O is for Obedience (an alphabet for penitents)

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

-Matthew 7:13-14.

“To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

-1 Samuel 15:22

One of my favorite movies, The Joyluck Club has a scene where the little girl version of June (the main protagonist) refuses to keep up her piano lessons.  Her mother is livid and shouts, “There are only two kinds of daughters. Obedient and those who follow own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient kind!”[This quote is from memory and may not be exact.] As a father, I have quoted that line to my own daughters (to their general consternation and confusion and my amusement), but whatever we think of June’s mother and her parenting, she does note something profoundly true. There are two kinds of [people].

In the spiritual life, there are those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Jesus contrasted the wide way that leads to destruction and the narrow road that leads to life. In the Old Testament, the prophets warned that “to obey was better than sacrifice.” Many children of Israel (and Saul in 1 Samuel 15) thought that religion was a tool to garner personal prosperity (pray the right way, perform the right ritual and God would bless the land, the crops, and bring peace). This didn’t transform their lifestyles. They did what they wanted but expected blood on the altar would absolve them and bring blessing into their lives.

What kind of people are we? Obedient or those who follows our own minds? The question becomes poignant in Lent. This is after all the season of self-sacrifice. We keep our little fast and observe our little rule and expect that God will bless us. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” What good is our little rule if we aren’t being transformed into the image of Christ?

I have kept vegan during Lent and used the time to reflect on injustice in our food system and my own eating habits. I was asked recently about my reflections on this, but I don’t really have any. I know the first couple weeks were difficult and it got easier as Lent progressed. Now in the home stretch, I feel like it has been really good for me. I lost a bunch of weight and I feel good. It has its challenges and I will feast on Easter. I know that is possible that I can make this kind of liminal commitment with no lasting change in my life.

But if Lent is about more than our little sacrifices but learning to walk in obedience to Jesus, there is lasting fruit. I have tried to make space for prayer and Bible reading, to walk humbly with God and act where he tells me. I have tried to learn graciousness and act kindly. Jesus modeled obedience for us, in life and in death. The call on his life is the call to us as well.

How about you? How are you learning obedience in this season? What are the things God is calling you to do?

N is for Non-Violence (an alphabet for penitents).

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

-1 Cor. 1:18

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. -1 Cor. 2:2

Non-violence is not passive pacifism. It is not a silent winking at injustice. Non violence is the way of the cross.

Violence is regarded both as a problem—gun violence, bullying, terrorism, war—and a necessity. How else are we going to quash terrorism, depose dictators, police inner-cities and create the conditions necessary for peace? While pacifism was the default position of the early church, Christian’s gradually accepted military service and war. Augustine’s famously articulated what has come to be known as Just War Theory— a statement on the conditions of when war is a moral good (or at least a moral necessity). John Howard Yoder rightly questioned whether the conditions of Just War have ever been satisfied, though even within the constraints of Just War theory, the cessation of violence is the goal, and war ought to be rare.

In the gospels, and in our celebration of Lent, we are reminded that Jesus’ answer to human violence was not war and violence but a cross. He didn’t kick-ass and take names. He rode a donkey foal into Jerusalem, knowing he would die there. He gave his life to bring an end to the cycle of human violence. Following Jesus means walking with Him on Calvary road. Our Model in life and conduct chose self-sacrifice over destruction and harm.

How do you combat the evils in the world? What should be our response to terrorism? The horror of ISIS and the refugee crisis? What about North Korean nuclear armament? Or Russia’s encroachment in Crimea? Or racial violence against African students in India?

Closer to home, what about policies like stop-and-frisk, the incarceration of minorities or injustice toward immigrant communities? What about the proliferation of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims? Violence How do we respond?

The answer is the cross. It was Jesus response, and it should be ours too.

Following Jesus means that our imagination is cruciform. We are shaped by Christ’s cross as we take up our own cross and follow him (Matt 16:24). Against the violence which pervades our culture and our world, we are being shaped into God’s non-violent people.

There are practical questions about what this means, especially as we aim non-violence at large systemic and trans-national problems.  But then again how was a crucifixion (a death sentence for failed revolutionaries) in a marginal province of the Roman Empire a decisive response to human sinfulness? The past century showed us several examples (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela) of the power of non-violence to effect social change. But more than that if we participate with the Son of God in his cross, we can expect that God to continue his good work in us and our world.

