The Clarity of the Desert

I went on a glorious hike in the desert last week. It was particularly wonderful to have gone from the frozen tundra of Minnesota into temperatures worthy of wearing a tank top. It's easy to take the warmth of the sun for granted until it is gone for several months.

Desert landscapes fascinate me. The cacti and flowers, rocks and dirt, all look so different than the flora and ground of the north. My eyes darted from place to place as I walked around the mountain, noticing the distinct beauty of that part of the country.

I couldn't help but notice something else was different to. Not on the ground, but in the sky.  

The sky was a deeper shade of blue in the desert. 

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Why is the sky blue? 

It turns out the answer to this oft asked question of children is "because of the air molecules."

Light comes to earth from the sun in a full spectrum of colors. But on its way down, it hits air molecules. Many colors of light make their way through, their wavelengths unaffected by the interference. But light on the blue end of the spectrum is affected; it bounces off the air molecules and fills our sky with its hue.

Unless the air is filled with aerosols. Aerosols are particles of dust, salt, pollution, or water that are also floating in the air. They interfere with the full spectrum of light, bouncing all the colors around, making the sky appear less blue to our eyes. 

The desert sky has an unusual clarity. It is dry, so water aerosols are absent. It is away from the ocean, so salt aerosols are absent. It is away from human populations, so pollution aerosols are absent. And besides the occasional dust storm, the dirt pretty much stays on the ground. 

In the desert, the air molecules are free to bounce blue light without interference, and bring an unusual depth of cobalt clarity before our eyes.

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When we use deserts as a metaphor in our spiritual lives, we often use it to describe times that feel like punishment. Deserts are places where we feel parched, where sustenance is hard to come by, and where familiar land feels far away.

The problem with that view of deserts is it only looks at the dry, cracked ground. When we are in the desert, we need to look up.

In the desert, away from interference, God's light can shine through with unmatched clarity and depth. We can begin to see the world in new ways, and carry a vision into the future that we would not have seen if we hadn't passed through the wilderness.

In Hebrew, the word for wilderness, or desert, is "midbar," which comes from the root, "dabar." Dabar means "to speak." 

It's true the desert is a difficult place, but it is also a place in which God speaks.  

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In many ways, the last few months have been a desert journey for me. I had felt called to leave my job at the end of December, but did not yet know what I was supposed to do next. Though there were some wonderful days, and some ordinary moments, there were also many hours spent processing, flailing, wandering, and grieving.

It was hard, but it was also good.  

In the desert, my vision changed. I saw a path I don't think I would have seen if I did not journey through the desert on my way to it. 

I am venturing out as an independent teacher, leading others to experience the richness that is possible when a small community of people gather around the Scriptures and leave space for the Spirit of God to speak. It is a way of teaching that is guiding more than speaking, questioning more than telling, and relational more than directional. It is a beautiful way forward full of potential, but also full of unknowns.

In the desert, I have learned that unknowns are okay. The cracked ground and blue sky live side-by-side, God bringing light and life in the midst of both.

In the desert, don't just look down at the dry cracked ground, remember to look up at the deep blue sky.

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If you are local to the Minneapolis area, would you consider joining me for my next study? I am also available to journey to you for retreats or small groups if you are interested. In either case, I would love your prayers, mainly that I would keep trusting God and taking the next step, even if I don't know exactly where the path is leading.  

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The Thirst for God's Presence

  I often think back to my years of desert wandering.

 

That’s what I call them now, as I look back on my faith journey: my years in the desert. They were not years when life was particularly difficult or particularly joy-filled or particularly busy or particularly anything. They were years when life when was exceedingly normal.

 

I don’t know if it happened suddenly, or if it was a gradual meandering, but one day, I looked around, and realized I was in the desert. My soul was parched, and no matter where I looked or what I did or how hard I tried, I could not find the Living Water I longed to drink.

 

God seemed to have disappeared.

 

I knew He hadn’t. My mind still had faith that God existed, but my heart had lost the ability to feel Him. My soul became lonely for the God who used to fill it with the unmatched experience of connecting with His presence.

 

I read Psalm 42 now and I wonder if I read it during those years. They are words that could have been lifted from my own journal.

