“Following in the Desert”
Seth E. Weeldreyer
April 30, 2023 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:1-18; Psalm 23
It wasn’t a gate exactly. We’d gone through some on our life-in-the-desert tour, visiting ancient Chaco pueblo complexes centered on a large sacred below-ground kiva. Now navigation led us to the next stop. From stark desert, nothing growing above human height, we entered New Mexico mountains. Asphalt twisted among ever taller trees and beautiful vistas. We rounded a bend and came to a sign: road closed. Beyond it, dirt. Our black van / SUV motorcade rolled to a halt. I scouted around the bend. We consulted. I confess for me sometimes such signs are more like … suggestions. Clearly many other cars had driven through. Sure, the road closes in winter, but it’s late April, snow gone. Maybe workers just hadn’t come back to get the sign yet. “I hate to turn around,” she said. And on this “fierce landscapes” pilgrimage, maybe we channeled intrepid adventure. In any case, we agreed God told us to drive beyond! We wound through gorgeous scenery—green pastures, ponds of still water, amid mountain valleys dotted with campgrounds and cabins. Dirt road got deeply rutted. We kept crawling. Just beyond another drive, we approached a small wash out, running across our path. I jumped out, waved to stop others, then investigated again. It was dry, would be a bump … we could get through. Seemed to get better as the road climbed, but who knew when we’d reach pavement, ever higher into unknown mountains, later in the day. Would we be stuck where there’s no cell service? Friends, often in life we reach crossroads—hard to discern which way to go. Knowing we’d miss our last stop—a cliff dwelling climax, we gave up following GPS and turned back. On the way, we savored the beauty of that place we’ll likely never be in again!
Maybe it’s stubborn defiance. Maybe it’s sincere uncertainty about what’s best. Maybe it’s just confusion amid what’s so unknown. Even GPS, often so trustworthy and helpful, can lead us astray. Now let’s talk about following God’s way in our world. It gets hard. “Sheep hear the shepherd and gatekeeper’s voice. They know not to follow stranger thieves and bandits.” Really? Do we? Utter inundation of information, differing perspectives it’s important to listen to, then there’s troll fabrications and AI deepfake creations, even using a celebrity voice to make on our own songs / videos. How do we know what’s real anymore? Caustic accusation. Echo chamber accentuation. Sports and culture infatuation. I expect few of us are immune as we fire up phones, tablets, TVs, or feel our wrist buzz continuously from morning breakfast to turning out the light in bed. We’re looking for good news that’s loving, inspiring, life-giving. How do we discern the way Holy Love wants us to go on roads we travel, sometimes smooth and straight, usually twisty, turning, sometimes deeply rutted by trauma, washed out in a crisis?
You know, often when I read this text in John, I want to say: Jesus, you’re mixing your metaphors, you’re losing me, buddy! Gate, Shepherd—thing that guards or person that leads? Beyond literal detail, here’s the key: “I came so they may have life abundantly.” Secure in the sheepfold. Confidently, assuredly following the shepherd in the world. Centered enough in Divine compassion, Sacred grace and peace … except when it seems we’ve wandered into a desert wasteland. When landscapes of life turn particularly fierce. Beyond geography where rain is scarce and people few, Belden Lane writes, it’s wherever human life faces threat and hazard. In deserted, abandoned places of our cities, fearful places we avoid when able to live elsewhere, nursing homes, hospices, anywhere emptiness and death must be faced. Amid substance use and other ways we try to cope with trauma we’re in the desert. Lonely with grief and disoriented by loss, we’re in the desert. Faltering bodies, failing minds, serious diagnoses, we’re enter a desert. Ageing abilities and wondering what we have to look forward to, we’re enter a desert. Faith changing, former assumptions unsettled, beliefs not so firm anymore … desert. Moving into a desert’s emptiness, Lane observes, we find a reflection of our brokenness within, our deepest fears, limits of ability, vulnerable.[i] Sometimes even amid lush and beautiful vistas of life we face ruts, wash-outs, limits of what we know and can do.
