Thursday, September 6, 2018

Badlands meandering

I just returned from a lightning fast trip to the North Dakota badlands with two of my brothers. Lots of hours on the road, lots of hours sitting on a hilltop with binoculars glassing for deer. Lots of time to ponder. Absolutely gorgeous country. Beauty looks a little different in the badlands. There are the crazy hills and hillsides, of course, and the overwhelming array of flowers if you know where to look. But so much beauty in that dry country is about water -- full waterholes in the coulee bottoms, yes, of course. That's an obvious one. Standing pools in the channel that runs along the bottom of the canyon is another. Grass that grows faster than the free range cattle can eat it down, so the pastures look lush. They're not lush by Minnesota standards. It's a brownish vibrance that you feel more than see. Grass stems have just a hair of flex to them. And the red grass is long and dense where it grows on the hillsides. The Dakota used to call September the moon of the red grass, and out there you can see why. Beauty is subtle in dry country. The chokecherries full and juicy in clusters on the branch, or wild plums growing (right in the little hollow we camped!) full and fat and red, sweet and delicious. Beauty is subtle here.

Except when it's not. Except when it's awesome and overwhelming, when it threatens to destabilize you if it doesn't kill you first. We had a major thunderstorm graze us to the southeast -- we caught less than a quarter inch of rain, along with a smattering of hailstones, but the roiling purple-and-dazzling-white clouds filled more than half the sky and set off the colors in the hills like some modern artist's tortured palette. The wild rose hips and the berries on what I'd always thought was some kind of Russian olive vied to be the brightest red.

We ended up tracking a buck Monday night, and out there on the buttes as the clock edges toward midnight it is a world without a roof. Draco writhes between the Dippers, and Cygnus soars overhead while Cassiopeia gazes on from her chair. James Taylor kept running through my head: "At night the stars, they put on a show for free ..." I'll admit I was distracted by the impulse to keep running my dimming flashlight along the hilltops and the creek bottom looking for eyes, after the adventure we had a year ago getting trailed by two mountain lions in a similar situation. But the cats stayed away this year, or at least we didn't see them. I'm okay with that.

Some of the quiet times on the hills I pondered a line from Oswald Chambers. He distinguishes between waiting for Jesus and waiting with Jesus. Basically it made me think that I have spent a lot of my time waiting for Jesus to show up, to do something, to change things. I have too often slipped into the arrogance of believing that he is in some sense holding out on me, contrary to all Jesus himself teaches about the character of God throughout the gospels (see Luke 11, for example). Chambers pushes me to consider that maybe Jesus is waiting for the same things I am, if my desires are indeed shaped by his character and his Word. So maybe if I get this right I'm not frustrated, agonizing for him to act, but he is patiently waiting with me, eager as I am for the visions he's given me to be revealed. Maybe he limits himself to wait in submission to the natural processes of his own good creation -- for relationships to be healed and restored, for skills to develop, for me to grow toward maturity and strength, for sinful behaviors to have their devastating consequence so that brokenness can take its course and change can occur.

It was a shift for me, this idea of waiting with Jesus, of him waiting with me. It turned me away from my all-too-common impatience to consider that perhaps, if I have let myself be shaped by his Spirit, he is longing for the same things I am, and we are in this thing together. It's not that he doesn't have power to make things happen, but the triumphalism we so often employ to make Jesus a mighty conqueror instead of a patient craftsman is part of the problem, I think. His craftsmanship is so incredibly apparent in the badlands, in those long hours of contemplating the landscape through 10X binoculars. And moment by moment, in the depths of my heart a part of me turned to prayer, praying for his craftsmanship in my own life, in the people I love, in the church that frustrates and inspires me. Can he carve my heart, or theirs, with the same geologic patience he uses to shape that intricate, confusing landscape? I believe so. And if I let him do that painstaking work, the vistas along the way are, yes, gorgeous, lovely in a hard-edged but tender way that nourishes and reflects my own soul.

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