Into the Desert: Place of Faith

The Desert-2After a series of plagues, pharaoh finally tells the nation of Israel, “Get up! Get away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go!” (Exodus 12:31), and so the people do just that, and they take off.

However, Pharaoh quickly realizes that he is saying goodbye to his free labor force and quickly changes his mind (as dictators occasionally do), so he sends a military force after Moses and the children of Israel. Exodus 14 tells the story of Israel being pinned between the “Sea of Reeds” and Pharaoh’s army. (It’s instructive to remember that the Egyptian army represents the pinnacle of military technical superiority at this point; for Moses and a group of escaped slaves, fighting wasn’t really an option.)

The people understandably freak out, and accuse Moses of leading them to this point only so they can die in the desert. They then ask if they could go back to Egypt (more on these points later), but instead Moses responds to them by saying, “‘Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the LORD rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you. You just keep still.’” Fighting will do know good in this battle; this is something that only God can do.

Then God’s “messenger” appears, first as a cloud, then as darkness falls as a pillar of fire, and we are told that the cloud/fire moves from in front of the camp to behind them, in between Egypt and Israel (14:19-20). At that point Moses stretches out his hand and the sea in front of the nation parts. Exodus 14:22 says very matter-of-factly, “The Israelites walked into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left.” To be honest, I really don’t know what this must have looked like. I believe that something happened, but I don’t know that it really needed to look like Charlton Heston’s (Cecil B. DeMille’s) version.

Besides, that’s not the point: to me, the point is where the fire was, and where Israel was walking. The text says that this all happened at night, and that the pillar of fire is behind the nation, between them and Egypt. So they are told to start walking, by Moses.

Into—as far as they know—the sea.

When light is behind you, what does it do? It casts a shadow, right in front of you. Where you are stepping.

In other words, the people can’t. See. Anything.

This is what faith looks like.

Going into the desert requires a moment when you finally say, “Okay, I cannot see what’s in front of me, but I am ready to take a step.”

What most of us call “faith” in our world isn’t really faith at all, because most of the time we live comfortably, and can see right in front of us. We “know” what God is up to; we feel safe and secure in our faith, or if we do not we can easily identify the problem and “fix” things.

But occasionally God does something different. When we are called into a true desert to address something deeply meaningful and life-changing, we are called to a moment of “sheer faith,” where we may not be able to see anything ahead of us. In this moment, all we have is knowledge and belief that we are being called through the waters to “something else.” This moment of sheer faith is similar—but not necessarily identical—to the concept of “The Dark Night of the Soul,” when God withdraws His presence in order to call His followers into deeper levels of faith and trust.

In the Exodus moment, there may be an awareness of some kind of “protection” so we can make our walk to freedom, but other than that we are walking in darkness into the unknown. Everything inside us wants to see. We may pray for the fire to come around in front of us so we can have our way lit, but in this case we left with a promise and a call forward. The text says that the land was dry, but Israel wouldn’t have known that until they started walking forward.

And this is just the beginning of the desert!

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Into the Desert: Intro

 The Desert

Welcome to “The Dry”…

This spring, I dreamed up a teaching series for my church called, “Fierce Landscapes” (inspired by the book by Belden Lane of the same name). It was a journey through “desert spirituality”, which continues to be a really powerful idea in my life. I thought I’d turn it into a blog series, so for the next few weeks I’m going to explore what Israel’s journey through the desert means to us today. Please let me know how you like it. 

The Exodus is, without a doubt, the central event of the Old Testament. If you remove the actual freeing of Israel from Egypt, pretty much the whole story of God’s people will come unhinged. It is the center, the spoke, that holds Israel’s self-identity together. Remove the fact that God—YHWH—tangibly intervened in history at one point, and you the whole operation is in jeopardy. It’s simply that important.

So it’s worth thinking about.

