Sunday, December 15, 2013

Barbara Moyer Lehman: How to make it through the wilderness

Advent 3: “Fear not, joy is coming”
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11 or Luke 1:47-55

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     Any day of the week throughout the year, we can read the newspaper or
watch the news and hear a story that touches us deeply.  It might call us to prayer or bring us to tears.  People are living in dangerous, difficult and desperate situations. Natural disasters of all kinds happen too frequently, so much so, that we have difficulty keeping up with the latest catastrophe.  Relief and service workers and world aid organizations are stretched to the maximum trying to respond.  Poverty, disease, malnutrition, AIDS, war, suicide bombings.....and on and on, all of these take the lives of millions of people every day, children, men, women, youth, rich, poor, educated and uneducated.  And the survivors?  Those who escape death and catastrophe?  They are left with huge questions.  “How am I going to survive?  How can I face tomorrow or get through next week?  What will become of me and my family?  How will I make it through the desert?  Will I ever get out of the wilderness?
    Let’s face it.  We don’t even need to go as far as another continent.  People in our own country, living among us in our neighborhoods, and yes, even family members and loved ones, know what it is like to be in a crisis and have a wilderness experience.  You, too, might have asked at some time, “How am I ever going to get through this?”
    The lectionary texts for today give us some help, offer us some hope.  In God’s mysterious ways, the desert springs to life, the wilderness blossoms, desperation yields to hope, and people and places are transformed by the redemptive power of God!  The Psalmist reminds us that those who know their hope is in the Lord their God, they will be blessed, taken care of, and watched over by the Lord their God.  God has done this for generations.  God will continue to do it forever and forever.
    French poet and writer, Paul Claudel states: “Jesus did not come to do away with suffering or remove it.  He came to fill it with His presence.”

    Most of us would not choose to experience the pain, trauma, and grief of a wilderness experience.  Nevertheless, sometimes because of unexpected events, life circumstances, accidents, things that were done to us, even our own poor choices, we find ourselves in those dark and barren places.  We wonder, can anything good come out of this?  What now?  What next?

    Alan Jones, Soul Making, speaks about the desert of the spirit.  He describes it as a ‘place of revelation, conversion and transformation.     It involves being ‘made over’, being made new, being ‘born again’.....In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.”

So what can we learn from today’s texts that can help us face our crisis and make it through the wilderness, so that we might be renewed, transformed, and be able to experience new life and find joy again?

4 Things we need, learned from today’s texts:

  1. Patience 
  2. Persistence
  3. Realistic expectations
  4. Community

    Advent is a time of waiting.  And some of us are not very good at it.  Children find it hard to wait for Christmas to open presents, for school to be over and be able to enjoy a break from studies.  But adults don’t usually find waiting any easier. We get impatient if the line  at the grocery store is being held up because someone needs a price check!  And we are equally embarrassed when we are the one who is holding up the line and we know how exasperated everyone else is in back of us!  One thing to remember which is also hard to accept, is that transformation, change, renewal, restoration takes TIME, takes PATIENCE.  It doesn’t happen overnight or within a week, a month or even a year.  Transformation is a long process.  Rehab takes time and patience after surgery.  Some of you know that very well.  We are so influenced by our culture that expects instant gratification and immediate results.  My son, Ben, an ER doc, relates how many patients coming in to the ER are not very happy if they are sent home with suggestions to rest, drink more fluids, eat sensibly, and other common sense and self care things.  They want a prescription, they want some pills to make them better, NOW, they want it to be over, even though pills might not always be needed or even helpful!
    Patience is needed on this journey. Waiting is hard, but it is part of learning how to live in the wilderness and survive.  We need to see the bigger picture, take the long view.
    In Isaiah 35 and the passage from James 5, we discover there are two kinds of waiting.  Both are important.  In Isaiah, the prophet paints this image of a new and restored land and a revived people.  As the pilgrim exiles are saved from disaster and  return to Zion, they are given a new vision of what they will eventually find...a desert that blooms, water that rises to the surface and transforms the land, and the promise that their God will come to save them and provide a highway for them that is safe.  Their return to Zion will be filled with joyful celebration and singing and all the pain and sorrow will be gone!
    As they are given this vision of what will be, they are encouraged to ‘strengthen their feeble hands and steady their weak knees.  To be strong and unafraid, for their God will take care of the enemies for them, but his purpose is to come and SAVE them!  “Waiting” in the Isaiah text is expectant waiting....waiting on your tiptoes.  It is about having your imaginations stirred and your dreams enlarged and new possibilities presented for your future.  It is looking ahead, beyond where you presently are.  It is expectant waiting...waiting eagerly on your tiptoes!

