photo © 2006 Hamed Saber | more info (via: Wylio)One of my favorite seminary professors was Dr. Stephen Brachlow who is the professor of Spirituality at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Every May he leads a class called “Wilderness Retreat” in which he takes seminary students out to a local retreat center and has them spend a week in the wilderness listening to God. While I never had a chance to take this particular class, I did take a class on Celtic Spirituality with Dr. Brachlow which involved the same practice of getting lost in the wilderness and in the process discovering our creator God. While many students struggled with hearing God in nature, I felt closer to God out in creation than I have ever felt anywhere else.
Five years ago, after taking my first spirituality class with Dr. Brachlow, I felt God leading me into the wilderness as a regular spiritual practice. My husband and I purchased 22 acres in the middle of nowhere, put a small cabin on it and I began withdrawing to this place every chance I get.
As our ministry has gotten more and more complex, the call to embrace the simplicity of this isolated place has grown stronger and stronger. Eugene Peterson in his book “Under the Unpredictable Plant” writes,
“A contemplative life is not an alternative to the active life, but its root and foundation.”
In the endless chatter of leading a growing ministry, I find it difficult to clearly discern God’s voice without intentional times of contemplative prayer. With out these times in the wilderness alone with God my ministry becomes overwhelming and I can’t see the forest for the trees. My days are filled with endless meetings, Twitter posts, Facebook chats, numerous emails, website comments and telephone calls. However, in the wilderness there is no cell service, no internet connection, no television or radio – there is only silence and the still small voice of God. Everything becomes so much clearer with out all the clutter of contemporary life.
I am writing this post on a Sunday morning and my heart is at peace as I sit here and listen to the rain and gaze out over the land that stretches before me. The cows have sought shelter under a grove of oak trees, the fields are freshly plowed and the seed they bear rejoices at God’s provision of water. The hills in the horizon appear hazy as I peer through the rain and remind me that the mountains are just an hour away.
Here in the wilderness, I feel so small and insignificant as I sit under 300 year old oak trees that tower over 80 feet into the air. I am reminded that all my toiling and spinning is so totally unnecessary as I watch the birds of the air and the lilies of the field do what God created them to do with no effort at all. As rain waters run into the creek which will eventually empty into the ocean, I am reminded that all of life is caught in endless cycles that continues without our even thinking about it.
The scriptures tell us in Luke 5:16 (NIV) that,
“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
Through the magic of Bible Gateway, I looked up this verse in 15 different translations and found that what the NIV translates as “Lonely places”, is translated into the following terms by other translations.
1.) the wilderness (NASB,KJV, NKJV)
2.) out of the way places (The Message)
3.) desert (Amplified, Worldwide English)
4.) desolate places (English Standard)
5.) some place where he could be alone (Contemporary English, New Century)
6.) deserted places (Common English)
7.) away to be by himself (Readers version)
8.) desert places (Young’s Literal)
I wish I had retained everything I learned in Greek class and could tell you what the Greek word being translated here is, but sadly my old brain did not retain much from that class. (Don’t tell Dr. Spencer my Greek professor!) Even if I could give you the Greek word, I think it is clear that there is no easy English equivalent. If there were, there would not be 9 different ways of translating the word.
Having spent many hours in my own “wilderness” places alone with God in prayer, I think the fullness of what this passage of scripture is trying to tell us includes all these understandings and more. Wilderness places are those places where there is nothing but God. Places with desert like conditions void of human presence or influence. Places that are out of the way, uninhabited and which possess the mystery of God’s presence. At least that is my purely experiential interpretation.
This morning when I posted on my Facebook page that I was retreating into the wilderness, I did so with a little bit of hesitation. I know there are those who think all good Christians should spend every Sunday morning in worship services conducted by human beings. I pray some day we free ourselves of seeing worship as something we “do” and instead as something we “experience” wherever we encounter God. While I have not sung a single note this morning, my spirit is worshiping the God who created such beauty and who has called me to this place to spend some time alone with me.
I wish more churches would teach people about the power of time alone in the wilderness the way Dr. Brachlow taught his students. You cannot “learn” about God’s presence in the wilderness, you must “encounter” it.
What if one Sunday a month, the churches in our city met in the forests and parks throughout and surrounding Metro- Richmond and committed to getting lost in the wilderness? What if instead of bands and choirs, we all committed to silence and listening? What if instead of sermons, we all gathered in small groups after spending a time alone with God and shared the insights God gave us? How would such a practice change our view of what it means to be a church? Are you willing to follow in Jesus footsteps and withdraw into the lonely places to encounter God?
I am reminded of John the Baptist who quoted the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (John 1:23) I believe there is still a voice calling in the wilderness that will lead us straight to the Lord, are we listening?
Katherine Gunn at A Voice in the Desert writes What is Wilderness?
Wendy McCaig giving us a View from the Bridge brings A Voice Calling in the Wilderness
EmmaNadine who describes Life By List wonders about Life in the Wilderness
Tammy Carter of Blessing the Beloved is taking a rest as she Puts down the axe
Jeremy Myers writing at Til He Comes ponders The Gaping Chasm of Suicide
kathy escobar shares the carnival in my head and writes about belonging
Steve Hayes of Methodius describes Anatomy of exile
Marta Layton at Marta’s Mathoms writes On Sabbaths, Mountain-Tops… and Brothers’ Keepers
Liz Dyer at Grace Rules discovers Beauty In The Wilderness
Christen Hansel of Greener Grass offers up Snapshots of the Desert