An Austere Beauty

Sometimes beauty shows up most clearly on a backdrop of barrenness.

I have known this theoretically and biblically, but this past weekend, I experienced it physically. My boys are in a phase where they have become obsessed with the National Parks System, and I am not complaining. They get it honest from their grandparents who have become second-career park visitors. Since we are privileged enough to live in a state which boasts nine National Parks, my boys have set their sights on visiting all of them.

Having visited Joshua Tree (the closest to our home), we decided to visit Death Valley, the next-closest park. Sounds inviting, right?

When I think of National Parks, I imagine epic waterfalls, treed forests, towering animals- in a word abundance. Not so much in Death Valley. Boasting the hottest, driest, and lowest point in the Western hemisphere, Death Valley is a land of scarcity. As it receives less than two inches of rain per year, it is not exactly a welcoming place. In fact, the National Park rangers do an excellent job of scaring you with warnings of death by overexposure and dehydration.

Yet, this inhospitable land also boasts an austere beauty. Those who dwell therein (namely the kangaroo rat, roadrunners, and some brave horned sheep) have learned to live on the edge of existence.

I couldn’t help but see an obvious spiritual parallel. Much of the Bible was written in the context of the desert and desert places play a prominent role in the Scriptures. There are far more deserts and waste places in the middle of the Scriptural story than there are gardens and lands of abundance. Those take a prominent place in the beginning and the end of the story (which is really the beginning of a restored heaven and earth for eternity).

The older I get, the more I find myself in dry, arid places (literally and figuratively). I see friends panting for life-giving water in the desert wastes of both childhood and adult cancer and bereavement. I have friends who are dwelling in what would seem to be the lowest points on the spiritual topographical map. I have friends looking down on empty cribs who feel like they are in the spiritual badlands.

But these friends will learn the secret that God teaches us best in the desert places: the gift of austere beauty. Speaking in the power of the Spirit, Isaiah (another dear desert-dweller) speaks of a coming day of abundance.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes…and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall up upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:1-2; 6-7; 10).

In the meanwhile, we walk in a land of austere beauty, of subtle sustenance. Lord, give us eyes to see the beauty all around us. For, even in the most inhospitable places of the soul, you have made your home within us.

An Austere Beauty

An aura of austere beauty,
A land of superlative extremes,
Rocky heights and sublime depths,
The stuff of both space and dreams. 

That anything could make its home
In such an inhospitable place –
That life should be sustained here
Is an exhibit of His glory and grace.
 

Your design portfolio’s diversity 
Speaks of your infinite mind;
Your desert’s delicate balance
Stems from your heart so kind.

The Maker of Death Valley
Knew a thing or two of each:
Deserts, valleys of weeping,
And a cross His people to reach. 

He who sustains an ecosystem 
In the extremes of such a place
Will surely keep His children,
By, for, and with His steady grace.

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