The Desert Journey

January 4, 2021 by Beth A. Richardson

More and more in these days of social, political, religious, and spiritual upheaval, I find myself feeling that I have entered an era of exile, wilderness, wandering through the desert. I’m not sure exactly when we arrived here. It might have been around the time that the 24/7 news cycle really got going. Or when life accelerated and we experienced information overload, our senses overwhelmed with data much of the time. Or when our earth began to groan and we could no longer ignore the effects of climate change—melting ice and rising sea levels, droughts, hurricanes, and typhoons. Or when the global crises of rampant xenophobia and overt racism made us cry out. Or when the pandemic arrived. …

It is as though one day we woke up, looked out of the window, and saw that we were in unfamiliar territory. Recognizable landmarks were gone, and we couldn’t quite find a solid footing beneath us. Now, we find ourselves wondering what has happened and just how to navigate, survive, or even thrive in this wilderness. David Rensberger notes that periods of wilderness are inevitable for us. “In a sense,” he writes, “everyone who has chosen the life of commitment to God has chosen the desert” (Weavings, May/June 2001). And we can know that, at some time or another, we will be, like the Israelites, like John the Baptist, like Jesus, walking in the wilderness.

The wilderness is a familiar, if uncomfortable, place for those of us who follow the Holy One. The wilderness calls us to self-examination, repentance, and returning to the heart of God. What are the skills that we need for this journey that we are on? How do people survive the desert?

I think about the courage and resilience of our forebears who walked through wildernesses—facing and conquering the natural disasters of their lives and continuing to carry hope in their hearts. I think about the wisdom and truth-telling of the ancestors of our democracy like Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King, Jr. who, like the Hebrew prophets, called out unjust leadership, stepped through angry mobs to declare that all people were created equal and should be treated as such. I think about the communities created by parents, grandparents, friends, and families of choice who carry unconditional love in their hearts, who gather together the wounded and sorrowful in living rooms, church halls, and public squares, affirming, “You’re going to be okay. … We can get through this together. … God’s right here.” God created each of us as resilient, adaptable humans who have faced so many challenges through the years and met each one with courage and grace.

God sings these words to us through the prophet Isaiah:

I am about to do a new thing; 
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? 
I will make a way in the wilderness 
and rivers in the desert. 
The wild animals will honor me, 
the jackals and the ostriches; 
for I give water in the wilderness, 
rivers in the desert, 
to give drink to my chosen people, 
the people whom I formed for myself 
so that they might declare my praise.

—Isaiah 43:19-21, NRSV

God makes a way for us through the desert. We are beloved. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel.

Adapted from Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent. Copyright © 2020 by Beth A. Richardson. Published by Upper Room Books.

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I join many of those who will pray for you as you seek to discern what you are called to be at this moment. May God grant you the courage to fulfill that calling. May we all open our eyes and see the misery, open our ears and hear the cries of God’s people, and, like God through the Lord Jesus Christ, be incarnate amongst them.” 

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