The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

lentlogoPhoto: Lorna Muriel Cheriton

Originally published March 3rd 2013

“Why am I drawn to desert and mountain fierceness? … its unmitigated honesty, its dreadful capacity to strip bare, its long, compelling silence? … finding myself brought to the edge–to the macabre, stone-silent edge of death itself–I may hear a word whispered in its loneliness. The word is ‘love”

Belden C Lane (quoted in Mary Lee-Clark’s sermon, Feb 17, exploring how the journey into the wilderness is part of the pre-Easter season of Lent)

As Bruce and I both have turned 61 in these couple of weeks, we are obviously firmly in the midst of the generation called “Baby Boomers”–the largest though, arguably not the greatest, of currently living generations. You have us to thank for the impending onslaught on Social Security and Medicare resources, but I learned in the last couple of weeks that we are also responsible for giving the travel industry the demand for “glamping” vacations. Glamping is the marriage of camping and glamour. “Luxury camping” is another way of putting it.

Boomers, it seems, want to get back to nature as we did back in the ‘60′s–backpacking, camping, hitchhiking,…but now that we’re older, we don’t want to give up any of the amenities that have come to define our lives. We want to have wireless connections in the Serengeti, so we can keep in touch with our family and business associates. We want to have hot tubs in our “tents,” which, by the way, are not your father’s–or your–old pup tents. These are platform constructions with queen-sized beds and indoor plumbing. We want to travel in Airstream campers that cushion the ride and have surround-sound stereo systems. (NY Times, Feb. 3, 2013, Travel, “We’re All Boomers Now”) Ah, the wilderness experience….

That may be the kind of journey through Lent we’d also prefer–not your parents’ or even your Lenten experience, of eating fish on Fridays, wearing ashes on your forehead, endless confession and sackcloth, the whole thing fairly morose and depressing. Amen to giving up the morose and depressing part, but can we give up anything? Can we clear out any space in our lives and in our days to simply be with ourselves and God? Is it possible to pack and carry what is essential on our backs, without having a whole van and entourage following along behind? Can we spend any time considering who we’ve become and who we are becoming? Is there any way we could allow the wilderness to just be, well, the wilderness?

“In many cultures, there is an ancient custom of giving one-tenth of each year’s income to some holy use” (frederickbuechner.com, First Sunday in Lent)–in other words, a tithe. Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning describes one such offering of “first fruits,” to be offered to the priest; and when the priest takes the basket of the offering and sets it down at the altar of God, the Israelite was to say, “A wandering Aramean was my father [or ancestor],” referring to Jacob, who went down into Egypt to escape the famine in his own land. These are instructions for when the Israelites have settled in the Promised Land, a “land flowing with milk and honey,” “which [the text says]the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess.” The tension, of course, comes between claiming the land as their own, despite all the people who already lived there– AND being reminded that “a wandering Aramean was my father,” utterly at the mercy of God and strangers, and receiving this new land as a gift from God whose land it actually is. This tension vibrates today in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“40 years” wandering in the wilderness is the time it took the Hebrews to figure out who they were, where their strength came from, and where they were going. Jesus spent “40 days” in the wilderness figuring out who he was, what it meant to be the Beloved Child of God, as the voice at his baptism had told him, what it meant to be Jesus. “The church [writes Samuel Wells] marks Lent to discover in Whose strength it stands.” (Journal for Preachers, Lent 2013, p. 12) 40 days is approximately a tenth of the days of the year, so we offer it for “some holy use,” a tithe, if you will, given to the Source of our being.

The readings for this first Sunday in Lent are a “meditation (Walter Brueggemann tells us) on the primal human question: Who will make us safe?” (Sojourners, Feb. 2010) Deuteronomy talks about how God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery and oppression in Egypt; Psalm 91(the psalm for the day) proclaims, “Because you had made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent…” And then the verses that we hear in Jesus’ conversation with Satan–”For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The Epistle lesson from Romans 10 says that “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” I am certain that Paul was not thinking of this confession as a kind of magical formula, but again, it goes to the heart of that primal human question, Who will make us safe? Who will “save” us? So, 1)God provides for us, says Deuteronomy, 2)God protects us on our journey, the psalmist declares, 3)God saves us, confesses Paul. Those are the three tests put to Jesus in the wilderness. “Lent,” Brueggemann writes, “is a time to sort out and refuse the other offers [for security] and to embrace the only reliable gift of well-being. Imagine choosing God or Jesus rather than money, control, or power–the usual seductions in our society.” (Ibid.)

Beyond the giving up of chocolate, or eating fish on Fridays, and burying the Alleluias, these 40 days of Lent are an opportunity to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be you?” Frederick Buechner offers some helpful suggestions for questions to ponder during these 6 weeks, one for each week, if you choose–

1. “If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?

2. “When you look at your face in the mirro, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?

3. “If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in 25 words or less? [Remember our imagining of the gospel in 7 words?]

4. “Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?

5. “Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

6. “If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

Buechner suggests that in the process of contemplating these questions, you might come to a clearer sense of who you are, who you are becoming, and who you are failing to become. (Whistling in the Dark, cited on frederickbuechner.com, op cit.)

The pattern of Lent–this paring down, this self-examination and deeper self-knowledge, this giving up and pondering what is worth giving ourselves to, even dying for–is the image of God’s giving up of everything to “have” us, if you will, to let us know how much we are loved, to show us the depth of the Ground of our Being, to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. “Lent is a time for setting things aside, (Sam Wells writes), even good things, to desire only God.” (Wells, JP, pp. 10-11) I sometimes think that’s the ultimate lesson of our lives–to come to set things aside, even good things, like our possessions, our accomplishments, finally even our loved ones and our bodies, to desire only God, and then God folds us into that Great Love. Lent lets us practice letting go.

Belden C. Lane has written a book with a remarkable title–The Solace of Fierce Landscapes–Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. I confess that I am intrigued and terrified by it. But listen to this passage in which Lane talks about the true gift–the true “solace,” if you will–of “fierce landscapes”–

…Ever distrustful of grace, I assent more readily to being destroyed than to being loved. It’s too much to presume that I might be the object of God’s deepest longing, profoundly loved by that which frightens me most. Why am I drawn to desert and mountain fierceness? What impels me to its unmitigated honesty, its dreadful capacity to strip bare, its long, compelling silence? It’s the frail hope that in finding myself brought to the edge–to the macabre, stone-silent edge of death itself–I may hear a word whispered in its loneliness. The word is ‘love,’ spoken pointedly and undeniably to me. It may have been uttered many times in the past, but I’m fully able to hear it only in that silence. (Cited in

An Almanac for the Soul, Marv and Nancy Hiles, p. 47)

40 days–or 40 years–seems like such a long time. Have you ever tried praying for 40 minutes? It seems like an eternity. It could be longer, it could be shorter, it means “as long as it takes”–as long as it takes for us as a church to figure out what we are here for and who we are here for; as long as it takes for us to shape our lives into some Christ-shaped vessel so that divinity may become flesh in our humanity; as long as it takes for us to figure out who we are and Whose we are. As long as it takes. Let us begin the journey together.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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