What is Desert Spirituality?

What is Desert Spirituality?


Podcast Season 1: Episode 1 Come Thrive in the Desert

Podcast Season 1: Episode 3 Desert Spirituality- Retreat or Revolution

Written by Shaleen Kenrick

Let’s turn our attention to the wild, free, and mysterious places known as the desert!

I laughed out loud when I read Kent Dobson’s sentiments of growing up in the belly of the Evangelical Church.   It sums up my childhood.  I come from a Western, reformed, conservative, evangelical tradition.  I inherited interpretations of the Bible molded by a distinct lineage.  My heritage stems back to the ancient western church Roman Catholicism emerged from, was reformed by the Protestants, infused with American right-wing conservatism, and informed by modern day evangelicals.  I am grateful for the community and church tradition I was raised in.  It shaped who I am, but about damn near killed my mystical soul.

My “Flip”  began a decade ago, in my early thirties after I exited Young Life staff.  I grew up as a Young Life kid, and was a volunteer leader, or staff for about 20 years.  Young Life is an Evangelical outreach to adolescents.  It is framed by conservative/fundamental doctrines and dogmas.  I am incredibly grateful for the people in Young Life.  They have blessed, shaped, and impacted my life in beautiful ways.  I am still close friends with many Young Life staff and leaders today.

However, when I left Young Life staff the suppressed questions and doubts about my faith raced to the surface all at once!  When my livelihood (i.e. my paycheck) was no longer tied to my stance on official statements of faith—I could no longer hide the gnawing questions in my gut.

At that time my Christian faith was on the brink of death.  I hit a breaking point and realized my faith needed to “adapt or die.”  I leaned hard into my curiosity, questions, and doubts.  I began to boldly explore my spirituality.  I experienced a paradigm shift, resulting in the evolution and adaptation of my faith.

There was a death—the conservative/fundamental expression of my faith died.  It gave life to a new (new to me, but very ancient) expression of Christ in me.  It was a death I continue to grieve.  I miss the silo of my youth.  I miss doctrinal certainty.  I miss fitting in!  It’s lonely out here outside the institutions of religion.

Here’s the thing…THE METAPHOR OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION is at the heart of my faith.  Following the cycles of death and life is central to my Christianity.  And so, I grieve the death of my conservative evangelicalism and revel in the life-giving resurrection of mystical spirituality.  I have become A New Kind of Chrisitan, and this new kind of faith waters my soul!

I was recently asked how this paradigm shift affected me.  There are limitless answers to that question, but the short answer is my love and understanding of humankind has expanded tenfold.  God has gotten EXPONENTIALLY MUCH BIGGER for me.  I left behind a tribal God, laced with violent God-images, and entered into worshiping a God who has an unquenchable love for humankind.  

My “flip” happened slowly and over time.  With each question, I leaned into and every time I wrestled with my doubts my faith transformed, resulting in a deeper, more profound love for my Creator, my self, and my global human family.  I am no longer trying to ESCAPE this world to get to heaven someday.  I want to experience heaven here and now…on earth.  I no longer live believing in an angry God. I echo Paul’s words and now understand all humankind lives, moves, and has our being in God; not separate or apart from God (Acts 17).  I have replaced my violent God-images with an understanding that God is unadulterated LOVE AND RELATIONSHIP.  Engaging our curiosity and boldly exploring our spirituality leads us into the desert!

And damn the desert is HOT!

Desert spirituality is what happens when you move outside the systems, outside empire mentality.  Christianity married power in the 4th century with Constantine, and we never got divorced. The Christian faith moved from the faith of an oppressed people to the faith of people who rule the world.

But at its core, Christianity is a way of life for oppressed persons to experience liberation and solidarity with the God of the universe.  It is a way to find your voice, find your intrinsic value, and discover your worth.  Christianity is a way to speak truth to toxic power through non-violent, liberating, subversive messaging.

Desert spirituality happens when you divorce yourself from the empire mentality that wields toxic power over others to discover what it looks like to participate in collaborative power with others!

Personally, here at Desert Voices we had to divorce ourselves from empire thinking in many ways in our life.  In fact, it’s an ongoing process, not a one-time event!  Walking away from the temptation to exercise power over others is something we have to do over and over again, especially since we are in the dominant culture.  In America, as cis-gender, white, Christian women, we hold power and privilege.  We hold  White Privilege we need to recognize, confront, and dismantle in our lives and culture.  We need to leverage whatever power we hold, so the voice of the “other” can be amplified.

