This past weekend was our diocesan Spring Renewal, and our theme was “Courage in the Wilderness.” The Rt. Rev. Diana Akiyama, Bishop of Oregon, was our excellent speaker, and for this month’s reflection I share some of what I learned from her and my colleagues in the diocese.
You may have heard that mainline denominations are shrinking. Church membership is not what it used to be. Many wring their hands and wonder how we can fill the pews. I always ask myself, “do we believe in resurrection or not?” Because if we do, then we know that God is always doing a new thing. And so when we find ourself in a wilderness, as we do now – declining churches, an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, pandemic, climate crisis, gun violence, you name it —we need to ask ourselves “what is God doing?”
God brought the people out of Egypt into the wilderness where they wandered for forty years as God patiently deprogrammed them from being numb servants of Pharoah’s empire and gently molded them into a people who looked to God as their shepherd and each other as fellow children of this God. In the wilderness, God gave them the commandments that would shape them as a people. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
And throughout history, because people are people and the empires of the world offer shiny objects that distract us from God, again and again we find ourselves in physical or metaphorical wildernesses. So what is God doing now? And what are WE doing? Here are a few of my take-aways:
- The numbing powers of oppression have no hold in the wilderness. We’ve been taught to fear the wilderness, but that is where God is waiting for us, to speak to us, so that we can be God’s people. We find God in the wilderness. Wilderness is a place of intimacy and relationship with God. How can we learn its lessons?
- God gives us what we need. We cannot control God. There is no hoarding. God fed the
Israelites with manna that they could not store up, either for themselves or so that they could trade it for something else. How might we learn to trust God in the wilderness?
- Fear of conflict, a characteristic in many church communities, including ours, tempts us to stay on the surface rather than have the hard conversations the wilderness requires. How can we choose courage over comfort?
- God creates us for belonging. Our individualism keeps us isolated and lonely. God wants to form us into a people–not a group of persons, but a people bound to God and one another in a covenant relationship. Our baptismal covenant is one way we understand this relationship. How can we strengthen the bonds of community and live for the good of all rather than just our own?
It is tempting to want to get out a map and see how we can get out of the wilderness more quickly. Isn’t there a shortcut? There is not. We’re in this wilderness, but we’re in it together with God. We know God is doing a new thing and we are called to be God’s people. Let’s focus on those two things, and the future will take care of itself, because it is in God’s hands.