As I write this, I’ve been living in the desert now for over 8 months. Yes, we have pretty houses and gardens and swimming pools and everything; but it’s still the desert. After these 8 months (I’ve been through a summer and I now consider myself a “desert rat”) I can honestly say that “I get it.” Right now, I’ve been away from it for a few days and I long to be back to what is now “home.”
I miss the parched, dusty earth that you can let pour through your fingers like water. I miss the scraggly creosote bushes that thumb their noses at the killer son. I miss the tortured landscape where the San Andreas has not only sliced through the landscape, but has raised scabs of mountains and canyons and washes and hidden valleys round about its wound.
I’ve come to love hiking in the Mecca Hills, fully exposing myself to the work of the slowly churning earth and the relentless sun. I’ve learned (the hard way) about the mendacity of the washes that promise an easy way down and out from those hills but deliver winding, incomprehensible trails through ever-changing but seemingly identical landscapes. It’s too easy to get lost in them — especially when you think you know your way. Sometimes, the only way forward that does not lead to personal disaster and ultimate death is to be taken up where you can be shown the bigger picture. Sometimes you have to have help to see where you’re going.
Life is like that, I think. For me, it’s walking barefoot though a convoluted beauty. It’s sooo easy to get lost among the twists and turns that somehow connect one strangely familiar but unfathomable canyon with another. I know there’s a way forward, but where does it lead? It makes no sense to go back: there’s nothing back there but wilderness. As I go on, I’m neither sad nor afraid. I only want to get my bearings to understand better the lay of the land where I am, right here and right now.
It seems that the passage from the prophet Isaiah (40:3) is ambiguous. Is it “A voice crying in the desert: make straight the way of the Lord,” or is it “A voice crying: in the desert make straight the way of the Lord”? Once you’ve wandered though it, you understand how circuitous it all seems and how Israel, carrying the ark of the covenant in the heart of the people for forty years, longed for straight pathways for the Lord. The same passage was applied to John the Baptist, not only pointing him out as the new Isaiah, but also echoing the same longing for a clear passage in and through the wilderness for the Lord and God’s people.
I look about me today and see that same “dry, weary land without water.”1 Do I open my ears to hear that voice or my mouth to become that voice? I think it must be both, because I cannot give what I have not received. And I have learned that the paths through the twisted canyons that score the face of the desert of the heart and soul and mind and strength are not impassible. There is a straight path through them. We can do this, if only we can learn to change our perspective, then the desert will become a welcoming home.
We cannot change the desert; we can only change how we see it. That’s the challenge. For, when we change the way we see our unique, individual desert, then the desert will change us. We will become different. The old paths and canyons will no longer hold us. We will be set free — terrifyingly free. We will look back on our path and see that it was straight all the time: all the twists and turns in it will have vanished. Change your mind (metanoia); change your heart; change your life.