reclaiming desert spaces

I went to an Ash Wednesday service last night. I had several things on my mind. Valentines day, the beginning of Lent, and the school shooting in Florida. I received ashes, which were palm branches of praise now burnt to death. They were smeared on my forehead and I couldn't escape the imagery of death I was receiving. Death. In this world - I kept asking myself, is love dead? Or is my version of easy, simplistic, romantic, sentimental love dying?  

Christians practice lent as an intentional way of entering into Jesus' pre-easter story. The idea is to mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert as a way of preparation for our own souls. I never really got it before and I think that has to do with our cultural understanding of deserts. We despise them. I don't mean hiking in Arizona - I mean the idea of a desert season in our life. It sounds like solitary confinement and pain and suffering and I can't stand the idea of either. 

But what I've learned is that my idea of a desert and God's idea of a desert are very different. And if I'm going to reclaim the desert space in my life it might be worth having a re-look at what the desert is and what it does. 

Abraham embraced the desert as a risky adventure. He forged right into it in order to discover who God was and how to follow Him.  Moses used the desert as a hiding place when he realized the potential he had for becoming just like the enemy. The desert was used again to train him in the ways of God and to detox his people from the ways of Egypt. David lived a large portion of his early leadership in the desert. He used it as a refuge, a gathering place for other warriors, a place of abandoned worship and prayer. So when we read that Jesus was led to the desert we can rest assured that risky discovery, refuge, detox, gathering place, abandoned worship and prayer were all the things that God had in mind. The desert isn't a punishment it's an invitation. 

What happens in the desert spaces is what can't happen in our loud, obnoxious, busy, filled up and often violent lives. Sometimes, when we can't figure out who we are or what we are to do - we don't need more, we need less. We are led to the desert space. The seemingly desolate places where the quietness makes space for God to speak. Where we get rightsized as our own human hearts are exposed and we start looking for signs of God's presence - burning bushes in desert spaces, reminding us that God is with us and for us and leading us. We are not alone. And as we figure all that out, be assured we will also hear the voice of the enemy. Tempting us. Mocking us. Inviting us to an easier path, a more triumphal, sentimental option of love in this wayward world.

But to embrace a life that is a big fat yes to the ways of God is to say no to the seemingly easy path of fear, ego and success. It is only this adventurous, refuge of desert spaces that makes crucifixion a real way forward. Not a punishment but an invitation. The ultimate desert place. The scripture tells us that Jesus scorned the shame of the cross with JOY and the spirit led him to the desert at the height of his calling because they are the same thing. The ways of God. So let fickle love die and let the sacrificial, unconditional, exponential love of Jesus live in me. This lent will be a practice of the reclaiming desert spaces. 

This season of lent is another faithful invitation from a God who knows we need to reclaim the desert spaces of our cluttered and barren lives. The love we crave and the violent cultural norms we've come to accept instead of challenge, are evidence of a deep need we have, right now to be re-shaped into the image of Jesus. I'm praying for Florida, and for the United States as they grapple with the reality of yet another school shooting THIS YEAR.

I'm praying for all those seeking love and feeling alone and afraid and desperate on valentines day. I'm praying for all of us really. To take the Ashes of our hollow praises and easy choruses and reclaim the desert space in our lives to make room for the God who is a safety, an adventure, a wild wilderness, a trainer, a healer, a gatherer, a Savior who redeems everything, whose presence is true love in a fickle world.  I'm reclaiming the desert space in my life for God to make me more like Jesus. 

Danielle Strickland