I'm not one to mince words: I hate the desert. I have spent too many years of my life living in deserts, and I absolutely hated it. Sand, especially when it's blown around by strong winds, has a very distinct smell that permeates everything which I find most unpleasant. Cactus I can do without. Desert critters and creepy-crawlies I can most certainly live without! And the heat... the relentless, oppressive heat. It dries you up and sucks the life out of you. No, the desert is only good for scorpions, snakes and cactus. Give me cool temperatures, green grass, tall trees, a colorful autumn and a white winter and I'm a happy gal, thank you very much.
While “exiled” to the Mojave Desert a few years ago, compliments of the Army, I would often grumble to our priest how I hated the desert and everything about it, to which he would reply with a sneaky grin, “But Jen, God is in the desert.” I would usually shoot back, “Why can't God be in the mountains or the trees and lakes and green grass and the snow?” “Oh, He's there, too, but He is more fond of the desert,” my priest would insist.
Well, God may be fond of the desert, but I am not. So it is much to my chagrin that I find myself back in the desert lately, without having moved from my tree-surrounded home. Something has taken over my heart and even my mind. I can only describe it as desolation. I feel as barren and dry as the most unforgiving desert on earth.
The landscape of my interior has no flowing water, no color, no fragrance, no softness or beauty. Just barrenness and silence.
I long for inspiration, but it does not come. I plead for some variation, some highs and lows, but all remains flat and dull. Gone are the passionate feelings I delight in, the profound movements of my heart that let me soar and dive and soar again. What I wouldn't give even for tears and sadness, but even they seem to have left me. For someone like me who wears her heart on her sleeve, the absence of feeling is unsettling. It's rather like a car without gas and it's hard to move forward.
It is easy to be disturbed by the barrenness and alarmed by the silence. Who among us wants to hear silence at the end of our prayers? Who finds it easy to come faithfully to sit with emptiness and offer praise to God when He seems to have vanished? It is tempting to be scared and self-pitying, turning inward to lick my poor heart's wounds and wonder if God has given up on me.
Yet, I sense something else – a resolve to sit with the emptiness and listen to the silence. Something deep within is calling me to trust in the goodness of this dry season. If God has chosen this desert for me for now, I will follow Him into it. I don't believe I go there alone; He is leading me. If He is testing my faith, then I, too,want to find out what stuff it is made of. I may be loathe to admit it, but I think my priest friend was right: God is in the desert.
In the desert there are no distractions, nothing to please my eye and tempt me to look elsewhere. It is a hostile environment in many ways, and my creature comforts do nothing to fill the desolation, so I am compelled to turn to the Lord, hungry for relief. At first the silence is deafening and jarring, but if I lean into it and accept the stillness, then I may finally be able to hear His gentle voice again.
That is my hope and prayer for this barren Lent. That by His grace, I just might learn to walk steadfastly with Him through this spiritual desert, growing in trust and obedience. Whether He speaks or not, I will pray. If I feel nothing at all, I will praise Him. If my mind is a void and my heart empty, I will just quietly bow before Him with humility and gratitude for all He has done.
It's a struggle because it requires a repeated act of my will, which isn't easy to muster when the heart is arid. Lazy flesh is being asked to learn greater discipline; a faint heart is being urged on to courage; a spirit full of me is dared to risk being emptied, trusting in Him to fill the void with His own spirit.
As the one who cried out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” also said, “He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:30
I would not choose this barren place were it up to me, but I pray that I may be found faithful in following Him through it and that it will bear great fruit. The words of Isaiah bring me comfort and hope: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:19
If today your experience is anything like mine, walk into the desert, sit with the emptiness and the silence and do not despair. He has promised, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom...Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.” Isaiah 35:1,6-7
Yes, God is in the desert.