As part of my Spiritual Direction training, I had to go on three day silent retreats each year.
Since the SD training was taking place at Tatamagouche Centre, it seemed logical for me to book the retreat space at the centre, which is a lovely one bedroom cottage with a fireplace in the living room and its own kitchen.
I arrived, on a beautiful Friday afternoon in March, with everything I would need for a peaceful, soul enriching experience: food, and drink, maybe even some wine, my camera, a Bible, journal and my cross-stitch. Oh yes, and a mindless novel.
I stopped at the main building and paid for my three days and found out that there was no programming taking place that weekend, so I would have the place to myself. Ahhh, I would be blissfully, peacefully, happily on my own for THREE WHOLE DAYS!
Have any of you been to Tatamagouche Centre? It’s a lovely spot, just outside the village of Tatamagouche, along Tatamagouche Bay and at the mouth of the French and Waugh Rivers. Tatamagouche derives its name from the native Mi’kmaq term Takumegooch, roughly translated as ‘meeting of the waters’. (Wikepedia) There is a walking trail, which in the summer is beautiful spot. And even in winter it is plowed.
I settled in. I went outside and tried out my new camera. I came back in… I built a fire. I journalled a bit… As the afternoon progressed, I heard the sounds of car doors slamming and voices calling out good-byes, have a great weekend. Silence settled in… darkness advanced… And I realized, on this huge expanse of property, OUTSIDE of town, that I was all alone! Noises, noises I hadn’t even really noted in the daylight, as night fell, made my heart race. I chastised myself a bit… “Catherine, there is nothing out there that wasn’t there in the daylight.”
But another voice said, “Yes, but what about those nocturnal animals.” What about whatever criminal element that hangs out in Tatamagouche who knows I am the only one here this weekend! They will find my body on Monday sometime, when the cleaning staff comes in… I don’t claim I was rational…
Obviously I survived the weekend… but I did sleep with the light on… Despite having a Bible handy, I obviously didn’t attach much credence to the words of the Psalm from this morning, “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.”
Compare and contrast that with Jesus, who led by the spirit, entered the wilderness, not for three days, but for 40. And I am not claiming to have been in the wilderness, I had all the comforts of home, but I did feel vulnerable and alone.
The reading from Luke occurs right after Jesus’ baptism… a high moment in his life… where he was full of the Holy Spirit… And just after that high point, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days… It’s not the kind of thing that we usually envision the Holy Spirit doing is it… We usually picture the Holy Spirit as empowering and encouraging us… not sending us out into the wilderness to wrestle with the devil…
Picture yourself in the wilderness… How do you feel… are you cold… are you hot… do you have shelter of any sort… Are there animals in this wilderness… What surrounds you? Danger?
Jesus was human… just like us he knew hunger and thirst and pain and sorrow…
Perhaps hunger bothered him the first few days… but after about a week he didn’t notice it anymore…He is totally focused on deepening his relationship with God… To honouring the voice heard at his baptism… The voice that told him he was a beloved child of God… That same voice that is said to us at our baptism… that we are beloved children of God.
Jesus was preparing to begin his public ministry… But… before heading out into the world to preach his message of love and justice he needed to know what kind of person he was… And in order to do that, he had to wrestle with his own temptations to do good by doing bad… The things the devil tempted him with were not bad in themselves… turning stones into bread could feed a hungry world… Authority over cities and nations could give him the power to effect positive change… trusting in God’s protection… But all of that would come at a price… if only he would renounce his God and worship Satan… and Jesus, wise as he was, knew that anything gained through methods like this would be tainted and ultimately doomed…
These initial months of Interim Ministry may feel like the wilderness for you.
The wilderness held great wisdom for Jesus and it can hold great wisdom for us… but only if we are willing to enter it. Over the next 6 weeks we will explore various themes related to yearning using the image of a dry riverbed as we grow into people who have a deeper sense of what it means to be disciples… to follow the man Jesus.
In the early church Lent was a time of preparation… those who wanted to be baptized on Easter Sunday entered into their final 40 days of learning and testing, and it may have included fasting to symbolize the 40 days that Jesus spent being tested in the desert.
“Although this 40 day period of preparation was originally intended for those preparing for baptism, in time many church members voluntarily undertook for their own self-discipline this 40 days of penitence and fasting, reflecting on their baptismal vows and at Easter joining with the catechumens in renewing their baptismal promises.”(Whole People of God 2007)
Today Lent offers us the same opportunity for reflection and renewal, and to give voice to our yearning, as individuals and as a Pastoral Charge. Some of you are quickly calculating and saying to yourselves… hey, wait a minute, if there are six weeks of Lent that is already 42 days and Lent started on Ash Wednesday so that is a few more, what’s with this number 40! And you will be right!
The 40 days of Lent are counted without the Sundays… unlike the season of Advent before Christmas, in Lent, we do not count the Sundays. I am not sure if it is because the early church leaders knew that six weeks of unrelenting fasting and testing would be too much for people, or whether it is part of our Hebrew heritage to keep the Sabbath holy and worship God. Not necessarily with solemn faces and hearts, but with joyous hearts as we focus on preparing to be disciples of Christ.
But we do change our worship practices and decorations…my stole is mauve to signify a penitential period… a time of taking stock… our decorations are less, no showy flowers or glittering crosses…Over time, Lent lost its initial meaning and became a time of intentional deprivation… in which some competed to see who could fast the longest, who did the most charity work, who spent the most hours in prayer and so on. This is far, far from the intent of preparation to receive baptism.
All of those things I mentioned, fasting, prayer, and caring for those on the margins are all integral parts of our life in Christ or they can be. But I suggest when they become another way of competing, as if God will love us more, they have lost their spiritual aspect and have simply become another way in which we can judge each other.
What are we yearning for within this pastoral charge? What is God yearning for within this pastoral charge? Each week you are invited to write down your yearnings on these rocks and place them along the riverbed. What might the wilderness hold for us? What wisdom is there for us? Can we befriend the wilderness?
One of the wondrous things about being part of a community of faith, is that we don’t enter those times alone. We have companions on the journey. Even in our utmost solitude, we have God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit with us. We have words of scripture, words of encouragement and challenge. And as a community of faith, we have each other. And so… I invite you into the wilderness… into this time of yearning…
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity, amen.
(C) Catherine MacDonald 2016
Scripture readings can be found here