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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Wilderness Faith

Wilderness Faith

One informal definition, from the Oxford dictionary, of the word sermon is, A long or tedious admonition or reproof; a lecture. I suppose that this definition is based on the experience some people have had with sermons.

This post is a sermon that I have spoken on a few occasions and at various places. It isn’t intended as a lecture, but just the sharing of my own journey of faith and a few things that I think I have learned along the way.

Enter at your own risk, and as always, take what God gives you and leave the rest. You can decide for yourself about “…long and tedious…”

Romans 11: 33-36 tells us why none of us will ever be an expert on God.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom

and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgements,

and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counselor?”

Who has ever given to God,

that God should repay him?”

For from him and through him and to him

are all things.

To God be the glory forever! Amen.

***************

One morning several years ago, I was having breakfast at Karen’s cafe (Karen and Dave Purnell) in Westcliffe. A young couple sat at the table next to me, and I couldn’t help overhearing the man placing his order. “I want two eggs over easy, but I DO NOT want the whites runny. I want my bacon crisp, and dry wheat toast. And, what kind of potatoes do you have?”

As I listened, my mind wandered back to the many trips I had taken into the Sangre De Cristo mountains: horse back, backpacking, hunting, fishing, hiking, or guiding. I began to remember some of the meals I had eaten in the mountains.


Eggs over easy but whites not runny?—You have got to be joking!

In the wilderness, I have eaten eggs that have been dropped in ashes, drug through the dirt, and washed off in the creek. No! the whites weren’t runny—but they weren’t white either.

Crisp bacon?—Well, in the mountains, If you take the raw ends of my bacon and then add them to the burnt middles and divide by the number of pieces that didn’t fall into the fire, I guess you could say that my bacon sort of averages crisp.

Dry Toast?— In the wilderness, dry toast doesn’t mean without butter. It means that part of the toast that is left after I retrieve it from my soggy boot which sits smoldering by the fire, and I cut away half of it. The part that is left, is dry toast.

What kind of potatoes do you have?— It is probably best that you don’t ask any questions at all about my potatoes, because you might find out more that you want to know. Not only have there been unidentified black specks found, that were not pepper; In the mountains, I have stirred things into potatoes that, at home, I would have stepped on and killed.

In the wilderness, go ahead, complain about the food or the service. Get up and walk out, but it will be a long walk. Food that we would complain about in town—We will be thankful for in the mountains.

In town, at a restaurant, we come to expect eggs over easy, and we are easily disappointed if the bacon doesn’t live up to our expectations. Or, if we have to wait twenty minutes for our food. In town, life is tame, domestic, controlled, fairly predictable, and relatively safe.

Ah!—but in the wilderness, we can throw our expectations to the wind. The mountains will not conform to our whims or desires. In the wilderness we confront the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the dangerous.

*****************

If I go into the wilderness enough, it may change, more than my view of food. It may change my view of God, myself, faith, and life.

Jacob did not wrestle with God during a commercial break—but sitting alone at night east of the Jabbok river.

Moses—did not encounter God while shopping at the mall—but in the howling desert of Sinai.

John the Baptist did not discover his calling while dining on eggs over easy—but while eating locust and wild honey.

Elijah heard God’s gentle whisper, not during a quick trip to Wall Mart—but standing in the bone-crushing silence of Mt. Horeb.

And Jesus did not embrace his true identity at a spiritual life conference held at the Holiday Inn—but during forty hungry, gut-wrenching days and nights alone in the wilderness.

A word to those who wish to control life, who want predictable, safe, and, eggs over easy—Stay out of the wilderness! And for those who want a safe, manageable, predictable, practical, and self-centered religion—Stay away from the real God.

***************

Our culture is obsessed with risk free living. The warnings that come with almost every product imaginable, defy common sense: “Do not attempt to change belt while engine is running.” Or—how about this one on a hot water heater—”Raising temperature of water may increase chance of scalding.”

Not long ago, I was watching cartoons with one of my grandsons. I noticed that much children’s TV today, is different than when I was young (at least this program was). It has been completely sterilized of all danger, risk, or conflict. I was surprised, to say the least, that…


...Popey and Bluto (bitter enemies when I was a kid) are now good buddies.

…The big bad wolf has now become a friend and helper of the three little pigs, instead of one who wants to “blow their houses down and eat them up.”


…And Jack climbs the beanstalk to discover a friendly giant, rather than one who wants to, “grind his bones to make his bread.”

***************

I wonder if maybe some of this anemic idealism has filtered into contemporary Christian culture?

