Into the Woods…and Not Alone

Mark 1:9-15

The season of Lent [which means 40] is a season of journeying. The way the story sets up in the Gospels is that we are supposed to journey with Jesus of Nazareth as he goes from baptism in the River Jordan to a desolate wilderness to a ministry of healing, teaching, blessing, and warning; and then, to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. That’s the journey the story will take us on if we choose to take it.

But of course, the story remains just someone else’s story unless we look at our own stories and consider just what kind of journey we might be on during this season.

I’m not that naive as to assume that most people will read the whole story in the Gospels or that they will participate in every worship service during the season of Lent.  The reality is that most of us will barely touch the story and most will sporadically participate in a worship experience of some sort; and many, many people will just wait until Resurrection Sunday/Easter. But this doesn’t make me frustrated, sad, or angry.

I think there’s a legitimate reason as to why most people do not connect deeply with the season of Lent or with these Gospel stories. The church as a whole has not done a good job of inviting people to engage the story for themselves, without judgment or some type of dogma involved. How often are people simply invited to read the story and to decide for themselves what they will learn or experience? And how often is the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his journey into the wilderness and then into the world and then to the cross—how often is this story just presented as is?

This is my hope for all of you who read this or hear this. I hope that you will feel invited into the story, but more than that—that you will examine your own story and embark on your own journey. So with that in mind, I couldn’t help but find some really cool connections between the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the musical Into the Woods.

intothewoodsProbably a lot of you are at least familiar with this two act musical, book written by James Lapine; and the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Into the Woods thematically connects to Mark’s Gospel story: After baptism, Jesus is then driven into the wilderness for 40 days and he’s changed by that experience. He’s tempted, he’s challenged and pushed, and then he emerges as a person ready to journey forward.

In case you’re not familiar with Into the Woods, here is a synopsis: The Narrator begins by introducing familiar characters from Grimm’s fairy tales and all of them have a wish. Cinderella wishes to go to the King’s Festival; Jack wishes his cow, Milky-White, would give him some milk; Little Red Riding Hood wishes to visit her grandmother; the Baker and his Wife wish for a child.  But there’s a big problem with each one of their wishes. Cinderella is servant to her Stepmother and Stepsisters and is doomed to scrub the floors and clean every corner of the house, thus preventing her from being able to even consider going to the Festival. Jack’s Mother wants him to sell his friend Milky-White to get some money; the Baker and his Wife have to deal with a Witch from next door who tells them of a curse on their house but then offers them a deal if the Baker can find four crucial ingredients for a magic potion. Little Red Riding Hood wishes to bring her grandmother some sweet bread, but she has no money.

Eventually, the Baker and his wife, Red Riding Hood, Jack, and Cinderella all most go–into the woods.

Cinderella must go into the woods to visit her mother’s grave and ask for advice and maybe a dress for the Festival will magically appear. Jack must go into the woods to try to find someone to buy Milky-White. Red Riding Hood must go into the woods to see if her grandmother is still alive and of course, she will share whatever is left of the sweet bread. And the Baker and his wife must go into the woods to find the four items for the witch’s potion.  Here the prologue from the film version of Into the Woods:

Each one of these characters, after journeying into the woods, is dramatically changed.

Things happen in the woods. What seemed so clear becomes blurry. There are temptations and distractions. Mistakes are made—even terrible mistakes. People are hurt; people get lost; people even die.

But in the end, each character comes to a realization, in his/her own way. Each character “knows more” than before and wakes up to a new reality of what life is or can be—inside or outside of the woods.

Towards the very end of the story Jack, the Baker, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood have a deep conversation about being alone. By this point, each one of them sees the world so differently than before.

Cinderella sings:

…No one is alone. Truly, no one is alone. Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Others may deceive you. You decide what’s good. You decide alone. But no one is alone.

This rings true for me. Sometimes people do leave us halfway through this life. Sometimes people even deceive us. And people do make terrible mistakes. But in the end, we decide what’s good. We decide for ourselves.

But no one is actually alone.

Into the Woods lets us know this–that we are not alone–even when we are by ourselves. By the move of a finger, saying the slightest word, we are heard as the single sparrow is that falls from a tree.

Yes, the real mistake is in believing that we are alone.

Even the characters who lose the people closest to them are reassured that “no one leaves for good: and that no one is alone.”

Ironically, it is the seemingly “bad” witch who speaks wisdom at the end of the story.

witchShe tells us that it is our own risk-taking and not destiny, which casts the spell on our lives.

We are not predestined by fate or some whim of heaven.

We wish; we take risks; we decide whether we journey into the woods or not. And those wishes are our children; the wishes grow up and can form our lives and impact others.

Yes, all of us will make mistakes in the woods, but we should not compound them with hatred, pride and deceit.

So when we make mistakes or feel lost; when circumstances make us angry or frustrated or afraid; remember the most important thing: we are not alone.

During Lent many will focus on things like repentance and self-deprivation and suffering, religious piety, and of course, the cross. It can feel a bit lonely.

But honestly, as we journey into the woods, I hear something different. I hear words like peace be with you and I will not leave you alone.

I see the Spirit driving us into the woods and then staying there with us.

And I see an opportunity for change and risk-taking.

We are all connected in these woods, and we can help each other along the journey.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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