Listening in the wilderness

‘A voice cries out in the wilderness…’

I went for a short bike ride yesterday. Sunday takes a lot out of me: I pour so much of myself into leading Christian worship, and preaching in a way which I hope is meaningfully encouraging, that I often find myself emptied and exhausted in the early afternoon. However, like many others, I find cycling a wonderful form of exercise that rewards physical effort with refreshment that isn’t limited to the mind, but also to the body and the soul. Living in the South Pennines means that most rides involve a substantial hill at some point, so even short rides take a long time and a fair bit of effort. As there was a slight lull between two winter storms rolling in from the Atlantic, I headed out for all the refreshment that cycling brings. Marsden Moor is my nearest wilderness.

‘What shall I cry?’

These two lines are from the prophet Isaiah and are often quoted about John the Baptist. He was the one who appeared in the wilderness ‘crying out’ about repentance, and as a result lots of people came out from the town and countryside to be baptised by him. What I find interesting about the idea of ‘crying out’ in the wilderness, is that the wilderness is specifically the place where people are not. So if John was crying out in the wilderness, who told the people in the town what he was saying?

Cycling in the wilderness is about cycling where people are not. I love cycling where people are not. I don’t mind a bit of ‘cycle courier’ antics in heavy traffic, but I predominantly enjoy the long empty roads where I can marvel at the majesty of God’s good creation, without being relentlessly interrupted by carelessly driven cars and trucks.

Jewish and Christian scripture speaks of wilderness as a place where wild animals are a hazard, and where there may be no food or water. The wilderness is an uninhabited place of testing, temptation, and trial. The wilderness is a place where the absence of traffic invites the the few motorists there are, to drive fast, their selfishness tearing through the tranquil atmosphere, tyres and engine ripping the silence into the distance. It is a place of opportunity, where miracles, guidance, and God’s provision might be found, despite the occasional danger. Both Biblically and bicycally: the wilderness is a place to travel through, or run away into.

I often find spiritual guidance while cycling in the wilderness. At the moment I really need that help.

I have a challenge which I cannot coherently explain, at least not in a way I’m satisfied anyone else would grasp. I understand the nature of my challenge, but I’m finding the expression of it inarticulate. I can try. I stand in two worlds: one world in which power, sex, money and death seem to be in control – and another world in which power, sex, money and death are nothing more than dust. I feel like I’m trying to explain the inexplicable. I believe in communicating the loving liberation that comes from God, but I don’t know what people hear. I meet people who are searching for meaning, but when I speak of meaning they want to look elsewhere. Communication is a two way process, and yet I feel like I’m speaking into the void when I speak of God. I meet people who are keen to tell me what they believe, but are not interested in learning what others believe. People often come to me with their own answers and without any questions – and I don’t know why. I believe humanity (and all of creation) is important – despite also believing that our mortality makes us nothing in the grand scheme of things. I believe that we flourish like the flower of the field – but that eventually the wind goes over us and our place knows us no more. Maybe I take too many funerals. I believe life is a precious gift, but that there is a giver who is more precious than even the gift of life. I am a scientist, and I think evolutionary theory is as good a theory as any based on observation and reproducibility… for the time being… but I don’t believe we are merely biodegradable carrier bags for our DNA. I believe that having children is wonderful but not the sole purpose of our existence. I see the value of society, but I don’t believe our value lies in our financial contribution to the society we were born within. I believe that heaven is ‘at hand’ and that most of us don’t live in it. I do believe that we are known and loved by a God who knows what it means to live and die – and rather than build that faith on the insubstantial and shifting sands of the amorphous concept that gets the label “God”, my faith is built on the substantial evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus. If my belief in God is built on anything, it is built on the witness of the two women who bookend Jesus’ story: Mary the mother of Jesus, who was the first to learn of the incarnation, and Mary Magdalene, the first to meet the risen Christ. My faith is built on the witness of those who would not normally have a voice, those who would not normally be believed, and that God Almighty chose the weakest and the one with the smallest voice to bear the news of this liberating love. Two women, crying out in the wilderness of a society unlikely to listen.

I went for a bicycle ride in the wilderness of the South Pennines yesterday, and I cried out in that wilderness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. The wind was noise in my ears. It howled past me in my face, stealing the words from my lips, from my own ears. No metaphor here: I spoke, I shouted, I railed against the pointlessness of crying out in the wilderness. Jesus said, the first commandment is to worship God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – and perhaps this was exactly what I was doing.

In the wilderness, God is.

Okay, okay, God is everywhere. However, in the wilderness, people are not. Crying out in the wilderness is an act of crying out to God. Not crying out to people. I cry out to God in the hope that God will speak to the people of Marsden and Slaithwaite. That the love that God has for everyone is translated into a language they understand, at the time they need to understand it, and in a way which transforms the poverty of our nature… by the riches of God’s grace. Crying out in the wilderness was my last best effort to reach the community in which I live. I’ve tried everything else.

The wind stopped. The sun broke through the clouds. I stood in the middle of the wilderness and felt a tranquillity that I haven’t felt in my soul for long ages past. Lord, have mercy. I didn’t tell you the whole story about the first commandment. The first word of the first commandment is this: