Sometimes I like to whistle in the dark. When I was a child, I did this to muster up a little courage in the wilderness of life. I remember getting separated from friends on a hike during a campout. As I made my way back to the tents in the half-light of dusk, I whistled thinking I’d scare away the danger that I knew waited in the darkness behind every tree.
What is it about the wilderness that frightens us? I think part of it, at least for me, is that we associate it with real danger and loss. When I hear about someone’s “wilderness” years or time in the “wilderness” it conjures up instant images of hardship and being in a place where, if given the choice, one would never go. It’s rarely something we choose. It can come through illness, economic hardships, alcohol or drugs and countless other ways.
Many times the wilderness envelops our lives just when we think we have it all together. Look at Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. John the Baptist had just baptized him in the Jordan River with the voice of God’s booming approval. Then he was thrown into the wilderness where he faced down temptation and the evil forces in this world. (Mark 1:9-13).
The wilderness experience gave Jesus strength and a fearlessness that was critical to who he was and what he would face on Calvary. After his experience, Jesus began to seek out wilderness in the world. When he found it, he named it, claimed it and conquered it.
The wilderness helps make us who we are. It’s there that we are forced to make a choice to rely on God as we see that the worldly things in life in which we place our trust have no power to save us. Many times it is there that we discover why God has called us to this time and place.
Lent, the 40 weekdays leading up to Easter, began Wednesday. Lent beckons us to imitate Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness. It is a time of self-examination and turning back to God.
We know that the wilderness isn’t tame, and we will come face to face with temptation. There we may meet the evil that attempts to control this world and our own lives. In order to pass such darkness we will have to wrestle with the world, with ourselves and with God.
This is not for the faint hearted. After all, it’s scary to look into the eyes of our own desires and actions and say, “No more!” It’s frightening to walk in a new direction, because the old is familiar and the familiar can seem easy, even when it slowly erodes our joy and sucks up the very breath of life.
There’s always the danger that we will get stuck in the wilderness, not because we have to, but because we choose it. We become comfortable with those things that separate us from God, even when we know new life awaits on the other side. We become accustomed to making excuses why we can’t do this or that. We are too busy with the world to stop to say, “Enough!” We are too worn down to pray that God will help us. We tell ourselves it’s okay because God understands and still loves us. God does love us right where we are, but that doesn’t mean he wants us to remain in darkness.
We enter the wilderness and find ourselves whistling in the dark to garner hope and courage. But remember that we aren’t merely whistling to fake courage and we don’t do it by ourselves. When Jesus was in the wilderness, in addition to the devil and wild beasts, “the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13). God was with him in the midst of it and is with us.
Our Lenten wilderness journey and all such experiences end at the foot of the cross where
we find ourselves loved best of all. How do we know? God shows us.