By Justin Williamson
Every year during Lent the church remembers Jesus’ experience in the wilderness. The way the term ‘wilderness’ is used in the church often evokes images, if not also feelings, of isolation, deprivation, wanting, danger. It’s a place where permanence seems to be a liability, a place in which everyone is trying to find a way out, to “make it through” the wilderness.
But I also grew up learning about another type of wilderness. Each summer my brother and I had the opportunity to spend a couple weeks with our grandparents, visits that almost always included week-long camping trips to west Texas, or New Mexico. We learned about wildernesses with names like Guadalupe Mountains, Pecos, and Bandelier. These were the places where I first learned about the natural wonders of God’s grace, seeing first-hand the vibrant and diverse ecosystems that thrived in the harsh and seemingly barren expanses that butted up against the paved roads and gas station bathrooms that implored you not to flush the toilet paper.
We were visiting the Bandelier Wilderness when my grandfather first deemed my brother and I old enough to embark on several miles of hiking – on our own! It wasn’t even a loop: we set out to a destination where they were to meet us several hours later. We walked along beautiful trails along steep canyon slopes. We traced the Rio Grande River, up where it gets to just be a river, and not an international border. If you’re taught where to draw it up, you can get some of the crispest, cleanest water you’ll ever drink while in the wilderness. We stopped among Pinon Pines to savor the fresh pine nuts – even the pine trees offered us food!
The hike was hard, more than I’d ever walked at one time. And while it was only the better part of a single morning and afternoon, there were feelings of isolation, deprivation, wanting, and danger that crept in. But we made it. And we had a lot of fun, too.
Jesus’ wilderness experience happened immediately after his baptism, almost as if the two events were two acts of one play. In this week’s Gospel text from Luke, we find the familiar parable of the Prodigal son. In Jesus’ parable, he presents a son who asked for and received the affirmation and blessing of his father’s inheritance, and then immediately sets out, alone, to a far-away land.
I can just imagine if Jesus were living in our context today. I can see Jesus and someone’s unnamed son taking their seats on an early morning flight out west. They strike up a conversation over pretzels and apple juice on the plane and begin to discover how similar their different journeys are.
“You heading to Vegas for business, or pleasure?” the son asks Jesus.
“A little bit of both, I guess you’d say. Vegas really isn’t my destination; I’m making my way out to the La Madre Mountains Wilderness for a little quiet time. It’s a long story, but it’s kind of a spiritual retreat. What about you?”
“Ah, I see. You’re really doing the ‘wanna get away thing,’ that’s cool. You could say I’m doing that, too. I just need a change, to get away from under my father’s wing, to take some time to learn who I am, away from the family business. I cashed out. Gonna try my luck in Vegas for a while, see where I land.”
You know, when that son ends up busted flat in Vegas, and starts to head for a plane, I bet all he’d have to do is pick up his phone, text his dad, and he’d probably wire him some money, or put him up in a hotel for a few nights to try to help him get his bearings again. His dad seems to have a little Prodigal in him, himself. He seems to be the kind of dad who knows that even in wilderness you can get water from the rocks, and even the pine trees will offer you food from time to time.
But it’s probably best he goes back home. It’s good to check out of the wilderness after a while. There’s not much work to do in the wilderness. The flowers are content, the birds know where they will find rest. But back home, the echoes of God’s wild, abundant, and unyielding grace have been all but drowned out by the mundane drone of daily life and social order.
This Lent, have you remembered any of your past wildernesses? Did grace find and surprise you there? I’d put a healthy Vegas bet down that someone else is in desperate need of receiving that word of grace!