Braving My Lenten Wilderness

If your church follows the lectionary, you would have heard Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ baptism, how the Spirit descended like a dove, the Father spoke affirming words, and how the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:9-15).  Mark is the most economic in his description of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, but we know from reading his account: (1) Jesus was there 40 days, (2) he was tempted by Satan, (3) he was with the wild animals, and (4) he was waited on by angels. At the end of his desert days, John, his cousin, was arrested and Jesus went to Galilee preaching, “It’s time! God’s reign has come close! Change your heart and trust the good news!”

The forty days of Lent—Ash Wednesday to Easter minus Sundays in the western Church calendar—correspond to the 40 days of Jesus’ wilderness temptation. To practice Lent is to self-consciously follow Jesus into the wilderness. There we will be tempted, we will grow hungry, we will see ways we are in danger. But like Jesus, who was ministered to by the angels. We will sense ourselves as being held in God’s care, and have God’s presence mediated to us.

Going to the wilderness is the hardest part of practicing Lent for me because I feel like I’ve already spent too much time there. Jesus took forty days and clarified his call before going about the countryside preaching, teaching, casting out the Powers and healing the sick. But wilderness haunts my story and still feel perpetually, vocationally frustrated. I graduated from seminary in 2010 with a mountain of student debt. Unable to find a way into pastoral ministry and needing a job, I worked at a hardware store in Blaine, Washington. I call that season of my life, ‘Waylaid in Blaine,’ and while there were gifts and blessings and the angels of God ministered to me and my family, it was a desert place for me.  I was eager to move into the land of promise.

A few years later I got the opportunity. I uprooted. My family and I moved across country where I took up the role of lead pastor of a small congregation. I was 40. Our fourth kid was born there. We named our son Benedict Asher (meaning blessing and happiness) because I mused. “After 40 years in the wilderness, we are now in the promised land, doing the things God has called us to do.”

My son is indeed a blessing, but a year after coming to Florida, the church and I parted ways. They were a small congregation with big bills feeling the weight of scarcity and they needed a leader who would turn things around for them. I didn’t deliver on their hopes (e.g. grow the church, bring in money, invigorate them with spiritual vitality). But it wasn’t just them. I failed to deliver on the things I feel called to.  I mishandled important relationships and I failed in my attempts to get the church to partner with the wider community. I think it was an impossible situation and I was a bad fit for them, but I still feel the ways and places I didn’t measure up, and I grieve the broken relationships.

But for the next eight months, I lived in that community, seven blocks from my old church. I dreaded running into former congregants because when I saw them, I felt like a failure. Some members reached out and were kind, but most severed all contact. My kids would cry because we couldn’t go to that church anymore. Me too. And while I had worked at building community connections and relationships, I suddenly felt like any investment I had in the neighborhood would be perceived as competing with my former church. Every interaction became difficult for me (I’m normally gregariously extroverted). And it hurt. A lot. I don’t think I ever felt so isolated.  We were in the wilderness again, unsure of next steps and feeling isolated.

So we uprooted again, heading back to the Northwest and ended up in the city of  Medford, Oregon. We ended up in a new city but carrying the self-doubt, disillusionment, and disconnection. We started attending a local Methodist church and slowly building a life here. We subsist, ministered to by the angels, but in lots of ways I’m still in a wilderness place. I have had opportunities to preach and have healed somewhat, but I feel gripped with fear and haven’t done much to pursue the things I feel like I’m called to.

So entering the Lenten Wilderness is just a decision, for me, to recognize my own spiritual locale. Here I am. Where are you? Is your life the land of promise? Or are there ways you feel, as I do, vocationally and relationally frustrated? Perhaps you carry wounds that keep you from giving and receiving love in a community? The Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness, but as we listen to the Spirit’s whisper, perhaps we recognize the ways we are already there.

