Growing in the Desert

World Challenge Staff

Jesus told his followers that with God, all things are possible, but do we actually believe that?

“The vast autonomous republic in western Uzbekistan, spanning the Aral Sea, is an environmental disaster zone,” The Economist noted. “Soviet-era central planners sucked the sea dry to irrigate cotton fields, turning the world’s fourth-largest lake into a puddle. The roads around Nukus, the region’s capital, are crusted with salt, a memory of the dried-up sea.

Around 90 percent of the sea is gone now. The exposed seabed stretches for barren miles where most plants, animals and people cannot survive. Some areas of the seabed are so toxic that the area has occasionally been called ‘the silent Chernobyl.’ One of the islands, Aralsk-7, was a secret research facility where the Soviet government was studying bio-weapons. Plague-laden rats were escaping the facility, and this combined with growing desert wiped out villages. The parched dirt in other areas is filled with salt and pesticides that were dumped into the sea; breathing in the dust-laden air can cause cancer, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis or a variety of respiratory diseases. Much of the landscape looks like the surface of the moon.

In an interview with National Geographic, a local named Yusup Kamalov said, “This is what the end of the world looks like. If we ever have Armageddon, the people of Karakalpakstan are the only ones who will survive because we are already living it.”

In these empty stretches of seabed, though, there is a spark of new life.

The Economist wrote, “Cotton is still the agricultural mainstay, but now liquorice [licorice for those of us in the U.S.] fields are popping up all over. The root crop has been cultivated in Central Asia for millennia, but it is becoming a booming business for dried-out Karakalpakstan. Not only does it grow well in salted land, says Khabibjon Kushiev, a biologist at Gulistan State University, it regenerates the land in the process by sucking salt out of the soil.”

The simultaneous fragility and resilience of the world and ourselves is a marvelous homage to a minutely attentive God who finds incredibly inventive ways to restore his creation.

There is an irony both gentle and lovely in the fact that a plant which is used to make sweet confectionary is helping to restore the earth that dictators and oppressed men once ruined. Moments like these glimmer with God’s humor and care in equal measures, his willingness to redeem what we imagine entirely beyond deliverance.

So many similar moments are found in the lives recorded between the Bible’s pages. Job’s life was torn apart by natural disasters, death, human evil and spiritual attack. His personal world became a wasteland on multiple levels. He lost his children, wealth, resources, health, community standing and confidence in God’s care for his life. God knew it was going to happen, and many people read this book of the Bible and ask, “Why does God allow evil to happen?” What if the greater question was “How does God reveal himself through the broken parts of the world and people?”

He has the power to undo everything evil, right? He could just snap his fingers and make the darkness go away. One day, he will do just that. For now, though, he chooses a quieter, more subtle way of eroding the destruction of sin.

This seeming paradox is poetically captured in one of Job’s laments where he says, “[God] has stripped from me my glory and taken the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope has he pulled up like a tree. …Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another (Job 19:9-10, 23-27, ESV).

Job prophetically knew that Christ would come to earth; he was granted some inkling that God’s redemption plan would take a wildly unlikely turn when the divine became flesh and stood among its creation on two dirty, callused feet. He knew that somehow while his body was being destroyed by age and disease in a most gruesome fashion, he would also stand in it before his Lord.

At the end of Job’s story, we’re told that his fortunes are restored and he has more children. They could have never replaced the children he lost, but they would have been an undeniable and probably unexpected blessing. Would they have ever been born if the horrors of those earlier chapters hadn’t happened? Possibly not.

God’s method of redeeming and creating in the middle of our brokenness seems to routinely take very unpredictable paths.

When everything in our pasts and present lives looks hopelessly barren, how do we anticipate God’s hand? How do we continue to hope for him to arrive when we’re told that his arrival rarely ever comes as anticipated?

On this theme, Claude Houde explored the life of Joseph in Genesis with Gary Wilkerson, and he noted, “I believe that through every season Joseph allowed God to to fashion his identity. The life that Joseph inherited at first…it was a dark, dark, dysfunctional home all around him. I mean, there’s murder, there's rape, there’s a toxic home and a passive father and all that that stuff.” Houde points next to the dream God gave Joseph of the sheaves of wheat bowing down. “Let God determine what his true sheaves for you are in this season. We have a tendency to want to pick the sheaves. 'This is my reward. This is my harvest. This is how God’s got me.’ You sow in tears; you walk, carrying the seed, and you're rejoiced bringing his sheaves in your life.”

He summarized his ideas with “One of the greatest dream killers, I find, is the timetables we set. ‘By this point, I should be there’ and the outward measures. I think one of the greatest dream feeders is ‘Where I am now, I'm serving passionately, and I'm putting all my gifts into this, and I'm serving, and I'm trusting God.’”

Perhaps the strangest part of our Christian walk is the necessity of acknowledging the devastation in our lives. We must be aware of how catastrophically sin has ravaged our hearts and world. Only then will we be paying close enough attention to actually witness God’s redemption in action. It can be incredibly tough, even outright depressing, to confront the darkness around us and within us. It can cause us to lament and even question if God is presence. However, you only get to see the sun rise if you watch the dark horizon, waiting, waiting, waiting in the chilly gloom.

Much of the Christian life is waiting in the dark desert and holding tight to the hope that Christ will enter into our most broken landscapes and begin to heal them. He rarely works how we image he will; he rarely snaps his fingers and makes all the gloomy barrenness disappear in an instant, not yet anyway. We want to rush him; we want to tell him how to get it done. We want the rapture, the book of Revelation and new Kingdom of God right now. The Father moves in his own way and time, though.

As we wait, we plant small seeds, toiling over what looks like toxic ground and trusting that Christ can create new life and healed land.