We arrived at Ghost Ranch, rolled down the window, and keyed in a number code. Beep! The metal gate swung open as our caravan passed through, down and up a dry arroyo, past the house where Georgia O’Keefe lived most of her life. Anne and Erin greeted us, helping rearrange beds, tables, chairs to settle in goodness and mercy. Ironically the ranch is named for thieves and bandits who stole (not sheep) cattle and horses, then told ghost stories to ward off wanderers who may stumble upon their stash. For a week in our Casa del Sol we wandered into desert spirituality. We walked to explore that stark and beautiful terrain. We talked, consulted, cared for one another, trusted enough to venture beyond any warning sign into fierce landscapes of the heart and life experience. We sought to live ever more deeply attuned to God’s voice, more fully in Divine Love, more completely in the Holy Way of Grace.
Especially fitting to this Easter season, friends, our good shepherd leads us into that love, that life through a kind of death. Giving up ego-driven desires. Letting go of grudges or impulses to please. Renouncing attempts to value life in us and others by what we prove, achieve, acquire. Dancing between what we see and know and don’t, we peer beneath the surface seeking deeper meaning. We wrestled with big words like apophatic and kataphatic and mysterium tremendum. Really, I suspect we find the whole idea difficult because it’s so counter-cultural. So opposite many other messages we hear, assumptions we’ve just come to expect. Something like the way into the fullness of God’s peace and purpose, means we don’t go through gates of success and security that society often leads us to believe most true. We can find those sheep-pens prove more like a Hotel California (you know what I mean?), a dream getaway become nightmare, a Polynesian resort turned into Jurassic Park gone wild. Though it seems hard to believe, friends, the voice of Holy Love urges: don’t trust those thieving promises, ghost-ranch bandits, seductive Faustian deals to steal our souls. It’s the siren song of the prosperity gospel—God just wants to bless us with a bigger house, fancier stuff, a billion in your bank account … and if we don’t have it, what does that suggest God feels about us? It’s ultimately the “best-life” industry run amok in thinly veiled selfish greed.
No, our Good Shepherd says, beware those ghost-ranch bandits. Follow me out of seemingly easy surface safety and illusory security back into the unknown, even into the desert. Guided by God-Purposed-Service (GPS … get it?) we’ll pass through the gates of eternity—the holy amid the humanly mundane, the sacred amid ordinary struggles even suffering, God’s will done on everyday earth as it is in heaven. You see, we share divine intimacy most fully in our vulnerability. When we accept emptiness as a gift, God fills us with grace and peace. Ancient Hebrews followed Moses out of the food and shelter of slavery into Sinai wilderness. Jesus declares: I lay down my life, that I may be raised again in Holy Love to serve and radiate that purpose to every person. Follow that Good Shepherd and find we’re in holy pastures everywhere!
Now let’s be clear to distinguish between those who choose a desert life and those who have no option. People born or forced not by choice into desert wilderness of slavery and Jim Crow, Manzanar, Trail of Tears, border crossing in semi-trailers or coyote trails to escape violence, extortion, drug cartels, not unlike our own American history. Adults, like one who popped in to chat this week—with young trauma, been hard to make a way in life without getting into a rut of substance abuse, washing out in prison or rehab. Now smiling, good job, safe apartment … taking it day by day. And so, we know, like some KPS second graders I read to this week, other kids risk repeating that cycle, born as they are into deserts of poverty, unreliable parenting, unhoused, unplayful, unable to imagine what they want to be when they grow up.
In early centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, ordinary people chose to leave the cosmopolitan bustle of Alexandria, Egypt—perhaps the greatest known city after Rome. Ammas and Abbas (mothers and fathers of living faith) went to live in the Egyptian desert, the edge of physical survival, to save their faith. They became so holy, centered in God, so unattached or uncorrupted by selfish pursuits, others went out to consult, receive wisdom and guidance at their own bends in a road. As we gathered at Ghost Ranch, as I’ve processed the gift of pilgrimage this past week, I know a yearning inside for that wisdom and inspiration. I wonder how we all feel it in some way. Here’s one of my favorite churchy phrases from the first Christians: The glory of God is a human being fully alive. I like to say humans amid all creation fully alive. Beyond a self-actualized best-life, I want to know: what does it mean to be fully alive? Genuine peace and wholeness can seem hard. Desert life makes us strip away self-delusions. In the end, Belden Lane asserts, desert spirituality gets caught more than taught—authenticity, integrity, living consistently.
