October 16, 2017

The Homily

desert1_OPT“Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14:12, NIV)

“The unclean spirit, which has possessed a man and then goes out of him, walks about the desert looking for a resting-place, and finds none.” (Matthew 12:43, Knox)

Very few would schedule a vacation in the desert. Oh, you might go to a desert resort like I once stayed at near Phoenix. This resort was in the middle of the Sonora Desert, though you might never know it. You go out of your air conditioned room through the air conditioned lobby out to one of seven swimming pools. There are two very green golf courses wrapped around the resort. And a shopping center across the street offering yet more air conditioned places in which to escape.

No, the desert I’m talking of is the barren wasteland where you wonder if life has ever existed at all. Land that is passed over by real estate developers and mall-builders. In the fourth century, a handful of Christians went out into the desert, not because of the fear of martyrdom, but because Christianity had been legalized and there was now no more fear of being martyred. They went where the living was not easy nor populated by those who were focused only on more more more. As Thomas Merton puts it,

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit.

We are more likely to identify with the cry of the Children of Israel today than the Desert Fathers. We would rather stay in Egypt and serve our slave masters than to venture with God into the desert. Again, let’s listen to Merton.

The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

We can look smugly at the Israelites now and say, “You should have trusted God. He got you through the Red Sea. He gave you manna. For crying out loud—he didn’t even let your shoes wear out.” But where is that smugness when we are in our desert times? Are we up for a forty year wilderness adventure, learning to trust only in God who is mostly invisible to us?

I don’t know that I will ever again be able to fully trust anyone who has not taken a trip through the desert.

WALLE3For most, the desert is not even in the picture. We do everything we can to be comfortable in every way we can. We have books and CDs and conferences where we are told God only means to bless us and give us great things. Suffering is something to be rebuked, not embraced. We are pampered in our churches with all of our “felt needs” met. If we encounter any difficulty in life, it’s because the “world” is persecuting us as Christians. This has created a culture of Christians who resemble those on the spacecraft in the Pixar movie Wall-E, riding around on moving couches, drinking their meals and growing fat. Of course, they had lost their ability to walk, but who needs to walk when you can be carried everywhere?

This is not a call for “Christian adventure.” I am not saying those who have gone through the desert are better Christians than those who have not. There are no “better Christians.” There are only sinners who have been forgiven who then enter into a life of being both a sinner and a saint. No, I’m saying that it takes an extended time in the desert to bring one to where she/he is developing the intimate relationship with our Father where faith begins to be reality.

There are two dangers to avoid when it comes to the desert. The first is to long for it when you are not yet called there. Jesus went to the desert for 40 days, yes, but we read that he was led by the Spirit into the desert. For most, it is not a pleasant leading. “Driven” is a better word. I am in a desert situation right now, and have been for at least four years now. Maybe five. It is hot and dry and barren. There are many days I have cried out, “Why didn’t you leave me in Egypt???” I could say—and it is true—that God in his mercy led me into this desert, but that puts a nice coat of Christian whitewash on the cries of anguish and despair that are the true sounds I make. I would not choose to be where I am if I could be somewhere else.

The other danger is what we read in our New Testament passage today. The desert is the home of roaming evil spirits. They have been cast out by the Spirit of God into the wilderness, and they are looking for a new home. If you are led into a desert place, you will soon become hot and tired. You will feel yourself abandoned by man and God. You are the perfect host for these spirits. You will  find yourself in a battle you did not sign up to fight. And it will seem you are fighting all by yourself.

We like to say that God will not give us more than we can handle. This is a very misplaced and misleading sentiment. God often gives us more than we can handle so that we we realize just how utterly helpless we really are. If you go through the desert, you will be given more than you can handle daily. Fighting evil spirits while longing for a drink of water. This is God’s purpose for taking you through the desert: so that you will learn not to rely on yourself in any way, but trust him completely.

St. Paul went through the desert many times. On at least one trip, he thought it would be too much for him. He says he despaired of life itself.

