Welcome to the Wilderness
Mark 1: 9-15
It’s been a while now that I’ve made time to do it, but I love to camp and go backpacking. When I finished seminary, I celebrated by going backpacking in the Smoky Mountains for 5 days. There were three of us, a friend graduating with me and another friend who had finished his Master of Divinity degree a few years earlier. We called it the “MDiv Backpacking Trip”.
From the time I first heard of organizations like NOLS – the National Outdoor Leadership School – and “leave no trace” wilderness ethics, I was mesmerized. You can sign up to go into the backcountry in the Rockies or Alaska for several weeks, learning how to scavenge for food and eventually spending 24 hours solo as part of the trip. The whole time your goal is to leave no trace in the places you visit, with some campers going so far as to fluff the grass and re-scatter the leaves when they take up their tents.
When I found out about backcountry “chalets” in national parks out west – places you have to backpack to and where they haul in food and supplies on pack animals, rustic hotels with chefs – I wanted to pack up and go. When we get a good rainstorm here I often long to be snuggled in my sleeping bag, hearing those drops lull me to sleep as they hit the tent roof. And, though I’ve never tried it and think I probably won’t, when I read or see something about building snow caves for extreme winter camping, I am definitely curious.
My favorite part about backpacking is waking up on the 2nd day of a 3-day trip. I’ve hiked all day the day before and spent the night in the woods. I’ve slept the night in my tent and the exhilarating ritual of camp coffee awaits me. I’ll be hiking all day to the next camp site with everything I have on my back. The parking lot, electrical appliances, roads, houses, and the rest of civilization are at least a day’s hike back out. The perfect day – waking up, hiking, and falling asleep again – all out in the woods. Aaaah…
My ideas about wilderness have definitely been formed by my experiences backpacking and camping. When I picture wilderness I think of wooded, mountainous areas. I think of parts of the Shenandoah, the Smokies, the Rockies. I envision a rugged place, but with streams, wild berries, and shade.
At least, this is how I pictured it until I traveled to Israel, Palestine, and Egypt for the first time. Even though I had spent the better part of a week backpacking in the desert of the Grand Canyon a decade earlier, it had not really clicked for me that the “wilderness area” version I had in mind, was not what wilderness is like in that part of the world.
The wilderness there is more desert than backcountry. It is hot, rocky, sandy, and as a human being making your way through it you are so utterly exposed. As we hiked through the Wadi Qelt between Jerusalem and Jericho, I was wearing my Gore-Tex, arch-supported, super-tread hiking boots and I was thinking of Jesus walking that way with just a slip of leather between his foot and the rough terrain. I bought a big, floppy, skin-protecting, water-wicking, waterproof hat and I was really glad I had it that day as the sun beat down. Every once in a while we would see a cave, most of these having been used as hermitages for monks from nearby monasteries. Those caves were the only protection from the elements. This wilderness was completely foreign to me.
Perhaps it seems like it should be an easy substitution to make: Ok, no trees, more shrubs, lots of sand, hotter. But it took me a bit longer than that. There was a more radical shift to make. It’s not that I was exactly picturing Jesus like Grizzly Adams, foraging for berries and catching fish out of clear Rocky Mountain streams. The main thing I had not accounted for, the main thing I was struck by as we hiked through the Biblical wilderness areas between Jericho and Jerusalem and again on Mount Sinai, was that there was no place to hide.
Very occasionally a cave came into view, but other than that it was a vast expanse without shade. We were so utterly exposed. We were vulnerable. There was no place to hide.
Part of what I love about that 2nd day on a backpacking trip is the feeling I have of self-sufficiency. Everything I need is on my back and if I forgot something I’ll have to improvise. It’s empowering, an adventure.
But this Lenten journey through the wilderness is different. We are out here without gear, no tents, no comforting backcountry woods, no shade, very few streams. Only each other and this vast expanse of unforgiving territory. No special shoes or hats. No sunscreen. And the caves are all spoken-for.
On top of it all, many of us have even given up some of our most tried-and-true coping mechanisms: chocolate, TV, and other soothers. We are utterly exposed.
Do you know that saying, “Wherever you go, there you are”? The idea is that you yourself are the one thing you can not outrun. Wherever you go, whoever you are with, whatever you do, you are still there – along with all the things about yourself you want to get over, get past, or leave behind. Hiding in a relationship, a job, a vacation, an addiction, a monastery – none of these is cover enough. The wilderness only makes this more obvious, but it is true wherever you go. The only way beyond is through.
Temptations will arise. They may look innocuous and nourishing like a loaf of bread. Or they may be dramatic, giving off the glitz and the odor of power and prestige. But they will have one thing in common, the biggest temptation of all: the temptation to forget who we are, to forget whose we are.
Wherever you go, there you are. Claimed and called by God. Right there in the midst of your messy life. Right there in your chocolate- and caffeine-deprived Lenten struggle. Right there when you want to hide from yourself and from God. Right there when you wish to God this was a backcountry wilderness and not a desert. Right there in all your faulty, painful, sinful, glorious, child-of-God exposure. Wherever you go, there you are…and God is there, too, calling you out, calling you on.
Welcome to Lent. Welcome to the harsh terrain and the struggle to go deeper with yourself and with God in this season. Welcome to the wilderness. There is no place to hide.
Thanks be to God!
© 2007, 2012 Deborah E. Lewis