The Desert Shall Blossom

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“In the desert ways I’ll sing / Spring, O Well, forever spring…”- Holy Spirit, Truth Divine, Samuel Longfellow

It is my first dry season in Congo. I moved to the mid-sized city of Beni in the east of the country nearly 1 year ago. Since the end of December, the days have grown hotter, the roads dustier, my toenails dirtier, and my nostrils–well, don’t think about it too much.

During this dusty, dry season when the land seems parched, I can imagine more viscerally what the psalmist means when he sings, “my soul thirsts for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water…” (Psalm 63).

Jesus knows the psalmist’s cry because Jesus too knows the desert. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is led to the desert by the Spirit just after his baptism, just after he hears the Father’s words, “You are my beloved.” Jesus goes into the desert in the strength of his baptismal identity.

In a lovely series introducing the Christian liturgical season of Lent at Biola last year, theologian Julie Canlis teaches that Christ’s experience in the desert post-baptism can serve as a pattern for our own engagement with the desert seasons of our lives.

Even though we all experience deserts, our default assumption remains that deserts are, without exception, bad. Whether a desert of transition, depression, anxiety, ambiguity, or unfulfilled longing, deserts are experiences to avoid.

According to Canlis, we think that “deserts are always someone else’s fault or they are due to some kind of unfortunate miscalculation or some lack that you should go buy something to make up for. ‘No one should have to put up with deserts!’ says our consumer culture.” American culture, my culture, struggles to understand how deserts, despite the dryness, can represent opportunities for new growth.

My first 8 months in Congo were a desert season. I was hungry, and thirsty, and fasting.  When I moved to Beni, whether I realized it or not, I took up a fast from many things: English, simple and regular contact with friends and family, American culture, knowing the implicit rules of how to make productive and meaningful contributions in the workplace.

Even though the Spirit undoubtedly led me to this place, I felt weak and tired as my soul learned to survive on something different.

At first, this desert fast amplified the voice of the Accuser.  Still a product of the American desert-avoidant culture, I was tempted to think this desert was someone else’s fault. I blamed my husband for wanting to move to Congo in the first place.  I thought that if I was spiritually strong enough I would cease to feel the gnawing hunger for community and a sense of home. I was tempted to believe that I should be capable of doing-everything-perfectly-all-the-time.

I tried to prove my worth through overworking and taking too much responsibility for things well-beyond my control.  I felt guilty and discouraged when I “failed”.  I tried all sorts of mental and relational tactics to prove to myself and others that I belonged to God. Thankfully, I found that to be about as impossible as turning stones into bread.

Ultimately, my identity as beloved was challenged and strengthened in the desert of this transition. With new languages, customs, and daily habits, all the things that propped up my identity as spiritually productive super-girl, were gone.  As I fasted from the props, the false identities fell, and God’s love for me started to become enough.

This dry and hungry time became more deeply fruitful and productive than all my efforts to be the perfect cross-cultural worker.  The desert fast of my Spirit-driven cross-cultural transition revealed afresh to me that, in Christ, I am the beloved of the Father, too.

As I have contemplated Christ’s experience in the desert, the Spirit has offered me a new way to reflect upon my experiences during the past year.

I remember that it is the Spirit that led Jesus into the desert.

I remember that Christ’s desert fast was not some super-spiritual strength show; in fact, he rejects the devil’s temptations to display any kind of miraculous feat as proof of his sonship.

I remember that Jesus entered his desert fast in the strength of his baptismal identity, the Father’s voice echoing in his ears, “You are my beloved”.

Through the lens of Christ’s desert, I can see how my own desert has offered invitation after invitation to lean into and learn anew my own identity as “beloved.”

It’s difficult to say when this dry season began to shift.  Maybe it was when I finally felt confident to drive through town alone.  Maybe it was as relationships began to deepen.  Perhaps it was when my French started to improve.

