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Yesterday, during a NW Iowa blizzard, a friend and I went out for a beer. Sitting in the warm glow of sports television we talked about “stuff”. Not just any stuff, but heavy stuff we usually discuss over cigarettes and cheap cigars, but the driving wind and snow made it nearly impossible to keep ’em lit. In the course of the conversation my friend lamented that our Christianity doesn’t have enough sand in it–a reference to the desert Fathers and Mothers. I got the reference because my Spiritual Formation students just finished reading Silence and Honey Cakes by Rowan Williams. We also viewed an interview with Father Lazarus, a cave dwelling monk following in the footsteps of St. Anthony. During the interview Father Lazarus refers to the desert as “hell”. While there are no visual or audible temptations, there are temptations of the worst kind–the internal wrestling with the self. He called them “inner demons”, saying that when left to ourselves we come face to face with parts of our identity usually drowned out by smartphones or Spotify. We never have to wrestle with ourselves because we can always move on to the next distraction–living a shallow life, engaging in shallow conversations, with shallow relationships. In this context our religion also becomes shallow–another form of distraction. We go to church to make sure at least the pastor still has faith–making sure it’s the “right” faith–and then we go back to our distracted lives. As long as someone really believes this stuff…

I connect the experience of the desert Christians with a book on Franciscan prayer. The purpose is to help my students see prayer, not as some ascent away from the created world, but as an opening up to creation as an icon–as the revelation of God’s love. This also means becoming open to our embodied life, to our particularity, to our own strange lives with all of its weirdness. We need to come to grips with our finite lives, with the deep dark thoughts that make us anxious, with what Jung calls the shadow side of human existence. We need to befriend, or at least make peace with, the parts of our identity we don’t like very much. We do this because God is not found in some abstract spirituality, but on the cross, in the form of a suffering, dying, human being. Not only is this an expression of God’s love for us, it is also God’s affirmation of our finite, frail, human experience. My class learned from Williams that moving to the desert is not about fleeing, it is about staying–embracing a place, a cell, a God forsaken land. This is what it means to live in the midst of brokenness, sadness, and sorrow–grains of sand that constantly remind us of God’s love.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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