In the name of God, who is love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wilderness—we hear a lot about it during the Season of Lent, don’t we? The Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. They were moving from oppression toward the Promised Land and had a lot of lessons to learn along the way. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. He was preparing for his ministry and the opposition he would face.
And here we are, nearly halfway through the 40 days of Lent. We’ve been encouraged to slow down. Maybe by giving something up. Maybe by taking on a spiritual practice. Maybe both. It’s a pretty common experience that in this process, people become more aware of wilderness. I wonder what wilderness looks like for you.
Of course, I don’t necessarily mean a physical wilderness like Psalm 63 describes: “a barren and dry land where there is no water.” Though, you must admit, that’s the Texas Panhandle most of the time! There’s a reason European settlers came here so much later than, say, to the Hill Country!
No, I’m thinking of a wilderness that feels barren emotionally and spiritually. Maybe we feel isolated. Maybe surviving from one day to the next takes great effort and sometimes seems impossible. Maybe it’s hard to imagine life getting better because this desolation seems to go on forever. Wilderness may envelope us because of oppression, conflict, addiction, grief, overwork, confusion, illness, and the list goes on.
Lent is honest about this grim side of life. We sin, people around us sin, the whole world seems devoid of caring and full of power struggles, and life, in general, can be really hard. But despair isn’t the end of the story: God’s grace and love enter into our wilderness. God offers protection and provision to get us through the wilderness and even find joy along the way.
Psalm 63 is a wonderful prayer to help us in our wilderness. It sees the hardships of life—a barren land, a need for help, opposition from others. But those hardships aren’t where the Psalmist gazes most intently. No, the Psalmist gazes intently on God. What can we see when we gaze on God? Can we see power, glory, and loving-kindness? Can we be content in our souls with the goodness God has extended to us? Can we recognize how God has protected us? Like a bird protects her nestlings by shielding them from the blazing sun with her outstretched wings. Like a parent holds his child safely by the hand in a jostling crowd.
Each of us experience wilderness differently, but we can learn something from each other’s experience. The wilderness I’ve come to know best over the past several years is the end-of-life wilderness. Not sudden death so much, but the kind you can see coming from a barren distance. I’ve learned about it as my husband and I were caregivers during our parents’ declining years and faced grief over their deaths. I’ve also learned about it in my work as a hospice Spiritual Caregiver. In that work, I am faced frequently with the truth proclaimed on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Here’s what I’ve noticed. Some people seem to navigate the end-of-life wilderness more easily than others. The key is that they do three things: First, they acknowledge that it’s tough. No one loves facing sickness, declining abilities, loss of independence, and everything else that goes with approaching death. And caregivers face difficult decisions, constant stress, and a struggle to find balance between the needs of their loved one and their own needs. The grief that starts before and intensifies after the death of a loved one is an unpredictable journey through memory and loss.
Denying the hardships doesn’t make them go away, but getting mired in them doesn’t help, either. So, I’ve noticed something else about those who seem to journey through this wilderness more easily than others. They also look for and make use of sources of help. Finally, they try to focus on looking at life—both past and present—with joy and gratitude. Admittedly, that’s not possible all the time because, again, a journey through this wilderness is tough.
I suspect anyone in any wilderness will travel through it more easily by acknowledging it’s tough, seeking help, and trying to focus on joy and gratitude. As a Christian, I look to God and people who seek to show God’s love as important sources of help and of joy. And that brings me back to Psalm 63.
As I was preparing for this sermon, I read Psalm 63 in several translations.1 The Common English Bible version really grabbed my attention. I decided to make it one of my Lenten disciplines to start my day with verses 1-4 and end my day with verses 5-8, repeating the first part of verse 1 as an antiphon. I’d like to share with you Psalm 63 verses 1-8 from the Common English Bible. Perhaps you’ll join me in making this Psalm your heart’s prayer during Lent and beyond.
Psalm 63 (Common English Bible)
God! My God! It’s you—I search for you!
My whole being thirsts for you.
My body desires you in a dry and tired land, no water anywhere.
Yes, I’ve seen you in the sanctuary; I’ve seen your power and glory.
My lips praise you because your faithful love is better than life itself!
So I will bless you as long as I’m alive; I will lift up my hands in your name.
I’m fully satisfied—as with a rich dinner.
My mouth speaks praise with joy on my lips—
whenever I ponder you on my bed,
whenever I meditate on you in the middle of the night—
because you’ve been a help to me
and I shout for joy in the protection of your wings.
My whole being clings to you; your strong hand upholds me.
God! My God! It’s you—I search for you! Amen.
1 It’s easy to search for a passage and look at several translations at https://www.biblegateway.com/