Monthly Archives: July 2012

Postcards from the desert

It’s been several weeks since I last posted, mainly because of my annual foray into the wilds of southwestern Colorado along the banks of a flat water stretch of river, seeking God amidst the killer blood-sucking gnats, 100+ degree temps, and frequent coal trains driven by jokers who love to blast their horns in the middle of the night whenever they see tents pitched on the opposite bank.

Ah, the desert.  Destination of exiles, seekers, and prophets from the earliest recollections of the Judeo-Christian faith.   Where did Hagar end up after Ishmael pissed off Sarah?  The Desert of Beersheba.  Where did the nation of Israel tool around for forty years after ditching the Egyptians?  The Desert of Sinai.   Where did David run off to when Saul lost his mind?  The Desert of Maon.  Where did Elijah go after he wasted all the prophets of Baal and irked Israel’s most notorious ruling family?  Taking a cue from Hagar, he went to the Desert of Beersheba.  And so forth.

But the desert isn’t just a place of sanctuary for people out of favor.  Moses saw the burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai.  John the Baptist ran around in the desert eating locusts and wild honey and Jesus and the devil had it out in the desert; actually, the text in these two accounts says the events happened “in the wilderness,” but we are talking about Palestine here.  It’s not like John suddenly took up residence in the jungle or Jesus wandered out onto an iceberg.  And Luke 5:16 tells us, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.”  Seeing as how people in first century Palestine generally crowded around wells, rivers, lakeshores, and springs, it stands to reason that the “lonely places,” being deserted, were probably deserts, too.

Which brings me to last weekend.

On Friday, I hiked a couple of lonely trails in Colorado National Monument.  On Saturday and Sunday, friends and I canoed a very hot stretch of the Colorado River through sandstone and granite canyons.  It was 110 degrees in the shade all three days.  In heat like that, life boils down (no pun intended) to bare essentials.  The barest being water.

Where prophets and madmen dare to dip their paddles…

I’ve heard it said that the two greatest threats to human life in the desert are thirst and drowning.[i]  That means that the greatest helps to human life in the desert are plenty of water to drink and plenty of time in the water with your head safely on the sunny side of the surface.  My friends and I downed close to a gallon of water each day and spent a lot of time bobbing in the river like corks, quite apart from our canoes, relying on the mild river water to help maintain our core temperatures.

With that essential need met, the next essential is food, of which we had no shortage thanks to Centennial Canoe Outfitters, a company that knows how to bring a touch of class to the backcountry.  Well-fed and thoroughly tuckered from heat and physical exertion, the third essential – sleep – was easy for all of us to achieve.

The great thing about an environment that reduces life to water, food, and sleep is that it frees up a tremendous amount of head space.  Our culture is frantic, our lives are jumbled, and our attention is fractured all the time.  Consequently, it’s no wonder that “finding God” can seem impossible in the midst of our regular lives, even on those rare occasions when it occurs to us that “finding God” might be a good exercise.  The very idea of “finding God” points to just how complicated our lives are.  God is ever-present, but we run in so many directions at once, no matter what we do, many of us feel disconnected and distant from the very river of life that Jesus promised was ours for the taking:

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ (John 7:37-38)

Deserts clear up the clutter and the chatter.  Rather than desolation, I see deserts as remarkably clean and simple environments.  Not ecologically speaking – deserts are enormously complex ecosystems where stability meets fragility – but spiritually.  The predominant brown and grey hues of desert minerals, small and tenacious desert plant life, and the quietness and elusiveness of desert wildlife soothe my mind and soften my heart.  The solitude that is easily tapped in the desert opens me up to hearing the voice of God.  That voice, that relationship, is the living water that people of all faiths shoot for, which may be why mystics and madmen since time immemorial have always sought out the world’s “lonely places” to attend to the still small voice of God.

[i] Drowning by flash flood, that is.  Rains pouring several miles upriver often send dramatic flash floods downriver.  Here are two photos of the same spot in the desert (from slightly different angles), before and during a flash flood.  Note that the sun is shining brightly – the rain storm happened somewhere else!

Dominguez Canyon before…


Dominguez Canyon after.












© Marian the Seminarian, 2012


God’s eye is on the sparrow…revisited

So, about a month ago, I wrote a rather saccharine little piece about God’s eye being on the crow family that lives in a pine tree outside our condo.  I was inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew and Luke about God numbering the hairs of our chinny chin chins[1] and knowing when a sparrow falls.  It was just all very cozy and comforting to me.  Until last Friday, when I suddenly got a different perspective on the sparrow’s fall.