If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a brief summary. After God calls this one man—Abram—and his subsequent family to become a part of this great rescue operation, God’s great redemptive plan, at one point (namely, at the end of Genesis the first book of the Bible) that family ends up living in Egypt. Most Genesis 37-50 tells the story of how Israel’s sons—first Joseph and then the rest—end up living in Egypt. Joseph rises from a place of imprisonment to a place of power in pharaoh’s household, and at that point, even though the “rescue operation” isn’t necessarily moving forward, the family is safe and secure and waiting for the next unfolding of God’s plan.

Unfortunately, things veer south, and the book of Exodus opens up with this phrase:

“Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph… The Egyptians put foremen of foxed work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work” (1:8, 11a).

Basically, Israel, the descendants of Abraham and thus the focal point of God’s work in the world, has been made captive by the Egyptian empire, and things in no way look good for their release any time soon.

One day, Moses, a Hebrew who has been basically raised as an Egyptian, is out tending the flocks of his father-in-law when he has a supernatural encounter with God. Appearing in a bush that is burning but is somehow not consumed, God tells Moses that He has heard the cries of Israel, and that He is about to act to free them. He is going to step into history in a very real and tangible way, and get the rescue operation back on track. (Along the way he gives Moses the first details of how He is going to do this: “Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. So get going, I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt; 3:9-10).

Through a series of miraculous and devastating plagues, YHWH forces Pharaoh to relent and release Israel. They are free to head towards a land that God will show them: a place of security, of peace. A place where they will be free.

In other words, the place that every slave desperately wants to get to.

However, in between Egypt and this “promised land” is the desert. The wilderness. The unknown.

And Israel has to go through it. Like it or not, there is no detour, no shortcut around the blistering sands and freezing nights of the desert.

It’s also the same for us.

God promises the same things to us that He promised the Israelites: rest, peace, and mission (note that I didn’t say “a Cadillac, a new house, and a great job”). God absolutely wants us to have, as Jesus puts it, “the eternal life now.” He wants to see His Kingdom come in our lives and in our world.

But only if we are willing to go into the desert and allow ourselves to be shaped by it. 

The desert is decidedly “in between”. It is neither-here-nor-there. It is not slavery, but it is not the promised land. It is not bricks, but it is not rest. It is a wilderness, a frontier.

Why?

Why doesn’t God just take the Israelites straight into Canaan, the place He promises them?

Why doesn’t He just instantly change us into peaceful, compassionate people?

Succinctly, because what God wants most of all is for His children to grow and mature. To be ready for the promises (land, freedom, rest, peace, etc.)

The desert is what’s known as “liminal space.” It is frontier space, borderland. It’s the place where the old no longer makes sense, but the new is not yet realized.

Liminal space is the place of change. The governing image is that of a threshold and an open door. As you stand in the frame of the door, you are between two rooms, or between inside and outside. You are (quite literally) neither here nor there.

It’s the space where things happen, where we are the most open to change and growth (if for nothing else than nothing seems to make sense any more).

Later in Israel’s story, God compares His people to His bride, and says this about her and the desert:

“Therefore, I will charm her,
And bring her into the desert,
And speak tenderly to her heart.
“From there I will give her vineyards,
And make the Achor Valley a door of hope.
There she will respond to me
As in the days of her youth,
Like the time when she came out
Of the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14-15)

What this scripture is saying essentially is that in the spiritual life the desert is a place of positive change, of growth, of spiritual encounter.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable, only necessary. 

Do you want to grow? Do you want to be free? Do you want to change? To mature, to grow up? Then the simple invitation rolls out to you: come into the desert. Come into the “space between”, and get ready. Sure, it’s dusty. And dry. And confusing. And anything but comfortable.

But if you were to be honest, the alternative is simply to stay in Egypt, to stay a slave, the “same old way you’ve always been.”

Most of us don’t really want that. We want what Moses and the children of Israel wanted: a life that’s somehow a bit bigger, a bit more peaceful, a bit more engaged, a bit more “on mission” than what we are currently experiencing.

