Broken lines, broken strings
Broken threads, broken springs
Broken idols, broken heads
People sleepin’ in broken beds
Ain’t no use jivin’, ain’t no use jokin’
Everything is broken…
• Bob Dylan
• • •
We must first learn that the wilderness is within us.
Though we dwell in dry and discouraging places, the barren land that surrounds us is the effect and not the cause of our misery. We are not the “good people” to which bad things happen. We are the fools who have fouled our own nests and now move about in the dirt and stench.
Our rebel rain-dance has awakened the storm clouds and now we find what pleasures we can splashing in puddles and rolling in mud. Fun though it may be, we end up soaked and shivering, and it’s hard to avoid making a mess everywhere we go.
“Ashes, ashes, all fall DOWN!” the children sing, smacking the ground with their butts and squealing with delight. If only they knew. These little Jacks and Jills will spend their whole lives tumbling, fighting gravity, trying to avoid breaking their crowns. All the while, the king’s horses and men will rush about, triaging the damage, sweeping up bits of shell, spraying away the goopy mess of foolish Humpties who had no business sitting atop walls in the first place.
The very earth is groaning as ice caps melt, forests dwindle, and species die off.
You and I can’t seem to talk to each other without getting our feelings hurt or at least wondering about motives. We find it hard to quiet the noise within and we avoid quiet places because that’s when it gets so loud we can’t stand it. So we keep busy with trivial matters and call that life. We convince ourselves that we’re mad at the government or appalled at the latest scandal. We watch the cooking shows and imagine we’re full. We live for Sunday, paint our faces and don our jerseys, and dine on bread and circuses. The antics of our virtual “friends” amuse us or at least keep us occupied until the next show starts.
It’s a wilderness out there because it’s a wilderness in here.
Come on, it’s not as bad as all that, is it?
It must be said that the wilderness is a place of breathtaking beauty as well as desolation. Rarely must anyone in this world face unambiguous ugliness. The late John Stott called this “the paradox of man.”
We human beings have both a unique dignity as creatures made in God’s image and a unique depravity as sinners under his judgment. The former gives us hope; the latter places a limit on our expectations. Our Christian critique of the secular mind is that it tends to be either too naively optimistic or too negatively pessimistic in its estimates of the human condition, whereas the Christian mind, firmly rooted in biblical realism, both celebrates the glory and deplores the shame of our human being. We can behave like God in whose image we were made, only to descend to the level of the beasts. We are able to think, choose, create, love and worship, but also to refuse to think, to choose evil, to destroy, to hate, and to worship ourselves. We build churches and drop bombs. We develop intensive care units for the critically ill and use the same technology to torture political enemies who presume to disagree with us. This is “man”, a strange bewildering paradox, dust of earth and breath of God, shame and glory. So, as the Christian mind applies itself to human life on earth, to our personal, social and political affairs, it seeks to remember what paradoxical creatures we are — noble and ignoble, rational and irrational, loving and selfish, Godlike and bestial.
And so this week we have moved through Ash Wednesday and have begun our Lenten journey in a wilderness that is both beautiful and bedeviled.
We submitted to the marking of our foreheads, a liturgical act by which we acknowledge the wilderness in our hearts. We confess our inner barrenness. We also admit that we are lost in a “in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1 NIV). We abandon hope that there is a permanent oasis near enough to sustain us. The pools of refreshment calling to us are mirages.
Dust we are, on dusty roads we travel, and to dust we will return.
Lord of the winds, I cry to thee.
I that am dust,
And blown about by every gust
I fly to thee.
• Mary Coleridge
Edited from the original post in 2012.