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.

Easter

Empty tomb

One of the best things about what I do as a Pastor and a Chaplain is that I hear lots of stories.  As I sojourn in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and churches, the many rich accounts of people’s lives continue to amaze me.  Some are profoundly sad, some are incredibly joyous, all include relationships of love and some of hate.  The narratives underlying the daily existence of many people is often an alchemical mix of genuine altruism and mindless neglect.  Since we live on this fallen planet with its strange combination of amazing beauty and severe conditions, it only makes sense that the people of the earth experience the wide range of emotions and experiences from grief to joy.  No matter who I speak with, wherever they are from, we all need hope.

Earl (not his real name) had brain surgery.  It effected his speech.  Earl labors to speak and communicate.  Indeed, he struggles so much to do so that I can only pick out bits and pieces of what he is trying to say to me.  The work of talking is made even more frustrating with the fact that Earl was once an extroverted pastor who made his living talking and speaking and offering words of hope.  Now he can barely get a sentence out his mouth.

Punctuated throughout most of our conversation were swear words of which he apologized.  Instead of poo-pooing this wonderful older minister for his imprecations, I invited us to swear together.  For several minutes, what must have looked kooky crazy to any angels looking on, we sat and swore.  Earl and I expressed our anger, disappointment, and tears over the loss of a precious gift.

Then, after we had a good session of lament, I read the timeless story of a person who conquered everything that is wrong and unjust in this world.  Jesus suffered like no other before or since.  He felt loss.  He knew grief firsthand.  He died.

But death could not hold him in the grave.  The power of God raised Christ the Lord to new life.  Now, the life of Jesus is my life, and Earl’s life.  I didn’t read the glorious story of Jesus to change Earl’s feelings or even to try and make him feel better.  I read the story because its real, its true, and it is the Christian’s hope.

I believe the words of 1 Corinthians 15:20 are right:

“Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life.”

Every hope, each promise, and all expectations for Christians everywhere are completely and totally realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Easter, or more aptly, Resurrection Day, is the highest holy day of the entire year for followers of Jesus.  One of the great things about Easter is that it is not only one day in the Christian Year – it comprises 40 days leading to the day of Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit.  That means we celebrate the truth “Jesus is alive!” for six wonderful Spring weeks.  We purposefully take a good look at our hope.

The somber reflection of Lent with its emphasis on confession of sin and repentance now flowers into the exultant joy and celebration of new life.  The call and response of Christians in the glorious season of Easter is “He is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!”

If there ever was a time for the church to give testimony to the redeeming and saving work of Jesus, it is on Resurrection Day and throughout the Easter season (often referred to as “Eastertide”).  Now is the appropriate time for fellow believers to hear from their brothers and sisters in Christ, how he has brought them renewal – a new outlook and perspective; a new way of relating to others; a new purpose; a completely new life.  We are so tied and in union with Jesus that his resurrection is our resurrection.  Christ’s rising to new life gives us hope.

Earl has hope.  I have hope.  You have hope.  The effects of the fallen world will not always have its way on the earth.  Christ is crucified.  Christ is risen.  Christ is coming again.

Crisis Caring

black valentine background, black and white starburst with heart

Here are just a few of the people I’ve encountered in the past week….

A man who went for a routine doctor’s visit was examined, then rushed to the hospital where he had his left leg amputated….

A woman who witnessed her son attempt to kill his wife by stabbing her multiple times….

A pastor’s wife who is overwhelmed with the depth of human need and emotional trauma she sees every Sunday in her urban congregation….

A man who is bitter and hard-hearted, refusing any sort of spiritual care or assistance in the face of death….

A family who watches on, while their beloved mother and grandmother is slowly slipping into eternity….

A pregnant mother who is on total bed rest, downright frightened by not knowing what will happen, and if her baby will live or die….

We live in a fundamentally broken world.  Everything is askew and awry, with people feeling the brunt of the things which are neither right, nor fair.  The examples are all of good people who have found themselves in the crosshairs of circumstances beyond their control.  Their situations left them feeling a range of emotions: abject horror, terrible sorrow and sadness, shocking denial, sheer panic, and crippling shame.  The sense of confusion, fragility, and powerlessness are palpable.

So, what in God’s name do we do when we are faced with trauma, either in ourselves or in people we care about?

A crisis or trauma turns our world upside-down.  It is a turning point.  Things will never be the same again.  Yet, it’s a unique opportunity for healing and growth.  Whether you care for someone, or need care yourself, there are three questions that have arisen for me as I have gone through my own crises and talk with folks facing trauma.

Who are you?

A crisis situation turns everything on its head.  It’s only human to question who we are.  Who is a man if he doesn’t have a literal leg to stand on?  Who is a mother when her son commits an atrocity?  Who is the pastor’s wife when she seems unable to meet needs?  Who is the bitter man when his expectations are not met?  Who is the family when their matriarch is gone?  Who is a mother if she doesn’t have a child?

