Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Sometime in July 1673, seven men left the Mississippi to paddle up the Illinois to the Des Plaines River. They found an Indian trail running along what is now Irving Park Road, portaged a mile and a half, then put into the Chicago River which they were startled to discover opened into Lake Michigan.
Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet were among the first Europeans to enter the Chicago region. They marveled at the fertility of the land and the abundance of wildlife. They said, ‘We have seen nothing like it before.’ “For a distance of 80 leagues (270 miles), I did not pass a quarter of an hour without seeing some (wild game).”
It’s difficult to imagine now. Chicago was once a wilderness of prairie grasses, boggy marshes, and wetlands. The Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission drew the city grid we all know in 1833, but could not change the contours left behind when the glaciers receded some 10,000 years ago, nor did they erase the path lines ancient indigenous peoples and wild animals created as they traversed the gentle ridges, followed the rivers, skirted the wetlands, and moved along the Michigan shoreline. The Potowatomi, Mishigama, Inoka, and Iliani peoples left a legacy we see today in our diagonal streets and six-sided intersections. Lincoln avenue follows a slight geological rise, as does Elston Avenue and Waukegan road. Milwaukee was apparently once an old buffalo trail. Clark, Ridge, and Green Bay scribe the contours of Lake Michigan.
Chicagoland has changed a lot in 350 years. But wilderness comes in all shapes and sizes. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, “the only way you can really tell if you’re in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.” That’s a wilderness.
Urban people can experience wilderness in city streets, next to hospital beds, school classrooms, online chatrooms, in our homes, and/or in public parks. Wilderness can look like walking out of work with the news that your job is ending. Wilderness can be the stress of someone in your family who is really, really struggling or sick. Wilderness is staying too long in a bad a relationship or suddenly ending a good one. ‘The ashes we wore on Wednesday speak of the wilderness ash of grief and weary exhaustion, sin that sickens us and our world, of things that imprison us, the fears that eat away at us. Needless to say, no one prays for this wilderness.’ (Rev. Lindsay Mack, Luther Memorial, ELCA) Yet, we all find ourselves there.
After his baptism, ‘Jesus, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ (Matthew 4:1). It is a place of isolation and death. He goes alone, without fanfare, or survival gear. He goes without a map or an extra pair of sandals. There, Jesus entered a lethal hall of mirrors. He is tormented by an articulate Torah-toting, scripture quoting devil. Satan’s tries to make Jesus betray God and to misuse his power. Jesus passed the test.
Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five barley loaves into a feast for 5000 but refuses to use that same power to transform stones into bread to feed himself. Later, Jesus will walk on water, calm the stormy seas, and pass through the violent mob at Nazareth. But now, he refuses to jump from the top of the temple just to prove himself to the devil. Later, a taunting mob will repeat this challenge from the foot of the cross. ‘If you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from that cross, so that we may believe in you’ (Matthew 27:40). But Jesus won’t jump from the top of the temple. He won’t come down from the cross. Jesus doesn’t misuse his power to do magic tricks or to benefit himself. Jesus has a single-minded approach to life that will guide and sustain him; protect and dignify him; save and redeem him above all others. Jesus is not motivated by his own needs, but solely by the Word of God.
The wilderness taught Jesus who he was and proved to us all we can trust him. Jesus lived the abundant life no matter what scene of tragedy, suffering, betrayal or despair confronted him. Jesus stood for the whole. Jesus stands for you and me regardless of the cost, despite many hardships, even at the cost of his life. Because he clung to the undying life that was his in God, Jesus was free to give his life fully to God’s dream of a better life for all on earth as it is in heaven.
We learn from Jesus that while our wilderness experiences may be uncomfortable and a little frightening, they are also sacred. Wilderness can be the source of true clarity and hard-won wisdom if we don’t just rush for the exits or try to deny they exist altogether. The people of Israel lingered in the wilderness for forty years. Quick fixes and the hurry to flee from pain of failure and sin have undone the Spirit’s deep and challenging work of transformation too many times to count. The wilderness afforded the children of Israel a time and place to learn the proper use of their God-given freedom and discover how God intended them to fashion neighborly communities. They learned what to say no to and what to say yes. We walk into wilderness every year at worship for these forty days of Lent. It is an intentional time and place for the Spirit to show us how to live again—beyond mere survival. God is faithful. God is with us. God comes to us in the ash of life.
This wilderness road we have known and will know has been walked before. It may be built out, and paved over, partly obscured, and almost unrecognizable now, hidden by everything we once staked our lives on that we now find to be crumbling, false, and untrustworthy. Yet the shape of the landscape and meandering pathways of old remain.As we walk the contours of our hearts this Lenten season, I wonder how we might be shaped and emboldened by God? How God might prepare us as disciples for ministry?
This Lent when you are traveling around the city, walking up Clark Street, or riding the bus on Irving Park Road, or even driving the diagonal Kennedy expressway (which I’m told is also an old Native American trail), “I wonder if you might pause and slow down and remember to walk those offbeat contours of your own heart. Just as Jesus began in his wilderness, so we will begin in ours, again and again. Because while, yes, this holy life we live is laced with wilderness and ash, it is also painted with beauty and hope. Blessed be the journey.” (Lindsay Mack)