    The quality of waiting is portrayed differently in James.  The metaphor used is of the farmer.  One who also needs to wait, but not on tiptoes, but rather sitting back on the heels a bit, taking the time to prepare and plant the crops, waiting for the seeds to germinate, waiting for the rains to come, waiting for sun and warmth and more rains.  The energy in the waiting in the James text is about the “holding back”.  It is the discipline of “letting go”, of letting what will be, will be.  The farmer can’t control the rains nor the sun.  The farmer needs the disciplined kind of waiting that lets God’s Kingdom unfold, evolve in its own time in full confidence that the harvest will come.  Both kinds of waiting are needed, both are expectant.  Both expect significant changes, transformation, reversals and are confident that the source  for these reversals is their faith and trust in God.

    In the James text, encouragement is given to ‘strengthen your hearts here and now’, become clear about your values and what is important, be strong in your center!  (strengthen your core).  We are also reminded to stop any grumbling and to accept the suffering that comes, (that’s HARD), knowing that God will not always remove it from us, but God will be present to fill it (the pain, the loss, the loneliness, the fears), with His presence.

    In our wilderness trek we also need persistence.  How easy it would be to give up, and some do.  In the midst of the pain, grief, depression, sadness, disappointment, it is tempting to ‘throw in the towel’.  Anxiety sets in, fears overtake us, pain seems unbearable, shame is hard to face, worries are legitimate.  But getting through the wilderness and seeing the desert come alive again and our own spirits being renewed, requires that we keep on, keeping small step at a time.  Getting out of bed is sometimes the major accomplishment of the day.  Getting food on the table for the family requires energy and determination.  Asking for help takes courage and requires being vulnerable with others.  Celebrating small steps that are accomplished can be the needed incentive to try again.  And maybe next time it will be a bit easier!
(after Andy’s death....going to mall for first time..panic attack)   Be persistent, keep at it, celebrate the small successes!

Realistic Expectations
    Knowing that transformation  takes time, change is hard and sometimes slow, requires us to have realistic expectations as to what we can do, and are even capable of doing.  When we are trudging through the wilderness, trying to make it across the desert, we have to understand that life will never be the same as before.  Surviving a wilderness experience puts us in a different place and when we come through it, we have to discover a ‘new normal’.  What will my life be like now?  What can I expect of myself, my family, my friends?  What do I have to give up, ‘let go of’?
              The exiles returning to Zion had to figure out who they were now.  Isaiah describes a picture of restored, renewed land, and a revived people.  They can return, knowing the highway is safe, protected, open to them, the redeemed ones.  They can see the healing of a people with all of their physical afflictions.  They can see the healing of the earth with the desert coming to life again. And they can return on a highway made for them, as they sing with joy.

    It is difficult to make it through the darkest, most painful time of your life without a community to walk with you.  It can be a community of two people or ten or many more.  We all understand that God will never leave us nor forsake us in our darkest time.  We know that Jesus understands suffering and will fill our suffering with His presence, when it can’t be removed.  Jesus will weep with us, but sometimes we need a real person or two, someone with skin on them, (Velveteen rabbit - book) Someone we can call, or hug or cry with.  Someone who will check in with us, when we don’t show up for a planned event.  Someone who will understand our anger and our doubts.  Someone who can encourage us, pray with us and for us, hold us accountable, get us help, when we need it.

The texts for today offer us good counsel, good words of encouragement.  We need to remember them, offer them to others in their time of discouragement and distress.  Maybe send them in a card, write them on a post it note for yourself, memorize them, engrave them on your doorpost or write them on the palm of your hand as you take your morning walk.  When we are journeying through the desert, seeking to be transformed, hoping to be healed and longing to find joy and peace again, these are the words we need to tell ourselves and each other.  They can become our own “Burma Shave” signs along our road, that move us through and lead us beyond the pain and chaos of our deepest pain.


Be Patient
Stand Firm
Don’t Grumble
The Lord is Near

Strengthen Your Hands
Steady Your Knees
Let Go of Your Fears
Here is Your God

Be Strong
Do Not fear
God Will Come
Rejoice with Song!

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