A speaker at a youth camp was addressing a group of teens. He showed them two video clips. One was a segment from an Indiana Jones movie that showed him escaping from a pit full of snakes, swinging across a deep chasm, dodging poison arrows, and outrunning huge boulders. The other one was an instructional video for a sewing machine.

The speaker then asked the teens—Which of these videos do you think best symbolizes the faith of Christians you know. Overwhelmingly, it was the sewing machine.

Too often we look for God only in predictable patterns, familiar truths, and traditional forms. The irony is that these very things can actually insulating us from the real world, and the true God.

As Dorothy Sayers has said: “We have trimmed the claws of the Lion of Judah making him a fitting house pet for little old ladies and pale clerics.”

And for those of you familiar with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, you will remember when Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy learn that the great king, Aslan, is a lion. They ask Mr. Beaver, “Is he safe?”—Mr. Beaver replies, “Of course he isn’t safe, but he is good… “Aslan is not a tame lion.”

When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, he did not say, come along, be happy, stay safe, have some fun, and enjoy yourself. He said, Count the cost… Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

***************

Have you ever heard people today say something to the effect of, ”If there was a good and loving god, he wouldn’t do this... or he would do that…” They seem to think they are offering some unique insight.


Actually, they aren’t very original at all. Many of the people of the Old Testament said the same thing thousands of years ago.


In the Psalms we read, “I am worn out calling for help...looking for God.” “Why do you stand far off...Why do you hide yourself..”


Listen to the prophet Habakkuk:

“How long, O Lord, must I call for help,

but you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, Violence!

but you do not save?

Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Therefore the law is paralyzed,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

so that justice is perverted.”

Although I think that Scripture implies an explanation for the condition of the world we live in is , God is not obligated to give Habakkuk or me an answer.

Instead, Habakkuk is invited into the deep mystery of knowing the real God. However, unlike most skeptics today, Habakkuk opened himself to know this unpredictable God. The world around him did not change. It was his perspective that changed:

Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.

****************

No, God is definitely not a tame God!

There is a second truth that proceeds from this first. We are created in God’s likeness. As John Eldridge has said, “We have inherited wildness. Deep within our true selves, we long to be challenged. To risk all for something greater than ourselves. We don’t just want to believe truth, we want to take hold of it with our whole being. We want to touch mystery, and be set free from our bondage to trivia and self interest.

We crave life. We long for a great adventure. We yearn for reality coursing through our veins, filling our lives with meaning and purpose.

We don’t just want some five year plan or short term goal, but something that transcends the temporary. Yes, We hunger for real life, for meaning, purpose, and hope—Or—at least, maybe we used to.

Virginia Stem Owen, in her book, And The Trees Clap Their Hands, gives insight into what, too often, happens to these deep human longings we all possess.

The child, newborn, is a natural spy....Sent here with the mission of finding the meaning buried in matter, of locating the central intelligence, he goes about his business briskly, devouring every detail within his developing grasp. He is devoted to discovery, (all life is high adventure) he resists sleep in order to absorb more data.... He has to learn the world from scratch, but the task seems nothing but joy…Yet gradually, over time, something goes wrong.

The spy slowly begins to forget his mission....gradually, he adopts the habits and customs, internalizes the thought patterns (of the surrounding culture) He begins to forget what he’s about. He goes to school and grows up. He gets a job, collects his pay, buys a house, and mows the lawn. He settles down and settles in.

He wakes up each morning with the shape of his mission....grown hazier, like a dream that slides quickly away. He frowns and makes an effort to remember. But the phone rings, or the baby cries, and he is distracted for the rest of the day.

Perhaps he forms a resolution to remember; still he seems helpless to keep the shape, the color of his mission clear in his mind. It must be there somewhere, buried in the brain cells, but at least superficially the memory is erased. Then, one morning he wakes up and only yawns…and the spy goes native.

How easy it is to settle down and settle in to a domestic, safe, predictable religious life, we call faith. How easy it is to forget the power in King Solomon’s words, “God has set eternity in our hearts.”

***************

What did Jesus mean: Count the cost, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me? What does a wilderness faith look like? Scripture is filled with contrasts between domestic religion and dynamic faith.

A rich man came to Jesus with a question—What good thing must I do to get eternal life?... Jesus replied, obey the commandments. Which ones, the man inquired. You see, this man does not want God, all he wants is the minimum competency for heaven—His real question is: Jesus, what is the least I can do, and still be on God’s side?

Jesus plays his game—do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony. I’ve kept all these, the man says. You see, this man thought he was good, just because he wasn’t bad.

