I shared this message at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s School for Leadership Training during Wednesday morning worship. This is my flustered and hopeful attempt to look at oasis in a new light so I may one day be bold enough to enter it.
Before Christmas break, my colleague Les asked if I would be interested in giving a message for morning worship during our School for Leadership Training conference. I quickly agreed, looking forward to another opportunity to use my gift of preaching (and to hear myself speak for a nice ego boost).
A week before the actual event, Les told me my topic: celebrating the oasis.
I instantly regretted taking on this gig.
Why did I have to talk about the oasis? What business did I have engaging the topic of rest and restoration? I’m a perpetual worrier, and I never feel like I “deserve” those rests. I can talk about the desert all day. I feel better in the desert. Maybe it’s because that’s what I think I deserve. I enjoy feeling busy and “useful” instead of lazy and “useless,” and somehow I’ve equated oasis with the latter.
But according to a note I wrote on Facebook about 7 years ago, when I was a freshman at Bridgewater College, I briefly understood the Oasis.
One March morning, I woke up around 8 AM with a mind full of thoughts and no way to get rid of them, so any further sleep on that dreary Saturday morning was out of the question. My solution? Go running.
I got my shoes, sweats, and sweater on, found my (even for its time) ancient iPod, put my earbuds in, and started running towards Wildwood Park, a place that I often went to for meditation and time away from the hustle and bustle of collegiate life. I ran (and walked) until I reached the park, and for some reason I decided to start walking back once I reached the park entrance. Other plans were in store for me, though. As I went to switch to the next song on my iPod, I realized it was frozen. Since I was and still am such a dunce with technology, I had no idea how to fix the problem, so I decided on a silent walk back.
I took a few steps, then paused, wondering if this was one of those moments of silence with God of which I should be taking advantage. I had been journaling and doing devotions on a daily basis, but now that I was in a secluded and quiet place, I felt I owed it to God to at least try to appreciate the silence.
I listened to the nudge and turned around to make my way to the area behind the waterfall. On my way, I saw ducks and geese waddling around and sleeping peacefully with their little heads tucked under their wings. I found a spot right on the bank and took a seat on the most comfortable looking rock. I gazed out at the water, the wildlife, the waterfall, the trees, everything that wasn’t school or friends or homework or relationships, and I felt content.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a verse from Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Psalm, popped into my head: “He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.”
Here I was, sitting next to a bank of completely still water, and I got it.
This was a very pivotal year for me. Between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I lost childhood friends and gained new ones. I entered my first serious romantic relationship and had my heart broken in the process. It seemed, at the time, to be the spiritual equivalent of taking one step forward and falling down the whole flight of stairs. Some of those broken relationships have, graciously, achieved some form of restoration, but at the time, the raw pain of loss permeated my everyday life. At the time, I believed that this moment by the calm water of Wildwood Park was God’s way of showing me that no matter how chaotic my life is, when I take the time out to spend it with this Mystery, I am lead to these quiet, peaceful moments of tranquility so that I may remember that Presence is always there and will never leave my side.
This note gives me hope, because today, almost 7 years later, I’m having a hard time with the concept of oasis. Actually, if I’m being honest, my 7 years younger self had a hard time with it, too. The me then and the me now feel hopeless with how little we have done and how futile our own efforts seem. Anytime we find ourselves approaching an oasis, we panic at the prospect of being there and take long detours around it. There’s still so much more to do, we’ve wondered aloud. I can’t possibly stay here. I haven’t done enough to deserve this. The world around me has so much pain. There’s racism and sexism and hunger and poverty, and my family and relationships aren’t as good and strong as they should be, and there’s personal and educational work I still need to do, and if it’s not done yet, I can’t afford to stop, because if I stop, everything else will fall around me. I haven’t done it all yet, so why should I rest now? We’re hard on myself, you see. And we’ve made the mistake of confusing the oasis with the Promised Land.
After all, it took a broken iPod to get me to sit down and actually be present. And it’s the broken iPod that gives me hope today.
I feel trapped in mental and emotional valley of the shadow of death, but in this valley, I have faith that my iPod will break again, that I will glance out of the corners of my eyes and notice the ducks resting with their heads under their wings, and that I will finally rest. I have faith that God will wake me up to rest, because even though I don’t want to be vulnerable, even though I don’t want to lose control of the world around me that I’m obviously exhibiting so much control over, even more than that, I don’t want to lose my soul. I don’t want to burn out, or cut myself off from God and others and the world around me, and the faith within me that is tinier than a mustard seed reminds me that I’ve been to the oasis before, in my most desperate times where I needed God’s restoration more than ever but still ran away from it.
I know there will come a time when God finally gets me out of my head and says, “Rest, my child, please, because the journey is long, and your cup is overflowing, and you have no reason to die out here in this desert because I am here and have more than enough to sustain you if you’ll just see it and partake of it.” I know there will come a time when I finally see the oasis right in front of me, and I will sit in its shade and drink of its waters and eat and be refreshed. And I know there will come a time when I sprint past it out of my own ill-founded self-righteousness, but it will always be there, and God will always get through to me.
Friends, I need help. I need help realizing the oasis is good. I need help letting go of my own Messiah-complex and living into this new identity as a little Christ but not Christ himself. I need help differentiating between complacency and rest, to walk out of the paralyzing power of fear and run into the arms of the One who called me to keep doing the next little right thing. I need help entering the oasis with you.