June always conjures up memories of the dry heat of a Kansas summer.
Until I started traveling more as an adult, it was the closest thing I had experienced to a true desert.
Somehow Dad loved summer harvests: the bright sun, with wind like my convection oven, and the challenge those 16-hour workdays brought every year. I wanted to will it away as a child. Wheat cutting time ushered in a palpable stress to our family, knowing that crop yields directed our financial future.
Most people probably associate something different with the notion of desert.
Maybe it recalls vacations or school projects about physical deserts like the Painted Desert of Arizona, the Badlands of the Dakotas, or the Sahara of Africa. Or perhaps the word “desert” brings up something much more difficult.
The world seems filled with such stifling, dry heat lately. Though I make sense of life through my keyboard, some words seem too harsh, too heavy, to lift onto the page:
Racism, Religious cover-ups.
Heartache, heart failure.
Even heavier: Where is the God we’ve trusted in the middle of all these deserts?
THE DESERT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE SETTING FOR GOD’S STORY
In the bible, the words “desert” and “wilderness” are synonymous.
They mean places that can’t support life.
Deserts are not an easy place to linger. 40 years, 40 days, or 40 minutes, they can suck the humanity right out of you. As The Godly Play Curriculum puts it,
The desert is a dangerous place. . . No one goes into the desert unless they have to.
Nobody wants an invitation to the desert.
And yet, that’s the kind of place where God’s people were tested – where we’re all tested. God uses the desert as the backdrop for His story. At least for some chapters.
It’s where Moses encountered the burning bush, and where John the Baptist was baptized. Elijah was miraculously fed by ravens there. The desert was the avenue to the Promised Land and the expressway to Jesus’s ministry.
Like our own lives, sometimes those faith-filled stories took a hard turn. It did for Jesus as He began His mission:
The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.’ Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test.
Matthew 3:16-4:1 (MSG)
As He said to His Son, He’s still saying to us: I love you, my child, I am so pleased with you. And then in the very next verse, without skipping a beat: Now, let’s go to the desert.
As much as we’d like to will it away, God is still using harsh deserts in His continuing Story. And we are part of His chosen cast.
THE DESERT TEACHES US
The years I lived harvest firsthand, I learned about praying for it to rain in planting season, and for it stay away during the weeks we cut the wheat. And I learned that those weather patterns were largely out of our control. Like the tumbleweeds that lined up along the tree rows near our farm, all we could do was take what the sky provided, and huddle together when things looked bad.
Any wilderness will humble us. We realize we are not nearly as courageous, smart, resilient, faithful as we thought we were on our own. Deserts challenge our priorities and our values. It’s where we learn about our soft spots. It’s where we practice reliance on God, and on others.
Maybe most importantly, we gain focus in the dry seasons of life. Robert Fergusson said,
In the emptiness of the wilderness, there is only one God.
And the best part is, we don’t have to do any of the desert navigating perfectly. Jesus passed His desert test not only as an example, but as a substitute. So even in our desert failures, we learn we can still encounter the Father.Jesus passed His desert test not only as an example, but as a substitute. So even in our desert failures, we learn we can still encounter the Father.Click To Tweet
As I’m sure I’ll do again, I stumbled through a desert period a few years ago. I see now how much my website and branding resemble that dry, desolate era. It represents both grief over my diagnosis and an eventual gratitude in the oasis of support I have received during my years in that parched land.
Life’s deserts teach us about our place in the world and our ultimate vulnerability. Just as this world can’t support lasting life or eternal joy, just as everything here is in decline, people of God will always trudge our deserts, even alongside nonbelievers.
But we don’t do it without Him.
THE DESERT IS WHERE GOD BECOMES REAL
Deserts are difficult places. My husband’s only brother was killed in a harvest accident one dry June afternoon decades past. I was told I was losing my battle with heart failure five hot summers ago. Both times we felt individually targeted and wounded.
And maybe even worse, we can feel isolated and ignored. In Hebrew, wilderness is sometimes translated as “the wordless place.” And that silent desert can breathe the lie, “You’re all alone.” It is true that our harsh seasons rarely feature a lot of other people. Unless the family of God is involved.
From my journal:
Six months into this diagnosis, I am now getting anointed with oil at church. Not sure if that means I’m finally deemed ill enough to warrant it, or that they’re giving up on me, but I welcome it either way.
It’s like I’m offstage, watching someone else’s life. Should I be sad…thankful? I feel awkward. I have no script for scenes like this. Scenes like this aren’t supposed to be in my script.
I’m surrounded by a circle of people I love, some I just know of, some I know about, others I’ve never seen before. Taking my hand, praying over me, dabbing oil, touching my shoulder or my head or my husband. Strange as it seems, I know this is the net of God. I feel His safety being knit underneath me, but most importantly, I feel His care stronger than I ever have. I feel encircled by God’s own arms.
Whether in person or on the page, God’s people help tell this story: the desert is often where God becomes real. For Moses, Elijah, and the Israelites, their God became evident against a harsh desert backdrop. My God became real in that anointing room.
Life is tragic, and horrible things will happen. We live in a world where children die at school and faithful families fall apart. We will suffer, people we love will leave. But over the course of my disease, this is the God I’ve come to hope in: a Father who sees us struggling where life cannot be supported without drastic help. And I’ve come to hear Him and feel His presence.
Deserts are not places of despair—deserts are sacred spaces of divine dialogue.
Though the word “harvest” often created a pit in my stomach growing up, I’d give anything to experience one again with Dad. To walk across dusty stubble, to take hold of his outstretched, calloused hand, and join him on the arm of his combine, collecting cockleburs on my well-worn shoelaces along the way. Those dry, desolate days of harvest, even the days with weather delays or equipment breakdowns, are the days I got to spend most time with my father, the days I got to know him. The days we had opportunity to talk.
Likewise, I wouldn’t trade even the angsty dialogue with God in heart failure for all the comfort and stability in the world.
THE WORST IS NEVER THE LAST
Deserts will always be part of the Story this side of Eternity. We can’t will them away, and if we had a perspective long enough, we wouldn’t want to.
(We must)…acknowledge the wilderness of our journey—a wild place of questions and fears and doubts and temptations. This wilderness is part of our story but not the end.
– Jennifer Moland-Kovash
Even the cross is bad news before it’s good news.
But as in each of God’s desert stories, the worst is never the last.
He has shown that there’s a Promised Land on the other side of the desert. There is an afterward to what feels even as final as death.In each of God’s desert stories, the worst is never the last. He has shown that there’s a Promised Land on the other side of the desert. There is an afterward to what feels even as final as death.Click To Tweet
We just have to take His hand and make it through the desolate place we’re now walking.