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A call from the wilderness

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*Note: This is an edited excerpt from Adam’s keynote speech at The Justice Conference 2019 in Melbourne, an event presented by Tearfund Australia and friends.

I grew up in a place called Bellingham, Washington, which actually reminds me a little bit of Melbourne. My parents started a life together as a family there after making the controversial decision to get married to each other in 1968. It was controversial because my mother’s black and my father’s white, and it was not a very popular thing at that time for them to get married.

1968 was actually the year that Dr King was assassinated and the year that the Supreme Court legalised inter-racial marriages across the United States. Before that, many states had banned inter-racial marriages. They decided to settle in Bellingham because they felt like it was one of the few places in the country where race and racism wouldn’t be the dominant factor in their lives, that it was a more open-minded and tolerant place.

When I was 16, my other was offered a new job as Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of Arizona (the first African-American woman in that role). And so, my parents made the decision to move our family from the Pacific Northwest to Tucson, Arizona. If you’re not familiar with the geography of the United States, these are about as polar opposite places as you can get. We went from the green, beautiful, temperate state of Washington to the dry, barren, hot Arizona desert. I came to find an incredible sense of beauty in the desert. I came to love the sunsets – and the sunrises. And even though I missed the evergreen trees, I even came to love the cactus and the tumbleweeds.

Deserts are not just physical places, they can also be spiritual experiences. And what the physical desert does to the body, the spiritual desert does to our soul. It can make our souls feel depleted and drained. In spiritual deserts, our souls can feel barren, our spirits grow weary, our hope turns into resignation and our joy is often replaced by fear. In spiritual deserts, boldness becomes uncertainty and the path that once felt so clear, can often seem painstaking.

In spiritual deserts, our souls can feel barren, our spirits grow weary, our hope turns into resignation and our joy is often replaced by fear.

Adam Taylor Executive Director, Sojourners
Adam Taylor
Adam Taylor, speaking at The Justice Conference Australia in Melbourne, November 2019

If we’re honest with ourselves, everyone who has been on a spiritual journey knows there are times of being in the desert, in the wilderness. And it is true that the battles we fight from within are often the most difficult and important battles that we actually wage.

It is not only individuals that experience desert or wilderness periods, no, entire nations, or even the world at large can go through periods of spiritual desert. And when we look at the health of our world today, it often feels as though we are living in a prolonged wilderness or desert. When we see the escalating and often devastating impacts of climate change, most recently and most evident here in Australia through the bushfires ravaging the country, we are living in some desert times.

When we hear that are more people enslaved today than there were during the trans-Atlantic slave trade we know these are desert times. When nearly a billion people are living in the dehumanising quick sands of extreme poverty around the world, we are living in desert times. And for those of you who follow American politics, I’ve heard many Australians do, we are stuck in some desert times in America.

In scripture, we read of those forty days when Jesus wanders the wilderness and spends time fasting. This mirrors the forty years that the Israelites spent being tested in the wilderness after the deliverance by Moses from the oppression of Pharaoh in Egypt. It is literally the holy spirit that leads Jesus into the wilderness and into the desert. This signifies to me that times in the desert can be commissioned by God, that some of the time that we spend in the desert can actually be critical for our own formation and for our own preparation for the work of justice.

Time in the desert can transform us and be indispensable to the long work of justice. And, before we rush out – to get out of the wilderness, we need to wrestle with what we need to learn being there. Because, in the desert, we can find renewed vision and passion to transform desert conditions around us. God can use desert moments to get our attention, by forcing us out of our comfort zone and inspiring us to listen to God’s voice and not our own. Yes, the desert can uncleave us from our arrogance and self-sufficiency and enable us to surrender to God’s holy and pleasing will.

There are three ways that I believe that time in the wilderness, or the desert, is essential to sustain the long and hard work of seeking justice and advancing God’s reign.

1. Discernment

First, the desert provides a time of preparation through deep discernment. Time in the desert gives us this space we need to think more deeply, to listen more carefully and to see more clearly.

Truth be told, faith-inspired activism has to start with deep discernment. Discernment around naming the spiritual lies that are so often behind injustice. Discernment around what power and influence you possess and who you need to enlist to join you in your cause to be successful. Discernment is at the very heart of successful campaigns and social movements. Discernment enables us to gain greater awareness or self-knowledge as we dig deeper to discover our wounds, our weaknesses and our strengths. Through discernment we become more attuned with who we are and how we are called to act in the world. In other words: our mission and our calling.

I don’t know what sort of discernment you may need right now, particularly as you try to continue your work of justice. But what I do know is that when we fail to carve out time for discernment, our plans and actions so often become rash, misguided and even fail. In the context of pursuing justice, discernment sharpens our analysis and enables us to see possibility in the impossible; hope in seemingly hopeless situations. Through discernment we can tap into our sanctified imagination and see root causes and systems that are so often at play when it comes to injustice.

2. Purification

Second, times in the desert provide a space for purification. Christian justice leaders and activists often dismiss the importance of contemplation – as though it’s a luxury, or as a waste of time – often associating contemplation as part of the mystical tradition as something reserved for monks and nuns. But I’ve learnt a lot from those monks and nuns, and just learned how important contemplation is, because our soul yearns for the purification and the renewal that deep and regular contemplation provides. Yes, contemplation grounds and sustains faith-inspired activism.

3. Surrender

Third, the wilderness is a time and place for total surrender to God. It requires us to let go – to let go of our illusions, to let go of our egos, to let go of idolatry. I’m a great fan of gospel music, and one of my favourite artists is Yolanda Adams, and she has a song that says ‘this battle is not yours, it’s the Lord’s’ – I love this lyric, because we have to remind ourselves that we are co-creators with God. We are not the Messiah, we are not the Saviour, that God can work in and through us to advance justice and righteousness in the world.

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Adam Taylor, Executive Director of Sojourners in the US was a keynote speaker at The Justice Conference Australia in 2019, which is presented by TEAR Australia and partners.