But to do that, we have to be willing to go through the place where we may really not want to go.

Are you willing?

 

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Jesus Walked

Jesus logged lots of miles.

I started running this year, and I’ve been able to track my progress by using a couple different apps on my phone. Currently I’ve run about 120 miles, which kind of blows mind (no wait, actually it really blows my mind!).

But my progress is not much considering how much Jesus and his disciples must have logged around Palestine and Judea. If you read the gospels, Jesus is forever taking his little band of followers on day trips, teaching and telling stories as they go.

They must have walked for hours every day.

I was thinking this morning about what that says about following Jesus. I think in many peoples’ minds “being a Christian” is something that you do on Sunday morning, or when you’re at church, or in your small group, or whatever. The picture that the gospels show us, however, is a faith that is worked out while you’re walking.

It’s as if Jesus goes to great lengths to show that the spiritual life is infinitely practical: it can be lived out amidst the dusty roads of Palestine, or the cubical walls of your job, or the desks of your classroom.

Unfortunately, this sometimes run counter to how many churches approach the spiritual life. Institutionalized religion says that the spiritual life can only be lived out through “safe places” like Sunday school classrooms, baptism services, or comforting worship services. In this model, Jesus never would have left the Temple or the synagogue: he would have kept his disciples in the safe, “spiritual” places where “God lived.”

But he didn’t. He was constantly saying, “You know what would be awesome right now? To take a walk! Let’s go!!”

(I’m sure Peter rolled his eyes; trust me.)

At this point in my life I’m really not interested in spirituality that has no daily, ground-level expression. Not interested in doctrines that are merely abstract. If there are truths about God (and I believe there are), they should have tangible expression in our lives. Our doctrines and beliefs—the incarnation; the resurrection; a God of mercy, grace and transformation; the Church—don’t belong in seminaries or temples. They belong at our breakfast tables, in our cars, in our meetings, in our workouts, etc. etc.

One of the most challenging questions we can ask ourselves is, “How do my beliefs impact my daily, moment-to-moment life?

  • Am I living as if I have the mind of Christ?
  • Am I truly living out the resurrection?
  • Am I upholding the value of the “called people of God” (the church)?
  • Am I treating my physical reality—creation, my body, etc.—as if God really did come to earth and become a human being just like me?

Jesus didn’t keep his spirituality tucked away in the “God-places.” He brought the God into the every day places.

And yes, this song still rocks.

Do Not Seek the Whirlwind

In 1990 I walked to campus reciting this prayer: 

“God bring me the whirlwind. Bring the me the storm. Tear me up. Bring the pain.” 

Though this particular prayer was a response to a ridiculous relationship that was ending, it also reflected what was a deeper truth for me at the time: 

That pain and trauma was necessary to art. 

As an angst-y 20-something musician (and let’s face it: what 20-something musician isn’t angst-y?), I cultivated and curated pain like a miser. It was virtually the only emotion that I could easily recognize, and that fact alone made it the most accessible to me as a guitar player and fledgling songwriter. 

I was reading this article today on the Huffington Post and it made me think of that prayer, and that time in my life. 

It was hell. 

It was hell, and it makes me sad to think about the myth that is still so pervasive: that only tortured/addicted/troubled/solitary (the list goes on and on, but you get the point) make art. 

What’s even more troubling to me is when I think about how I actually sought out pain and drugs and rejection because I thought it would make me a better musician. 

Eventually, somehow I started to wake up. I realized that the rock and roll mythology that I believed in was not quite accurate, and that:

  1. there are quite stable people who actually make quite exceptional art, and
  2. there are actually quite troubled “artists” who make horrible, unexceptional art. 

In other words, there is no correlation. 

Now, what I do still maintain is that great struggle can produce great art: when you read the stories of Michelangelo, di Vinci, the Beatles, or U2, or Wilco, etc., it’s easy to see that some kind of struggle occurs in the midst of producing art, but that struggle does not have to be emotional. 

