The Desert

February 28, 2021

The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. ~ Mark 1:12

God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot possibly be without God. It’s simply impossible. ~ Thomas Merton

One of the things I enjoy about living in Mancos is that we live at a crossroads. Not so much the intersection between Highway 160 which runs east and west through town and Highway 184 which takes us to Dolores, but we live between the mountains and the high desert. It is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

When we moved to Mancos, I avoided the desert wilderness. For me, the desert was a dry and desolate place. Barren terrain. An unforgiving landscape which threatened our existence. The desert was a place where little to nothing grew. Why go to the desert when we could spend time in lush mountain meadows and explore streams teeming with brook trout?

What comes to mind when you think of the desert?

My thoughts about the desert started to change when I read an article about shrimp living in potholes in the desert. Shrimp in the desert? So, one spring break when our kids were little, Jennifer and I loaded up the Honda minivan and headed to Canyonlands National Park outside of Monticello, Utah. “Where are we going Daddy?” our kids asked me.

“We’re going to look for shrimp in the desert?” they said rather comically, “Daddy, shrimp live in the ocean, not the desert.” “I know, but we’re going to see if they live in the desert, too.” We parked our van at Pothole Point Trail, a spring rain had just fallen, so the potholes were filled with water. Off we went, the four of us looking into each pothole for shrimp with no success. The kids started to whine.

“Daddy, shrimp don’t live in the desert. Let’s go.”

“They have to be here. Let’s just kneel around a pothole and stare at it for a while.” So that is what we did. We looked and we looked. Nothing. We pressed our heads closer to the surface of the water. Nothing. Then little Andie said, “I see one. Oh, I see another one. And another one.” Within a few moments, what was once an empty pothole filled with water was now a pothole brimming with fairy shrimp. They were literally everywhere. How could we have not seen them before? Indeed, the desert is barren, but it is also teeming with life, beauty, and grace.

The Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove during his baptism. That same Spirit drives him out into the desert wilderness. That verb, “drives” has always bothered me. The Spirit pushes or drives Jesus into the desert wilderness—a dry, hostile, threatening place. Jesus is there for forty days and our worst fears are confirmed. He encounters wild beasts and Satan (whatever that image is for you). It is a scary place to be, so let’s avoid the desert wilderness. Nothing good can happen there.

Henri Nouwen says, “There is a moment(s) in our lives when we stand before the desert.” A loved one dies unexpectedly. A relationship ends badly. Our dreams dry up. We feel like we have wasted our lives. Our addictions catch up with us. Our job is a dead end. Health issues overwhelm us. We lose faith. We are lost in an arid world.

The desert is the place where many of our false thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, the world, and God die. Alan Jones in his book Soul Making says the desert is a “place of silence, waiting, and temptation, and a place of revelation, conversion, and transformation.” When we literally live near or in the desert, we start to crave its clarity, its truth. “In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live,” writes Jones.

The desert is hard and stark, but it also fills us with wonder, mystery, and awe. How can little shrimp survive these conditions? How did those arches come to be? Is anything more beautiful than a desert flower in bloom? Canadian philosopher Matshona Dhliwayo comments, “If a flower can flourish in the desert, we can flourish anywhere.”

I, maybe you too, tend to obsess on the harshness and the difficulties during our desert times of life. We should not dismiss how challenging it can be to live in the desert moments, and we should compassionately support one another. However, there is a fascinating ending to Jesus’ heavy and revelatory forty days in the wilderness. The best part of the story, I believe. The angels came and waited on him (see Mark 1:13 and Matthew 4:11).

In the desert, no matter how arduous it might be, no matter how parched we may be for a drink of water, we discover angels are all around us. We sing with Jacob when he wakes up from his dream, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” (Genesis 28:16-17). Or, as Thomas Merton wrote, “God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot possibly be without God.” We see that God’s grace and love are always with us, even in our deserts.

When we find ourselves in a dry wilderness, may we look closely at what surrounds us and embodies us?
Is there life and hope in places that we thought were empty?
May we wait, weep, and learn to live in the desert.

Blessings and peace,