As I stand at the end of my first month of active duty, I feel compelled to share some of my thoughts with you, so I am sending you a few notes from the desert. First, a quick check-in. I am fine. It is brutally hot here: daytime highs usually range between 110 and 120, and we expect that range to go up as we head towards August. There have been some dust storms recently, which make breathing a challenge. The sound of coughing and clearing throats is commonplace. But we adapt. I have a cloth to wear over my mouth and nose. I stay indoors as much as possible. (Although there are notable exceptions, like the Pride Month 5k I ran.) And my body is adapting to the foreign microbes in the air, water, and sand. Soon I will be fully acclimated. I will endure.
But this time in the desert has caused me to reflect on the very meaning of time in the desert. And, as usual, when I go to find meaning, the first place I look is in the Gospels, in case my brother and Wayshower has any guidance. What I found was fascinating.
Over and over again, throughout the Gospels, Jesus goes to “deserted places” to pray; to find communion with God. As an introvert, I totally identify with this. Particularly as an introvert who is at the moment living in an open bay and sharing a bunk bed at the age of 57. And I know that what I am experiencing here is merely a distillation of what we all experience in this hyper-connected world. Solitude has become an almost unknown luxury. The ability to unplug, go to the “deserted place”, and find communion with our God is becoming more difficult than it was in Jesus’ time, not less. All of our labor-saving devices have merely conspired to increase our productivity, not our freedom. And so, I here in Kuwait, just like the rest of us, must actively seek out “deserted places”, and make time to commune with God.
The Gospels also mention the desert as a place which is barren, which lacks the ability to support life. And yet even in that barrenness, by collective faith and generosity, we find the means to sustain ourselves. Jesus’ disciples wanted to send the crowds away, because they did not believe that they could provide for them. But what Jesus taught them was that by blessing what they had, it would multiply, and there would be enough for all. If there is any lesson I can take from this barren place, it is that by living in gratitude for all that I do have in this now moment, not only do I find my needs met, but the desires of my heart are made manifest as well. It can sometimes be tempting to curse the Universe, what is, or what is transpiring, but all a curse does is draw negative energy back towards me. When I bless what is, and remember to praise the good, good flows back, often in ways or from directions I never could have foreseen. The truth is, the desert can remove the background noise which prevents us from seeing all our blessings; it shows us the forest to which the trees of our busy lives can blind us. This barren place is actually filled with infinite possibilities which provide richly when primed with the energy of love, gratitude, and blessing.
Finally, there are several places in the Gospels where “desert” is used as a verb, to describe something we do to one another, as in “All of them deserted him and fled.” (Mark 14:50.) In looking at the Genogram of Unity of Birmingham which emerged from our work with Rev. Beth Head right before I left, it became clear the feeling of desertion has plagued this ministry for decades. The deaths of Rev. Beverly and Rev. Jerry, and the departures of Rev. Mark and Rev. Christine left many people feeling deserted. Some of them left. But some remain, and their pain is an undercurrent in the flow of the life of this church. And now I have gone as well, and it stirs those currents up into consciousness, and renews old fears of desertion again. So I want to be completely clear about one thing: I am coming home to Birmingham, and I will be the minister of Unity of Birmingham for many years yet to come. Not only do I feel as though my work in Birmingham is not complete, but also I feel in many ways that upon my return we will be beginning anew, and building a church community together that is healthy, vibrant, diverse, and plays an integral role in the lives of its members.
The Israelites emerged after 40 years in the desert to find the Promised Land. Jesus spent 40 days preparing for ministry. I will be spending 40 weeks in the desert, and I expect to emerge prepared to do the work that I have been called to Birmingham to do. I cannot begin to tell you how much I look forward to coming home, how much I look forward to all that lies ahead for us, or how much I love you.
With all the blessings that are mine to give,