Life in Death Valley: A New Year’s Reflection
“‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
After watching the fuel light flash on and the needle descend well below “E,” the feeling of relief in our rental car was palpable as Vince and I pulled into the only gas station for miles around. It was the Monday following Easter weekend, 2016, and having spent a week on the campus of ASU, we were taking a road trip to visit friends in California.
A detour through Death Valley had seemed like such a brilliant idea earlier in the day. However, once we lost phone signal, access to Google Maps, and consequently ourselves, and all of this before even reaching Death Valley, our foray into the desert was rapidly losing its allure.
Nevertheless, we pressed on down the dusty road, paying little heed to the absence of other travelers either coming or going en route: an absence that was abruptly explained by the barrier looming before us. Ironically, Bad Water road had flooded, leaving us at a “dead end.”
Defeated, we began driving back the way we came, when suddenly we spotted a weathered trail winding away towards the valley. And so we faced a choice: should we give up and take the long way around? Or, armed with out scant resources (namely, a bag of Cheetos and no phone signal), should we veer left and risk the pot-holed, unmarked track?
Upon reflection, that day in Death Valley sums up for me what I have heard many people say about their experience of 2017. Another year in which, culturally, our fixed poles have spun dizzyingly off-kilter, leaving us to navigate without a functioning compass. Another year to shatter the illusion that we have it all under control, and to shake us from the folly of expecting technological advances to save us. For some, it was a year of adventure, but not without its share of bumpy roads and flash floods. For others, it’s been a year of running low on fuel, and wondering where we can even go to get filled up. It’s been a year of risks without foreseeable rewards, of barren landscapes and disappointed hopes, of crushed dreams and even “dead ends.”
In his poem “A Dream Within A Dream,” the poet Edgar Allan Poe hauntingly gives voice to this aching feeling of disillusionment:
“I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
In his lament, Poe taps into the question we are all wrestling with: is there anything of substance for us to hold on to? When most of us are uncertain as to how we even got here, what hope do we have of figuring out where we’re headed?
And yet, the people of God have wandered in the desert before. No matter how unfamiliar the path to us, God has not lost his way. Even at their bleakest moment, taken captive by their enemies and exiled from their promised land, God still called out to his people to open their eyes:
“See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.”
We may feel like the world is slipping through our fingers, but God’s grip remains secure. As one student at the Zacharias Institute recently shared, “God’s in control. it’s his universe. You may think you’re in control, but you don’t have a universe!” And what does the One who is seated on the throne say? “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
Vince and I took the path through the valley and, potholes notwithstanding, we were so glad that we did.
You see, most of the time Death Valley is a hot, dry landscape. But every decade or so, fluctuations in temperature between the ocean and the atmosphere create an unusually warm weather phase known as El Niño. And when El Niño comes to Death Valley, the desert experiences a “superbloom”: a meadow of vibrant wildflowers sweeping across the entire valley, as far as the eye can see.
How fitting it is that El Niño, “the little boy,” refers to the Christ child; for only the coming of God into our world could draw such glorious life out of a place of death. What a perfect way to spend the Monday after Easter; for it is solely on account of the resurrection of Jesus that we find ourselves ever being made new. This is a truth that our dearly missed brother Nabeel Qureshi understood and lived by. As he said,
What the resurrection means is that, if it comes to a point in your life where it seems like there is no hope, that even death is inevitable and there’s no way to escape it…. Death is not the end. There’s more. There’s hope no matter what.
The year 2017 was a year like any other: a year of struggle and adventure, of disappointment and wonder, of being lost and found, of endings and beginnings. And yet, weaving all of it together was our astonishing God, the One who bends down to the dust and breathes into it his very own breath, the breath of life. Another year where the coming of the Christ child led people out of darkness and into the light of life.
Whatever else may come, we can look forward to 2018 confident that He will continue to do the same—that with God, it will indeed be another “superbloom” year. As 2018 begins, let’s turn to the One seated on the throne, the God whose words are a sure and tender promise for us to orient ourselves towards as we step out once more:
“Behold! I am making all things new.”