The Desert and Distractions: God Comes for Us In the Valley of Suck

Growing up, my grandparents lived in west Texas.  There ain't much of anything in west Texas except for "grasshopper" oil pumps and tumbleweeds and sand.  Lots of sand.  It is so dry and lacking in moisture that one of my uncles told the story of how desperate the termites were for something to eat, home inspectors started finding them eating sheetrock.

I think movies and shows portray deserts well most times.  While they hold much beauty, they are very unforgiving places.  There are very few things to distract one in the desert.

On Sunday, the sermon I listened to was a challenge to our popular culture and the holiday season.  It wasn't for the usual reason of consumerism but another of its temptations: busy-ness and distraction.  This is not new though - it isn't unique to our day and time.

While today's preacher went one direction, I want to track a bit different road, one that leads us into the desert.  Why?  Precisely because the desert, rather than being an image of isolation from people, provides an image of limiting distractions from our lives.

If you spend time reading the writings of the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries, you find they often gathered together and spent time with others.  They went to the desert, not to escape relationship, but to wrestle with the demons of our world and the "old self."  This is what Paul wrote the Ephesian church: "Put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its evil desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (4:22-23)"

The temptation of the holiday season, of our working lives, of our worldly lives, is to be busy - to always be about doing more, earning more, and getting more.  Even within religion, there is a constant push to be more like culture and less like Christ Jesus.  If you are not being "fed" or if the teaching isn't to your liking, then you just move along.  Hear this warning from one ancient Christian:
"I warn you, guard against this wrong attitude about the spiritual life - that is, thinking that you must ever be seeking better counselors, new teachings, greater spiritual precepts, and reading book after book.  These things may be good in and of themselves, or they may be in error.  But even the best spiritual teaching will not benefit you at all if you are not growing and walking in the Spirit of Christ." 
Some would never consider these words if I had introduced the writer as St. John of the Cross but his words speak and remind us of our need to look always for the Spirit of Christ Jesus.  Sometimes we think being a monk means someone has nothing to do with other people but that is far from the case, especially if you look more into John of the Cross and his story.  His passion and love for Jesus was something so offensive that he was imprisoned by other monks!  He saw a need for reformation within the Roman Catholic Church at and his order of monks.  Funny thing is, many reformers in many traditions have experienced much the same.  Even though John Wesley would write and preach out against the idea of "the desert" image, in similar ways, he walked through the desert in attempting to reform the Church of England.

If you take time to read Isaiah 35, you'll find it reads more like a Psalm than the typical words we think of from a prophet.  You'll also pick up on a similar theme I've touched on here: the desert.  I've written so much about dealing with grief and "the valley of suck," it is really easy for folks to tune out.  People question, "When are you going to get over it?"  Well, Isaiah says, you're going to come out of the desert when God comes and God saves (35:4).  Of course, Isaiah is referring to the Jewish people in exile but the application is true for us all.

This is the season of Advent.  We live in a world that is the desert.  We all live in some form of the valley of suck.  For some, certainly for me, the brightness of "the star in the east" seems far brighter this year.  I guess, sometimes the desert is right where we need to be to see the reason for the season and the reason for it all.  There really are less distractions out here.

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