But then, the man made a big mistake—He asks Jesus, What else? And Jesus says Go, sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow me. The man went away sad, because he had great wealth.

'No, Jesus, you ask too much. I believe in God, I’m a religious man, I obey the rules, I go to church sometimes, and I’m a good person. And I think that should be enough.’ So, the man turns his back on the great adventure of faith and returns to his small-tame-Sabbath observing-synagogue attending-rule obeying religion.

But, Another rich man named Zacchaeus, stood up and said to Jesus, Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” And Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

***************

A Jewish religious leader was on his way to Jericho and came to a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. He ignored the man, walked around him, and went on his way. Another religious leader did the same.

But—of course they probably thought that they had good reasons: What if the man is dead. If they touch a dead body, they will be unclean and won’t be allowed in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

If the man isn’t dead, and they help him, he may want a handout latter, and they wouldn’t want him to become dependent. And besides, they gave their tithe to the church and it has an outreach ministry.

And who knows, maybe they had to go prepare that week’s sermon which was going to be on ‘loving your neighbor.’ So they side stepped the call of the kingdom of God, and chose instead a pale anemic religion safely kept inside church walls.

A Samaritan, on the other hand, risked his reputation (Samaritans were half breed Jews, who did not usually associate with Jews). He gave his own resources, he made future provision for the man, and when he came back to pay, the man might not even have been there to thank him.

***************

Nehemiah was sent to repair the wall of Jerusalem. His enemies tried to discourage, frighten, intimidate, and even kill him. His advisers warned him: Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you.

Do we hear what they are saying? “Come on Nehemiah, its really dangerous out there in the real world trying to do the work of God. Instead, why don’t we just go to church, and keep the door locked. It’s safe there. Nehemiah responds: Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go.

***************

Let me give a more personal example. Jasmine is our older daughter, and LeBrea, who died five years ago, was our younger. They came to our home the day after they were born.


When Jasmine was just under two years old her mother took her back. I drove her to Denver and had to put her, crying, into the arms of people she did not know. Until five years ago, it was one of the hardest things I had ever done.

A few months later we got a call asking us to take another child to be born any minute. We had about six hours to decide. At supper that evening we had a family discussion. Jason and Jarod, were teenagers at the time.

I took charge of the meeting to explain my position first. I told them that my vote was no. Of course, I cloaked my “no” in very pious terms about what would really be best for our family, our finances, and how I didn’t want Barb and the boys to have to make the sacrifice.

Of course, the real reason for my no vote was that I wanted to protect myself. Our son Jarod looked me in the eye and said: “Dad, if we don’t love this baby, who will.” Jason and Barb were also on board with adding to our family.

Mine was a domestic faith of caution and self protection. My families’ faith was a wilderness faith that said, “Let’s trust God and take the adventure that lies before us.” Little did we know where that adventure would lead. That almost 24 years later our Le’Brea’s life would be taken from her, and our lives would be shattered. Had we known, would we have taken the risk?

Let me understand this, God’s main concern is not with my safety, prosperity, comfort, or convenience. It is to bring hope to this world, and to reconcile all creation to His purpose. And in this world we inhabit, that can be dangerous, and our hearts may be broken.

***************

Wilderness faith is not defined by a doctrinal statement or church membership, taking communion, or having been baptized. It is a faith that informs the decisions and direction of life itself.

This faith is born not of upbringing, habit, or tradition, but is rooted in vision, imagination, and passion. It is a faith that cannot be inherited or taught. Religion comes from instruction about God—Faith comes from encounter with God.


In JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo says to Gandalf—”I wish the ring had never come to me, I wish none of this had ever happened.” Gandalf replies—”So do all who see such times, but that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide, is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Or—As George MacDonald had said—“We are called to do what is right, not to consider the consequences of doing what is right.”

***************

No—I may not literally go to the wilderness like Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus, but if I would know God, I believe that I will have to step out of what is familiar and comfortable and take this adventure called faith.

Each path of faith will be different for each individual. There is no one-size-fits all. But throughout Scripture we are told what this risk-taking faith might look like…

…feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and lift up the discouraged. It is to be a friend to the lonely, desire the good of an enemy, invest in the life of a child. Show mercy, share with those in need, and live in forgiveness. It is to be a truth-speaker, a peace-maker, and a hope-giver in this broken world.

Jesus does not force, drive, or coerce me into this faith, but if I have ears to hear, and a heart that seeks God, then, I might hear his gentle whisper calling to me,

”Are you hungry for some locust and wild honey? Then trust me, step into the wilderness with me, and follow me. Be a part of the answer to my prayer: Father... your kingdom come, your will be done on earth....”









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