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!

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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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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Four Suggestions for Navigating Vocational Change

What do you do when you feel like you’re being called to embrace a new identity, a new call on your life? How do you embrace a new role?

I was talking to a friend of mine this week who believes she is going through a change in her calling. She is leaving behind the familiar rhythms and demands of what she’s known for a while, and choosing to embrace the mystery of this new thing that God is doing in her life.

She asked me the other day for some practical ways to embrace this new thing in her life.

  1. Adjust your schedule. When my call was wrapped up solely in music and songwriting, a portion of my week—usually on Wednesday—was dedicated to songwriting. In 2009/2010, my call began to change to teaching; in response a portion of my week became dedicated to study. When your call begins to change, you need to dedicate time to reflect this new call.
  2. Adjust your information. While I am the pastor of musical worship at my church, it’s my responsibility to seek out new music and new sounds. I need to challenge myself with new sounds and new approaches. However, because I take my call to teach seriously, I’ve begun making sure that I’m consuming information and ideas that push me forward as a thinker and communicator. If you are moving into a new area of vocation and/or ministry, you need to first label that new area (“teaching”, “leading”, “writing”, “leading worship”, etc.), and then go seek information (one of the most valuable resources for me with this is Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature).
  3. Adjust your conversations. As you are able to identify and name/label your new identity and call, seek people who (you think) are already in that role to have lunch or coffee. These meetings do not always need to involve direct, “Tell me how to live this out” questions. Often, they can begin with simply, “Tell me your story.”
  4. Be open to a disruptive experience. Don’t discount the fact that your new call may need to be reinforced or confirmed by an experience that is disruptive or different. Spiritually and emotionally, place yourself in a position of openness, and watch and listen. Often, we receive confirmation and earth-shaking revelations through conferences, prayers, or even concerts and films. Allocate resources (time, money, etc.) to put yourself in a position to have a disruptive experience that might just be a game changer for you.
  • Have you ever had to navigate a major vocational or identity change? What helped you move into this new area of calling?

Meet My Friend Lindsay…

Special treat today… My friend, writer, and all around awesome person has agreed to write something on her spiritual growth. She has an amazing story of transformation and change, and I asked her to share a little of it. She normally blogs at Fueled By Diet Coke, but well, I have her today…

 

“For the past ten years, you’ve been suffering from an eating disorder, and we’ve got to start a treatment regimen to get you healthy again, so—“

The rest of my nutritionist’s words were muffled under the sound of the blood pulsing violently against my ear drums. I had an eating disorder. I’d had one. For a decade. I was physically unhealthy. I was suffering from something seriously life-threatening.

Over the next several months, I cooperated with my treatment and was able to get on the road to a healthy body image. Though I still struggled daily, I was proud to leave my disordered eating days in my past. I was finally ready to proclaim heath.

Fast forward two years.

“Why are you doing this again?”

The words shot out of my mouth like ping pong balls and bounced against the windshield and hit me in the face. Despite the eating disorder treatment under my belt and its offering of some false sense of normalcy, I was still suffering from a disease much more deteriorating. Complete and utter self-hate.

I was sitting in my car, parked about a block from my house and my new husband, with hot tears running down my cheeks.

I’d run away from him again. This time, however, after telling him he would divorce me if he knew what was good for him. Not even a year into our marriage and I had slapped the “d” word across his face and left.

I looked up at my reflection in the rearview mirror and saw my red face, stained with the makings of a sabotaged relationship, with no one to blame but myself.

“Why?” I demanded again through clenched teeth. A rhetorical question I felt the need to answer anyway. “Because this is how you always are. This is what you’ll always be. You’ll never be more than your failures and that’s why you don’t deserve anything good.”

This is how it always went. It was as if someone would insert a DVD into my brain every day and play it loudly – a DVD recap of everything I’ve ever done wrong, everyone I’ve ever hurt… a resounding soundtrack to the cyclical nature of me beating myself (sometimes actually physically) into a bloody pulp.

Just as the DVD began to start over for the tenth time that day, something pressed the STOP button. A small voice. It didn’t say much, just, “Go back inside, Lindsay.”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go back inside to find yet another relationship ruined by my own insecurities and hate. I didn’t want to walk back into the house to face my husband, whom I was certain had decided that this instance was the last straw and he was leaving me for real. I didn’t want to open the door and find our small house empty, now a cavernous reminder that I was, indeed, the worst person in the world.

But that voice wouldn’t stop. So I eventually relented.

I put my key in the lock as quietly as I could and turned the knob. I was shaking, but my breathing had returned to normal. I had the comfort and peace of that small voice with me. I knew that I was doing the right thing, no matter how badly it was going to hurt me. I was fully prepared to accept my fate. My failure. My abandonment.

But what I saw broke me down even more than I could have even imagined. I saw him. I saw my husband, slumped down in a sad heap on the floor of our living room.

His eyes met mine. “You came back,” he said, hopefully.

I collapsed in his arms and apologized probably a hundred times, letting him forgive me just as many.  I didn’t understand it. I was the prodigal son, the adulterous Israel, being taken back with a warm embrace and a promise of unconditional love.

Three years later, I know now that that small voice was Jesus.

Being raised in a Christian home, I’d read the scriptures about God calling us, His followers, a “masterpiece” and “new creations.” I’d heard about Him creating in us a “new heart” and all that. But, up until that day, I’d never allowed him to try it with me. I’d always assumed that I was too far gone, too unlovable, to be anything but trash. But feeling the warm embrace of my husband, a man who truly does love me as Christ does the church, I finally surrendered to God, allowing him to guide my growth and healing.

Through trusting Him, I was able to seek wise counsel from pastors, friends, and family, in order to rebuild the shattered shell of a girl I’d become. I knew that, at this point, it was my choice to give God the space to kill my old self and raise me anew in Christ Jesus.

Since then, I’ve started writing a blog about learning how to love yourself in a world that profits off of your low self-esteem. At first, it was merely an outlet for my growing pains. But at this point, it has turned into a ministry, reaching thousands of readers who have struggled in the same way I have. I wonder, quite perceptively, if this wasn’t God’s plan for me all along.

It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had a lot of hard conversations, answered a lot of tough questions, and made really difficult promises. There were times when going back to my old ways seemed easier, more comfortable, more feasible, and I had to make the commitment to God to work in me all over again. But I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, that every second has been worth it.