For years, I have kept a journal. I think I started my first one when I was nine or ten and I have kept them going right along. One drawer in my desk is filled with a variety of different volumes representing various times in my life. The earliest ones are written in my childish, yet honest cursive. The most recent incarnation is as a computer file, created by my word processor, which I print out from time to time. These journals are not diaries in the sense that they do not record daily events. They are not really a running history of my life. Rather, they are a series of individual reflections that deal with some of the highs and the lows of my life, the successes and the failures of my life. They were written for no other purpose than to give me a place where I could feel safe to vent heart and soul. They are conversations with myself and ultimately conversations with God. They are not intended for anyone else to ever read and they are perhaps the one personal item that I cherish the most.
It has been said that with age comes wisdom. Well, I don’t necessarily think so. I don’t think that simply living through the passage of time makes you wise anymore than watching the waves at the beach makes you a fish. No, much depends on what you do with that living – how you process it, how you assimilate life’s experiences. Wisdom comes not from just living through the events of our lives, but living into them. Our experiences need to be more than pieces of our history; their lessons need to become part of our selves. To this end, my journals have given me the greatest of gifts. As records of my struggles, as records of my highs and lows, they provide me with a wonderful platform from which to learn the lessons of my life. Moreover, the lesson that echoes over and over again, page after page, the wisdom that makes itself evident every time I reflect back, is the truth that God has always been with me. I may not have known it at the time. I may have felt quite alone and abandoned. Nevertheless, in retrospect, with the clarity of distance, I can read those pages and see that God’s grace was unfolding all around me. Whether I was living through my father’s illness and death, or basking in the wonder of my love for Melissa as a newlywed – whenever I look back, whenever I read those pages from long ago, I see God everywhere.
In our gospel for today, Jesus goes off into the desert to get things straight with himself. He goes off for forty days to discover what it means to be the “Beloved Son of God.” In the wilderness, he wrestles with evil. He wrestles with the worst parts of humanity; he wrestles with temptations that could possibly destroy him and his ministry. During those forty days, Jesus proves who he is, not by seizing power but by turning it down.
He faces three temptations and concurs them all. He does not practice magic. He does not ask for special protection or seek political power. Instead, he remains faithful, humble and human.* However, he is not alone in the desert. Luke says that it is the Holy Spirit that takes him by the hand and leads him there. Literally, God pulls him into the wilderness and at the end of forty days; Jesus is well prepared to begin his new ministry.
For most of us, being in the wilderness is not something we relish. Being alone, struggling, hurting, being in a time of crisis, being in doubt about life or how we are to live it – all of these wilderness experiences are not something we go looking for. We would much prefer to live life between the glories of the mountain top experience and the easy living of the fertile valley. Yet, all of us have times when life drives us away from our place of comfort and leads us into strange and harsh lands. Scripture is full of stories of God’s people coming down off the mountain and venturing into the desert, stories of God’s faithful leaving places of comfort to struggle in the wilderness. In each of these stories, the struggle is real and the desert is difficult and frightening. But in every case, as the faithful struggle in the wilderness they not only learn much about themselves, but they also find God in the process. Moses ventured out into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian and discovered God and his calling in a burning bush. Jacob, while trying to flee from Esau, wrestled with an angel of God in the desert and discovered his identity. Elijah, the great prophet, literally ran from the God who demanded too much of him, to hide in the desert, only to have God find him and comfort him in the still small voice of silence.
The lesson in all of these stories, the lesson in our gospel for today and the lesson I have learned from my meager journals is that God’s grace unfolds in every part and in every moment of our lives. We see it when we read about Moses, Jacob and Elijah. We see it when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. I see it when I look back at all the great joys and all the great struggles of my life.
There is a wonderful old story about two monks who were traveling together on a long journey. As they walked along, they came to a wide and raging river. One of the monks turned to his companion and said, “Watch this and I will show you true holiness.” With that, he slowly stepped out onto the surface of the water and walked above the waves, easily traversing the river. In no time he arrived on the other side safe and dry, only to call out to his companion, “Now that is true holiness.” The other monk immediately dove into raging river, kicking and swimming. He was dragged under by the strong current, bashed against the rocks and swept downstream. After a long time he emerged on the other side, battered, bruised and exhausted. He was soaked from head to toe and covered in mud. Standing before his friend, he looked him straight into the eye and said – “You are wrong, that is true holiness.”
Our Lord’s time in the desert, the forty days and nights he spent working out the implications of his baptism, show us that becoming holy is not about attaining moral purity or walking above the struggles of life. Rather, Jesus’ time in the wilderness shows us that growing in grace is all about dealing honestly and completely with the challenges of life. Becoming holy involves living into the battles and bruises, the pain and the dirt of living. Becoming holy means discovering God in the triumphs and in the tragedies of our lives. Becoming holy means discerning who God intends us to be by learning the lessons of our lives, in the assurance that God’s grace is present at all times and in all places.
Many years ago, Henry Francis Lyte penned these beautiful words: Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide: when other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Always remember that we are never really alone, even during the loneliest moments, even when we feel trapped in the wilderness of our lives. Our Lord is ever there, waiting, watching, and working to redeem that which we think is irredeemable. His presence may only be detected in hindsight, but he is there nonetheless. During this season of Lent, when we are asked to reflect on the state of our souls, may we all be given the grace to see God at work in our lives bringing about in us that which is well and pleasing in his sight. But, more importantly, may God always give us the grace to survive the wilderness and the insight to see its blessings. Amen.
*Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, 1997, p.39.