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Come in the wilderness

David Parkin
4 September 2019

A few years ago I was invited to be part of a retreat at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire, the basic theme being “On The Edge”. Early on we met individually with the retreat facilitator and in my session I said that I had a picture of a sign in my mind, a sign that read “Way Out”, and I wasn’t sure if I simply wanted away from the retreat or if it signified something deeper. Then I remembered driving in Cyprus in 2001 and being entranced that the motorway exit signs read “Exodus”, and my underlying theme for the retreat was settled. Exodus, the “way out” for the people of Israel was initially to the wilderness, a time of wandering that, despite an occasional wish to return to Egypt, was to lead to positive outcomes, not least a new understanding of the God they worshipped. I reflected on the stages of Israel’s journey:

  • Slavery in Egypt;
  • Exodus;
  • Wilderness wandering;
  • Promised Land.

Thinking that stage 3 was necessary to understand and appreciate the meaning of stage 4.

The same could be said of the stages of Jesus’ adult life:

  • Time in Nazareth, possibly as a follower of John the Baptist;
  • Baptism — was this his “Exodus”?;
  • Time in the wilderness;
  • Ministry.

Again, stage 3 was necessary to understand stage 4.

So my thinking during and after the retreat began to understand wilderness as having at least the possibility of being a positive place. It could be a place for:

  • Preparation;
  • Focus;
  • Awareness of God;
  • Understanding — a place of liberation from old ideas of place and possession.

And yes, a place of temptation — temptation to go back to old ways, to compromise with the world, a wanting to “go back to Egypt”. Eventual return to a new way of being, both individually and as church.

My own Exodus since that retreat has been a move away from traditional church — after fifty years it seemed right last year to finally stop leading worship. My spiritual sustenance comes from what might be described as “wilderness groups”, small groups of people who are on the edge of or outside church communities, but who are supportive of and committed to each other. I could describe them as “Giving an A communities”, a definition that comes from the American musician Ben Zander, who in his wonderful book The Art of Possibility tells of the time when he was concerned that his students’ worries about end of year grades were affecting their musical performances. So he came up with the idea of telling the students they would all get an “A”. And he would tell them right at the start of the course rather than at the end. All he asked the students to do was to write him a letter very early on, but dated at the end of the course, which began “I got my A because…”

He tells the story of a Taiwanese student who was asked, a few weeks after he had written his letter what difference it had made. “In Taiwan”, the student explained, “I was number 68 out of 70 students. I come to Boston and Mr Zander says I am an A. Very confusing.

I walk about, three weeks, very confused.
I am number 68, but Mr Zander says I am an A student…
I am number 68, but Mr Zander says I am an A.
One day I discover I am much happier as A than as number 68.
So I decide I am an A”

And I wondered if that is what God says to us. In God’s eyes are we all As? Maybe we are not miserable sinners in need of redemption. Maybe we are As who are loved and cherished by God.

So if we know that in God’s eyes we are an A, what would we put in a letter to God that begins “I got an A because…” Might it be by defining ourselves by what we are and what we do rather than by what we believe or what we don’t do?

This God who we see in Jesus, this wonderful God, rates every last one of us as an A. And if God rates us an A — how can we do anything different?

Strange where reflecting on the idea of wilderness can lead!

And what do we do when we come out the wilderness? Perhaps become communities dedicated to the vision of Isaiah 65: 17–25 (what might be described as not so much the most that is pleasing to God, but the least that is acceptable to God), committed to being followers of Jesus rather than believers about him, and maybe taking as our aim words from the Greek philosopher Aeschylus, whom Robert Kennedy quoted in a speech just after Martin Luther King’s assassination:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago, to tame the savageness of man [sic.] and to make gentle the life of this world.”

I’m an enthusiast for the television series The West Wing — politics as we wish it was — and in one episode a character quotes the American anthropologist Margaret Mead; “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Come in the wilderness to reflect on how such change might come about, and then come out of the wilderness.

This first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Briefing, the magazine of Free to Believe