Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness – Matthew 4:1 (NRSV)
by Ed Horstmann
My childhood home was the last house on a dead end road in a small town in upstate New York. Beyond our house the world, as seen through my young eyes, was a wilderness: dense forest occasionally opening up into meadows, followed by more forest. It was an exhilarating and sometimes frightening place for a young boy.
The wilderness can be desert, vast woodland, a mountain range, or even an experience of life that feels uncharted and unexplored. It may well be a harsh and threatening landscape, and yet can also be a place where we learn new skills, discover inner strength, and come to know the support of unseen hands. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were born in the wilderness spaces of the Middle East. It was into the wilderness that Jesus went before he taught and healed and loved the world with his fierce and tender truth. It was a place of testing and discernment: an experience of settling into his love for God and the world.
Throughout life we may experience the wilderness in many forms, sometimes as a beautiful though forbidding landscape, and sometimes as a journey of profound transition. The good news of the gospel is that throughout all of these experiences, God is with us and for us. In marvelous and unforeseen ways, we are strengthened to walk in faith, with love, and energized by hope.
God of steadfast love, we give you thanks that you are known to us in the wilderness journeys of our lives, and pray that you will guide and strengthen us as we navigate the uncharted regions of faith, hope and love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
– Thomas Mann
by Ed Horstmann
This comment by the German writer Thomas Mann is a helpful reminder that there will not likely come a day for me when writing will suddenly seem easy. The craft of putting words together in ways that are both meaningful and pleasing takes time and effort. Writing is what writers do, and it cannot happen if the writer does not show up, and it has to happen even when we want to bolt and have done with the whole thing once and for all.
So much of life has to do with showing up and doing difficult things even, and especially when, we do not feel like doing them at all. The ministry of Jesus started with the act making himself available to the mystery of God and the beauty and terror of the world. So that even before the waters of baptism had dried on his forehead, he was cast into the wilderness for a time of testing and preparation.
“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And from the heavens came a voice saying, “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.” (Mark 1: King James Version)
So, at the outset of Jesus’ ministry there were beautiful moments of affirmation and terrifying days out in the wild. This is what faith looks and feels like. And none of it happens if we are not willing to show up. Just as Jesus would never once have reached out to others with his healing touch if he weren’t willing to show up where people were hurting and harmed.
Brené Brown, whose book The Power of Vulnerability has become a recent bestseller, has said that, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
This is what Jesus did at the outset of his adult life: he showed up and let himself be seen. Not everybody who made his acquaintance agreed with him or supported him. But by showing up, at his baptism and day after day until his death and through his resurrection, he brought the power of love into the world in a thousand different ways. We can show up like that, too. Doing so will bring satisfaction to us and hope and healing to the world where we live, move, and have our being.
Sometimes we lose our place in a conversation and have to admit that we have “lost the thread.” Sometimes we have a moment of awareness when we wonder if we have lost the thread of purpose that can give meaning to life.These can be unsettling experiences. Yet they can also be used to bring a fresh orientation to what we do and who we are seeking to become.
In his poem, “The Way It Is,” William Stafford uses the image of a thread to describe the sense of purposeful direction that can give meaning to our words, actions, and decisions. “There’s a thread you follow,” he writes. “It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.” Despite all the swirling flux of circumstances in our lives over the years, he provides this straightforward counsel: “Don’t ever let go of the thread.”
When Jesus called people to follow him, he invited them to pick up a thread of purpose and direction that would bring them into closer relationship to God, creation, and their fellow human beings. He called this thread “the kingdom of God.” Unlike earthly kingdoms with borders and rulers, this world of God’s realm was more like a movement; something to be followed, enjoyed, shared, and held onto beyond the forces of fear and hatred that can diminish fullness of being. Jesus made the process of following this thread the core purpose of human life. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness” may well have constituted his first sermon. And perhaps this is the message that lies at the depths of every story he told and every word of instruction he imparted to others.
I’m using these early days of a new year to consider the thread of a Jesus way of life running through my own. I want to discover how I can be more deeply committed to a path that aligns with the mercy, truth, and passion for life that I see in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s a thread worth following through all of our days and beyond.