When you leave the desert do you kick the dust from your feet? Forget what’s behind and look only toward the future?
I’d be tempted to say yes except for the view framed by my metaphorical rearview mirror.
For two years I felt myself to be living in a kind of prison. Not a harsh bread and water only kind-of-prison. More like these words from Psalm 139: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”
Hemmed in by God, prevented by him from pursuing my usual pleasures, my long-held plans, I was given only God himself. Felt only his heavy hand.
Have you felt how heavy that hand can be?
God loves us, but he can weigh us down till we can hardly bear it. Till we can’t bear it.
But, if his hand is heavy, his voice speaks comfort.
I can remember reading the Bible and feeling like those Israelite wanderers. But I worried – maybe this was no desert? Maybe I just needed to learn contentment? Gratitude?
Perhaps this wasn’t a profound spiritual experience – maybe it was only my own bad attitude?
I sat in church and wondered until a young woman I hardly knew (a woman who did not know the question I was asking) turned around and spoke to me. In the brief space between worship songs she said, “I think God wants you to know that he will not leave you in the desert. This will not last forever, and he will lead you out again.”
Ever since I’ve clung to those words: “This will not last forever. He will lead me out again.”
And those words were true. He is leading me out. I know now that not all prisons are hideous.
This is what I see when I look back: something beautiful. A perfect plan. A gracious way.
And this is what I say to the One who led me there: thank you.
We’ve signed papers, and, if all goes as planned, we’ll soon move into an old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside. For two years dreams have been our only food, and those dreams are being realized.
Dream is a word I’ve always had trouble with.
When I was a child I learned words like sinner, salvation, and cross, but those good words twisted themselves in ugly ways until all I heard was duty, obligation, and sacrifice. My faith boiled down to what I owed to Jesus. There is little room for dreaming in a life of obligation.
Why dream my own dreams when Jesus might say follow me somewhere I did not want to go?
The Jesus who loves me – me! – and not my life of sacrifice taught me how to dream. I wanted to live in the city, I wanted a PhD, I wanted children. They were my dreams, and Jesus made them reality. Each dream realized was a gift from the One who is Love.
Until the day I came to the end of my own dreams.
Pregnant with my third child and only a few hurdles away from my degree, I saw a future that looked blank. The horizon was right up close, and I had nothing to aim for. The dreams I had chased for years had come true, but I had no dreams of my own left to run toward.
We cannot live without dreams. They are as necessary as bread.
But where do we find them?
I know now that our best dreams come from the kingdom of God.
For too long, I looked at Jesus and saw only the cross: a one-time event that left me in his debt. I saw but didn’t see.
Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were not isolated events. They were beginning and ending. They unleashed something so beautiful and miraculous words just can’t capture it. But we try. We say, as Jesus did all those years of his earthly ministry, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”
Frederick Buechner puts it so well. Speaking of Jesus’s first followers, he writes: “One way or another Christ called them. … They saw the marvel of him arch across the grayness of things – the grayness of their own lives, perhaps, of life itself. They heard his voice calling their names. And they went” (from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).
Yes, we are moving to our dream house, but we are not chasing a house. We are chasing Jesus. It has always been his beautiful voice calling to us in the desert. It was his voice that said NO, and NO, and NO when we pursued familiar things like church involvement, an academic career, a life just big enough for three children, no more.
Now, we are living in his YES and everything that looked like sacrifice and hardship has proved to be the surest and best path toward glory.
Buechner goes on, “[Christ] called them to see that no matter how ordinary it may seem to us as we live it, life is extraordinary. … Life even at its most monotonous and backbreaking and heart-numbing has the Kingdom buried in it the way a field has treasures buried in it. … The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. … The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
We jumped into the river, though we had no idea where it might take us.
It has taken us home.
There are times when we get to see the full circle of the year pulled tight around us. The firstborn’s annual dance recital is one of those times.
I remember leaving the downtown theater last year to find ash from the wildfires covering our car. Driving home that night we followed an enormous moon made blood-red by reflected smoke. I remembered the stories of a fire by night and a cloud by day, and I believed we were being led through the wilderness. I believed we would not wander forever.
But the days to follow were often a heavy burden. Stretched out before me, they looked like a desert landscape, dry and empty.
This year’s recital ushered in one more rainy day in a season of rain. It’s been pouring steadily for weeks. The retention ponds are overflowing. Streets have flooded, and I haven’t seen anything like this in the two years since we moved here.
It seems the drought is over.
In so many ways, it is over.
We’ve been handed a key, and we can spy an open door just a short way ahead. I can’t say exactly where it leads, but I also know exactly where it leads:
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills” (Deuteronomy 8:7).
My daughter has been working on her ballet for nine months, yet somehow I didn’t realize until this week’s dress rehearsal that the dance was performed to a symphony rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
I don’t usually find myself moved to tears by early 80s rock anthems (and, no, I don’t think I can blame the pregnancy hormones. Or, not entirely).
For two years I’ve heard only one word of instruction from the God I follow: believe.
That’s it. That’s the only thing that has been required of me (though even that one thing often felt impossible).
When “Don’t Stop Believin’” first came across the theater’s speakers, I wanted to put my head down and cry.
Not out of sadness or misery. But relief. Gratitude.
“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
Revelation 3: 7-8
I’m a lover of stories. I’m a writer of stories. Increasingly, I understand my life and I understand my God through the lens of story.
There’s one story I can’t escape (though I have often wished I could leave it behind or move past my need for it): the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert. This story is tribal: it’s about those particular people, at that particular time. It’s global: refugees lost and searching for home. It can also be deeply, achingly personal.
It’s a story of living in between …
I’m honored to be telling my story here today. Will you join me?
I encourage you to explore Angie’s website Woman, In Progress. She has a great deal of wisdom to share, and I am blessed to call her friend.
Sometimes I think about the privileged ones in God’s story. The ones called out into the desert, like Abraham, Moses, even Jesus. The desert was brutal. Not a place or an experience they would have chosen.
It was also beautiful. They met angels there. They met God himself there.
There are others, too. Like Hagar. Hagar knew desolation in the desert, but it was also there that she discovered the intimacy and the peace of being seen. “You are the God who sees me,” she said. “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
To follow God into the desert is to turn your back on ordinary life. To trade comfort for something much harder and much better.
I know this, but why do I also know that I don’t want to hear that call? Shouldn’t I be willing not only to follow but to run toward the God of the desert?
I’ve had these lyrics bubbling up in my mind for days:
When we were young
We walked where we wanted to
Life was ours
And now we’re old
We go where we’re told
The Lord’s Spirit calls
Follow my road to sorrow and joy.
(from “Desert Father” by Josh Garrels)
We left Chicago two years ago to follow that singing voice into the desert. I hoped for joy, but found, mostly, sorrow.
I’m not sure I would have followed had I known.
I’m glad I didn’t know, because we never do look far enough ahead.
I would have seen loss. I would have seen loneliness, and I would have stopped looking, turned my back, and walked the other way. I’m sure of it.
I would have turned my back on the road that would carry me through the loss, through the loneliness and toward …
Another daughter. A gift and a blessing I was sure would never be mine. I was sure, and I was wrong.
Now I pray, with hope and joy, the final words of “Desert Father.” I pray them for myself. I pray them for you:
Who wait by the blue shores
To part the water
Show us a new way
The impossible dream
Through the deep and the unseen
Carry us home.