It can be a struggle with pushing the boundaries of technology, whether it’s the number of tracks available in a recording studio or the types of paint pigment that are available. 

It can be a struggle with keeping a band together in the midst of losing record deals or changing consumer tastes. 

It can be the internal struggle of a writer who is struggling to put into words the vision that is burning inside of her. 

But it does not have to mean personal drama. 

It does not have to mean pain. 

It does not have to mean depression. 

(Obviously, for those of us who struggle with depression, we know that sometimes the isolation and melancholy that swirls around us can sometimes give rise to thoughts and feelings that lead to songs or books or poems or paintings… but the point is we don’t need to seek it out.)

Don’t cultivate the pain for the sake of “art”.

Don’t pray for the whirlwind just because you think you need to suffer to create. 

Sometimes life is indeed hard; the whirlwind will come on its own, and art may or may not come out of it, but that’s another question.

These Days.

These days I’m tired. It’s funny how fast the wind can leave my sails and a deep, soul-level fatigue can set in.

I know myself well enough to know the things that trigger it, and this past season has been full of multiple events.

I. BOUNDARY ISSUES

I am, by nature, a “gray-thinker.” Life (and thus human beings) is a mystery, and infinitely complex. This type of thinking helps me craft a “middle way” through variety of issues, and find ways to diffuse controversies in order to invite people into dialogue.

Occasionally, however, I am confronted by issues that are not nearly so easy to navigate: different aspects of spirituality or church life sometimes contain some kind of absolute that has to be dealt with.

Usually, when an absolute is involved, someone is going to get hurt. Insiders have the potential to become instant outsiders. The accepted can come to feel the pain of the rejected, in just a few short minutes.

This tears away at my soul.

I know that life is difficult. I know that “gray thinking” can, in and of itself, be a form of “black-and-white thinking”, a way to avoid the messiness of disagreement and confrontation.

But it still tends to send me into a tailspin.

II. FATIGUE

I pride myself on being a “workhorse”, particularly in the arena of public ministry. At 46, I still try to be the musician who can play the longest, most consecutive Sundays (or whatever). There is something in me that says, “Put the burden–of music, of teaching, whatever–on me; I can handle it. As Bruce said, “Baby, I’m tougher than the rest.”

(BTW, I realize that this isn’t healthy.)

Even more, this simply is no longer the case. I get tired. This Sunday marks the second Sunday I’ve been off since Easter, and a number of those Sundays have been days where I’ve both lead music and taught as well.

I started to notice the fatigue about 6 weeks ago, when I’d wake up on Monday morning with the thought, “Oh man, I have to do Sunday in 6 more days.” (Worse yet, sometimes the thought would strike me on Sunday afternoon/evening before I’d even had a chance to catch my breath from the morning.)

Fortunately, I have two Sundays off (more or less, but that’s another story), so maybe there’s a way forward through this part of the forest.

III. QUESTIONS OF CALLING

At this point I’ve been in ministry, more or less full-time for 17 years. Roughly speaking, that’s 800 Sundays of music or teaching (I left out a whole year, and used 50 Sundays/year as an estimate).

That’s a lot of stuff.

Whether it’s just getting older, or something else that’s going on, right now I am FEELING those Sundays.

Put another way, sometimes I ask myself, “Is it time to do something else? What else might God want to do?”

Relatedly, it doesn’t escape me that time keeps rolling on, and I have more years behind me, vocationally-speaking, then I do ahead.

(Not being morbid; this is simply a fact.)

In a way, this is invevitable: horizons begin to narrow: I can no longer contemplate going on tour, or entertaining all the crazy dreams that I used to.

Now is the time, for practicality, isn’t it?

Trouble is, practicality was never very motivating for me.

I’ve been reading a lot of monastic literature lately, and there’s a part of me that resonates deeply with that life: rhythm, simple work, prayer and reading.

