I am blessed to have a lifetime of out of the ordinary experiences. (I did not say out of the body experiences.) I have a mental file cabinet full of sermon illustrations from my unique life experiences. One such experience has helped me recently.
When I was twelve years old, illness forced my parents to sell our home, farm, and much of our worldly possessions to move from east Tennessee to the desert of southern Arizona. The move felt like a John Steinbeck moment, including the bitter grapes, as we pulled a small U-Haul trailer, with our '69 Pontiac, across the barren landscape of Texas, New Mexico, and finally Arizona.
To me living in the desert of southern Arizona was like living in a big, ugly box of kitty litter. My world was so different. Nothing was familiar--not the sounds, not the smells, or the strange people. I could not see any good in the move. It was certainly a transitional time in my development and I felt abandoned by God, a far cry from the life I had imagined for myself. I daily bargained with God in prayer; I pleaded with Him to take us out of that wasteland and deliver us back to the Promised Land.
As I grew accustomed to my new desert life, something happened. I cannot say that I grew to love it. There was always a sense of resentment in my heart for being forced there. Never-the-less, life went on. I went to school, made friends, and attended church. As I grew up, I began to accept the desert, though I did not stop longing for the green hills of east Tennessee. That came much later. As I began looking around the desert, I noticed there were rich resources of water in the desert also; but, unlike east Tennessee, there were no flowing rivers—only empty ravines. Instead, hidden Artisan wells supplied water for the Cottonwood trees to flourish in the desert. There was also food in the desert. Even the cacti produced fruit, which was used to make great candy and jellies. When these fruits fermented, coyotes got drunk. There are all sorts of smells in the desert.
I have a very rich memory of Tammy and me traveling home from seminary in Texas to visit our family in Tucson. We had been homesick for the desert. It was early in the morning, after sunrise, when an unusual rain shower came. Heading west on Interstate 10, my nose captured the first sweet smell of rain in the desert. I said to Tammy, “Can you smell the rain?” She smiled yes. The thin drops hit our Volkswagen windshield and then another smell aroused us. We quickly rolled down the windows and both breathed in the odor deeply. It was the smell of the Creosote bush. This wild desert bush emits a dry, musty smell that we both knew from our collective desert life. When rain drops hit the millions of Creosote bushes in the desert, they release an amazing smell into the atmosphere. Don’t misunderstand. The smell is not all that wonderful; but, for us, it was the smell of home.
Lost in this moment of memory, I guess I need to come back to why I thought I should tell this to you. There are times now when I relate the immature emotions of my childhood with the wasteland I am currently traveling through called the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Loosing Tammy shattered my dreams and the life I imagined for myself. The sights, sounds, and smells in this desert are strange to me. I am tempted to plead my case before the Heavenly Father and ask Him to deliver me out of this place quickly; but, I stop myself. I understand that He has a purpose for me in this desert; He has hidden beauty and rich resources in this place. I don't know that I want to love the valley of the shadow of death. I do believe that, while I am passing this way, it would be wise for me to look carefully to see what I could easily overlook. When pain threatens to consume me, I can miss what God has hidden in the desert. He has a rich supply, a never ending source, a fragrant aroma in the desert. He never promised me continual green pastures. He never said that I would always walk barefooted in a plump, green carpet of grass. Instead, He takes His beloved into dangerous and barren places, largely to improve our vision, our sight, and our sense of smell--to help us see what we would normally have missed.
Had God granted my youthful prayer request, I would not have met my fellow desert dweller: Tammy. I would have missed out on some of the richest experiences in life. I would have been less the man God wants me to be. I would have never learned to appreciate the thirst for God that the desert has produced in me.
Psa. 63:1 “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”