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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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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I Remember…

I remember when I first realized that living in my “faith tribe” might not always be easy.

Though I grew up in the church (good old Methodists! Everyone loves the Methodists!), my faith didn’t really take root until I was in my late 20s, when I was working at Willow Creek Community Church. Because of that church’s resources (and theology), I got to hear (or hear about) some amazing teaching from people like Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, and Brennan Manning (who eventually became a sort-of guiding light for me).

I thought talk about the spiritual disciplines and hearing about the scandalous love of God was sort of part for the course for my evangelical, non-denominational tribe.

Then I moved south.

I’ve been in north Florida (or southern Georgia,  whichever the case may be) for 8 years now, and though there are plenty of fine folks here (that’s the way we/they say it), I was shocked to find that when my family arrived here to start working at yet another non-denominational, evangelical church, there was practically no awareness of Mr. Manning, or Mr. Willard.

Even more alarming, I was told about how certain people had left our church (before I arrived) because of they were “uncomfortable” with, of all people Philip Yancey. This prompted an internet search, and my naiveté collapsed around me as I read scathing comments about Philip. What’s more, I searched again, and discovered that Dallas Willard was considered practically evil, and associated with something like “typical Fuller seminary theology”. (Um, this was not a compliment.)

This was challenging, to say the least. I thought my “tribe” was full of open-minded tolerant people who sought to know this God of love and grace and mystery and transformation.

What I found instead were people who were interested in dogma and rigidity, close-mindedness and exclusivity.

I found fundamentalism.

I hope it’s clear when I say this is not about the south: this is about just me discovering the reality of the tension that still exists under this umbrella that I share.

(Some of my best friends of fundamentalists.)

Some days I don’t think I live under this umbrella anymore. Some days I no longer recognize my “tribe.” Some days I’m not sure I want to recognize them anymore.

But I keep on seeking. Because my tribe ≠ my God.

He’s bigger, and more loving, and more mysterious, and open-minded than any of us will ever be.

That’s why I follow him.

Channa Masala and the Myth of the Super-Disciple

Here’s what you must know first: I really, really like Indian food. photo-2

So when a buddy of mine forgot about a lunch appointment we were supposed to have at an Indian restaurant in town, I wasn’t about to shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well, guess I should go on back to my office.”

No way. I was going to stay and enjoy that lunch buffet.

While I sat and enjoyed my tandoori chicken and naan, I started reading a book by one of my favorite authors: Future Perfect by Steven Johnson. Johnson perfectly fits my idea of interesting reading: his work is multi-disciplinary, makes unexpected connections, and is built around what makes ideas great and compelling.

He starts off the book by telling the story of US Airways flight 1549, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to successfully land a damaged airplane on the Hudson river in New York with all 155 passengers safe. Though it was truly an amazing act of piloting, and “Sully” made a great hero—humble and relatively quiet, and committed to being good at his vocation—Johnson goes deeper behind the story.

You see, Sullenberger (and flight 1549) was indeed a talented and composed pilot. But, as Johnson points out, there was a lot more going on here than just Sully’s grace under pressure. Actually, Sulllenberger’s actions on that morning were the culmination of decades of research and behind-the-scenes engineering, all of which enabled the pilot to make the “in the moment” decisions that saved those passengers lives.

(Hint: it was all about chicken guns and fly-by-wire technology.) 

 

This just in: none of those engineers were being interviewed on cable news shows.

Instead, decades of men and women simply went to work and thought about little ways to make flight better and safer.

And then when it mattered, it all came together.

Are they any less heroes?

There’s an assumption that the one with the most “face time” is the hero. They are the ones who have done all the right things in order to make things happen (or make things not happen, as the case may be). These heroic mean and women—even truly humble ones like Sullenberger—are celebrated as “just-a-bit-better-than-everyone-else” people.

But are those nameless engineers and manufacturers any less responsible for those 155 passengers still being alive?

Sullenberger is definitely a “hero”, but he is not the only one. Little decisions and efforts get made over months and years and decades that put people like him in position to win.

