One of the members of our church wrote to me of a friendship he has with a man, who has an eye for seeing God at work in the most unusual places. This past summer, in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, he came across this on Interstate 5.
For those of you not local to Sacramento, it doesn’t rain here during the summer. At all. I’ve read that in order for tomato plants to bear fruit, they need approximately one inch of rain per week. How on earth did this little tomato plant make it?
Well, I happen to believe that God loves to do this kind of thing. Plant reminders of gardens in the midst of hard, dry places.
God loves to take deserts and make gardens.
This past week, I spoke about a passage in Isaiah 35. It’s written, depending on what biblical scholar you read, either to a group of people about to face exile, or having already been exiled. I read somewhere that in the days of when Isaiah was written, foreign armies would completely destroy a conquered land, stripping it bare. Imagine that happening to your city. One of the things that makes Sacramento unique is its trees. It’s known as the “City of Trees,” falling in the Top 10 cities worldwide of trees per capita. (See article here) Imagine a foreign army coming in and stripping Sacramento of all its trees. You return home, expecting to see what you remember–trees of all shapes and sizes, lining streets and parks. Instead, you see devastation. If you were returning home to a barren land, what would you do?
While we might not ever experience that kind of exile, we might have faced different kinds of exiles. We might have gone away from community, friendships, or God. We might be exiled from work due to downsizing or early retirement. A broken marriage puts you into the foreign land of dating again.
Our times of exile can lead to new beginnings.
Exile can lead to a beginning again. A starting over. A new time to plant.
The imagery of Isaiah 35 is that God will do something amazing to in the hard dry places. Like a blooming crocus amidst burning sands. Like the majesty of biblical places Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon. These would all be images that Isaiah’s hearers (and later, readers) would know to mean majesty, beauty, flourishing. Carmel, for example, literally means: “garden-land.”
What are those places for you? What are the places that bring to mind lush greenery, fertile farmland, and abundance?
The imagery that caught my eye, though, was in verses 6-7:
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
A stream in the desert. Isaiah talks of water flowing through once dry and dusty places.
I’ve never been there, but the image above is from Zion National Park in Utah. People who have been there have told me how marvelous it is, how breathtaking its beauty is. I love the image here because it is a flowing stream through hard, dry, and rocky place. But perched along the banks are these tender trees, being fed, I’m sure, by the water of the stream.
We are like those trees. We need water. For me, that water represents a community. Let me explain.
How is a community like water?
A community of people that accepts you, loves you, serves you—is like quenching the thirst of our souls. When the hard dry places of life hit us—walking into a place where we are known and loved—is like a cup of cold fresh water.
Community is also what sustains us. We need it to survive. Sometimes it is underground. Supporting us. In times of sorrow and sickness, community is what sustains us.
I’m reading a book right now by Bill Hull, about discipleship (The Complete Book of Discipleship). Simply put, discipleship is that journey of learning from Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and being a part of what He is doing in the world.* Hull writes that one of the conditions needed for robust discipleship is a healthy community. A community that exudes trust, grace, humility. Affirms one another. And is committed to growth together. A life following Jesus is not meant to be walked alone. Maturity is a community project, Hull says. So a community can be that stream of water that nourishes us during those hard and dry times in our lives. A community can be that source of growth in our lives, reminding us of what could be when we feel devastated.
It is the intention of God to grow us. To surround us with each other, so that we might be water for each other’s dry and dusty souls.