I grew up in the desert and thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. My best friend in high school and I would ditch our afternoon classes senior year to drive to sandstone cliffs, where we’d climb and tan and talk as lizards scuttled near. We’d kick up red dust in dry stream beds as we hiked, mindful of scorpions and rattlesnakes. It seemed perilous and that was part of the attraction.
It was quiet. There was always something soaring. I can’t speak for her, but I was aware how unique it was to grow up in such a place. I felt blessed to be a desert-dweller.
At night, we’d drive up twisty roads to the top of formations hand-hewn by New Deal workers to sit cliffside. Heat lightning flashed in the distance. Had we been able to transport across the valley below, underneath the flashing clouds, we’d find no rain falling. It is common for thunderstorms to roll through dropping no rain. Just angry, gorgeous zings tapping out a code with the light they exhale.
When the Bible talked about deserts, I always thought about how I lived in one and thrived. Of course, we had water drawn from a famous river, filtered well, and put in swimming pools and drinking fountains. I knew nothing of true thirst or hunger as we’d walk along talking boys and curfews, college and boys. We’d note Mormon tea, Indian paintbrush, cedars, junipers, scrub oak, yucca, prickly pear, having learned the names on hikes we took as Brownies as little girls. While our counterparts in big cities visited museums and sleepaway camps hours away, we simply climbed in a station wagon, sang a few songs, and by the time we got to “one is silver and the other’s gold” we were on a landscape most people would compare to Mars.
Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if desert dwellers were more or less anxious for God’s abundant floods of relief? There is the tendency to look around and realize you’re surviving the scorpions pretty well on your own. You’re finding water because you know where to look and you know the signs of flash flooding and rattlesnake tracks. You have it under control when you wake, eat, walk, and sleep a certain kind of life year after year. Like us. When you read about flooding waters leaving behind lush cool gardens brimming with juicy olives, you think: If I wanted that? I’d live somewhere else.
“This would be good country,” a tourist says to me, “if only you had some water.”
He’s from Cleveland, Ohio.
“If we had water here,” I reply, “this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey. You see what I mean?”
“If you had more water more people could live here.”
“Yes sir. And where then would people go when they wanted to see something besides people?”
*excerpt from Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
There is a difference between choosing the desert and waking up in one believing it has to be a nightmare.
But it’s all a metaphor. I know that. Spirits can be deserts. Circumstances can be wildernesses. I’ve walked around dazed and parched. My canteen dumps sand in my mouth like I’m some kind of Three Amigo. Not Lucky Day, though, who had the chapstick and plenty to drink. Call me Little Neddy.
“The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
I will put in the desert
the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.” Isaiah 41:17-20
The desert was something fearful. It ate fertile valleys with a growl. It was death.
I knew a boy who drove his car over one of the red cliffs. It was an accident. He died. Witnesses said he glanced down to get something off the car floor and it was enough.
Roadside memorials grew at the very spot he went over. Years later, I still remember where it happened. Occasionally, I’ll drive there to take photos and when I pass the spot I am carried back to that day when so many hearts broke and none of us understood why. We were so young. He was so young. It marked the moment when I began to think about death on a new level. It wasn’t something limited to great-grandmothers or Civil War soldiers.
I used to think about him—poor him!—but now I think about his mother. She was a desert woman plunged into a new desert. I hope she felt relief. I hope she was able to shout again for joy.
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.” Isaiah 35:5-7
“Above me the clouds roll in, unfurling and smoking billows in malignant violet, dense as wool. Most of the sky is lidded over but the sun remains clear halfway down the west, shining in under the storm. Overhead the clouds thicken, then crack and split with a roar like that of cannonballs tumbling down a marble staircase; their bellies open—too late to run now—and the rain comes down…
…For five minutes the deluge continues under the barrage of thunder and lightning, then trails off quickly, diminishing to a shower, to a sprinkling, to nothing at all…
…The afternoon sun falls lower; above the mountains and the ragged black clouds hangs the new moon, pale fragment of what is to come; in another hour, at sundown, Venus will be there too, planet of love, to glow bright as chromium down on the western sky. The desert storm is over and through the pure sweet pellucid air the cliff swallows and the nighthawks plunge and swerve, making cries of hunger and warning and—who knows?—maybe of exultation.”
** Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey.
One of my favorite books in college was Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. The edition I excerpted is called Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Ballantine Books, New York, 1971. It’s gorgeously written. It’s a poem and love song for the desert, then veers off into political junk, but overall it’s engrossing.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” Psalm 84:5 NIV
There is no such thing as a pilgrimage that takes you one block down and two to the right. That is called walking to the corner store to buy a gallon of milk. It might take one song pounded through earbuds to get there and another home. The rolling suitcase is in a closet, dusty.
A true pilgrimage demands sacrifices of time and distance, of comfort, of familiarity. The journey is just as important as the destination. There are mercies and hardships. There is movement. There is rest. There is camaraderie. The pilgrim prepares before embarking by considering what must be packed and what can be left behind. Pilgrims had to pack light. Some of these decisions are simple and obvious: A pilgrim will need water and nutrient-dense food. A pilgrim will not need a 5-pound sack of sugar-free gummy bears. A pilgrim could argue the satchel of sugar-free gummies honors giving up sugar, but it will weigh them down and cause other crises. Leaving behind the 29,674 fruity bears is not painful and won’t inspire solemn reflection.
When I thought about what to give up for Lent this year, I had a lot of trouble. I paid attention to what others were sacrificing in case any sparked conviction. Social media? My work depends on it and I have obligations to fulfill. Sugar? I don’t necessarily struggle with consuming too much. Coffee? While I slam cup after cup, it’s not an idol. It keeps headaches away and doesn’t actually taste that great after the Nth cup. It’s medicinal, and I’m not about to give up any of my medicines. Reject, reject, reject.
Finding my fast has been tricky. One year, I prayed and felt convicted to give up drinking soda, so I did. I was a seething soda monster, guzzling several cans a day. I lustily enjoyed every last bubble. About two difficult weeks deep into Lent, I found out I was (very, very unexpectedly) pregnant. Surprise! Avoiding soda ended up being a gift to my unborn baby and often I marveled how the timing worked out. It was no accident. Praying about what to sacrifice is praying for things unseen and unanticipated.
What appears to be loss is actually something gained. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, it appeared to be a crushing loss and denial of everything he said, stood for, promised. That first Good Friday was pure agony. Nothing we can give up can approach the sacrifice made that day. But that’s the point. We don’t have to. Nothing I can do will seal me more as His. I’ve been redeemed.
However, fasting can accomplish this: When I offer something up and burn it away, it can’t be used again but it might free up room for something new. Better.
“My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.” Psalm 84:2 NIV
What makes the pilgrim take her first step? It’s longing. It’s journeying to get to the courts of the Lord with the added bonus of having the Lord as your traveling companion. As I stumble and cruise and pick my way through the days and weeks ahead, I won’t be alone.
“Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.” Psalm 84:3 NIV
When we get to Good Friday, I hope to have enough sticks in my bundle to build a new nest, bigger and stronger than ever. The bird doesn’t start with a stockpile of twigs, does she? They are picked up along the way, one by one. When a pilgrim takes too much, there’s no room for new building materials.
That is why things get left behind. That is why I’ll fast.
2014 is still twitching. If any of us still used checks, we’d be scratching the “4” into a “5.” I have dairy products in my refrigerator that sport ’14 as the year it should have burst into flames, but it’s probably okay. Scrape that part off.
My word of the year for 2014 was REST. I wasn’t a fan when it was presented because it indicated I’d have a trip around the sun devoid of progress. I worried it meant something was looming and I needed to go to bed early, like a child facing a big tomorrow. God’s voluminous sleeves. There is always something up there shaped perfectly to refine, restore, redeem. Eventually, I ran with REST and discovered a deep, rich word.