My brothers and sisters, we have to tell you that when we were in Asia the troubles we faced were nearly more than we could handle. The burdens we bore nearly crushed us. Our strength dwindled to nothing. For a while, we weren’t sure we would make it through the whole ordeal.We thought we would have to serve out our death sentences right then and there. As a result, we realized that we could no longer rely on ourselves and that we must trust solely in God, who possesses the power to raise the dead. (2 Corinthians 1: 8.9, The Voice)

You can turn around and return to Egypt if you think you can. But you will not make it to the Promised Land unless you pass through the desert. The only way to make it through the desert is to trust solely in God. There is no other way. And trusting God is the hardest thing any of us will ever have to learn.

Let us pray.

 

Comments

  1. Richard McNeeley says:

    I lived in the desert for the first half of my life, first in southern Nevada (no a/c until I was 10) and then in the Valley of the Sun. When you live in the desert you appreciate the rain. Rain brings life, if only for a few hours, and the smell after the rain is indescribable. We are currently in a time of our life that we would consider the desert, but there have been times of rain when everything feels alive. We expect to leave this desert place, but until then we wait for the rain.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Valley of the Sun.
      Phoenix area.
      They should call it “The Sun’s Anvil”, especially in summer.
      There’s a reason if I had to drive that area, whenever possible I’d do it in winter.

  2. Thank you, it is especially at 3 o’clock in the morning when I cannot sleep your post is water to my parched soul…

  3. Robert F says:

    The worst unclean spirits I’m finding in the desert that I’m moving through are the unclean spirits that I’ve carried here myself. Sometimes I feel as if I am an unclean spirit walking about the desert, looking for a resting place, and finding none.

    • “The worst unclean spirits I’m finding in the desert that I’m moving through are the unclean spirits I’ve carried here myself.”
      Amen.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        A lot of the temptations recorded in the stories of the Desert Fathers sound like sexual fantasies they would have brought with them into the desert, magnified by the isolation from others. So, yeah, they did “carry the unclean spirits here”, whether said “unclean spirits” were actually separate entities or just the “dark side” of themselves.

  4. Robert F says:

    “We have seen a fire of sticks
    Burn out. The fire now
    Burns in some other place. Where?
    Who knows? These brands
    Are burned out.”

    Excerpt from “Lao Tzu’s Wake,” from The Way of Chang Tzu, translated by Thomas Merton

  5. Yes, the desert is a fearful, lonely place. I’m sorry you have dwelt so long in it. Please Lord send your spring of water and manna from heaven to feed all the souls that desire you. We can do nothing apart from you.

  6. David Cornwell says:

    When I talk with people, or listen to their tales of life and death, it seems to me that more of us are in the desert right now than in a long time. Maybe it is just from my perspective of time and place, but so many are burdened down right now by financial problems that are very serious, physical illnesses that raise havoc with life, family issues that threaten the limits of our sanity, and the load of worry and anxiety that attach to these things.

    Then I realize once again that the only victory attainable is a power beyond ourselves, one that is beyond the pale of imagination almost, and is that which is testified to by Paul:

    “As a result, we realized that we could no longer rely on ourselves and that we must trust solely in God, who possesses the power to raise the dead.”

  7. I was also raised in The Valley of the Sun. No air conditioning until high school. You learn the ways to find relief from the summer furnace. You adapt. Part of the relieving adaptation is coming to know that there are places very different from The Desert. That knowledge gives perspective and hope. If we remain in the desert as a permanent inhabitant then out ultimate temptation is to try making the desert into that which we hope for, which attempt in the long run is turned to ashes one way or another and we are left with despair.

    The Desert is not our intended habitation. We either transverse it or we die.

    • Robert F says:

      And yet, we cannot really traverse the desert in this life, because the desert resides in us; it can manifest itself at any time and in any clime. We carry it with us as we sojourn through our lives, and it reveals itself to us in the most unlikely seasons and places. For some of us, our only apparent hope is for that habitation which lies beyond the borders of both the desert and this life that carries it.

