about where we’re coming from too. We notice how our lives aren’t working, we learn how it is we’re perishing.
And so the most traditional of churches began Lent this past Wednesday—some of us did here as well—by having ashes smudged on our forehead, and being reminded that we are dying. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, our bodies are literally perishing.
And yet even with the symbolism of ashes, we’re reminded of the possibilities of our perishing lives still. Ash is really fertile soil—you can look today at the verdant areas all around Mt. St. Helen as a picture of that. And so as go deep for Lent, we’re reminded that even as we notice how we’re perishing, we’re seeking hope, healing, beauty, truth, and love, as we do the inner work with God to grow all that beautiful life.
Into the Wilderness
I want to introduce our theme for the next 6 weeks of Lent, which we’ve called The Wild Places.
Our work with The Wild Places makes me thing of my old friends Rich and Carolyn Farrell, who used to be leaders in this community before they moved to California. They were hospitable and generous, and Carolyn was a great Board member with us for years. But it’s Rich in particular I think of. Rich is so sunny, so upbeat, that he can quote cheesy corporate slogans unironically, which I appreciate about him.
One of those slogans I heard Rich say is that There are no problems, there are only opportunities. He had picked this up from, I don’t know, Walmart or something. It’s another take on the old quotation that has been attributed both to Ben Franklin and John Adams, that “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”
Which on the one hand is just not true, right? Some crises, some problems, are just bad news. Like say Mt. St. Helens’ volcanic eruption when I was a kid – if you were a deer grazing on the slopes of that volcano, that eruption was not an opportunity in disguise. It was your end.
And yet, go big picture enough, and even that massive geological disturbance may be part of a long cycle of life and health – all that verdancy growing out of the ashes.
What I do know is that people that live this way – that live like every problem is an opportunity – they do much better than those of us who don’t. They are happier, more optimistic, more resilient. I mean my friend Rich – in the years he lived in Boston, his life, specifically his business was a wild ride of high highs and low lows. He was a tech entrepreneur both in the giddy dot com boom days of the late 90s and in some of the bubble busting times that followed. And he’s human, so his own personal life has had its ups and downs too.
But this is a man whose optimism and joy and cheerful resilience are a light to us all. Always looking for the opportunity, even in every problem.
So this Lent, we’re inviting our whole community to lean in to a process that isn’t necessarily designed to make us all sunny optimists, but that we do hope will grow resilience and hope in each of us. We’re going to look at some of the wild places of life – out of control times, overwhelming times, anxiety, doubt, even times of suffering or bewilderment or crisis. And I think we will see that these can be amazing places for learning, discovery, encounter, and transformation. We’ll even see that these wild places are often times that God works through to launch us into impossibly hopeful next chapters in our lives.
We’ll be grounded in stories from the wilderness and exile narratives of scripture, along with elements of those in the life of Jesus. Times and places in the Bible’s narrative, where anxiety and doubt, conflict and chaos, became the fertile ground for discovery, encounter, and hope.
Let’s get started with a story from the wilderness wanderings of ancient Israel. It goes like this:
Exodus 17:1-7 (CEB)
17 The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
3 But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. 6 I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
What a wild scene, huh?
Stress, anger, tempers, secret springs of water pouring out of a rock. Even the setting is wild. We’re just days removed from the great triumph at the start of the story of Israel. Enslaved to the powerful Egyptians for generations, God has made a way for them, and they are now free! That’s why this whole book is called Exodus – named for the people’s exit – their freedom, their deliverance from a soul-crushing, back-breaking life of slavery.
But the problem is that to leave slavery, they have to travel through the wilderness. This desert wilderness is called Sin, not after bad behavior, but named after the Semitic Moon god called Sin. So they’re free, but they’re out in the wilderness, they’re hangry – and what’s the word for thirsty and angry – thangry? Anyway, they’re in trouble. You need water in the wilderness, especially when there are a lot of you.
And perhaps at night, they look up at the big moon overhead, in this place where there isn’t much else, so it’s named after the supposedly wise and powerful god of the moon, and they wonder about their God, the God of Israel, that they thought was going to care for them when they were free. And they’re like, Moses, our leader – where have you taken us? Help us find water!
Wilderness in the Biblical imagination is always like this. We might think of wilderness as where we go to unwind, or take a hike, or relax. But ancient peoples didn’t have North Face jackets and Cliff Bars and water bottles, and they hadn’t killed off most of the animals of prey either. And so for ancient peoples, ancient Israel included, wilderness was terrifying. Wilderness – deserts, forests, the whole of the seas was where you were small and alone and out of control. Wilderness was chaos and threat. Wilderness was where you got hungry and thirsty and then you died.
Sometimes I still feel a bit of this when I go to the Wilderness. My most common taste of Wilderness over the last several years has been in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, because I’ve hiked a lot with my kids there. In fact, my daughter and I have hiked just about every single high peak in the Whites.
