Have you ever experienced the desert?
I did when I was rector of Christ Church in Westerly RI. Each July our Navajo ministry team went to St. Mary of-the-Moonlight in Oljato,-Monument Valley, UT on the Navajo Nation. The area was high desert, about 2,000 meters above sea level and very arid. July day time temperatures hovered between 43-49C. I remember stepping out of the air-conditioned vehicle into what can only be described as a blast furnace. The heat beat down on me, the sun baking me and a sense of being enveloped in heat as every bit of moisture was sucked from you. The key, I found was that in the shade, the heat wasn’t as bad and even a hat made a difference. Yeah, it wasn’t so bad it was a dry heat…
We stayed in the old rectory, a farm house that had been built by the founding missioner Fr. Harold Baxter Liebler, an Episcopal priest from Greenwich CT. It stood next to the stone church, St. Mary of-the-Moonlight, which was down a dirt road about 15 minutes from where the pavement ended at Gouldings Trading Post. I remember the first time I headed down the road, dust swirling, huge divots and a washed out area from the flash floods of the Spring. Bouncing along in your seat with the red dirt flying everywhere. Driving for hours in the desert until we passed Hat Rock, a triangle shaped rock jutting up hundreds of feet topped with what looked like a hat. An occasional trailer dotted our path until we turned into the church yard and pulled up to the red farmhouse. No air conditioning, just windows and a few fans and plenty of blowing red dirt. It seemed that for much of each day that the wind was blowing, a hot wind that sucked away moisture and carried the relentless red dirt.
In the evening it cooled down a bit and by the early morning it was often a brisk 15C until the sun rose again in colourful glory and the heat returned.
The farmhouse was always dusty from the red dirt and we needed to shake out all of our things to get rid of as much of the dirt as possible and of course to make sure that we didn’t hurt our neighbors, the brown recluse spider, the black widow or on occasion Mr. rattlesnake. For the most part the widows stayed out under the front porch and the rattlers up the hill but the recluses were nasty and around the house. The scorpions and other lizards usually stayed away from the building but the red biting ants were just outside. As long as we picked up our food and kept it clean...we kept away the guests. But that red dust was everywhere and got in everywhere, even days after we got home we would still be blowing it out of our noses.
Each day was filled with hard work, we were up at 6 making lunches, snacks and drinks for 50 Navajo kids, then drove around to pick the up those that needed rides. We ran the VBS, fed the kids lunch and then brought them home. Then it was time for work around the church yard or heading out to work on a community project. I remember pulling the world’s most tenacious weeds out of the baked ground under the blazing sun for hours one day. After that a restocking trip or a foray of some sort, then supper and meeting to reflect on the day and preparing for the next. At night we could often hear the coyotes howling in the distance or not the not too distance. The clear unpolluted sky was filled with more stars and galaxies than I knew ever existed. The moon shone more brightly than ever and in the early evening you could see T-storms and lighting flashing miles away across the desert landscape. It was beautiful.
I remember packing for my first trip. What do you bring when you go to the desert? For the desert you need a hat, a good wide-brimmed one to save you from sunburn, or sun stroke. You need sunblock, SPF 50 or better, and good lip balm with high SPF. You need good walking shoes that keep the red dust out. You need eye drops for when you eyes dry out. You need a water bottle you can keep with you at all times. Water is key...I was drinking about 8-9 liters of water a day.
If we took a solo hike into the desert like Jesus did, what would we take with us? What is essential to life and what is not? When you need to carry everything for life on your back, so-called necessities become discarded baggage pretty quickly. There is also a lot of time to think. In Oljato... there was no TV, radio, cell phone or Internet connections, 1.7 people per sq mile. In the deep desert there isn’t anything so there is a lot of time to think, to reflect, to pray. Can we handle the silence in which thoughts and feelings we have outrun will have time to catch up with us? How about wild animals? Will we pack up and leave at the first howl, the first fist-sized spider? How about the voices that we might hear? Will we be able to tell the difference between the voices of the angels and that of Satan? Will we trust everything you hear from God even if we don’t like it?
The desert is not only a physical place but a spiritual place. It is a deeply spiritual place rife with spots to engage in the self-examination and repentance commended to God’s faithful during the season of Lent. When I was in the high desert I spent some time reading and a lot just looking, listening, thinking, contemplating. As the sun slowly crept up over the horizon , as the lighting flashed in the distance, as the majesty of the jewels of the universe expanded overhead. There is certainly plenty of time to think, struggle and pray. There is time to wonder.
The journey into the wilderness as a purification and a struggle against temptations has been described by many of the saints of the past such as Saint Anthony, the father of monasticism and the other Desert Mothers & Fathers of the early church of the third century. Of course there’s also the example of Jesus’ own time in the desert that we heard today. Following his own baptism, he journeys into the desert to face the same temptations that all Christians today face. Temptation isn’t something that only occurs to people of weak character or resolve, Jesus was tempted and in fact temptation’s intensity seems to increase in those who are most engaged in the way of God. The power of evil is forever testing us to draw us away from God. The power of evil wants to destroy us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It wants to destroy our faith in God, our faith in each other, our good values, our good marriages, good families, our good communities, our good nations and any goodness of God living inside of us. The presence of the Holy Spirit does not keep one from temptation but its presence is the available power of God which will help one triumph over the temptation if it is relied upon. Evil does exist. Jesus wasn’t tempted by a man in a charcoal suit, nor by some red, horned, pitchfork wielding creature but by a silent whisper in His mind. By a voice that seemed to make sense. The devil was and is the whispering voice of temptation that exists within and around all human beings. It suggests what seems like a natural extension of events but in actuality it bends reality away from what God wills. There is within us and around us, a strong opposition to love, health, wholeness and peace. It tries to make us question God. It tries to make us question the authority of God through a series of plausible and attractive whispers. Evil tries to tempt us not by enticing us to become less than we are but in making us desire to be more than we are. The serpent didn’t try and tempt Adam & Eve by asking them if they wanted to be more like him, he tempted them with becoming more like God. Evil tries to separate us from God. It tries to tell us what our needs are. It makes us think we need things to be happy and fill the hole within us.
But the truth is that we only need God. And God alone can supply what we need. The hole within us is God-shaped, Even though we lose sight of this throughout the year, now in Lent, we can set aside time to re-connect to God and God’s message. We can go to the wilderness metaphorically, stripping aside those things that aren’t essential for life so that in the stillness we can think, pray, meditate and listen. We can learn how important it is to recognizes what our needs truly are, and no matter what distracts us throughout our journeys, we must turn again and return again, recognizing our need to set our hearts and actions upon God, and God alone. Thanks be to God.