Sunday, March 13, 2011

Desert Days

You, God, 
   are my God,
   earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
   my whole being 
  longs for you,
in a dry 
   and parched land
   where there is no 

Psalm 64

The season of Lent is meant to remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, in preparation for his ministry. It also echoes another desert passage: the Israelites forty years in the wilderness, before entering the promised land. 

The theme of desert runs through scripture: Abraham’s desert years, between promise and fulfillment of an heir. Moses, running from Egypt, resigned to nomadic life far from his people.

Some deserts look a little different: Jacob’s fourteen years laboring for his father-in-law Laban. Joseph’s years in a dark prison cell.

Part of the desert experience is deprivation: the loss of comfort, familiarity, people we love, places we feel safe. But even more, the desert is a place of question: what did God have in mind? Why did he say I was chosen, only to be left here in this dry, desolate place?

The Israelites, facing the desert, wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt. Abraham took matters in his own hands: pretending Sarah was his sister, fathering a child by Hagar. The desert is a place of testing: what does faithfulness look like, when nothing is as we had hoped or imagined?

Our practice of Lent, giving up chocolate or dessert, fasting a meal or two each week, doesn’t get us far in our experience of desert. But for me, the season of Lent is a reminder to press in to that knowledge of desert we all carry with us.

We set out on this journey expecting life would be easy. Trusting God would meet every need. Certain our fellow travelers would support and encourage us along the way.

And then things took a turn. Our prayers seemed to go unanswered. Our struggles grew greater, not less. A trusted friend – a fellow Christian - betrayed us. Those we turned to for help looked the other way.

The wilderness, the desert, is part of this life of following Christ. It’s reassuring, even comforting, in a strange sort of way, to spend time each year remembering this. We sometimes think, in our desert times, that God has forgotten us, or that we must have imagined what we know to be true. Yet Jesus himself, God’s beloved son, was led into the desert by an angel.

David, “a man after God’s own heart,” logged plenty of time in the desert, and left us his desert songs to remind us:
Hear my prayer, Lord;
   let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
   when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
   when I call, answer me quickly.
 For my days vanish like smoke;
   my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
   I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
   and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
   like an owl among the ruins.
Psalm 102
The desert reminds us: we don’t have the answers. We aren’t in charge. We are small people, held in the hands of a mighty God.

I love the story of Elijah’s meltdown: he faced off the prophets of Ba’al and wicked king Ahaz with amazing boldness, then ran off to the wilderness and collapsed beneath a broom bush, saying: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 

God sent an angel to feed him, and then Elijah traveled on for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God, where he had a rendezvous with God. The full story is in 1 Kings 19. It’s an encounter with mystery, with power, and a reminder that god is in charge, has a plan, and that Elijah is not alone: God is with him, has a plan, and there are others who are faithful.

It helps to share our own stories of desert, to hear other’s stories, and to be reminded: the desert is part of the story. Not the start, definitely not the end. Psalm 107 encourages us: 
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
   his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
   those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
   from east and west, from north and south.
 Some wandered in desert wastelands,
   finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
   and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
   and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
   to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
   and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
   and fills the hungry with good things.
The desert isn’t the whole story, but it’s an important part. And in our desert times, we do well to remember: we don’t have the answers. We aren’t the ones in charge. We’re called to be faithful, and to wait in hope, even when waiting is hard, and hope seems impossible. Lent leads to Good Friday, and beyond that, to the resurrection. 
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
 You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
       (T.S. Eliot, East Coker III)
 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.