September 28, 2020

Another Look: All Fall Down – The Wilderness Within

Barren Hill

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.

• Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today

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.


  1. This is excellent, of course, but it’s also why I hate Lent.

    Maybe hate is too strong a word.

    Then again, maybe not.

    The truth hurts, but it is necessary to tell it.

  2. “It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very advantageous to show him both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both.” – Pascal, Pensees #418

  3. We abandon hope that there is a permanent oasis near enough to sustain us. The pools of refreshment calling to us are mirages

    As a Christian I do not abandon hope of a permanent oasis as it is Christ who lives in me . I also see pools of refreshment when the Holy Spirit speaks to me in meditation and prayer.

  4. Thanks CM, I love your writing, it’s unique and, I think even prophetic. We need to thank God all the more for what we have that is truly valuable; our loved ones, our access to the throne of grace. It’s a tough time in this country when a lot of our leaders, Christian leaders in particular, seem to be leading the charge in the wrong direction. Doesn’t leave a person too many directions to turn.

  5. Every chip from every cup
    Every promise given up
    Every reason that’s not enough
    Is falling, falling at your feet

  6. –> “…what paradoxical creatures we are — noble and ignoble, rational and irrational, loving and selfish, Godlike and bestial.”

    Not just paradoxical, but if we’re honest about it we’re schizophrenic and hypocritical, too.

    • “Not just paradoxical, but if we’re honest about it we’re schizophrenic and hypocritical, too.”

      And that in the space of about 30 seconds. Of course, I like the way Stott phrases it better; it doesn’t sound so harsh.

  7. Beautifully written, Chaplain Mike.

  8. “We abandon hope that there is a permanent oasis near enough to sustain us.”
    But yet sometimes when we are in that ‘place’ we hear the Voice of God . . . maybe for some of us, we have to be ‘in that place’ in order to hear Him . . .

    I am reminded of one of the more compassionate passages in the OT concerning the woman Hagar who had been sent forth into the desert with her infant son (Abraham’s son), this:

    “When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up.” (Gen 21)

  9. Just a little soap
    and adequate warm water–
    the ashes are gone!

  10. Do I want to know myself?
    Do I want to know you?
    Would I prefer forever to
    turn in a hall of mirrors
    hidden from myself
    by my own image,
    hidden from your image
    by myself?

  11. The article’s picture was taken in my homeland–Arizona. Only place in the world where you will see Saguaro. (Also some across the south border into Mexico.)

  12. “Ashes, ashes, all fall DOWN!”

  13. The beginning of Lent
    was not auspicious

    On Ash Wednesday
    I ate meat and pastry

    and thought ill
    of strangers and friends

    My help is in the name of the Lord
    the maker of heaven and earth