by Pastor Cathy Fransson
I have approached Holy Week with a shiver of dread. And I have not been alone. You and I grew up under the unhelpful (but widely known) doctrine formulated by 12th century Anselm of Canterbury that came to be known as "substitutionary atonement." Anselm taught that God was so angry at humanity for disobeying “his” ordained order, he sent his son Jesus to die in our place, paying the price of our sin. It’s hard not to feel guilty when centuries of blame have been heaped on our heads.
Sadly, being baptized into the Christian faith at age 8 and trying ever after to do the right thing never discharged my guilt for “killing” Jesus. I spent years trying to equal his sacrifice by laying down my own life for others. After all, “A good shepherd would die for the sheep.”
Just a century after Anselm a number of theologians began to argue persuasively against this one theory. Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s favorite is John Duns Scotus whose argument Rohr summarizes this way: “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity….he came to change humanity’s mind about God.” [from Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis Assisi] Two contemporary theologians come immediately to mind: Marcus Borg, who lists five interpretations of the cross in The Heart of Christianity (2004), and Rita N. Brock and Rebecca Parker in Proverbs of Ashes (2008). There are many others, including early 20th century Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu.
I needed to get this doctrine straight. Drawn to seminary in 1996, I met Dr. Fran Ferder, my first theologian/professor at Seattle University, who said categorically, “You have to have a life before you can lay it down.” I was in my early fifties, and this was the first time I had heard such a convincing truth. I was hooked, because I had spent most of my professional years empowering adolescents and not myself. After years of deference and silent misery I began to learn how to speak up for myself. Rebecca Parker affirms, “We need a God Who delights in revolutionary disobedience and spirited protest.” [p. 31]
Parker explains, “The dynamic of dominance and submission in human relations is the heart of sin,” not a list of forbidden pleasures, nor groveling before God in our unworthiness.  We are called to resist injustice and to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. This is “Old” Testament stuff! The virtue of our resistance, whatever its outcome, lies in revealing the bankruptcy of power systems as we work together to achieve triumph of the human spirit for everyone.
I don’t squirm much during Holy Week any more. I stand attentive at each waypoint of the journey, at the sharing of bread and wine, in the garden at Jesus’ arrest, through his trial and his mistreatment, full of empathy and grief that one so innocent had to go this far to reveal that the world’s powers oppose God’s plans for Creation. God did not intend us to judge each other, weigh our sins and assign punishment. God intends for us to love as God loves.
Borg asserts, “I do have faith in the cross as a trustworthy disclosure of the evil of the domination system, as the exposure of the defeat of the powers, as the revelation of the ‘way’ or ‘path’ of transformation, as the revelation of God’s love for us, and as the proclamation of radical grace. I have faith in the cross as all of those things.” Rohr says simply, “God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.”
As late as it may seem for us to learn new interpretations of the cross, they revolutionize our understanding of what God asks of us. The way forward is to be just, kind and merciful in our walk with God. Most important, it is my way forward, since I have taken up my life and choose well when and how to lay it down.
I learned the poem “Lost” by David Wagoner from David Whyte when I was part of a communal living program called “Spirit and Culture” at Chinook Learning Center (now: The Whidbey Institute) in 1986. David shared a wealth of poetry with us during the 9 months we were together and “Lost” was one I liked a lot.
This poem has spoken to me in different ways over the years since I first heard it. I think the first two words are the most powerful. Stand Still. Those words grab my attention immediately. What I hear is “be quiet” and “pay attention”. Stop and listen to the natural world. I often walk at the beach, usually several times a week. I watch the tide move in and out, the Olympics and Mt. Rainier take my breath away, the shore birds charm and excite me in their activities. The water doesn't ask questions, or worry or feel lost.
There isn't a lot of wilderness in the city to get lost in, but there is lot of uncharted territory within. When I feel lost inside I eventually realize that its time to return to nature, to breathe in and out, quiet my mind, write in my journal and remember gratitude. When I allow nature to find me, I am truly found.
~ Janet Hasselblad
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
"Lost," by David Wagoner from Collected Poems 1956-1976 © Indiana University Press.
by Jim Segaar
Would you ever choose to have a wilderness experience? For me, the answer is a definite “It depends.” First, I need to know whether we are speaking literally, as in natural wilderness, or metaphorically, as in a spiritual or psychological wild place. And second, we have to agree on a definition for wilderness.
I’ve had lots of wilderness experiences, both literal and metaphorical, and hands-down I prefer the literal kind. But even when we stick to the outer world, we still need to be careful of definitions.
Let’s pretend we’re going on a vacation in the wilderness. We could choose to enjoy a week at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, which is part of Walt Disney World in Florida. According to the Disney website, we could “escape to the rustic majesty of America’s Great Northwest” at the lodge, which “celebrates American craftsmanship and honors the beauty of the untamed wilderness.” That’s quite an achievement when one considers that the lodge sits on reclaimed swampland just outside Orlando. For some reason I think there’s just the tiniest bit of hype going on here.
