The Wilderness is Calling and I must Go

Wilderness is a necessity there must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls.... The mountains are calling and I must go.
— John Muir

John Muir expressed his forays into the wilderness as callings.   He saw these callings being lived out as a kind of death to superficiality, "This time it is real — all must die, and where could a mountaineer find a more glorious death!"  He also saw them as places of rebirth,“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.”   The 211-mile trail that bears his name he called "the Range of Light," extolling it as the most beautiful landscape he "ever" saw.  

The trail bears his name for good reason.   He was the first to walk it physically and it really was a metaphor for another first path he walked, that fight for Yosemite national park, conservationism, preservationism, and wilderness habitats in America.  Even though many have hiked his trail and served in his Sierra Club or continued his visions the Trail has his name on it, because he blazed the path, he had to find his own way.  

Going into the wilderness is about finding your path, the one that bears your name, and if a trail is already there that is a sure sign you are not on your path.  Wildernesses are vast wild lands with infinite possibilities for making your own path; there are no signs demanding conformity, no trails bearing the names of other people, just wild spaces to cut your own path.    

We saw between 15-20 people each day.  All of them trying to catch a glimpse of Muir's vision.  People quoted him, wore hats with his quotes.  He owned this trail.  And all who walked it revered and respected him.  On Pinchot Pass I passed three women enjoying their lunch before the final ascent, they had their John Muir books out, chatting in animated tones about Muir as they admired the well-trodden trail ascending up and over the granite wall.  I stared down at the dusty path and remembered a quote from Joseph Campbell, "If the path before you is clear, you're probably on someone else's."   

Jed and I walked the entirety of Muir's trail and as we shuffled our sore and chaffed bodies into Yosemite Village, 250+ miles under our belt, we turned to each other and agreed we would NEVER hike the JMT again.   Jeru made it 60 miles.  Julie made it 175 miles.   We had no regrets and agreed we would do it all over for the first time in a heartbeat, but never a second time.   This had nothing to do with the Mountains, but everything to do with the difficulty of the hike and the ridiculous pace.  (Jed made a video of it, see below).    

As difficult as the JMT was I must confess it was not as difficult as the constant temptation in life to take someone else's path.  This is an indispensable reality of the way of transformation.  One look at the list of the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11) and its clear each person of faith must walk their own path.  God and faith are the only familiarities otherwise, the path changes from altar building to ark building, miracle nations birthed to enslaved nations delivered, from muted lions to fire dancing deliverances.   The paths are all different.  Each one walking their own path.  

 God seems to always call people into wildernesses to set them on their personal path, to break them free from groupthink, crowd-ways, and the dupery of prefabbed toll roads.   Abraham leaves the world of Ur and makes his own trail into God, Moses and Israel leave the metropolis of Egypt and make a trail right through the Red Sea in the Mountain of God.   Jesus leaves the conventional world of pharisees, sadducees, zealots, Herodians and Essenes and blazes a trail from the baptismal waters of Jordan through the wilderness and right smack dab into the middle of the Kingdom of God.   

Even though we swore we would never hike it again, I wasn't surprised when Jed told me a few weeks ago he intended to hike it again in August of 2017, by himself.  I totally got it.  

I have always had an affinity for the mountains.  
When I was 18 I logged 21 days alone in the Sierras,
and again when I was 19,
and when I turned 20 I tucked my sole soul into the same 8000ft range, but this time for 40 days.  

Each summer I would go back, drawn by a force of nature into its wildness.   The nights were squeamishly addictive.   Each night the black canopy of an eternal yawn howled its existential cries into my soul terrorizing me into states of acute consciousness.  Standing there under the vast deep I shuddered and shook and gazed into my own immortality, feeling the chasm of my finite infiniteness.  I experienced nightly what Rudolph Otto calls the Numinous, the mysterium tremendum fascinans.  An awakening that is a mystery, which is terrifying and fascinating at the same time.   I would stand there until I couldn't take it anymore and then I would bolt into my tent, close my eyes and wish for the dawn.

But especially he loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called — called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come.
— Jack London

When Jed said he wanted to hike the JMT alone. I knew what it was, what was calling him.  Julie was nervous, grandma was worried, but I got it.   There is a kind of drive in us that pushes us to edges, exploring our heart in the mirror of the wild, desolate habitats that only wild creatures survive in.

Mark tells us the same was true of Jesus.

The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. Mark 1:12 (NET)

Stories are clothed in a setting.   People need places for their stories to come alive, to take on dimension and texture.  The earliest story of the human rises from the mist of Eden’s Garden.  The first journey of faith embarks from the Plains of Ur.  And people need another place for their story to travel to.  The story of faith and thus our story emerges in the quest of Abram for the City of God.   In between the Plains of Ur and the City of God revelation and encounter are added to the story.

