Desert Angels (Mark 1: 12-13)

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“In Mark’s version of the temptation story, just before Jesus is driven into the wilderness, he sees the heavens open and the Spirit descending like a dove. Mark tells us that Jesus, still wet from his Baptism, is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. This word for “driven” is the same word used when Jesus drives out demons. The Greek means literally to throw or hurl. Jesus had just seen the heavens ripped apart and the spirit descending like a dove. This bird doesn’t really sound like the gentle creature we’ve come to recognize as the dove of peace. And there is no gentleness in a Spirit that tears open the firmament, forcefully hurling Jesus into the wilderness.”—Robin White

Wing + Prayer

By The Reverend Robin White

Home . . . in rural Nicaragua. (Photo: Flickr/Robert Terrell.)

Home . . . in rural Nicaragua. (Photo: Flickr/Robert Terrell.)

Robin White Weekly Hubris

ANDERSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—April 2020—I don’t know if the wilderness—when we are not there—is actually devoid of God. If you have ever been there, you know how bleak, how remote, how soul-less it can feel. How un-peopled. How unfit for people. How alone, totally alone, one feels there.

The word, in Old English, is formed from “wild” plus “deer” (deer, meaning, at the time, all wild animals) and “ness.” So . . . wilderness. A wild, uninhabited, uncultivated place. Where people fear to go, with good reason.

There be, perhaps, dragons.

January before last, I spent time with a few of you working in a health care facility in what appeared to be a godforsaken village on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua. One afternoon, a couple of us had the opportunity to accompany a nurse and her assistant as they made home visits. After traveling through a maze of dirt roads, bouncing across ditches of wastewater in a dilapidated, antique Range Rover, we finally arrived at our first destination. 

Behind the gate of a barbed-wire, corrugated-metal, and cardboard fence, was the home we sought—and it comprised tattered blue tarps hanging on twine as walls, a dirt floor, and a concrete basin for water. Several rawboned dogs slept outside on the warm ground. A middle-aged woman, clearly ill, sat in the only chair. Our nurse took her vitals.   

I was told that this woman had lived in these quarters since being displaced by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Twenty years!

Twenty years of living on dirt in the heat of summer and on mud during the rainy season. Twenty years without framed walls or a roof with rafters. Twenty years without indoor plumbing or electricity. It all felt like sheer wilderness to me, and I wondered if she felt it, too. The only other sign of life here was a duck, who waddled out from behind one of the hanging tarps. Surely, this was a wasteland. Godforsaken. The impoverished woman was so sick she could barely hold up her head. “Where is her hope?” I wondered, as I looked around.

At that very moment, I noticed her bare and sooty feet. Each of her toenails was meticulously painted with tiny pink-and-red flowers. I exhaled in relief. There was her joy, a little bit of beauty in the midst of her seemingly impossible existence.  Against the dust of the ground that was her floor, her toenails announced “life.” Those carefully tended nails proclaimed her courage; her faith.  

From this first dwelling, we walked down the dirt road to visit the woman’s sister. Her home represented a noticeable upgrade. Hanging tarp panels had been replaced by concrete block walls and the floor was stone, not dirt. When we arrived, the 38-year-old sister immediately began unstacking multicolored plastic lawn chairs so we would have a place to sit. I knew it was important to graciously accept her hospitality, so I sat in the chair she offered me. Once we were all seated, the nurse began to ask the woman questions. Despite not being able to follow the Spanish, I could tell that something was amiss. Her eyes were glassy, her speech labored. The nurse took her blood pressure and then checked her blood sugar. We had been told that hypertension and diabetes plagued this population and, sure enough, this woman’s blood sugar tested at 549.  

She explained to her healthcare worker that she had run out of insulin the day before. As we rushed to load her into the old Land Rover “ambulance” to transport her to the clinic, I couldn’t help but relive the moment when we had arrived and she had scurried to unstack the lawn chairs. While nearing a medical crisis, she had concerned herself with offering hospitality to her nurses and a couple of gringos. I was dumbstruck by her faith and her grace, her hospitable welcome in the midst of her own very real emergency.

Our final visit was with an elderly woman who, once again, we found living behind rusty metal walls and barbed wire. This time, we entered a gate and found an entire compound—with dirt floors, some tarps, and some block walls. The woman explained that she lived here with five children and 13 grandchildren. Just inside the entryway, one of her daughters was boiling a large pot of pineapple over a wood fire. 

Cherubs in our midst. (Photo: Robin White.)

Cherubs in our midst. (Photo: Robin White.)

As the nurses tended to the matriarch, I couldn’t help but notice the sounds of giggling coming from the corner of the “kitchen area.” I took a step back for a better view, and there, tucked in the corner of the corrugated walls, was a rusty barrel filled with murky water. Two little dripping faces popped up, grinned at me and disappeared again into the depths. The boys were probably six and eight, and they were filled with buoyant joy. My heart did a back handspring. I celebrated with them as they cherished that moment, oblivious to the stark poverty around them. And their joy was contagious, as the old woman and her daughter laughed and motioned that I could indeed take a photo of the boys. Their water-splashed bodies reflected the sunlight and their eyes sparkled as I snapped the photo. They giggled when I showed them the image: there was no doubt in my mind that there were cherubs in our midst. 