Rest in perfect love: “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV
Rest as an act of trust; waiting: “I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Psalm 130:5 NIV
Rest as an act of worship: “Return to your rest, my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.” Psalm 116:7 NIV
Rest for my body, mind, and spirit in the literal sense—being more mindful of honoring quiet downtime: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves.” Psalm 127:2 NIV
Along the way, I was encouraged in unlikely ways. For example, I had to leave my family for an extended period to help my mom after she had an accident. There were many times when I had to leap into service at a moment’s notice. The overwhelming majority of the time, I spent in thought, reflection, sleep. I read, wrote, and took photos. I found that manifestation of service was physically demanding and humbling. It was quieting and profound when she was settled and at peace. I’ve never had rest like that, even as I cared for newborns through long nights and finally crashed.
I suspect rest will remain prominent as I continue to study this year’s word, obey. Obedience is not about charming Jesus into thinking I am such a good girl. It’s not about assuring my salvation through works. It’s about embracing a childlike faith, laying aside the conceits, prejudices, and destructive pride. A quieted, well-rested child learns best.
Resolutions are out of style. The last time I made one was when I was worried Prince might be right about 1999. Over the years, I’ve read criticisms of resolutions in general. They are the express bus to Failureburg. Most people who permanently change their lives do so not because of a calendar square but because of inner change coupled with strength.
In Christian lady circles, the fashion of the past few years has been to pray about and discern a Word of the Year. This has come to replace the classic resolution. There are numerous websites and bloggers who are determined to help and inspire a woman to discover her personal word. We are encouraged to pray for the Spirit to show us where we will be led in the coming year and what quality or virtue to meditate upon. Normally, this is the type of thing that make my eyes roll enough to carry a rubber raft packed with 16 tourists through a canyon. Class 5. The Spirit isn’t bound by a calendar square, either, but I feel Jesus understands the human squee over new starts because he’s the Ultimate New. He could press a word into my soul on a June Tuesday, but I hope he meets me now as 2015 dawns.
He has. I have a word. It is Obey.
I’ve been arguing with him over it since early December. How was OBEY going to look on my little artsy graphic I create on my iPhone? Bliss would be so pretty in a scrolled font. Joy would look great in bright yellow. Grace lends itself to a soft landscape. More importantly, OBEY is scary.
But over and over, the word popped up. I first heard it during prayer. I began to read about obedience to Jesus everywhere, in devotions, in a biography I read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the radio. I’ve long known and believed obedience to Jesus can only lead to freedom. Obedience IS freedom. There is something daunting about how it was constantly slid into my pockets to find. Where am I being taken in 2015 where OBEY is front and center?
Over the past few days, I’ve seen the pretty square graphics cropping up at Instagram and at Facebook. 98% of them are fun, lovely, joyous words. “My word for 2015 is BLISS!” one woman squeals. Oh, nice. Bliss.
Other words: Thrive, Grow, Explore, Embrace. I could do those things, Jesus! Hey! Can you give a back up word to me, something to pair with OBEY? Nobody would eat a spoonful of horseradish on its own, but spread on a slab of medium rare prime rib and wow. Could I have some prime rib to go with my horseradish of a word?
I waited and it became clear my first act of adopting OBEY would be to obey OBEY. I made a list in my journal of the myriad ways I need to be a more obedient follower of Christ, to put aside fear. I wrote about how some of the other words I’d seen were so, so stupid. How much of a challenge was it going to be to focus on BLISS? Or SHINE? Wasn’t the idea to step out into faith and the fray of challenge? To go where you’ve never been? To make progress? How can such sparkly pink lemonade words inspire anyone to go deeper with Jesus?
I stopped writing. The memory of a terrible, kick in the gut year crept up. Bliss was a stranger. If I shined, it was because the tears on my face caught a street light on a rainy night. I ached to thrive.
My mistake when looking at the words on splashy, nicely-done graphics was to confuse another woman’s word with what was going on in the most secret depths of her soul. Perhaps Bliss is just as rocky and daunting as OBEY—for her. Perhaps the act of declaring Bliss was revolutionary to not only herself but those who know her best, who have intimately witnessed her struggles. Bliss, for her, is the bravest. It will require daily dives into the word and prayerful support. She will come to the end of 2015 stronger, wiser, and ready for another word.
