Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Wilderness Walk

The First Sunday of Lent, our Gospel reading is about Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days. This Gospel wilderness is something different from the notion of wilderness some of us have; the Gospel wilderness is an empty, desolate place, not the pristine forests, meadows, and waterways some of us picture when we think about how good it would be to get away to a wilderness area for a few days.

If the Gospel wilderness is a place of desolation, what counts as a Lenten wilderness for us today? Where do we encounter desolation that calls us to follow Jesus’ example of faithfulness on a journey through the wilderness? We don’t have to look far to find situations in our lives, both personal and communal, that can set us on metaphorical journeys through desolate territory.

People sometimes ask me how I can bear thinking about the things environmental activists need to think about. Last month, when Dr. Chris Field from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) both contributed to an update on global warming science to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and also spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago, he suggested that earlier predictions about climate change might have underestimated the severity of global warming in coming years. Earlier estimates didn’t account for things like the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the permafrost of the Arctic tundra that would be released into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws.

This has been on my mind, and I know it has been in the news. Yet several people to whom I mentioned these reports said they didn’t know how I could think about it; they knew this was important, but couldn’t let themselves really listen to it or think about the possibility that these latest predictions might be sound. And a couple of people asked me point blank how we can think about such things without falling into despair.

Dealing honestly and openly with these issues, looking at them instead of running away from them, gives us an opportunity to follow Jesus’ example of how to walk through a desolate wilderness. This sort of journey calls for faithfulness; it calls us to do the hard work of wrestling with these issues while remaining hopeful. As followers of Jesus, we know how to say no to the temptation of despair; we know how to keep going when it would be tempting to give up and pretend everything is fine. We know how to keep focused on the light, and we know the darkness will not overcome it. Living in hope doesn’t mean ignoring problems; it means trekking through the desolate places with grateful hearts, trusting that our faithfulness will get us through.

March began here on Sunday with frigid temperatures and snow on the ground, but there are signs of spring there for the seeing. The sun had enough warmth to have melted the snow in some places, while in other places the sun’s warmth on icy ponds made water vapor visible in the cold air. There are shoots of early spring flowers coming up through the snow, and flocks of birds responding to the lengthening days. Yesterday a flock of robins arrived in our yard, and some of them were singing as if it were a warm day in April.

The month of March, when winter ends and spring begins, is a time of contrasts. ‘Lent’ comes from the Old English word for spring, for the lengthening days. Lent, too, is a time of contrasts; a time of desolation mixed with hope and joy. It’s a time to experience a wilderness walk with Jesus, relying on Christ to help us get past the temptations that would make us turn around and quit walking, and learning the faithfulness that brings hope into the most desolate of situations.

Scientists, economists, and other experts contribute analysis of data to help us understand what is happening in our world. People of faith have something else to contribute to the conversation, a voice of hope that helps us make hard choices and do the work that lies ahead of us.