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?

 

+e

 

The Bible Project Pt 6: The Mission in Jeopardy

With Abram’s decision to listen and go, God’s rescue project is back underway. Everything that went “wrong” in Genesis 3 is now going to be set right. Abram indeed has a family—a couple of sons, in fact (Genesis 16-21). Then those sons have a couple sons (Esau and Jacob; Genesis 26-28), and eventually we get down to 12 brothers who form the beginnings of this nation that will “bless the whole world” (though they are still just a family, not a nation… yet). One of those brothers, Joseph, ends up in Egypt and actually rises to great status and honor in that nation, and as part of Abram’s family, it’s easy to see how this rise in status will help bless the whole world because, well, it’s easy to equate power with blessing.

But as the years pass, something goes amiss, and the “rescue project” begins to experience a major challenge. Exodus 1:8 says that, “a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph,” and with that innocuous statement, the wheels begin to come off. The Egyptians end up enslaving Abrams family—the rescue project—and forcing them to build cities for them.

How will the blessing move forward now?

In Exodus chapters 4-12, God demonstrates clearly—first to Moses and then to Pharaoh—that the blessing will not be held captive, culminating with the great release of Israel in chapters 12-14.

God’s agenda—the mission to rescue and restore—will not be denied. It will not be held captive, not even by the pre-eminent world empire of the day. The people are set free from their slavery in order to—and this is critical to understand—to get the blessing back on track.

Freedom is not the only point of Exodus; mission is.

This point is born out in the rest of the book of Exodus. In Exodus 19, God tells His people plainly what His hopes for them are:

“You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wing and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” (vv4-6a)

To break this down:

  • Identity is rooted in God’s gracious acts. God released His people merely because they needed to be released, not because they had done anything in particular to warrant his act. He moved before people were able to “deserve” it.
  • Being faithful to God means being a kingdom of priests.
  • Priests, by definition, exist to “intercede” to mediate or “come between” God and those who seek to meet Him.

As God’s mission gets back on track, He does a couple things to prepare this fledgling nation of priests. First in Exodus 20, God gives them a set of basic guidelines—we know them as the 10 Commandments—to live by. This is to be the basic code of life for God’s people so that they can be this nation of mediators, of priests, to the rest of the world. (Notice that these guidelines are not given so that Israel can earn God’s love; God has already unilaterally shown His love for His people by releasing them from slavery. The Law is given after freedom, in order to help His people live out their mission.)

Second, God establishes a “dwelling place” in the midst of His people. Much of the rest of Exodus, from chapter 25 to 40:33, is filled with the instructions of how construct “The Tabernacle” (or “dwelling place”): what materials to use, how to arrange them, what goes inside, who will maintain it, how they will dress, etc., etc. Another book of the Old Testament (Numbers 2) tells us that the Tabernacle sat at the exact center of the camp, and that all of God’s people would camp around it. Finally, everything finally culminates in Exodus 40:34-38—the last four verses of the book—when God enters the Tabernacle:

“When Moses had finished all the world, the cloud covered the meeting tent and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Moses couldn’t enter the meeting tent because the cloud had settled on it, and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Whenever the cloud rose from the dwelling, the Israelites would set out on their journeys. But if the cloud didn’t rise, then they didn’t set out until the day it rose. The LORD’s cloud stayed over the dwelling during the day, with lightning in it at night, clearly visible to the whole household of Israel at every stage of their journey.”

With these words, the Bibles gives us a picture of how God’s mission should work:

  • God has a people
  • He—and worship—is at their center
  • They move when He moves, and stay put when He stays put
  • The world comes to God through His people (the Church); they exist to introduce the world outside to God

Rather than being just an ancient tale of miracles, wandering and tent-making, Exodus gives us the model of mission for God in the world.

 

Life in the Wilderness

After God leads Israel to freedom and gives them an identity and a foundational constitution, they spend a long time in the wilderness, wandering around and preparing to enter the land of Canaan, God’s promise to them.

I resonate pretty deeply with this story, at least in part because I feel like it has represented my own journey in at least a few different seasons in my life. Essentially, God’s people are called to wait and to be patient and to grow before they enter into a new season of existence and mission in the world.

