I live a 10 minute bike-ride from a sprawling Migratory Bird Sanctuary. It’s one of the places I go to find a little sanctuary of my own. 300 hectares of managed wetlands, marshes and low-dykes in the Fraser River Estuary. It’s a local treasure, right in our backyard.
On my way this morning, over the Westham Island bridge, mid-span I happened upon a pair of pristine Mute Swans. They wandered together, aimless, parallel to and then under the bridge. With their heads up just right they carried over the water as if it was all theirs.
Moments like this; I’m witness to the Creator’s love. It’s like I see what Gerard Manley Hopkins’ described as ‘“bright wings” of the Holy Spirit over the bent world’, and I find exactly what I need. Two Mute Swans travelling together is a quiet reminder. God is in the wilderness. Or maybe better, this is where he finds me quite easily.
The wilderness, has always been for me, a place of revelation and reception. I’ve always felt welcome there, taken in, greeted, even addressed. By whom? Well, the Creator I suppose. Perhaps, I enjoy the wilderness because I’ve never been without the prospect of returning to a civilized and well-settled world. Nevertheless, I find what I need in the wilderness.
Having preached through the book of Exodus last year and learning about what the wilderness signified to Israel, I’m reminded of all the ways God speaks to me through his creation. Whenever I’ve had the chance to travel through his creation, whether in my youth, backpacking after high school; bounding across the red cliffs of Kalbarri, spotting dolphins in northwestern Australia, prayer walking the dykes of the North Alouette River in Maple Ridge in my 20s and finding otters and beavers, observing these swans today.
His voice is unmistakably wild.
To ancient Israel, the wilderness, midbar, though also known to be hostile and unhospitable, represents the place from which God speaks to his people. In fact, in the Hebrew lexicon the words for ‘wilderness’, midbar and ‘word’, dabar, share the same root. Further, the Hebrew word for “speaking,” me-dabber and the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, have the same letters.
There’s something here.
Moses, as he sang of Israel’s election by God in Deuteronomy, sets the scene amidst the wilds of the vast Sinai.
“He [God] found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him,” (Deut 32:10).
When the Israelites were taken into captivity, in Egypt and then later occupied by Babylon they were exposed to all kinds of clinging things that threatened to deafen them to God’s voice; idol worship, immorality, barbarism etc. Israel was intended to be a people called by God to be his own and in trying to be faithful to this call Israel, over a lot of miles, became freighted with all kinds of sin. Things that corrupted and clung.
However, in all of Israel’s going out and coming in there came a familiarity in the wilds; a familiarity with God’s speaking. A voice, Elijah discovers and we’re told, that was not in the wind, earthquake or fire but in the sound of a low whisper. “What are you doing here?” asks Yahweh (1 Kings 19:13).
God encounters his people in the wilderness.
In all my own rambling, journeying with Christ, I have seldom heard this voice clearer than in the wilderness. When I’m encountered by God here I have often already amassed a sizeable web of things that cling. Those sins that don’t cause to much of a fuss and that’s precisely the problem. The small yet significant anxieties, the fearful insecurities, the preoccupations with material things, the terminal comparisons to others that pastors are especially good at.
It can all dissolve with just one word. One low whisper. “What are you doing here?”
We are freighted travellers aren’t we? Carrying with us so much of what entangles. But somewhere between the breaking dawn and the fading sun, we catch a glimpse, or hear it, even faintly, hovering over the waters – God’s speaking.