For December 12, 2010

Ruth Haley Barton

“The desert of which I speak is a desert of the spirit: a place of revelation, conversion, and transformation.  A true revelation is a very disturbing event because it demands a response; and to respond means some kind of inner revolution.  It involves being ‘made over,’ being made new, being ‘born again.’ The desert, then, is a place of revolution.  In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.” Alan Jones

I remember the first time I got to experience a real wilderness.  It was on a trip to Israel guided by my good friend and teacher, Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian. One of my favorite experiences on the trip was the day we visited Masada.  The story of the Jews who were besieged and eventually lost their lives defending their truth at Masada was, of course, sobering and inspiring.  But what was even more stirring for me was the vast desert surrounding the plateau on which the fortifications were built. The beauty, the simplicity and the spaciousness of this wilderness place caused my soul to just open up; for the first time in my life, I felt like my soul had found its true geographical home.

The stark contrast of sand and sky…the vastness of the wide open spaces…the uncompromising heat of the sun…the brilliant beauty of a few desert flowers…the deep silence of the landscape…the simplicity of life reduced to the basic necessities of good shoes, simple clothing, a water bottle, and light nourishment…the refreshment of our bodies in the falls of En Gedi at the end of the day… we seemed to need so little out in the desert and yet the presence of God was so, well, present.

This week’s Advent readings resonate deeply with what I experienced in the desert outside Jerusalem: there are beautiful and lasting gifts to be found in the wilderness places of our lives if we are brave enough to go there. The reading from Isaiah describes precious gifts of desert blossoms, fresh glimpses of God’s majesty and glory, renewed strength in our weakest places, healing for our blindness, our deafness, and our dumbness, refreshment for our thirst, and enough joy to supplant the sorrow and sighing of our lives.

But two things are needed in order to receive these gifts:  patience to wait for God’s timing in all things until he sends the needed rain upon our souls. And realistic expectations.  Jesus says, “What did you expect to find in the wilderness?  Someone dressed in soft robes?”  In other words, did you really expect the spiritual journey to be full of luxury?  Did you really expect it not to require anything of you?  Think again.  The journey into the wilderness will require shedding just about everything that you always thought you needed. But it will also give you everything.  The Holy Way will open up right there in the wilderness and those who are courageous enough to walk in that Way will obtain that which is everlasting.

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Print off the following Scriptures and move away from your desk and settle into a place that is conducive to quiet reading and reflection.  If you wish, have your journal with you in case there are any personal reflections you wish to capture in writing.  Remember, you are not reading for sermon preparation or any other ministry purpose.  You are engaging Scripture now for the sole purpose of allowing God to speak directly to your soul through the process of lectio divina.

Begin by breathing deeply as a way of quieting yourself and opening to the Holy Spirit who is closer to you than your breath. Allow yourself to become aware of the wilderness places in your own life and really face into them. Experience your longing to encounter God in those places and as you approach the Scriptures today, ask him to show you the gifts he has for you in the wilderness. Keep breathing.

Read all four passages slowly and reflectively, not primarily to gain information or analyze the texts but listening to get a general idea of the Biblical themes contained in the lectionary Scriptures for the third week of Advent. Then choose one passage for reading, pondering and savoring today using the process of lectio divina. You might want to move through the passages in order or your might want to start with the Gospel and then move to the others as the week progresses. Once you have chosen the passage, read that passage four times (silently or aloud) asking a slightly different question each time.  Allow for a few moments of silence after each reading.

• In the first reading, listen for the word or the phrase that strikes you. In the silence that follows, just savor the word.

• In the second reading, listen for the way in which your life is touched by this word.  What is it in my life that needed to hear this word today?

• In the third reading, listen for an invitation from God contained in this word.  Is there something God is inviting me to be, or do in response to this word? What is my response back to God?

• Read the passage a fourth time and rest in the word you have received in total yieldedness and abandonment to the love and the will of God.

• Resolve to “live out” or incarnate the word you have received as God leads.

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2010. This article is not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth is a spiritual director, teacher, retreat leader and founder of the Transforming Center.  She is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your LeadershipSacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

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The lectionary schedule is taken from the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle A; Scriptures are quote from the New Revised Standard Version.

Isaiah 35:1-10

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Psalm 146:5-10

5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,

6 who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;

7 who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free;

8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.

9 The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!

James 5:7-10

7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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