Church in the Wilderness

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Jesus rises from his baptism, dripping with water from the river Jordan, when heaven opens and a dove that’s not a dove descends and a voice that once long ago called creation into being affirms his love and support for His only Son. It’s an anointing, a rite of passage, a commissioning; the atmosphere is electric as expectant whispers speak of the Messiah marching into ministry.

Instead he walks into the wilderness.

I don’t like the wilderness and all its metaphorical connotations. I don’t like those periods of exhaustion and emptiness and despair and isolation, don’t like digging for spiritual scraps or fighting the internal voices that keep me from looking for those scraps in the first place. No, I don’t like the wilderness, I don’t like being pushed into the margins.

But then, why should I? I belong to the church in the West. Christianity is an established religion, you can tell that from how shops close early on Sundays, from how old men in spectacular hats take their seats at state functions, from how your voting preference can dictate whether or not you’re in or out at church. As a body, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to walk through the wilderness. That’s why we fight so hard to maintain our power and influence – we’re terrified that an existence in the margins would be catastrophic, so much so that the minute it looks like our political and demographic power is waning, we think it portends the end of the world.

Saul, the great persecutor of the church, gets blinded by a vision on his way to Damascus, his convictions and certainties burned away by the revelation that his service to God has really been an assault. Here’s his chance to make amends, to go home and stop the persecution, to use his theological genius to serve the church rather than destroy it.

Instead he disappears to Arabia for three years.

In Toronto earlier this year, sculptor Timothy Schmalz created a statue of a homeless Jesus, inspired by all those moments we find ourselves stepping over fellow humans sleeping on the street. This sculpture has nail marks in his hands, the Son of God identifying with the poor and destitute – with the margins and a particular kind of wilderness.

The horror of this story is that this statue, this concept, has somehow become controversial.

Somehow the church has divorced itself from the margins, built temples and seminaries to tame the wilderness and bring it under our control. We offer a helping hand when necessary, but we don’t want to live there; heck, watch the right TV shows and you can convince yourself that God doesn’t want you anywhere the margins either – he just wants you to have the biggest and best cars, houses, home cinema systems.

And yet…

Speaking at church yesterday was a representative of Open Doors who shared stories of Christian communities that genuinely exist in the margins – in Syria, for instance, or Iran. They’re not praying for God to bless them with a new Mercedes, they’re praying for the fortitude to endure persecution, the threat of assault and rape and murder. And yet those communities are growing.

It’s a tension, isn’t it? The idea that the greatest growth in the Christian life, both individually and corporately, is achieved in the wilderness. It’s counter-intuitive; we expect to grow when we have the space and resources and time to do so. We don’t expect to grow when everything within us is geared towards survival, towards clinging on for just one more day in the face of persecution or stress or exhaustion or despair.

Jesus and Paul seemed to understand this – that time spent in the margins, in the wilderness, is essential. That’s when the structures and delusions and securities we’ve built up around ourselves are stripped away and it’s just us and God against a hostile world. We’ll face temptations and struggles, but the message seems to be that we’ll also learn to rely on God rather than our own strength.

This exposes my own hypocrisy, of course, because I’d rather be comfortable and relaxed than marginalised and growing. I don’t want to embrace the wilderness, I want to find the nearest path to a Travel Lodge, thank you very much.

That’s not the path Jesus calls us to take, and yet so often we take it anyway. That has consequences.

After all, Ii we were really the Christian countries we imagine ourselves to be, would we really be complicit in empowering regimes that kill and rape Christians (or anyone else for that matter)? We find ourselves propping up empires more than the Kingdom, and maybe that’s another reason the margins are so important – they inoculate against imperialism. It’s hard to be dismissive of the poor when you’re washing their feet or fixing their shower. It’s hard to scream Westboro Baptist-style abuse when you’re actually friends with gay people. It’s hard to hate refugees when you’ve listened to their stories and seen their scars, and it’s hard to unquestioningly hide behind a flag when our brothers and sisters are paying an immediate price for our politics.

The church grows in the wilderness, thrives in the margins, but in the corridors of power it risks being strangled.

And so we find ourselves exiled from empire, lost in the desert or in the gutter, with nowhere to turn but to God and his mercy. And then, maybe only then, we learn what it means to be a disciple.

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