Sooner or later, our sacred stories — individual and communal — return to the desert. Jacob. Moses. Miriam. Hagar. Jesus. The Desert Mothers and Fathers. Sometimes we retreat there. Sometimes we are driven there against our will. Sometimes it is simply where we find ourselves. Regardless, we eventually dwell in that harsh and empty place where the line between life and death grows thin. However improbably, Scripture says that this is precisely the place where God’s promises begin to bloom. The prophet Isaiah wrote to a people in despair: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (35:1).
For many of us, wilderness is a metaphor. It can be understood as a spiritually renewing place to strip away distraction and re-center on God. It can represent the isolation sometimes felt in ministry and life. It can symbolize times of testing and temptation. It can suggest moving outside our comfort zones to places of uncertainty and risk, creativity and opportunity. Wilderness is also found in real places — from dying towns and blighted city neighborhoods, to the retreat spaces where we seek discernment and clarity.
Throughout Scripture and the history of the people of God, the wilderness is a place of radical change and reliance on God’s unwavering care.
At the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering, we will ask how the church can embrace a wilderness identity in pursuit of the hope, resilience, clarity, and resurrection so often found there. We’ll bear witness to promises blooming in desert spaces — from the corners of Baltimore City to wide open places to sprawling suburbs to coastal towns and every other space God calls us to be present. We’ll seek desert blossoms in our politics, our prayers, our pews, in each other and ourselves. We will find fellow travelers on the Holy Way. We will embrace the wildernesses of our present moment, trusting with the prophet Isaiah that there we “shall see the glory of the Lord” (35:2).