I’ll be honest: mostly it sucks. Israel bears witness to this in how much complaining they do; I have born witness to this in, well, how much complaining I do. (I’m working on this, I promise.)

But here’s the deal: the Wilderness is a reality of life, and what’s more it’s necessary. 

So here are a few humble thoughts on it.

How do you know you are in the Wilderness?

  • The maps don’t make sense anymore. Israel doesn’t follow a direct route through the Wilderness to Canaan. They wander around in circles. The Wilderness can feel like that to us: circles, indirect wanderings. In fact, sometimes we realize that the Wilderness is so wild that there are no maps whatsoever to guide our journey.
  • The story doesn’t make sense anymore. When Israel leaves Egypt, they are leaving a well-defined story: YOU ARE SLAVES. It’s not a pleasant story, but it was familiar. The Wilderness is about turning slaves into children, and this is no small thing. Nothing feels right, or feels like it fits. We may have felt like we were on a certain career track, but something no longer resonates. We may have identified ourselves with a certain lifestyle, but something seems odd about it now.(Note: at this point it’s always tempting to go back to Egypt. This is mostly a bad idea.)

Here are some ways to engage the Wilderness:

  • Avoid nihilism. The most tempting—but most dangerous—thinking while you are wandering is, “My life is over; nothing matters anymore.” Once you give up on a promise of the future, anything is an option. The Wilderness won’t last forever. There is always a promise.
  • Find different ways to move forward. In the Wilderness, the ultimate promise—”the land”, the job, the relationship, the career, etc.—may be months or even years away. It’s easy to give up hope. Despair sets in when we feel like we are walking in circles or not moving at all. What we can do in the meantime is to simply engage in smaller goals. I imagine walking around the middle east it might be, “Hey let’s just see if we can get to that rock!” or “Let’s put the tent up differently today…” (ugh?)The point is to try and find some way to feel like you are moving forward. Can you set a physical goal? Can you try to read some new books? To grow intellectually? Keep moving.
  • Engage with God. Ultimately, the whole point of the Wilderness is to be prepared for what’s next. While you are wandering, engage with God. Wrestle with Him. Pour out your heart—restless though it might be—and be honest.

If you’re not already there, the Wilderness is coming. It comes for all of us; in fact, I might even say it is a defining characteristic of God’s people. We are, after all, pilgrims who are on the move. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a place where the maps don’t make sense, and where you feel detached and disconnected from the story you are living in.

Just don’t disengage, and make good use of the time.

Lenny (with SLASH!)?

Thoughts on “THE Prayer”, pt 1 :: “Our Father”

“The Lord’s Prayer: (or the “Our Father”, depending on your tradition) is a simultaneously a prayer of vast width and incredible intimacy. I thought I’d do a series of blogs on it.

If you’re looking for a way to begin your prayer life, this is a great place to start. You can just start off by praying the words, and allow your mind to expand the phrases as you come to understand them.

Here’s the first one.

Our Father, who lives in the heavens,
May Your name be kept holy.
May Your Kingdom come,
May Your will be done,
On earth just like it’s done in Your presence.

Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Don’t bring us to the times of trial,
But deliver us from the evil one.
Amen.

Right off the bat, let’s be clear: Jesus’ use of the word “father” (or even “abba”) in prayer was not unique. There are plenty of ancient examples of folks addressing God in this way. Jesus’ use of the phrase is much more incisive, much deep than this.

In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “‘Israel is my firstborn son. I commanded you, ‘Let my son go, so he can worship me'” (4:22). God is about to decisively act to free His people, and begin a new phase of His great rescue operation that began in Genesis 2, and will eventually end in Revelation 21. After God frees “his son,” he declares in Exodus 19 that they are now “my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (v6).

So one way of understanding these two simple words is that we are identifying ourselves as Israel, God’s redeemed people. In the same way that God claims “his son” as Israel, we are claiming Him as “our Father”, and also saying, “I’m a part of your people; I want to be a part of your redemption in the world.” Along with our participation in that mission comes our forgiveness, the opportunity for transformation, and membership in the family of God.

