The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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Discoveries in the Desert

Mark 1:1-15



The small tent stood alongside the desert airstrip. It was the home and office to Navy Chaplain Alan Baker, assigned to serve the 4,500 Marines stationed at the air base during Desert Storm. On this particular morning, he sat in his tent wondering why God had sent him to the desert. The sounds of jet engines and Scud alerts were the only noise that interrupted his silence that morning. He used the time to reflect on the source of the discouragement. While reflecting on his assignment, his calling, and the crises at hand, three words came to his mind-clarify, purify, and mortify.1 Alone in his tent, the Navy Chaplain discovered the purpose of the desert in the pilgrimage of faith. 

The desert is a common motif in all the great religions of the world. Their founders all spent time in the barren wasteland. Buddha journeyed to the arid wasteland of northern India, abandoning the lush forests of his homeland. Mohammed climbed Mount Hira in the Arabian Desert. Before Moses led the people of Israel through their 40-year wilderness wanderings, he had to endure his own desert experience. God uses the desert to train, nurture, and call his people.2

But the desert is more than a geographic region. It " also a symbol of the periods in our lives when we need to be tested and learn the ways of the Lord."3 In those desert experiences, we are confronted by the severity of the surroundings and tempted by our Adversary. Our inner thoughts, feelings, and desires of the soul are exposed. We can no longer use the busyness of life to distract our attention. Snoopy once accurately described the inactivity of the desert experience when he said: "If you live in the desert, there's nothing more exciting to do than watch the sun go down." The burning bush did not appear to Moses on Woodward and Jefferson for a reason. The simplicity of the surroundings removes the decorative trappings of personhood-status, prestige, power, and materialism. Vulnerable to the elements and defenseless against adversaries we must rely upon a power greater than ourselves for provision and protection.


The desert experience should not be confused with crisis. The sudden news of cancer or another life threatening illness, divorce, the tragic death of a friend, or the economic chaos of bankruptcy are usually not desert experiences. They are tragedies with Job-like characteristics. They are emotionally devastating experiences that try our faith and challenge our psychological maturity but they are not desert experiences. 

The desert is marked more by a sense of meaninglessness than crisis. Chaplain Alan Baker was not in immediate danger during his Desert Storm assignment. He missed his wife and children but they were relatively safe back in the States. Alan struggled to find meaning in his vocation. What difference did he make to a military campaign? He would not fly recon to locate enemy positions. He would not be found walking with a squad of soldiers as they marked a minefield. Military command would not ask his advise on the wisdom to deploy troops. All he could do was pray for the Marines while they embarked on their dangerous mission. All he could do was sit alongside the sobbing solider whose buddy put his foot down on the wrong spot. All that he could do was call the family and tell them that they brave son was not coming home. Anybody could do pray! Anybody could listen! What did it matter if he was there or not?

Each person will be driven to a different desert. The perfectionist may be asked to work with people who do not share their same passion for excellence. They must learn to accept the imperfections in the work of others. Or the perfectionist may receive assignments that are outside their area of expertise and experience requiring the perfectionist to accept their own weaknesses and flaws. The doer will be lured into the desert of inactivity where leadership does not recognize their gifts. They sit idle, watching others perform tasks for which they have been trained.


The challenge for us is using the time in the desert wisely. We are tempted to respond, to take action, to do something. The first discovery we must make is to wait. God leads us into desert experiences for a purpose. The real danger of the desert is leaving too soon. Career changes, new marriage partners, transferring membership to another church or moving to a bigger house does not bring happiness until the temptations of the desert are properly overcome. God will keep leading us into situations, again and again, not because he is angry with us but because of his love for us. The Spirit drives us into the desert for spiritual growth. If we leave the desert and return to Nazareth or Capernaum too early, the Spirit will wait for another opportunity to send us back into the barren wasteland. The rigid loyalist may be driven into the desert of flux where the winds of change buffet them each day. The peacemaker may be lured into the desert of storms where survival requires confrontation and refuge lies only in those brief solitary moments with God.4

The second discovery we must make is to read Scripture. Mark excludes the specific temptations and our Lord’s response for his own reasons. But if you can recall them, Jesus met every challenge by quoting Scripture. He did not attempt to rely on his humanity but trusted in the written Word of God to combat the Enemy. Under the hot sun, parched with thirst, we sometimes forget that the Spirit will supply the life giving water through our daily reading of God’s Word.

While we wait and read Scripture, the third discovery that we must make to make is to live with the wild animals. Matthew and Luke both exclude any mention of them but the desert has many dangers—scare resources, life threatening climates and animals of prey. By their mention, Mark reminds us that we face similar threats during are desert experience. People will attempt to intimidate us. They will threaten to undermine are work, damage our reputation, and question are character. Each interaction will be marred by tension. Each conversation will sound strained. Waiting in the desert requires dealing with the wild things.

The final discovery of the desert is learning to submit to the angels sent by God. The day after I announced to the congregation in Wenatchee that I had cancer a new member of the congregation called me on the phone and told me that he was coming over to mow my lawn. I was somewhat embarrassed. This man was the CEO of local company, a high-powered executive who had more important things to do than mow my grass. Fortunately, I was too weak to argue because through his kindness, I learned how to let God minister to me through an angel.

We are tempted to decline help when we are sick or going through those desert experiences. Our pride prevents us from receiving a gift of grace. Our insistence on self-reliance creates a barrier and we miss many blessing. God will often send the one person we lest expect. They will not be wearing wings or playing a harp or have a halo over the head. We may not recognize them at first but until we are willing to submit to the angel God sends, the desert will be an awful lonely and miserable place.


Before he had worked through the fog, Alan heard the sound of a fighter jet on its final approach after a combat mission. He ran out of his tent and went over to the flight line to welcome the pilot back. His discouragement was lifted as he shared in the celebration of a successfully completed mission with the pilots and ground crew. After saying goodbye to the pilots, he returned to his tent and discovered that a Marine visited the tent while he was away. The Marine had left a two-word message on the whiteboard. After the words Clarify, Purify and Mortify, the solider wrote the Marine motto—Sermper Fi, always faithful.

God has his own unique purposes for the desert. Sometimes we will discover his plan and purpose for those times. Sometimes they will remain a mystery to us.  Whatever happens God, who is always faithful, asks only us also to remain, always faithful, even in those dry desert experiences.

1 Alan Baker, "Clarify, Semper Fi,", February 25, 2003, Online:
2 James Houston, The Heart's Desire, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 1996), pp. 182-184.
3 James Houston, The Heart's Desire, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 1996), pp. 184.
4 James Houston, The Heart's Desire, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 1996), pp. 194.

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