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The Liminal Wilderness

I’m struck by the fact that all of this takes place in the wilderness.  The tempter could have tempted him in a village, like Capernaum.  It could have happened in Nazareth.  It could have happened in Jerusalem. It could have happened at prayer in the synagogue or maybe in the inner recesses of his heart.  The topography of the terrain is significant.  The terrain almost becomes a character in the drama unfolding before our eyes.  There are places in the world that, odd as it may sound, have a certain character or feeling about them—whether it’s the Eastern Shore or the mystical rolling hills of the Blue Ridge, the plains of Dakota, the open deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.  And when we’re in those places, the land, the setting has an impact upon us, it touches us, moves us, fascinates us….

Throughout the Bible it is the wilderness that takes on a significant character and role in the drama of God’s people.  The God of Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob was first “introduced” to Moses... in the wilderness of the Sinai.  It’s in the wilderness, on a mountain, that Moses first discovers the name of the nameless one, the name of Yahweh—the great “I AM.”  It’s in the wilderness that Israel then wrestled with what it means to be children of Yahweh.  It’s in the wilderness, the place in-between Egypt and the Promised Land that Israel discovered its identity and discovered that God was faithful.  What they needed to know could only be discovered there—not in Egypt, not in the Promised Land, but in this no-man’s-land, in this place of transition, between departure and destination. 

What we need to remember is that the wilderness was really wild—and dangerous and scary.  In our age, we have done a good job taming many of the places earlier peoples considered wild.  We have maps, really good maps. Thanks to Google and a smart phone, iPad, laptop or a GPS system, we rarely worry about getting lost, we can find our way.  Every region of the earth has been digitized thanks to satellite imaging, except for perhaps the deepest recesses of the ocean floor….  There’s a place for civilization, of course.  Communities, cities matter—the Bible is pretty clear about this.  While the book of Genesis might begin in a garden, the Bible ends with Revelation’s image of the new city of God (Rev. 21-22). Cities are holy places for God.

But the city is not the only place where God likes to show up.  Perhaps the most profound encounters with the holiness of God are found in wild places, in what Presbyterian theologian Belden Lane calls “fierce landscapes.”  The “wild God of Israel” is first known in the wild places, the wilderness places, like deserts which aren’t safe and secure and tame.  “The God of Sinai,” Lane suggests,” is one who thrives on fierce landscape, seemingly forcing God’s people into wild and wretched climes where trust must be absolute.”[1]  Indeed, the three, main monotheistic religions of our age all have their origins in desert environments, rooted in experiences of God in these landscapes:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In fact, Lane argues “Talk about God cannot easily be separated from discussion of place.”[2]  The setting shapes how God is understood.  Some of us are preternaturally drawn to such places; some of us experience the holy there.  As for me, as I’ve shared before, it’s the wild and bleak highlands of Scotland that stir my soul, or  being on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a raging Nor’easter, or, more recently, discovering God’s presence in the vast terrain of Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.    Everyone isn’t drawn to such places.  God is certainly found in non-wild places.    But there’s something about these places, deserts and mountains, which become the place of meeting, the setting of revelation, the location for a profound and life-changing encounter.  We gravitate away from such scary places because of the threat they pose.  But they can and do become holy places when we risk going there.  “Desert and mountain places,” Lane explains, “are often associated with the ‘limit-experiences’ of people on the edge, people who have run out of language in speaking of God, people whose recourse to fierce landscapes has fed some deep need in them for the abandonment of control and the acceptance of God’s love in absolute, unmitigated grace.”[3] 

In fact, sometimes we have to be brought to those limiting places; we have to go to the periphery of our lives to rediscover the center or core of our lives.  Sometimes we have to go into exile, wander in the desert, get lost, and disoriented in order to find our way home.  Often, the most profound knowledge of ourselves and of God cannot be known from staying in the center, by staying home, remaining in safe, secure places.  We have to be brought or sent to the limit or the edge – to liminal places.  Liminal, from the Latin, limen, means “threshold.”  It’s in the liminal places, threshold places, in-between places, edge places, wild places that we discover what we ordinarily cannot see or do not wish to see….

Sometimes the Spirit sends us, throws us into the wilderness.  Sometimes we need to be knocked off-center and the knocking is an expression of grace. Sometimes our lives are too predictable and they need to be destabilized and that destabilization too is an expression of grace. Sometimes we need to go to the edge, to the periphery, to fearful places, places of transition, of threshold….

From the wilderness we discern this wisdom, this truth:  the place of apparent absence can become, by God’s grace, the place of presence, the place of meeting, the place of discovery, the place of grace, and the place where God’s angels come and attend to us in our need.

Now, this is a heavy wisdom to discern.  I’m nervous about how to talk about all of this. There is divine wisdom found in these experiences.  But we have to be very careful here.  It’s a wisdom that we can only discover for ourselves.   We can’t offer that wisdom to someone else.  It’s not something we can say to another, especially when some are already in the wilderness.  For, there are people who don’t want to be in the wilderness, who experience the wilderness not as a means of grace, but more like a curse.  For some there’s nothing good about the wilderness. 
Not every wilderness experience is God’s doing.   The unimaginable pain and horror experienced by the people of Japan is not to be seen as God throwing them into wilderness, literally, destabilizing their lives in order for them learn something about themselves—that would be a cruel way to get someone to learn a lesson.  There are people who live in the wilderness of terminal and chronic illness. That too, must not be seeing as God “causing” something to happen in order to learn a lesson or as an act of punishment or judgment or abandonment by God.   So, we have to be careful in the way we talk about wilderness.

At the same time, however, we cannot deny the fact that the God of the Bible, as Jesus knew, has this uncanny ability and desire to show up in the places of desolation and in our cries of dereliction, a God who remains affixed to the many crosses of our lives, present in our tears and in our worries and our fears, when we feel lost and desolate and disconsolate, when we have difficulty wandering through the wilderness, when we want to go back to the way things used to be and have no clear sense of where we’re going.  It’s precisely in those wild places, those in-between places, when everything seems unhinged, when “things fall apart,” as [William Butler] Yeats (1865-1939) said, “when the center cannot hold,” in the scary places that God’s face is known[4]….

[1] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality( New York:  Oxford University Press, 1989), 43.
[2] Lane, 9.
[3] Lane, 20.
[4] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 in the aftermath of the Great War. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York:  Scribner, 1996).