A half day’s drive from my home brings me to Lake Ozette, Wash. Situated near the Pacific Ocean, this large natural lake lies within the boundaries of Olympic National Park. Its densely treed shoreline adds to its sense of remoteness. My friend and I slide my 15-foot wooden rowboat, Sanctuary, off its trailer into the lake, park the car, and load up our gear. I seal my cell phone, wallet, and keys into a little yellow waterproof box. I will not need these trappings of civilization this week. In the wilderness, there is nothing to buy, no roads to drive, and no phone reception. We don lifejackets and climb aboard. My oars trace long, sweeping arcs as Sanctuary glides easily through the water.
Two hours of steady rowing brings us down the lake to a place with a dry stream bed and little gravel beach. It is, as I expect, deserted. I nudge Sanctuary’s bow up onto the shore. We unload our gear and begin setting up camp, creating our temporary home in the wilderness. We choose spots for tents and unfold camp chairs for lounging and reading. We string hammocks from trees for afternoon naps. We establish a camp kitchen and dining area. Away from the conveniences and creature com forts of our civilized life, we learn new appreciation both for what we have, and for what we have left behind.
We joke about forgetting to pack the microwave and television, although for either of those appliances to be useful, we would also need either a generator or a very long extension cord. While part of the fun of camping involves recreating some of the comforts of home, going into the wilderness also teaches us that there is a limit to our carrying capacity, a lesson that we do well to remember back in civilization where we are surrounded with all of our stuff.
We protect our food from bears, raccoons, chipmunks, and crows by making sure everything is tucked into smooth hard plastic “bear barrels.” We slather on bug repellant to make us less appetizing to hungry mosquitoes. These precautions remind us that we are not “at the top of the food chain.” In fact, it is not a chain at all. We are part of an interconnected web. The wilderness is my teacher: I must neither over nor underestimate my place in creation. (back to top)
A Place Set Apart
“Come away to a deserted place,” Jesus says, inviting his disciples to withdraw with him away from the crowds out into the wilderness. (See Mark 6:31). The disciples have just returned from a mission trip. They’ve been practicing ministry, reaching out in wit ness and service. They are tired, yet excited to tell Jesus about what they have learned and experienced. The Sea of Galilee, a big lake, beckons them with the promise of rest and retreat on its far shore. While this is wilderness, it is not unknown territory. It is a place apart, yet familiar ground.
Jesus knows the wilderness. He knows it as a place of prayer, of retreat, of testing, and temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilder ness, to test his mettle, focus his discernment, and prepare him for his ministry. Throughout his ministry, Jesus entered the wilderness to spend time away from others for prayer and rest. How many times might Jesus have come to this wilderness place? We don’t really know, but perhaps it was often.
Wilderness is sanctuary, space set apart. The wilderness is a place of encounter with God. The scrip tures are filled with wilderness stories: In addition to Jesus, Jacob, Moses, the Israelites, Elijah and others are also shaped by their time in the wilderness. The psalmists and the prophets describe the wilderness as a place of refuge and rest. From the wilderness, John the Baptist calls for repentance. The wilderness is safe space for honing one’s sense of vocation and for wrestling with doubt and temptation, all the while coming to recognize how one is sustained by God’s mercy.
The wilderness juxtaposes self-reliance and dependence. If I didn’t pack something, I can’t just run back home or down to the corner store to pick it up. If something breaks, I need to figure out how to fix it or do without it. The wilderness has its inherent dangers and discomforts, ranging from storms to rough terrain and wild animals. It is foolhardy to enter the wilder ness unprepared or ill-equipped. Even those who are experienced and prepared still face risks. Every year, there are those who have gotten injured or killed while in the wilderness. Such risks remind us that the wilder ness is not tame.
While the wilderness is a place of danger, it is also a setting where we come to know God’s unmitigated grace and generosity. The wilderness is the place where, with the Israelites from ancient times, we learn to trust in God’s promise call. But it also creates an unspoken expectation of being always available and ready to respond. It is easy to fall into the subtle trap of thinking that just because I can be reachable, I should be always available.
Whether it is the television, the computer, the phone, or our own “to do” list, Christ’s invitation to “come away and rest” is an invitation to set aside those things that divert us from what is truly important. A wise friend taught me that “the interruptions are your work.” That is true, and my ongoing challenge lies in distinguishing between interruptions that call me from one project to something more important and distractions that cause me to fritter away time and energy without meaning of grace that is sufficient for each day. In the wilderness, we learn our place. Even as I am “self-reliant,” I am not. Others have designed the gear I bring, grown the food I eat, built the roads I used to reach its edge. Others have prepared the maps I use to pre vent me from getting lost.