 

 

E is for Endurance (an alphabet for penitents)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. -Hebrews 12:1-2

Energy may get you start, endurance is how you finish.

As I write this, we are one week into Lent, so we’re still near the start of our journey. If you made a commitment to fast in any way, or to a new discipline, you’ve likely started to bristle. A shift in habits is hard, especially if we intentionally have laid aside our go-to comforts (i.e. coffee, chocolate, sweets, etc). We are on a journey we didn’t train for. Our inner voice screams, “turn back.”

My wife and I are going vegan for Lent. Part of our this is our desire to use this sacred season to think about systems of injustice. Food systems are one of those places where injustice rears its head. While much of the world subsists on less than $2.00 a day, in America food is big bucks (except for the farmer). And you don’t have to look too hard at the meat and dairy industries to see evidence of cruelty: chickens smashed together in cages, the routine killing of dairy calves, and the slaughter of animals. All this is to say nothing of the environmental impact of factory farms—the resources burned to make the American diet possible and waste it generates. I do not plan to be vegan for life. The six weeks of Lent is as much as I am able to commit, but as I journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, I want to be cognizant of the ways my ordinary habits are complicit in systems of injustice. This is not an easy task for me. I love eggs for breakfast and a good cheese. I  woke up last Thursday dreaming of ice cream. I  already miss pizza (as a father-of-four, it is a regular part of my diet). We’ve eaten well thus far, but it is

The six weeks of Lent is as much as I am able to commit, but as I journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, I want to be cognizant of the ways my ordinary habits are complicit in systems of injustice. This is not an easy task for me. I love eggs for breakfast and a good cheese. I  woke up last Thursday dreaming of ice cream. I  already miss pizza (as a father-of-four, it is a regular part of my diet). We’ve eaten well thus far, but it is a major shift and difficult.

How do we overcome the desire to quit?  As an intermittent runner, I know I can push a distance by slowing my pace so I can push through the pain. Willpower and resolve can help you for some distances. With a Lenten fast, that might be all you need to endure. It is only six weeks; however, the journey with Jesus is not a six-week commitment but a lifetime of following. When our resolve fails, the author of Hebrews gives us a better strategy. We endure because of two things: a great cloud of witnesses and because our eyes are fixed on Jesus.

 The great cloud is our back-up. The pilgrims’ path is well worn by others who journeyed with Jesus through the season. They have shown us what it means to persist in faith. They are a network of support (not just the historic faithful, but the ones we know). They are a system of accountability, helping us fulfill our commitment.

Jesus—the pioneer and perfector (author and finisher)—is the one that makes running the race possible, and the one we are running toward. He is both our example and our ever-present help in times of trouble. We blazed the trail ahead and guides our steps. He carries us when strength fails. He helps us run for prize-communion with God.

If your steps falter, find strength in community and lean into Jesus. If a great cloud of witnesses and the Son of God got your back, you totally got this.

D is for Discipleship (an alphabet for penitents)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? -Matt 16:24-26

Discipleship is just one of a preponderance of Lenten “D” words. “Denial,” “Difficulty,” “Death,”  “Delay” each name parts of our Lenten journey. Even “the Devil” would have brought to mind Jesus’ forty-day-wilderness fast when Satan came a tempting (Matt 4:1-11).  “Discipleship” is a broad term applied to “following Jesus.” He is the master to whom we apprentice ourselves to on our spiritual journey.

And yet in following Jesus, those other “D” words come into focus:

  • Denial-The first order for would-be disciples is: deny oneself. Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves . . . When you are an apprentice, your will is not your own. You do the bidding of your master, the tasks or projects you are given. Not many of us have been apprenticed, but maybe we’ve been interns or at least know how a job constrains our freedom to act out our every whim. What Jesus is saying is that, as our master, his will, will guide us, his mission will become our own, and that he sets the agenda for our life. 
  • Death– Would-be disciples take up their crosses and follow Jesus. When Christ was compelled to carry a cross at the end of the gospel, he was on the way to Golgotha. Cross-carrying is a vivid image of joining Jesus on his death march. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Cost of Discipleship, 89). This language is stronger than ‘denial.’ Following Jesus is a lifestyle of total self-sacrifice.
  • Difficulty– None of this easy. Following Jesus is hard. Again, following Jesus is hard.
  • the Devil– We remember in Lent, Jesus’ wilderness temptation. Forty days of fasting culminated with a visit from the Prince of Darkness who tried to push God’s Son off His mission. It is interesting to note that the things the devil tries to tempt Jesus with are the antithesis of Jesus’ call to discipleship:
    • “Make bread from stones”—You’re life doesn’t have to be difficult. There is an easy way.
    • “Use God’s angels to save yourself” You don’t really have to die!
    • “Bow to me and You will have power, riches, and anything you desire”—you do not need to deny yourself.

