Surviving the Wilderness
5th Sunday in Lent
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
7 April 2019
“I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. […] for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
Throughout the course of my life I have had the opportunity to participate in wilderness and mountain survival training. The first time I did this, I was 12 and a cadet in Civil Air Patrol. It was a winter survival training course in upstate New York in January. I learned how to snow shoe, build a fire, and make an igloo.
Later on as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, I went through a three week survival training program, which included a week long mountain survival exercise, where I and a small group of other cadets, not only had to survive in the wilderness, with no food and needing to find our own water, but we had to make our way along various checkpoints, usually at night, while simultaneously being chased by an enemy. We were simulating what it might be like to be shot down behind enemy lines and how to find our way to friendly territory. In that program I learned that there are lots of things you can eat that you never thought you could eat. I learned how to capture rain water and to purify water captured from streams and pools of standing water.
And, more recently, back in January, when I was finishing a biennial renewal of my pilot certification, I took a mountain survival refresher course, which reviewed what to do should I ever survive a plane crash in the mountains. The biggest piece of advice from that course is, unless you absolutely know how to get to a road or off the mountain, stay next to the crash site. It’s easier to spot a crashed airplane from the air than a single individual on a mountain. You may have to wait for hours or even days, but the odds of being rescued go up if you stay next to the wreckage.
Throughout all of these experiences, two common themes always emerged. 1) Be prepared before you go hiking or flying and make sure you have the right equipment with you, so that if you do get caught in a snow storm or crash or get lost, then you have a fighting chance at making it out alive. And the second was 2) always expect a good outcome. Expect that you will survive, that you will make it into friendly territory, and that you will be rescued. Once you start thinking that you are going to die, or fail, or that there is no hope for rescue, then your chances of surviving rapidly dwindle. This advice echoed what my basketball coach used to say, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, your right.” The wilderness is a place where you can think your way into or out of death.
There is a lot of practical wisdom in basic survival training that carries over into the spiritual life. Just like the serious explorers who endeavor to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or the professional pilots who fly for the national park service in Alaska, anyone who is serious about both living in and exploring the vast terrain of the Christian spiritual life, will probably find themselves caught in a snow storm, or lost, or climbing out of a wrecked airplane at some point in their life. The question is: how do we survive this?
The first question might be: what sort of spiritual survival equipment do we carry with us every day, in case something happens and we crash or get lost? In survival training we know that the number one item is always water. Without water we can’t live for more than a week, and usually only 3-4 days on average. What is the spiritual equivalent of water? I will venture to say that it might be prayer. Just like when we’re lost in the wilderness we would naturally cry out, whistle, or signal for help, that one word prayer, “Help” to God is always a good one. It’s probably also good to have some prayers memorized that bring you hope and comfort.
If you haven’t memorized the Lord’s Prayer, learn that immediately. Psalm 23 would be another good candidate for memorization. The Jesus prayer is also a good, one, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Romans 8:28 is helpful too, “All things work together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Many of the evangelical Christian traditions ask people to pick “life verses.” What are those for you? What are your “go to” Scripture passages? Memorize those, rehearse them on a regular basis and make them a part of you, so when you find yourself in a spiritual survival situation you have them readily accessible. They can be water for you and keep you alive while you are lost in the spiritual wilderness.
The second question is how to keep up that positive attitude and expect that we will not be lost and in the spiritual wilderness forever? Hope and confidence in the promises of God are probably the most helpful pieces of spiritual equipment for this. To survive in the spiritual wilderness we have to have hope and confidence that we are God’s beloved and he will not abandon us, even though it might feel like it. And this is where the passage from Isaiah becomes so important.
In the Old Testament lesson this morning, Isaiah says, “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the thing of old. I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
These words are spoken by Isaiah to the people of Israel in exile, suffering under Babylonian captivity. Exile might be their equivalent of a very serious spiritual plane crash. The kingdom of Israel has been divided and conquered. The temple destroyed. Fathers and sons killed in war. Families separated, people sold into slavery. They are living under the rule of a foreign king, in the midst of a foreign people, and in the midst of foreign gods. And, they didn’t crash because of some random meteorological event, they crashed because of their own sinfulness and idolatry. But whatever the reason for their exile, the fact of the matter is that it happened and it was not a condition they wanted to endure for very long.
If we had the opportunity to ask the Israelites in Exile whether or not they expected to be rescued, I wonder what they would say? Some had probably lost their faith. But many of them persisted in their faith and in prayer. We have the Psalms and other scriptural writings from that time that reflect their confidence that God would come to rescue them. Isaiah is writing to encourage them, reminding them of the mighty deeds of Yaweh in the past and encouraging them that Yaweh will do great things for them in the future.
Isaiah reminds them that Yaweh was the one who rescued them from Egypt and parted the Red Sea for them. Isaiah tries to encourage them by telling them that Yaweh is getting ready to do a new, great thing for them. A new thing that will exceed the already extraordinary act of having delivered them from slavery the first time. Yaweh says to Isaiah that he is going to make a way for them in the wilderness and give them water to drink in the desert. Yaweh will not leave them in Babylon forever but is planning on rescuing them and making sure they find their way out. And, as Christian’s interpret this passage, we believe Isaiah to be foreshadowing the saving work of Jesus, because the name Jesus means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus will deliver everyone from the slavery of sin and death, a fate far worse than slavery and exile under a foreign ruler.
So, in addition to prayer, another critical piece of spiritual survival equipment is hope. Hope that God will never abandon us and confidence that that we will be rescued. We just need to hang in there–drinking water, praying. Not wandering too far from the crash site, lest God shows up and we’ve wandered off to somewhere else. And, it is also important to remember that sometimes during rescues, it takes a while for the rescuers to hike into the crash site. But often times, as survivors of crashes can tell you, as they have waited day after day for rescue, when they finally hear the buzz of search plane over head, it is impossible to describe their elation. And, when they look up and see that long awaited wing rock, a signal that the search plane has seen them, a survivors relief and joy is indescribable.
So, if you find yourself in the spiritual wilderness at the moment, whether due to pilot error or a random meteorological event, perhaps the best course of action might simply be to wait patiently next to the crash site. The wrecked airplane might even help you to survive while you wait. Perhaps the radio still works. Perhaps you can use the seat belts to secure and carry wood. Perhaps the broken wings can still provide shelter from the rain. Drink water, keep praying. Read scripture to be reminded of God’s mighty acts throughout history. Be confident that God is looking for you, because once we lose hope, the odds of our spiritual survival greatly decrease. Trust that God will make a way out of the wilderness for you and that God will always be true to his word and he is always ready to do something new.