Monday, February 27, 2012

Desert Dreams

There’s something about the desert. It calls you to notice the trivial and immediate – a grain of sand, a single drift. And it calls you to notice the huge and everlasting – the horizon and the endless sky.

Many years ago, I backpacked across the Kalahari Desert in Botswana with two friends. We had spent Christmas in the Okavango Delta, exploring the wetlands in dugout canoes poled by local guides. It had been a tremendous experience, an overload of sensation, with abundant heat, greenery, water and wildlife. We had camped and celebrated the season under stars whose reflections shone out at us as much from the water as from the sky.

Emerging from the Okavango, the desert assaulted us with its aridity and hostility. We found a lift on the back of an open-backed truck bearing the road crew for a band from Maun, at the edge of the Delta, down to Francistown near the border of Zimbabwe. From there we could catch a train back east toward Malawi where we were all working as volunteer teachers.

Between delays and breakdowns the trip took all day, starting at 4:00am. Sitting with my head covered by my African cloth (chitenge) against sun and wind, I peered out at what seemed like an unchanging landscape of grey sand. A scraggly tree or some bushes would break the monotony here and there, perhaps a small hill, but my impression was mainly of endless emptiness.

Speech was impossible on the back of the truck as the wind whipped our words away, carrying them off into the dunes and sky. All we could do was gaze out at the infinite world. I don’t know at what point the emptiness shifted, but I do remember finding myself slowly captivated by both the stillness before me and the stillness within me. The desert became a meditation, a place to empty my heart into earth and sky.

And then I saw it. Against the horizon at the edge of a silvery salt pan, a creature stood - watchful, waiting – an ostrich. The magnificent bird turned its head sideways to observe our rumbling truck. I remember the simple sensation of awe. I had so emptied myself by now, that the vision of the ostrich filled me,and showed me the wonder of all creation, of life against the starkness of empty world, empty sky.

I remember feeling like I could hardly breathe from the beauty of it, wished I could share it, then turned and looked at my two companions. And they were smiling too.

I don’t know what Jesus found in his forty days in the desert. But I know it’s worth joining him there.

During this Lenten journey, may we each find the beautiful detail of the sand crystals in our lives, and the expansive and endless horizon of the love of our God.

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