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Notes from the Desert
Rev. Laurie Bushbaum
First UU Wausau, March 26, 2017

First Reading: poem by Alice Walker

I am so thankful I have seen
The Desert
And the creatures in The Desert
And the desert itself.

The desert has its own moom
Which I have seen with my own eye
There is no flag on it.

Trees of the desert have arms
All of which are up
That is because the moon is up
The sun is up
Also the sky
The stars
Cloud
None with flags.

If there were flags, I doubt
The trees would point.
Would you?

Second Reading: Matthew 4:1-11 ( by Marguerite)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the River Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all this authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.
For it is written: ” ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; 11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ “ Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Sermon: Notes from the Desert

Have you ever been stripped to the bare bone with grief, bleached white with despair? Have you ever felt utterly lost, or nearly torn in two with competing claims to your loyalty? Have you ever lain awake in the middle of the night wondering how you will get through the next day? Or the next week? Have you ever gone for a walk to clear your head so that you can focus and make an important decision? Have you ever felt you needed to be alone for a time, to see the truth or to let something new in you be born? If so, then you have probably been to the desert, the spiritual desert.

In his book Steven Foster wrote,“I went into the desert alone, not knowing why, searching for something I had lost or would find; something, someone, some revelation waiting for me at the bend of the dry river bed, some face to face encounter with what I feared, and desired most.

At the time, I did not realize I was seeking death. That is, I was not seeking to die, but to reap the fruits of death, to reenter the womb of things, the matrix of unknowing, to be born anew, severed from the old limitations, to induce self-transformation.”

Was it because my mother told me I had been conceived at Shadow Mountain, within view of the mountains of Death Valley, that I went into the desert? Was it because my childhood had been steeped in the the stories of the Old Testament, the tales of the desert prophets?… Something lured me.

Like the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, Steven Foster tells a story of going into the Nevada desert for a time. He left behind his life as a college professor. Something was very wrong in his life and he couldn’t name what it was, so he packed an old VW van and headed into the wilderness of the desert to allow him to see clearly what in his life needed to die and what would be born.

Life is exquisitely beautiful. It can also bring us to our knees. In the noise of life, or in the midst of loss or the need for truth – we sometimes seek out a place of quiet. We come to a crossroads and need to be liberated or healed, transformed in some way. This is the call of the desert.

In the Biblical text that Marguerite read for us, the story tells us that Jesus goes out into the desert to fast for 40 days and nights. What comes right before this in the story of Jesus’ life, makes this story even more compelling. Jesus has just been at the river Jordan to be baptized. He goes from walking in the river, in this life-giving water, full of blessing, ready to claim his calling in the world – and then he goes straight to the desert.

And there, as the story tells, in the parched land of the desert the devil offers him all that God had offered him: A Kingdom, authority, power and Glory. This archetypal story is not so unlike many of our lives in which we want to accomplish something and yet we want to take the easy way. Or we can get what we really want but only if we sell our souls on the way. Jesus is offered a “a get-rich-quick” kind of scheme, a short-cut to get all the goodies of life for which he is destined. All he has to do is ignore his values and sell his soul.

We all want to take the easy way now and again. We don’t want to change or we desperately want to change but don’t know what steps to take. Sometimes we just can’t get to where we need to go or be the person we want to be, by cutting corners. Sometimes we have darn hard decisions to make, jams to get ourselves out of, internal puzzles to solve. We bargain with our better selves and delay the inevitable work.

In a more trivial way, I do this wrestling every time I write a sermon. I can assure you that there are 103 ways that I can avoid writing a sermon. I may have chosen the hymns, have a great story in mind, a provocative image, a great reading sitting in a file folder. But I always, always have to take a deep breath and force myself to face the empty computer screen. After a few decades of writing sermons, I know what my own little devilish voice sounds like. Oh, just take a quick break and toss in that load of laundry… Or, That’s my sister calling; I’ll just talk a few minutes… Or, The weather is so nice, I’ll just go out for a walk and then start my sermon…

I’ve learned how I can stand in my own way and let the devilish trickster talk me into all those engaging distractions to avoid what needs to be faced. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is nothing to writing a sermon. You just have to sit down and slice open a vein.” Writing a sermon is always a disciplined trip into desert.

We go to the desert because there is something to which we need to pay attention. It is so easy to be seduced by all the distractions and ignore the deeper, more demanding tasks that require our fuller or deeper selves. When we take ourselves to a simpler, quieter place we can hear the birds, the gentle wind. We can hear that “still small voice within.” If we can avoid the distractions and temptations that keep us from the deep turning of the soul, something will come to fruition. The butterfly will complete its transformation and unfurl it’s wings.

One theologian said, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. … Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers (it)self as the substance of the new self.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen,)

A few weeks ago I spent 6 days in the desert around Tucson, Az. Michael and I mostly went to go hiking. We chose Az because we wanted some place with sun and warmth. As a born and bred Minnesotan from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the desert is utterly alien to me. The first time I want to the desert I thought it was really ugly. Over time, I have learned to see the beauty there. Certainly, part of what is refreshing to me about the desert is that it is so different. It’s difference rattles me awake and alert. Because I neither know nor understand this landscape, I am inclined to pay attention.

The desert was just beginning to bloom when we were there. There were flowers here and there. And butterflies. I learned about different kinds of cacti. I learned how plants and animals are adapted to live and thrive in the desert. I learned to look much, much more closely to see the diversity of life in the desert and how native peoples ingeniously found all that they needed there to survive.

But no matter where we are physically, we can also be in the desert, spiritually. The desert can be any place that allows us to retreat to the heart, the backbone, the foundation, the root. The desert can be any place or time that leaves space around us: in a quiet room, in silent meditaiton, a yoga class, a long walk or a week of silence.

