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January 8, 2014 / Pastor George Fike

Thoughts on Our Desert Places


An Etchings App PhotoI ponder my life’s journey.  I received tragic news yesterday.  A friend from my youth, Mark O’Pella, passed away this last weekend – not from the cancer he had been battling, but from the swine flu that has claimed so many lives the past few months.  I had lost touch with him for several years.  He had moved to Houston decades ago, while I had spent a decade and a half in Illinois.  He was my neighbor in Kirby, Texas. He was my good friend, sharing meals and hijinks.  We were in the same class (’73) at Judson High School.  After high school, we wasted precious hours at San Antonio College learning how to cheat at spades rather than study, risking our lives as he drove his Opal GT at 90 MPH down Crown Lane, rooming together at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos for 1 semester and 2 weeks of another before he decided he’d rather hang out with this cute girl in Houston.  (He had sure decorated the dorm room nice for me, though!)  We played guitar together, even writing a song or two.  I stood beside him as he married his first wife (same cute girl).  Then we drifted, as young adults inevitably do.  Another friend and fellow childhood neighbor posted the news yesterday.  The reality of our mortality deadens us to all else but the obvious: the stuff of this life is transient.  All of it. So I awoke this morning to catch the facebook post of another old friend.  A military brat, who by nature of his dad’s mobility, only lived in San Antonio 2 years, but tremendously impacted my life.  His facebook blog spoke to my soul so profoundly I had to share it with you:

OUR DESERT PLACESChristopher Kearns I find myself waking to check the dropping temperatures of the polar vortex which grips us for one last day. I see that it will be 19 below zero when I go to the bus stop; so we are already in a warming trend. I think of deserts. Although he lived much of his monastic life in Kentucky, Thomas Merton was long attracted to deserts and wilderness and their transformative power. The need for renunciation, a term not much in vogue in consumer culture, is the reason the Desert Fathers – the monks Merton so revered – believed the desert was created as a holy place in the eyes of God: it held no value in human eyes.  Merton writes that we cannot find God until we are willing to enter our own wilderness. I read this and recall Nietzsche’s caution that if we go into our desert, we should remember that our demons will follow us there. Consider Las Vegas. Nonetheless, Merton, who read and understood Nietzsche, says we cannot build a meaningful relation with what is holy until we are willing to let go of our ego, our devotion to self, and open ourselves to the value of creation on its own terms.  It is not easy, though, to care about the world as it actually is rather than the world as we want or dream it to be. To start with, we have to discover this world for ourselves. And we also have to discover who we might be, if we could summon the courage, in a place that is only itself, only here and now, from breath to breath. If we take Merton’s perspective seriously, our prospects begin to look very different from the lives most of us are used to wanting. A life of discipline and significance, Merton holds, cannot be crafted through devotion to a world of manufactured things and imaginary values. The consumer paradise kept before us through the siren song of advertising and popular media can only draw us deeper into its mirage. To be pulled toward the shimmering dream of endless consumption-as-happiness is to exchange the human spirit for the embossed plastic of our credit cards.  It’s a bad bargain. Hence the need for what consumer culture (and most of us) would call renunciation. The Desert Fathers thought the decision to live in the wilderness was the logical choice for anyone wanting only to be their truest selves. Such, they believed, was the lesson of the Chosen People’s 40 years of wandering. They were to remember this time with reverence, from generation to generation, as the age when they were alone with their creator. Although Merton reveres the desert monks and what they were trying to do through their withdrawal and renunciation, he knows that conditions have changed in the modern world. Today the desert is where we test our most destructive weapons rather than offering our sincerest prayers. It is where we build our citadels of instant wealth rather than our cities of God.  The desert of the Desert Fathers, in other words, is nowhere in the contemporary world — or at least it is nowhere physically. But, says Merton, this means that our deserts are everywhere psychologically. He writes: “This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent” (Thoughts in Solitude). I read this and think it might be something to hold on to as I wait between buses in the hour before dawn.

Chris Kearns

Assistant Dean at College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota

As I read his words, my life transfigured before me.  The landscaping I have done, the buildings I have erected – my ambitions, my shames, my hopes, my fears – are not the reality of who I am.  As I have sought to dress up my own life, have I inadvertently covered up the perfection of Who God is?  Have I scarred the landscape of the life He gave me by erecting crass billboards, thus hiding a beautiful vista?  After all, I am not what I have done; I am, ultimately, who He made me to be.  One day my personal accomplishments and humiliations will have vanished like the ruins of the ancient world.  Just as the forest reclaims a long-abandoned shack, God’s work will remain when my history is forgotten.  Therefore, I will gaze at His beauty, not my own gaudy adornments, and make that my mirror view.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:1-3

george-chris-webMe (left) and Chris (right) singing our song, Listen to the Rain, Judson High School talent show, 1971.

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One Comment

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  1. Gede Prama / Jan 8 2014 12:50 PM

    Thank you very much, I’am really glad that I’m following you. I’m still figuring out. Just wanted to say that you are an awesome blogger, Inspiring and May you inspire more readers essentially perfectly ok. greetings from Gede Prama 🙂

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