"Wilderness Stories," by Zachary Helton
Updated: Mar 31
1 Kings 19:1-13 (Abridged)
Ahab told Queen Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
Elijah was afraid, so he got up and fled for his life. We went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.
Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of YWHW. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then a messenger of YHWH came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
The messenger said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before YHWH, for YHWH is about to pass by.”
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. There, he heard the voice of God.
This is one of our sacred stories,
Thanks be to God.
2 Corinthians 12:7b-10
“…I was given a thorn in my flesh—a messenger from the adversary to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Three times I begged God that it might leave me. And God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
Most gladly, therefore, I would rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. So, I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.”
This is one of our sacred teachings,
Thanks be to God.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been working through conversations about sexuality and gender. We’ve been creating spaces to look ourselves in the eye, to look our society in the eye and name our sins. To name our failures to love well through our sexuality. This naming is important, because that is the first step in letting them go and become agents of healing. It’s important work. It’s work we still believe in.
But, it’s also work we’re going to have to put aside for a while.
The conversation will keep. I doubt sexism and heteronormativity are going anywhere in the near future, I mean, if they do, great… but if not, we can pick it back up when we’re ready. For now, though, there are more pressing stories that need to be told.
What feels like a lifetime ago, on the Third Sunday in Epiphany, I stood up here and led us in a pastoral prayer. “Abroad, in China,” I prayed, “the coronavirus has claimed the lives of 56 people, with thousands more infected. We watch both with broken hearts for those suffering, and with fear as we remember our smallness in this world, knowing that even with all we’ve accomplished, we are still at the mercy of something as microscopic as a virus. Grant us courage and presence…”
I couldn’t have known how true that was at the time, but surely, now, it’s clear.
Have our egos, our sense of importance or power, even been challenged more directly than they’ve been in the past several days?
Or the sense that we are defined by our work or our ability to consume… in our lifetimes, have they ever been more fully exposed as illusions?
I can’t help but think of the irony here, that this has always been one of the main purposes of Lent, to expose those addictions and illusions for what they are.
We begin our sojourn with a service to remind us that we are dust and to dust we will return. Right out of the gate, we seek to offend the part of ourselves that is so afraid to look at our own impermanence, our own lack of control. Then, in the forty days that follow, we enter the wilderness of continuing to look at those things we’d rather not look at, of reminding ourselves of our own illusions, addictions, and limitations.
Then, once we see them more clearly, we can let go.
We can have grace.
We can start to heal.
We remember who we really are,
facing the truth that we are not immortal,
not in control,
not defined by our profession,
In the wilderness all of those illusions fade in the light of the truth of who we really are:
Incarnations of the Divine.
Children of God.
Expressions of the One,
ever changing fountain of Loving-Consciousness.
Then there’s nothing left to protect,
nothing left to fear,
nothing left to become attached to.
There’s only joy, grace, and peace.
Just the gentleness of being.
That’s the resurrection that waits at the end of our journey.
But here’s the thing: There are seasons when we choose our wilderness, where we choose our spiritual work, knowing from the outset what we’re after. But then, there are seasons when our sojourn into the wilderness is out of our control. Sure, there is the hallmark Lenten story of Jesus going into the desert to face off with his ego… but how many more stories are there of those like Jacob, having to hide in the desert with his murderous brother on his heels?
Of the fugitive Moses stumbling through the gates of Egypt into an unsafe future?
Of the prophet Elijah finding shelter in a cave while an angry queen seeks his life?
Of the people of Judah being forced into the wilderness in chains, their nation burning to the ground at their backs?
Of Jesus carrying a cross out of the city towards the desolate hill of the skull?
These stories are also our stories.
We come from a people that may not have chosen the desert, but wind up there anyway, time and again.
We are a people of wilderness stories.
So, I’m afraid it no longer matters whether or not you planned to “give up” anything for Lent, because things have been taken from you. The wilderness has become more real to us than we could have anticipated.
Unlike any other Lent, we no longer get to choose our suffering.
But, here is a small bit of agency that I can give back to you:
You do get to chose what this suffering means.
You do get to co-write this story,
because we are a people of wilderness stories.
Father Richard Rohr once wrote: Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot “manage,” you will never find the True Manager. […] It is the imperial ego that has to go, and only powerlessness can do the job correctly. […] Otherwise, we try to engineer our own transformation by our own rules and by our own power, which is […] not transformation [at all]! It seems we can in no way engineer or steer our own [enlightenment].
We may be approaching this wilderness with resentment and anger, or more likely fear and discomfort, and that is as it should be. These feelings should be neither rushed or denied, only allowed, met with grace and kindness. Finding meaning in pain is not the same as making pain go away. But if we can greet that within ourselves with openness, then after those feelings have their rise and fall, and we will be able to find that the gift that the wilderness has to offer. We can discover that it is part of the curriculum, helping us in the human art of letting go of what is false.
You may have heard the phrase, “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell.”
Whatever you’ve experienced and whatever is about to come, let us remain open and mindful. Let us commit, now, to noticing when fear arises in us, or blame, or the anxiety of losing, even for a while, the things that have defined us and kept us occupied.
Each of these things is an invitation to let go – to let go of our egoic need for control and protection.
Each is an invitation to surrender to grace, to presence, to the Holy Spirit within each of us.
Each is an invitation to find the grace that is sufficient for each of us.
The power that is perfected only in weakness.
The life we find only when we let go of it.
Let us remember the full stories of our people’s sojourns into wilderness:
Let us not forget that when Jacob awoke in the desert, he found a gateway to Heaven and proclaimed, “Surely God was in this place all along and I never saw it!”
Let us not forget that Moses found new life among a new people, and one day heard the invitation of God into a story greater than he could’ve imagined.
Let us not forget that the prophet Elijah, at the end of himself, found food and drink and heard God in the “sheer silence” he’d never allowed himself to notice.
Let us not forget that the people of Judah found God in the welfare of the people they thought were their enemies.
And let us never forget what Jesus discovered after three days entombed in a wilderness we cannot yet fathom.
When you’re in the thick of it, remember the whole story,
because these are our stories, too.
We are a people of wilderness stories.
May we find our place in this one.