Saturday, February 25, 2012

Practicing the Desert - Sermon

Most of you probably know that A. is our contact person with the local paper.  Every week she sends in the scriptural texts and title for our Sunday sermon, so that they’ll appear on the Friday religion page.  The other night she stopped me and asked,” Now what was that sermon title?”  The woman from the paper had called her to make sure that she had it right – “Practicing the Desert” – could that be? ”Yes, that’s right,” I said, and A. walked away shaking her head.  I guess the lady at the paper had been shaking hers, too. “Practicing the Desert” -  what a weird title!
The topic of spiritual practice has become a popular one in the past several years.  The ancient church offers us a treasure trove of spiritual practices, or spiritual disciplines, but for several hundred years most of them were largely ignored or, at best, referred to in different terms.  Today we might wonder how to categorize them or describe them.  

 A few years ago, another pastor and I wondered about whether there’s a difference between spiritual practices and spiritual disciplines.  The words indicate different emphases perhaps, if you think about it:  A practice is something that we repeat in order to acquire some skill or proficiency.  Piano practice.  Baseball practice.  It’s a familiar enough word, right?  It comes from an ancient Latin word for work, and an ancient Greek word for to do --- or to see.  Interesting: it seems to involve both activity – doing – and some kind of understanding – seeing.

A discipline, on the other hand – perhaps that sounds a bit more rigorous.  A discipline also involves repetition in order develop a skill or knowledge, but it comes from the Latin word for instruction.  It seems to involve learning, being taught.  And it’s related to  the word disciple – now there’s a word we’re familiar with in the Christian context.  A disciple is a follower, someone who follows and learns from another.  Someone who learns to discern, to sort things out, according to the teaching of another.

So whether we call something a practice or a discipline, it involves repetition, it involves learning, it involves acquiring knowledge or skill from someone whose instruction we follow, knowledge or skill that will help us to discern, to sort, to figure out and live our lives.   

Quaker theologian Richard Foster, in his famous book of about thirty years ago, Celebration of Discipline, refers to the spiritual disciplines as “doors to liberation.”  He likes to break them down into inward disciplines, such a prayer and fasting, outward disciplines, such as simplicity and service, and corporate, and community disciplines, such as worship and celebration.  Dorothy Bass, who directs a university program on spiritual education and formation and has written several books on the Christian life, including one called Practicing Our Faith, emphasizes community.  She tells us that “Christian practices are things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the light of the world.”  She talks about many facets of life that we know well, but perhaps have not thought of in terms of Christian practice: things like household economics, and dying well, and singing our lives.

And recently, noted preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and college professor, wrote a wonderful book entitles An Altar in the World.  She brings a fresh, contemporary point of view to spiritual practice.  She wonders whether some of the ancient practices are so ritualistic as to turn people away; they sometimes seem hollow and boring.  We need to look right where we are, in our everyday lives, she says, for ways in which to become attentive to God.  “The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives,” she says, on her way to concluding that “What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.”  She talks about spiritual practices that focuses on the reality that being human “requires a body as well as a soul,” and her chapters have titles like “The Practice of Carrying Water” and “The Practice of Pain.”   

Now perhaps you understand how I came by my weird sermon title.  Practicing the desert – it’s something we’re all called to do, whether or not we give it a name, or think of it as a spiritual practice.

Let’s start by taking a look at how Jesus experienced this practice, this sojourn in the desert.  Not that we get a lot of information from Mark who is, as he so often is, brief and to the point.  But he does give us some crucial information.

First of all, Jesus was driven into the desert.  He was not invited or escorted; it was not suggested to him  – he was driven into the desert by the Spirit. The spirit sees the desert as a necessary, life-forming and life-shaping experience. It’s an emphatic break from a past life, a jolt into solitude, into challenge, and into bleakness.

And for Jesus it comes right after the glorious moment of his baptism, a moment when he has emerged from the waters of the Jordan River to see a vision and hear a voice, a moment when his identity seems assured.  He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove; he hears a voice say, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”    It certainly seems that from here on out all should be well.

But no – the desert lies ahead. And isn’t that so often the way of things?  All seems to be going beautifully, we seem to be making progress, achieving successes; we’re happy and comfortable – and then life falls apart and we find ourselves in a desert, in a wilderness not of our own making and certainly not of our choice.

Mark doesn’t tell us much about it  He tells us that Jesus was surrounded by wild beasts, and ministered to by angels, and that’s all he tells us directly.  We have to go to the gospels of Matthew and Luke to hear how Jesus was tempted by Satan, and how he responded by remembering and quoting the teachings of Scripture.  And we have to read the rest of Mark to learn what kind of a man Jesus became, what his priorities were, what, as some of my friends call them, his “non-negotiables” were, to understand what happened to him in the desert.  To understand what can happen to all of us in the desert.  We have to read the rest of the story, to see him teaching about a kingdom of justice and love, to see him caring and healing for others, to see him suffering and dying on the cross, to understand that the desert made of him an uncompromising ally of God the Creator and God the Spirit.

Early Chistians sought similar experiences of the desert, sought to practice the desert so that they, too, might become stauncher allies of God.  Among the most well known of them was one of the first, Antony of the Desert, considered to be the founder of monasticism. He headed out to the Egyptian desert in the late 200s, where he spent about thirty years in solitude, and became famous for his writings on inner spiritual warfare, on the battle a person does when confronted by those inner demons we all face at one time or another.  