      But you are right: we must maintain that hope, and look to our true intended habitation, even if we cannot see it this side of eternity.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Very few would schedule a vacation in the desert. Oh, you might go to a desert resort like I once stayed at near Phoenix.

    I’ve been to Phoenix in July. They call that valley “The Valley of the Sun” for a reason. When you step from shadow into direct sunlight, you can literally FEEL the heat hit like slamming into a wall.

    And being in the desert too long does THINGS to you. A lot of the Desert Fathers were “eccentric” to the point of disturbing weirdness; that’s the reason monastics started grouping together in monasteries, so their presence would provide each other with a reality check. My stepmother lived alone in an Arizona/Nevada border town — the middle of the Colorado River Valley desert — the last decade of her life and turned even more inward and bitter; when she died, she was buried in secret as per her wishes and I was told months after the fact. Something about living in the desert too long affects your head.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Here in arid-subtropical SoCal, we only have four basic landforms and biomes. In order as you move inland:
      1) Beach
      2) City from the coast to the foothills
      3) Chaparral/Scrub-covered mountains
      4) Inland high or low desert
      And that’s it. I would so like to live where it’s actually green and rivers and streams run year-round. After over 50 years, I am so tired of scrubland and desert.

      • Robert F says:

        The desert is also the home of the Hotel California, where those who have hitherto mistakenly thought themselves fortunate ones unassailable by trial or want can check out anytime they like, but never leave.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Don’t understand your linkage. “Hotel California” was Top 40 during my college days, and I’ve seen a fan comic (poor man’s music video) where Hotel California was a vampire den, but I don’t understand what you’re getting at.

          • Robert F says:

            To my understanding, the song is about the self indulgent affluence 70′ nouveau rich as a kind of inescapable hell, and since the hotel is lyrically placed in the desert, I made a linkage with this subject.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Kind of like that other Top 40 of the general period, “Life in the Fast Lane”?

            “They knew all the Right People
            They took all the Right Pills
            They threw Outrageous Parties
            They paid Heavenly Bills…”?

          • Robert F says:

            I think both of those songs were on the “Hotel California” album.

    • ‘Something about living in the desert too long affects your head.’

      Perhaps. But the impression I get from reading the Desert Fathers is that they (or at least some of them- those whose sayings were preserved) actually grew more sane rather than less. Which is, after all, why they became a bit of a tourist attraction and people would travel from all over to seek their advice.

  9. Pastor Mac says:

    I freely confess my Calvin College Kuyperianism, although I came to this not as one native born. So there. And I’m an Anglican now.

    I’ve been looking into the pietism that started developing post-Reformation seemingly as a corrective to the state endorsed orthodoxy in the lands where Rome was pushed aside, by force more often than not. Think the Wesley brothers. And that lovely German term “gefuhl.” It’s one thing to nod in agreement to the official interpretation of Scriptural teaching but, as the pietists were insisting, has the heart been changed? Pietists often had little concern for day to day activities because that was worldly and detracted from the pursuit of holiness. Be godly and shun the world was the steady and loud refrain. Read more Scripture. Pray more. Witness more. Does this not sound like modern Evangelicalism?

    Can we not say pietism is escapist? And exactly what were those who went into the desert but escapists as well? I see what what Jeff’s point is–that the vicissitudes of life often trigger feelings of loneliness & isolation and we can very easily yield to the temptation that we are indeed isolated and alone. But the Desert Fathers consciously went into desert and as I’m suggesting for all the wrong reasons. Monasticism that developed from the Desert Fathers’ experience was the easy way out, i.e. go behind the walls and away from the world. Being salt and light engages the world, not runs away from it.

    • Robert F says:

      There is way of reading the Desert Fathers that gives the strong impression that what they were most concerned about was saving themselves, which they thought required great exertion and vigilance not possible in the “real world.”

      • I think Robert is correct…however I would add that “self-salvation” was not the main focus, rather, learning repentance.

