Tears, Whiskey, and Hope in the Desert

A few weeks ago I sat at the kitchen table in a quiet farmhouse next to my uncle, feeling a strange mix of fear and peace, while tears streamed down his rough, dusty face. Beside him was a half empty bottle of liquor and Uncle Ted took intermittent swigs from it as he poured out his heart to me. Minutes ago I had driven forty-some winding, washboard, dirt-road miles to Juniper Mountain, my Aunt and Uncles’ ranch. To me it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have gone to the mountain many times, for cattle drives, round ups, brandings, and other adventures for as long as I can remember, but this trip to the mountain was markedly different.

I came alone. When I arrived the ranch was missing its usual bustle of cowhands, the many horses, cows, and dogs hanging around the farmyard, and most noticeably, the ranch missed its brightest, most uplifting individual: Aunt Dot. Cancer had forced Aunt Dot to leave the ranch and join family in town, closer to the hospital. I had come to take photos of the ranch, so she could see it in the beginning stages of Spring since she could not be there in person. Her upbeat presence was noticeably missing though in the farm house as Ted and I talked at the table. This far in the mountains meant no power lines and the generator that powered the house sat dead during the daylight, so we sat there uliminated only by the grey sky through the windows. Ted never was much on drawn out heartfelt conversions, but circumstance and liquor gave him an openeness I had never seen before.

When we first sat down at the table, he looked at me, then at the bottle at the table, and said, “You don’t drink this stuff yet do you?” I nervously laughed and replied negatively. He thought a moment, then agreed, choking up as he said it, “Good, it’s best you don’t get a taste for it.” Uncle Ted had battled long with alcoholism, and as we sat there he told me of the struggle. The most recent sober period had been interrupted when the grief of Aunt Dot’s illness was too much to bear. He told me of the pain watching Aunt Dot suffer and he wished he could take her place. With tears tracking down his face he told me stories of her riding wild bucking horses, and the other amazing things that Aunt Dot regularly did. He told me of the hardship of being a cowpoke in a modern world, where he sees semi trucks haul cattle through canyons he used to arduously herd them through on horseback. He was truly broken by Aunt Dot’s illness, by being drunk, by everything. And he wondered why such hard things had to happen. We spoke of the Lord, and of hope in him, but while I tried to tell him otherwise, he was not exactly sure God could love a “SOB” like him. I hoped it was just the booze talking.

The rare conversation has stuck with me ever since.

 Why do bad things happen? Why is Aunt Dot dying from cancer? Why can’t Uncle Ted break free from booze?

Why does this world have so much pain in it? 

 I don’t ever truly wrestle with this question till grief hits me smack in the face. You can tell someone to “smile anyways” or to “man up” or whatever, but that still does not change the situation. There are bad things that happen in the world, and many non-believers use this as a reason to keep their distance from God. 

 “How could a loving God allow…?” 

 Well I don’t know much, but I know this:

 1) We live in a fallen world. The world is not perfect, and unfortunately we kinda brought it on ourselves. The same way a toddler touches a hot stove, our sin has caused the world to be full of maladies from thorn bushes to diseases. Not a “God hates your guts” thing, but a wholescale curse, from the day Adam and Eve sinned. The world has been broken.

 2) We are spiritual beings, and while physical and temporal affliction is no fun, the world is a fleeting dot on the page of eternity. We will soon meet eternal joy or sorrow. The choice is yours.

 3) While hardships are tough to bear, if we stay close to the Lord, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and allow him to work in our hearts, we can truly have joy despite the pain. It’s super cliche, but I’ve heard it this way: sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes God calms us throughout the storm. Either way, if we allow him to, he can work out sorrow for good. 

 Sometimes no matter what we try, or how hard we pray, painful things still happen. But while the situation can stay the same, we don’t have to. We don’t have to put on a false happy face, or a emotionally driven fake joy that will turn to depression the next moment, but a firm hope in the comfort of God’s love. He has died for us. He created us. The very fact that we are mourning means we have something to lose, that we have good things in life. 

Only when we are broken before the Lord can he start a new work in us. As we near Easter, we can look to the picture of Christ as an example: Only when he was murdered on our behalf, did our new life in Christ begin. The seed must go into the ground before springing forth to life.

 While I was driving off the mountain, I saw the many Juniper trees dot the barren sage brush covered plains. I wondered how the green trees survived out in the high desert mountains. 

 Even in the desert of our circumstances, our souls can bring forth life through Christ. 

Isaiah 41:18-21

18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
    and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
    and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert
    the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
    the fir and the cypress together,
20 so that people may see and know,
    may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    that the Holy One of Israel has created it.



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