One of the characteristics of the physical desert is its large horizon and visual simplicity. Imagine sand as far as the eye can see. Sand and sky. Maybe a few scrubby bushes, a few cacti. This simplicity and uncomplicated landscape of the desert is one if its gifts. … Writer and lover of the wilderness, Edward Abbey wrote in his book, Desert Solitaire:

“It seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, … life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in sparseness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.” (from Desert Solitaire)

“So that the living organism stands out bold…” This is the purpose of the soulful journey in the spiritual desert- to let our living stand out boldly, to see what needs to be seen, to feel what needs to be felt, to know what needs to be known and finally, to trust in what is ultimate. An old Arab proverb says, “The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to God.”

The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to Self.
The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to Wisdom..
The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to Rebirth.

A UU colleague of mine once wrote this in a church newsletter column. “Jesus went into the desert not to kill his spirit, but to nourish it…. What paradoxical creatures we are!… In the dark night of the soul, some have, for the first time, been able to see the inner light. Jesus went into the desert, of all places, to find nourishment.” (Roy Phillips)

Sometimes don’t choose to go to the desert; a crisis of some kind takes us there. Due the tragic shootings a few days ago here in the area, there are many lives forever changed. There are many in deep grief. We are reminded that victims of domestic violence live in fear every day of their lives and many never find that safe haven. The desert can be a place of soulful transformation, but it can also be a hostile or lonely place. Sometimes, all we can do is stand ready to offer water and hope to those we are there. Sometimes, all we can do is to be ready to bear witness to grief and struggle until the heart and soul can flower again.

I want to re-read the poem I read earlier by the now famous author Alice Walker.

I am so thankful I have seen
The Desert
And the creatures in The Desert
And the desert itself.

The desert has its own moon
Which I have seen with my own eye
There is no flag on it.

Trees of the desert have arms
All of which are up
That is because the moon is up
The sun is up
Also the sky
The stars
Clouds
None with flags.

“There are no flags in the desert.” Of course this is not literally true; nations own the physical deserts within in their borders. And one is certainly aware of the politics of crossing the border from Mexico into Az. Trying to cross the desert on foot to come to freedom and hope is a risky and deadly undertaking. That is one meaning of the desert.

But for Alice Walker her desert poem came out of a different expereince. She grew up poor and black, the eighth child in a share-cropper family. She was accidentally shot in the eye by one of her brothers BB guns and blinded in one eye. As a child, the doctor told her that she would likely also become blind in the other eye. For years, she waited for that blindness to descend. As an adult, when she finally got to see the African desert, she fell to her knees in gratitude that she still had sight in one eye and could see the desert in all it’s strange glory. From her poem, the experience of seeing the desert was one of liberation and beauty. I imagine her arms up in praise and gratitude, the ways arms of the saguaro cactus in the desert, are always up.

But Alice Walker had also entered the spiritual desert as a young woman. After her eye injury she felt ugly and disfigured. She became depressed. In her solitude she began to write. Thank goodness her mother noticed both her need to write, and her talent. Alice won a scholarship to college and attended Sarah Lawrence, but in her Senior year she became pregnant. She was disowned by her family. At this point, she was so despondent that she slept with a razor blade under her pillow. A college friend helped her find a place to get an abortion and her friends took care of her during that time.

As Alice rested, she started dreaming of Africa. She hiberanted for a week and these dreams became poems. As she started to recover, she “slipped them under the door” to one of her professors, the great 20th C. poet Muriel Rukeyser. Rukeyser forwarded these poems on to her editor, who, in time, became Alice Walker’s editor. These poems, written in the desert, in the bare bones of her despair, experience, Alice’s first published volume of poetry. They were the fruits of her labor in the desert. The butterlfy getting its wings.

Imagine the loss to the world if Alice had used that razor blade under her pillow? Imagine the truth and beauty we would have missed if Alice had succumbed in the desert to depair and lonliness. Imagine the world without her book The Color Purple? Imaginte to loss to the millions of both black and white girls and women who have found their own path to dignity and healing from incest, because Alice dared to tell of her own experince. Thank goodness Alice was able to turn away from her demons, and let herself bloom in the desert. As she worte, those who bloom through a desert experince, get to place a flag in this region of our soul.

While in AZ I learned that saguaro cactus roots are shallow, only 4-6 inches deep but can fan out as wide as the plant is high. This helps the roots absorb more water. The trunk is accordian pleated longitudianlly so that the pleats can unfold to hold water when it rains. A large sugauro can absorb a TON of water from a single rain.

When we enter stillness and silence and keep our hearts open, what can we absorb that is life-giving?

This week I learned about the singing sand dunes in particular deserts in the world that have fascinated humans for thosuands of years. It turns our that scientists have finally solved the reason why deserts can make a deep, reverberating, keening sound, or a roaring boom that can be heard for many kilometers. When sand piles in a certain way, has a certain humnidyt, AND the grains are of uniform size – and an avalcche begins, the sand “sings.” The vibreations of the moving sand become trapped between the dry sand and a wet sand lower in the pile. As the sand cascades, the sound builds and builds until it like a vast invisible drum or keening voice. It is sound one can only hear in the vast stillness of the desert.

When we enter stilness and silence with an open and willing heart, what tiny movement of our soul, or the Spirit of Life, or God, might launch a new name spoken or sung from our depths?

As we enter into the time of meditation I offer you these words from a poet:

My anguished prayer and exulting cry are one, ‘Let the desert bloom.’
(Rev. Gretta Crosby)