In the second half of our recent trip to Africa it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. The first half included a few days in Zimbabwe and Botswana to visit Victoria Falls and a game reserve and seeing one hundred elephants! Then there was South Africa with beautiful Cape Town, Robben Island and the inspiring story of Nelson Mandela, penguins, the southwest tip of the continent, and the wine country.
And then the desert of Namibia. Remember I grew up in Colorado with Rocky Mountain National Park less than an hour away. I had come to Africa to see, among other things, giraffes, hippos, zebras and elephants. But here we were traveling across the rough desert terrain in a four-wheel drive with our guide and driver, Scobie. And there was nothing there—just dirt roads—no signs or cars or people for miles. At least in Utah and Arizona you get a gas station and restaurant every 20 miles or so. In the heat of summer all I could see was sand and sometimes very small shrubs here and there. Yet, the desert was the way to several amazing tourist destinations in Namibia.
If we can’t get away from urban density, over-stimulation, noise, traffic, crowds, and always being online, the desert is nothingness. The middle of nowhere.
And yet that is where Jesus is led in today’s gospel. To nowhere.
In the scriptures a desert is a place inhospitable to humans. Two Hebrew words for desert could be translated “desolate land” or “wasteland.” And the words for desert and wilderness are virtually interchangeable. In this desert “nowhere,” very little rain falls, sometimes less than one inch a year. A recent definition of desert is a place where more moisture is lost through evaporation than gained through precipitation. In Namibia most of the river beds are empty—no water in them. Imagine! The last time one river had water was in 2012 when the water rushed vehemently. If it’s not drought, it’s flood, like the Noah story in the first reading.
Some of us may venture to the desert in the American Southwest and do a little hiking. Most of us remain in our cars, though, stay at plush resorts, browsing through a Palm Springs desert magazine and taking pictures on our smart phone.
Yet our text today says that Jesus was “driven” into the desert. The Greek is a harsh word, suggesting being roughly thrown or violently propelled. It’s the same word used for “casting” out demons. The desert is the way of death, of emptiness, of letting go, and finally, trust. Not to mention the place of wild beasts! It calls to mind the Israelites wandering and being tested in the wilderness for forty years.
And though much talk of spirituality today is rather sentimental, with pictures of sunsets and burning candles, there is an element of life that is harsh and unfair. We’ve all been there. The desert is not only a place of sand and heat. It is also an empty, “nowhere” place within. Deserts could also be urban wastelands of poverty, and nursing homes with folks long abandoned. Our personal desert stories vary. We may be hungering for meaning or purpose, thirsting for love or companionship, dying of grief or boredom. Wondering what it is all for. Wanting to get out of nowhere, but mostly just wanting to get through the night.
Surprisingly, the early Christian desert fathers and mothers found solace and beauty in the fierce landscape of the desert. The bell we ring here is bit of that. Meditating or being with silence or nothingness—being in the middle of nowhere—can be boring, dangerous, threatening. But it can also be the place of healing and renewal.
Consider a phrase in the novel The English Patient: a person “in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.”
In other words, we learn that God is a desert whose glory is known is unknowing. The self also is a desert that must be stripped before God can be found at its center. This seems to be the experience of Jesus and of contemplatives and mystics, and the very heart of Lent.
Belden Lane reminds us that grace rarely comes to us a gentle invitation to change, as most of us think. Rather, it is like an assault, being thrust and driven into a desert not of our choosing. God’s call can seem like we are hit on the head, leaving us broken, no longer able to deny our deep need.
When we were in Namibia we took a wonderful excursion called “Tommy’s Desert Tour.” There we discovered amazing life in the middle of nowhere. The guide would get out of the special desert vehicle and be able to find tiny lizards, snakes and scorpions, sometimes chasing them before he put them in his hand for us to see. The guide told us that sometimes that water life is life—yet sometimes the only water in the desert is a little condensation. And we saw a beetle that stands on its head to collect the few drops of moisture that fall to its mouth.
Of course, it is ironic that talk of the desert is paired with God’s promise to Noah to never destroy the world again with a flood. Today we are aware how climate change is intensifying both the drought and flood already part of the weather cycle.
Each week during Lent this year, the first reading from the Hebrew scriptures is a different covenant story. It is in the liturgy that we are given words to arise out of the silence and nothingness, out of the desert terrain of nature and our lives. In studying ancient Israel’s worship, Walter Bruegemann says that “The world is remade each time the liturgy is enacted.”
After being in the desert–in the middle of nowhere–I am now captivated by it, both literally and spiritually. I may not go back to Namibia but I will venture to the American Southwest with new eyes and an open heart.
As we enter the Lenten desert, I assure you will be surprised by what you find in emptiness, in silence, in nothingness, in the middle of nowhere. It just might be the road to resurrection.
Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spiritualities.