To the Desert and the Mountaintop
The daily inspirational quote on my desk calendar for Monday, January 4 is a familiar one from the Psalter: “I lift my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – He who watches over you will not slumber.” (Psalm 121:1-3) I have spoken these words at a number of funerals and in my own personal, especially as of late.
At the start of this first full week of a new year, I can’t help but think of all that we encountered in 2020. What was initially hoped to have been a few weeks of quarantine turned into months of state mandates, arguments, fear, and changes. I must admit that, for at least the last half of 2020, I felt in a spiritual wilderness, far away from the hope and comfort that I wanted to feel. God felt far away, too. This spiritual wilderness has impacted my vocation as your pastor, to my heartfelt dismay. 2020 certainly got the best of me. Maybe you have felt the same.
Lately, I have found comfort in reading a series of lectures by Belden C. Lane, compiled in a collection called Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance: From Ancient Monks to Mountain Refugees. In these lectures, Lane, Presbyterian minister and Professor of Theological Studies in St. Louis, writes that “in the Scriptures, God is always leading God’s people into the desert and up the mountain, taking them to an edge, to a liminal place where ordinary things fall apart.” Paired with the cries of the psalmist in Psalm 121, it seems that God has brought us all to these places in the past several months.
Lane also references the wilderness theology of fourth-century saint, Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory “uses the term purgation to speak of the initial desert experience of emptiness, of letting go. This is an experience of being stripped of our competence, our ego being radically challenged – something we encounter fairly early in the spiritual life. Then he describes an experience of illumination that may subsequently come in climbing the mountain and receiving a deeper insight into God’s truth. This may be long in arriving, but the mountain eventually reveals a discernment of God’s care and direction in our lives.”
It is my dearest hope that God has brought us to the desert and to the mountains, through the valleys and the hills in order to illuminate for the world God’s truth and presence. I pray that you will join me this year in a time of spiritual renewal and rejuvenation as I personally seek to develop a closer relationship with prayer, scripture, God, and this faith community. I trust that our experiences, however great or small, good or bad, that they may seem will strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ and God’s work in the world. Let us follow God to those liminal places “where ordinary things fall apart” so that our spiritual lives may be fostered and grown in the revealing of the extraordinary power of a loving God. May it be so.