Catalina Island is 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. A Christian camp there, Campus by the Sea, is one of my very favorite places which grew up visiting frequently. After seminary, I spent over a year living there on the beach in the small, isolated staff community, who are caretakers of a sacred space and hosts to many coming for spiritual retreat. Camp nurtured my gifts for hospitality and service, valuing simplicity and honoring God in mundane work, preparing me for monastic life.
During my year on staff, there was a major wildfire on Catalina. It spread to ridges surrounding our camp causing us to quickly evacuate our guests and ourselves by boat to Catalina’s town. We finally left the island late that night with the eery sight of flames amid the darkness near camp. We huddled together in prayer and song, fearing the loss of our sacred place and home.
To our great relief camp was saved, only singed around the edges. We returned to find ashes on everything. All was ok except the downed power and telephone lines and melted water lines. It took a few weeks to replace the utilities in our remote setting. We experienced something more like camp’s rustic beginnings. We used the old outhouses and bathed in the ocean. We were mostly unplugged and disconnected. Portable generators gave limited power for essentials. Cell phones don’t have reception, so leaders drove a boat out to sea for a few calls.
Soon stress rose and tempers quickened. We complained about what we had lost. We complained about what we had, especially what we had to eat. Days had passed before we got the portable generators. Lots of meat from the walk-in freezer was fine to eat as long as it was cooked soon. So as some staff cleaned ashes off everything and others laid plastic water pipe over the hill, our cook barbequed. We ate BBQ chicken and more BBQ chicken and yet more BBQ chicken. Most of us quickly got sick of chicken, but we kept eating it.
With time, we remembered the people of Israel eating quail in the desert. God had rescued them from bitter slavery in Egypt. God provided manna each day for food. They weren’t hungry. But they complained about not having the variety of food in Egypt. They complained about not having meat. God sent large flocks of quail and gave them so much meat that they had to eat it for a whole month and got utterly sick of it.
I like this story if only it didn’t touch so close to home. I quickly complained about BBQ chicken rather than being grateful camp was safe and we had plenty to eat. Today I miss what I once had. I long for previous times, when I lived with those friends, that schedule, was in that city, with that role or job, that health, that quality of life or comfort. I have plenty, but I long for more. I long for what I’ve lost or left or even been rescued or saved from. And I complain about it. Maybe you can relate.
Israel’s long journey in the wilderness was anything but a direct route to the Promised Land. God invested forty years to shepherd a generation from slavery toward freedom. God saved Israel in the Exodus out of Egypt, and God continued to save them through the wilderness and beyond. The first part was exciting with its victorious departure and crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. The second, much longer part was rather hard as God taught them to trust and love in the wilderness with daunting enemies and challenges.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of a similar two-part journey: “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
The Exodus out of Egypt is like the narrow gate and the wilderness that hard road that leads to life. The decision to follow Jesus—or the affirmation that Jesus has chosen me—is the narrow gate and everything after is the hard road that leads to life. For some of us taking vows of marriage or partnership or profession is the narrow gate, and each day of keeping them is the hard road that leads to life. For us brothers launching a capital campaign was entering a narrow gate and raising support, moving out, reconstructing, living in exile, moving back in, finalizing the support and construction and making it home has been a hard, long road that leads to life.
After making much fuss about our great accomplishment at having found a narrow and obscure gate and walked through, we’re often surprised at the ordinary challenges of life that follow, again and again. I’m embarrassed by how much I say: “Wow, this road is hard!” “Why are we still in the wilderness?” or “I really miss what we used to eat.”
At the camp on Catalina, remembering the Israelites in the wilderness reframed eating yet more BBQ chicken. We remembered God was with us and within us. God saved us, saved camp and kept providing even amid loss. With that big picture, we tried to minimize complaining and be more gracious with each other amid the stress. We practiced giving thanks. As we did, we found God not only saved the camp that year, but God continued to save us as we lived, stumbled and forgave together through the fire cleanup and beyond.
That post-fire experience helped the past two years as we brothers moved out of and back into the monastery. It also helps today now that the festivities of my recent profession are over and I’m faced with several new challenges. That post-fire experience says look at the big picture. God brought us to narrow gates, up steep inclines, and through rough places. God has been faithful.
It says look around right now: notice divine love in the ordinary stuff of life, in words and actions, your very breath and the stars above. God is with us and within us. God is still saving, refreshing and blessing us here. It says instead of complaining, give thanks for all heavenly food on the hard road that leads to life. Give thanks for manna and even more BBQ chicken.
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