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We’re in the third week of reflecting on the themes of the Year A Season of Creation lectionary, and that theme is supposed to be “Wilderness” or “Outback.” Matthew 3:13-4:2 sees Jesus getting baptized and then being led by the Spirit to the wilderness to fast and be tested. Romans 8:18-27 is Paul writing of Creation groaning and waiting to be set free from enslavement to decay. And then there is Joel 1:8-10, 17-20, with its images of drought-blighted fields and wilderness devoured by fire.
The image in my head is much more one of desert than wilderness, I confess; the wilderness in Joel, especially, is barren and destroyed. Jesus is starving, empty, open to temptation. But when reading of fire devouring the pastures of the wilderness in Joel 1:18-20 in the context of this past week, I can only think of the images from Maui. These aren’t the only fires in the world, of course; the people of Quebec have been besieged by wildfires for months, and now so is Northwest Canada. And there are droughts and famine in many places around the world. More barren wilderness is being created every day, and our reflections on this cycle of lessons has reminded us that we have a role in that.
But the barrenness, the emptiness isn’t all there is in these lessons. Paul wrote about first fruits of the Spirit, about hope, and about the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Even with all the devastation Joel presents in chapter one and the judgment that will come at the beginning of chapter two, by the end of that chapter the prophet will tell us of sons and daughters prophesying, of old men seeing visons and young men dreaming dreams.
As horrible and devastating as wildfires are, growth comes back later, often greater growth than was possible before. I recently saw a friend’s pictures from the area of Glacier National Park that had a devastating fire in 2017. The area is hardly recovered yet, but it is the scene of vibrant growth that was impossible before the blazes. The destruction and death on Maui are truly frightening and heartbreaking, but there will be growth again. God doesn’t leave us in the destruction, even when the destruction, or the exacerbation of the destruction, is our fault.
The desert moments, the barren wilderness moments in our lives, make it possible for the grace to come. When everything is grown up, when everything is established, we are busy hanging on to what we have and can’t grab on to the grace God is giving us. When we are caught up in maintaining the established order, there is no room for the Creation-brooding Spirit to stir up something new. Sometimes, when our old structures come apart, when the old is cleared away, we have the possibility of choosing to grow in the Spirit. If, like Jesus, we can take times to empty ourselves—through fasting, through quiet, through prayer, through sabbath—we can open ourselves up to that regenerative Spirit without the unplanned collateral damage.
Another image that comes into my mind reflecting on all this is a scene from John Irving’s story The World According to Garp, a novel from 1978, made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Glenn Close in 1982. When Garp and his wife are house hunting for their growing family, they visit a place that is hit by a small plane before their eyes. This leads Garp to an unusual conclusion: “We’ll take the house. Honey,” he says to his wife, “the chances of another plane hitting this house are astronomical. It’s been pre-disastered. We’ll be safe here.” The house makes it through the disaster and is opened up for rebuilding and grace. Those who know the story, of course, know that the family isn’t entirely safe from disaster after that, but it will be disaster that is of Garp’s own making.
God isn’t going around trying to destroy our lives in order to rebuild them. It isn’t necessary; left to ourselves, we will destroy things just fine. We manage to take natural, even healthy, cycles of life and make them malevolent, often by encroaching on nature’s self-regulating systems. We do the same things in our spiritual lives, trying to hang on to things where we shouldn’t, trying to ignore or disrupt the cycles God uses to keep us safe. Sooner or later, we’ll find ourselves emptied out and open to the Spirit, open to New Creation.
Like Garp, we can go looking for that barren wilderness. Like Jesus, we can create the space for ourselves, regularly, to allow the Spirit in. The more we practice such controlled moments, the more we’ll be ready to find the Spirit when the unplanned, uncontrollable moments come, and the more we’ll be ready for death and desert to show us the way to new life.