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

 

About these ads

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.

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

 

 

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?

 

+e

Just As I Am (But then again…)

It is one of the great mysteries of God (and, indeed, the universe) that I am accepted with all my faults and imperfections. So much so, that one of the great journeys of my life (or anyone’s for that matter) is simply coming to terms with that great truth: I am loved in spite of myself.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s something we’ve been leaving out.

Simply stated, I’ve been wondering how much of what passes for faith and spirituality in the American church is geared towards letting me stay the same arrogant, prideful, self-obsessed person that I’ve always been.

Is that the path that we’re on?

I know we give lip service to “change” and “transformation”, but at the same time we our “de jeur” practice of faith celebrates our individualism and uniqueness, often simply allowing our individual “quirkiness” (read: brokenness) to simply become part of who we are.

In a way we say, “This is who I am, warts and all: deal with it.”

Even some of the most helpful tools we have in understanding ourselves: Strengths Tests, Myers-Briggs, etc. Can we used to REINFORCE our false self, rather than expose its shortcomings and invite us to change.

In my life, for instance, some of the major characteristics of my personality are that I’m introverted, I’m highly motivated by intellectual curiosity, and I place a high value on individual stories and perspectives. These are all amazing and helpful.

But I’m afraid that what we don’t talk about enough is the shadow sides of our strengths, the ways all of these assets can tend to reinforce and prop up our false self; that part of ourselves that—out of fear, or self-centeredness, or pride (or all three!)—has difficulty relinquishing control to God.

Let me show you how this works: Yes I’m introverted, I can’t merely celebrate my “quietness” without recognizing that it can keep me from seeking to embrace the outsider; that my quiet reflection can also morph into arrogant self-justification.

Yes, I’m intellectually curious, but that curiosity can also turn into a crutch, and an instance where I substitute the latest book ABOUT God for God Himself. It can also drive me to needlessly spend resources, and to over-complicate my life with more material things.

Yes, I react powerfully to people’s individual stories and perspectives. I seek to hear and understand what “makes someone who they are.” However, this can turn into a hesitancy to challenge their assumptions about their lives, or the decisions they are making.

I am not saying that understanding yourself is in any way wrong or mis-guided. What I AM advocating is that we keep in mind that there is ALWAYS a shadow side to ourselves. Declaring to the world, “This is who I am” can neglect the powerful and necessary truth of our need to be transformed, to be liberated from the brokenness, the compulsions, the pathological desires that still govern our lives.

Don’t ever—for one minute—think that you can (or even have to) earn God’s love: it is freely given to us all, no matter where we find ourselves or what we have (or haven’t done). However, also don’t ever think that we should remain content with who we are in this world. There is great brokenness in the world, and the church is no exception. We need to avoid our tendency to self-justify our personalities and false selves, and embrace the true mystery of the spiritual life: eternal change and transformation.