Into the desert

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I park my car on the roadside in the national park of Joshua Tree, California. I’ve spotted a big rock that is close enough to the road that I can see who is coming and but the rockis big enough to offer me some privacy.

I’ve come to the desert as another step toward moving from Los Angeles, California to Elkhart, Indiana to attend seminary at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I know attending seminary is God’s invitation, God’s calling, but I am reluctant to move from the city I love, from my home church, from my family, and from childhood friends. I have come to the desert to grieve and to release my Los Angeles life to God.

My decision to go to Joshua Tree National Park is an intuitive one, or perhaps a response to God’s nudge to go a place where I can experience God deeply, to follow Jesus’ example of going to a wilderness place to pray. My drive to Joshua Tree becomes a pilgrimage via concrete highways and my car. I drive in silence, preparing my heart and mind for the day.

After I park I settle on the dirt with my back resting on the large rock with my backpack beside me. I retrieve my journal, multicolored pens and pencils, a small box of matches, and a full water bottle. I begin to write all that I will miss when I move: the San Gabriel mountains, the Pacific ocean, the Pasadena Mennonite congregation, etc. I write and write and begin to cry. I want to yield myself to God’s call but surrendering is hard.

As I continue to write I begin to pray aloud, offering each line and image to God. Occasionally I sit in silence with my upright open palms resting on my knees—it is a position of release, of offering my life—again—to God.

After a while I walk around, gazing at the desert land and the expansive sky. My heart feels clear—not blank or empty—but clear from my intense prayer time. I am grateful for the deep silence of the desert.  In the book, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, Christine Valters Paintner, writes: “The desert is a place of deep encounter, not a place of superficial escape. It is a place that strips you down to the essentials, forcing you to let go of all the securities you cling to in life ….”

I return to “my” rock and continue to pray: “I breathe in your love; I breathe out my fear.” Again I sit in silence in a position of yielding. As this prayer subsides, I return to what I wrote earlier and tear the pages out then dig a hole in the dirt with my hands. I continue to tear my paper until it is in small pieces then I place it into the hole and set it on fire as an additional gesture of relinquishing my Los Angeles life. As the fire subsides I pour water over the ashes and cover them with the dirt, tamping it down with my hands. I stand and offer another prayer: “I give myself to you, O God.”

Alan Jones wrote in Soul Making:

A desert of the spirit: a place of silence, waiting, and temptation. It is also the place of revelation, conversion, and transformation…It involves being “made over,” being made new, being “born again.” The desert, then, is a place of revelation and revolution. In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.

My experience in the Joshua Tree desert is a time of revelation, conversion, and transformation for me. As I relinquish the life I love to God, I understand that I love God more and am born again, again. I exit the desert experiencing a transformation—from grieving the significant transition of moving to anticipating the transition and what I would experience in my new life at seminary. I drive home in silence, absorbing this transformation.