My church has been reading through The Story, arranged by Max Lucado. Recently in our reading, we were in the middle of the wilderness with the Israelites. It’s a bit ironic because in our fancy move to Austin, JD and I have felt in a way that this has been our wilderness time. We’ve felt like wanderers in a dry, hot place–literally…Austin is in a horrible drought.
We moved to Austin with big hopes (it is Texas, after all) and small paychecks. Though I’ve really loved my job, we have felt unanchored, aimless, and disoriented. Our life has been one big transition since we got married, and we thought it would be different when we moved out of Arkansas and into Texas, where we would be grown-ups with grown-up jobs and grown-up bills.
Instead of moving into a Promised Land where everything made sense, friends were consistent, and life was starting, nothing has been clear, friends have moved away, and life has been stalled.
I spent years dreaming of leaving Arkansas and coming back to Texas, but as I sat on I-35 for an hour one afternoon, I found myself dreaming of the cheap rent, the dependable jobs, the 10-minute drives to a friend’s house, and the established relationships in Arkansas. Why did we leave? We had it so good!
We felt ashamed for our ungratefulness, and probably most significantly, confused by our ungratefulness. Wandering in the desert makes you see and feel weird things.
Then JD and I received an email from church to share some thoughts at communion that coincided with our wilderness readings, and we felt guilty again. How can we speak about this? How do we talk about faith and communion with God as we wander around the seemingly God-forsaken wilderness looking back to our former home wistfully? We are not qualified for this. We are the wrong people.
But as we were thinking about our task, we thought about Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. In Jeremiah 2, God speaks through Jeremiah and says, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”
Although God says this in the context of asking Israel, “What happened to us?”, God refers to this time in the wilderness as a honeymoon period, like they were newlyweds. This may seem counterintuitive because the desert wandering is marked by disillusionment, frustration, and discontent, but for those who are married, perhaps it does sound a bit like the first year of marriage. Perhaps a lot.
But this glimpse into God’s memory illuminates the idea that God’s primary focus in the desert was not to get Israel to Canaan as soon as possible. The wilderness is not a place for expediency. The Israelites were not ones for efficiency.
Rather, his focus was his relationship with Israel. In that time of wandering, he was teaching them who He was, a God who is compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. He was teaching them what it meant to be God’s people so they could move forward. He was saying, “Look at me. Know who I AM.” He was creating an intimacy that would be a home base for Israel in the future, and not just for those living, but for generations to come. This time in the wilderness was building a legacy of faith and trust for Israel as a people that crosses borders, social barriers, and generations.
This idea has been comforting. In our time of wandering and dry fruitlessness, God is perhaps not so much concerned with getting us from Point A to Point B as quickly as He can, even if that’s what I pray for every morning. Though we beg for control in the guise of “asking for clarity”, He says, “I go before you.” Rather, perhaps, he is concerned with teaching us His character, teaching us what it means to be his children.
This doesn’t make the ache for our friends or the displaced sense of home go away. It doesn’t soothe the pounding heart of uncertainty to an acceptable resting heart rate. But it does reframe the wilderness experience. I don’t feel abandoned in the hot desert sun, but rather protected by a pillar of cloud, munching on what God has provided. He is teaching me about Himself, about myself.
Maybe we will eventually get there, wherever that is, but until then, perhaps God wants me to look at Him. Perhaps He wants me to think about my great-great-great-granddaughter and how my legacy of faith will touch her. Perhaps He’s pointing to the cloud of witnesses surrounding me that have done this before. Perhaps He is building a foundation of desert intimacy.