Tradition says the desert Wadi Qilt pictured on our cover inspired Psalm 23. (We’re almost there—get to that in a moment.) And it’s the setting for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. See the narrow winding path—the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho where a lonely sheep fell into hands of thieves and bandits hiding behind a hill / bend in the road, assaulted and left for dead. “How do I enter the gate to eternal life?” the lawyer asked Jesus to spark the story. “Who are neighbors I should love on the way there?” In that desert, Jesus asks us, how do we choose to live?
Belden Lane urges: attend to what really matters and be indifferent to what doesn’t. We learn gradually to be in any given moment, without distraction, fully present to whatever presents itself. This, and only this, he says, is the ultimate meaning of love. At best, we all eventually stand, attentive amid what we cannot understand, held fervently by love. With hearts trained in simplicity and poverty, we live perpetually in hope of wonder. We let go of illusions or unreal expectations, trying to live for lofty “ends” of any sort. We starve all fragile false senses of self or distracted ego. We rise above any concerns about surface impressions, anxious worries, even particular answers to prayer, attempts to get something from God. We’re simply content to be with God. And we find love more deeply and truly possible because it is finally wholly free. Beauties and wonders burst as we meet people on the clean, level ground of humanity.[ii] And so, Lane concludes: the desert leads us, at last, from aloneness with God to life with others. On our last morning, I had people choose a postcard of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. A petrified tree trunk surrounded by green or a cow skull holding flowers bursting forth or with a single blue bloom beside it … an image to meditate on as we concluded our time in that place. In every painting I recall of her work at Ghost Ranch, she always includes life / beauty amidst death. On the back, I quoted: When everything is lost, life doesn’t end. Desert attentiveness and desert indifference lead us more deeply into loving community.
Through all we shared at the Casa del Sol, in the steps of all who’ve lived in New Mexico desert for many generations, to a person each of our pilgrims affirmed they were touched, moved, transformed in some way. Me too. Not that we’ll all return to our degrees of privilege relative to the rest of the world, and renounce all wealth or accumulated possessions, dress like a modern John or Jasmine the baptizer eating locusts and honey. We come home to seek the House of the Lord beyond any one place, at the spiritual center of all life like those ancient Chaco kivas. We sense and enter that presence everywhere, depending on how we set our hearts and how we act. How we become the body of the risen Christ, expressing loving relationship. Following so clearly, authentically, fully alive … that we help, inspire, empower others to find that self, hear that voice, follow that holy way, as well. Maybe we can recall a desert landscape we’ve been in. Maybe we know it now in some grief or struggle, uncertainty or great responsibility, even if it’s one of love—a place / experience that seems parched and desolate … or maybe even a wilderness so lush and beautiful but deeply rutted with possible wash-outs ahead. Maybe we can empathize with someone else. Friends, trust that as we give up need to control or define life by surface success and security, we’ll be filled with love more deeply, completely, wholly, unlimitedly free. If we’re moved to do so, I invite us to meditate on the bulletin cover as we listen for our Good Shepherd to guide us.
Read Psalm 23
Shortly after we turned around on that rutted dirt road in the mountains, dust heralded a white Ford F-250 truck coming toward us. Striking how, afterwards, we all said we thought: Uh-oh! Here comes a government official to scold us! Often, especially when anxious or uncertain, our gated hearts assume or fear the worst. Approaching a bend, I stopped at a place wide and smooth enough for us to pass each other. She slowed to stop beside us and turned her head through an open window above door splattered with mud. Weather-lined face – maybe late 60s, early 70s? Shoulder length silver hair pinned back. Looked a bit like Georgia O-Keefe, we agreed. She smiled gently and asked, “Did you make it over the mountain?” “No,” I replied. “Following GPS to Bandelier, we made it to the wash out and turned around.” “Yeah,” she said, “Google keeps taking people here. We just keep pulling ‘em out of there.” Maybe today the Psalmist would write: Even in the most rutted valley, O Good Shepherd God, you are with me. Your pick-up and chain, they rescue and comfort me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (New York, Oxford University Press, 1998), 162, 232.
[ii] Ibid, 200, 227-228.