A few years ago I was asked to preach during an ecumenical Lent mid-day service. The topic was forgiveness. I shared a story of the moment I confronted the man who had inappropriately touched me when I was a small child. The context itself- and how I ended up in that moment- was peculiar. I had been asked to supply preach at a church for 2 Sundays in a row. It turned out my perpetrator was the council president. I chose to preach a 2 part series on anger and forgiveness. The first Sunday, I spoke of the after effects for children when they are abused at a young age. I talked about the destructive nature of anger that can never be abated. I followed up the next week with a sermon highlighting the power of forgiveness and the freedom inherent when we step out of the spin cycle of bitterness.
Two things happened to me that first day. A young boy shook my hand on the way out of the church, eyes cast down, and said, “your sermon made sense to me.” I thanked him but didn’t get it until his mother followed behind with tears in her eyes. Then, I got it. This was personal for that boy. The next thing came after everyone else had left the church and I was retrieving my sermon text to leave. This man from my past asked for my forgiveness, but not before letting me know God had already forgiven him. In spite of, and perhaps because of, his words, I looked at this powerless man for who he was for the first time. In that moment I realized that for all my hurt and pain, it was he who needed compassion, not me. I was okay, I had overcome.
After I talked about that day in my Lenten sermon, I greeted people on the way out after lunch. There were the people who wouldn’t make eye contact, the ones who said, “nice message” and then there were the folks who squeezed your hand tighter or hugged for that extra minute. People like the young boy who communicated their understanding without explanation.
Every time I share my story of forgiveness I get that same reaction. A few words, a request to talk later, the squeeze of a hand. You may think that it is impolite to speak of unconscionable things in public, unnecessary to talk about the wilderness, but I do not agree.
How does one sustain the faith when surviving for forty days in the wilderness? How about forty years? You could be like Jesus and bear that hunger and loneliness all by yourself, but I doubt you could; because we are not the Messiah, we are the children of God and the children of God need each other.
So often we walk through this life secretly believing that whatever we are experiencing, we are unique in the struggle. From common medical complaints to emotional reactions, to deep pain from hidden assaults, how often have you heard someone say, “I didn’t know anyone else felt like that.”? I believe that we have a duty to the wilderness, and that is to share its experience. As the church, we are made up of those who are loud and open, and those who are silent and closed. We bear the same sadness and loss, the same burdens weigh heavily on us. It will be the open folks who will not shy away from the wilderness tale and how God has carried you through your forty days or forty years- whichever may be true for you. The closed folks will be silent, but they will appreciate the journey because they understand it. And for those who have never experienced that type of struggle, their eyes will be opened for the first time; and maybe they will see their loved one or the neighbor in a more compassionate light.
What if we knew nothing of Jesus’s temptation or his arduous, painful journey to Golgotha? What if Matthew, Mark and Luke didn’t record the near misses of death by crowds or badgering by the authorities? How could we really imagine the miracle of our Messiah if we didn’t have the suffering of Mary and Martha when they meet Jesus on the road after their brother Lazarus had died?
We are, like it or not, one body. If one of us is suffering so likewise for the rest. The responsibility of the wilderness- let’s call it our duty- is not to survive the struggle and tuck it away shamefully, but to share the journey. Talk about your mistakes and where you learned for positive change. Live out the blessing of survival. When we own how the wilderness has formed us and share that formation, we communicate both aloud and silently the way in which Christ carries us through and compels us forward into the world, shining our light for all to see. This wilderness of mine was my shame until it became my blessing, and I pray yours will be a blessing as well.