This morning’s reading from Numbers is one of many ‘complaining-in- the-wilderness’ stories in the Bible. How quickly and repeatedly the Hebrews who had been delivered out of slavery in Egypt, by the hand of God, no less, started romanticizing about the “good old days” when confronted with the hardships of the wilderness.
“Oh boy, at least back in Egypt we had plenty to eat and drink”
“Yeah and we had a variety of food, not like eating the same manna day after day after day.”
“Why did we let Moses talk us into coming to this God-forsaken wilderness anyway?”
And on it went. Then, as now, we take our blessings for granted, and fixate on what’s missing or wrong. We crave instant results and immediate gratification. We want the good stuff: Sunny days, smooth sailing, satisfaction, joy and spiritual connection. And when that’s not happening, we project, we blame, we avoid, we whine, and we go into a funk.
All of these very natural, human tendencies are magnified when we find ourselves truly in the wilderness. When we really are in dangerous places; in high stress situations; in unfamiliar, uncharted territory.
It’s terrifying. We are lost, torn asunder, powerless, out of kilter. In the wilderness, the snakes are real.
Snakes called fear and self-doubt;
Guilt and regret;
Suffering, loss, and pain.
I was divorced 25 years ago. I moved from the Washington DC area and began my first solo pastorate as a one-year interim pastor out in Hutchinson, Minnesota—about 45 miles west of Minneapolis. Even now, looking back, I vividly remember the utter desolation I felt watching the little U-Haul being towed away by my soon-to-be former husband. I stood there looking out across the cornfields, which stretched as far as I could see. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone. I was in the wilderness.
The movie, Still Alice, portrays the far darker wilderness of Alzheimer’s disease. As the movie begins, we meet Dr. Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor, mother of three adult children, happily married to another successful academic. Both are sought-after speakers. Alice’s classes at Columbia are highly regarded and always filled.
Then we start to see signs of Alice’s descent into the wilderness. This brilliant, self-directed woman gets lost while jogging a familiar route. She fails to show up for a dinner planned with old friends. She struggles to recall the bread pudding recipe she’s made for years. We see her reaching for words that she can’t find. Alice wets her pants standing in the living room after frantically searching through the house for the bathroom.
Alice struggles to stay connected as she senses the decline. She sets up little tests and reminders everywhere, but as she says to one group:
“I have no control over which yesterdays I keep and which ones get deleted. This disease will not be bargained with. I can’t offer it the names of the US presidents in exchange for the names of my children. I can’t give it the names of state capitals and keep the memories of my husband…I don’t know who I am or what I am going to lose next.
Wilderness takes many forms. I’m sure that each of you has your own experience or image of wilderness. Common to all of them, I suspect, is the sense of being stuck without a map, surrounded by snakes, in some place beyond the reach of our normal coping skills, lifelines, and faith resources.
So what does the covenantal relationship with God we’ve been talking about in Lent say to us in such horrific times and places?
Well Trish, you might be thinking, didn’t we just read the answer in John 3:16? For God so loved the world that God gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Well, I have to confess I am suspicious of stock answers and religious formulas in general, and that I have mixed feelings about that verse in particular.
Now don’t get me wrong. I rejoice in its affirmation that God loves the world. I trust its promise that God’s invitation and concern extend to everyone. And I do believe that life, not death, will be God’s final word to us beyond every wilderness we may encounter. I just don’t like the way the verse has been oversimplified and taken for granted; how it is flashed on billboards and scoreboards and posters as a pat, one-size-fits all answer to everything.
This week I decided step back a bit to think about the passage more positively, along with the snakes and the specific wilderness experiences I have already mentioned. When I did this, several dynamics or currents of hope drifted up that I will share with you this morning.
The first dynamic is about Reframing. It has to do with how and where our perspective is sometimes adjusted from within the midst of our present wilderness circumstances.
For example, in Hutchinson after my divorce, I came to cherish seeing the harvesters going from field to field; observing the changing light patterns reflected from the sun over the corn fields at various times of day; learning different ways the hay was baled and the land plowed. Almost every day that fall, I drove by a lake and saw the trees with incredibly colored leaves reflected in the water. It was beautiful.
From within the cloud of Alzheimer’s disease, Alice Howland reframed it this way:
…My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today doesn’t matter.”
Back to the snakes in the wilderness: Ingrained in the communal memory of the Hebrew people is the experience of Moses fashioning the bronze replica of a snake wrapped around a pole. If the people looked up at the bronze snake, they were safe. If they kept their eyes on the ground, trying to dodge the snakes or kill them, they would die. We can’t possibly understand the historical mechanics of all this, but doesn’t it represent the epitome of reframing?
