My feet first touched a desert in Namibia. Sand in playgrounds and on beaches, that I was familiar with. But a true desert, sand as far as the eye could see, that was new.
Driving into the desert, the barrenness of the place was stark and unthinkable compared with the lush greenness of home. We arrived at the base of Dune 7 which we were meant to climb and a pair of sad palm trees, trunks half buried in the shifting dune, were there to greet us.
I was unprepared for climbing Dune 7. Some precautions were taken. The shoes and socks stayed behind. The camera was carefully concealed to limit sand infiltrating its mechanisms. The pants were rolled up. With those physical preparations taken care of, it was time to climb the dune.
My mind understood that this would not be like hiking in the mountains. A mountain hike has a worn path, rocks and boulders in the way, tree roots adding to the undulations of the terrain. Because of the worn path, your feet stay on the surface. Oh, you may encounter mud and puddles, but usually its possible to find some way to skirt around. A sand dune, is more of a step and slide experience. Each step up involves a slide back to the familiar place that you just stepped up from. Unlike the hard terrain of the mountains, your feet sink right into the sand. It wasn’t uncommon for sand to be up to your knees. And it was hot! There were times on the hike up the dune that I purposefully stopped, dug my feet down further into the sand to get to the part of the dune that was cool. That felt good!
Dune 7 did not seem to be that big. That was a deception all on its own. Because of the step and slide, climbing was twice the work. Step up, slide, step up, slide, step up, slide. Reaching the top was an accomplishment!
My journey of faith in Christ has often been like my Dune 7 experience. I have left, or even wandered from, the lushness of deep fellowship with my Saviour for seasons spent in the desert. Times of barrenness that have caused my soul to cry out. These seasons have been times where I have wondered where my God had gone. I felt as if I had been left alone, abandoned on a path that I had somehow happened upon. I most certainly hadn’t chosen that route.
I have had that parched feeling that has felt as if there is no water to be found. My desert seasons have left me wondering when I would feel as if God’s Word would sustain me. I have read the words, sometimes carefully and other times in a rush, and have felt that instead of life affirming, I was tasting sawdust. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:2a) but sometimes my soul has felt like a swollen tongue craving just one drop of life giving water.
And then I am reminded of a woman at a well (John 4). She was in her own personal desert. She was a Samaritan. She had been ostracized from her community. She had come to collect water in the heat of the day. Her marital status was confused and convoluted. She didn’t belong. And a Jewish rabbi named Jesus asked her for a drink of water. He shouldn’t have even been in Samaria, let alone talked to a Samaritan and then a woman. But He did. He stopped. He talked with her. He knew her life story and let her blather on as she attempted to answer His questions. And He asked her for a drink of water.
And then Jesus turned the whole conversation around on its head. He offered her living water. Not the water that quenches thirst on a hot day. But the water that pours into a soul, that satisfies the innermost longings of a heart, that fills the God shaped vacuum inside a person – He offered her that water. The life giving water of a relationship with Jesus. And the woman’s heart heard the word and responded with an emphatic yes. This word filled her in a way that nothing else could. In that moment, her life was given purpose and meaning. She now had a story to tell, not about everything that was wrong, but about what Jesus had done for her and how as a result her life was changed. I don’t know that her desert changed to a lush garden overnight, but she could not help but tell others about what had happened to her. One encounter, one conversation changed everything.
And so the desert and dune climbing experiences are part of the journey of faith I am on. Sometimes the duration of the desert trip has been short. Other desert journeys have felt like they would never end. But one thing I am more certain of than ever before, my God has not gone anywhere. Whatever the season of my life that I am walking in, be it garden or place of desolation, I know that God is with me. I may not necessarily “feel” it the way I would like to, but I am never abandoned. There have been lessons to learn each step along the way. Some of them I could never have learned in the times of garden walking. So often, the lessons that have made the deepest impact have been the ones that I have stumbled upon as the desert has seemed to be overwhelming. I may not like the desert, but it turns out I need it.