And the White Mountains aren’t that far away from the city, and the mountain heights don’t sound very impressive, but there are signs here and there on the trails when you reach treeline that say stuff like: Careful, you might die here. Because every year, in every season, people die in the Whites. They’re remote, the weather is crazy and unpredictable, and they can be dangerous.
So when I’m in the White Mountains, particularly when I’m there with my kids, whose lives and safety I’m responsible for, two things happen for me pretty much every time. One, I breathe a little easier. I unwind. I feel both properly small again and somehow at home in myself and on the earth in a different way. It’s good to be there.
But at the same time, I now and then get just a little terrified. I worry, did I pack enough food? Did I bring enough water? I roll my ankle a little on a rock and think: what happens if I sprain my ankle or break a bone? I’m miles from a road, and many miles more from a hospital.
I remember this one hike years ago I took all my kids on, up Mt. Cannon. And we took the long and scenic way down, and there was a moment when we had to descend over these steep ravines by crawling backwards on wooden ladders, and I send the big kid – my 8-year old daughter on by herself, and I try to position myself between my 4 and 5-year old sons, climbing backwards on a wooden ladder, over a wilderness ravine, clutching them, just praying nobody falls off this thing.
We made it down—here I am—but the wilderness can still be terrifying.
That’s what strikes me about this story we read. All the anxiety in it. The people are so afraid of their isolation and their thirst. And they’re afraid too that they’ve made a wrong move – that they’re gonna regret the choices they made in life and not be able to walk them back. Can we not relate to that?
And then Moses, man he is reactive in his anxiety!
The people are reasonably like: Moses, what’s up with this place you brought us? There’s no water! And Moses is like: Shut up already, and stop testing God!
Moses is really escalating things, isn’t he? And when the people give voice to their regret, Moses freaks out in his prayers, paranoid that they’re going to stone him. Which maybe was true, but seems more likely to me that he’s overreacting in his stress, without being emotionally healthy enough to even notice.
All the anxiety of this scene, that Moses actually names the place it happened Testing and Argument. Massah and Meribah – testing and argument. This is our memory of our wild places – places of anxiety, of testing, of tension, turmoil, and argument.
You know what’s cool to me, though? There is one character in this story who is not stressed out. And that character is God.
God isn’t worried about the water. God has no regret about choices that have been made. And when Moses brings his anxiety to God, God says: it’s OK. I’ll take care of you.
Go ahead, you’re a shepherd, you’re a leader. So be a leader, be a shepherd. Take a few folks, take that shepherd staff of yours, remember the times past when I was with you in your leadership. And go to that big rock you see in the distance, and I’ll be there on the rock. I’m with you.
And you hit that rock, and a spring of water you knew nothing about will flow right out of it.
If God had had the opportunity to name this place, God wouldn’t have named it Testing and Argument; that’s incidental. God might have named it The Time of My Help. Or Chill Out, People. Or maybe God would just name this patch of wilderness Water, or something more poetic, like Reservoir.
I wonder if God isn’t always less stressed out than us. I wonder if to be God is not to see the reservoir of water in every dry place, if to be God is not to see the opportunity in every problem.
Best as I can tell, the God who loves me is empathetic, not glib, with my sufferings and anxieties. But God is also never trapped in a anxious, victimized mindset. God always sees possibility.
This is the opportunity in the wilderness, to encounter God and find that God always has more than enough. It’s to know that there can be water where we need it most.
The opportunity of all our problems – our doubts, our sufferings, our anxieties – may just be that there’s always something to learn and discover there. Because God is there, saying I’m standing on that rock, and I’ve got water for you.
God Names an Opportunity
One of my vivid wild places was a season in my 20s when I was most lost vocationally and economically. As an idealistic, young adult, I had put all of my eggs into one basket. I had invested myself in a career that I thought would be meaningful and high impact, but that turned out to be a dead end.
I wasn’t very good at it. It paid me poverty-level wages. I had made all kinds of sacrifices to do this work, but it gave me more anxiety than pleasure, and I needed to find something else to do. But while I had learned a number of skills, I had years of awkward, dead space on my resume now and needed to figure out how to reboot.
And what happened was that I was so anxious that I grasped at whatever was in front of me. I had an awkward interview at a business magazine trying to pretend I had marketing experience. That didn’t go well. Before dropping out, I had spent a year full-time in a graduate program without vision or joy. My version of Israel’s “Give us water to drink” was, “Give me a job.” And God, did I make those sacrifices only to die of failure?
Long story short, I found my way eventually, but the process was kind of miserable.
Now, I had another friend named Andrew in similar circumstances. He had actually been a colleague in another division of the same company I worked for. And the two of us and our wives worked together on a big project right as we were both wrapping up our time with this organization.
Like me, Andrew had made a lot of sacrifice for this work, maybe more than me. Andrew was a graduate of Yale University, after all, an Ivy League education, but like me, he’d spent his early 20s in a non-resume building, poverty wages job, and didn’t know what to do next.
