Another day in Lent, another photo from my files, and another reflection. This time, the desert.

I had to be careful that I didn’t type dessert. That image would have been much more appealing. The sweet, luscious, delectable conclusion to a meal. Something chocolate. Chock full of calories.

Whenever I think of desserts during Lent, two occasions come to mind. I once spoke at an Episcopal church at their Lenten  mid-week program. We began with dinner, but no dessert. They had given up desserts for Lent. I still remember how disappointed I was. And then there was the movie we went to a couple of years later: “Chocolat.” It told the story of the opening of a confectionary shop in a French town (the specialty was chocolate, of course), and it was Lent. Church vs. chocolate.

Isn’t dessert the opposite of desert? One thing is mouth-watering and appealing; the other is sere and threatening.

Before you saw today’s photo, what image did the word desert prompt? Hot, dry expanses of yellow sands? Death Valley? A barren landscape with only the occasional cactus in view? The derivation of the word desert includes the idea of being forsaken. It is a wasteland. The scriptures say that Jesus had been led (or driven!) by the Spirit into “the wilderness.” And in that deserted place, he spent forty days, without groceries or human company. Certainly no desserts.

But then there is this: the Painted Desert in 892-1Arizona. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. Wondrous, and enchanting. But still a wasteland. There are specks of greenery that persist there. But there are also ancient remnants of what once was alive, but now is the Petrified Forest.

While majestic to the eye, this might still be a dangerous place to be lost, if it were not the U.S Parks Service. When we were there wandering the desert floor, wondering at the natural beauty and wide expanse of the place, we saw only three or four other explorers. For much of the time, we were alone there. But we knew the borrowed RAV4 was nearby, and we carried water with us, and we were not afraid since we were never far from trails and markers. But still. Imagine.

Once when my son Jim and I were backpacking along the Appalachian Trail, the spring we had counted on for refilling our canteens had run dry, and we still had some miles to go. We rationed, but knowing that we were near a rendezvous point where our ride would meet us, we finished our water. And then the car didn’t come. The longer we waited, the more I began to worry. The thirstier I got. This wasn’t a desert, of course, but it was close to being a wilderness. Especially if the car had never shown. (After a delay, it did arrive, and a few feet down the road, we passed a home with a hose laying there in the yard. We weren’t that desperate.)

Every life involves wilderness trails and desert trials. Times of abandonment. Emptiness. Gnawing anxiety or sudden panic. And few if any resources within reach. We are all tested. And there is nothing beautiful about it. Until we are saved. Rescued. Sometimes, we just find our own way home, to the un-wasteland, that is, the welcoming place, a bountiful table of love, grace, acceptance, and peace. Other times, we find an outstretched hand and thank God for compassionate friends, or angels.

Desolate or breathtakingly beautiful, there is the desert in our sojourn. Whether it threatens or beckons, there we are.

And there’s Jesus, led there, driven, sent, but there! Does that sound too pious coming from me? I can’t help it; I have to believe it.

I’ll take pious over petrified anytime.

[Oh, just for the fun of it, did you know that the derivation of the word dessert (as in chocolate pudding topped with fresh whipped cream) comes from the French, and means something like “clearing the table?” Maybe like making the table into an empty place, a desert in the dining room? I love this language stuff.]