It’s not a simple question.  It can’t be quickly answered.  Trauma throws doubt on who we thought we were before the crisis.  It can expose the shadowy parts of our lives we didn’t know were there, or bring light to the reality that our lives were built on things which don’t last.

Suppose you are a caregiver, trying to offer help.  If you’re goal is to make the person feel better, you’ll quickly find out you are not God.  You don’t fix people’s pain.  Who are you if you can’t repair broken people and solve their problems?  More than once I’ve felt like I’m in a Star Wars movie saying, “The compulsion is strong in this one.”  Until we learn to let go of trying to “force” others to feel better, we shall not be offering anything of genuine spiritual care.

What do I do?

Indeed, what do you do?  If you are a caregiver, you take action – not by changing feelings – but through attending to the basic needs of the one in trauma.  A crisis situation isn’t the time to explore emotions; it’s the time to feel them.  While a person is experiencing grief on a monumental scale, offering thoughtful assistance with decision-making, organizing the mundane things of life, and handling necessary details for them can be a loving way of bringing care and concern.

For those of you facing trauma and/or crisis, please hear me when I say:  Your task is to grieve, period.  Let compassionate people do things for you. You have no need of offering an apologetic for your emotion, tears, and trouble.  If you have been the kind of person that has been there for others, let them now be there for you.

How can I move on?

We move on through hope.  We continue the journey of life with the confident expectation that it can be good again, even though it might not look like it now.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell
with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. (Revelation 21:1-7, NRSV)

We offer hope.  And it must come from a place of genuine care and not from the posture of trying to hurry a person along in their emotions because we are unsettled with their grinding grief.

Some people are very uncomfortable with seeing their loved one or friend in a state of extreme vulnerability.  So they withdraw, or try and get them to short-circuit their grief and get over it sooner than they really should be doing.  There is strength in weakness, and power in vulnerability.  True love is a mystery.  Sometimes we must all give up our analysis of events and people, and simply appreciate what is right in front of us.  Letting go of control can open to us a whole new world of possibility, creativity, and hope.

Faith is the ability to look ahead and see hope on the horizon.  When a community of people strengthen faith in one another through the spiritual means of listening, prayer, active compassion, thoughtful words, and healing presence, then that group of persons has discovered what it means to share the human condition.

Jeremiah 29:1-14

            Whenever I’m in a conversation with a Christian, it’s common for me to ask them what their favorite verse or passage of the Bible is.  Hands down, the most often cited verse is Jeremiah 29:11 –
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)
 
            It’s a wonderful verse.  Yet, there is a distinct situation and context surrounding that verse about the future.  The verse is very much rooted in the present. The nation of Judah had been taken into captivity to Babylon.  Understandably, the people were longing to go back home; they didn’t want to be in Babylon.
So, Jeremiah (who remained in Judah) sent them a letter, and warned them to not listen to false prophets who would give them an easy answer about getting out of Babylon quickly. Instead, he told them to make a good life for themselves in their captive land.  He essentially told them to “bloom where you are planted.”
God said to the captives through Jeremiah the prophet:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (NIV)
 
            Another version says this in verse 7: “Pray for peace in Babylonia and work hard to make it prosperous.  The more successful that nation is, the better off you will be.” (CEV)
            Verse 11 only has solid meaning for us today when we:
·         understand that we are to work hard right where we are in a place we don’t want to be
·         pray for that place and its people and welfare
·         thrive in our presenthard circumstance.
Then, we can look to a bright future.  Our present sufferings do not compare to what glory is coming.  But that occurs only if we persevere and find ways of flourishing right where we are today.  How will you thrive in the place God has you right now?

 

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day.  Preserve with your mighty power so that I might not just wish for a different today and are not able to see what you have for me in this place.  May I not be overcome by adversity, but in all things direct me to the fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ, my Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Is There Hope?

manger

Every single hope and longing of your heart is to be found with a baby born two-thousand years ago.  The birth of Jesus Christ is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum on which the entire history of humanity hinges for its purpose and fulfillment.  Come and take-a-peek inside of a smelly room with stinky sheep and the distinct aroma of fresh hay – a dimly lit room which could be the place of any ordinary ancient family – and gaze upon the infant born.  The Christ child entered this world, this banal common space, just for you – to bring to fulfillment all your hopes and dreams.  The hope of the nations, the anticipation of peace on earth is just beginning….

Now your past, with of all its lack of direction, poor decisions, and missed opportunities can fade away.  “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit… name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Now your present circumstances, whether good or ill, have meaning and are not random events with no purpose.  “And the star they [the wise men] had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  They were thrilled and excited to see the star.  When the wise men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:9-11).

Now your future, which was so uncertain and filled with worry and anxiety, has direction and a trajectory in which to shape your entire life.  “With my own eyes I have seen what you have done to save your people, and foreign nations will also see this.  Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people” (Luke 2:30-32).  “The Word became a human being and lived here with us.  We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.  From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us” (John 1:14).

