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  • Gwen Hanna

Desert Living


My daughter is going on a study trip to Israel this summer. As I watch her prepare, share my memories, and ponder those lessons that have stayed with me all these years, this one seems fitting to share first.

Life is tough in the desert. It’s dry, hot, thirsty, and rocky. And it can be a lonely place when your only focus is on survival. The Israelites knew the struggle … called from Egypt where slavery was hard but essentials of life were provided to the desert, so harsh that you can only survive if you carry your food and water with you. Or if your mighty God does miracles and feeds you the food of angels (called manna) and gushes out fresh water from a rock. Only he could do something like that and give you sandals that don’t wear out as well! (See Nehemiah 9:19.)

In January 2003, as I was walking and praying, God caught my attention by letting me know that he was calling me to walk with him in the desert. He didn’t tell me what was going to cause the heat and discomfort; he just encouraged me to get ready. How does one get ready to go to the desert? Run the other way in fear? Ask why? Or, as I am grateful for, go to more prayer, more Bible reading and studying, and drink deeply from the well of faith? It wasn’t long and I started feeling the heat! I found a breast lump; my youngest daughter burned her finger badly and then broke a bone in her foot. At my pre-op exam we discovered an enlarged thyroid which also threatened malignancy. Work had been in a difficult transition time with a few very difficult issues weighing us down. Even our church had been feeling severe stress. Life usually has its challenges, but these seemed hotter than ever!

But when you walk in the desert with God, there are amazing blessings:

Shade, just enough and just when you need it most (like just enough to cool you just enough not to die of heat exhaustion! – put your head under the Broom tree, forget that tall glass of lemonade under the sprawling oak!). God gives me his shade through praying and caring friends.

Rest. It might be on a two-minute rock (you know the kind … rough and pointy in all the wrong places but a place to stop just the same), but it is a place to revive enough to go on. God gives me this in teaching tapes and Bible study groups. I have been inspired by others’ passion for Jesus.

And a refreshing drink from the spring of living water himself. Living water is that which comes directly from God in rain, snow, run off … not collected in a cistern. God revived me and challenged me with many thoughts about living water. In two places in the book of John Jesus refers to himself as living water (John 4:10-14; John 7:37-39). First he tells the Samaritan woman to ask him for living water so she’ll never thirst again. “The water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14). And then at the Feast he calls the million plus at the temple to come to him. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (7:37).

In the desert I have come to realize more and more how thirsty I am. As I have looked around at fellow believers and those around me who may not believe, I can easily see how thirsty we all are! Life is harsh, hot, dry, thirsty, and rocky. We need to drink from Jesus to even sustain our lives! But it doesn’t stop there. When we drink from him, we will be filled to overflowing … we then become the source of life to those around us walking around in their deserts. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (7:38). We are God’s answer to those stumbling around us who are hot and thirsty and in need of great shade!

And when we are conduits, overflowing sources of life, we can change the world! Skip over to Revelation 22 – “Then the angel showed me the river of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God … On each side of the river stood the tree of life … and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22:1-2). Jesus is the living water. When we drink from him we won’t thirst, our friends and neighbors gain a source of life and refreshment, and even the nations will find their healing! What an amazing gift!

One of the memory verses in Community Bible Study course I took on Isaiah was this promise: “The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (58:11). Are you drinking from the spring of living water? Are you the cool refreshment that other desert-walkers need so desperately? Or are you (am I) the log jam, the one who causes life to be stale and harsh? I pray that you will also be drawn to the Spring to be refreshment to the thirsty world around you.

P.S. That was in 2003. In March a benign breast lump was removed. In August I had my entire thyroid removed because of large nodules causing various troubles. After adjusting to the medications fairly easily, I was feeling good and by the spring of 2003 I believed that I had survived the desert, life was getting to feel more like that tall glass of lemonade under the sprawling oak. I had survived it and was moving on. Or was I?

In April of 2004 my husband surprised me with a trip to Hawaii … one in which I didn’t know the destination until we got on the plane! We were celebrating – health, marriage growth, surviving the desert. In May his control of his addiction began to unravel … On June 30, a friend came with the sad information which I knew meant I needed to confront. By July 7 he was turning himself into authorities having confessed to terrible things, including the abuse of my daughters. Life as we knew it would never be the same … and from this vantage point, I wouldn’t want it to be the same.

But as life got cozy, as I felt we were with in sight of the promised land and enjoying the grapes brought back, I wanted less and less of desert living … less of God’s daily presence in the pillar of smoke. I am not saying my loss of focus caused our ailments or that God wanted to get my attention. I am saying that God is the God of the desert. If I ask him to draw me near to him, to make me like him, to show me his power, there is probably going to have to be some time spent relying on him in the desert. That’s where I see him most clearly, that’s where I feel him most tangibly, that’s where I push aside the stuff of life to focus on survival … and that only comes when I receive his water from a rock and manna from heaven, and know that I can only live if I stay with him.

July 7, 2004, I did an about-face and returned to desert living. What I thought had been the hottest before turned out to be just a hint of what could be. The desert is hot, blistering my head all the way to my heart. But, God is my shade, my rest, and my refreshing drink. He alone can give me what I need most … and give my heart a song … in the midst of it all.

Oh God, my shade, my rest, my living water.

Thank you for your provision for me in the desert.

Thank you for the gift of drawing near to you,

understanding you in your suffering better,

being totally dependent on you for life.

Thank you that you know my needs far better than I,

and meet those needs beyond my hopes and dreams.

I love you.


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