wilderness

desert wildernessAn episode in the Israelites’ 40-year journey from captivity in Egypt spurred this morning’s meditation on wilderness (Exodus 16.2-15, abbreviated and paraphrased):

The people complained, “If only we had died in Egypt where we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill. You, Moses, have brought us into this wilderness to kill us with hunger.” God said to Moses, “I will rain bread from heaven…Say to the people, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” In the evening, quails came and covered the camp. In the morning, a layer of dew, a fine, flaky substance, covered the surface of the wilderness. The people saw it and asked, “What is it?” Moses said, “It is the bread God has given you to eat.”

Wilderness.

I’ve known grief’s desert when my brother died; his benevolent presence suddenly becoming unbearable absence and when my father died with our last chance, I believed, to work out our difficult relationship.

I know feeling, being barren of wisdom, sometimes not knowing what I’m doing, in the ongoing care of my infirm mother. Though knowing how it will end, but not when, until then I walk, trudge each day trying to figure it out; in moments, confessing that I wish it would end now.

I’ve heard hollow hope, like the howl of wilderness winds in the voices of those who receive dire medical diagnoses or when the prognosis is life, but with no optimism of restoration to wholeness of health.

I’ve seen desolation in the faces of the poor, here and around the world, whose daily existence is subsistence and for whom scarcity is no metaphorical land to cross, but an enduring abode.

Wilderness.

Looking at the Exodus experience, I see three elements. Longing for past. Testing of faith. Beholding something new.

The people craved “the fleshpots,” the assured provisions of food in Egypt. Hungry and angry at Moses for leading them into wilderness, they, despite their surely resident, resonant memories of the miseries of their slavery, yearned to return.

So, I think, the uncertainty of any current tribulation can provoke our longing for yesterday. Even if the good ol’ days weren’t all that good, at least, being the past, thus, a known reality, they offered the comfort, though sometimes cruel, of holding no surprises.

Once in wilderness, however, it’s impossible to go back, only forward into a possible test of faith. The people, angry and afraid, cried, “If only we had died in Egypt!”

I know I’m in wilderness when much that made sense of life upon which I relied is tested and found empty, useless. I can hold fast to my “Egypt”, trying to make it work until, finally, I come to accept the possibility that I’ve grown comfortable, too comfortable with my belief about the way things are (the way things should be!).

Though this has been my experience (too numerous to count or to confess!), I think not only the Israelites, but all people do something like this. Our philosophy or theology, our worldview that we’ve spent lifetimes developing isn’t something easily discarded, even when confronted by counter reality. Yet, when willing to let our truths be tested and, when proven bare, to let them go, we might behold a new thing.

In the wilderness, the people, their confidence tested, found faith renewed in light seen through the prism of paradox. Bread came not from earth, but sky. Even more, heavenly showers that normally watered the earth’s grain became food itself. God, declaring to Moses, “I will rain bread from heaven”, bypassed human processes – sowing, reaping, grinding, baking – to feed the people. In that revelation, they discovered or perhaps more truly rediscovered their Lord (from the old English hlaford, a contraction of loaf and warden, thus), their giver of bread, the one who made them whole.

Wilderness, in whatever form, offers a test of faith through which to behold a new truth. Do we, dare we enter?

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