It is tempting to pay so much attention to “the bad” that we don’t experience the beauty of all that is sacred. I wonder if it is when we fail to experience the God all around us that we are haunted by the “Satan” within us?

In Mark’s version of the temptation story, just before Jesus is driven into the wilderness, he sees the heavens open and the Spirit descending like a dove. Mark tells us that Jesus, still wet from his baptism, is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. This word for “driven” is the same word used when Jesus drives out demons. The Greek means literally to throw or hurl. Jesus has just seen the heavens ripped apart and the spirit descending like a dove. This bird doesn’t really sound like the gentle creature we’ve come to recognize as the dove of peace. And there is no gentleness in a Spirit that tears open the firmament, forcefully hurling one into the wilderness.

It all sounds more Stephen King than Mr. Rogers: a horror story where a pigeon on steroids explodes from the blue, and then harries Jesus into a hostile, beastly, abyss.  

And there, in that dangerous, friendless wasteland, Jesus encounters Satan.

The Greek verb translated “temptation,” when used in other places in Mark’s gospel, refers to “being put to the test.” Mark doesn’t elaborate on this test in his narrative, but perhaps this fill-in-the-blank temptation is all the more potent a concept since he leaves the details to our imagination. Jesus spends 40 days in a godforsaken place. With Satan. Accompanied by wild beasts.

There were dragons.

Ray White and Robin, 2009, Cincinnatus NY.

Ray White and Robin, 2009, Cincinnatus, New York.

I have been hurled into the wilderness a time or two. In 2009, my beloved 70-year-old father was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

As part of his diagnosis, we learned that he was not a candidate for a bone marrow transplant and that his only hope was to stay in the hospital and receive massive doses of chemotherapy. Immediately, I moved back to my hometown so I could be present during the weeks of his treatment. Just days after he began chemo, my father became critically ill, spending most of his days in bed in a fetal position. His energy was depleted to the point that he couldn’t even communicate with us. I spent every waking hour with him in that wilderness place, and can still easily recall the empty, hopeless, pit in my stomach. 

After about six or seven weeks, Dad began to perk up a bit, and I began bringing him anything he could think of that he might like to eat . . . anything at all to put weight back on him and restore some of his energy.  One afternoon, he was feeling a little better and was expecting a visit from his pre-teen granddaughters. I decided to take the afternoon off and go for a short hike. I had just finished my hike and was back in the car when I received a call from my mother that my father had just gone into cardiac arrest.

When I got to the hospital, the on-call doctor in the ICU was explaining to my mother that they had done all they could but that my father was now on life support. He had been transferred to the ICU from the oncology floor, where he had been for six weeks: Dr. Wright, my father’s wonderful oncologist, had left the previous day on vacation.

We then entered a wilderness of unfamiliar doctors and nurses, and we were all at their mercy. I was on my own with them. Yet I had chosen to be there. I had to be there. I couldn’t be anywhere else.

The hospital room was dark and seemed almost abandoned, except for the machines, the tubes, and computer screens which encircled my father’s lifeless form. His skin was grey and his beard had been shaved: he was nearly unrecognizable.  As I stood by the bed, numb, the on-call internist came in behind me. “I am really glad you decided to stay,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think your father will live through the night.” 

I felt the bottom drop out and, yet, I wasn’t surprised. This was the reason I hadn’t gone home with my mother: I knew I had needed to stay. A nurse came in and introduced herself as Maggie, my father’s nurse for the night. She said she was filling in, and that she was from Whitney Point, a tiny town only a few miles from my hometown. We were in a huge hospital, in a large city, and yet, somehow, we had ended up with a nurse who was “someone from home,” fifty miles away.

Maggie was very attentive. She set up her computer and some books on a rolling desk in the corner. She told me that she was concerned about the meds they were giving my father and so she was doing some research on something that might make a difference for him. She stayed in her corner, focused on her work, stepping away every few minutes to check my father’s vitals, leaving only once or twice to “confer” with the doctor. Most of that night is a blur to me now, but I do remember being at my dad’s bedside, quietly talking to him, quietly talking to God—pleading for a sign that we were not alone in this. It was a desert place, and I felt abandoned, unaccompanied, tempted by the thought and feeling that God was absent. All the while, Maggie stayed in the corner.

At some point, she sent me out to find a vending machine. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before. When I returned with a carton of chocolate milk, Maggie was still there, holding vigil.

I noticed that the hard, wooden chair I had been sitting in had been replaced by a recliner made up with a sheet, pillow, and blanket. “You should try to get some sleep,” Maggie said, as she moved her things from the corner. “I’m going to be right outside if you need me.” And, indeed, she parked herself outside the door, quietly leaving her post there only to come in to take vitals and adjust machine settings. At one point, she explained to me that she had made a couple of recommendations to the doctor, regarding my father’s care. As far as I know, that doctor never returned: Nurse Maggie, was the sole caregiver and she did a great job. 