This past weekend I drove up to Portland for a conference. On the way up, I listened to the Audiobook version of Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness (. She describes her own longing for connection and true belonging and what it means to “brave the wilderness.” She offers up the acronym BRAVING to those of us who find ourselves in the wilderness (Lenten or otherwise):

  • Boundaries – being clear about our own boundaries and the boundaries of others
  • Reliability – the decision to trust others to do what they say they are going to do, and doing the same.
  • Accountability – trusting others who apologize and make amends for their mistakes, and doing the same ourselves.
  • Vault- holding in confidence what is shared with you and not sharing stories that are not ours to tell.
  • Integrity – choosing courage over comfort and practicing what we say we believe.
  • Nonjudgement – Nonjudgment of others in relationship, non-judgment for ourselves. We can fall apart, we can ask for help. We can be needy.
  • Generosity – Choosing to be generous in our assumptions about what people do to us and why.

So here I am, in the wilderness, longing for connection. Wanting to step with courage into calling, but still feeling wounded and afraid. I want so badly to be on the other side of the desert, speaking Good news of God’s closeness and welcome. But here I am. And I must brave this place and learn to find my voice again.

 

The Spirit in the Letter: a book review

There was a time I didn’t know who Henri Nouwen was. His name wasn’t bandied about very often in the church I grew up in. I was in my twenties before I discovered him. He had already passed away. I was in a Christian bookstore and saw a cardboard cut out of a middle-aged man with disheveled hair and aviator-framed bifocals. It was a display for a book of remembrances from those touched by Nouwen’s life.

I didn’t buy the book but I got hold of some Nouwen’s other books (they are called legion for they are many). I read Reaching Out, and a couple of his shorter works.  My appreciation for Nouwen continued to grow. Books like The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Wounded Healer, Making All Things New, and In the Name of Jesus have stamped themselves on my heart and I return to them each every so often. I’ve appreciated the depth of Nouwen’s spiritual insight, his warm pastoral concern and the vulnerability of his reflections.

NouwenLove, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life reveals a less public and polished Nouwen (the one with the disheveled hair).  This collection of letters, collected and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw, reveal Nouwen at three distinct stages of life. The letters in Part I (December 1973-1985) are from the period where Nouwen taught at Harvard and Yale but felt called away from academia to L’Arche, a community of care sharing life with the profoundly disabled. Part II (1986-1989), has letters from Nouwen’s early days at L’Arche, his interpersonal struggles, and his fight with depression and anxiety.  Part III (1990-1996) contains letters from Nouwen’s final years where he felt freer and more at ease.

There is a big range in these letters. Some of them are addressed to readers or folks whom he led in retreat asking for spiritual life or overcoming struggles. Some letters were to friends whom he has shared life with and confidants he trusts. Some letters were from colleagues and fellow authors with whom he shares an affinity and mutual academic interest who he wished to encourage. Some letters were for people he was planning a retreat or conference with. Nouwen is attentive to each type of recipient. Several times he sent along a copy of one of his books.

I like books of letters and have read several. Letters reveal some of the thinking behind an author’s published works and clarify their ideas. They give us a glimpse of how a person cares for those in their sphere of influence. I really appreciate this collection for the way it reveals Nouwen to me and clarifies his thinking. Some of these letters describe the angst Nouwen felt as he struggled with his sexuality and his desire to remain faithful to his vocation (Nouwen was same-sex attracted but called to the celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church). Other letters reveal Nouwen sharpening his thought in conversation with friends, or clarifying his thinking for inquirers.

One gem I unearthed reading this, was his response to Sister Anna Callahan (letter dated October 31, 1988). He clarifies his Wounded Healer concept in response to a paper she wrote, “You write, ‘Nouwen would agree that we minister best out of our needs and our wants[sic].’ This is incorrect. It doesn’t really represent my thinking. My opinion is not that we minister best out of our needs and wounds but that we minister best when we have recognized our needs and have attended to our own wounds”(195).

I highly recommend this book for Nouwen fans. Readers of Nouwen will be familiar with many of Nouwen’s ideas, but seeing how he responds to readers who contact them in the midst of their own dark night, or colleagues who are struggling with their vocation, showcase  Nouwen’s pastoral skill and deep love for people. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher through the Blogging For Books program in exchange for my honest review.