22 June 2020
A Moment to Reflect -48
IN THE WILDERNESS
Before the lockdown started, I was halfway through leading a series of evening reflections that I called “Christ in the Wilderness.” It was based around a series of religious paintings of that name by Stanley Spencer.
At the time, part of the attraction to me of focusing on Spencer—apart from the paintings themselves— was his Port Glasgow connection. (Spencer was an official War artist, but he was also commissioned after the Second World War to do a series of paintings of the Port Glasgow shipyards, which meant he painted scenes of places familiar to me as a child.)
Spencer was a Christian and his paintings are mostly profound spiritual reflections on the gospel that often challenge and sometimes disturb our conventional images of Jesus. (Bishop Stephen Cottrell, named as the next Archbishop of York, has written a very helpful book on Spencer’s wilderness paintings.)
As part of the presentation in one of those evening meetings I had used this photo that I remember taking from a fairly fast-moving car on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. Don’t worry I wasn’t the driver! It shows the kind of desert terrain in which John the Baptist preached and into which the Spirit of God drove Jesus after his baptism. It also indicates perhaps why the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho was ‘bandit country’ in which a lone traveller might easily be ambushed. But I’ve chosen it mainly to illustrate the last of the quotations (for the moment) that I want to share with you from the writings of Rachel Held Evans.
“Two thousand years later, John’s call remains a wilderness call, a cry from the margins. Because we religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve of, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” ― Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.
The whole ‘lockdown” situation has been for most of us a kind of wilderness experience where, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, we have been deprived of many things that we had long taken for granted and on which we had previously relied.
But the wilderness historically (and Biblically) has also often been a place of prayer, of personal spiritual renewal, of insight and fresh discovery… precisely because things are stripped back to the bare essentials. In the wilderness we recognise what really matters to us and what is actually not quite as important as we previously thought.
What have you learned so far about yourself, or about God, in these strange days?