OK, friends, I’ll be honest.
I’m not really that sure what to do with this blog now that I’m back. I mean, many of you are reading it (were reading it) because it contained news of someplace where I was in the days of travel and wonder. Now, well, pretty much I”m here. I’m around. Oh, there may be the occasional steelhead trip, but I don’t think I’ll need the passport in the near future.
But I don’t want to just end, either.
So I’m dragging it out. This evening, I thought I’d post the text of the message that I shared with the good people of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Sunday, October 24 -my first Sunday back in the pulpit. If you’ve read the blog before, well, some of these ideas aren’t new.
I’d appreciate your thoughts as to what to do with this…I can post sermons. I can write the occasional article. Or I can be done. If you have thoughts, I’d value them. In the meantime, get out Isaiah and think about the desert…
Glimpses of Glory
Isaiah 35:1-7, 49:8-12
First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights
October 24, 2010
Pastor Dave Carver
The last time I stood up here and spoke to you, we were all a lot younger. I talked about “Spiritual Presbyopia”, and about my prayer that a time of Sabbatical would enlarge our ability to see truth in the world and in each other. I’m sure that everyone who was here that day remembers that breathtaking message with remarkable clarity, but just in case, you can find it on the website if you want a quick refresher.
At any rate, I’d like to tell you about something I saw while on Sabbatical. You can bet the farm, incidentally, that you’ll hear more about some things I saw, but this morning I want to speak to one place that was simply amazing. My daughter Ariel and I were in the Middle East for about five weeks. Wow.
I have never been one of those people who is dying to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I lived 50 years without seeing it, and could have made it a few more. But by the grace of God I was there. But the Holy Land about which I want to talk this morning is not in Israel. It’s in Egypt.
I want to tell you, that place is a desert. As far as your eye could see, for mile after mile, there was nothing. Not a shrub, not a tree, not a camel, not a bird. My first thought when I encountered this place was that it was amazingly beautiful. That thought faded after a couple of hundred miles, and I thought about the Children of Israel walking across this desert for 40 years, and I remembered the fact that they grumbled against Moses, saying, “Did you lead us out from slavery so that we could die here in the Desert? At least in Egypt we had onions to eat. Here, there’s nothing! This is miserable.” As I spent more than a week traversing the desert of both the Sinai peninsula and the Sahara Desert, I have to say that I did not blame the Israelites for their comments. The desert is a fierce and terrible place.
I simply cannot capture for you the vastness of this wilderness. The Sahara desert is 3.5 million square miles. The desert is as big as the entire USA…think of that: From California, to the New York Island; From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters…all a barren, dry, deathly tedious place. To be sure, there were some amazing sights – but I was traveling in a Land Cruiser and had a lot of water. The desert was oppressive. I remember laying on my mat at midnight trying to fall asleep and being unable to because it was over 90 without a whiff of fresh air moving. For three weeks, I did not see a single cloud. And the sand…oh, Lord, the sand. I had sand in my water. Sand in my luggage. Sand in my food. Sand in my clothes. I’m telling you, I had sand in places that I didn’t even know I had places. It was brutal.
Now, as many of you have heard me mention, the desert was also a fascinating and beautiful place. I saw wonderful rock formations and more types of sand than I knew existed. I did see some animals, and I experienced the hospitality of some Bedouins that was a joy.
But let me tell you of the most amazing sight that I encountered in the desert. We drove for hours, and then we stopped. The man driving my truck said, “Go ahead. Get out. Take a look.” This is the view that greeted me:
Hmmm, you say, as I did. Interesting. Rocks in the desert. And sand, too. Wow, good thing you took a photo of that, Dave. Wouldn’t have guessed that you’d see something like that in the middle of the Sahara Desert. So I got out of the truck, and I looked around, confused. The driver pointed, and said again, “Go ahead, take a look!” So I did. And that’s what I saw:
But then I took a few steps, and I heard a strange crunching sound. And I looked down, and I saw something fascinating and totally unexpected:
Can you see what that is? Seashells. The entire desert floor was not sand…but rather fossilized seashells. There were coral formations that were taller than I am:
Can you believe it? The Sahara was once an ocean floor! And not just this spot – they have found fossilized sea shells in Morocco and in Niger; the Pyramids in Giza are constructed with limestone that contains seashells in it. I picked up this shell from the spot where I’m pictured, and this coral from another spot hundreds of miles away, towards Alexandria. This hot, dry, oppressive place was not always that way.
