From the middle of a desert
Here’s the scene. I’m driving on a desert road that cuts straight through the Mojave. No winding or tricks. The path shoots forward miles into the horizon, one yellow dash after another. Far from home, I let myself sink into this new reality. Vast, with nothing but dust as far as the eye can see. Yellow sand in all directions, two-inch clumps of spindles for vegetation. Every fifty meters or so, a black petrified tree.
I’m driving my car through the desert because there’s a psalm I need to read, out here of all places. It’s a psalm born out of the desert.
I’ve spent the past year in a theological drought, seeking refuge from phrases like affirming and non-affirming, side A and side B and side X, my sister in Christ, I love you, love the sinner, the truth with love – the heat of a thousand human voices. I’ve had the same questions parch my faith for the past year. Questions like: does God ever make mistakes in Creation? Or: how long can I ignore my own emotions? Or: if God will not take me, is life devoid of meaning?
What better place to understand Scripture, dear reader, than in the setting that inspired it?
So I find myself 600 miles from campus, speeding across the desolate Mojave. Driving here, I can’t help but project the Israelites onto this landscape – that misfit band of ragged humanity so desperate for a home. I can’t help but see God in the scorched-earth politics of this landscape, a place that tests life to the brink. As if God were most present in the instinct to live.
At a gas stop I flip my bible open to the first earmark. David’s words, Psalm 139.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made,
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
A bit of context here for you, reader. Many of the psalms were taught to me as songs written by David, penned while running from Saul’s pursuit. Since then I have learned that their authorship is disputed – but when I read them I still imagine David, crouched behind a rock in the desert, scrawling out these songs in a moment of rest. I like this image because, the first time I read this psalm, I too was crouched on the floor and in hiding. This was during a Bible study; and, although I hadn’t come out to anyone yet, it was the first time I dared to read myself into the text.
Now here I am, holding this psalm in the desert. I am queer. That much was clear to me in the year following the study. What remains is an eternal human question. Does God accept me? And on what terms? These are questions that have haunted my past year, as I’ve silently wavered in my own truths. I’ve tried to present a coherent stance to the people around me; I think I must have failed. I’ve doubted my own better judgment, my sense of self, my worthiness, my faith in a good God.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made, the psalm reads under my hands.
My feet in the dry sand, I let this psalm become again what it has always been for me: hope. The blessing to feel again, in my own body.
Reader, I am capturing this scene for you in the desert, as it unfolds, in the hope that it may transport you to where I am, free you to see what I do in this psalm.
We are not all alike, but so many have shared a vision of divine hope in the desert. David wrote Psalm 139 while running in the wilderness. The Israelites grumbled and doubted but still they carried their tabernacle and Moses led them onward. Jesus was tested in the desert for forty days and left it a leader. This psalm rings true in the Mojavan landscape because Biblical deserts are crucibles of faith, full of human bodies at their limits dreaming of liberation. Freedom from slavery, from persecution, from sin itself …
And through this psalm, I have found a freedom in the arid times that I would not otherwise.
It is the freedom of experiencing those basest sorts of instincts – to drink, to shelter, to feed, to breathe.
It is the freedom found in the fact of your mortality, a reminder of that closest proximity to the divine: the moment of your own creation.
It is the freedom of seeing God imbued within your body.
It is the freedom when fiery sermons quiet, when those theologies roaring reject all worldliness, repent of your body vanish – vanish, because rejecting the world would mean neglecting God’s creation.
It is that freedom, when body and verse and world click into place.
It is the liberation of knowing you are fully known.
As a child, I remember closing my eyes to imagine the feel of God’s love. Would They feel like sand curving into my feet? Like another human hand – the feel of partnership, that soaring gift from God? Like the heavy warmth of sunlight? Like a breath of dry wind? Like the tremor of an earthquake? The swell of an ocean wave? The shadow of a cliff face?
What a beautiful, childlike thought, that we taste salvation not in spite of our bodies but through them. That when fully present in the gift of our bodies, God becomes visceral, becomes known. They are a vast God, a touchable God.
Sitting in the desert with a psalm, I feel Them more suddenly than I have at any moment over the past year, churning where the clouds roll and heave with dust. The edges of the sky gleam white, alive with fire, and I cannot help but feel as though God is winking at me.
Photo: Pixabay.com, cc0 https://pixabay.com/en/hills-flowering-desert-flowers-960125/