Every time I officiate a wedding, I warn the couple that if their ring bearer and/or flower girls are under 6, they are almost guaranteed not to make it down the aisle by themselves. (It's not a bad thing; I just want to make sure they know.) I share this from experience not only as a pastor but as a former toddler. At three or four, I was ring bearer in a family friend’s wedding. The story goes that my parents told me so often not to “wander off,” that by the time the reception came I looked at them and groaned, “Can I wander off now?"
Wandering is in our blood. We don’t live in straight lines, even if we want to. "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” (Deuteronomy 26:5) Israel is told to remember. Even as they approach a long-awaited land to settle, they carry with them a history of wandering. Abraham and his covenant caravan travelled all over. Now they have just spent forty years roaming in the desert with their God in a tent. Israel spent this time, as one commentator puts it “'testing the Lord’ repeatedly, longing for its more pleasurable past or demanding for itself a more secure future” (Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke).
In empty spaces, in quiet places, our tendency toward distraction, forgetfulness, and impatience is palpable. So much so that I have to swallow it like a stone every time I sing in “Come Thou Fount” of my own heart: "prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
During Lent we wander but not aimlessly. We follow Jesus, who himself "was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1–2). We withdraw to the desert, not to run and hide but to face our frailty and failure, frightening though it may be. Through fasting, silence, and self-denial, we make open spaces where we confront the desires that drive and distract us. The desert tests our hearts and teaches us our own weakness and wildness in order that we might draw nearer to God and be more compassionate with "the aliens who reside among you” (Deuteronomy 26:11).
This kind of bold wandering is only possible for those "who live in the shelter of the Most High,” (Psalm 91:1) who "have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place” (91:9). Just as Israel carried the tabernacle through the desert, so we make God our home wherever we are. Only then we can set aside our desires, distractions, dreams, and destinations simply to dwell in the desert—not some painful or pleasant past, not some possible future.
A few weeks ago I shared a portion of a Wendell Berry poem I have on my office wall. At the risk of over-using Berry (and indulging in too much whimsy for the season), I’ll now share the poem that hangs on the wall in my son’s room:
The terrapin and his house are one.
Though he may go, he’s never gone.
He’s housed within, from nose to toe:
A door, a floor, and no window.
There’s little room, the light is dim;
His furniture is only him.
He doesn’t speak what he thinks about;
Where no guest comes, a thought’s a shout.
He pokes along; he’s in no haste:
He has no map and no suitcase;
He has no worries and no woes,
For where he is is where he goes.
Ponder this wonder under his dome
Who, wandering, is always home.