On the first Sunday of Lent, the Gospel lectionary reading was Luke’s recording of Jesus in the desert, the Wilderness. Each year, the Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent is one of the three recordings found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is a powerful reading for me, one that I never tire of hearing and it seems that each time I hear it, there is something different that speaks to me. Maybe it is a different nuance that my ears hear. Maybe it is a clearer picture that my eyes see. Maybe it is a deeper meaning that my heart feels.
I have never really been to the desert. I have seen pictures of it, of course. I have imagined deserts. I have been in hot and dry places but those weren’t really deserts.
During the recent snows of the past few days, I had the opportunity to read a book that was just published last month—Jan 2016. The book is The Hundred Year Walk by Dawn Anahid Mackeen. I was intrigued by this book the first moment that I read a review and I knew that it would be the next book on my list.
It is the story of an Armenian man who, during World War I, was part of the Armenians that were displaced in Turkey. Turkey and many countries around the world do not acknowledge that what happened to the Armenians during this time in history was indeed genocide, but that is what it was. The Armenians were gathered up in their towns and communities, endured forced deportation, difficult, unbearable conditions, forced marches, little to no food, water, or shelter, and disease. It is estimated that nearly 1 million people died during this time. Some Armenians managed to survive, including this man who later came to America, made a good life, raised a family and helped his community to be a better place.
It was his wish that the story of what his people endured be told, so he kept accounts and diaries of what happened to him, the people that he met, the conditions that he endured, the pain and anguish and near death that almost swallowed him up, the 900 miles or so that he traveled during the deportation, forced marches, escape and return. The most significant part of the story that he wish told was how a Muslim Turkish family took him in, an Armenian Christian man. And so, not only did his granddaughter undertake to tell his story, but she also undertook to travel the same journey that he traveled 100 years ago.
I was interested in reading this book because one of the dearest friends of my life is a friend from seminary whose grandfather had a similar story. My friend Clark Hanjian’s grandfather was a survivor of the same tragic event. He was a refugee that somehow managed to survive and found his way to our country and made a life for his family. The difference is that Clark’s grandfather would never talk about what happened all those years ago and Clark only knew that somehow his grandfather was one of the lucky ones.
As I read the book, I was struck by the description of the desert, the harshness of the sun in the summer and the freezing cold of winter. Neither season was kind to this group of people who marched with very little clothing to protect them from the elements. Over and over again, as I was reading, I asked myself what did these people think about as they marched in these conditions? What kept them going? What kept them from going crazy?
During the course of this nearly three year forced deportation, the desert provided for Stepan Miskjian something totally unexpected. In the midst of that journey, he discovered that he was not alone, but that God was with him. Before the deportation he was active in his church in his community, but it was more of an expectation of Armenian life as all family and community life centered on the traditions and customs of the church.
However, by the end of the march, when he neared the place where he knew that he would be shot and killed, something, Someone greater than he, greater than all the strength he possessed led him to escape and then kept providing for him the means to survive, to escape, to live. In the midst of this horrible journey, where he saw death around every turn, he discovered the One who is never far from any of us. In the desert of pain and anguish, Stepan Miskjian learned to pray.
Lent is about prayer. It is about stepping into the deserts of our lives and discovering again the One who is never far from any of us. Lent is a time of renewal. A time to look at all the horrible parts of our lives—the sin, the indecision, the pain, and yes, sometimes even death—and learn again to pray.
It isn’t that we really forget how to pray. It is more that when we take the time to enter the desert, the Spirit can teach amazing things about prayer and if we take the time to enter this desert each Lent, we find our prayer life at deeper and deeper levels.
I know that the Gospels tell us that the purpose for Jesus’ journey into the desert was for the devil to tempt him, but in the days before that happened, I believe that Jesus discovered who he was in the midst of God and Spirit. He found strength and peace. He found power and wisdom. He found in himself human and divine. He discovered his purpose and deep meaning, so that when the devil came at him there was strength and purpose to stand against temptation.
Mother Teresa is said to have said that the problem with prayer is that most of us pray as if God were absent. I think that is true. Many of us learn as children to pray, thinking that God is in heaven or somewhere else that is not close to us. I believe that what Jesus discovered in profound ways in that desert is that God is in the midst of us, deep within our souls, loving us, forgiving us, speaking to us, guiding us. But if we keep praying as if God is somewhere else, we will never feel the depth of that love or grace or mercy or guidance or wisdom.
Stepan Miskjian made this discovery as well. At the beginning of his forced deportation and as the conditions grew worse he, along with all of his companions, asked where God might be? So many other groups of people down across the ages, who have found themselves as refugees have asked the same thing, assuming that God is absent from their pain and anguish. And they have a right to ask that question. For Stepan Miskjian, the answer became clear, that God was not far away, but closer than his beating heart.
For each of us, Lent is this powerful moment in our year when we can again make this discovery for ourselves. Our God is not an absent God. We do not need to pray to God who is far, far away, but to God who is closer to us than we can imagine. I think knowing that and praying with certainty can make all the difference in who we are and how we treat each other. It is not just a chosen few that God is that close to, but everyone that is created by God. God is close to everyone– whether we agree with them or not. God is close to everyone–whether they choose to understand the depth of that love and presence or not. Everyone.
So, in this Lenten season, I invite all of us into the desert to discover anew, just how close God is to us.
Don’t pray to an absent God.
To God alone be glory!