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…