40 Days on the Wilderness Road: A Good Beginning

by Wendell Barnett

A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.—Lao Tse

I will seek You in the morning

And I will learn to walk in Your ways

And step by step You’ll lead me

And I will follow You all of my days—Rich Mullins

In 1775, Daniel Boone and 35 other men hacked a trail from near Kingsport, TN, through the Cumberland Gap to Ft. Boonsboro, KY, a distance of about 200 miles. This trailblazing took them around 4 weeks, though one can now make the trip on roughly the same route in a little over three hours. Though it was barely more than a footpath, it was called The Wilderness Road, and it became one of America’s most important avenues to the west. Between its opening in 1775 and 1840 when it fell into disuse over 300,000 people used it to settle Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and other states. My own family on my father’s side used the Wilderness Road as they made their way from Jamestown, VA to Kentucky. That accomplishment started with the first ax-stroke which led to the felling of the first tree to enable a person riding a horse to take that first step.

In our day there are some 2 billion people on this earth who call themselves Christian. The journey to 2 billion started some 2000 years ago with the first step Jesus took into the Wilderness of Judea wherein He spent 40 days fasting and being tempted by Satan and, one may well believe, He “went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.” (Frederick Buechner, “Lent,” Whistling in the Dark: a Doubter’s Dictionary. HarperCollins, 1988.)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first step on the journey known as Lent that takes us to Easter. Lent is a season in the church year wherein we journey step-by-step from the wilderness to the resurrection. Ash Wednesday helps us have a good beginning to Lent by reminding us that we are but dust, yet the Son of God emptied Himself and died this “dust.” Lent is designed to help us learn (or relearn) to walk in Christ’s way. Our discipleship (following Christ) path often gets choked with the brambles of the cares and obligations that we take on. Lent is a journey wherein we reopen that path, and if we stay on it, step-by-step, we can emerge as re-empowered disciples. The most familiar way (though not the only one) Lent does this is through the discipline of fasting, i.e. “giving up” something.

It seems that when we think of fasting during Lent and what we will give up, we limit our thoughts to food. It may well be that a food should be what you give up. One year I gave up potato chips and another year I gave up hamburgers. In both cases I found myself “owned” by the particular food. Also, in both cases by enduring an entire Lent without the food, I came out of that journey not needing potato chips or hamburgers. I still enjoy chips or burgers very much, but I don’t have to have them anymore.

On the other hand, it may be that what we should give up is a behavior or an attitude. Last year, I decided to give up grumpiness for Lent. Giving up hamburgers—which are one of my favorite foods—was a walk in the park in comparison to giving up grumpiness. I confess, I did not succeed, if by success one means that I was never grumpy during Lent. I think I might have ended up a little less grumpy, but the difference was nominal.

The key element in deciding what to give up for Lent is observing what sort of things distract you from God and deciding on which one will benefit you and your relationship with God the most. Perhaps Jesus went to the wilderness after His baptism instead of starting His ministry right away on a high note was because He too needed to wrestle with the things that could distract Him from His purpose and relationship with the Father: the lust of the flesh (bread from stones), the lust of the eyes (jumping from the Temple’s pinnacle), and the pride of life (all the kingdoms of the world). (See I John 2:16, and also compare with Genesis 3:6a “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [lust of the flesh], and that it was pleasant to the eyes [lust of the eye], and a tree to be desired to make one wise [pride of life]”)

Would you come and join me on the Wilderness Road to empowered discipleship? Will you join me as I ask myself in asking yourself: How can I do (more) justice? How can I love mercy (more than I do)? How can I walk (more) humbly with God?

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let everyone who hears say, “Come!” And let everyone who is thirsty come! Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Revelation 22:17)

© 2020 St. Luke UMC
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