Miraculously, my father lived through the night. The next few days, however, were brutal. The ICU team wanted to unplug him from the life support. The chaplain came by. A social worker came by. The doctor said there was nothing further they could do; that the fluid he had been given him while there had built up and my dad would not be able to breath on his own. I fought with the medical team, pleading with them to drain the fluid and give his heart and lungs a chance to work. I kept waiting for Maggie to come back on duty, as I knew she would be our advocate. Over the course of the next several days, due to unrelenting persistence on our part, the team finally agreed to do the procedure and drain the fluid. Within hours, they were weaning him off the ventilator. Once off the ventilator and breathing on his own, it was only a matter of hours before Dad was sitting up eating popsicles! Within a few days, he was back on the oncology floor, where he was loved and cared for by his trusted oncology team.

Dad had no memory of the longest night of my life. I had to tell him about Maggie from Whitney Point and how I was sure she had saved his life. He asked me to go to the ICU and ask for her so I could thank her properly, and perhaps bring her back so that he could meet her.

I talked to many employees in the ICU, but no one seemed to know of Maggie. They were unaware of anyone with that name taking a shift that night or at any other time, for that matter. Finally, I found an administrator and asked for help locating Maggie. What I learned was that there was no such person on their list of nurses or substitute nurses. No one had ever heard of her.   

Some people believe in angels. I am one of them.

Ray and Robin White, c. 1961, Willett NY.

Ray, Jean, and Robin White, c. 1961, Willett, New York.

Mark tells us that, for 40 days, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and that the angels waited on him. I wonder if he knew at that time that angels were there with him? Sometimes, pain cuts so deep, reality is so bleak, that it is easy to miss the angels. It is easy completely to lose sight of the Divine . . . the beauty, the life-giving breath in our midst.

I find it curious that both Matthew and Luke report that, after the temptation, Satan departs from Jesus. Mark, however, doesn’t record that detail. If Satan never departs, I wonder if Jesus, throughout his life and ministry, was open to the possibility that, at some point, he might again feel the absence of the Divine?   

Perhaps, at some point, he would again be haunted by Satan . . . haunted by the experience of feeling abandoned by God? Indeed, later in his gospel, Mark tells us that on the night of before his death, Jesus becomes distressed and agitated. He asks his disciples to stay awake while he enters into prayer, asking, “Abba, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me . . . yet not what I want but what you want.” 

I can’t help but wonder if this momentary uncertainly has to do with his very human sense of utter abandonment. When he returns to his disciples, he finds them asleep and scolds them for not “watching” with him. Once again, Jesus enters into prayer and a second time returns to find the disciples sleeping . . . and even a third time . . . .

Isn’t it during these moments when our loved ones, our beloved ones, seem absent that we feel totally alone? 

The next day, on the cross, Jesus again feels abandoned and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the midst of his suffering and death, even Jesus loses sight of the Divine. 

“Where are you, God?” “Why have you abandoned us, Oh God?” 

God in Jesus knows what the wilderness feels like. Our God has shared that feeling of the wasteland with us. We need not feel self-reproach as we struggle in the wilderness places. God in Jesus experiences the wilderness, experiences what it feels like to lose sight of the Divine. His beloved disciples sleep while he prays, but he is in such total despair that he cannot even register their presence and he feels abandoned. 

Mark tells us that, while dying on the cross, Jesus is alone, except for the women who stand looking on. But, in those moments, he feels utterly alone.

Jesus walked that lonesome valley, the valley of the shadow of death.  And, because he did, we never ever, have to walk it all by ourselves. 

Where there be dragons, there be also angels. We can be certain of that.  

About Robin White

The Rev. Robin Kaye White grew up in a farming community in Central New York State: she is descended, on both sides of her family, from dairy farmers, and is most alive, still, in rural North American landscapes. A voice major, she studied Music at Ithaca College; then earned her MDiv at Lancaster Theological Seminary and did graduate work at Princeton Seminary and The Theological Institute of Advanced Theological Research in Jerusalem, Israel. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), White was recently a Co-Moderator of the National Board of More Light Presbyterians. White is passionate about liturgy—“the work of the people”—and preaching. In her sermons, she strives to illuminate the original context of scripture and tease out its messages for the fraught present. She has had the privilege of “holding space” for the dying and their loved ones and experiences this ministry of presence as a gift: she is most willing to go with people as they journey to desert places. She states: “I have lived my life by adhering to Paul’s words in his letter to the church at Rome, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’” She is just as likely, though, to quote Rachel Held Evans as St. Paul: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” A Lesbian-Pescaterian-Presbyterian, Reverend White is most alive out of doors, whether hiking, biking, kayaking, golfing . . . or just sitting on a rock. (Banner and Author photos by E.B.-Herring, taken at Pendleton SC's Liberty Hall Bed & Breakfast.)
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