Before he married my sister, my brother-in-law Will fulfilled a dream of his: living out of a van. He drove his refurbished van across the country when my sister moved to Denver, and he slept in the back on his lofted bed. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was an adventure, and I admired him for chasing that dream.

Before that, I had never heard of anyone intentionally living out of a van. I thought campers and RVs were for retirees and cross-country vacationers. Refurbishing a van was a foreign concept a few years ago; but since the pandemic has limited air travel, RVs and vans have become increasingly popular forms of travel and recreation.

In Nomadland, a woman takes her refurbished van into the desert of the American West, chasing employment after the manufacturing plant she once worked at shuts down. As the movie unfolds, we discover that Fern is part of Amazon’s “camperforce,” a seasonal fleet of nomadic workers who staff Amazon’s warehouses through the winter holiday months. She spends the rest of the year driving through the desertscapes and rocky terrain of the Dakotas and Nevada, gathering with fellow van-dwellers and chasing various jobs in greasy diners or at RV campgrounds.

Throughout the film, Fern seems drawn toward the isolation and remoteness of the desert. She often opts for the seclusion of her van rather than the company of others or the comfort of a roof over her head. We learn at the beginning that her town of Empire, NV, has disappeared, essentially erased after the manufacturing plant at its center shuts down. The death of her husband is the final blow that sends her into the wilderness. There, she seeks beauty, connection, and perhaps healing.

I too found myself in a wilderness a few months ago. Though I didn’t jump on the road in an RV, I was drawn into a season of spiritual isolation and remoteness. In the past I would have never opted for separation from friends and community during a time of spiritual confusion; yet there were places that I was going with the Lord that needed to be explored alone. Like Fern, I withdrew into myself, into that inner wilderness. I felt like the Lord was leading me into a desert — barren, empty, and desolate. Yet there was something He wanted me to hear.

I began exploring stories of the desert in the Bible, searching for comfort from the faithful generations who wandered the wilderness before me. A friend showed me this verse in Hosea, where God says of Israel, “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hos 2:14). It seems that God has a purpose for leading his people into the desert: He has something to say.

Yet Nomadland says a lot without saying much. For me, it felt like God was doing the same. But the desert wasn’t about what God was saying (He wasn’t saying all that much); it was more about how He was saying it. Hosea says God would speak “tenderly” or “kindly.” Another translation says He would “speak to her heart.”

A few months ago, my heart was wracked with disappointment and discouragement. The circumstances surrounding these feelings aren’t important; these feelings are universal to all of us. I thought what I needed was explanations, logic to make sense of all the sadness. But in the depths of despair, we don’t need explanations. We need comfort and tenderness. We need someone to speak to our heart.

What God gave me in that desert season was not a message, but hope, and a vision of the path ahead. Knowing that the path behind was filled with sorrow, God helped me look back and still find grace, and look forward toward grace to come.

Something He spoke to my heart came from Jeremiah: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jer 31:2-3). In Nomadland, Fern dwells among others who have survived the sword, both literal and proverbial — some have survived cancer or depression, others simply escaped the grind of the corporate world. In the desert, they all find grace.

Fern embraces the daily and even hourly graces she receives on the road, whether it’s standing awestruck under the towering Redwood trees, sitting around a bonfire under a desert sky, or admiring a giant dinosaur statue. Even in the opening moments of the film, Fern finds grace as she sorts through her possessions in a storage container. From one box, she pulls out her husband’s old jacket, which she clutches tenderly and puts on, leaving the rest of her belongings behind. These small tokens, these moments of grace, serve as guideposts on her journey into the desert of her grief.

Fern’s journey is not unlike that of the Israelites, who leave behind Egypt (another Empire) and follow God’s presence as a pillar of fire and cloud through a vast wilderness. There they experience the daily grace of manna falling from heaven, and the weekly rest of sabbath. One is about nourishing their bodies; the other is about nourishing their spirits. He leads them, alluring them into the wilderness, so He can speak tenderly to their hearts.

Now He invites you and me on the same journey. So hop in the van — the wilderness awaits.