I just got back from an eight-day experience of practicing spiritual disciplines in the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park. There’s much to share. Hopefully, I can provide more insight into the experience with more time to reflect and write.
But on my last full day in the wilderness, I also recognized that people were probably going to ask me, “How was it?” or “What was it like out there in the desert?” And I wanted to be able to give them a meaningful answer! So I went up to a big pile of rocks near my campsite and sat down to think and pray about how I might synthesize or summarize my experiences in the wilderness.
The desert is a fascinating place, and I understand now how the austerity of the landscape can really help to force one’s focus inward and upward. My first thoughts to summarize the week was that the desert is not nearly as scary nor as warm as I had imagined it would be.
I did not encounter any coyotes, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, scorpions, or tarantulas during my time in the desert. A couple of very small lizards were about as exotic as the animal life got. The plant life in the desert was very strange (and often sharp!), but also very beautiful.
I loved the sunshine that I was able to soak up in the desert; however, I did not love the wind that I experienced in the desert. We had a lot of wind. Almost constant, and at times quite strong. And fasting didn’t help me to keep my body temperature up. Most of my time in Joshua Tree National Park, I wore every layer of clothing that I brought with me.
Fortunately, at the time of my end-of-the-week reflection and review of the (forty-nine!) pages in my journal that I filled during my time in the wilderness, I managed to find a spot that was in the sun and out of the wind. So I was relatively comfortable. And as I tried to pull my thoughts together, I saw some movement down the hill, a little off to my left. It ended up being a small bird, about the size of a morning dove. But it wore a bright red crown, with a regal pendant drooping towards its eyes. As I kept watching, I observed a group of six Gambel’s Quail (quails?) hopping among the rocks. And I smiled to think that these funny little birds now qualified as the most unusual wildlife I encountered in this strange landscape.
They were too far away for a photograph to show much, so I decided to draw them instead, adding to a collection of crude sketches in my journal. And since it just so happened that I had grouped some of my main reflections about the week in a bullet-point list, I decided to make it six bullet points to correspond with the six quail.
- I feel like one of the main themes for the week was soaking up the Presence of God and then using that fullness of Spirit to be my main contribution to others around me, to the broader society in which we find ourselves, and to posterity.
- I really did feel the Presence of God in the wilderness. Very profoundly. I communed with the Lord, and I feel full. But I was also impressed with the reminder that one doesn’t need a desert, or five days of solitude, or three days of fasting to enjoy and benefit from the Presence of God.
- Coming back from the wilderness, I feel especially compelled by the model of Moses in Exodus 33:7-11 — regularly carrying my gear just a small distance away from my community to pitch this small “tent of meeting” and commune with the Lord face-to-face, “as a man speaks with his friend.” I feel freshly committed to practicing this on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis.
- I chose to read through a random sampling of books from the Bible — all the ones that start with the letter “E” — and I found a lot of biblical support for the centrality of practicing the Presence of God in Exodus, Ezra, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel, and Ephesians.
- The Presence of God is very real in a calm moment of snacking on trail mix while watching the sun set over the desert. But it is just as real — and possibly more necessary — shivering in one’s tent with an empty stomach for 30 hours while 30 MPH winds batter the area.
- Darkness and light are equally valid elements of the human experience, and the Lord loves us and wants to be with us through it all. Especially if we invite Him into things.
Honestly, that feels like a surprisingly decent summary of my time in the wilderness! Six bullet points that fit on a single page, summarizing what took the ink of one pen and a fifth of my journal to process. I don’t regret the meandering journey, though. It feels like it was a really beneficial week, even if it was not always fun.