However, I’m pretty sure you can’t take your family into a monastery.

So I’m restless. I’m hungry, but not much looks inviting or intriguing right now. I seek rhythm and peace, and hope that the light shines through that rhythm and peace, and I wait.

Waiting’s not so bad, after all.

 

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The True Power of the Church (… And why we largely ignore it)

“The local church is the hope of the world.”

As an employee of Willow Creek Community Church that was a slogan that was ingrained into my psyche. I heard Bill Hybels passionately invoke that idea over and over again, at conference after conference. Later, I heard other evangelical leaders take up the phrase, until it was common evangelical parlance.

But I’ve had my doubts.

I remember Hybels talking about being in an aiport, and vividly describing a scene in which two brothers were pummeling each other mercilessly. Hybels basically asserted that NO other organization in the world could address those kids’ challenges. Relatedly, I hear many church leaders claim that only the church is equipped to deal with the totality of a human being’s needs.

But is that really the case?

Maybe a small group or a really close friend could have offered the parents of those children some valuable advice on parenting, but it seems to me that there are a lot of organizations who can do a better job of addressing certain needs of people better than the church can. Health clubs do a much better job of helping people exercise. Professional financial planners, counselors, and doctors are better equipped to help people deal with their finances, their emotional issues and health questions.

Pastors aren’t really financial counselors (FPU excluded), therapists, or doctors.

So first of all, just what are we?

Eugene Peterson says that ultimately pastors are in people’s lives to prepare them for “a good death.”

Wow. I don’t know about that. But I like the idea that Peterson is getting at: pastors should be equipped to deal with the heaviest questions that life has to offer. We confront the Mystery that is God and existence on this planet. With revelation and transformation, with life and death.

Now, the church is full of a lot more people than just the pastors, and this is where things get interesting, because with so many people in one community who are (theoretically, at least) experiencing life altering encounters with God, there is a huge potential for really good things to happen…

* entrepreneurs can be inspired to create socially- and ethically-conscious businesses (that make money!)
* artists can be inspired to create great works of art in community that speak of the deep needs of humanity (and not be kicked out of the church!)
* hurting people can come together to share each others’ burdens (and make recommendations on professionals and specialists who can help them further!)
* people can share resources with those in their community that don’t have as much

… In other words, a lot of problems can be solved. That’s a lot of potential.

But there’s a catch.

In another post, I mentioned that Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. In his book Future Perfect, he discusses the phenomenon of collaboration and how collaboration (and thus, problem solving) is drastically, significantly enhanced or limited by the presence or absence of diversity.

University of Michigan professor Scott Page compared the problem-solving capabilities of groups with high-IQ individuals with that of a group of diverse individuals. Referencing Page’s work, here’s what Johnson says: “Diversity does not just expand the common ground of consensus. It also increases the larger group’s ability to solve problems… when it came to solving problems as a group, diversity matters more than individual brainpower.”

Well now.

To transfer Page’s work into a church context, is it possible that the American church’s lack of diversity is critically limiting our ability to solve the problems that our communities face?

I have worked in an intentionally multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church. It was simultaneously one of the most exciting, difficult, messy and rewarding times of my life. Prior to that and since then, however, the churches I have worked at were not really interested in confronting the challenging topic of bringing different racial and ethnic groups together in a faith community in order to really come together and figure out what it means to be the church in 21st century North America (full disclosure: as a leader in my current church, I share the blame for not advancing this topic in my context).

The point is simply this: most churches are trying to solve horrendously complex problems: self-harm, addiction, poverty, abuse, depression, etc. without employing perhaps the ONE concept that would help them the most: the diversity of thought and perspective that (most likely) exists in their congregations. I’d venture to say that most “white” churches are anything but, however their leadership very well may be entirely mono-cultural.

Are we inviting multiple voices into our leadership? Are we bringing a plurality of thought into our efforts to help and serve people? Or does the input and counsel we receive come from people who look (and therefore, think) more or less exactly like we do?

