Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Vital Desert

Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees - a productive agricultural land. It was watered by a large river and enjoyed a predictable growing season. Many people lived there and raised families. Paleontologists tell us that it was a lot greener in Abraham’s time than it is now. It’s easy to imagine that it was a nice place to live.

Abraham, however, was not destined to remain there. When his life was threatened by the city’s priests, he fled, leaving the relatively easy life than an arable land makes possible. He wandered a long time before finding the place God had prepared for him. One might be tempted to think that he deserved a nice place after all the trouble he had experienced. Instead he was given a wild and uncultivated land. He was given a desert.

Many years later, Abraham’s descendents (the family of his grandson Israel) were living in another lush agricultural land. This time it was in Egypt along the Nile River. No place in the world enjoyed a better place to grow crops. Each year the riparian land received a flush of fertility during the annual floods. It was the preeminent place for civilization.

But the Children of Israel were not destined to remain in this abundant landscape either. Over the period of generations, they had changed from being honored guests of the Pharaoh, to being his slaves. They too fled from their homes, like Abraham before, and wandered a long way - not to a fruitful land, but back to the desert.

In the early 19th Century, the young and growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found itself in the rich deciduous forests of the American Midwest. The handful of early converts had migrated from New York and Pennsylvania to northern Ohio with its rich muck soils. They cleared the land and raised crops. But they were not able to stay. After being forced from their homes they settled again along the fertile lands of the Mississippi River. But they would not remain long there either.

Soon after the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred, the Saints packed up their belongings again and headed west. This time they left their fertile farms behind and pulled their wagons over the Rocky Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley - a high elevation desert.

And so it goes. A Chosen People is forced to flee from their homes. They rely upon the Lord for deliverance and direction, and He leads them to a Promised Land. Only this Promised Land isn’t really all that attractive. At least other people have pretty much left it alone, and for good reason: it doesn’t get much water. The Promised Land, as it turns out, is parched. In a word, it is a desert.

Is this all that a faithful people can hope for - sagebrush and sand? Or maybe this waterless wilderness isn’t meant to be a punishment at all but only the price one pays to be separated from the world. Or maybe - just maybe - there is something more. Maybe the desert is a particularly appropriate place for the People of God.

By definition a desert is a place that doesn’t get very much rain. When rain does fall, it often isn’t very predictable. The driest desert on earth is the Atacama Desert along the Pacific coast of South America. Some weather stations there have never recorded any rain at all. The Sahara and the Arabian Deserts usually get less than 4 inches of rain a year. The Gobi and Thar deserts usually get less than 10 inches. Other deserts get more. The Judean Desert gets less than 4 inches a year, although Jerusalem gets a bit more (averaging 19 inches). The Great Basin averages around 10 inches a year, although Salt Lake City averages around 16 inches.

What this means is that farming in these regions requires a lot of work. Wells have to be dug, or diversion canals have to be made. Yet even this does not guarantee a harvest. Fields have to be graded and then it still takes work to get water to the end of the row. Getting enough to eat is very much a dual effort. It requires a lot of physical work and it requires the bounties of the Creator. Because of this duality, the desert produces eminently practical and hardworking people with faith. And one can begin to see that living in a desert is less chastisement than a merciful gift. It is an opportunity to exchange a relatively carefree life for wisdom.

In its austerity, the desert is a great discounter of luxury and wealth. What matters more is sound judgment - and consistency. The desert may not give you a second chance.

Jacob Hamblin, one of the early settlers of the Mojave Desert, learned this the hard way. He lived along the Santa Clara River in Washington County, Utah during the late 19th Century. He was known for his wisdom in dealing with the Native Americans and learned a great deal from them. He knew, for example, that you could get water from the succulent leaves of a prickly pear cactus. You just had to get rid of the spines.

But one time Jacob found himself on the far end of the Mojave where there were plants he wasn’t familiar with. When he found himself without water he cut open the local variety of prickly pear - one that was colored a little different than he was familiar with - and quenched his thirst. A few hours later he was so sick he didn’t think he would survive. Fortunately for his family, he did, but not everybody is so fortunate.

Living in a desert says something about who you are. It’s like meeting someone at the top of a road-less mountain. You know they didn’t just get there by chance. No-one just happens upon the top of a mountain. You have to want to be there. So it is with the desert.

Even today with the luxuries of air conditioning, electricity and plenty of well water this continues to be true. But if most people are not cut out to live in the dessert, those that are will not be likely to leave it.

Perhaps it’s the magnificent sunsets, the wide open spaces, and the clear air that makes it so vital. Maybe it’s the magnificent carpets of wildflowers that bloom altogether after the rain. Or maybe it’s because of the loneliness or the austerity that broods there. Maybe it’s because the desert, like a mountain, is favored of God.

You might argue differently. After all, a moist forest enjoys a much greater abundance of living things. Clearly the Creator is partial to so much life. No doubt He is. But it is because of its abundance that it is so prone to human impiety. Human beings, after all, can live easily in a botanical paradise. And when things are easy, there is little reason to consider the divine.
The desert is different. Its very austerity is a repudiation of urban greed. There’s a reason the desert has been home for so many centuries to seekers of holiness. It offers itself as a holy place to those willing to work and do without the finer things in life. And in the absence of vainglory we can shed our shells of sufficiency. Then, as dependant sojourners in a harsh land, we find it is more natural to yield ourselves to God. Standing under a desert sky at night it becomes very apparent the He is not so very far away after all.

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