For about the last year, I have been worshiping with the community of St. Luke’s Lutheran of Logan Square — on the Sundays I haven’t been preaching elsewhere, of course. I chose St. Luke’s because they are a vibrant and visionary community that had the courage to sell their building and open up shop in a storefront, and because of their deep commitment to social justice — and also, largely, to “low-key stalk” my dear friend Erin while she completed her internship year there.
Anyhoo, one of the neat things St. Luke’s does is to engage the congregation in a regular practice of testimony, often inviting laypeople to prepare testimonies from their own lives around a certain theme to read in worship. This past Sunday was my last Sunday at St. Luke’s before I move to New Mexico for internship (by the way, I’m moving to New Mexico for internship — forgot to make that announcement!). It seemed incredibly fitting that I should answer a question about experiencing God in the desert before embarking on a literal journey to a literal desert.
My testimony was related to the Hebrew Testament reading — Genesis 21:8-21 — in which Hagar and her son Ishmael are kicked out into the desert by Abraham’s wife Sarah. I was asked to respond to the question, “When was a time when you experienced God/good news in a place of isolation, abandonment, death?” This is what I wrote:
As some of you know, I grew up in a tiny town in rural Nebraska. It was kind of like the theme song from Cheers, where everybody knows your name – except it turns out that’s actually not as happy as it sounds like it might be, and I wasn’t yet old enough to drink.
I went to a K-12 school with kids who bullied me from the time we started kindergarten through our high school graduation. They made fun of me for my weight, for my glasses and braces, for being the daughter of a teacher, and for my love of books. And after my mom died from cancer when I was nine, some of them even made fun of me for being a latchkey kid.
So when I finally got to college, it felt like I was finally free. I had the chance to make real friends and to explore my identity and my beliefs about the world. So it came as kind of a surprise to me that I suddenly found myself dealing with deep, deep depression.
As a kid, when I was feeling sad or lost, I was taught to pray, and even after my mom died, I would pray angry prayers at God, demanding to know why ‘HE’ took my mom away. But as I broke free of the conservative political and religious atmosphere in which I’d been raised, I also broke away from the church. And in the midst of my depression, I found myself in a spiritual desert, without my faith to ground me, without a God to confide in or to pray to or even to be angry with. I still carried all the emotional baggage of my difficult childhood, and the weight of grief from my mother’s death, and along with the academic demands of college, it was all just completely overwhelming.
My saving grace was one new friend, whose name – of all things – was Sara. Sara was my friend through sheer, stubborn force of will. She was a tiny, cute, vivacious fireball of a person who hung out with sorority girls and tried out for the dance team; and I never understood why she was so hell bent on being friends with me. Sara was also profoundly Catholic, and her devout faith sort of kept me in touch with the church by proxy.
One night, we were hanging out in her dorm room, and we ended up watching The Time Machine. In the movie, the main character builds a time machine to go back in time and save his fiancée from being killed. However, after a couple of failed attempts, there’s an accident and he ends up hundreds of thousands of years in the future. He never manages to go back to fix his tragic past, and instead he ends up starting a relationship with a new woman in the future. When the movie ended, I was unexpectedly devastated. I was really emotionally invested in the idea of going back to fix the past, and deeply disappointed when it never happened.
I realized that I had been holding on to the pain of my own past, stubbornly holding out for some kind of resolution that wasn’t going to come, unable to let go and move forward with my life. That night, Sara held me and let me cry on her shoulder for a long time. And she gently suggested that I take my pain to God in prayer, especially since I clearly still blamed God for everything that had happened. And in that moment, when I was free-falling into sadness, it suddenly felt like strong arms had caught me. The God whose church I had fled from at the earliest opportunity had tracked me down into the desert through this one, blessedly stubborn friend.
Sara was my well in the wilderness, a lifeline when I needed it most. That friendship was a sign to me that God will always follow us into even the harshest desert. Even when we feel lost, when our relationship with God feels broken, God uses whatever it takes to reach us and to help us survive, whether it be a magically appearing well, a scapegoat for childhood anger, or even a blessedly stubborn friendship.