Maybe it was when I read Isaiah 35 which proclaims that “the desert shall rejoice and blossom”.   Although Beni has become increasingly hot since December, my soul has started to feel more like the dark soil after a spring rain. Small shoots are breaking ground.  As the Scriptures promise and as Christ’s own life assures, the desert is beginning to blossom, which is itself a gift of the Father’s transforming love.

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Are you in a desert season?

How will you let God’s gift of transforming love carry you through this dry time?

11 Comments

  1. Jodie April 6, 2016

    “As I fasted from the props, the false identities fell, and God’s love for me started to become enough.” Yes.

  2. H April 7, 2016

    “I thought that if I was spiritually strong enough I would cease to feel the gnawing hunger…” this reminds me of so many times in my life.  

    And “Even though we all experience deserts, our default assumption remains that deserts are, without exception, bad.” I have spent years of my life frustrated with desert times, confused why my prayers for them to go away didn’t work, and frustrated with God wondering why he didn’t fix my life.  At some point I finally realized that the prosperity gospel that was so easy to see and call out other places and in other people’s arguments, had snuck into this thought.  That if I followed right, and was “spiritually strong enough” and prayed enough, then obviously everything would fall into place.

    I still hate deserts and try to avoid them.  But slowly I am learning to accept them when I’m there, and to recognize that they can be places of growth

    1. Emily Hamilton April 7, 2016

      Thanks for sharing. I also recently used the phrase “Prosperity Gospel” to describe some of my experiences. It can be this very subtle belief that God will just magically work everything out for us if we’re obedient enough. I’m grateful that Jesus himself didn’t avoid suffering and pain but walked through it, showing us how to do so as we follow him. Peace of Christ, Emily.

  3. Patty Stallings April 7, 2016

    Emily, I love -and admire – your perspective of the desert.

    “Even though the Spirit undoubtedly led me to this place, I felt weak and tired as my soul learned to survive on something different.”  This is so true of times of transition and shifting of seasons.

    Thank you for writing!

    1. Emily Hamilton April 7, 2016

      Truth, indeed. Thanks, Patty.

  4. Ygal April 7, 2016

    “Perhaps it was when my French started to improve.” I will have to witness this. Inspiring desert story anyway!

    1. Emily Hamilton April 7, 2016

      Well, Ygal, don’t get your hopes up too high! Happy to see you over here.  Peace, Emily

  5. Joanna April 7, 2016

    Your words echo very similar thoughts I have been processing through.  Because I’ve been reading through the OT, I’ve been relating that “desert” feeling to the Israelite’s wandering in the wilderness.  How tempting it is to look back to Egypt or complain about what we do not have!  And yet in the midst of that, God is providing miraculous manna to eat, and bringing water out of the rocks to quench our thirst.  It is a gift to be in a place where we don’t have everything we “need”.  That is where God has the opportunity to show Himself in deeper ways.  He is not only our Provider, He is also our Provision.

    1. Emily Hamilton April 8, 2016

      “He is also our Provision.” Yes. It reminds me of how Jesus tells us he is the bread of life too. We can’t turn stones into bread in the desert, but Jesus meets us there and feeds us with his own life, something pictured in God giving manna to Israel in their desert wanderings. I’m thankful to know others are finding God meet them in the desert!

  6. Linda April 12, 2016

    We just moved back to the States after living in W.Africa for about 20 years and I am learning this as I had literally lived on the edge of the Sahara Desert. But spiritually and emotionally I was in a desert. “I was tempted to believe that I should be capable of doing-everything-perfectly-all-the-time.” As I confessed that I was incapable of doing anything remotely capable and I didn’t have to, the scales began to fall off and I began to see myself as the idolator I had become. As I confessed the sins of allowing my work, my reputation, etc. to become first place, I began to be spiritually fed and have actually grown a lot. Thank you so much this is just another indicator that I’m on the right path now.

    1. Emily April 13, 2016

      Thanks for sharing Linda. Your sharing also reminds me that I am on the right track! Peace to you in your transition back to the States. -Emily

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