April 18, 2007

Ditches in the Desert

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1).*
2007 1511 page24 capemories have power. Sights, smells, and sounds can bring back joy or terror with intensity. Geriatric care specialists say that Alzheimer’s patients can be calmed by the singing of hymns they used to hear even when they can no longer remember the identity of the singer. We should hope that the memories of grace and love run deep and true in our spirit to carry us home when we are no longer able to find the way ourselves.
I stand on the edge of a hotel parking lot beside an Arizona canal. Luxury condominiums and high-rise office buildings have replaced the citrus groves and cotton fields that the canal once irrigated. This is urban desert now, the habitat of luxury pickup trucks, but I hear the sound of water tumbling over a lowered weir gate and I remember grace.
Streams always reflect what has happened between their source and the present. The pooling behind dams upstream can raise the water temperature, even as they retain silt and debris. Discharges of wastes can rob the water of oxygen and life and the power of the flow to cleanse. Salts leached from irrigated fields can turn the water into a brackish destroyer rather than a bringer of life.
2007 1511 page24Flowing water carries with its current a sense of past that can stir memories and longings from deep in a soul that’s far from home. The Hebrew exiles sat on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates and remembered with bitter sorrow what they had lost. But streams flow into the future and they carry hope as well.
What brings me to the luxury hotel behind the canal bank is a health-care law compliance conference, a twenty-first-century testament to the legal consequences of the sins of greed and dishonesty. It is a myth of our times that if you pass enough laws and keep adopting regulations, fairness and healing will occur. What happens, in fact, is that costs, fear, and loathing all increase. It’s a mess. That unfortunate mess is work for lawyers and forensic accountants. Jesus had a pithy saying applicable to this situation: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37).
So I slipped out in the afternoon sun to the dirt bank of the canal to watch the water for a moment and listen to its sound. I know that the water comes from the wilderness of the White Mountains to the east. A government agency channels every possible spring, creek, and river up there into the Salt River and then into its reservoirs and canals.
It is the fine irony of the desert that it is fertile if it is watered. Water in the desert is a particular metaphor for God’s grace.
“He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in; they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield” (Ps. 107:35-37).
I am not a child of the desert. I was born and reared where it rains enough to grow giant redwoods. I am a long way from home, doing dry work in a dry land. But a thirsty child of God is always within the reach of his mercy if they still believe in its power. Jesus cried out the invitation of the Holy Spirit to a people confused and parched by their efforts and failures: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37, 38).
But how does the fainting soul, exhausted and exposed, access this limpid, refreshing grace? Ask God, inquire of the Lord, where grace might be found in the midst of desolation.
Once in such a situation resulting from a well-intended human strategy gone very bad, leaving the armies of three kings stranded in the desert, the prophet Elisha was called upon for a word of guidance from the Lord. He meditated, and then gave the desperate kings of Judah, Israel, and Edom this strange instruction: “Dig ditches in the desert. The Lord says you won’t see wind or rain, but the valley will be filled with water. Then you, your cattle, and your other animals can drink. This is easy for the Lord to do. . . . The next morning, during worship, suddenly water flowed in the desert and filled the valley” (2 Kings 3:17-18a, 20, paraphrase).
The enemy Moabites saw the sun reflecting on the water, thought it was blood from the treachery of the three kings against each other, foolishly charged into the valley, and were destroyed in the resulting ambush.
It takes faith to dig ditches in the desert. To do so when there is no water in sight and you are facing attack seems incredible. You wonder if the seeds of hope that you have planted will grow even if they are watered. You may see no

Questions for Reflection

1. Think of a time when you stumbled upon reminders of grace in the unlikeliest of places. Share the experience with someone.

2. What does "being spiritual" mean to you? How do we practice the presence of God amid the humdrum of daily meetings and appointments?

What strategies have you learned to utilize the words of Scripture, hymns, and other devotional instruments to enhance your awareness of God and of grace?

clouds in the distance or smell no rain on the wind, but your choice is to continue to dehydrate and wither away or to prepare the ditches for the blessing of God.

You dig those ditches in your dry soul with prayer. What seems impossible to you is easy for the Lord to do in a heart prepared for grace. It will bring life to you and those who depend on you and it will confuse your enemy.
In the unlikely spot of a hotel parking lot beside an irrigation canal in the desert, outside of a discussion of the futile best that humans can do without God, I hear the ancient sound of water flowing and I remember the words of an old, but gracious and ever-true hymn:
      “Jesus, keep me near the cross;
     There a precious fountain
     Free to all, a healing stream,
     Flows from Calvary’s mountain.”
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).
* Bible texts in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Kent A. Hansen is a business lawyer in Corona, California. He also serves as general counsel to the Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center. He is the author of the new book Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing the Love of God Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press.