People of faith have long memorialized the genesis and development of their transformation by building cities and erecting altars at the places where significant events occurred.  Abraham renames the place where he encounters God on Moriah as a way of teaching his children that God Sees and Provides.  Jacob names the place of Beth-El (God’s house) as a reminder to his descendants, that heaven really does touch earth, and Bethel, whenever it’s mentioned, is a reminder of the genesis of transformation and the place where it happened.  And then there is Peni-El (God’s face) reminding all of us that transformation happens at the place where we entangle our soul in God.   And yes, this too is a place.

In all these stories we see that God reveals himself in places.  Places matter. 
We all are led to a place where we transform.  
The caterpillar to the cocoon,
the infant in the womb,
the seedling from the soil,
the resurrection out of a tomb. 

And you, you too are led to a place.   This 50-day map, you hold in your hand, says “You are right here,” in this place.

Wildernesses in Scripture are the yet-to-be-defined places that the Spirit leads us to in our quest for becoming.    Impotent Abrahams, Conniving Jacobs, Murderous Moseses, Depressed Elijahs, and widowed Ruths all have something in common in their stories.   Wildernesses.   They all encountered God in a wilderness.  And their encounter lives on in legend and lore.

In the wilderness Joseph grows from a dreamy lad to courageous man.  In the starry-sky of a wilderness night Abraham believes God and his destiny changes.  In the wilderness Jacob becomes Israel.  In the wilderness Moses the shepherd becomes Moses the deliverer.  In the wilderness Israel the slave-nation becomes Israel the conquering-nation.  In the wilderness David the fugitive becomes King David.  In the wilderness Elijah the fearful prophet becomes Elijah the fearless.  In the wilderness John the Baptists prepares a nation to become the Kingdom of God.  In the Wilderness of Arabia Saul the Grand Inquisitor of the Church becomes Paul the greatest missionary of the Church.

You are hard pressed to find anyone who becomes apart from the wilderness that made them.

It should come as no surprise then that the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.   

The wilderness is the place where worlds collide, the intersection of heaven and the underworld on earth.   The wilderness exposes us to the real struggle for who we really are and who we are about to become.   Mark punches home the significance of place by talking about the wilderness four times in the first thirteen verses.   He uses the prophet Isaiah, John-the-Baptizer, the Holy Spirit and Jesus to point out the significance of the wilderness.   And in these four early mentions, four realities are made clear. 

First, wildernesses are places where reality is defined by the Voice.  
"voice of one crying in wilderness"

Second, wildernesses are places where we transform.
"baptizing in the wilderness"

Third, wildernesses are places where the underworld hacks at our true self. 
"in the wilderness 40 days being tempted by Satan."

Fourth, wildernesses are places where angels and beasts and humans-in-the-making coexist. 
"in the wilderness... with the wild beasts and the angels were ministering to him."    

We all need a place to become.  And wilderness is just that place.  We all need solitude, where our internal struggle steps outside of the subconscious terrain and walks through wild exposures to challenges, tests.   We need a place where we come face to face with who we are in the presence of all that is beastly, barren and tempting.   We need a place where we can say we have faced the deepest accusation (Satan, means accuser) and we have held fast to who we really are.  Until we wrestle through the bigger questions of who we are in the face of the world we will always default to living down to the minor questions of what to wear, what to eat, and what to do.  

And for those of us who have been to the wilderness before we know once you have been, you return again and again, and you lead others into that sacred space.  We see it in Jesus,  Jesus has regular rhythms of going into the wilderness and even retreats there with his closest followers where he teaches them how to become.

Now lest you think I am suggesting a trek into the woods in order to experience this, let me set the record straight.  Whereas that may be helpful on occasion, I can speak as one who lives in an urban jungle (downtown San Francisco for the past 14 years) it's not necessary.   What comes to mind is Thomas Merton's final words to his brothers at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  He had made a trip to the Far East searching for insights into contemplative praying.  He died unexpectedly on that trip, but in a final letter, he told his brothers that everything he had been searching for could be found right there in his own hermitage in Kentucky.  

You do not need to step into a physical wilderness to identify with the wilderness that is at work in your life.  You simply need an imagination for this.  

With a little bit of effort and creativity, we can explore what Mark calls the four works of the wilderness.  

  1. a spiritual ecosystem where the Voice defines our reality
  2. an inner cocoon where transformation is safe
  3. a true-self simulator where we face off against all the underworld can throw at us vis-a-vis our identity as children of God.
  4. an interpretive lens for identifying the angels and beasts cohabiting in our present season.


  • Conversation.  Have a conversation with Cleopas.  
  • Reflection.   Reflect on your day today.  
  • Prayer.  Pray a Lectio Divina of Mark 1:12-13


UPNEXT: Scarcity