A long time ago, when I was just a young woman, I think I was about 22 or 23, still young enough to believe that all the answers to all my questions were out there somewhere, just waiting for me to discover. I was a serious young woman full of serious questions, always pondering the meanings of thins – big things like life and death, goodness and evil, love and hate, sickness and health, sin and forgiveness, God and no-god. I truly believed that if I actually applied myself to my questions, I would be able to discover the answers. It was the pursuit of particular answers that lead me into the wilderness of the desert.
Now, it may come as a surprise to some of you, but there are real deserts in British Columbia. You will discover one of those deserts as you travel between Ashcroft down to Merritt. They’ve improved the roads since then, but back in the day that particular route was quite the challenge. Mind you, it didn’t help that I was driving an old beat up 1969 Austin 1100, that had no business being on mountain roads, let alone mountain roads that wound their way through a desert. Now if you don’t know what an Austin 1100 looks like, picture an old Austin Mini; an 1100 is only slightly bigger than an Austin Mini, and my old 1100 was purchased for the grand sum of $300.00. About the only thing this car had going for it was my faith in it to take me places.
On this trip, I had loaded my little car down with all sorts of camping equipment along with several plastic milk jugs that held a gallon of water each, because the car’s radiator had a nasty habit of overheating. The woman that I am know, looks back on the young woman that I was, and I can’t help wondering what possessed me to head out into the desert in that stupid little car. I can almost see myself sitting on the side of the road waiting for the radiator to cool down, so that I could risk loosening the radiator cap, to fill it up with cool water so that I could travel another hour or so, before it over-heated again.
To say that I was young and foolish, would be an understatement. But I was also, adventurous and inquisitive. I had traveled into the wilderness to do some thinking. I needed to find some answers. I had some decisions to make; decisions, that at the time, felt like life and death. I truly believed that some time away by myself would guarantee me the kind of peace and quiet I needed to discover the answers to my questions.
Sitting there, on a rock, hoping against hope, that the 95 degree heat from the blazing sun would be enough to guarantee that any rattle snacks would remain tucked away in some distant shade, I couldn’t believe that I’d been driving for two hours without seeing another car on the road. I was out there in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where I had intended to be. I had travelled into the wilderness to find a place where there were no distractions, so that I could apply myself to finding an answer that I desperately needed. You see, some stuff had happened in my life; stuff that had lead me to doubt the god that over the years I had come to love.
Looking back, I think that I went out into the wilderness looking for a sign; a sign that God existed. My faith in the God who lives out there somewhere, who from time to time hears my prayer and decides to intervene in my life, my faith in that God, had been fairly strong, right up to the point where some really tough stuff started to happen to some folks I cared a great deal about, and no matter how long or how hard I prayed, the great Sky God that I had been taught to worship, simply refused to show himself. So, I decided to take a page or two out of the bible and follow Jesus right out into the wilderness to see if God would show up. Sitting there on a rock, roasting in the hot sun, as the tumble-weeds tumbled by, I wondered what I would do, if I discovered that God wasn’t really there. What if it was all just wishful thinking? I desperately wanted to meet the god that I’d been taught to believe in to be there in the wilderness. Isn’t that why Jesus wandered out into the wilderness of the desert? Surely, he didn’t go out there to meet the devil? Or did he? Maybe Jesus went out into the wilderness to meet his demons.
Over the years, I’ve learned enough about the anonymous gospel storytellers to know that their stories are more than just history. I’ve learned to read beyond the words that have been handed down to us, to ponder the multi-layered texture of meanings that lie hidden waiting to be discovered. The storytellers’ careful crafting of their tale of Jesus time in the wilderness uses images and illusions that harken back to earlier stories of Moses leading the people of Israel into the wilderness where they spent not 40 days, but 40 years forming themselves into the nation that would go on to inhabit the promised land. In the wilderness, Jesus encountered his own demons. I can well imagine Jesus contemplating his own future and realizing his own desires for power were actual temptations that would distract him from his overriding desire to embody a new way of being in the world. A quest for power would have seen Jesus giving the people what they wanted a leader who could feed them with bread and everything that bread represents, wealth and power; the kind of power that would enable them to fight their Roman oppressors. The temptation to be the kind of messiah that the people wanted was Jesus’ temptation.
In the wilderness, alone with his desires and temptations Jesus fought his personal demons. According to the gospel storytellers, Jesus didn’t conquer his demons, “The Devil awaited another opportunity.” As the storytellers follow Jesus to Jerusalem and beyond, the temptation to forsake the new way of being in the world that Jesus embodied, in favour of being the kind of messiah that the people wanted continues to haunt Jesus. Jesus steadfastly refuses to take the mantle of power that so many would have handed to him the power to form an army the likes of King David, to rise up and violently resist the tyranny of Rome. As tempting as it may have been for Jesus to become the people’s messiah, Jesus summons up the courage to be a new kind of messiah. Jesus chooses to embody a posture of non-violent resistance to evil even though he knows full well that such a posture against the Romans could get him killed. Jesus refuses to give into his fears, trusting that even death cannot defeat the LOVE that he chooses to embody.
