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

 

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.

+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.

Seth Godin and Spiritual Transformation

I read this from Seth Godin in one of my favorite books, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind

Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.

  • Substitute the word spiritual for the word creative, 
  • substitute the phrase truly transform for become a professional, and
  • substitute the word life for work… 

… and you have the secret to spiritual transformation:

Lots and lots of people are spiritual when they feel like it, but you are only going to truly transform if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your life and not your hobby. 

That’s why I believe that the best thing we can do as spiritual people is choose to become “professional Christians“, and do the work, day in and day out.

 

Is Jesus Cruel?

“We were always taught that Jesus said these things to remind us of how utterly depraved we are.”

I am journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with some friends of mine, and we spend last Wednesday going through Jesus’ “re-interpretation” of the Torah in Matthew chapter 5. If you haven’t read it, you can see it here, but essentially Jesus selects a few of the Ten Commandments, and takes them to incredibly high levels:

  • He says it’s not enough to “not kill”, but if you’re even angry with someone you’ve broken a commandment.
  • It’s not enough to refrain from committing adultery; if you look at a woman (or a man, for that matter) lustfully you have broken the commandment.
  • Divorce is prohibited except for pretty extreme circumstances (either sexual unfaithfulness or incest, depending on your interpretation of porneia in 5:32).
  • Revenge is ruled out as well, as is swearing allegiance or taking oaths, and an overall rejection of human ideas of honor and humiliation.

It is an incredibly high standard of living; something that seems virtually unattainable.

So the question is, “Did he mean it?”

One school of thought—reflected by my friend’s comment above—is that Jesus never intended for us to be able to live that way. In fact only he could actually do it, and the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is therefore to remind us how awful we are; that we can never live up to this standard, and therefore we just grateful that Jesus would die for us wretched people.

Frankly, I find this image of Jesus cruel, and I just dont’ think that Jesus is in the “cruel” business.

Succinctly, I think:

1. He totally meant it, and furthermore,
2. He thinks we can do it.

Now in no way is it easy; in fact, it IS impossible, but only if we refuse to do the things that he did in order to live the life he lived. 

One way that you can interpret Jesus’ kingdom pronouncement—”The Kingdom of God is here/near/among/within you”—is to hear or read it as, “The eternal life that you will live forever, in God’s presence, is available now.”

Ultimately, what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5 is what the “eternal life”, the kingdom looks like. Obviously Jesus lived this life perfectly, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to experience it for ourselves now as well.

I think this is the point he’s trying to get across.

What’s more, I think that he hints at how to start experiencing this kingdom life in the very structure of the Sermon.

Briefly, he begins the sermon with the Beatitudes. It’s easy to see that these are simply a way to say, “Before anything you are blessed. You don’t have to work for your blessing. You are blessed because of God’s love for the outcast, the outsider, the spiritual losers.” (And by the way, aren’t we all these things?)

After the Torah reinterpretation of Matthew 5, he spends over a chapter talking about working out your spiritual life in humility: away from the expectations (and praises) of others.

+ Praying in private
+ Giving in secret

These things, and others, are simply ways to humbly separate ourselves from the reward systems that our culture so readily gives us, but that ALSO go to reinforce the pathological parts of our existence, the parts that make us demand, and strive…

and fight…

and objectify…

and crave revenge…

(In other words all the things he says we can’t do.)

Ultimately I think the Sermon is a call to live the Kingdom life, and to start doing it now. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that Jesus releases us from it, and ultimately it’s not working to be a person who isn’t angry, or lustful, or vengeful, or who swears allegiance to anything or anybody over God.

It’s about wanting to be that kind of person, and then living our lives as radically blessed as God while we intentionally cultivate humility.

That’s not easy, but I think Jesus believes in us.