In the whole story of our lives, it is good to visit the desert once a year in Lent as a spiritual discipline that cleanses and opens us to receive again the wonder of Christ’s cross and resurrection for us. But sometimes the desert doesn’t wait for the church calendar. Our life circumstances change: I lose a job, a treasured community is in upheaval, someone very precious is gone. Whatever the situation, I look down one day and realize the grass and flowers I had once enjoyed are nowhere to be found. I am standing in a desert, though I could not begin to tell you how I got there. Raw pain has paced the grass to death and soul distraction cannot remember when the last petal fell.
When I think of my first prolonged stay in the desert, it was, indeed, in the context of losing a job, and community and a person I loved all at the same time…My trust in people had been shaken violently, and I didn’t want anyone to know I was living in such a barren land. Internally, I vacillated between a frantic struggle to get out of the desert and a weary desire just to escape the relentless heat and lonely emptiness for awhile. Externally, I learned to pretend the desert didn’t exist. I was fine. Jesus was with me, what else did I need?
One of the first gifts of life in the desert was coming face to face with aspects of disembodied theology I had long carried in my head. Of course Jesus loved me, of course he was with me, of course he would lead me out of the desert in his way and time. But at a deep heart level, I wasn’t so sure. When I added up the income and the bills that first season in the desert, the columns looked like they must belong to separate accounts, the numbers were so imbalanced. I couldn’t see how my family would live during this time. And in the midst of grief for the past and worry about the future, my existential questions began to howl in the dusty wind.“Lord, do you really love us here and now?” “Are you capable of doing what you promise to do?”
I didn’t like my questions. I was a long way into this Christian life, and I felt I should have confident responses ready. But my heart didn’t know those answers, and I was past pretending. What I didn’t recognize at the time was one of the major features of an extended stay in the desert. The very nature of the desert’s intensity and loneliness creates a space that is where deep questions shout, where there is no longer the energy to give the “right answer” we have merely apprehended with our minds. No, in the desert we struggle to comprehend the depth of God’s love and power in real time. The only other option is to give up and allow a vital part of life to die there.
Life hands these deserts to us, too often with burnt grass appearing under our feet. To have one’s faith tested in some sort of desert is pretty much a given in the Christian life. How that testing actually occurs for each one of us has as many nuances as the complexity of our unique souls. There is, however, a secret shared by those who have let their fears and doubts come up in the presence of God in the desert and have lived to testify to what they encountered there, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)