By David Jones
It’s a chilly, early October evening, watching the horizon trade its blues for reds, oranges, and purples.
My wife and I sit next to the rolling waters of the Missouri River, taking turns yawning, frogs and owls harmonizing badly all along the tree-lined banks.
And here I am trying to write this simple piece, for the fourth or 29th time.
I’m in the Wilderness right now. No, not the Ozarks, the spiritual Wilderness. I’ve been writing about it for months now, and the material is connecting to many other facets of my life. I suspect it wants to be a book.
The important thing about the Wilderness, in a nutshell: it’s a transformative experience. One of the functions of this spiritual shedding of our old skin has to do with removing things that are in our way as we grow. That includes learning from what we lose more than from what we gain.
And for me, one of those losses came in a dream.
It was pretty uneventful until Jesus showed up and invited me to step outside the dream for a word. We revisited the basic Bible account of his betrayal and the events immediately following. He asked me, “So if you had been there, would you have come to my defense when all others left?”
My impulse was to say, “Well yeah, of course I would have. I love you.” That scripted reply became a thought balloon, but a larger one—the truth—superimposed itself over it.
The truth balloon simply said, “I want to think I would, but I probably wouldn’t have.”
Jesus explained: “If you had gone in and convinced everyone that I was innocent, and they agreed and let me go, what value would my ministry and death have had?” This is a huge question.
See, the traditional account shows Jesus being abandoned, not even God stuck around! The stories are often angled by the churches to engender one belief: “Hey, everyone left him. But if YOU really love him then YOU won’t follow that path, will you? You need to stand up and defend Jesus and your beliefs against detractors!”
But no, I don’t. I realize now that when I start arguing I’m not defending my teacher or scripture. I’m trying to defend my comfort and my certainty, disguised as love and devotion to my teachers. I stood there, embarrassed and ashamed because I was letting go of a huge religious and traditional expectation. That’s really the process of the wilderness: temptation, realization and transformation.
The Wilderness is a place for awakening.
Sometimes our temptations take the form of expectations, clinging, or shallow but well-meaning untruths our ego tells us and everyone else. Once we wake up to the reality of all this, we get to choose our response to it mindfully, intentionally and authentically.
This hurt. When it’s time to let go of deeply rooted things—things we think are really important—the more we cling the more it hurts when it’s ripped from us, whether from our grasping minds or our tender hearts.
It’s the same feeling I’ve had ever since stepping into the Wilderness months ago. Lost. Uncertain. Disoriented. I’m a complete failure full of mental pain, unmoored and adrift, with each loss of old ways like an angry sea assaulting my ever-shrinking life raft.
Jesus just smiled reassuringly and said: “You don’t need to defend me.” And with that he was gone and my dream resumed where it had left off.
I was pretty awake when my bedside alarm went off. My relationship with the Christian tradition—whose labels and dogma I’ve been shedding for months—came into sharp focus. We spend so much time being angry and defensive when we feel attacked for strongly-held beliefs, as humans often do. We’re taught that we’re supposed to defend them. But really it’s our ego, that illusory self in disguise, that’s reacting to the “attack.”
If I don’t need to protect my Teacher, and it’s not healthy to defend my fragile ego, what do I have left?
I’ve still got the widow, the orphan and the stranger. The folks being robbed of justice every day. The weak and infirm. The vulnerable and needy in the world, the bruised reed by the river bank, the candle just about to go out. The scared and the angry. Anyone who’s been abused by those they trusted not to.
A lot of important dreams have been challenging me since I stepped off all paths and began walking amongst the trees. Powerful dreams about the world’s beginning and ending and re-beginning in huge cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. Dreams of whispered things and of remaining a being of light as darkness crowds me. This Wilderness experience is challenging and transformative, as I said before.
What is my next step on this wandering? What will I look like on the other side of my own personal 40 days and 40 nights? I’ve no idea.
And really, that’s kind of the point.
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