Paradox + 

A couple weeks ago in my faith community, I talked about how God is a god of “paradox”: there are so many things about YHWH, as He reveals Himself to Moses, that are apparently self-contradictory.

He is the creative Force behind the universe, and yet is also entirely willing to inhabit a humble piece of shrubbery in the backwoods of a place called Midian, far away from the centers of religious and spiritual power.

He has a specific name (“YHWH”), and yet that very name is a mystery. Indeed, one of the ongoing themes in the pages of the Bible is the tension between what we can know and see about this God, and what remains hidden and mysterious (you can read more about that here)

He is eternal and fierce—as one of my favorite theologians says, he is “ultimately free”— and yet He is intimately concerned about the suffering of humanity, so much so that he feels their suffering (and later, he even declares that he is capable of being hurt when His people abandon him).

I can go on and on, but I think we can see where this is all going: at the very least, God is not easily discerned or “nailed down.”

I would even go so far to say that the more comfortable we are with paradox, the more comfortable we will be in the life of faith.

However, as I was studying and preparing for the sermon, I stumbled across the idea of paradox in some additional ways that provoked my thinking, and I thought I would share a bit in this space.

In a TedTalk, psychologist Barry Schwartz started to examine something called the “paradox of choice.” Starting from the number of deodorant choices in a supermarket, Schwartz began to unpack the paradox of how, while psychology actually shows that choice actually causes us to feel anxious and even depressed, the culture in which many of us live (namely, the West) actually espouses freedom of choice as the highest ideal.

This is an odd thing: on the one hand, Christianity (at least as I see it and read it) is decidedly pro-human freedom and dignity. 

On the other hand—leaving dignity aside as a non-negotiable—Biblical freedom does not equal Western, 21st century freedom.

As I like to say it, Christian freedom is “freedom, but with rails”. 

As a 21st century, western Christian, I constantly bump against the boundary markers that YHWH (and even Jesus) established, whether I like them or not.

  • rails on how to spend my money (radical generosity)
  • rails on how to treat “the other” (radical hospitality)
  • rails on how to love God (with all my heart, soul, mind and strength)

And on and on and on.

Now, I’m not saying that God is a god of infinite rules. He’s not nit-picky, or waiting around a corner to catch me making a mistake.

That’s not the point…

I guess the potentially mind-blowing point is that God actually knows what’s good for me, not so much specifically, but in a broader sense. Maybe He knows that infinite choice actually produces a melancholy and a sadness in me; that the idea that I can choose everything and anything in my world actually might make me less happy as a human being.

Maybe God knows that human beings don’t do so well with infinite choice. 

And yet, we that’s exactly what our world seems to aspire to. It’s also what we sell to the rest of the world.

One of my favorite teachers/writers/spiritual pilgrims is Richard Rohr. On an episode of On Being With Krista Tippit called “Living in Deep Time”, he referenced how the pattern of the universe is one of “order, to disorder, to re-order.”

This resonated deeply with me, and I have seen it play itself out in my own life. Biblically, it is “life, death and resurrection.” Personally, it resembles the person who does all the right things, believes all the “right things”, goes to the right church, only to see it all collapse in the faith of a health crisis, an addiction, or the loss of a job. These are the moments of disorder, where many of our “false idols”—of success, eternal youth, security, etc.—are cast down. If we can stay faithful to the journey through the crisis (disorder), we begin to turn from those idols to the gift of a resurrected Jesus and a resurrected life.

But Rohr then went a step further, and he declared that anyone born after the late 60s (I was born in 1968, right on the demographic borderland) has never known order. Basically, he was saying that by the time “Generation X” was in full swing (not to mention the generations that followed) so many of our social structures had disintegrated and lost their influence that functionally most of us have never known anything like “order.” 

We’ve grown up in the middle of disorder, and the thing about the pattern of life is that you cannot really jump into the middle.

The pattern only really “works” (in the sense of producing transformed, enlightened, Christ-like people) when you follow it in sequence. It’s almost scarily simplistic: like learning a craft or an instrument:

Learn the basics, break the rules to chaotic results, then learn to assemble them in a new and masterful way. 

So it struck me how much the vision of “disorder” connected with the idea of “infinite choice”.

It’s the supermarket full of a whole row of a selection of toilet paper, and wondering what the basis is for making a choice… 

It’s picking up a guitar for the first time and being overwhelmed at how you’re supposed to move two hands simultaneously—and independently—in order to make some kind of noise…

It’s taking your first drive as a student driver on the 5 lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago…

It’s not the way we do life; we start off with structure, with rails, with Rohr’s “Order”. But in so many ways, our modern culture throws all of us into the lake of “Disorder”, and then celebrates it as the ideal.

We may know that “Order” is not the destination, but we acknowledge it as a stage to go through, because maybe, just maybe, it’s the way to cultivate an emotionally/psychologically/spiritually healthy life. 

(To state it in the negative, to just jump in to “Disorder” and to declare that “infinite choice” is my right and my destiny as a citizen of the west just may be a short cut to anxiety and depression.)

So we acknowledge “Order” for a while. We know that eventually we will be called out beyond it (because our culture surely has enough of people who have never moved beyond the rules-oriented, black and white world of “Order”), but we accept that maybe it’s not an awful thing if we “learn the rules” (Just how DO I pick just one brand of toilet paper?). 

