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hope in the desert

At first glance the desert seems cruel. Heat and loneliness surround once proud hearts and mock the fallen. As we drove through Nevada, Arizona and Utah this is the sort of landscape I imagined the wandering Israelites to have endured. There is little cover, everything is torn right open and left subject to the judgements of the harsh sun. The land is barren, bald and sun-scorched. There is a 110 mile stretch on I-70 where there are no services and it seems almost probable that if you are to get stranded here, you are to die here. The temperature hovered around the upper 40s and lower 50s (celsius) and even though the rock formations begged me to stop and stare I knew in my heart that we had to keep going, to keep travelling until we found green and water.

As we travelled on this never-ending road my thoughts returned to Israel, and how they wandered in the desert for so long. I think that up until I had driven across this unforgiving terrain the images in my head of the exile in the desert were juvenile and cartoon-like. I couldn’t imagine living in such a seemingly God-forsaken place. But when the sun went down and the rock formations blended into the dark sky I recognized something truly remarkable. There were stars. Not just a few but many, beyond my ability to count them all and as my eyes adjusted they seemed to multiply until the constellations came to light and there was no corner of the sky void of these dancing beauties.

When I was at Bible School my room mate and I would often steal away after curfew, with our sleeping bags in hand to lie in the middle of the giant field to stare at the sky. When winter came and the lake froze over, four or five of us would bundle as tight as we could and lie down, our backs in the snow, staring up at the stars from the frozen lake. No matter how hard life was, no matter how hard the teachings were or how insecure I felt in my ability to live out a good story the stars were always there and always reminded me of the constancy of God and His grace, truth and love. I learned to trust God again in the presence of the stars and to know and to submit to His will and majesty.

I wondered if it was like that for the Israelites, if the coolness of the night and beauty of the dancing stars had any affect on their hardened and muddled hearts. For the desert is where they also learned to trust God again. The desert for them wasn’t just punishment. It was were they learned to rely on someone other than themselves for manna and quail. There, in the sun scorched wilderness Yahweh provided daily miracles of provision to prove to them His love and correction. Even in the midst of one of the largest time-outs in history His presence was with them and they were forced to rest and take comfort in something other than the strength of their own hands.

This desert that we were travelling through had seemed to lose all of its ability to strike fear into the hearts of the passengers frequenting its motorways with the single glimmer of that first star. We made it through the desert, and into the lush mountains that we were searching for and it occurred to me that maybe one should harbour no fear of the desert. Yes, it is a place of desolation, dryness and dominance, but it is also one of great promise and joyful submission. It is a landscape of trust and expectance. Made soft by the generous but firm hand of a creative and powerful God.

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the grand canyon

We paid the ranger at the park gate and drove through to the parking lot. I actually couldn’t believe that we had gotten there before the sunset. I couldn’t believe that just 13 hours ago we had been in Colorado, surrounded by lush green and leafy trees. We were now, once again in the desert. And the landscape had changed from verdant to red rock and parched. The formations of rocks and plateaus coming out of the desert floor looked almost alien and strange like at first. They seem from another world, an older world, one inhabited by souls who know ancient secrets and long forgotten songs.

The effects of sitting in a speeding car had caught up with me and I arrived at the Grand Canyon like one addicted to meth amphetamines. I felt rushed and frantic, my mind scattered in a million places. I was loud, irreverent and needed all the stimulation I could get. My breathing was fast and shallow and my greedy heart said to its self, “Just take a few pictures, head back to to the car and be done with it.”

We parked the car and headed to the lookout point, running boisterously down the little incline to the fence, with zero respect to those around us who were waiting for the sun to set. When we reached the edge it took a moment for my franticness to realize what I was gazing upon. There in the middle of the Arizona desert was one of the most spectacular sights I have ever laid eyes on. As my eyes beheld its beauty my head slowed and my heart quieted and I began to realize that the people who were around we speaking in hushed, low tones. The Grand Canyon demanded respect and demanded to be seen.

It was beautiful and wild and scary and unwelcoming all at the same time. The jagged rock face coupled with the hues of reds, browns and beige came to light in the shifting of the sun. I imagined Indian tribesmen gathering on the rim to find calm after a hard day of hunting and gruelling work in the Arizona sun. I imagined European settlers rounding the corner only to stumble upon this beauty and gaze at its unsettled heart. I imagined what it would be like to float down the river at the bottom of the canyon only to stare at the cliffs as they gazed back into the smallness of our might and the weakness of our hands. The canyon taunted my camera as I tried in vain to reduce its beauty to a few pixels so that I could prove to those I loved where I had been, so that I could take them as my trophy for crossing something off my bucket list.