 

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? – Psalm 42:1-2

 

As Christians are all-too-prone to do, we put Psalm 42:1 on paintings and notebooks and greeting cards and musical lyrics without hearing the depth of its context. We read it as this peaceful imagery of a fawn beside a river, blessed by the refreshment of the water.

 

But these verses are not about the presence of water, they are about the lack of water.

 

parched soulThe truth is, I have never been as thirsty for God as I was in the years my soul was parched.

 

Nothing made me long for God’s presence more than the sense of God’s absence.

 

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. –Psalm 42:3-4

 

Oh, how I resonate with the Psalmist. He lost in frustrated wandering. Where can he go to find God? He remembers what it used to be like. What happened? He is thirsty and desperate for a response from the God who used to satisfy him.

 

What is he supposed to do when he is searching for God and God is nowhere to be found?

 

This Psalm is only 11 verses long, yet one verse is repeated twice. Verse 5 and verse 11 are exactly the same.

 

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. – Psalm 42:5 or 11

 

There is a deep and difficult truth that the Psalmist must learn: the feeling of God’s absence does not mean that God is not there. It is worth it to persevere, to have the discipline to keep seeking God, even when he cannot find Him.

 

There is beautiful commitment and faith to the words, “for I will yet praise him.” We learn them in the desert times better than any other.

 

No matter the feelings I do or do not have, no matter the answers I do or not get, I will yet praise my God. He is my hope and my Savior.

 

walk through the psalmsWalk through the Psalms is a series working its way through the book of Psalms, one Psalm a week, one post a week, in order. It is grounded in the belief that as Psalms swirl through prayers of pain and praise, they paint a portrait of a life of faith. And, as with any walk, it is better with company; all are welcome to join. To learn more, read this.

 

How long will you hide your face, Lord?

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me? – Psalm 13:1

I knew as soon as I read Psalm 13 what I needed to write in this post. But now that I am here, I don’t know how to do it.

This is a Psalm that begins with a cry for God to show Himself. To come out from hiding and be present.

I have been in that place. The wondering place. The dry place.

The empty place.

Some call it a desert season. Or a time in the wilderness. Or a dark night of the soul. However you want to label it, it is a season when faith is challenged.

My time in that season lasted about a year and a half. It was deep and difficult and frustrating and deepening and purposeful.

So how do I write about itt? How do I begin to describe my experience in just a page worth of words?

I may stumble through. I may only scratch the surface. But I still want to try.

This dry season began when I was on vacation. As I watched the water rise and fall on the sand, I reflected on the ebb and flow of my spiritual life. I realized I didn’t want to just stand on the shore of life with God, sometimes in and sometimes out of the water.  I prayed for God to help me jump in the ocean of His presence. I said I trusted Him enough to ride in His waves.

God answered my prayer for the ocean by taking me to the desert.

I sang. I prayed. I read the Bible.

And I felt nothing. Nothing.

Only silence. Absence.

My journal is filled with frustrated sentences and cries for relief. Was God listening? Was I doing something wrong? Was He there at all?

Fear. Longing. Wondering.

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him, ” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. – Psalm 13:2-4

I worked at a church during this time and wondered if I was a hypocrite.

How could I call others to taste and see when I was hungry and blind? How could I help others drink from the Living Water when my cup was empty?

But then there would be glimmers of hope. Times during retreats or even just ordinary days, when I would catch a glimpse of Him again. When I would remember what faith used to feel like.

There were times when God’s grace would touch my heart with the nudge “I am here. I still love you. This is a season that is part of my plan for you.”

And then, when I was ready, they came. The questions. The faith questions I had to face.

Did I believe in God because of who He was? Or was it because of what He did for me? Did I sing in worship because God deserved it? Or because worship made me feel good? Did I pray because God asked me to? Or because my prayers were answered the way I wanted? Did I spend time with God because I loved Him? Or because God made me feel loved?

There is not space to say much more about this season now. Perhaps there will be more in future posts. But I can say, in retrospect, it was good.

The obedience to show up. The freedom to express frustrations. The longing for a deeper connection.

A season of absence taught me much about presence. And it deepened my love.

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me. –Psalm 13:5-6

Walk through the Psalms is a series reflecting on the beautiful and timeless poetry found in the middle of the Bible. It is an intentional study of God’s Word, grounded in the belief that God gave us the Bible so we could read it and think about it, even when that is difficult.