In her fine book, Dakota, Kathleen Norris writes about what she has learned from the fierce beauty of that vast stretch of the High Plains which serves as the beginning of the desert West. Sparsely populated, often barren, and frequently harsh, those plains are wilderness territory
Norris tells us that the farmers who live in the Dakotas describe their land as “next-year country”:
We hold on to hopes for next year every year in western Dakota: hoping that droughts will end; hoping that crops won’t be hailed-out in the few rainstorms that come; hoping that it won’t be too windy on the day we harvest, blowing away five bushels an acre; hoping (usually against hope) that if we get a fair crop, we’ll be able to get a fair price for it. Sometimes survival is the only blessing that the terrifying angel of the Plains bestows.
Many us know something about living in “next year country.” It is a place both harsh and holy, both barren and beautiful. It is a desert of delay and anticipation. Nearly all of us have lived, at least for a season, in next year country. It is the wilderness of waiting: for the trouble to blow over, for the pain to end, for the uncertainty to be resolved, for our doubts to end, for our struggle to be finished. Next year country can demand everything we’ve got, all the strength we can muster, just to hold on and hang in there for another year—or, maybe, just for another day, or even another hour.
When we live in next-year country, we have to get clear, maybe clearer than is, at first, comfortable for us, about what we may expect from God. We want a God who will immediately and dramatically take us out of “there”—out of the place of waiting. We learn, eventually, that faith is not a detour around difficulty. The God made known to us Jesus has not promised to protect us from all pain or shield us from all trouble. God has not promised to fence-off the wilderness, so that we never have to go there.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus show us what God has promised:
to be with us,
to befriend us,
to hold us,
to sustain our faith, our hope, and our love,
to give us a reason to live and the courage and comfort to die, and
to greet us on the other side of death with a fuller, more radiant and indestructible life.
We can depend on God to lead us to a peace that passes understanding, and to grant us a joy that exceeds our comprehension.. We can count on God never to leave us or forsake us, and we can trust that God will use whatever happens to us to make us like Jesus Christ.
The central promise of Christmas is that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and the bright promise can reach us even in the shadows of next year country. One day, everything Jesus set out to do will be accomplished. There is coming a day when there will be no more incompletion and no more yearning. One fine day, God will wipe every tear from our eyes; there will be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain (Revelation 21:3-4). That day is coming, but it is not today. Until that day, God is faithful to meet us in the wilderness.
Here, then, is my Christmas faith: this world, so wilderness-like, so dark and chaotic, still takes my breath away with its light and beauty. Not next year, but now, God gives us voices to sing of Christ’s birth in the face of death, the capacity to celebrate peace in the midst of war, an ability to dance with joy on broken limbs, and a willingness to follow the star of expectation through the dark night.