For the past twenty years, a leader in our network of churches has been guiding people into the wilderness for spiritual solitude. He promotes the program very simply and directly:
WilderneSS excursions are comprised of five days of complete solitude. Of the five days one is spent in silence and three in fasting. Besides the necessary camping equipment and food rations you will be packing just a bible and a journal.
I love the great outdoors, but I’m not a huge fan of backpacking and camping. So I’ve been reluctant to join. Basically because I didn’t want to endure a week of sleeping on the ground. But this year, I felt prompted to give it a try. So I signed up, joining a group of other church leaders in southern California for eight days in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park.
So last Wednesday, we piled into a 15-passenger van at the Palm Springs airport and drove into the eastern part of the park, parking at the Cottonwood trailhead. From there, we hiked together into an area near the base of Eagle Mountain and set up camp, aiming for a balance of solitude and safety. Each trip participant was paired with another participant to camp just out of sight and out of earshot, but within reach for a daily 3PM safety check. Once our camps were established, we met together for one last round of instructions. And then, we separated to start our time of solitude.
Practicing spiritual disciplines in the wilderness is not a whole lot different from practicing spiritual disciplines in everyday life. There’s just a lot more space for everything. I spent hours and hours in prayer and meditation. I completed a thorough reading of about twelve percent of the Bible. Pages and pages of my journal served as a helpful space for processing my thoughts. The solitude was relatively easy for me (a natural introvert). The fasting was harder. But more because of the way it made me cold and listless than because of the way it made me hungry.
The hardest part of the time in the wilderness was the night time. It got so cold after the sun went down that I had to alternate my practice of spiritual disciplines with time fully zipped-up in my sleeping bag, lying on my back and staring at the dome of the tent. I communed with God in that, too. But there was usually a time each night which I came to call “Very Dark o’clock.” My back would get sore from being flat against the ground for so long. The cold would cheat in at the zippers and around my face. And honestly, I’d get bored and hopeless.
Darkness is half of the human experience. Why don’t we think about this or talk about this more often?!?
In my mind, I categorize “the night” as the eight or so hours that I’m in my bedroom. And then I use phrases like “evening” or “early morning” to gloss over the rest of the darkness. But darkness really is half — not a third — of the 24-hour cycle. And somehow, I made it into my mid-40s without ever really considering that. Even more surprising to me was the realization that God designed it this way! The night is not the result of the Fall of Humanity. God designed darkness. He brought light, but He didn’t make the light eternal. He just separated the light from the darkness and distinguished day from night. And He inhabited both.
Throughout the course of my week practicing spiritual disciplines in the wilderness, I kept coming back to a basic awareness of the Presence of God. And I realized that the power of the Presence of God can fill me, too. It helps me to be a better father, son, husband, pastor, neighbor, and friend. All I have to do is be willing to lend my presence, along with whatever elements of the Presence of God I can bring with me. I don’t have to be brilliant; I just have to be present.
There will be births, and there will be deaths. Sunrises and sunsets. And I won’t often know exactly what to say or do. But I can still offer my presence and the Presence of God within me.
The Book of Exodus describes the way that Moses would basically soak up the glory of God and then bring that glory to the people of Israel. Chapter 33 describes it this way: “Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the ‘tent of meeting.’ Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses… The LORD would speak with Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks with his friend.”
While I was out in the wilderness, I came to love this imagery and feel excited to think how this could play itself out in my day-to-day, week-to-week life. My “tent of meeting” doesn’t have to be an eight-day intensive WilderneSS experience in Joshua Tree National Park. It can just be little day-hikes in Portage County and Geauga County and the Cuyahoga Valley. I just need to regularly seek God and get face-to-face with Him, which will then hopefully help to pass along some of the LORD’s radiance to others.