Antony was followed by dozens of men and women, known to us as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who sought the clarity and wisdom that come with solitude.  To most of us today, it seems unlikely that we would find knowledge in emptiness, that we would hear God’s voice in the silence, that we might encounter God in the vast emptiness of a desert land.  We live, after all, in a world in which we are bombarded by sensory stimuli.  Most especially, we are bombarded by sound, and by busyness.  Many of us have our television sets on for most of the day – for company.  We listen to music or talk radio in the car.  We listen to Muzak when we shop, when we wait, when we get our teeth cleaned!  Silence is unfamiliar to us, and often uncomfortable for us.  Look at how we rush to say something when we are pending time with someone else.  Look at how difficult it is for us to sit silently in church!  It’s a universal problem of our age – silence is just not our milieu.

And yet – we find ourselves in the desert.  More often than not we are, like Jesus, driven there.  We don’t choose it.    

When . . .  How . . . have you experienced your own desert times?  When have you found yourself practicing the desert, learning from the desert, discovering that you have to sort things out in the desert, whether you want to or not?
Perhaps it was a failure in school or work?  The loss of a job, a farm, a business?

Perhaps it was a personal loss?  Of a marriage, of a loved one – a husband or wife, a child, a sibling, a best friend?

Perhaps a personal limitation drove you into the desert?  Perhaps an addiction?  A discovery that you are less capable in some areas than you imagined?  A misstep that brought the police to your door?  
             And then -- What does our culture tell us?

             It tells us to ignore the desert – to pick ourselves up -- to get back into
             circulation – to have a           drink – to pretend it never happened.

And we have a long history to back us up!  Need I tell you how many jokes and cartoons have as their subject Moses and the Israelites wandering the desert?  We look for humor in their desert experience because  when we are anxious, when we are filled with frustration and resistance, we want to find a way to laugh it off.  It’s not difficult, given the stories our Bible tells us, for us to imagine that resistance to and frustration with desert practice go back quite ways.
But Lent tells us to practice the desert, to learn the desert.  Lent tells us that there is value in the desert.   Lent reminds us that Jesus emerged from the desert strengthened and committed to his mission.  Scripture tells us repeatedly that, his forty day experience behind him and his ministry at hand, Jesus returned again and again to places of solitude in which to pray, that he found in the desert opportunities to reconnect with God, to seek guidance, to listen, and to be affirmed in who he was and what he was called to do.

Lent tells us that our lives can re-shaped by our desert experiences – that when we live into the demands of the desert, our lives can be re-focused, sharpened, clarified.  We can discover what’s truly important in our desert times.  We can discover who is really important in our desert times.

Now, that’s not always the case.  We all know people whose desert experiences have left them embittered, angry, and self-absorbed.  Sometimes people are broken by the practice of the desert.  Sometimes the wild animals of loss, of grief, of anger, of bewilderment – sometimes they are too much for us.  Sometimes a person finds it impossible to accept the ministrations of others, those angels in the desert who arrive to support and care for us.

But when we can accept our desert times as Spirit-driven, they can prepare us for an unexpected future.  Look back and see: The desert fathers and mothers became sources of wisdom for their followers, for the communities that sprang up after them, and for us today.  Look back further: in the desert, Jesus shed all the expectations which clung to him as a first century Galilean and committed himself to the reign of God, to ushering into human history the good news of new life.   

When we enter the desert, whether driven there by the circumstance of our lives, or whether we choose a season apart, we may find that it deepens our relationships with God. Jeremy Hall, a Benedictine sister in her 80s who herself spent two decades living in solitude, tells us that “[i]n Christian faith and life, the seemingly or really negative aspect is always for the positive.  Not only is the desert for the Promised Land, but Lent is for Easter; death is for more life, as Christ’s death was; discipline is for strength and vitality; real obedience is for real freedom.   [And] silence is for the word, and solitude is for communion."  

So if you find yourself practicing the desert, if you find yourself in a place in which the landscape is bleak and the wind howls through the emptiness, know that Jesus went before you, and he goes before you still.  Where you are called he has been, and he has triumphed on your behalf.  Thanks be to God.


  1. I think back, this Lent, to the three previous Lents, two of which were painful, dangerous, evil, Lenten seasons. One of which proved to be the journey that brought me here, and now this year - reflecting on Lent on this side of the desert....I'm not yet ready to tackle anew the deep emotions and pain of that time. I'm just learning how to be, how to trust. And so, that said, I love this sermon and how well you articulate that time and the spiritual gifts that come from being thrust into the wilderness.

  2. Oh, thank you, Terri. It did not feel well-articulated to me at all. And I have similar feelings -- Lent 2009 I could not go near ashes because, as I wrote, I have some at home. Lent 2010 I was forced into a role as a student pastor that had me splitting myself down the middle to survive the season. Last year I just skipped it all. And this year -- the task of leadership falls on my shoulders. I was installed on Sunday and distributed ashes this past Wednesday while wearing a locket containing ashes. I never have any idea whether I have just gone off the deep end. So thank you for the gift of a bit of confidence this evening.

  3. I was struck tonight by that line in that Gospel, "driven into the desert by the Spirit". I think I will walk a bit this week with the notion of "practicing the desert". Not strolled, not decided, but driven....

    Thanks for grace-filled and helpful preaching!

  4. Hi Robin, I got so much out of reading this, and I loved the last paragraph, so often I forget or don't want to know that Jesus went before and is with me. Unsure where I am in the desert right now, except that I'm in there, and have spent the past year really trying to be more aware of this fact, and letting it "be", so this was a timely read for me. Thank you.

  5. Oh this is marvellous, Robin. I only wish I'd been there to hear it! "But when we can accept our desert times as Spirit-driven, they can prepare us for an unexpected future." Yes, yes, yes! And trite though the old "Footprints" poem may seem on the nth reading, those times when we are least conscious of God may just be those times when he has held us closest in our pain and our abandonment of heart.

    Bless you, Robin, and lots of thanks