When we think of a desert, we think of hot sun, dry weather, and no water; the vary place that you probably do not want to live in for the long term. God sent the Israelites into the desert wilderness to test their strength. Would they complain about the lack of water? Yep. How about the lack of food? Yep. God was patient and loving, teaching the people to follow Him. In reality, it was more about the people learning about themselves. The desert is a great place to learn about yourself and I found that God used a desert to teach me about myself.
About a decade ago I finished my doctoral work and looked around for a job. I placed various prospective employers into folders: Great, OK, Maybe, and A Little To Far. I was very happy in my church, I was serving God in many ways with various churches and organizations, but I did need an income, so I applied for several of the good jobs and one or two of the ones that were too far away. I was working in my office late as a visiting professor when an email came in from one of the too far away jobs. A college in Wyoming had a permanent position and wanted me to come out to have a look. I knew nothing about Wyoming so as that email came in I looked at the college website and a little about the town. I was still ill prepared for the interview as I exited a tiny plane which landed on a tiny strip on top of a mountain. I rented my car and headed ten minutes into town through nothing by rocks, dirt, and sage. It reminded me of my time living in Reno, NV and I found the college a nice environment, so I left my whole life, ministry, and friends behind to make a new life in the high altitude red desert in Wyoming. It was there that I grew from a spiritual young man into a more mature believer. I have since moved out of the desert and I reflect on visiting there again soon, I thought it would be prudent to write about the lessons God taught me in the desert.
1. Though our world is beautiful, we live in marred relationship
When I started to tell my friends that I accepted a job in Wyoming, a pastor friend of mine said that he was jealous because Wyoming is so beautiful. For those that have lived in Wyoming (probably not those that just traveled there), know that I lived in the place that was frequently called the 'armpit of Wyoming' because it was not very pretty. But it was amazing. I agree that other places in the state are better, but our town was awesome; the scenery was great, it had wonderful aspects in the summer and the winter.
In the first month I was in the state I hiked with a colleague out to Photographers Point, an eight mile hike into the wilderness north of Pinedale. When you arrive at that point it is hundreds of miles of uninhabitable mountain-scape with over a dozen peeks. Within two years I had visited every county in the state and saw almost all of the fascinating things to see. I watched Old Faithful blow, swam in the hotsprings in Thermopolis, visited the historic museum in Cody, hiked around Devil's Tower, drove through Starr Valley, and took in the sights from Inspiration Point. Wyoming was truly beautiful.
While hiking out this places and driving through the landscape the people that I cared about were many times on my mind. To be sure, I traveled through most of the state with my little from Big Brothers, Big Sisters and that made it all worthwhile. It is not the beauty of God's creation that gives us purpose in life, it is the people that we have in our lives. Our lives are far from perfect and we all have struggles and challenges. The greatest accomplishment we can make in this world is to love those people around us, no matter what and keep them in our prayers. Life is tough, and the first lesson that I learned in Wyoming is that though God gave us a beautiful creation to live in, it is truly our interaction with the marred relationships that gives us the purpose to live.
2. Be ready in season and out of season; the Gospel needs preached and it may snow at any time
Most people claim that they live in a place with the world's weirdest weather. I grew up in northwest Pennsylvania and we frequently tried to claim the champions. It reminds me of an episode of Rugrats one day where all four seasons were displayed as though the characters were moving through a time-lapse. A neighbor knocks on the door and says, "Hey, crazy weather we've been having this week, huh?" Northwest Pennsylvania's got nothing on Wyoming. I had accepted the job and flew out at the end of May. I rented a car and saw the town, visited the gorge, and put in a contract to buy a house. After a wildly successful week I headed out early to grab some coffee at the cafe and encounter a snowstorm. I had just walked about five miles the night before in short sleeves! I grab my coffee, write in my journal, and make my trip up to the airport only to find that our light has been delayed due to a blizzard. It was May 31st! That probably should have been my sign to give up on this crazy journey, but hey, life rarely hands us what we expect. Wyoming turned out to be generally really hot in the summer and generally really cold in the winter, but sometimes we were surprised by 65 degree days in the winter or snow in the summer months.
Peter tells us to be ready in season and out of season to prepare a defense for the hope that is within us. As my life in Wyoming progressed, this became important. From the initial interview when I was asked if I would proselytize students, to chatting with a young woman who thought all Christians were psycho, we need to be ready to defend the hope that is within us. Whether it was a student with a dysfunctional home life that needed counseling or to put an arm around a friend going through struggles, we should always be ready to defend the Gospel, share our story of hope, and dig our car out of spontaneous snow drifts. We must always be prepared.
3. Love those people you will never understand
We will encounter all sorts of people in our life, and many will be close relationships that we get along with because of our similarities. We will also meet people that we have little in common with and will not understand at all. We need to learn to love these people even though they may hurt us. There is a familiar story about a rabbit who needs to cross a river and an alligator offers him a ride. "But you will eat me" says the rabbit, but the alligator promises he will not. The bunny jumps on the nose and the alligator crosses the river and just at the end, he bites at the rabbit who cries, "You said you would not eat me!" The obligatory response of the alligator is, "It is in my nature". We have natures and some of our natures is as a family dog: Loyal, comforting, faithful. But others have a nature of a porcupine: Selfish, protective, and painful. Sometimes we just have to learn how to live near a person that will eventually hurt us without ever feeling the need to be vengeful. That does not mean that we let them walk over us, but that mean that we guard ourselves around them.
I understand people that come from dysfunctional homes. I was one...I am one. I cannot understand (though I can) how a person can let their kids grow up in such a home. Perhaps this is my drive to work with children and youth, to show them a better way. Part of this lesson was learned when I was helping a 10 year old boy fix a bike tire when his dad was not willing to help because he was too busy. Part of it was learned when a friend of my little needed a place to stay because his dad wanted out of the house to go drinking without needing to know what the kid was up to. Part of this lesson was learned after years of giving my life to helping in a ministry to one day have it pulled out from under me unexpectedly and without cause. I have learned after hating a man with passion before becoming a Christian that love is the only way to go, and I care not what is done to me in the end. God is in control.
The time in my desert was fruitful. At times I sometimes wish I were still there. Many other times I am glad I am not. It was a very painful time in my life in many ways, but it was also the best time in my life. I encountered struggles that I never thought I would see and I got a chance to live in a land so beautiful that an average walk could become an awe-inspiring event. It was a place where many people depended on me, and in a town that your name could spread in wonderful ways, but it was a place where you could not live in anonymity. I am not sure I want to live there again, but I sure am I glad I did it!