Love, Lent, and Leadership: Fashioning Your Own Wilderness

Lectionary readings and guidance on using the lectionary
Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”   – Luke 4:1, 2

Today we experience an odd juxtaposition:  Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day coming together on the same day.  How are we supposed to put these two together?

Here’s a thought…what if we used this strange “coincidence” to ask Jesus to teach us about love—his kind of love—and to reflect on what kind of preparation and purification is needed for us to live such love?  Why did Jesus have to spend time in the wilderness before he could bring his love to the world?  And why might the same be true for us?

The Place of the Great Struggle

The season of Lent derives its structure and its themes from Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness where he fasted, prayed and faced temptations crafted by the evil one as he prepared for his life of radical love here on this earth. This wilderness time was not punishment; in fact, Jesus had just experienced God’s public affirmation of his true identity as “my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Indeed, he was led (some translations say “driven”) into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit as a time of purification and preparation for the ministry that was ahead of him.

In the wilderness Jesus faced different facets of the greatest temptation of the human experience—the temptation to trust in that which is not God for our security and survival, affirmation and approval, power and control.  These tendencies would have to be confronted and renounced in order for him to enter the ministry to which God was calling him—the ministry of cruciform love.

Such love is not the soft, sentimental, emotional thing we celebrate today with hearts and flowers.  As our teacher, Dr. Robert Mulholland, describes it, this is a radically other-centered, non-self-referenced way of being in God for the world that is the very essence of the Christian life and ministry

 If the image of Christ is being formed in us, it is the image of the One who gave himself totally, completely, absolutely, unconditionally for others. Jesus’ struggle in the wilderness prepared him to give us his life and then to give us his death in this radically non-self-referenced way.

A Clear-Eyed Look

Lent is for everyone, but it has a special application for us as spiritual leaders.   The ministry of cruciform love is our calling as well and yet no one becomes this kind of lover by accident.  Lent provides us with a needed opportunity to enter into our own wilderness to wrestle (as Jesus did) with the nature of Christian ministry, to reflect on what/who we are trusting in as we minister, and to be honest how we are measuring the “success” of our ministry.

During Lent we experience the evil one’s proficiency at crafting very subtle and dangerous appeals to our instinctual patterns to save ourselves and get love through our own human strategies rather than trusting God for what we need.

A true Lenten journey demands that we take a clear-eyed look at our lives and wonder, Where am I tempted to  “turn these stones into bread”—using whatever gifts and powers God has given me to secure my own survival?  Where am I putting God to the test—disregarding human limitations in order to prove something to others—and expecting him to come to my rescue time and time again?    When, where and how am I tempted to worship the outward trappings of success rather than seeking the inner authority that comes from worshipping God and serving him only?

As Richard Rohr observes, “These three temptations are the primal and universal temptations that all humans must face before they dare to take on any kind of power—as Jesus was about to do.  They are all temptations to the misuse of power for purposes that are less than God’s purpose.  Jesus passes all three tests and thus ‘the devil left him’ because he could not be used for lesser purposes.  If you face such demons in yourself, God can use you mightily.  Otherwise, you will, for sure be used.”

The Intimate Encounter

But wait, there’s more! Old Testament references hint at the fact that the wilderness is also a place of intimacy where God speaks to us very tenderly those things he has been wanting to say to our souls:  “Therefore I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her…there she shall respond as in the days of her youth.”  (Hosea 2:14,15) And let’s not forget that Jesus’ wilderness experience concluded with the experience of having angels come and minister to him.

Oftentimes we think of the wilderness as being a harsh and punishing place; however, it can also be a place where we find clarity, discover inner strength, and experience the salvation that comes from God alone.  It can be a place where we experience God’s steadfast love. As Henri Nouwen says, “We have to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of the Lord.  Without such a desert we will lose our own soul while preaching the gospel to others.”

Strengthened by Love for Love

Clearly something special happens between God and his people in the wilderness! We, too, need to be strengthened by God’s intimate love and ministry to us—gifts that come to us in unique ways as we fashion our own wilderness through expanded practices of solitude, silence and prayer.  Lent, after all, is meant to help us return to our first love and to return with all our hearts.  It is a call to the desert where life is stripped down to its barest essence, where distraction is stripped away, and we give ourselves unreservedly to the Lover of our Souls.

The desert waits,
ready for those who come,
who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading;
or who are driven,
because they will not come any other way.

The desert waits,
ready to let us know who we are—
the place of self-discovery.

And while we fear, and rightly,
the loneliness and emptiness
and harshness,
we forget the angels,
whom we cannot see for our blindness,
but who come when God decides
that we need their help;
when we are ready
for what they can give us.

– Ruth Burgess, Bread of Tomorrow

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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As chairperson of my church board, I have recognized the slump after an important meeting, that comes from being more visible, thus vulnerable. This “fashioning one’s wilderness” or as Nouwen says “fashioning one’s desert”gets my attention. I think this gives me a clue…..what God may be calling me to after these occasions of feeling over exposure…..choosing desert time, wilderness time, as Jesus chose to withdraw, to be alone to pray. A spiritual discipline, perhaps combined with praise and trust…..taking self out of the equation….

At the turn of the century, I was driven to wilderness… awful time, yet a most life-giving time….what I found was utter freedom, nothing to lose, peace that passes understanding, God’s unconditional love…God doing a new thing in my life, those closest to me, or at least given opportunity for such to happen. Fear and anxiety nearly consumed me…so, as I choose wilderness for this period of Lent, I am choosing utter freedom, nothing to lose, all to gain in Christ Jesus? Can it be?

Thank you, Ruth. This went deep into my soul.

Me too!!!

“the greatest temptation ….. to trust in that which is not God”. Wow, that says it all and man did it hit me and my idol factory dead on! Thanks for your applications regarding the temptations of Jesus. How much we miss when we so emphasize Jesus’ deity that we minimize His humanity and the real struggles that He faced for us. He is truly a High Priest who has compassion as we struggle to truly love God as He did. Thanks for all that you and your team do to remind us of what is truly important – loving God supremely.

Thanks for your annual thoughts making Lent impactful. Today is day one, I have decided to fast a couple simple pleasures, and already there is an internal struggle to cave in. I am sure there is more struggle to come. I resist the urge, which causes the enemy to flee. But also, increase my intake of the Word, which draws God nearer.

After reading this I got a picture of a beautiful desert just a few hours from my home. Joshua Tree National Park. Famous for rock climbing which I’ve done here. I see myself there and observing the beautiful rocks, warm colors and simplicity. I also am in a place that is dry, without water and even dangerous. My desert wilderness experience during this season is to see the beauty in my struggles and to know that in the end I will be stronger in my faith and able to go through the many more desert wilderness seasons in my life.

Thanks for the timely words. They were challenging in one sense and in another deeply appealing. The thoughts about the dessert were new and thank you for them,

Personally I have been in a desert place for a long time now but I just love being there. it strips me of everything and I rely completely on God’s goodness for all my provisions and like Elijah in the desert even the an angel brought him food to strengthen him for his continuing journey so I also enjoy the crumbs that fall from my Master’s table. I feel His presence with me every day and I thank Him for the peace He gives me.

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