The Desert

 

footprints in the desert 2

Every one of us must take this journey.  No one is exempt.  It is a pilgrimage that takes us into uncharted territory.  Lack of certainty, the unknown, and mystery are the companions along the way of this nomadic travel.  The harrows of this trip might seem to be the outward troubles and circumstances which surround you, but the real test is the journey within – it is the walk across the desert and the aridity that seems to exist in the soul, as if there are no familiar resources to draw from.  There is only one way, and that way appears so fearful that you and I try and avoid it like the plague.  But we cannot.

When times are tough, and when we find ourselves in the midst of circumstances that we didn’t see coming or have no desire to experience become the desert journeys which both demonstrate and define who we are as people.  The rock hard vicissitudes of this fallen world are no respecter of persons.  They come to all, whether rich or poor, black or white, privileged or underprivileged, introverted or extroverted, hard working or the just-getting-by, as well as the young or the aged.  What truly separates one person from another is how they handle the inevitable desert journey with its dryness of soul and seemingly endless barrage of trouble.

You cannot avoid it.  Eventually, someone you love will die – maybe even several of them in a short amount of time.  If not now, there will come a time when your financial budget will no longer budge and you’ll wonder what in the world you are going to do.  Even if you have never known poverty or want, the prospect of what will happen in the future might occur, with its lost investments and/or the slow erosion of economic resources because of circumstances out of you control.  There will come a time when you will be betrayed, become the victim of a verbal hate crime, or lose your reputation.  If relationships are presently serene, there is coming a day when it will not always be this way.  Strained friendships, difficult relations with co-workers, marriage troubles, and family squabbles aren’t just things that happen to other people.

Perhaps at this point you no longer wish to stick with me on this journey of words.  It’s a downer.  Maybe there isn’t enough positive thinking and you’d like to break off this train of trouble.  That is your prerogative.  But it doesn’t negate the fact that there is either right now something going on under your nose that you’re ignoring or in denial about, or a turn in your life that is coming down the pike.  Then what will you do?  Will you have the inner resources to face it?  Is your soul in a state that can sustain a loss, even a minor one, tomorrow?  Are you ready for adversity?

If you have ever felt alone, lost, hopeless, empty, and in the dark, as if you are sinking in quicksand, I want you to know that this is a journey that we all must undergo.  It is tempting, when going through such a time, to look backward and long for the good ol’ days.  But those days are gone.  They aren’t coming back.  What worked for you back there probably won’t work for you now.  So, here is the thought that I’d like you to think:

The desert is the perfect place for transformation; the wilderness journey is the means to a new and better life.

The ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt, hard pressed and in agony.  Through a series of miraculous events God redeemed them out of that place and sent them on a journey… into the desert.  Yes, that’s right.  It might have seemed to the Israelites that they were jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Here they were out in the middle of nowhere without water, food, and basic necessities.  It’s endemic to the human condition to complain and seek to blame someone for your trouble.  Moses took a lot of crap from the people.  Yet, God had his own purposes and plans for the inner redemption of the people as well as outward freedom.

God put his people squarely in a place where they could not go back, couldn’t go around, and most definitely could not stay put where they were.  Nope.  They had to go through the desert.  There was no other way.  Moses made it through those years of living in the desert by reminding the people that there was a future for them, a better future than Egypt or the desert – a hope of the Promised Land.  God also shaped the way they were to think about the past through an annual rehearsal of the deliverance out of bondage, the Passover.  For the daily and ever present activity of desert living, God enabled Moses to delegate the practical situations of being together in a desert situation by gifting others to help and walk with him.  And this was all formed through the covenant experience of Sinai – the giving of the Law, the Promise that God would always have his loving loyalty upon the people.

Going through your own desert journey will require the same resources of Promised Land, Passover, and the Law of Promise.  That is, viewed through the lens of the Christian, God is forming within us a deep spirituality based in the promises of His Word, the sustenance of the Lord’s Table, and the confident expectation of Christ’s return and the hope of His reign to be manifested in everything from small family structures to large corporate systems, and humungous governments.  In short, the kingdom of God is near – if we have the eyes of faith to see and the ears of belief to hear.

