Friday, October 16, 2015

By Way Of The Desert

God led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert. After His son's baptism, God led Jesus into the desert before the start of his ministry. While Jesus was obedient and came out of the desert after forty days, the Israelites weren't and wandered in the desert for forty years.  But in both cases, God led them to the desert just as He often leads us there in our lives.  

The word "desert" is derived from the Latin word "deserere," which means "to leave, forsake."  Not exactly comforting. It makes us feel like we are abandoned like Hagar and Ishmael being sent off into it by Abram and Sara.  A desert is a desolate place where one is open to the hardship of the landscape and the elements. Rocky and barren. Without water. Without shade.  Without protection. Without comfort.  It is nothingness. No one chooses the desert willingly.  We are led there.  But why?

Why would God want us in the desert?  Doesn't He love us?  Why put us in a place of such hardship, of such a feeling of aloneness, of isolation, and abandonment?  Why lead us to somewhere that won't be easy, where we will be tempted just as Christ was?  We know of at least three of the temptations, but the gospel of Luke tells us Jesus was tempted for forty days. 

Henri Nouwen wrote in his book The Way of the Heart, "It is in the nothingness that I have to face . . . a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions . . . The wisdom of the desert is that confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ."  

When Jesus went to the desert, he surrendered totally to the will of his Father. He went to the desert out of obedience.  How many times in our lives do we act out of obedience to what God has called us to do, only to find ourselves in the wilderness?  I know our family has.  We went to Ukraine and adopted an eight-year old boy who had suffered such hardships and trauma in his young life that he was scared and angry and broken.  Adoption can be a real desert for those who undertake it.  It can be a time of difficulty and disillusionment. It is moving into a place of deep unknowing.  I for one, don't like such places.  I like to plan and organize.  I like order.  Adoption, like the desert, is not order.  It is confusing.  As Debbie Blue wrote in Consider the Birds, "We still wander, we doubt, we wonder if it has been foolish to follow God, because we often find ourselves in the desert."    

In the desert, we find our hearts asking for understanding, for comfort, for solace, for peace, and, ultimately, for deliverance.

In the desert, Moses wrote the book of Genesis to show the Israelites just who the God they served was.  In the desert, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

Like the Israelites, we may grumble, complain, doubt, and question.  We may ask, "Where are you God?" or "Why would You make me go through this?"  Like David in the Psalms, we find ourselves asking, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?"

Deserts are bleak.  Deserts are foreboding.  Deserts are intimidating.  Deserts are lonely, harsh, desolate places.  Deserts strip us of our wants and makes us focus solely on what we truly need to survive.  For the person with cancer, they are not praying for that new car.  For those with a loved one addicted to drugs, they don't pray for a bigger house.  No, the desert strips of all that is unnecessary.  We pray for what is essential, what is life-giving.

Simone Weil writes in her book Gravity and Grace, "Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude."  


How many of us approach our deserts with gratitude?

I don't.  When we went through the hellish, nightmare that adoption can be, I felt many, many things but gratitude wasn't one of them.  When my mother died of cancer, there wasn't an ounce of gratitude in me.  I know when Cava was in the orphanage system, where he was small and vulnerable and I  now hear some of what he endured there, I don't feel gratitude. 

In The Dark Night of The Soul, St. John of the Cross writes how God draws us into such places, to move us into such deserts, so that we will mature spiritually, so that the things that satisfied us before will no longer do so, and that we will be purified from the distractions.  This is never easy or pleasant.  It is a place where we are broken.  But it is only from brokenness that we can really experience God because we are completely reliant on Him.  He leads us into the desert so that this can happen, so that He alone can provide a way. As Isaiah 43:19 tells us, "Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert."  Just as with Hagar, as she cried out to God and He showed her a well of water.  With the Israelites, God provided water from the hardness of a rock.  That also reminds me of Psalm 81:16 where God tells us that He would satisfy us with "honey from the rock."  That means, from hardships, God can draw sweetness in our lives.  

In the desert, we will experience hunger, thirst, fear, loneliness, and loss. A desert will test us both physically and spiritually, just as it did our Savior.  

During the worst of it, after we had brought Cava home, we felt overwhelmed, gasping for breath, and more tired and dazed than someone in the poppy fields of Oz.  There were days when we could barely get a half-formed prayer from our lips.  We wondered and wandered.  It was a time of barrenness.  We often felt isolated and alone and struggling with what we had gotten ourselves into.  We looked around and saw nothing but horizon, but desert (sandy and rocky and sharp), with dangers, without shelter from the intense heat of day and the intense cold of night, and without civilization.  How fragile and small we are in the desert.  In that smallness, however, we should seek only the greatness of our God, our Creator and loving Father, though we may not feel He is so loving at the time (that is why we go by faith, not feeling).

Many times I felt helpless.  It was then that I realized I couldn't do it on my own.  I could not heal Cava and his hurts, his wounds, and his traumas.  Only God could.  The situation appeared hopeless, but I had to cling to what Romans 8:24-25 said, "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth why doth he yet hope for?  But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it?" And, in that desert, you hope and wait and trust.  The desert requires an act of faith.  In his essay "God, Science, and Imagination," Wendell Berry wrote, "Faith, at root, is related to 'bide' and 'abide.'  It has certainly the sense of difficult belief - of waiting, of patience, of endurance, of hanging on and holding together."

And boy does it!

There were days where we felt like we were barely hanging on.  It was a time of trial and endurance. Watching my young son wrestle with love and acceptance was heartbreaking.  Watching my mother's body lose its battle with cancer was exhausting.  Watching the darkness that was the life of our host daughter was depleting.  During those times, we stopped chasing the trinkets of trash that this world has to offer and found ourselves living off the harvest of mercy and grace that God offers those who are hurting and are caught in the struggle of the desert's brutal emptiness.  There is no indulgence in the desert.  There is only survival.  

With the world of the desert, we could reach for nothing the world around us had.  We could only reach and cry out to God.  As Second Corinthians 7 says, "And now, isn't it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God?  You're more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible.  Looked at from any angle, you've come out of this with purity of heart" (The Message translation).  It is a distress that drives us to God.  It is a time of surrender.  

The desert is a place of transformation. Yes, Jesus was tempted for forty days, but by the end of it, though he was physically weak, he was "filled with the power of the Spirit" (Luke 4:14).  

Our family has come out of our deserts stronger: not only as a family, but, more importantly, in our closeness and reliance on God.  Though it is a time of hardship, the desert is also a precious gift.

1 comment:

  1. We have followed your journey, praying for God to give you grace as you have lived through this nightmare. Although we have observed from a distance we have been both distressed and blessed as you have so eloquently shared your experiences. Only God knows how many people have been encouraged through your personal journey.