The Bible invites us to see the wilderness not as nature to be conquered, but as a space to be entered, embraced, and received on its own terms. Jesus’ invitation to his disciples was not about heading out into the wilds to display great feats of strength and endurance by conquering every peak, exploring every valley, or traversing great distances. His invitation is to rest. It is an invitation to sabbath, to time and space apart, to be with God, with Jesus, and in community with one another. It is time to share stories of faith and reflect on what they have learned and experienced. (back to top)
The phone which I usually carry in my pocket is a mixed blessing. It enables me to untether myself from my desk while remaining connected to others, so I can go for a walk without worrying about missing some important call. But it also creates an unspoken expectation of being always available and ready to respond. It is easy to fall into the subtle trap of thinking that just because I can be reachable, I should be always available.
Whether it is the television, the computer, the phone, or our own “to do” list, Christ’s invitation to “come away and rest” is an invitation to set aside those things that divert us from what is truly important. A wise friend taught me that “the interruptions are your work.” That is true, and my ongoing challenge lies in distinguishing between interruptions that call me from one project to something more important and distractions that cause me to fritter away time and energy without meaning or purpose. An interruption leads to meeting a genuine human need, a new discovery, or a surprising opportunity for renewal. A distraction leaves me with neither an accomplishment nor a sense of rest and rejuvenation. The invitation to “come away and rest” helps us break free from “the tyranny of the urgent,” where the demand for immediate response overwhelms our ability to discern what is truly important. (back to top)
Community and Compassion
After Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake, they got out of the boat and discovered that the crowds had followed them around the shoreline and beat them to the beach (Mark 6:33). Although they are in the wilder ness, this isn’t a deserted place. They would not have a quiet, solitary retreat. Instead of being “just them,” now the wilderness was filled with a large crowd of people. Even in deserted places, we do not stand apart, either from God or from the community.
The disciples wanted to send the crowds away. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by providing for them when they themselves were so worn out. Perhaps they were trying to protect their time of rest and retreat. Perhaps they secretly wanted to keep Jesus for themselves. But what the disciples framed as a distraction from their planned retreat, Jesus saw as the kind of interruption that was his true work.
Jesus had compassion for the crowd. He saw not just a crowd, but a community. He viewed them as sheep without a shepherd, not as annoyances ruining his vacation. Jesus welcomed the interruption. He responded to their hunger for his teaching and their hunger for food. Although his disciples thought that feeding such a big crowd was impossible, Jesus demonstrated that there is no limit to his compassion. Hidden within Jesus’ call to “come away to a deserted place and rest awhile” is our invitation to recognize that in Christ, we are always part of a larger community. By feeding the crowds in the wilderness, Jesus reminds us that his care and compassion are not reserved only for a selected few, chosen insiders, but for everyone. (back to top)
Wilderness isn’t just found in remote distant lakeshores accessible only by boat or on foot. Wilderness can be found even in nearby small spaces, such as an urban pocket park, a backyard or patio, or even a treasured chair in your home. Entering this wilderness doesn’t involve special equipment, strenuous exertion, or arduous travel. It also need not involve lengthy time periods. Wilderness time can be measured in minutes or hours, rather than days and weeks. The invitation to come away and rest is an invitation to be still, even if only for a moment, and in that stillness, to notice God’s presence. With the psalmist, we hear God’s invitation to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Jesus’ invitation to enter the wilderness involves an internal, spiritual shift that happens when we respond to Christ’s invitation to “come away and rest awhile.” That rest is emotional and spiritual as well as physical. It might include going for a walk or ride. Perhaps it involves shutting the door to your room and opening the Scripture. Perhaps it is closing your eyes and opening your heart in prayer. Perhaps it is “unplugging” by setting aside your calendar, shutting off your computer, television, radio, or telephone and stepping away for a while. Perhaps it is the rejuvenation of a few hours of undisturbed sleep. (back to top)
The Invitation of Lent
Every year, the appointed gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The 40 days of Lent echoes both Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and temptation and ancient Israel’s 40 year wilderness journey. Lent is a season for repentance and exploring the faith. Lent invites us into reflection, retreat and wilderness pilgrimage.
Longstanding Christian traditions of “giving something up for Lent” are associated with sharing in Jesus’ wilderness fasting, resisting temptation, and sharing in his suffering on the cross. Historically, Lent has been a time of instruction for those who are newcomers to faith to prepare for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Many congregations offer special opportunities during Lent to gather in community, such as sharing a midweek meal, worship, and study. Many individuals embrace Lent as a time for renewal in prayer, devotion, and acts of compassion and service. Lent is wilderness time.
“Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile,” says Jesus, as he beckons us to join him in the wilderness. He invites us to a life of prayer, rest, and compassion. We are called into the wilderness to be refreshed and renewed in faith and discipleship and reminded that we are part of an interconnected community fed by God’s grace.
In every season, may we receive this gift of wilder ness and embrace our place within it. (back to top)
The Rev. Julie A. Kanarr serves as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Belfair, Wash. A native of the Pacific Northwest, she enjoys sea kayaking, rowing, sailing, bicycling, hiking, and camping.