Sometimes people of faith get hung up on the “super disciples” around us. Whether it’s people from the Bible (like Peter, Paul, or John), or other really, really good people we’ve heard about (like Mother Theresa, or Billy Graham, or Desmond Tutu), it’s easy to get caught up in their stories, or in their charismatic personalities.

Maybe, if you’re anything like me, it’s even tempting to somehow start thinking that somehow they got an “extra dose” of God’s Spirit, something that’s allowed them to do the things they did and think the thoughts they did.

But it’s simply not like that.

Sure Paul looms large in the Bible. But if you just read his letters you know he didn’t do it alone: that he traveled with people, and had key helpers with him as he did his ministry. Some of their names ended up in our pages (Priscilla and Aquila, Junia, Tychicus [my favorite]), but a lot of them probably didn’t. 

Yet they were with Paul. Helping. Doing the work when he had moved on to other cities. Some of them may have even had preliminary conversations with their communities before Paul got there, so that they would have context for what he was talking about.

In other words, they help “set the table” so that Paul could succeed.

What are their names?

I have no idea.

But they absolutely made a difference.

And they are absolutely heroes.

Sometimes the person that gets the most prominent billing is not the only one responsible for the victory, or for averting a disaster. Sometimes there’s another story that is just as critical, just as important to the success as the decisions that are made in the moment.

The point that I’m trying to make is that when faith becomes “big business”, and when we become exposed to all of the gifted and talented Christian teachers, preachers, writers, musicians, etc., etc., we can allow this thought to enter our head that says that somehow they are “just a little bit more” than us. They are Christians, but moreso: somehow they got that extra dose of the Spirit.

That’s simply not true. Paul writes in Romans 8 that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us: the church.

That means everyone has the same spirit. We may all be at different parts of our journey, and we all have different gifts, but we should never assume that the man or woman doing all the interviews is the “most gifted”, or the only hero.

We are all heroes.

I love Indian food.

And this David Bowie song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgcc5V9Hu3g

 

 

 

Why I Don’t Give Up

Let’s be honest: there are a lot of reasons to throw in the towel on faith.

  • a book that is thousands of years old that is difficult to penetrate and understand
  • a God that claims to be good in the midst of a world that is torn apart with suffering and hatred
  • my own repeated personal failures (too numerous to mention)

(As Marvin said, “it makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.”)

For a lot of people, that’s just a trifecta of negatives, and I’ve seen them check out of this “faith thing.”

If I’m honest, sometimes I’m tempted too.

So far, I’ve been able to hold on, and though I’m no great apologist, here are a few reasons why:

  • Though I can’t explain why, I know that we are more than “just” flesh and bones. I believe I have some unseen soul, and so I tend to it.
  • Though I have, in fact, failed countless times, I’ve come to the conclusion that only something supernatural can heal the sickness I have: only “letting the light” in (through those pesky cracks) will allow me to be a little less jealous, a little less self-centered, a little more patient, a little more peaceful today than I was yesterday (and we’ll let tomorrow worry about itself).
  • The Bible is, in fact, difficult in places to wrap my head around. That being said, there are some ways to “keep it simple,” starting with this guy named Jesus: he helps me make sense of the Bible.

All in all, I haven’t given up because I have this desperate faith and sense that it is possible to be a better human being, and I think one of the greatest gifts we can give the world is a person that has become as full and complete of a human being as possible.

And only faith gets that job done.

 

Just because #PeterGabriel

 

 

How Most Churches Seem to View Discipleship

Okay: I know I’m dating myself here, but Steve Martin used to have this bit in his standup called, “How to Be a Millionaire and Never Pay Taxes.” He used it in his opening monologue 1977 when he hosted Saturday Night Live. The transcript reads like this:

 

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?” First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, “Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, ‘You.. have never paid taxes’?” Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: “I forgot!” How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don’t say “I forgot”? Let’s say you’re on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, “I forgot armed robbery was illegal.” Let’s suppose he says back to you, “You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random, and you say, ‘I forgot’?” Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!