It occurred to me that the apparent barrenness of the desert is not God’s intention for his creation. Genesis is clear about that – the creation is teeming with life. Water is abundant. Order is brought forth from the midst of chaos.
But something happened. There was a fall. Sin entered the creation. The good and life-filled gift that God had made became infected. The creation became marred and scarred. More and more, death and desert places became “normal”. Toxicity and dryness and barrenness became unsurprising companions.
Yet as I reflect on the beauty of God’s love and the intentions that are displayed in the Scripture, I ask myself, “Why shouldn’t I find seashells in the desert?” The seashells remind me of God’s action in the past; they affirm for me God’s intentions for his world; and they point me to a hope for the future in which desert and death and oppression and sterility will be no more.
And I was thinking of all of those things when I got to my absolute favorite place in all of Egypt: an oasis near the Libyan border called Siwa.
When I say it’s an oasis, what do you think of? If you’re like me, you think that an oasis is a couple of camels, a tree, and a puddle of water.
Well, I did see that, but that’s not Siwa. Siwa is a town in the midst of the Sahara Desert that has been settled for more than 10,000 years. There are about 13,000 people living there, caring for 300,000 date trees and 70,000 olive trees.
And here is one of the fascinating things about Siwa oasis: all the water comes from underground. The last time it really rained in Siwa was 1926. Yet somehow, for thousands of years, this little dot of green has existed in the midst of the Sahara desert.
This is what I believe, beloved: that God permits Siwa oasis to exist so that when people are traveling in the desert, they can see a glimpse of how the world can be. You can drive, as I did, for eight hours across a roadless, sand-swept wilderness…and arrive at an amazing pocket of life and health and wholeness, like this lake on the edge of Siwa – a body of fresh, clear, cool water as big as this city block that I ran and jumped and swam in…and caught fish in!
And as I reflected on that, I wondered… “How many of us experience life as a desert? How many of us live day after day, week after week, year after year encountering nothing but pain and death and alienation and anger and barrenness and abuse? Some of us face incredibly devastating struggles moment by moment, and wonder when, if ever, life will make sense. Some of us journey day after day and grow hopeless because there are no signs of life on the roads that we travel. And, to be honest, some of us face inconveniences that grate on us like sand in our underwear and we allow those irritations to debilitate or distract us.
For too many of the people we know and love, and for too many people in this room – life is like the desert.
My belief is that if, in fact, God allows Siwa oasis to serve as a glimpse of what creation can be like; if God allows seashells to litter the desert floor as a reminder of his eternal intentions for the creation, then maybe God is calling us to be that kind of glimpse, that kind of reminder for his children who are wandering the deserts of life in 21st century North America.
These are the promises of God that pour forth from the prophet Isaiah. God uses Isaiah to remind the people that although they can see the desert now, they had better not get used to it, because it’s not going to be that way for eternity. What we experience as harsh and barren and painful and rough and hot and sandy and just plain irritating now…will become a pool of refreshment and a spring of healing and an ocean of life.
And it’s not only for some time in the future. There are glimpses of it now! This community is an oasis! Did you know that? Can I tell you how badly I missed you? Yes, I know, I was away having the adventure of a lifetime. But you need to know that I longed for the people, the mission, the ministry of Crafton Heights. The places I went – how I loved them…as a traveler. But the place I am from – how I need that as a home!
When I left in July, I asked you to take a look at who you were, what you had, and what you needed; I promised to do the same. As I come home, I am here to ask you to take care of this oasis. I am asking you to speak well and truthfully to each other. To give yourself to the mission of this place. To love God and each other, and to serve this community. And most importantly, to be on the lookout for those who have come to believe that sand and heat and death have the last word; who believe that the desert is the ultimate reality – and to invite them to experience the life that Christ has given to us.
I’m not going to lie – Siwa wasn’t perfect. It was hot there, and sandy. But there was great life there in the midst of a terrible desert. In the same way, we are not the church that we are going to be…but let me encourage you to remember that this community is for you a cool spring. To take the time to enjoy the life that you have been given, and to share that life. God is doing a new thing in and through His people. Us! Isaiah said so. I believe him. Thanks be to God! Amen.
I received a beautiful gift at a reception following this worship, and I’ll post photos of that at another time. In the meantime, thanks for your company on the journey!