The desert is indeed the place of painful reckoning, but it also a place of illumination…
The cloud that had been gathering for weeks finally burst when I dropped my truck off at the Ford dealership and began the long hike back to my apartment. It was midday, and my beloved F-150 had just failed the emissions test needed for me to register her in the state of Arizona. Adding insult to injury, she had also just acquired a flat tire after swallowing a nail at the inspection station. I had limped her six miles south to the dealership and pulled in just in time, only to learn that the required repair was going to put me out another several hundred dollars that I knew I didn’t have. I swallowed hard and forced a smile at the salesman—choking back the temptation to beg for a lower price—and walked out, trying to keep my head from hanging as low as the rest of me felt.
Car trouble seems an insignificant thing to be a “final straw” in a world filled with far worse heartbreak, but final straw it was, and everything broke somewhere around the intersection of Bell and Nineteenth. I eventually arrived home, having given the northbound sidewalks enough salting to handle a couple inches of snow, had it been cloudy and about 80 degrees cooler. I had lived in Phoenix for nearly four months, and I was weary of the triple-digit heat, starved for lack of community, and, perhaps more than anything, tired of tripping over my own dry bones. The barren landscape around me seemed an accurate metaphor for the state of my heart.
Making my home in Arizona has indeed been quite the adjustment for this child of the Blue Ridge. I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t often wept for the touch of a soft Virginia breeze on my cheek or the shade of a massive oak overhead. It was easy to escape into those mountains of my childhood, easy to find myself lost amidst the greenwood of the summer and the fires of autumn. I would often run to their trails—perhaps paradoxically—to escape bouts of creeping loneliness or spurts of isolation. But there are few places to hide in the desert, and here, those same feelings of loneliness and isolation are only intensified, not assuaged. It is almost impossible to remain unexposed in some way, shape, or form.
The last six months have presented ample opportunity to ponder that potentially terrifying sense of exposure in both its physical and spiritual senses, and I have found that these can frequently be indistinguishable from one another. By its very nature, a desert painfully sharpens the most essential needs of any human being who dares, or is forced, to brave its bounds. These are often needs of both body and soul, and nowhere can their mingling be found more clearly than in Scripture.
Mercifully, I have loved the Bible’s many desert references (both as a setting, and as a metaphor) for as long as I can remember. In them we witness some of the Scripture’s most beautiful moments, but that beauty is often stark and not particularly easy to digest—few things are when an entire scene is in a state of slow burn. Though I confess that I may have, at times, romanticized many of these passages, they have recently taken on more tangible meaning, as I have now lived in a land where the foliage is scarce and the water scarcer. I have sensed a deeper kinship with Hagar in her hour of parched desperation, with David and Elijah in their years of exile, with the Hebrews in their decades of wandering, and even with Christ himself, who spent forty scorching, hungry days in a land where it was impossible to hide from both the sun and the Devil.
Of course, my own story is nothing so dramatic or pivotal as any of these, but I think the kinship is sincere nonetheless. Having left behind me a loving family, dozens of soul-friends, and nearly a decade of investment in a single community, I moved to undertake a brand new vocation in a place where I have no family, few soul-friends, and not a vestige of communal rootedness. Absent these pillars of stability and refuge, my time in the sands of the Southwest has brought about the longest, most intense season of introspection I have ever experienced. I have become more acquainted with the man whom Stephen Williams is, and, more terrifyingly, the man whom he is not. In my most honest moments, I have fearfully wondered whether such stability and refuge will ever characterize my life again.
Like the Israelites in the wilderness, I have questioned the wisdom of leaving my previous home in the first place. Like David on the run from Saul, I have had to admit, on a near hourly basis, that I have not yet become the man I wish to be. Like Elijah fleeing to Horeb from Jezebel, I have been forced to grapple with that distinctive strain of despair that arrives to tempt in times of unavoidable isolation. Like Hagar having left the camp of Abraham, I have had to square anew with the fact that I am not only a stranger and a sojourner in this current season, but that I will continue as one throughout the entire course of my life.
But for all of the blazing heat in these and similar stories — for all of the thirst, the hunger, the loneliness — not a one of them ends in actual abandonment. On the contrary, each protagonist is led into the desert to be protected from present evils or strengthened against future ones; they are brought into the land of dry bones to eventually be led out of it again. As such, these are ultimately stories of provision. They are not stories of drought, starvation, or isolation. No one’s story is ended by the wilderness.
This truth has been breaking on me like the slow dawning of a new day over in the East Valley. The night lingers on until the last possible moment, shrouding the land in shadow until golden clarity bursts over the jagged heights of the Superstitions to cover the desert with the most sublime light my eyes have ever attempted to comprehend. Even that which seems lifeless is made alive by the soft richness of its blaze, and I am forced to admit that scenes such as these are provision enough for any and all of the dry and desperate moments.
The desert is indeed the place of painful reckoning, but it is also that place where we can be found by the lux aeterna, uncovered and resurrected before the undiminished blaze of eternal Light.