With the Wild Beasts
You’re going to croak. And there’s an app for that.
My friend Suzanne told me about this simple smartphone app called “We Croak” that’s a fabulous spiritual tool.
At five random times throughout the day, it sends you a notification on your smartphone reminding you that you will one day die. It gives you a quote on death by an artist or spiritual teacher or public figure.
The point is to help us put the everyday concerns that dominate our minds into perspective.
When you are reminded that your life is short, your time on this earth is limited, and in the end, very little will remain of your daily preoccupations once you’re gone, things lessen in intensity a bit.
You’re reminded of what really matters.
You step back from the everyday grind, the sometimes relentless stress of trying to keep up with your to-do list, and remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
There is a rich tradition of meditating on mortality in both the Christian and the Buddhist traditions.
Human life is fleeting, but we are all too prone to waste our precious time on small, petty concerns. We can’t help it. The urgent takes over the important, and the years fly by.
But we have an entire church season devoted to contemplating our mortality.
It’s a ready-made tool to think about how we’re using the time we’ve been given, and the best part is that we take it on together. Lent is a communal journey.
There’s no better place to wrestle with the great questions of life and death and eternity, of sin and redemption and love, than in our Christian community.
And it turns out that a simple tool on a smartphone could help us keep those deep questions a little closer to the forefront of our minds. Who says technology and spirituality are diametrically opposed?
A line from our gospel today caught my eye.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is so sparse that it’s frustrating. We have to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.
Jesus gets baptized, he goes into the desert, and then he’s back in Galilee, beginning his public ministry and preaching.
And all we get to describe that pivotal wilderness period is two paltry sentences from Mark: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
The phrase that jumped out at me as I read it this time was “he was with the wild beasts.”
That sounds kind of intimidating.
What was that really like?
There would have been lions out there—we read about lions in various places in the Bible.
What else? Foxes, hyenas, jackals? Snakes? Maybe scorpions?
Nothing I’d want to tangle with, that’s for sure.
Jesus is already without basic resources in the desert—food, water, shelter. And then he has to contend with wild beasts on top of that.
But the interesting thing is how Mark phrases it.
He doesn’t say that Jesus fought the wild beasts, or ran away from the wild beasts, or hid from the wild beasts.
He says Jesus “was with the wild beasts.”
I find that fascinating and deeply spiritually significant.
Jesus was able to coexist peacefully with wild beasts in the desert.
He didn’t need to run from or fight with or hide from them.
In some ways, this desert ordeal is a strange foreshadowing of the Peaceable Kingdom—“the lion shall lie down with the lamb.”
Jesus was the Lamb of God, and he apparently lay down with lions in the wilderness. Did they keep him warm in the cold desert nights?
It’s actually a beautiful image, and it has a lot to teach us.
We have a lot of wild beasts stalking us in our own internal wilderness.
Fear, selfishness, and greed. Grief, anger, and shame. Regret, doubt, and sin.
And the biggest one of all, death.
We spend most of our time reacting to these beasts.
We run from them, trying to deny their reality in our lives and fill up our mental landscape with TV shows or celebrity gossip or political outrage.
We hide from them, insisting that it’s someone else, not us, whose life is being taken over by sin or stalked by death.
Or we try to fight them.
This sounds noble at first—wage war against your own dark nature, be morally upright and win the battle for virtue!
But the usual result of this is to turn us into self-righteous, arrogant prigs who look down on everyone else and wield our supposed correctness like a weapon.
The beasts grow even stronger within us and we no longer even notice it.
But Jesus does not run or hide from or fight the wild beasts.
He is simply with them, in serene coexistence.
What would it be like for us to emulate him?
And why was Jesus able to do that?
The key difference between Jesus and us is that Jesus understood that the wild beasts were not fundamentally a threat to him. They could not hurt or destroy him in any final way.
In the short-term literal sense, yes, he could be eaten by a lion in the desert.
And in the short-term sense in our symbolic internal landscape, our lives can be dominated by fear or shame or guilt.
But Jesus knew that his soul was always and forever in union with God, and no beast, internal or external, could threaten that.
Whatever his body or his mind suffered or endured in the moment, his heart, his most inner self, was enveloped and sheltered in the radiant love of God.
The same is true for us.
In a week like this, when yet another school shooting has torn a community apart, it’s easy to feel like the wild beasts are circling for the kill.
And the inner beasts cause more damage than the outer.
In fact, our inner beasts can be exactly what drives us to become people who could steal from our employer, or cheat on our partner, or pick up a gun and walk into a school.
Learning to live with the beasts, as Jesus does in our scripture, is a crucially important spiritual task.
We don’t have to defeat them.
And we don’t have to deny or ignore them.
We simply have to trust our ultimate welfare to God.
And once we lay down our weapons, we may find that inner desert to be a far more welcoming landscape than we originally anticipated.
Because as we know, the greatest beast of all is death.
As my app reminds me every day, it’s coming for me in the end.
But the season of Lent is here to help me, one of Jesus’ lambs wandering sometimes far from my shepherd, to lie down with the lion.
We will follow Jesus, the Lamb of God, into the jaws of death one day, but we know that he is leading us onward to resurrection.
In the meantime, we follow him through the desert, answering the call to look our wild beasts in the eye and ask what they have to teach us.
The task of Lent is take into our very bones the truth that the love of God is more real than any beast that stalks us, even death.
God’s love is the bedrock reality of our existence, and even in the loneliest desert, it is the quiet, undying flame at the center of our hearts.
That is what gives us the courage to walk toward the beasts and even invite them closer.
Maybe they’re just as scared as we are.
Maybe they need love as much as we do.
Maybe we could take this season of Lent to find out.