Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Still at the Jordan...

...dripping wet and stumbling up one bank. I can feel God calling me into the desert, but I'm afraid. What's out there? Or more correctly, what's in here? My desert is not miles wide, but wider still---the vast unknown territory of my own sinful heart.

But I'm called, and He will be with me.

So I start my forty days in the desert, the first serious attempt I've made in my 49 years to experience Lent as it's meant to be. I'm still planning, on this day of Carnival, my path through the desert. But at the same moment that I plan, I laugh because I know nothing will be as I imagine it: the beasts will be fiercer, and spring up from places I never expected. The comfort of the ministering angels will come in ways and at times that will surprise me, as well.

I've often studied the Temptation of Christ. For whatever reason, it's a piece of the Gospel that resonates with me more strongly. I think my days of homesteading had something to do with understanding that call even before I received faith. I had to pit myself against the demons I imagined were strangling me, I had to strip the world away and let my existence come down to earth, and sky, and sun, and rain. I'm not surprised that's when I stopped running from God---I had no place to hide, and He was all around me. I split wood and heard Him in the tearing grain. I watched mist roll over the low fields and felt His grace, like dew. When I broke new sod, it rolled over, rich, brown, begging for the truth of the seed to fulfill its purpose. I pulled weeds for hours and rooted out my own worldliness with it. I came to Him, finally, naked and cold, older than my years, afraid, desperate. He comforted me, fed me, gave me warmth, and I flourished.

Oh, I've had my weedy days since, even went fallow one year and nearly drank myself to death. What was I looking for then? I don't know, really. I learned that "falling away" isn't frightening like I thought it would be. If it was frightening, who would do it? I used to hear about people falling away from the faith, and I'd think of ladder-falling and dream-falling, that eerie sickness that starts in the groin and blossoms across the chest cold and sharp. I never understood how anyone would let that happen to them. But I was thinking of the wrong analogy all along. I should have remembered interviews with skydivers, how they describe falling. They say, "It feels like flying."

It does feel like flying. Falling feels like flying, and that's why we fall away without catching ourselves. It was a freedom, sudden and wild. No more caring about my soul, the tedious road to salvation, the self-checks and repentance and responsibilities. I was free!

I remember walking down a city street with my father when I was maybe 10. I looked up at one of the skyscrapers and exclaimed that falling from its top floor would certainly kill someone. He said, "Oh, no. Falling doesn't kill you!" Then he knelt down and held his hand an inch from the pavement. "Now, this last inch, that's what kills you."

I hit the last inch of my free fall one evening alone in my apartment. I ended up with my shotgun in my mouth. A phone call (coincidental, I'm sure) came in, then another, and finally a third, all of which I felt compelled to answer. After the third call it occurred to me that God might be trying to communicate something to me. I put away the shotgun and took the plastic tarp from the wall where I'd tacked it to catch the mess. Like the prodigal son, I looked back toward what I'd left behind and decided, in some weakly-formulated way, to go home.

That's a weird thing, this story of the Prodigal Son. The story doesn't really tell us much about the moment when the profligate looks up from the swine heap and decides to go home. The way it reads, he just gets up and goes. Really? I mean, really? For me, going home was a strange and awkward affair. But I went, and I wore the ring and feasted at the feast.

That was years ago, and now I find I've drifted away a bit again; not a full flight like before, but a slow tidal creeping. I don't have as far to go to get back home, but it seems as hard today as it was back then. Inertia (evil?) wants to keep me rooted here in my comfortable lukewarmness.

But it's Fat Tuesday, after all, and I find that once again, the money's all been spent, and there's a road, and a promise, and a long desert stretching from here to there.