by César De León Ph.D LMFT, Ministerial Director for the North Pacific Union Conference
Desert experiences . . . we’ve all have heard of these, some turn out to be good and positive, others we are not so sure about; but one thing is for sure, desert experiences change us. They reshape our mindsets and teach us valuable lessons. Take Moses for instance, he spent 40 years in the desert. Some of us may think that perhaps the length of this experience was not necessary; perhaps a bit excessive, nevertheless, we can’t deny Moses’ complete transformation of character and spirit as a result of his desert experience.
Some of us hate the idea of being in a desert because they tend to be painful, disorienting, filled with doubts and unending questions that arrive far before the resultant blessings can be identified. Not to mention the fact that desert experiences seem to come around when we have lost our way and often when we have come to the end of our rope. The idea of having to slow down as we tread in deep sand scares us and forces us into confronting ourselves, which is something we avoid at all costs.
Peter Scazzero in his book, “The Emotional Healthy Leader,” quotes Henri Nouwen, regarding the experience of the third century monk, Anthony the Great of Egypt, “He renounced possessions to learn detachment; he renounced speech in order to learn compassion; he renounced activity in order to learn prayer. In the desert, Anthony both discovered God and did intense battle with the devil. When Anthony emerged from his solitude after twenty years, people recognized in him the qualities of an authentic and healthy man.” 1 Another author describes Anthony this way, “It was not his physical dimension that distinguished him from the rest, but the stability of character and purity of the soul. His soul being free of confusion, he held his outer senses also undisturbed. . . he was never troubled, his soul being calm, and he never looked gloomy, his mind being joyous.” 2
I found myself in a desert experience during my sophomore year in college. For the previous four years I had canvased every summer in order to pay my tuition for my last two years of Adventist high school plus my two years in our Adventist college. During my sophomore year, I felt impressed that I should complete my theology program in English. The only sustainable option I had to accomplish this goal was to head to the West Indies College in Jamaica. I managed to convince some other friends to join me in this venture. For some reason I still don’t know today, all my classmates were accepted, except for me. I was angry, confused and decided to challenge God and said to Him, “I am not coming back to this college next year, I am going home and will not plan to canvass or do anything until You open the doors of another university for me where I can finish my degree in English. I knew I was shooting myself in the foot by not canvassing, since that was the only way I could finance my education in Costa Rica, Jamaica or anywhere else.
Once at home, I felt restless, confused and anxious. The summer days were whizzing by. I became afraid that perhaps
I was being seriously foolish to just sit at home while I waited for God to do something. Not knowing what else to do, I turned to prayer, Bible study and the reading of a book I now know the Lord placed in my way— “Prophets and Kings”. My mother and two sisters left to work every morning, so I was literally in solitude all day long. I would start my mornings by singing hymns from our church hymnal which would move me to tears, as I found comfort and healing in singing the hope-filled lyrics. I was oblivious to the volume of my singing until years later, a neighbor told me, “I used to hear you singing every morning when you were home that summer, I missed hearing you when you left.” My singing was followed by prayer, Bible reading and then, I would finish with what I thought was “dessert”, the reading of my SOP book. Three months went by, God was doing something in my heart and with my faith. Somehow, my fear and anxiety about my future disappeared. I was happier than I had been, I was having a grand time spending time with Him. During all the previous years I had been reading merely to fulfill class requirements and for sermon preparation, but now I was reading because my soul was hungry, and I was finding strength, hope and healing. I began to visit a local hospital where there were people suffering from muscular atrophies and different types of paralyses. My local church asked me to preach several times and somehow, I knew that whatever happened at the end of that summer, I was going to be OK.
One day, at the very end of that formative summer, a letter arrived from the States, A pastor and friend of my college president, who having learned of my desire to learn English, was inviting me to come to Woodburn, Oregon to help him with youth ministries and Bible studies at his church. Providentially, his congregation had agreed to send me to Chemeketa Community College in Salem, in the mornings, to learn English. That was the end of this particular desert experience, although it was short lived, I went through deep pain and many agonizing moments. I wish I could say that I ended up as strong and healthy as Anthony the Great of Egypt; but I do know that the Lord altered my perception of Him and changed me in many ways that prepared me with many lessons that became invaluable through the years.
After Moses, we are told that Elijah went to the dessert and left there a better and stronger man. John the Baptist came out of the dessert and was described by Jesus as “the greatest of men.” (Luke 7:28). Paul went to his desert for three years and returned as the greatest missionary that has ever lived. Jesus, who spent 90% of his life in obscurity and solitude, lived a very impactful life with only the 10% of his life. Profound power is obtained in solitude and in slowing down. Our souls are recalibrated and can realign to God’s agenda when we move away from the clatter of our busy lives.
Perhaps as we approach the conclusion of a very busy year, we can plan to take some time-off to reconnect, to focus and rediscover the true motivation behind our leadership and ministry. When we come to realize that God has given us specific mission and purpose for our lives and ministries, we can move forward with re-ignited confidence and radical trust in the One who called us.
1. Peter Scazzero, “The Emotionally Healthy Leader.” (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2015), 134.
2. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, Mi: Cistercian, 1975),8.