Maybe “Freedom” is ultimately about moving holistically and healthily through the stages of life, and then turning around in self-extending, compassionate love to help others do the same thing.

 

Blessings.

+e

 

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Moses died.

Deuteronomy—and particularly the end of that book—is one of my favorite sections of the Bible. I find it fascinating.

Moses is THE man of God. THE prophet. Even the end of Deuteronomy says that there’s never been a prophet in Israel since him. No one since has seen God’s face.

(Now, Jesus changes all of this, but that’s another story.)

But what’s so fascinating about Deuteronomy is that Moses knows he’s going to die, and this is his “curtain call.” He is LITERALLY standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, the “Promised Land,” and Israel is about to enter.

But not him.

Because of a lack of judgment, a bad decision, etc., Moses will not be entering in with the people. God has told him that he will die on the border.

I try to put myself in Moses’ shoes: I’d be so angry and hurt. Faithful for how long: 40 years? 50?

Confronting Pharaoh, THE leader of THE super power…

Leading people out of slavery with no plan or map except YHWH will go with us…

Adminstering justice to an entire people…

Navigating years in the wilderness…

But God says, “no.”

To my mind, this simply isn’t fair.

My world doesn’t work this way.

I wonder if Moses railed against God. I wonder if he second guessed him. I wonder if he went to Lifeway and bought books about discerning God’s will because, “This just doesn’t make any sense.”

I wonder if decided (a la the prosperity gospel) that he just didn’t have enough faith. Did he send some money to Osteen to show that he really did believe?

I guess not.

In what’s one of the most amazing passages in the Bible, God guides Moses up the mountain and he gets a vision of “the whole land” that Israel will possess.

(Israel doesn’t even get this vision of the whole land; human perspective doesn’t allow for that.)

But then Moses—in defiance of our “bigger and better ministry”; the prosperity gospel; the idea that we always see the trend line go up and to the right—lays down and dies.

He is “gathered to his ancestors”. (What a beautiful phrase.)

Moses’ acceptance and submission of his reality is an amazing challenge to me. I think of how much I am attached too, the results that I think I “must” have.

The story of Moses reminds me that I may not see the end of many (any?) of the stories I write. And that’s okay.

PS Deuteronomy 34 tells us that the LORD—YHWH himself—buries Moses. What a statement of intimacy and friendship!

I guess in the end, Moses doesn’t get to see the “mission” completed, but the relationship he has with his God stays intact and thriving to the very end.

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?

 

+e

 

Moses and Me.

What does God owe us?

Do you ever think about the way Moses’ story ends? There’s something about it that connects with me on an almost unconscious level, probably due to my attraction to bittersweet, melancholy stories…

Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, as the LORD had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. He said to them, “Listen you rebels! Should we produce water from the rock for you?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice. Out flooded water so that the community and their animals could drink.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you didn’t trust me to show my holiness before the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land that I am giving them.” (Numbers 20:9-12 CEB)

“The LORD was angry with me because of your deeds and swore that I couldn’t cross the Jordan River or enter the wonderful land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. I will die here in this land. I won’t cross the Jordan River. But you will, and you will take possession of that wonderful land.” (Deuteronomy 4:21-22)

To summarize:

  • God appears to man (Moses) in a burning bush and says, “I want to release my people from slavery, you go do it.
  • Man resists.
  • God insists.
  • Man resists, but hesitantly begins, and courageously speaks “truth to power”.
  • God acts.
  • Man watches miracles happen, culminating with the freeing of Israel.
  • Man faithfully leads nation through the wilderness, interceding for them, judging their disputes, and keeping their complaining in line.
  • Man makes mistake, and God tells him he will not enter the promise land.

For me, I don’t focus on the mistake/punishment part of it; that just doesn’t seem to be part of the equation. What does fascinate me is Moses’ faithfulness to the vision, and then the (apparent) acceptance of the fact that he will not be a part of its completion.

I wonder how easy it was for Moses to release that dream. 

I think a lot of us confuse what God has promised to us with what God has promised.

We like to add pronouns—“I”, “me”, “mine”—then we get very attached to them.

We build whole theologies that say, “God will promise me amazing things.

But even at the beginning of the whole operation, God doesn’t specifically promise that He will do great things for Moses:

“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.” (Exodus 3:9-10)

He does promise to do things through Moses.

God does want freedom for His people, but some of us will be called to be Moses: we may start the journey, and lead people through the wilderness, but our part will be done before the journey is complete.

Of course that doesn’t mean we won’t get to see amazing things: manna, instruction, guidance, flames, and clouds. 

But it does mean we have to get used to surrendering our pronouns.

We are so used to fighting for our dreams and for spiritual “visions”, but that’s not always the point. God may want to indeed do something amazing, but the role we play may not be the one we think.

“Then the LORD said to Moses: “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I promised: ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however you will not cross over into it.”

Then Moses, the LORD’s servant, died—right there in the land of Moab, according to the LORD’s command. The LORD buried him in a valley in Moabite country across from Beth-peor. Even now, no one knows where Moses’ grave is. (Deuteronomy 34:4-6)

One of the great acts of art in a life is to be able to release our dreams, and be able to throw ourselves into God with no preconceived notions of “crossing into the promise land.” To be able to say, “God there is a great unknown out there, but I will choose life with you—even without any promises of success or “good things”—over anything else. It’s the mark of greatness, of a very high level of surrender and spirituality…