It is imperative that you and I connect with Holy Scripture in a healthy and consistent rhythm of hearing God and responding back to him.  It is most necessary that our perspective of both the past (Christ’s cross and resurrection) and the future (Christ’s return and reign) is formed through regular spiritual practices which remind us of what is most important in life, not to mention how these spiritual resources can sustain us through dark times.

To survive the desert, one must walk through it – not around it, not going backward away from it, and not sticking our spiritual heads in the sand.  To make the trip, we must deliberately walk with others who will remind us of healthy ways of seeing ourselves, our past, and our coming future.  Faith, hope, and love are the practical necessities which need to be in our backpacks as we go forward.  They will be our food and our drink.

Travel well, my friend.  May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you as the Spirit hurls you into the desert to experience the love of God in new and profound ways.

Unimaginable Darkness

 
 
            Recently, a confluence of circumstances came together at once to create some rather dark days.  Last week, an explosion at a local corn mill killed four people and injured many more.  Spending time with employees, family members of maimed and lost loved ones, and a shocked community has caused me more than once see that I am staring in the face of unimaginable darkness.  Post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt are just a few of the more mild responses I’ve encountered.
 
            In addition, my seven-year old grandson is looking at a brain surgery within the next month.  His literally hundreds of seizures a day with generalized epilepsy has caught up with him.  In the last six months he has digressed in several capacities.  Radical intervention is now required.  Spending time with my daughter and family is at times gut-wrenching with the decisions she must make.  Although she is a wonderful Mom, the unimaginable darkness she must stare into every day I believe would crumple most parents to lifeless mush.  Not to mention that her husband was an employee of the business that exploded – and now he has no work.
 
            If you throw into the mix that there has been an above normal strain of ministry wear-and-tear in the past few months with church matters, and now you have a volatile mix of faith-testing.  That is, at least, what I choose to label it.  Way back in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God tested Abraham’s faith.  He told Abraham to take his only son, go to a certain mountain, and there sacrifice him as a burnt offering.  If you read the story for the first time, and don’t know the ending, you might wonder if Abraham heard God right.  “Huh, God, you want me to what!?”  But we don’t get any reticence on Abraham’s part.  In fact, we get the opposite.  Early the very next day, Abraham is up and at it.  Even a three-day journey to the mountain doesn’t dissuade him from resolutely following through with God’s instructions (Genesis 22).
 
            When real genuine faith is put into action, it oftentimes just seems like sheer stupidity to others.  Abraham’s incomprehensible submission to God in this matter of sacrificing his son is unthinkable to most people.  The fact that Abraham has to do the deed himself shows the utterly extreme nature of what was being asked of him by God.  But I believe Abraham understood something that so many people nowadays cannot possibly comprehend unless they have endured extreme spiritual testing:  God can be trusted even in unimaginable darkness.
 
            Yes, the story concludes with Abraham being called upon at the last minute to withdraw his hand.  A ram caught in a thicket becomes the burnt offering instead of Abraham’s son Isaac.  But Abraham had no idea this was coming.  He simply plodded forward with his mind set on doing exactly what God had for him to do.  To have faith in God, to authentically worship Him as Abraham did, means to trust God totally and to put oneself and all of one’s life into God’s hands completely, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be.
 
            Even the Lord Jesus himself once cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Whether we like it or not, the Holy Scripture reflects an important life-truth that there must be suffering before glory.  Jesus himself became the substitute, the ram in the thicket.  He is our sacrifice, the once-for-all offering to end all offerings. 
 

 

            Unimaginable darkness exists – but so does crazy unthinkable unimaginable grace.  Unfathomable and bottomless mercy from God is available for every situation and each hard circumstance we face.  We are not always promised the outcomes we desire; yet, we are promised that God is with us, and that the Lord will provide.  “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…. The LORD Almighty is with us” (Psalm 46).  May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit be with you, today and always.  Amen.

