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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.

James Brumm

James Hart Brumm heads the Reformed Church Center and the Theological Writing Center and teaches RCA studies at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is General Editor of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, Transition Pastor for the Presbyterian Church at Peace Chapel, and a husband, father, grandfather, author, musician, and commuter bicyclist. He lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, with his wife, Kathleen, and their dog, Pepper. 


  • RZ says:

    This is profoundly encouraging and hopeful. Our God’s sovereignty is best explained in the context of restoration and forgiveness, not retribution. If so, then we are punished by our sins and not for our sins. Those who read Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for today will see a deep connection with your insightful essay here.
    ” 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.” This particular sentence and surrounding paragraph has centered me this morning as I have read and re-read it several times. Thank you for this encouraging wisdom.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I remember James McCord, in an NBTS commencement at Kirkpatrick Chapel, saying, “The history of humanity is the history of the creation of deserts.”

  • John Paarlberg says:

    “It is impossible for human intelligence to comprehend God, yet certain places may allow people to experience the necessary risk that opens them, body and soul, to what their minds cannot entertain. God’s places, in scripture and in the history of spirituality, are frequently fierce landscape settings like the storm beaten slopes of Mount Sinai…. A central argument of this book is that the apophatic tradition, despite its distrust of all images about God, makes an exception in using the imagery of threatening places as a way of challenging the ego and leaving one at a loss for words. If we cannot know God’s essence, we can stand in God’s place—on the high mountain, in the lonely desert, at the point where terror gives way to wonder. Only there do we enter the abandonment, the agnosia, that is finally necessary for meeting God.” — Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spiritualty (Oxford University Press, 1998).

  • Kathy DeMey says:

    I love this and it resonates strongly with me at this moment in the Christian Reformed Church: “When we are caught up in maintaining the established order, there is no room for the Creation-brooding Spirit to stir up something new.”

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