        Repentance is not primarily turning away from certain actions, but rather learning to go beyond present thinking–a change in the way the heart perceives.

        Perhaps this story is illustrative;

        A certain brother came to Abbot Silvanus at Mount Sinai, and seeing the hermits at work he exclaimed: Why do you work for the bread that perisheth? Mary has chosen the best part, namely to sit at the feet of the Lord without working. Then the Abbot said to his disciple Zachary: Give the brother a book and let him read, and put him in an empty cell. At the ninth hour the brother who was reading began to look out to see if the Abbot was not going to call him to dinner, and sometime after the ninth hour he went himself to the Abbot and said: Did the brethren not eat today, Father? Oh yes, certainly, said the Abbot, the just had dinner. Well, said the brother, why did you not call me? You are a spiritual man, said the elder, you don’t need this food that perisheth. We have to work, but you have chosen the best part. You read all day, and can get along without food. Hearing this the brother said: Forgive me, Father. And the elder said: Martha is necessary to Mary, for it was because Martha worked that Mary was able to be praised.

        (Wisdom of the Desert, translation by Thomas Merton)

        • That’s a wonderful apothegm, Tom.

          The Desert Fathers had the wisdom to know that they were too disordered themselves to be “salt and light” for a corrupt world; they knew that they carried within themselves the contagion that they saw all around them. They went into the wilderness to purge themselves of that contagion, to vomit up the bile of corruption and violence, in the hope that they might then be of some use not only to themselves but to the world.

  10. Jeff, anytime I see “the homily,” I sigh and read with an open heart. Thank you! This is something I could have written: ““Driven” is a better word. I am in a desert situation right now, and have been for at least four years now. Maybe five. It is hot and dry and barren. There are many days I have cried out, “Why didn’t you leave me in Egypt???” I could say—and it is true—that God in his mercy led me into this desert, but that puts a nice coat of Christian whitewash on the cries of anguish and despair that are the true sounds I make. I would not choose to be where I am if I could be somewhere else.”

  11. Rick Ro. says:

    There’s some great stuff here, Jeff, stuff that resonates with me. About four years after becoming a Christian (27 years ago now…wow!), back when I was at a spiritual high and feeling like I was fully clothed in the armor of God, I arrogantly told God, “Okay, God, I’m ready for anything. Send me where you want me to go.”

    Where I found myself next was in a spiritual desert, one that lasted five years if not longer. There were months at a time when I felt absolutely nothing FOR God and felt nothing FROM God. I would go to church and sing worship songs that meant absolutley nothing to me. I would read the Bible, but the words were dull and the messages were like classified ads. All that great armor of God stuff talked about in Ephesians is totally useless against an enemy that’s not there, when there’s nothing coming at you with weapons of warfare. Plate mail and swords are horrible survival tools in dry, barren wastelands.

    As bad as things got, though, I did manage to pray one thing over and over, month after month, and that was this: “God, I’m pretty sure you exist, even if I have no feelings that tell me you do. Please, let me feel your presence again, and let me feel something for you again.”

    I’m not even sure I can pinpoint when I came out of that desert. All I know is that one day I was out. I felt God again, and I felt like worshipping God and Jesus again. It was a slow process, for sure. And the amazing thing is that now I can look back on that spiritual desert and be grateful for it, for whenever I have those “lack of feelings and lack of God’s presence” issues now, I laugh and say, “Been there, done that.” Those desert periods now are much shorter, like I’m skirting along the fringes instead of trudging straight through the middle and getting lost. They aren’t fun, for sure, but there is good to be found on the other side. As you said, Jeff, trust is the only thing we have in a desert, a trust that God IS there with us, and a trust that things will someday be better.

  12. You wrote: Again, let’s listen to Merton.

    The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

    I though the extended desert wandering was God’s punishment for them not believing/trusting Him, rather than (as Merton apparently says) “God’s plan.” I.e., only those under 20 would be allowed to enter the promised land, and of those who had spied out the land, only Joshua and Caleb were allowed to live to enter the land. (Numbers 14)