Joel Elliott Mooneyhan
The Wild Country
“Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord[a] would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend . . . “
“When I pray, I don’t hear anything.”
“Why doesn’t God answer me?”
“All I get from God is silence.”
Any of this sound familiar? Of course it does. I’ve met this many times from others, and have wondered it myself. We all do. There’s nothing wrong with it. Humanity’s relationship to God is mysterious; God is wild, untamable, unpredictable. We want things safe, controlled, routine.
Perhaps that is why we find it so hard to pray. Too often, we think of prayer as transactional: Give God a few moments, a few nice platitudes, and then God gives us the things we want. It doesn’t work like that, and when it doesn’t, we are offended. But that isn’t what prayer is. And if that’s how we approach it, then we will always be asking why we don’t hear more from God. What are we to do?
In the story of the Exodus from chapter 33, we are given a glimpse of the spiritual practices of Moses and the Israelites, in particular how they prayed to God: they’d set up a tent, far away from the rest of the camp, and go to meet God. It says that in these moments, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one might speak to a friend.
It’s the wilderness aspect of this picture that strikes me. Meeting in the wilderness is deliberate, dangerous, and free from distraction.
By going far off from the camp, Moses is intentionally setting aside a time and a place to meet with the Lord. It isn’t convenient. It isn’t easy. He leaves his camp, he goes away from everyone else, and he sets up a tent dedicated to his time with God. How often do we go to that sort of effort to spend time with the Lord?
He meets in a place of potential danger, so his life is in God's hands; he has nothing to do but to trust. It demonstrates his faith in God's protection and provision. He leaves the safety of the camp, the safety of the numbers, the familiarity of his community, and he goes to a place that is uncomfortable at best, and outright dangerous at worst. Here, he cannot rely on his own strength—he goes to a place that reminds him of his desperate need for God.
The wilderness is a place where there is nothing to distract Moses from his time with God. He is removed from other people, other comforts, other obligations. It is just him and the Almighty. Moses goes to a place that, at least for the time he is there, frees him from the worries and the concerns and the stresses of his life. He spends time with God in a place where there is nothing else to do but to rest in God’s presence.
Lent is a spiritual wilderness. During Lent, we have an opportunity to practice the same discipline, the same faith, the same focus as did Moses and the early Israelites. Lent gives us a chance to set aside times and places to spend in devotion to God; to lay our fears and our worries at His feet; to forsake everything else and give our attention solely to Him.
In those practices, we just might discover that we are growing closer to God, learning His voice and learning His will, drawing strength and courage and wisdom to follow even closer.
In those practices, we may find that the relationship grows stronger and stronger, where we not only pray for what we want from God, but for what God wants for us. We may even find that we start hearing the still, small voice of God.
In those practices, we just might discover that just as with Moses, God comes down to meet with us face to face, as would a friend.