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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Coming Down the Mountain

“Mountaintop spiritualilty has perhaps been one of the most destructive things in my spiritual life.”

The words were really out before I had a thought about them. They emerged in a morning devotion with a group of people high up (ironically) in the Guatemalan hills, at a morning devotion time before we went out to build houses.

For me, it was a typically melodramatic overstatement, but in this case it was also pretty true.

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

I am certainly no mountain climber, but I’d spent a season reading and learning a lot about climbing Mount Everest through books like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and a Discover Channel series called, “Beyond the Limit”, about a professional guide at Everest who helped people with their final ascent.

It is an absolutely brutal and a very real you-can-really-die-in-an-instance type of experience. The altitude and brutal conditions take a horrendous toll on your body, making taking even ONE step an excruciating experience. Some people end up being able to put one foot in front of the other about once every thirty minutes. In the last couple of ascents (it takes many days to get from “base camp” at Everest up to the top), the oxygen is so thin that your body is literally incapable of getting enough nourishment, so it begins to essentially “eat itself.” The caloric requirement is so huge, that your body goes into hunger mode, and starts devouring muscle protein in order to survive.

Every move, every stop must be highly scheduled and coordinated or you will literally die on the mountain (many bodies are left frozen on the mountain; you can see them as you climb).

All for thirty minutes.

Due to oxygen requirements (and the schedule that keeps you alive), you can only spend about 30 minutes at the top of Everest.

Now, that thirty minutes may be wonderful; the experience is absolutely magical and unmatched; the time there may even be transformative; but it does not last.

You have to descend.

THAT, essentially, is how I lived my spiritual life for decades: a quest to get from “mountaintop” to “mountaintop”, fixing on spiritual highs like a drug. I would climb the mountain, dwell in the heights for a time, and descend like Moses, full of optimism and reflecting the Glory of God.

But it always faded. It always does.

And so I’d climb again.

And again.

And again.

Is this what Jesus meant by a stream of living water, welling up inside me to eternal life?

This didn’t feel like abundant life to me; it felt like experience addiction.

Lately I have decided to “come down the mountain”, and approach my spiritual life with a different metaphor.

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

The desert is not like the mountain. Where the mountain apexes into a specific peak, the desert drones on and on in a sort of monotony. There is a definite sameness to the landscape (though it’s certainly no less dangerous than climbing; the desert can just as easily kill you with thirst or a rattlesnake).

The desert leaves you alone with yourself. It forces you to face our most difficult challenge: OURSELVES.

On the surface, the desert is the same, day after day, but if you look more closely and have eyes to see and ears to hear, you can encounter amazing life and variety.

But it’s not easy.

You have to be attentive.

You have to watch and listen.

You have to be silent.

For me, this is the way I have to live in order to stay sane in this world. Mountaintop spirituality was simply turning me into a “religion junky”, and the fix NEVER seemed to hang around long enough. The desert, on the other hand, is a consistent, day-to-day walk that continually forces me to find beauty in the apparent normalcy of my life. It makes me work out my salvation in a very consistent, low key manner.

I don’t think it’s any accident that after the “light show” of Mount Sinai took place in the midst of Israel’s long desert experience. It’s as if God wanted to emphasize the fact that the occasional mountain may show up (though you may not even get to ascend; you may just get to watch Moses walk up), MOST—if not ALL—of your life is going to be spent walking through the desert. You have to get the desert right in order to keep the mountain in perspective.

Keep on walking.
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Perry and Jane’s gets it… (WARNING: If you know Jane’s Addiction, you know that this video is probably, well, CRAZY, and even a bit NSFW)