a hibiscus flower blooms in the mid-day desert heat
A raging, out-of-control fire has been blazing throughout the mountains above Palm Springs. We live many miles away from that fire and yet every day we can see billows of smoke cloud the desert skies.
Yesterday, I watched a news report about the fire on the local TV station; and a reporter was interviewing someone whose residence had been consumed by the blaze. Standing before the charred rubble of his once-beautiful mountain home, a teary-eyed man sobbed, "I built the place myself. Now it's all gone and I have no insurance. I have nothing left."
As I sat (myself in tears) watching that man who had "nothing left," I thought about the story of the "exile" in the Hebrew Scriptures. Like all biblical stories, the exile story, is far more than a historical account of something that happened to the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. The exile story is an icon - a metaphor about "having nothing left."
As the story goes, the Jewish people have been conquered by their enemies. The citizens of Jerusalem have been rounded up and sent out into the desert to live in exile away from their native land, in the godless, foreign territory of Babylon. They have been taken away from their homes and businesses and robbed of their livelihoods. They have even been forced away from their temple. It seems like God has truly abandoned them.
In the dried-up desert wilderness of "exile," the Hebrew people have nothing left.
And in the midst of this total emptiness, in this most God-forsaken place, they hear the voice of God speaking softy and tenderly through the prophets:
Comfort, Oh comfort my people. I am making a path through the wilderness, so you can go back home again. Your exile is over.
In what appeared to be a God-forsaken place, they come to realize that God has come into exile with them.
The exile story is a story about the spiritual path of every human being. There are times when we are all in exile - feeling abandoned, perhaps feeling like we have lost everything; and in the driest most God- forsaken places of life, God always abides, God comes into exile with us. In fact, we often come to the deepest awareness of God in what appear to be the most God-forsaken places.
Many years ago, while driving through the desert on my first visit to the Palm Springs area, I remember thinking how desolate and stark it all seemed - stifling triple-digit summer heat, an endless dry, sandy valley terrain, surrounded by mountains of stone. Back then, I remember thinking to myself, "why on earth would anyone ever want to live here?" Now that I do live here. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
The desert has been my teacher. Every day it tells me the "exile" story.
What appears to be a stifling, dried-up wilderness is actually a place teeming with abundant life and beauty once you scratch beneath the surface.
You can often find a palm oasis on a desert trail, springs of water can gush from the rocks, cacti bloom, and flowers grow in the sun-baked, dry sand.
When I walk in silence on the desert floor, my initial feelings of being alone always turn into a sense of an abiding presence so great that it reduces my ego to nothingness.
Yes, the desert tells the story of exile.
The places of life which seem most God-forsaken are the places where God can most deeply be encountered. God goes into exile with us and in the driest places, we often encounter the most abundant, wild, and unexpected grace.
The desert is not a comfortable place to live, but it is a place of profound comfort.