Desert

Follow Jesus Into the Wild California Desert

Image via /Shutterstock.com

In February, President Obama designated 1.8 million acres of wild California desert as national monuments: Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains. The California desert is a holy place, filled with spiritual values and important lessons. As Christians, this is a significant event. We know Jesus’ spiritual path included spending time in the desert wilderness to contemplate his purpose. Now, we, like Jesus and so many others, can have the beauty, solitude, dark night skies, and wild nature of the desert from which to draw inspiration, practice our faith, and grow better.

The California desert is a place where these elusive values remain, and they are vital for humankind. We have a spiritual heritage to protect, and with these three monument designations, Christian communities will forever have these living sanctuaries where we can practice our faith.

Sex, Barrenness, and the Desert

Last fall, in the middle of my first attempt at the academic job market, I got invited to a wedding in far west Texas. By “far west Texas” I mean Marathon, in the part of the state known as Big Bend, about a seven-hour drive from my house. It’s a beautiful drive, moving from the Hill Country of central Texas into grasslands that, somewhere between Sonora and Ozona, give way into the desert that leads up into the low mountains of Big Bend. Or at least I find the drive beautiful — another wedding guest complained at the rehearsal dinner that there was nothing to look at on the drive.

I had some time to go for a run on Saturday morning, so I laced up my shoes and headed down Avenue D, across 1st street and a pair of train tracks. A quarter-mile later (no suburbs or outskirts in Marathon), I was in the desert.

Joan Didion says we’re “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be” because “otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Well, 17-year-old me isn’t as mad as Didion’s younger self sounds, but he was out there in the desert nonetheless, asking, "Why haven’t you been back here?"

Learning to Walk in the Desert

Image via ATAHAC/shutterstock.com
Image via ATAHAC/shutterstock.com

To be honest, I don’t know how God will provide in this desert. But I won’t stop crying out for it. I don’t know how God is forming us as his people in the midst of this constant tragedy but I trust that his Spirit is at work in us. And I don’t know if we’ll come through our times of testing in the wilderness a more Christ-like people — but it’s my prayer and my hope.

Emerging From the Wilderness

andreiuc88 / Shutterstock.com
Man in a forest reflecting. andreiuc88 / Shutterstock.com

Wise leaders spend time in the wilderness.

Some choose a sojourn in the desert; most are driven there when their leadership fails.

In the desert, beyond their cocoon of comfort and success, they see more about themselves. If they stay in the desert long enough, they come to understand what they see about themselves. Stay still longer, and some even come to appreciate themselves.

And a few whose desert wanderings go past endurance stop focusing on themselves at all. They discover people and God. Those become the great leaders. They move far beyond self-serving, calculation, manipulation, cleverness, methods, and successful habits. They find common ground with humanity in its brokenness and aspirations, in its resilience and its daily acts of common goodness.

We live in an era of weak and absent leadership.

The Season to Put on Beauty

“TAKE OFF THE garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (Baruch 5:1-2). We might occasionally hear in church a prayer that makes passing use of the phrase “the beauty of holiness,” but it can’t be claimed that we are helped very often to feel that the contagious goodness of God is absolutely lovely, alluring, and attractive. We are called to be beautiful human beings. Christians who are deeply serious about social justice, who carry the burden of the world’s brokenness in their hearts, who are committed to political dissent, probably need this reminder most of all. We can hardly be agents of change if our faces are disfigured by disgust and anger.

Advent may be an especially important time to listen carefully for the Word who summons us to be walking sacraments of God’s radiant beauty. Paul will speak to us about having joy in one another and clothing ourselves in love. We are meant to fill our imaginations in these weeks with the sight of Mary in the radiance of her final days of pregnancy. Doesn’t her beauty lend all the more power to her proclamation, “[God my savior] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53)?

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.
 

[ DECEMBER 2 ]
Shaken Powers
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

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