At daybreak Jesus departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. – Luke 4:42 (NRSV)
Last winter, on retreat in New Mexico, I spent one whole day hiking the Zuni-Acoma Trail. Fifteen miles out-and-back over rough volcanic rock. The rugged footpath has long connected the two pueblos for which it is named. A lifeline through the high desert. A hard and beautiful place.
But the first European people in the area called it El Malpais, “the badlands.” A friend who teaches recreation and ecotourism said, “That’s the name white people used for any land they couldn’t make money off of.”
The word used to describe the place where Jesus hikes in the early morning in Luke 4 gets translated variously as “deserted” or “desert.” As “isolated” or “solitary.” As “lonely” or simply “a place where he could be alone.”
The variation may have something to do with how the translators feel about such spaces. The unproductive ones. Away from the crowds. Away from the work. The places and times where nothing is grown, or built, or extracted.
I struggle with them myself. Especially this nearly two-year-long one. This season when it feels like I have gotten so little done. Made such scant progress. This rough and rugged stage of the journey. What has it been for?
Maybe to remind me that life has value whether it is “for” anything at all. That a place and a time can be beautiful and good even (perhaps especially) when they are useless.
And maybe a person too.
God give me the blessing that is before and beyond anything I do.
Vince Amlin is co-pastor of Bethany UCC, Chicago, and co-planter of Gilead Church Chicago, forming now.