We all do our time in the wilderness. Not all wildernesses are deserts. Sometimes, in the midst of a crowd we experience the kind of temptations that bring our demons to the surface and we have to take a long hard look at where our desires might lead us. It is not always easy to choose LOVE over fear. It is not always popular to work for those things that will liberate others from oppression. It is so very tempting to do what is expected of us. All too often, the seductive allure of power overcomes our passion for justice. Each one of us must have the courage to face our own demons. It is so tempting to thrust the responsibility for our journey onto some far-off god, hoping that this creature of our own making will send us a sign, or do it all for us. We are all too willing to put God to the test rather than test ourselves in the vain hope that we can somehow conquer our desires for an easy and rewarding way out of this life. The gospel storytellers, show us a Jesus who struggles with temptations each and every day and refuses to ignore the reality that none of us get out of this life alive. Each one of us must face the limitations of time. We can give into our fear that there’s not enough time, or that our time will be spent in vain, or that time will be taken away from us. We can allow our fear to rule our actions or we can wrestle with our fears, hold them up before our eyes and examine them carefully, and look beyond our fears.
If embodying the LOVE that we have received is how we want to live in the world, we must recognize that, temptations to be something other than LOVE will always be there. Like Jesus we will need to wrestle with our own demons if we want to be able to embody LOVE in the world. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to struggle to embody LOVE on our own. Like Jesus we have the power of the LOVE we have received, the LOVE that brought us into being, the LOVE that lives in, with, through, and beyond us, the LOVE that we encounter in one another, and the LOVE that beckons to us, allures us, calls to us enchants us, delights us, nourishes, grounds and sustains us. We have the wisdom of the ages, together with the wisdom of our communities, our loved ones, our families, and all those who have gone before us, the wisdom we find in the stories that have been told and in the stories, we tell, and the wisdom that points us to the LOVE we call God.
Out there in the wilderness of British Columbia I didn’t meet the god I’d been taught to believe in, the far-off puppet god, who would do it all for me, point me in the right direction and clear the path for me. Out there in the desert, I did meet my own demons. My desire for the kind of faith that was sure and certain, steadfast and secure, clear and authoritative, undoubtable and verifiable, the kind of faith that would empower me to know who and what I was supposed to be and do, was an illusion worthy of the god I had created; the kind of god that I could mold in my own image, to be all that I wanted him to be, and do all that I wanted him to do, so that I could be all that I wanted to be, powerful enough to control my own destiny, rich enough to fulfill my desires, strong enough to defeat my enemies, wise enough to outwit my foes, and desirable enough to attract friends and lovers who would cater to my needs without question. I did not find this god in the wilderness.
Sitting on a rock, with all my water jugs emptied, convinced that I might not survive my sojourn into the desert and afraid that there just might be more than one rattle snake watching me, I heard the sound of a vehicle hurtling towards me. As the battered, old, multi-coloured, hand painted, van pulled to a stop beside me, I saw behind the wheel a young woman, not much older than myself. When she got out of the van, it was clear from her appearance that she was, what we called back in the day a hippie. Just the kind of counter-culture type who liked to make their home in the wildernesses of BC. After listening to me explain my predicament, this hippie asked me for five dollars.
Now, remember this was the late 70’s and five dollars was a lot of money. Back then, five dollars could fill a gas tank or buy a bag of groceries. I imagined that this hippie was charging me five dollars to go get me some more water to give me and even though it seemed rather excessive, I handed over the money, because I had had enough of the wilderness. The young woman, grabbed the five-dollar bill, jumped back into her van, told me to “sit tight” and drove off.
I figured that I was doomed. I sat back down on my rock and cursed the big guy in the sky. About an hour later, I saw the hippie’s van in the distance and gave thanks to the sky-god for sending her back to me. The young woman, hopped out of her van with and waved two little packets at me; two little packets about the size of those little sugar packets. I wondered if they were drugs. But no, she explained that the contents of these packets worked like magic. You just sprinkled them into your radiator, added water, started your engine and waited while the heat caused the magic powder to swell up and fill the holes in your radiator so that no water could escape. From the back of her van the hippie retrieved several gallons of fresh water and together we repaired my little car.
It was getting dark when the hippie introduced herself as Annie and invited me to come back to her place for a late supper. She said I could pitch my tent in her meadow. Before I knew it, I was meeting all sorts of hippies who made up the commune that Annie lived in. I spent a couple of days there, learning all sorts of things from some wonderful people.
Back then, I believed that Annie was a god-send. A person sent to help me by the sky-god. I’ve long since wrestled the sky-god into submission and I no longer desire to have reality manipulated or controlled by a god of our creation. The God that I continue to encounter is far more mysterious than anything we can begin to imagine. My desire to know and understand this MYSTERY continues to drive me, but I’ve long since given up the fears that were built into the images of the god that I was taught to believe in. My fear of the sky-god drove me to seek some measure of control, to such a degree that I was willing to settle for an idol designed to control the ways we think and worship the MYSTERY that lies at the heart of reality, the MYSTERY that we call God; the MYSTERY that our images of God cannot contain.
These days, when I remember Annie, I see a woman who was the embodiment of LOVE. Annie and her friends were doing their best to be LOVE in the world. LOVE empowers us to live beyond our fear. LOVE empowers us to be LOVE in the world. The LOVE that we call God, is, was, and evermore shall be embodied in, with, through, and beyond us.
We all have demons. We all have fears. We can live our lives possessed by our demons and oppressed by our fears, or we can embrace the LOVE that lies at the very heart of all that is, the LOVE that is the source of who and what we are, and in embracing that LOVE we can find the wisdom and strength we need to be LOVE in the world. This, dear friends, is the gospel of Christ.