Some years ago, a friend invited me to relocate from my comfortable home town of Lethbridge, Canada, to the big city of Toronto to help him in his work with troubled kids -- street children and kids in conflict with the law. Little did I know that responding to his invitation would be the beginning of a compelling and life-changing journey from self-reliance and self-satisfaction into a deeper relationship with God and people in need.
Most of the troubled young boys I began working with were from tragically difficult families. I worked hard at building friendships with them and engaging them in positive recreational and social activities. Initially, I thought that my influence would make a big difference in their lives. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that my investment of a few hours with each of them every week was having little impact.
However, during the course of several years the one thing that did seem to make a difference involved taking them on treks into the wilderness. With only the barest of necessities, we would trek and paddle into remote wilderness areas far away from the distractions and attractions of the city streets, journeys filled with fear and anger for boys who suddenly found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
They struggled with the darkness, the quiet, the unknown, and learned to face themselves in an environment totally different from city life. Inevitably some would try to run, to escape back to the city lights, but in the strangeness of the wild they discovered that they could not make it on their own. These difficult experiences had a way of bringing out the good in them. Far away from the clamour of the city, tough delinquent boys gradually began listening to each other, sharing more honestly, and exploring personal fears, hurts, and anger.
For many, these excursions initiated a journey into grace -- where they developed a sense of God's presence in the stillness, a sense of significance and a feeling that they were loved -- that their lives were not a dreadful accident. The wilderness became a starting point for change.
During my journey through this Lenten season, those wilderness experiences come to mind. Lent is like an excursion into the wilderness during which I leave my familiar dependencies to embrace silence, solitude, and deprivation beyond the daily attractions and distractions that shape my life. It is a journey into greater dependence on the Lord, who becomes more palpably present when I cease clinging to my familiar ways and things.
Through the centuries, followers of Jesus have observed Lent through disciplines of prayer and fasting, of silence and solitude, of humility and service. While abstinence and self-denial are not ends in themselves, they become a kind of wilderness in which the real benefit is a growing hunger for and dependence on the presence and the mercy of God.
As my dependency on the crutches and routines of life diminish I find myself refocused in a deepening appreciation for what really matters in life -- on forgiveness, love, and of my relationships in sharing, caring, listening, and depending on the people in my life. And most of all I find myself humbled in the presence of God -- the loving Father, who renews and nurtures me with grace and mercy in the wilderness.