Unlike me, though, Andrew somehow was able to take a breath and embrace this season of change and transition. He probably felt as much anxiety as I did, but he was able to embrace the opportunity of his wild place. In a season of no employment, no job prospects, and no clear way forward, he said: I’m going to take a full year for self-examination. And with his wife’s support, he found a part-time, low wage job that could just cover his share of the household expenses, which they worked hard to keep very low that year. And with the rest of his work time, he enrolled in a year-long personal and career exploration program run by our very own Scott and Louise Walker, through their organization Life/Work Direction.
And during that year, Andrew discovered his passion for peacemaking. Which led him to prepare for and then to attend law school and to launch a career in peacemaking and conflict resolution, one in which he’s been really successful.
I love that Andrew has been able to find paid work that is so aligned with his skills and passions. It’s a really happy ending story to his season of wilderness. To be clear, though, our next chapters after our wild places aren’t always so shiny.
Some of us never find employment that we love. Some of us hit problems in our wild places that persist for years or decades or even a lifetime. But for all of us, I wonder:
Maybe the places we name problem, God also names opportunity. Maybe the places we name testing and argument, God wants to name: slow down, take a breath, I can help you here. Maybe the places we name out of control, abandoned, chaos, God can rename for us Water.
In Andrew’s and my stories, and in the scriptures we’re looking at, I wonder if two things make the difference:
In wild places, we’re going to be anxious. That’s a given. There’s no way around it. But noticing that we’re anxious, owning that story, and remembering that God is not anxious might make all the difference. Like a child in the womb, or even a nursing child is attuned to its mother’s breath and heartbeat and hormones, we can believe, even try to listen, to God’s calm confidence and peace regarding our lives, and see if that can’t help us take a breath, and ask: God, what can I learn here? What is there to discover? How are you with me?
And secondly, I think we have a choice to hope that God isn’t only calm, non-anxious, but that God is good as well. God wants to give us the water we need. God wants to take care of us.
Attuning ourselves to God’s peace, and cultivating hope that God is good.
The biggest tool of our Lenten season is a daily reflection and conversation tool I’ve written that starts tomorrow. It’s available in paper and podcast form, and on our website and social media channels. And the opening passage is an old poem, Psalm 107, that begins like this:
Psalm 107:1-3 (CEB)
“Give thanks to the Lord because he is good,
because his faithful love lasts forever!”
2 That’s what those who are redeemed by the Lord say,
the ones God redeemed from the power of their enemies,
3 the ones God gathered from various countries,
from east and west, north and south.
This poem is an old tool for attunement to God’s peace, and the cultivation of hope that God is good.
It starts by saying we can thank God today, because God is trustworthy and dependable and kind every day and in every circumstance, and that faithful love of God never changes or runs out. And then, you’ll read tomorrow, the Psalm walks through all kinds of wild places.
There are people who get lost in hard times or hard places. They’re called the people who wander into a desert. There are people who end up in prison – literal jails, or metaphorical too – like depression or other places that feel stuck or trapped. There are people who make really big mistakes they regret, and there are people who end up in these overwhelming circumstances, out at sea, in over their head. All the out of control, challenging spaces – all the wild places.
Every time, in the psalm, they cry out to God, and every time they encounter God there. Here’s how. They trust or feel God is with them, loving them, helping them – redeeming is the key word they experience. Bringing good out of what they called bad. Bringing connection and opportunity out of the problem. Showing God isn’t just non-anxious, not stressed out, but in every bit of crap life throws at us, and in every impossibly weird or hard situation we end up in, we are still loved there, and there is still in fact so much possibility there.
Attuning to God’s peace, cultivating hope that God is good, and hanging in long enough for God to show us just how.
My hope is that we’ll all take that journey and all find that to be true this Lent. That we’ll name some of the wild places we’re experiencing in this season of our lives. And that we’ll take the time to break the rhythm of some of the normal ways we handle our stress and chaos and take time to attune ourselves to God’s peace, to cultivate hope that God is good, and see how God can show up more how that is true.
Each day, our Bible guide ends with a different spiritual exercise, a different thing to practice, and they’re more of less the same each week, to give you time to sit with it. Here’s this week’s first practice. It’s an:
Honest Prayer and Request for Encounter, Discovery, and Rescue
It reads – This week, you are invited to name a place in your life where you are out of your element, beyond your resources, or out of control. Tell God about this. How is it you want to experience God’s faithful love with you? What do you hope to learn in this season? How is it that you would like God to rescue you?
I hope that reflection is full of hopeful discovery for you. Along those lines, here’s this week’s:
Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Look for the opportunity in your biggest problem. If you can’t see it, ask God for help.
In your working life, in your financial life, in your relational life, what’s your biggest problem? Try looking for opportunity there. And if that seems bizarre or impossible, fair enough, but maybe ask God for help to see it. And then:
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Let’s start Lent together.
Let’s break rhythm and let go – through fasting and generosity.
Let’s push into the wild places together: Spend 15+ minutes each day with the Bible guide and once a week connecting with others about it.