Rejoice in Hard Circumstances

 
 
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (James 1:2-3)
 
The book of James in the New Testament of the Bible was written to a group of Christians struggling to make their way far from their land of origin in an alien country.  If you put yourself in the position of these Jewish Christian refugees, leading off with this kind of an exhortation seems a bit over the top.  Telling them to consider their situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow.  I am not sure what the believers were thinking when they first heard this from James, but they must have thought the guy was crazy.  These are people who have experienced not only hard things, but have felt the brunt of living in a broken and fallen world.  To tell hungry families with no wealth or status who were wondering where their next meal is coming from that they ought to consider their situation as pure joy may seem strange, even calloused. 
 
            But James was looking to fortify the believers with some important truth.  When we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing that needs to happen is to apply peroxide to the wound so that there will be no infection that results from the injury.  It might seem insensitive because to get peroxide in an open wound stings like nothing else.  But it has to happen.  It is a necessary part of the coping and healing.  James actually cared enough about the people to tell them what they absolutely needed to hear right up front.  Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their situation, they would not make it.  Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.
 
            Suffering in the form of spiritual peroxide is absolutely necessary.  To just say what itching ears want to hear helps no one.  Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life.  God never promised anywhere in the Bible that life would be and should be all bunnies and unicorns.  In fact, he promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time.  It is not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith; it is a matter of wheneveryou face trials.
 
            But the good news is that through the adversity God is producing in his people patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith.  We can only become mature Christians through adversity, by having our faith tested in the crucible of hard circumstances.
 
            Faith is not a neutral or static thing.  Faith is an active dynamic thing that is always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith will degenerate and become putrid.  Eventually, gangrene will set in and something will have to be amputated.  If you do not want to experience that, then we will need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.
 
            It seems to me that one of the tragedy of today’s American church is that we can live a trivial, blasé, and superficial existence as believers in Jesus Christ and get away with it because we have the ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and hold our own.  We don’t really need the church.  We say we need God, but then turn around and live our lives as if he isn’t even there.  The peroxide that we need in our lives for this day and for this time is that we are doing everything but exercising spiritual disciplines that would put us in touch with Jesus.  Church is optional.  Reading our Bibles is not a matter of life and death.  Prayer only happens if I want or need something, and is not a means of connecting with Jesus.  Giving and service happens if I have any discretionary time and money. 
 

 

            The Christian life was not meant to be easy!  It is challenging, it is hard; and, in the middle of that it can be invigorating and joyful.  Yes, joyful.  This is where our brothers and sisters throughout the world who undergo adversity to their faith every day can teach us.  Americans might have the money, but others have a unique spiritual depth of faith forged in the fires of resistance to governments and cultures that actively put them to the test.  And, despite their hardship, many know the joy of living for Jesus, while far too many in the West live dull depressed lives devoid of real faith.  Let us pray boldly for one another so that together we can realize a genuine faith in Christ that glorifies God and edifies his church.

1 Peter 3:8-12

            Hard circumstances tend to bring out the worst in many people.  When difficulty arises in a group it is just human nature that they either try and run like a bunch of rats from a sinking ship, or they turn on each other and chew on one another, again, like a bunch of rats.  It’s what psychologists call the ‘fight or flight syndrome.’  But there is another alternative.  The Apostle Peter said that, when in the throw of suffering, Christians should be like-minded, sympathetic, love each other, embrace compassionate behavior, and humility.  They should not turn to evil in dealing with their frustrations, but ought to do the very opposite:  bless each other.
 
            If we want to be happy no matter what the circumstance, then we will listen to Peter and the psalmist who say:  “Do you want to be happy?  Then stop saying cruel things and quit telling lies.  Give up your evil ways and do right, and find and follow the road that leads to peace.  The Lord watches over everyone who obeys him, and he listens to their prayers.  But he opposes everyone who does evil.”
 
            Well, there you have it.  Now it is a choice of whether we will obey the Scripture, or give in to our sinful nature by devouring others whom we have issues.  Which will you choose?
 

 

            Gracious God, you have chosen me to be your child and inherit all your very great and precious promises.  Help me to live into my position as your son, and be consistent in responding to suffering by blessing others, through the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen.