A couple of weeks ago I went on an annual retreat with a group of clergy friends to Big Bend country. This year we were staying at the 100,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park near Presidio, Texas.
It is a rugged, unforgiving land with its own austere and surprisingly varied beauty. Among our activities, such as reading, conversation, story-telling, and sharing ministry ideas, we always include daily hikes.
On the third and final day of our retreat, a group of us took a 12.6-mile hike. As we made our way, we talked about how much it resembled parts of the territory we often call “The Holy Land” and how the three enduring monotheistic religions of today were all born out of those deserted, empty places. Sometimes they are even called “desert” religions.
The Judeo-Christian tradition was born among wilderness nomads, Jesus often went into the wilderness to pray, and in the early church there were people devoted to study and prayer in the wilderness that are known as “the desert fathers.”
The desert is a place of testing because there is no water, no food, and no shelter. It is a place of risk and danger, as we saw just this past week when a couple from Arkansas became lost and almost perished in that wilderness. It is a place of loneliness because there are vast areas with no people.
Yet, there is something clarifying about the wilderness. It is a place with its own beauty. It is a place without distraction. It is a place where one can encounter creatures that have evolved to live in that inhospitable place — and where the stars at night are unimaginably numerous, and the band of our Milky Way Galaxy stands out like a silvery ribbon across the sky.
In that place it is almost impossible not to think about ultimate things. It is almost impossible to ignore the vastness of the universe and our own smallness. Every night — perfectly clear, moonless nights — I sat outside after everyone else retired and gazed at the stars. Over and over I could hear the words of the Psalmist:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:3-5)
Sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness. We’re not tourists, hiking through on marked trails, but we’re wandering, perhaps even lost. It is a dry place, a place of testing and loneliness. It even feels dangerous. But there is more to the wilderness than first meets the eye.
If we look closely, we will see that we’re not the first to pass this way and we will not be the last. We will see that it is a place that can help us clarify who we are and what is important and where we’re going. It is a place of focus, as little distractions fade away. It is a place that can even strengthen us.
Our ancestors in the faith discovered this in the wilderness. May your wilderness times lead to stronger faith and a deeper dependence on God.
Grace and Peace,