In some liturgical traditions, the prayer is introduced by reminding the congregation that “we are bold to pray” this prayer.

True enough: It’s bold to walk right up to the Creator of the Universe and just declare, “I’m yours!”

But that’s what we’re invited to do.

Remember that God declares that Israel is His son before they’ve done anything for Him. 

He just pronounces it.

As a gift.

Jesus ultimately is saying, “I’m leading a new Exodus from evil and oppression, and you are welcome to join. Come and be a part of a new freedom movement, an ultimate  defeat of evil and oppression, and the beginning of the era of resurrection.”

So, “Our Father,” is a big declaration of the graciousness of God, of His ultimate victory, and of our role (as priests!) in His world and in His plans.

You can pray it with a sense of awe, but you can pray it boldly.

“Movement of Jah People” … Exodus Week 1

So my bible study/growth group is going through the book of Exodus for the next… who knows? As long as it takes, I guess. It occurred to me that maybe I could post some thoughts here that I/we pull out of the text for any who miss the group meetings or for any who might be interested in what we’re learning…

General Thoughts

“Exodus” isn’t really “Exodus”, first of all. We derived that name from the Septuagint, the Greek version of Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew the book is called “Names”, from the first line of the book (roughly, “… and these are the names.”). It’s the second book of the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, and is central to Israel’s (and, I argue our) understanding of itself and YHWH. I once heard a scholar argue that you can understand the first five books of the bible as God’s People’s Birth, Childhood, Adolescence, and eventual Maturity. If that’s the case, then Exodus is the definite childhood, where their identity and God’s identity is cemented forever, in the same way that our own childhood can cement our self-perception as well as the understanding of who our parents are.

Chapter 1

The book opens up with Israel in Egypt, where Joseph (one of the Twelve sons of Jacob) had brought them to escape famine. In Genesis, God’s people is a family of creative and interesting characters: Abraham, the sly deal-maker; Jacob/Israel, who steals his brother’s birthright and “wears the stretchy pants” with God; Joseph, the upstanding (but sometimes arrogant with his brothers) dream-interpreter.

Before we go seven verses into Exodus, however, we enter a new territory. We are told that Jacob’s family has now “had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land.” Gone are the individual names of cousins, aunts and uncles. Now they have “multiplied” and “filled the land.” In a few short verses we learn that God has plans to turn this family from Genesis into something much more: a people. God is never after “just” individuals; He is always seeking a people (though still a family) to carry out His mission in the world. Eventually these seeds will bloom into the church that Paul talks so beautifully about in Ephesians 1 and 2. But Exodus is the birth—the sowing—of this seed.

Unfortunately, the population explosion of God’s people bring them into conflict with the political and military power of Egypt. In the face of this life bursting forth, Egypt becomes almost irrationally fearful and threatened. “Look,” Pharaoh says, “the people of Israel (see they’re now a people, ed) now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

It’s important to understand who Egypt is. Egypt is an empire. They are the big dogs. They rule with sociopolitical and military might. They have the power to sustain life, or to crush it.

Or so they think.

As they begin to feel threatened (which brings up a whole other host of questions, primarily, “Why does this empire feel threatened by a group of powerless slaves?“), Pharaoh (and thus Egypt) begin to take steps to crush Israel. But they can’t. The coming confrontation between YHWH and Egypt—between God’s people and empire—is the story of God’s undeniable, life-affirming, liberating “gospel” (yes, “good news” existed even back then!) opposing the earthly, worldly-but-life-negating empire of the Egyptians.

What we will see in Exodus is the character of God established, and it will remain consistent from Exodus to Isaiah, to Mark’s gospel story, to Paul’s re-imagining of Israel’s story in Romans, to Revelation.

  • With God, life cannot be denied. It bursts forth despite repeated attempts to crush it.
  • God is inclined to the powerless. Israel has no power compared to Egypt; yet God favors the broken and crushed.
  • Passing through the water—even when it symbolizes death—signifies salvation.
  • Good things can happen in the desert.
Get ready. This is going to be epic (even without Charlton Heston).