“Places and Prayers: Wilderness and Belonging”

March 8, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

March 8, 2015


“Places and Prayers: Wilderness & Belonging”

Mark 1:9-11


In one church I served, the baptistery was down in the floor (they immersed people during baptism).  Above the blue pool of water was a skylight.  And hung inside the skylight, hanging at eye level, was a stained glass mobile.  On several wires were white doves descending from the heavens.  On the central wire was a blue stained glass cross.  A picture of this mobile and the quilt behind it are shown in your bulletin.


I liked to explain this mobile to the children during pastor’s class as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism.  Listen now to that beautifully written story in Mark 1:9-11:


In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


What I told the children was that when they came up out of the water, the artistic mobile was a reminder that they, too, were beloved children of God and that God was pleased with them.


Here we are on this journey of “Places and Prayers” during the Lenten season.  My plan was to speak about various Biblical and metaphorical places each week.  But this week, that plan did not resonate with my spirit.  I read an article in Sojourners magazine about wilderness and personal identity.  And it impacted me in such a way that I want to share those thoughts with you.  So, our “place” today is wilderness.  I use as our basis for discussion today the story about Jesus’ baptism.


If someone asked you about your identity, what would you say about yourself?  Often, we respond by referring to our relationships – “I am a husband or wife; a father or mother; a son or daughter.”  And then we might identify ourselves by telling what we “do for a living”.  But even that distinction identifies relationships we have.  An accountant, for example, helps people allocate their financial resources.


I’ve told the story before, but one of my most embarrassing moments in ministry was the day when I was speaking to the children about our roles in life.  I asked, “Who am I?”  I expected answers such as “You are the minister” and “you are a mother”.  I prodded the children when they were silent: “I am a wife and I am a mother.  But who else am I?”  There was silence, and then our son Ian, who was probably about 4 at the time said in a very loud voice, “You are a big old fat lady!”  After that, I figured anything else I had to say was pointless.


My point is that our very identity as humans – and everything we do – is dependent upon our relationships with others.  We define our very selves by how we are related and by the impact we have on others.


Rene Girard is recognized worldwide for his theory of human behavior and human culture.  He is now Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.  50 years ago, Girard noticed a pattern of human behavior… that imitation is a fundamental element of our lives.  As humans, we tend toward the same objects of desire; we imitate others.   Girard said that people don’t fight over their differences – they fight because they are the same and because they want the same things.  Humans, he postulated, come with a planning intelligence that sets us apart from all other animals because we are free to choose.  But with that freedom comes risk and uncertainty.  We don’t know in advance what to choose – so we look to others for cues.  This is called mimetic theory.  Imitation, it says, is the fundamental mechanism for human behavior.


At his baptism, Jesus received his identity as the Son of God because of his relationship.  “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”


How powerful would it be for each of us and our children to be told and to believe it at the core of self-understanding: “You are my beloved, in whom I am pleased.”  How incredibly different our world would be if every person knew that they were God’s own beloved!  We belong.  How powerful would it be if we treated others as if they belonged?  Refugees immigrants, impoverished.  They, too, are God’s beloved.


Spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen wrote that the words God gave to Jesus at his baptism are the same words God gives to everyone.  “The words, ‘You are my Beloved’ reveal the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not.”


This is the crux of what progressive Christianity can offer to others… that each of us is beloved of God… that our identity is through our relationships.  “I know who I am because I know whose I am” it has been said.  We belong.


Immediately after the story of Jesus’ baptism is the story of the temptation of Jesus.  This is the story that the season of Lent is based upon.  Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days.  Both the “wilderness” and the “40 days” are metaphorical, I believe.   The wilderness represents those alone times when we question who we are, what our purpose is, what the meaning of life is.  You’ve all probably been in that wilderness at least once.  And the Biblical 40 days  represents an indistinct period of testing, trial, or questioning.

  • Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in the desert.
  • Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days to receive what we call the 10 commandments.
  • Jonah stayed in Nineveh for 40 days, preaching about sin.
  • Elijah went 40 days without food or water.
  • Jesus fasted 40 days and nights before his ministry began.

Therefore, Lent is a 40 day process of self-discovery.  It may be wilderness time when we feel alone and ask deep questions about ourselves.


During the wilderness times, Jesus heard a voice challenging his relationship with God.  Over and over, Jesus heard

“if you are the Son of God”

“if you are able”’

“if you can”


That’s the hard work of Lenten wilderness.  The “if’s” in our minds begin to make us doubt.  It is certainly easy to hear the voices that shout: you’re no good; you are ugly; you are worthless; you are nobody…


We hear those voices in our heads.  Those voices do incredible harm to our spirits if we allow it.  They tempt us into doubting our relationships with God and with those who love us unconditionally.  They tempt us into relationships that are based on proving ourselves worthy of love instead of inherently blessed with love.


Don’t believe those voices.  Nothing is more un-Christian than having to prove we are worthy of being loved.  Instead, believe God’s voice that says, “You are my beloved.”


You see, Lent isn’t really about giving stuff up.  The Christian journey isn’t about trying to be good enough to earn God’s favor.  It isn’t about comparing ourselves to others or imitating others to fit in.  Being good or bad is not what it’s about.  There is a time for self-evaluation, it’s true.  But not at the expense of self-worth.  Not at the expense of relationship and belonging.


Your prayer pebbles and this Lenten season are for the purpose of leaning into that truth that God’s love in unconditional; that you are a beloved child of God, in whom God finds great pleasure.  When you wander in the wilderness of life, keep that sense of blessedness with you.

Resources used:
http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/harvest/workshop6, “Leader Resource 1: Bodies of Water Guided Meditation”.
http://www.imitation.org/mimetic-theory, Imitatio: A Very Brief Introduction
Adam Ericksen, “Relaxing into Lent: Identity and Those Voices in Your Head, http://sojo.net/print/blogs/2015/02/25