The end game of empire thinking is ideological conversion, compliance, and conformity.  For us, in our conservative circles, it meant conformity and compliance to Western Christian doctrines.

We lost interest in conformity and compliance and became MORE INTERESTED in CREATIVE, TRANSFORMATIVE unity with God, self, and creation. 

Over time there became NO end game for us: THE JOURNEY IS THE POINT.  I actually have a tattoo wrapped around my upper arm like a band that reminds me “the journey is the point.”  It has a squiggle in the line to remind me to breathe, look for unity and harmony, embrace the interruptions, and find rest along the way.

In Desert Spirituality experiences with God are valued over information about God.


Pause, let’s read that line again…

In Desert Spirituality experiences with God are valued over information about God.

I remember hearing the idea of valuing experiences with God over information about God from a friend, Angela Bender.  I  encounter it over and over as I continue to read the work of the mystics across the ages.

To put this in enneagram terms, every human has 3 centers of intelligence.  We filter information about the world through our head center, heart center, and gut center. Health is often denoted by living with all three centers of intelligence in alignment. For a good part of my life, my HEAD was out of alignment with my HEART AND GUT.

For example, I was taught God has a chosen people, and I am one of them.  I am a child of God. However, that doctrinal declaration includes the beliefs that anyone who does not say the Sinner’s Prayer, receives baptism or converts to Christian doctrine and dogma is NOT a child of God. Sit with that.

In contrast to that information about God lies my experience of God, along with my gut and heart centers of intelligence tell me that ALL people are children of God.  THERE ARE NO OUTSIDERS.

Believing myself to be a chosen child of God while seeing the vast majority of the world as OUTSIDERS is supremacy thinking… it is an elitist, empire mentality.  We don’t like the words “supremacy or elitist” so over time theologians used linguistic brilliance to refer to the small/select group of people in God’s family as the “Elect” or those who are “regenerated by the Holy Spirit.”  The expression of Christianity I grew up in created clear dichotomies denoting “The Chosen vs. The Unchosen,” “Saved vs. Unsaved,” and “Us vs. Them.” 

Is that really the heart of God? Am I a child of God while my neighbor is not? What do your three centers of intelligence tell you?  Are they in alignment?  If humanity is sourced from God, are a few of us in God’s family while most of humankind is out?

THE REALITY IS WE ARE ALL IN THE DESERT NOW!  COVID-19 has shifted the landscape for all of us.  It has shifted our spiritual landscape as well.  We are experiencing quantum physics at work.  What happens to one of us affects us all.  Moreover, what do you do when it’s not as easy to get to the structures that spoon-feed faith?  Please do not misunderstand, we believe faith communities are essential – but faith communities too often turn into hierarchies of toxic power over others; typically with men at the apex of power.  They too often turn into structures who inform you about God while denying your experiences with God. Too many churches are structures led by men ONLY in the pulpit and elder boards. Too many churches have become a place where churchgoers “check their brain at the door” and abdicate their thinking to those in charge of the institution.

What does your spirituality look like outside these institutions?  What does your spirituality feel like when you look into the eye of the “other?”  What does your spirituality tell you when you look to the stars and marvel at God?

We hope your curiosity is sparked! 

  • What questions do you have about your faith?  

  • What doubts do you wrestle with?

  • What experiences with God have you had?

  • How are you evolving and transforming?

  • What cycles of death and resurrection do you value in your life?

For resources discussed in this writing click on the hyperlinks.

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SIDE NOTE:  in the podcast, I said “we live in a racist country.”  I am using hyperbole here to make a point. Our country was founded upon Judeo-Christian ideologies and also racism was woven into the fabric of our country.  We continue to demonstrate and struggle with racism to this day.

*In the Spirit of transformation, we reserve the right to evolve, change our minds, and make many many mistakes and we believe you do too.

*Public Disclaimers

RESOURCES:  Episode 1- Come Thrive in the Desert

Doug Pagitt- Flipped

Richard Rohr- “Seeing Christ Everywhere”

Richar Rohr- “Experience Over Information”

Brian Zahnd- Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

RESOURCES:  Episode 3- Desert Spirituality- Retreat or Revolution

Phyllis Tickle – Great Emergence

Maya Angelou- And Still I Rise

Richard Rohr – Universal Christ

Dr. Christine Paintner- Desert Fathers and Mothers

Marshall Rosenberg – Nonviolent Communication

Kent Dobson- Bitten By a Camel

Brené Brown – Braving the Wilderness

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