Her hand will stretch out, palm up, waiting.
Every woman with a Word of the Year has a secondary word. It’s Trust.
The lady across the street from my childhood home owned an organ. Her name was Joan. We must have been at Joan’s house for a Christmas party because I vaguely recall many people gathering around as she sat on a little bench. Then, her feet pressed long boards which made sounds like a cow.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!
Joan’s organ wheezed while everyone sang.
Ever since, Joy to the World has stirred up odd associations: Pants suits and root beer. Feet and cows bellowing. Adults you never heard sing, singing.
December was off to a strange start. One of my children was scheduled to travel far away and I was nervous. It’s a tough month, anyway. Three of my four grandparents died in Decembers-past and they did Christmas well. One grandmother was lavish with her gifts and time. She baked cookies and decorated them gorgeously. Each was a work of art. My other grandmother covered her sparse national forest-obtained trees in jewel-toned German glass and mesmerizing bubble lights. She placed delicate dishes on tables and filled them with dainty hard candies that looked like they were painted by fairies. Her favorite Christmas music spun on a turntable in the corner. Chorales sang old carols in minor key. The needle made popping sounds as The Coventry Carol or What Child is This hummed out into her small, hot, living room.
I wanted to go back to a kitchen table and sneak swipes of almond-flavored cookie frosting. I wanted to go back to that living room and sit quietly and gaze at a tree in the dark. My heart was prepared in those places by thoughtfulness, generosity, beauty, and love and now it was up to me, with these great women of God gone, to step in.
They loved Jesus so much, they are with him now.
I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to my kid and I didn’t want to start cobbling together our family Christmas when I felt so lonely for my grandmothers and afraid about my kid going so far away.
I prayed and I waited.
One evening, close to sunset, I went on a walk around a lake near our house. It was cold. The lake held up thin sheets of ice patches, especially near the reed-lined shore. Ducks hid between tall stalks and goose braved the center of the lake. Where the water wasn’t frozen, it was so cold that when the geese swam, the water parted behind them and didn’t flow back together instantly. Everything seemed to be in slow motion.
It was beautiful. Clouds reflected off the glassy spots of water. As the sun dove behind the mountains, the clouds and water turned orange. I veered off the gravel path down to the edge of the water. Just as I reached it, a breeze swelled and stroked the tall brown flat stalks growing out of the water. Each brushed another in a wave. It sounded like a whisper and Jesus was there. I felt him even though I couldn’t see him. The breeze stopped and so did the waving reeds.
…and heaven and nature sing!
Joy found me.
I get irritated by the message of “choose joy!” Okay, I tell myself as I inventory all my choices. I can be gritty, grim, dark, skeptical, uneven, pessimistic or hey! How about this? I take it off the shelf and unfurl. I’m going to choose joy!
This joy thing is as easy as a cardigan, they imply. It isn’t.
Joan’s feet pushed blonde wood boards to make the organ moo Joy to the World. Joy is root beer, pants suits, and Legos strewn around and I didn’t choose any of it. My parents took me across the street and I heard them sing.
When you tell someone lonely or afraid all they have to do is choose joy, it’s a bit of a punch in the face. Happiness can be a vantage, a choice, a state of mind where you choose to see the upside of situations. Contentment is also something people learn to settle into. It’s a groove in soft brown wood and you, the little silver ball that has finally landed in the carved out cup. Game, won.
But joy? It’s the kind of thing angels bring to shepherds on hillsides. It’s good news that embraces you. It’s what makes you run run run down the hill to the barn under the star and you don’t remember how you got there.
Suddenly, there’s a baby lying right there on a pile of long sweet stalks. They waved in response to a kicked-up breeze, whispering their destiny and mine.
“All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.”
― C. S. Lewis from Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
May the ‘about to be’ come in a whisper filled with lavish quieting and stirring love.