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul has a powerful message about ethnic diversity, most powerfully stated in chapter 2;

11 So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. 12 At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. 13 But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. 15 He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. 16 He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.

17 When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. 18 We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. 19 So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. 20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. 22 Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.

The gospel is not just about reconciliation between God and humanity; it’s about reconciliation across racial and ethnic lines as well.

Perhaps the true power of the local church is the fact that we’ve been called to come across racial and ethnic lines and bind together in the name of Jesus. He died to create ONE body out of two bitter enemies (Jews and Gentiles).

Maybe Jesus knew that we’d need all the help we could get.

 

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The Signature of Jesus

 

photo 1

In November, 1999 a colleague gave me a copy of a book called The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning.

I really didn’t like it.

Maybe it was because I was consumed with a rebellious intellectual quest to remake the North American church.

Maybe it was because I just wasn’t spiritually mature or ready to receive it.

At any rate, I read it, and underlined a few different things, and then set it aside: it really hadn’t “taught” me anything.

Then, sometime later, I decided to pick the book up again and read through it. For some reason—who knows why—this time I was ready.

And it rocked my world like nothing I’d ever read.

Manning wasn’t “cute” or overly-intellectual by any measuring stick: he was poetic, but in a forceful and time-tested way. He was obviously brilliant, but his theology found its way out through references to plays and poems and ancient monks and hermits that I had never heard of before.

The man could write, and God was speaking (very loudly and clearly) to me write through his words.

He wrote things like this, “Viewed as a theological relic, the cross does not disturb our comfortable religiosity. But when the crucified risen Christ, instead of remaining an icon, comes to life and delivers us over to the fire he came to light, he creates more havoc than all the heretics, secular humanists, and self-serving preachers put together.”

I needed to hear that. Brennan challenged me (over and over again; he wrote multiple books, and all of them contained similar marks of style and hard-hitting but poetic, “practical” theology) to not keep my spirituality abstractly in my head but to bring it out where my mouth, hands, and feet made use of it.

It was what I needed, and I’ve read the book now probably a dozen times. It contains the reminders I need to live out my faith.

In 2008, I was playing guitar at a conference that Manning was to speak at. Now, I’ve shared the stage with dozens of superstar speakers: Bill Hybels, Beth Moore, John Ortberg, Rob Bell and Louie Giglio, to mention a few. Most of them have been pleasant men and women, but none of them have ever captivated me or put me in any sort of nervous awe.

But this was Brennan.

This was the man who formed me in a way that few—if any—author or speaker ever had.

I was giddy.

We were rehearsing the music for the session when an elderly man in jeans that were patched with 30 different colors and textures of cloths walked up on the stage to test his microphone. I stopped in my tracks, and knew instantly who it was. I had a job to do, so I couldn’t talk to him then but my heart lept when I saw this man who had mentored me—maybe even fathered me in a way—for so many years.

I had brought my copy of the book that had shaped me for so many years, and as he spoke (plainly and profoundly) I jotted just a couple notes inside the front cover: “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” (from Paul Tillich)

After the session, he was doing a book signing, and I stood in line with my bent copy. When I approached him, I stammered out that his writing had changed my life and in a way even saved it. He glanced at me, and said, “Great.”

Then he signed it with a shaky autograph, and I was on my way.

It was one of the most gloriously anticlimactic moments of my life.

It’s actually difficult to communicate why this was so perfect.photo 2

He was slightly (and perfectly) grumpy, and not slick in any sense of the imagination. There were no false smiles, no fake sense that I mattered to him. He didn’t write the books or speak or do book signings because somehow his ego needed to be stroked. He did what had to be done, and he delivered the books, the message, the signing with an understated and subtle presence that refused to bow to a false self, to the idol of fame.

It would have been so easy for him to be false, to give me a slick smile and handshake.

But instead he just said, “That’s great,” and signed his name.

It’s one of my most prized possessions.