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Looking for God's Spirit in the desert

Phoenix area Lutheran retreat center celebrates solitude.

At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.
— Mark 1:12-13, TEV
Did Jesus really want to head out into the desert, for the leng-thy retreat Mark describes? Arguably not. But he clearly gained from the experience.
When my wife and I headed down to Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center last March, I had a few misgivings of my own. Would there be rattlesnakes on the pathway to breakfast? How far would it be to the nearest Target (just in case)?
The Lutheran “desert retreat” at Carefree, Arizona, is not what a Minnesotan might think. A one-time resort, in what can only be called a resort community, the campus was a gift from a generous Lutheran couple to the ELCA’s Grand Canyon Synod. The place is as comfortable as any getaway can be — lodging and meals are first-class, and there’s even an impressive library (and, yes, they have e-mail and television).
But the thing to know about Spirit in the Desert is that it’s actually in the desert. A short walk from the campus will put you in sand and sagebrush. (I took a few such hikes while there.)
The center’s executive director, Paul Campbell, a transplanted Minnesotan, is clearly enchanted by the high, dry environment surrounding his campus. “There’s something to be said about the desert,” he suggested one morning over breakfast. Seminary trained, he knew the biblical literature that reveres the desert as a potentially transformative place.
“There’s a rich tradition of spirituality in the wilderness,” he reminded me, adding, “This place is not necessarily better, but it’s different.” And then, as if to turn the knife, addressing one who was soon to return to frosty Minneapolis, he said, “And, this isn’t a bad place to be, September through April.”
During that week in March, my wife and I found Spirit in the Desert a good place to slow down. True, we had friends and relatives in the Phoenix area, and had come in part to visit them. But one can use a visit to this beautiful setting, just beyond Phoenix to the northwest, to sit and think … or to read … or to walk, including along the rock-lined path of the Center’s labyrinth (see photo at left).
I did some of all of those things while at Spirit in the Desert. I could have come with a retreat group for a structured program, as one of the members of the Metro Lutheran board of directors did (see photo below). And, while that’s not necessary for a good experience here, the programming promises to be increasingly enticing as the curriculum develops.
Campbell likens its de-sign to a solid table with four sturdy legs — living well; peace and justice; vocation/ministry in daily life; and professional development (retreats for clergy).
Because the Center is an ELCA facility, retreat groups from that church family ordinarily get a price discount. But groups are welcome from across the Lutheran and Christian spectrum. About 25% of the groups are nonreligious.
A mainstay for Spirit in the Desert has been its annual Luther Hostel. Usually held in March, it draws registrants from around the country, including a substantial delegation from the upper Midwest.
Campbell told me the event is generally full each year. “We might consider adding a second week,” he said. In 2007, the keynoter will be retired Luther Seminary President David Tiede. Cost will be in the $725-$750 range.
Campbell has prepared a proposal for his board of directors for future growth. He wants to expand the center’s capacity so larger groups will come, and “make it a safe place for discovery and discourse.”