I was once in the mass of people who were familiar with Jesus, knew the supposed facts of his birth, and gave no real credence to it.  After all, that was then, and this is now.  What has an ancient birth have to do with me today?  But I found within Jesus all that he claimed to be, and discovered that his words and ways were more than worth following.  What is more, I realized that forgiveness is real, grace is enough, faith is as epistemically sound as my five senses, and that the world really does revolve on the axis of love.  That is, if Jesus is at the center of it all.

This season, this most blessed time of year, is truly a call to all humanity.  It is a summons to awaken to God, to discern that he is there wooing you to himself through his Son, the Lord Jesus.  It is an invitation to forsake the old life and familiar path, to strike out and find your heart’s truest hope.  It is the chance to make a difference as a new person.  Your past does not need to define you forever.  Your present is awaiting your next move.  And your future can be bright.  Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittester, has wisely said:

“The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to re-enter the human race, to take our part in it knowing that it has as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.  It requires us to understand that misfortune is not failure.  It is at most simply a digression through life intended to make us reassess our course, our goals, our aspirations.”

            That reassessment is the opportunity to hope again with the real hope of Christmas and the Christ child.  It is not a call to a job, or necessarily to do something.  Rather, it is an appeal to becoming fully human and alive to the image of God within, awakened by coming to the manger.

Take some time and withdraw to a quiet place, either sitting down in your favorite chair or walk along a secluded path.  Use your imagination in coming to Jesus and see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the birth of the Savior.  What is the sixth sense of faith telling you as you ponder the scene?  How is Christ filling your heart?   Where are the places of your life Jesus is coming and enlarging?  Is there hope as you find an alternative way of sensing God in your life?

1 Peter 1:3-9

            Christians ought to expect suffering.  Yes, you heard that one right.  In our litigious age of claiming rights and avoiding pain at all cost, the biblical teaching can seem like some antiquated throw-back to an age we can’t relate to very well.  But Peter’s letter to the churches was all about facing and dealing with suffering.  Unfair treatment was happening, and was going to happen.  Peter would think it weird if believers were not undergoing suffering of some type.
 
            But it is not random meaningless suffering.  It is a testing of faith.  “Your faith will be like gold that has been tested in a fire.  And these trials will prove that your faith is worth more than gold.”  Because faith is much like a muscle, it needs to be flexed, used, and exercised so that it develops and grows strong.  An absence of adversity will only lead to faith-muscle atrophy.  So, how do we endure such adverse situations of suffering?
 
            Christians deal in the currency of hope.  God has “given us new life and a hope that lives on.  God has something stored up for you in heaven, where it will never decay or be ruined or disappear.”  The path forward through suffering is to know that we are being trained and developed for eternal life with Jesus.  We learn to put our hope in things which are permanent, instead of putting too much investment and stock into the temporary.  Our strengthened faith will not decay, will never be ruined, and shall not disappear.  It only makes solid spiritual sense to develop a robust life of faith in this life, since eternity awaits us.
 

 

            I praise you God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You are so good by raising Jesus from death and giving us a permanent inheritance which can never perish, spoil, or fade.  I entrust myself to you and seek spiritual growth by means of the trials you bring into my life.  May they be used for your glory.  Amen.

Isaiah 57:14-21

            Our God is the ultimate expert on helping the helpless, giving hope to the hopeless, and healing the broken.  In this American post-election season, many, even throughout the world, have either great anxiety or great relief; they are in either in a terrible funk, or are quietly in jubilation.  But from whatever emotional place we find ourselves today, Scripture always has something to say to us that is relevant and real. 
 
            The Old Testament prophets give a word from God.  It is a word that is full of judgment, but laced with grace; it reveals a hard road, but assures that the road will be made level and passable.  Today let the words of Isaiah penetrate your weary soul, and let this word from the Lord become internalized as a steady ballast for your ever-swinging feelings:
 
14 God says, “Rebuild the road!
Clear away the rocks and stones
so my people can return from captivity.”
15 The high and lofty one who lives in eternity,
the Holy One, says this:
“I live in the high and holy place
with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.
I restore the crushed spirit of the humble
and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.
16 For I will not fight against you forever;
I will not always be angry.
If I were, all people would pass away—
all the souls I have made.
17 I was angry,
so I punished these greedy people.
I withdrew from them,
but they kept going on their own stubborn way.
18 I have seen what they do,
but I will heal them anyway!
I will lead them.
I will comfort those who mourn,
19     bringing words of praise to their lips.
May they have abundant peace, both near and far,”
says the Lord, who heals them.
20 “But those who still reject me are like the restless sea,
which is never still
but continually churns up mud and dirt.
21 There is no peace for the wicked,”
says my God. (New Living Translation)
 

 

            Lord God Almighty, I trust you to save me.  Then, I will not be afraid.  My strength comes from you.  I will celebrate your greatness because you are here to help me through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.