I must confess that on a scale of Heaven on Earth to Hell on Earth, I place Disney properties firmly toward Hades’ end of the spectrum. I blame it all on business travel. I used to attend conferences at Disneyworld, and I always found it a deeply dissatisfying destination for business. I never learned to appreciate a smiling desk clerk ordering me to “Have a Magical day” while I faced the prospect of spending the next 10 hours in a series of freezing, dark conference rooms listening to speakers drone on about the latest advancements in tender authorization or digital storage. But I am certain that most people do not carry my anti-Disney baggage, and that at least two of you (Tim and Patrick) would consider the Wilderness Lodge positively celestial.
When I think of a wilderness vacation, my thoughts go back to a trip that Jim Ginn and I made to the Gates of the Arctic National Park a number of years ago. We kicked things off by flying several hours north of Fairbanks, Alaska to a tiny village named Anaktuvuk Pass. From there we backpacked through the mosquito-infested tundra until we couldn’t stand it any more. We saw very little wildlife, with the exception of a half-eaten caribou leg that we nearly tripped over while hiking through a rather narrow passage between some boulders. Fortunately we did not meet the carnivore who’s dinner we interrupted. After three days of being bled by insects while stumbling through lumpy, mushy swamp I nearly cried with relief when we finally boarded our flight out of the Arctic. By the time we got back to Fairbanks we were both so tired that we dragged our backpacks through the airport, wearing holes in them. But believe it or not, from a safe distance of about a decade I resolutely claim that I preferred that wilderness vacation to the Mickey Mouse option. Finding our own path through those glacial valleys was spectacular at times, and we did not meet another human during our entire hike.
Things get more complicated when I think about wilderness metaphorically. I’ve certainly found myself in emotional or spiritual wildernesses more than once. I’ve been frightened there, even petrified. While there I often wished that my emotional wilderness was filled with fiberglass pine trees and water slides, with lots of cold beverages and yummy treats at hand. But my psyche always ends up filled with mosquitoes the size of sparrows, with the occasional large carnivore thrown in just for fun. I’ve been forced to slog my way through a spiritual swamp to find my way back to a firm footing. I couldn’t cheat and let the concierge handle all the messy details. I certainly tried to take more pleasant shortcuts, but they never worked out very well over the long term.
I’ve tried to keep my emotional and spiritual crises controlled, manageable, hidden, and certainly not messy. But again and again this approach failed. My problems simply festered and grew until something blew up. My faith. My mental wellbeing. Relationships. Things always had to go KABOOM before I could truly move on and regain my internal equilibrium.
So what will it be for your next wilderness experience, whether metaphorical or physical? True wilderness can be a scary, lonely, annoying, life-threatening place. But that’s the kind of wilderness I need sometimes. For me, magical days are rarely included, and when they do appear it’s inevitably an annoying illusion.
In this blog post, a couple from the congregation shares two different takes on Wilderness.
I get a lot of spiritual joy visiting the desert steppes in the LT Murray Wildlife Reservation near Ellensburg. The Columbia Basalt beds were carved by the cataclysmic ice age floods, the Yakima River and constant wind. No matter which direction I turn I see wide open skies above vast treeless expanses covered with grass, arrowroot, balsamroot and sagebrush. I've seen elk, deer and bighorn sheep cross the plateaus. Delicate pink bitterroot flowers emerge in rocky washes blasted by heat and cold. Mountain Bluebirds startle up as I walk along the dirt road. Crushed sagebrush evokes so many memories and a feeling of returning. The warmth of the sun feels so good after soggy months in the Puget lowlands. How blessed I am to be able to see, hear, smell and feel these gifts of God today. I am do glad to be alive.
I don't think I'm closer to God in the wilderness than in my home or my city. I think of God as synonymous with all of the created world--everything, human-constructed or wild. I do happen to see different kinds of reminders of the primal creative force of God in different ways, including in how the homeless man is kind to me in downtown Seattle, in how a poor mother on a Mexican night train shared her small bit of food with me, and in the wild natural rocks, birds and trees of my dozens of hiking trails.
Perhaps I may sometimes feel closer to God when I'm in nature simply because it's easier there to forget the complicated messiness of my city life. But really, to me, God is in the elevator light that guides me to my job in the morning, in the doctor's prescription that cured me of the giardia that I contracted in the wilderness, in the memory of my loving, hard-working parents and in thinking about their thousands of ancestors before them, as much as in mountains and crashing ocean waves. As a conscious and sentient being alive in my place and time, I feel it is my duty to recognize God in everything, and I try to.
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist