Rivers in the Desert

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By Rebecca Hall

Thus says the Lord,
    who makes a way in the sea,
    a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
    army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
    they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:16-19

Humans do not like change. We like stability and predictability. We like routine.  We like tradition. We like things the way they are supposed to be. Even the most flexible and adaptable among us have limits to how fast and often we are willing to change.  No one can deny that this pandemic time has tested all of our abilities to adapt.

We are not the first people to have our world ripped out from under us with little to no warning.  I was reminded of this as I reflected with a group of friends this week on the scripture above. In this passage, the Israelites were exiled in Babylon after their temple was destroyed.  Their way of life, their way of worship was gone in a flash.  They lost everything – their homes, their land, their ability to sacrifice in the Temple as they were taught. And they lamented these losses.  And they longed to return to the to the way things were.  And in the middle of their lament God brings these words of comfort and insight:

Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

During their time in exile, the Israelites remained God’s chosen people– they remained a community.  But they learned a new way of operating; they found a river in the desert.  They wrote down their psalms and their history and the stories that had always been told out loud.  They gathered in a new way. Eventually they did go back.  And they did rebuild the Temple. But their new ways – the ways they had learned in exile – were incorporated into their new life. 

I hear in these verses wisdom that we may need to hear right now as we lament the “former things” and “things of old” that have been taken from us.  We are in a hurry to “get back to normal”.  We do not like the change that we are experiencing – rightly.  What is there to like about pandemic, economic collapse, and social isolation?  But then I remember this: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

The other day I watched my son leisurely make his lunch – a simple, everyday task.  “Do you think we will ever go back to being busy?” I asked him.  He never had time to make his lunch before.  He lived 16-hour days of marching band practice and demanding high school classes followed by homework, concerts, football games, or contests.  He is but one of an entire generation driven to succeed through endless activities with virtually no down time.  Not exactly the kingdom of heaven.

Some of us are fortunate enough to work at home, drive less, and cause less traffic.  We have time for things like making sourdough bread, gardening, and fostering abandoned kittens. There is less air and water pollution. We walk and bike more. We recognize the importance of – our dependence on – essential workers in our food supply chain from the farmers to the truckers to the processers to the grocery store workers.  We can see even more clearly than before the cracks in our society that need our attention. The abrupt halt in our way of life offers an opportunity to attend to these cracks.  Could these be some of the new things God is doing?

I don’t offer these examples forgetting the 100,000 who have died so far or the 36 million of us who are right now unemployed. We need to find a way to be safe, healthy, and employed.  In God all things are possible. God did not cause this change in our world.  Our God is not a God of change, but a God of transformation. Change is just making something different.  Transformation means making something Christ-like. This passage offers us words of caution – to not be attached to the way things were, because perhaps God wants to co-create with us, out of all this mess, an even better world. We are living through inordinate pain right now, but God is with us.  And if we allow it, maybe, just maybe, as we put our world back together we can make it look more like Jesus than it did before.

While we stagger through the wilderness, God offers us “new ways” and “rivers in the desert.”  I see Zoom and Facebook Live as present-day examples, although they are (hopefully) not the promised land.  What “former things” or “things of old”, even if not inherently bad, might we be holding onto so tightly that we can’t see where God is trying to help us transform our world, our church, or our lives?  And what surprising rivers in the desert have bubbled up in your life as signs that God is present and indeed making things new?  I invite your comments and conversation below.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Irit

    I love “Change is just making something different. Transformation means making something Christ-like”. So true.

  2. April Kerwin

    Thank you very much for inspiring me today. Your words have resonated a part within me that is calling for a slower pace of life going forward. A less busy time with a focus on the people around me.
    In gratitude for your work, April

    1. theabbey

      Thanks, April! I hope we all get to slow down a little.

  3. Carolyn Cornell

    The many who have called… reached out to me to check that I’m alright.. providing a ‘straight to the essence of our lives’ in being there. That acknowledging of how vulnerable we are to this virus threat; the comfort of love that is made very real by those calls and assists. Shameless weeping is my body’s expression of the sorrow many are experiencing. We are at the mercy of our most basic needs: shelter, food, water and community. No more taking for granted … ‘availability’! St. Benedictine’s Way has brought me much closer to a solid source of loving order. Two books that came my way previous to this pandemic have been based on his life …. coincidence? I don’t think so.

    1. theabbey

      Thank you for offering your “rivers”. Yes! The Benedictine way is so life-giving, especially in these times. I’m glad you had some books to sustain you through this. Definitely not a coincidence!

  4. Caroline

    Rebecca I am reminded of my mother after my father died followed by my brother, her first born. She would quote to me The first part of Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion……..for there our captors asked us for songs. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? That is how she felt, in a foreign land with my father and brother gone from her life. But then, through tears, she would look at me with her beautiful smile and tell me: but I know the Lord will teach me a new song. And He did.

    When I feel that I am in a foreign land, like these days, I can easily see my mother’s smile and her faith that the Lord will teach us a new song. But we must be quiet and listen, right? She reminds me to hold on to faith that He will teach us all a new song.

    Your piece was lovely and so very helpful, Rebecca. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with us.

    1. theabbey

      Thank you for your comment, Caroline, and for sharing the story about your mother. She sounds like a faithful and inspiring person.

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