I didn’t actually see the sparrow fall.  In fact, the morning started out well… for some of us.  Imagine my delight upon hearing our three adolescent crows cackling excitedly in their “Hot damn – it’s chow time!” way.  I could tell that one of them had scored something big, but the birds were backlit and I can’t see anything with my glasses anyway.[2]   I figured one of them had rustled up a discarded piece of steak or an old hamburger bun from the local wildlife’s favorite eatery, “Le Café Dumpstré.”  I grabbed our camera with the ten million millimeter digital zoom[3] and proceeded to hone in on mealtime.  Which is when I suddenly realized that the crows’ breakfast was going to force me to reassess my precious theological observations from last month.

God’s eye was indeed on the crows that morning.  But some sparrow came to an ignominious end, its poor little carcass the subject of cacophonous dispute between three half-grown and hungry crows.[4]

This is MY breakfast! Go eat your frickin’ Cheerios, why don’t ya?

I’ve had several days to reflect on this.  The question, for me, isn’t about crows eating sparrows.  It’s about why bad things happen if God is, indeed, watching.  For your consideration, here are the theological explanations I’ve rejected so far:

The Circle of Life:  There are no bad things.  God’s eye is on the sparrow and God ensures that nothing goes to waste.  Kumbaya.

Shit Happens:  Some days, you’re the chicken.  Some days, you’re the worm.  Get over it.

The Sparrow Had It Coming:  Bad things happen because we deserve them.  Sucks to be a sinner. 

It Wasn’t a Sparrow, It Was a Finch[5]:  Bad things happen, but being rational about it will see us through.

So, here I am with some well-developed and time-honored theological explanations for misfortune and suffering that all strike me as falling somewhere along the continuum between naïve and grotesque.   This becomes particularly apparent when I am ministering to a person who has just received a terminal diagnosis and cries out to God, pleading to know what she did to deserve this illness, what her partner did to deserve bankruptcy, what her fifth grader did to deserve losing his mother.

My answer to these questions is always another question:  What do you really believe about God?  Forget for a moment what some churches would have you believe.  What, in your heart of hearts, is your understanding of the Divine?

For me, the answer is sometimes frustratingly simplistic.  God’s eye IS on the sparrow.  And we don’t know the plan.  Again, for me, this boils down to what I believe about the nature of God and what I value about relationship with God.  Even though the moral and spiritual challenges of this relationship sometimes exasperate the hell out of me, my life is richer for them.  Even though God’s unwillingness to spell everything out for me sometimes seems patently unfair, I like not being God’s wind-up toy.  Like Jacob, I appreciate the opportunity to wrestle with God over these questions.  Ultimately, for me, the point cannot be to “solve the problem” of suffering.  My goal is, and must continue to be, learning to trust a God of mysteries.

[1] Heads, chins, whatever.  I find that the older I get, the less hair I seem to have on my head and more I seem to have in places where hair never grew before.  Which means that, in order to avoid looking like a limp-locked bearded lady, I’m investing a lot more time in teasing and tweezing than I used to.  The root of all evil may be the love of money, but the root of a lot of squandered hours is the pursuit of beauty.

[2] Since I’ve already bitched about mid-life hair loss, I’ll just take this opportunity to bemoan that inelegant period of life when a person suddenly can’t see a thing, with or without her glasses.   Also, my arms appear to be getting shorter; at restaurants, my husband now has to hold the menu up for me from ten paces away.

[3] Okay, although this may be a bit of an exaggeration – because everyone knows you can’t get that kind of zoom out of a $400 Canon – my husband and I did manage to catch Nancy Pelosi on the west balcony of the US Capitol building straightening some handsome young fellow’s tie.  Like a good paparazzi, I wanted to sell it to the nearest tabloid, until my husband pointed out the fifteen other young interns or students or Future Farmers or whatever the hell they were having their ties straightened and pictures taken with the former Speaker, too.  Rationality and good taste so seldom trump scandal, I’m proud to have been a part of this.

[4] In all fairness to the crow family, it’s worth noting that while crows are shameless culinary opportunists, they are not, to my knowledge, birds of prey.  So, I’m sure whatever happened to the sparrow befell it before the crows decided to make breakfast out of it. 

[5] In truth, I think it was a grackle.  Which, if we were inclined toward karma, is probably indicative of some sort of cosmic justice.  The grackles are even more obnoxious than the crows.

 © Marian the Seminarian, 2012

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