“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home – dear and familiar stone hearth and garden – and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners…. We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here. It doesn’t seem to be here that we belong, here where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge. It is strange here…” [Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk]
“A hard land of exile.” This has been the experience of life for many people, myself included. This is Good Friday, so I think it’s a good time to remember how extraordinary good has come through to me, even in the most desolate times and places.
The Hebrew Scriptures tell us how, many centuries ago, the people of ancient Israel were uprooted and exiled from everything safe and known to them. They had suffered a devastating siege and seen their Holy City destroyed and their nation broken. The pain of their almost-total loss was like the stinging of a sword tearing flesh apart – as many swords had done, literally, at the fall of their great city. They were forcibly uprooted and exiled to languish in a foreign land where they were in danger of dying off as a people distinct in the world. There seemed to be good reason to believe they had been abandoned by their God. Yet at that very moment in their history the prophet Jeremiah spoke to them with a surprising message of hope:
Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! [Jeremiah 31:2-4]
Finding grace in the wilderness of life: this is what I want to remember today, not to escape the memory of sorrow and loss, but to remember how I’ve experienced grace in the past, had pain healed and life renewed. I want to remember because in remembering I’m freshly empowered to move through any new wilderness on the strength of that memory and its promise.
Grace is an especially beautiful word. It has the advantage over “love” in our vocabulary in that it has not been trivialized in ordinary language. It holds a fullness of meaning. It gathers up like a fragrant bouquet all the wonders of God’s giving nature. Grace is the profoundly needed but unmerited gift, freely and generously given to us out of love. It is God pouring out on us everything that we need for healthy, wholesome life, all that we can’t create for ourselves, giving “without measure and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). Grace names that quality of wholesome, divine Love which is active, outreaching, powerful, freely spent in kindness, giving self away for the good of the other.
Grace is not usually what we expect of wilderness, and we don’t easily recognize it when we find ourselves in desolate places. We are accustomed to look for God in the things that give us joy, peace, or contentment. We have a more difficult time believing that God’s graciousness is with us in the painful times. Our hurt and judgment, attachments, or false desires, all cover our eyes, stop up our ears, and build a wall around the heart, so that we miss the signs of God’s presence and power. Yet God’s grace is the hidden inhabitant of every wilderness experience.
God meets us in the wilderness as in no other place, and leads us as one would lead an obstinately independent but beloved deaf-mute through a difficult terrain to a place she’s not sure she wants to go: firmly, tenderly and compassionately. I know this because I’ve been the deaf-mute, and I’ve experienced the healing and discovered the grace. So I know that whatever we find it to be, and however we get there, wilderness is not just a ground of suffering. It is also the ground of grace because God meets us there, where our lives are most broken. Then wilderness becomes both school and holy ground, a place of re-planting and reform. There we find out what we are made of, and we meet the One who made us, filling up our failures and fears with love and hope, showing us the way home.
The blessing of God to you through all your days, and especially this day, whether of sorrow or joy. May joy come to you in the morning!