Wilderness Days

On a January morning in 1971, John Francis turned on the radio and he got the wake-up call of his life. He wasn’t aware of it at the time. He only heard the news that two tankers had smashed into each other near the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the sea. He drove to the beach and watched residents wade into the black muck to save what they could. Mostly their efforts failed: more than 6,000 seabirds were killed by the spill.

Francis watched, and he wanted to do something, but he wasn’t sure what. How was his life connected to that deadly accident? Haunted by the images of that day, he started wondering about his role in a society powered by fossil fuels. One day (long before we started squeezing the last drop of oil from tar sands) he decided to walk to an appointment rather than drive, and from then on, without fanfare or much thought, foot travel became his sole mode of transportation.

He tried to explain this to his friends and the occasional driver who offered him a ride, but he soon recognized that he couldn’t. Yes, he felt like he had to do this. No, he hadn’t thought it through all the way, how could he have? Yes, it was a radical step. No, it wasn’t a call for others to follow him, let alone a policy proposal for the city or the state. Before long he realized that he didn’t want to explain his decision. On his 27th birthday, Francis made a one-day vow of silence; he stopped talking. What he didn’t know then was that his day of silence would stretch to 17 years. He packed his backpack and embarked on a cross-country pilgrimage, carrying a written note that read, in part: “This is to introduce John Francis, who left his home in California on January 1, 1983, on a pilgrimage to raise environmental consciousness and promote earth stewardship and world peace.” Along the way – on foot and in silence – Francis earned his undergraduate degree, a master’s, and a PhD. He also earned the respect of government officials and the oil industry, as well as the esteem of many whom he encountered on his journey across the United States.

By his own account, as a young man he was an opinionated big mouth who cocked his ear toward others just long enough to determine he was wasting his time. “I had stopped listening, which is the end of communication,” he told a reporter. “When I stopped speaking, I had time to reflect. The silence created a space for me to learn how to listen—not only to another person but to the environment around me and the voice within.”[1]

In the Bible, that space has a name, it is called wilderness. It is a transitional and transformative space. The Hebrew slaves after their escape from Egypt spent 40 years in the wilderness, learning to live in freedom, learning to live in covenant with God and with each other. The prophet Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness before hearing the still, small voice of God on the mountain where Moses had spent 40 days listening to God and receiving the commandments of life.

In the wilderness, Francis’ wake-up call was transformed into a vocation. In the wilderness, a band of escaped slaves were transformed into a people. In the wilderness, Israel’s prophets discerned the voice and call of God.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, his hair barely dry after his baptism. He had just heard the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[2] Like Moses on Israel’s wilderness journey, Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and when he was famished the tempter came. Nothing is said of the devil’s looks, or where he came from. What matters – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil spoke. The wilderness is not a place of quiet retreat, but rather a landscape where conflicting voices demand attention. The voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” but there’s another voice, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I imagine it’s a friendly voice, with overtones of care and reason, “Why let hunger pangs interrupt your prayers? What kind of son of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of helping himself to some bread? Go ahead, just do it.”

Matthew doesn’t tell us this story so we can know what Jesus was doing after he was baptized and before he called the first disciples. He tells us this story so we understand what kind of Son of God Jesus is. Jesus responds to the voice of the tempter by recalling a moment in Israel’s wilderness journey and quoting a line from Deuteronomy.

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”[3]

Bread is good, bread is important, but trusting the word and promise of God is even more essential for our life to be life.

The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, to the top of the temple, and says, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. You know the scriptures, ‘He will command his angels concerning you.’ Think of the publicity you could get with a stunt like that. Word would spread like a wildfire; the whole world would know you. Just do it. Jump and show them who you are.” And again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, echoing Israel’s wilderness experience, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Now the devil takes him up a very high mountain with a view of the whole world. “Look at all the kingdoms. Look at their splendor. I’ll give them to you. Think of all the good you can do. You can bring an end to hunger and war. You can build something perfect and lasting – just show me a little respect. Come on, let’s do it my way.”

Twice in Matthew does Jesus say, “Away with you, Satan!” Here in the wilderness and again later, on the way to Jerusalem. Peter had just declared with great conviction, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” when Jesus began to show them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious leadership, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter took him aside, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! Behind me!”[4]

In the wilderness, Jesus chose to trust in God and God’s purposes, he chose the way of the cross over the way of the world. “Then the devil left him,” Matthew tells us, “and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” Angels came. I hear echoes of Elijah. When Elijah was in the wilderness, it wasn’t because he had been led there by the Spirit of God; he had been driven there by the fury of Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead. Elijah had fled into the wilderness for his life, but he was also exhausted. He was so exhausted, he wanted to die. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of being the lone voice of resistance in a culture that worshiped idols rather than the living God.

“It is enough,” he said, exhausted in body and soul, before he fell asleep. He woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” There was bread and a jar of water. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Like Elijah before him, Jesus was being nourished in the wilderness for a difficult and demanding journey. In obedience to God and in solidarity with us, he resisted the whispers of the tempter and gave himself to establishing the kingdom of God among us.

Lent is wilderness time. Few of us will give up speaking for forty days in order to let silence create a space where we can learn to listen to each other, to our fellow creatures, and to the voice that calls us beloved. Few of us will give up driving for forty days to discover a different pace and a way of life that doesn’t depend on destroying the earth. But this season is still an invitation to us all to find ways to enter into silence and to stop rushing around mindlessly, to make room for wilderness time so we may discern and listen to the voice of Jesus, and not the voices of the tempter.

As a community, we have made a commitment to look at Nashville during this season with our Just City 360. We have made a commitment to ask questions and learn, in an effort to pay attention to how our city is changing. We will look at housing and development and urban planning with eyes sharpened by what the prophets noticed and by Jesus’ own loving attentiveness to those who have been pushed to the margins and beyond. We will seek ways to establish righteousness in our city and our neighborhoods, right relationships that reflect the loyal love of God we encounter in Jesus.

When John Francis stopped going so many places, his world didn’t shrink, but rather opened up and he noticed small things. He began drawing or painting a picture every day: the sunrise reflected on the bay, the faces of his neighbors, the grass growing in a crack in the sidewalk. It wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed these things before. “It’s just that I hadn’t noticed [them] enough to give [them] meaning,” he said. And he added, “It makes me wonder how much of life goes by me that way.”[5]

Lent is an invitation to wilderness time. It’s an opportunity not just to wonder but to notice how much of life goes by us unnoticed. It’s an opportunity to practice being attentive to seemingly small things and to their place and meaning in the world God has made.


[1] Marilyn Berlin Snell, “The Walking Man,” Sierra, March/April 2007, pp.18-22

[2] Matthew 3:16-17

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2-3

[4] Matthew 16:16, 21-23

[5] Marilyn Berlin Snell, “The Walking Man,” p. 19