In my line of work I deal with the question of beauty all day. I study magazines for trends and dispense advice to every client, but this, this was like no beauty I had ever experienced. It made me feel small and at the same time, a part of something extraordinary. All my worries and thoughts seemed pushed out of my head as I took in the greatness of it all. I felt as though my soul was being rejuvenated by brushing against such an untainted form of nature. I so wished that I could bottle it up and bring it home for when times get a little rocky, just to remind myself that there is beauty out there, far beyond my troubles and anxieties. But to remove anything from that place would simply diminish the potency of its beauty and reduce it to something trivial and less than significant.

True beauty will always remain untamed and wild to the core. It will pull you in and excite and terrify you at the same time. It will seem close enough to touch and too far to hold. And its mood will change as swift as the current. As I watched the sun go down on this majestic wonder I couldn’t help but think about the richness of this life, the richness of my life in particular; and the incredible beauty that is in front of me everyday, that I miss too often in my counts of woes inflicted upon me by circumstances beyond my control. This is such a rich life that I lead. And it is so full of wonderful little blessings, like standing on the edge of the most beautiful and paralyzing place in the world and knowing that everything will work out just fine.

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the oregon coast

There is no greater therapy in the world than the feeling of sand between your toes. Two weeks ago we did just that. The central Oregon Coast weaves and bends around old trees and sharp cliffs. The coast is shaped by the wind and the ever-present movement of the sea. As we curved and roamed from one small town to another, I, sitting in the back seat of my sister’s jeep, closed my eyes to enjoy the blank canvas of my eyelids as they illuminated with with the short bursts of sunlight that came through the tall trees that lined the small but formidable highway. My heart remembered many summers spent alongside this Ocean, our adventures in weighed down mini-vans, many New Years Days rung in on cold windy beaches in the darkness of midnight and my brother learning the joys of setting things ablaze by the campfire. But my feet remembered the feel of the sand, in fact they ached for it. It had been quite a while since my toes had hit the Oregon Sand and they were ready.

 

Of everywhere I have travelled this is the place that is the most familiar to me. This mix of California and the great evergreen trees of British Columbia and the rainforest there. In fact, I do not know how one can see the shape and the curves of the coastline and not believe in some form of God, one in the semblance of a Great Artist who painted and laid out the edges and boundaries of the coast with utmost care and creative vision. Everything bends and shifts according to the whims of the wind and the sea. Even the trees themselves are slaves to the wind as it pushes their growth up and into the mainland causing them to grow at 45 degrees into the highway. It truly is a remarkable sight.

 

We cut right, in our journey south, to find the coast as quickly as possible and crossed into Oregon through Astoria. Once we hit the water its as though the whole world had changed. We felt far from ordinary life and troubles. Far from familiar fast food chains and big box stores. We found an old boat on the side of the highway that some clever entrepreneur had transformed into a fish and chip shack, we grabbed lunch and kept going. We travelled south through Seaside, Canon Beach and Tillamook until we finally arrived at Lincoln City. Lincoln City is a small town, named after former president Abraham Lincoln and it houses about 8,000 people. The small city it is littered with surf shops, antique shops and glass blowing studios.

 

When we finally got to the beach I feel like I could have stayed there forever. I could have walked until my feet hurt and then bundled up and slept right there on the sand. I could have just let the sound of the waves wash away all the cares and worries that had followed me down to the coastline. My feet where happy. My heart was happy. In that moment, on that beach life was good and there was no blessing too small and no trouble too great.

 

Usually the Oregon Coast is moody and capricious but this time the weather gods served us well with warm temperatures, sunny skies and starry nights. It was warm enough to enjoy Tillamook ice cream from waffle cones and warm enough to allow us to abandon our jackets in the car and explore new beaches without a care. We drove south to Florence and were entertained by a company of Sea Lions as we explored caves and sand dunes. We surveyed old light houses and majestic bridges and before turning inland and heading for home, we stopped for cheese in Tillamook and gave one last look at the ocean and hoped it would not be another eight years before we returned.