The dehydrated ground, with cracked skin begging for water, crumbled beneath our feet. With each step that skin turned to dust, until we reached the gathering of chairs, friends, flannels, blankets, tin mugs full of coffee, and a guitar. My dear friend settled into her chair as I nestled into a blanket on the dry ground, just as the first rays of morning started to breathe over the mountaintop.
For less than 48 hours, we had gathered with 50ish friends and friends-in-the-making to contemplate and celebrate Easter… in Death Valley. Its name does not lie. This place is barren, hot and dry, and it’s only April. It has that sort of heat that causes nosebleeds, sandpaper lips, and delirium. It’s a desert so desolate that its only carpets are salt flats. Even the water dries up before reaching the ground, leaving only the salt to settle into the valley.
And yet, here is where we gathered to spend the weekend hiking, sleeping under the stars, laughing with new friends, sharing some Bourbon, and asking each other, “What has the resurrection meant to you this year?”
At least it’s a simple question.
As I listened to my new friend’s varied responses, which were refreshingly non-churchy, I felt a stream spring up to wash out some of the muck I’ve internalized in the past year. And while my little internal cleanse was going on, I just kept wondering what the heck does the resurrection mean to me? It used to mean a constant dance through life because Jesus made life so good, that since He is risen everything must be and feel perfect all the time. But after a year of constant eye contact with the finality of death, permanent sickness, and longsuffering, the resurrection feels a bit more like, well at least as I’m face-planting through all my dance moves, Jesus is alive to laugh at me.
But the irony of celebrating something like the resurrection of Jesus in a place called Death Valley is that you can’t really miss the metaphor.
As the sun’s forehead peaked over the mountaintop, my eyes noticed the details in the broken earth, and as I picked up the crusty top layer, it crumbled into dust in my fingertips. As I watched the sun move higher into the sky to ignite the valley with celebration of Jesus’ arising, and as I ground the particles of dust between my thumb and index finger, I remembered the first time God spoke life into a human. At the creation of Adam, God chose the dust to build a masterpiece. It wasn’t the trees, the ocean, the reeds, or the flowers. The dust was his medium. The complexity that is our human body was literally drawn from the dust that clings to our clothes, turns our feet an ashy gray, stings our eyes, and chokes our throats.
We arise from the dust as God’s “very good” creation because only He can take the barren desert and, from it, form a being created in the image of Himself. That which came from the dust pleased God more than the power of His ocean, the whisper of His trees, the glory of His setting sun. And if God literally spoke this “very good” creation into being from the dust, then why do we, or maybe just I, try so hard to avoid the desert?
This year, Jesus died in the desert. But He also rose in the desert, in Death Valley, on Sunday. He didn’t wait for me to reach the mountaintop, to gruelingly make it out of the desert, before gifting me with His abundant life. It was handed to me while my feet were an unhealthy gray of clinging dust, my lips permanently begging for Chap Stick, my behind resting on the uneven parched earth, and no promise that I would be exiting the desert anytime soon.
So as I sat in the barren land with coffee in a tin mug, leaning on a sis whose seen me at my worst, singing to our resurrected Jesus with 50 twenty-somethings who admit that life can really suck, both a smirk and a tear marked my face. It’s a wonder how our gratitude for both the little and the big things settle into our gut only after knowing lack. This year, the resurrection was my reminder that our joy can be at its deepest while still living the unthinkable suffering, because we tend to know our need for a good laugh, and a living Jesus, when our tears are in abundance.