February 2012


The following is a  post written for a Lenten series currently running at Internetmonk, with a theme of “A Journey into the Wilderness”.  It should be posted there on 2/29/2012.  Hope you enjoy!

How lovely is your dwelling place,
   LORD Almighty!
 My soul yearns, even faints,
   for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh cry out
   for the living God.
 Even the sparrow has found a home,
   and the swallow a nest for herself,
   where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
   LORD Almighty, my King and my God.
 Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
   they are ever praising you.

  Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
   whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
 As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
   they make it a place of springs;
   the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
 They go from strength to strength,
   till each appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 84:1-7

 

When Chaplain Mike sent out a mass email petitioning submissions for Lent, with the theme of “A Journey into the Wilderness”, I had some immediate ideas.  I’ve done sermons on life in the desert before, and read the Desert Fathers a good deal.  I thought I could write something deeply spiritual for you all to consider; something that would make the reader a “better” Christian, and make me an even “better” believer in the process of writing.

One thing I love about the iMonk community, though, is its raw transparency.  Anything less in that forum is immediately detected.  So, like a lot of folks wandering in the wilderness, I paused, considered my course, and chose a different path.  Here goes…

When I was a kid, I used to dream about heaven all the time.  My sister says that when I was barely making sentences, I would come to the breakfast table in the morning talking about a dream I had about Jesus, or about what heaven looked like.  It’s no wonder.  My family was very involved in church.  My mom volunteered as the church secretary, and taught Sunday School.  My dad sang in the choir and the men’s quartet, as well as being the “Mr. Fix-it” for the church, and the entire congregation.  Together, they led the youth group.  We were at church all the time!  Now, I won’t over-glamorize and pretend that my folks were perfect, but I do believe that they were perfect for me, and they loved their church, and their Jesus.

I may not have understood everything about faith that I think I understand now, but it was certainly something that consumed a good deal of my thought.  Being from the rural South, it was only natural to be more than a little Jesus-obsessed.  As Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”  

That’s likely an ideal descriptor of me…maybe not Christ-centered, but certainly Christ-haunted.  I’ve never felt as though I could escape Jesus.  And honestly, I never really wanted to.  Most of my life has been a spiritual stroll in the park, enjoying the stained-glass windows and “Child Jesus with Lamb” grave markers in the cemeteries I’ve walked.  For a good portion of my life, faith has been a sentimental journey, replete with memories that aren’t even my own; stories about baptisms I wasn’t present for, funerals held before I was born, and pastors I never knew.  As I’ve grown older though, I’ve begun more and more to believe that sentimentality is a sin.  I can’t long for the way things used to be, and really be following Christ.  Looking backward is a contradictory stance to the command, “Follow Me.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I value the heritage of faith in my family, and cherish all the memories and stories my grandparents and parents told me.  Those things play a huge role in who I am today.  I just can’t allow myself to be trapped in the past, if I want to move forward in faith.

Imagine you’re a traveler, in the desert, going on a journey to see the house of God.  It’s a tough road, and sometimes not even a road at all.  Sometimes the markers aren’t clear, or have been covered by shifting sands.  Trip Advisor did not give this journey five stars.  You’re on a hard road.  You wander and wander in the desert, until finally, you come to a valley called Baka.  In Baka, there’s a beautiful oasis.  Fresh water.  Shade.  Peace.

Isn’t it easy to want to stay there?

Honestly, that’s where I would like to spend my time, in the shade of the past; Forgetting the financial troubles and relationship problems of adulthood, just enjoying “precious memories”.

But those dreams about Jesus just won’t allow me to stay still.  I would like to stay here, but the water is still and too quiet. It could become stagnant, if I don’t move forward.

So I have a quick drink, and press on, following Him.  Along the way in my own faith journey, I discovered another oasis, this one drawing from the spring of fundamentalist, post-modern evangelicalism.  This seems like a good place to camp.  Here, Jesus is exciting, and He fits into my mold.  I determine what type of believer I’m going to be.  I can be larger than life here.  I can be a hero for Jesus.

