- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
Christian folks who attend church this Sunday may be hoping for a glimpse of the newborn baby Jesus, but instead they will be met with a story about a seemingly crazed wild-man by the name of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus. Every year at this time, the story of John is retold.
I am fascinated by the colorful figure of John who lived homeless out in the Judean wilderness, dressed only in a camel skin, surviving on a diet of wild locusts and honey and announcing that a new thing was abut to happen-Jesus was about to come on the scene. However, interestingly enough, John didn't make that announcement while standing in a pulpit or attending a meeting of the temple priests. Instead the wild man went out onto a wild place, and it was there that he proclaimed Jesus' coming.
Now that I live in a desert, I finally get why John preached his message out in the wilderness and why the story of John is always told just at the threshold of Christmas.
A few years ago on "John the Baptist Sunday," I was confronted by an angry parishioner who stood by the front door of the church shaking her fist at me, complaining that she felt she had been tricked. "Christmas is just around the corner," she said. "I came to church today to hear stories about a little baby lying in the warm glow of a manger. I was expecting shepherds in the field and angels in starlit skies singing songs of comfort and joy, and what did I get instead? - a smelly, homeless, crazy man in an empty, desolate wilderness."
I am sure the voice of that angry parishioner expresses the sentiments of many people on any sort of a spiritual journey. Many believe that a spiritual path is supposed to be calm and comforting, a place to find answers to the perplexing questions of life, a safe harbor, a spiritual jacuzzi where you can luxuriate in its warm glow, away from all the woes of life.
That's why the story of John the Baptist is so important and why it is told and retold every year as Christmas is about to begin. John tells us that if you really want to encounter "God," be prepared to abandon all comfort so that you can find true joy.
The wilderness is "wild"- a fiercely beautiful place, boundless, with no roads or carefully drawn maps to guide you every step of the way. A desert is a place of no-control, no easy answers. Whenever I walk in the desert, I always feel naked, no place to hide the secret sins, not a place of safe harbor. The desert is a place of wild abandonment and yet it is a place where I feel like I "belong" more than I ever have before. The desert is a scary place of absence where the ego gets cracked open and spills out into Holy Presence. The spiritual journey is a journey in the wilderness.
When I was thinking about "Wild Man John" preaching out in that wild place, I remembered a poem someone had sent to me last year about a "wild god."
Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is aways awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.
When the wild god arrives at the door, you will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark that you may have dreamt
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.
He will not ring the doorbell and you do not want to let Him in.
You are very busy. It is late or it is early, and besides
You cannot even look at Him straight
Because He makes you want to cry.
O limitless space, O eternal mystery, O miracle f life
O the wondrous dance of it all.
In many cultures there is a custom of setting an empty place at the dinner table on Christmas Eve - an invitation for "baby Jesus" to come and dine on a Christmas night. I think this is a perfect time of year for any one of us to set an empty space at the table of our lives - not an invitation for a sweet little baby, but a place for a "Wild God" where the comfort of the old-self dies so that new life might begin.