From fear to trust;
From looking down to looking up;
From death to life.
Years later, the gospel writer John recalls that wilderness image to reframe a cross of torture and crucifixion into a message of hope and the promise of salvation.
A second dynamic of healing in the wilderness is about Accompaniment.
I’d barely gotten myself unpacked after moving to Hutchinson, when a couple who lived a short walk away invited me for supper. After that, we often watched the evening news together that year. Elmer Howe, a local dairy farmer, decided that as a city girl I should learn to milk a cow. I treasure memories of occasionally being in the barn toward the close of day milking cows with the Howe family. Once Elmer called me in the middle of the night to come quickly to see a calf being born. I’ll never forget it. One of the deacons heard that I played tennis and she had me into a women’s tennis group the very next week.
The year in Hutchinson was difficult as I adjusted to a new place and life status. There were tears in the night and many questions in my heart. But there was also laughter and good times and I was not alone.
Unlike her highly educated, professionally successful parents and siblings, Alice’s youngest daughter, Lydia, wants to be an actress. She quit school against her parents’ wishes, moved to California, and is waiting tables between whatever acting gigs she can pick up. There’s always a little tension when Lydia comes home to visit, because Alice so wants her to go back to school and Lydia gets defensive about that. But when the wilderness in the Howland household becomes unmanageable, Lydia moves back home to help care for her mother. One day, they have this conversation:
“You’re so beautiful,” says Alice. “I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.”
“I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you.”
“What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
“Then, I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”
Alice is being accompanied by her family in the wilderness of this devastating disease.
The Hebrews in the wilderness are accompanied by God through the leadership of Moses. Again and again when a crisis arises, Moses prays, questions, complains, and talks to God and God tells Moses what to do. God is with them in the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire at night. God is with them providing the food and water they keep complaining about.
Surely, the ultimate form of accompaniment is God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh to dwell among us. Emmanuel means ‘God with us.’
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We will be accompanied by God in any and every wilderness we may come to.
Well, it’s hard not to just end the sermon on that wonderful passage from Romans 8, but I have to say something about Lament. There are at least 65 Psalms of lament in the Bible, but we don’t read them very often in church. They are powerful, poignant expressions of complaint, sorrow, remorse, weariness, anger, doubt and disappointment. And they are explicitly addressed to God. Joyce Rupp, the author of The Cup of our Life talks about them this way:
I used to be too nice with God when I was feeling like a broken cup. I realize now that not being honest with God about my situation only added to my anger and hostility. Keeping it all inside, trying to hide it, benefited no one and only generated more self-pity and resentment… The Jewish Psalms have taught me a lot about how to pray when life is tough. The Psalmist yells, screams, and pokes a finger at God now and then in accusatory blame. The Psalmist wonders why God isn’t making some changes.
Jesus’ words from the cross from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is his lament in the wilderness of suffering and death.
There is yet one more dynamic to mention; it’s the one that holds all of them. I’m calling it Redemption and Rebirth.
The divorce that was so painful and difficult turned out to be life- giving for both of us. I can’t imagine my life without the past 25 years of experience and growth.
In the midst of the hardships and struggles in the wilderness, the escaped Hebrew slaves found a new identity. They were formed into a community that would become a “light to the nations.“
In the closing scene of the movie, Lydia the actress channels Alice to give her mother’s life back to her for a brief moment in these healing words:
Alice watched and listened and focused beyond the words the actress spoke. She saw her eyes become desperate, searching, pleading for truth. She saw them land softly and gratefully on it. Her voice felt at first tentative and scared. Slowly, and without getting louder, it grew more confident and then joyful, playing sometimes like a song. Her eyebrows and shoulders and hands softened and opened, asking for acceptance and offering forgiveness. Her voice and body created an energy that filled Alice and moved her to tears. She squeezed the beautiful baby in her lap and kissed his sweet-smelling head.
The actress stopped and came back into herself. She looked at Alice and waited.
“Okay, what do you feel?”
“I feel love. It’s about love.”
Life is hard; our losses are real. There are all kinds of wilderness places and the snakes are there. Yet we are forever held in covenant with a higher power that draws us forward. Through Reframing, Accompaniment, Lament, Redemption and Rebirth, we will find the way through no way because God will never let us go. God will wipe away all tears and turn our mourning into joy.
As we know all too well, there is no schedule for all this; resurrections usually take much longer than three days, but the covenant is sure. We will be held, guided, and sustained by the One who says: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen
“Healing in the Wilderness”
Rev. Trish Greeves
Pilgrimage UCC, Marietta, GA
Sermon based on Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-17