But I didn’t become the hero I thought I would be.  I left my career to do ministry full-time, to practice what I preached, but I couldn’t keep up with fads.  It all began to feel like a show.  I couldn’t handle all the condemnation, and if you’ve been post-modern, you know what I mean.  I was the guy who sat on the front row, because “Leaders lead from the front.”  I raised my hands during every worship song, not because I was a true worshiper, but to set an example for the “less spiritually mature” folk that might be watching, you know?  I was critical of churches that didn’t worship in the same style as mine.  I was critical of churches that had smaller congregations than mine.  I was critical of people in my own church who didn’t raise their hands as often as me.  I was critical of people who didn’t take the same path to God’s house as me, praying the magical prayer and what-not.

Not only was I not the hero I wanted to be, the men who had led and trained me proved to be less than worthy of my hero-worship.  Financial misgivings, shifting or ignored church by-laws, mishandled church discipline…Authority without authority, for the sake of being “autonomous”, I began to realize, was a dangerous thing.

And I was conflicted.  I knew that I had faith in Christ long before I prayed any prayer.  I was a covenant child, “raised in the way I should go.” I knew my kin, who had grown up in traditions where they used real wine in communion and baptized babies, were just as “saved” as I was, but I couldn’t admit that to my closest friends, for fear of becoming the object of my own brand of criticism.

I wanted to stay there, but the water was just too bitter for me. It tasted good for a while, but the deeper I drank from the well, the more coppery and foul it became.  I camped here a while, and built a solid reputation, along with some large, vibrant ministries.  I also failed at some endeavors.  Regardless, I just couldn’t stay.  The dream of being in God’s House was too much for me.

So I moved on from that oasis to the next.  And for a while, I couldn’t see Jesus at all.  He called me and called me, and I would strain my neck to listen, but I couldn’t hear Him like I used to.  I didn’t dream about Him so much anymore.  Traveling in the desert became too difficult.  I knew He wanted me to keep moving, but some days it just seemed easier to sit in the sand and wait for Him to come get me.  Again, though, that contradicts the great “Follow Me”, the holy-rollin’ plan for perpetual motion.  At moments, He seemed just ahead, as though you could cross one more dune, and there He would be standing.  I would climb with all my might, and get to the top, though, and He would sound as though there was yet another dune to climb…then another…and another.  In the words of Mrs. O’Connor again, “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”    Jesus seemed to be running from me, and the harder I would press on, the more elusive he would become.

The desert grew hotter and hotter.

Would I ever get home?

Then another oasis.  The best yet.  Bread and Wine and The Word, history and reason, all together in one place.  Everything mysterious and familiar about faith that makes me love Jesus.

I’m back home, in the church of my childhood.

Have you ever been in the woods hunting, feeling certain that you’re headed back to camp, then you see something familiar, that you’ve already passed by at least once, and think, “How in the hell did I circle back to here?”

The desert road plays tricks on you, I suppose.  The straight line is sometimes a circle.  And sometimes, God’s house isn’t where you’re going.  It’s right where you began.

I’m getting closer to my dream.  One day, I will see His face.  That’s the place I want to be.  Until then, I’ll keep moving from oasis to oasis, from strength to strength, until I finally find my way home…

Flannery as a child....

Flannery O’Connor left us with a treasure trove of thought on life in the South, religion, the Church, and raw human experience.  I hope y’all enjoy these few quotes from some of her stories, books, and correspondence…

“I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. ”

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

“When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.”

“The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

“You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it. ”

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He’s thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him…”

“Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

“The fiction of Ayn Rand (noted atheist who wrote ‘Atlas Shrugged’) is as low as you can get re: fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

“She would have been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “there had been someone to shoot her every day of her life.”

“Did you see the picture of Roy Rogers’s horse attending a church service in Pasadena? I forgot whether his name was Tex or Trigger but he was dressed fit to kill and looked like he was having a good time. He doubled the usual attendance.”

“We don’t have to go far to find the treasure we are seeking. There is beauty and goodness right where we are. And only when we can see the beauty and goodness that are close by can we recognize beauty and goodness on our travels far and wide. There are trees and flowers to enjoy, paintings and sculptures to admire; most of all there are people who smile, play, and show kindness and gentleness. They are all around us, to be recognized as free gifts to receive in gratitude.

Our temptation is to collect all the beauty and goodness surrounding us as helpful information we can use for our projects. But then we cannot enjoy it, and we soon find that we need a vacation to restore ourselves. Let’s try to see the beauty and goodness in front of us before we go elsewhere to look for it.”

Henri Nouwen

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