 

Sometimes I think the church views discipleship in a similar way. In a variety of different ways we proclaim, “You can be like Jesus!” (Well, at least I hope we proclaim that. A lot of churches still focus on proclaiming, ‘You can avoid hell and go to a weightless, disembodied heaven!’ This, um, was not Jesus’ message. But that’s for another time.)

Then we roll out our “plan”, which essentially sounds like this:

“You can be like Jesus!”

“Pastor, how can I be like Jesus?”

“First, be like Jesus. Now…”

Um, what?

Most of church “discipleship programs” essentially tell people to be like Jesus without ever examining how transformation actually happens. 

We do well, and quote Paul about training versus trying, but then we never seem to actually do anything about the training! Which really amounts to us actually advocating trying versus training!

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s happening in more places than I see (I know my church is doing its best at a multifaceted plan for discipleship).

But if we were doing our job, it seems like we’d be producing more transformed people according to Galatians 5:

  • more loving people, who fight against the divisive and often hateful speech of our country (particularly in the political realm)
  • more peaceful people, who are willing to entertain the fact that violence and war are often not God’s will
  • more self-controlled people, who are willing to recognize and separate themselves from all entanglements and addictions, whether they be from alcohol and drugs or food and shopping
  • more kind people, who are willing to stop blaming the poor and powerless for being, well, poor and powerless

As I said, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the North American church really is aligned with God on the subject of spiritual transformation (or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Producing ‘Little Christs’”. But I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it.

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I Know I Am (But What Am I?)… 

I like personality and gift tests: Myers/Briggs; Strengthsfinder; Enneagram; so on and so forth. Enjoy finding out how I (and others as well) am wired, and why I think the way I think. Overall, it’s really helpful. In fact, a lot of organizations (including churches) take great stock in how these gifts are allocated and mixed through staff members. All of these tests help us identify how to interact with each other, and where the pitfalls may be in our common life.

However, the last time I was a part of a round of these tests, I found myself thinking, “How many times do I need to be told what or who I am?” Furthermore, I found myself thinking a lot of how I’d used my personality type as an excuse for some issues in my life that I actually needed to address. Rather than thinking about my behavior or thoughts as issues that needed to be addressed or changed—as sin or brokenness—I thought about them as “this is the way I am.”

But is that all there is to life?

Lately, I’ve stopped being so interested what/how/who I am now, and I’ve become much more interested what/how/who I can be. 

I love all of these tests, but I know for me that I am very adept at hiding inside these labels and avoiding the call to grow, to change. I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to use these labels and titles to simply reinforce my “false self”—the part of me that is so good at hiding from God and others—and ignore the possibility that all of these “strengths” and “gifts” may actually inhibit my growth if all I ever do is focus on them and remain content.

Which is ultimately what we are called to: I wholeheartedly believe that the point of the life that Jesus offers us is to change and to become increasingly more like him. Our personalities, or strengths, or gifts are tools that we can use to grow and change, but there’s also a limiting side of those gifts. I’ve come to believe that every part of our personality has a shadow side; a broken part that can keep me from growing and being shaped into a “little Christ” (as C.S. Lewis would put it).

For instance, I know that I’m an introvert, but I also know that I have a tendency to use my quietness as an excuse to hold back from people, from actively welcoming the stranger, from being a voice of invitation.

I know that I tend to look at the world from a “strategic” perspective, and this has been very helpful to my church. However, I also know that this perspective sometimes keeps me from getting in and just “doing the work” to ideas and initiatives that I don’t always understand. It can also keep me from supporting ideas that I don’t agree with.

The point is not to reject my gifts and personality; it’s to think about the idea of change and growth as an imperative. It’s about refusing to be content with what the assessments say that I am, and writing off my behavior as, “Well this is just as good as it gets, because I’m an INTJ (or whatever).”

It’s about seriously accepting the call to grow, and never stop growing until I can say that I have truly adopted the “mind of Christ” that Saint Paul says I’m supposed to have.

No I’m not there yet. But I am increasingly knowing who I am, and hungry for who I’ll be next.

Does this make sense?

 

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