If this is the way the Devil tried to get Jesus off track, how much more his disciples?

  • Delay– Would-be disciples know about delayed gratification. Jesus predates pop-psychology and the ‘marshmallow test,” but he offered a challenge of his own. You know those psychological experiments where they place a child in the room with a marshmallow and tell them if they don’t eat the marshmallow for amount of time, they will get two marshmallows? Jesus version was to forgo life now to gain Abundant life for all eternity. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?  Would-be disciples are confident that blessings, resurrection, and glorification await them if they follow Jesus; however, they know that these things come by way of the cross. It is in losing our lives we find it but first the dying. 
sebastiano_del_piombo_-_christ_carrying_the_cross_-_wga21099

Sebastiano del Piombo – Christ Carrying the Cross

What has Bioregionalism to Do with Discipleship? a ★★★★★book review

Early Christians asked themselves, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” wondering about the relationship between the Christian faith and pagan philosophy. Today many Christians raise a similar question: “What does my faith have to do with the environment?” Western Christianity has imbibed a functional Docetism since Constantine, placing salvation outside of creation’s realm. We’ve also been bequeathed the medieval Doctrine of Discovery, and Industrialization’s anthropological assumption which has enabled colonization and the exploitation of our natural resources (5-6). We’ve commodified our land and resources and a major divide continually grows between our Christian faith and our lived environments. We are now at a critical juncture in which human persons are making a major impact on our world. It is time to re-place Christian discipleship within our ecosystems.

9781498280761Ched Myers is well known for his theological activism, his work as an educator, and for his political reading of Mark’s gospel, in books like Binding the Strongman, and Say to this Mountain.  He is co-director, with Elaine Enns, of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (BCM) where he advocates Christian engagement in the realms of peace, justice, and radical discipleship. At a 2010 meeting of the Bartimaeus Institute, he introduced the term ‘Watershed Discipleship’ as a way of impressing the importance of bioregionalism for North American churches (xvii), In this anthology, Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice Myers draws together essays from a dozen activists and scholars who share his vision for bioregional faith. He frames this collection with introductory and concluding essays of his own.

What does Watershed Discipleship mean? Myers describes the term as a triple entendre:

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places
  2. It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local
    church take place inescapably in a watershed context
  3. And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (2).

The essays in this volume engage the realms of theology, history, biblical studies, social science, and environmentalism; however, each essay is also autobiographically rooted.  The authors describe how they’ve come to care for their own watersheds. They are cognizant of the human and environmental crisis we face, attentive to their places, listening well to what their watersheds have taught them.

Rose Marie Berger‘s poem, Prophecies from the Watershed Confederacy, stands at the beginning of the book, Denise Nadeau writes the forward. In chapter one, Katarina Friesen essay reflects on current Christian missions, and her experiences on missions and growing up as a Missionary-kid. She explores how the medieval Doctrine of Discovery has shaped conquest politics and contributed to a ‘dis-placed’ understanding of mission. She argues us to redirect missions toward our own watersheds:

As a church, we need a framework whose transformative potential adequately counters the oppressive history of forced conversion of land and people, a resurrection way of liberation for all people and land more powerful than the death legacy of colonialism.
As a people marred by placeless theologies, our challenge is to repent of Watershed Conquest through practicing Watershed Discipleship. We are being commissioned home, through the power of the One who will be with us “to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b).

David Pritchett examines the city, showing how the urban grid has historically been ‘used a tool of the colonization, control and alienation of citizenry, in order to efficiently move goods and military assets across the landscape” (54). Pritchett draws inspiration from the book of Daniel, on how contemporary city-dwellers may subvert the urban grid’s hegemony. He gives contemporary examples of subversion such as urban art, de-paving parking lots (which contribute to urban watershed problems), and food mapping.

John McRay provides a theology and a biblical vision of the Kingdom of God and salvation as a ‘transfigured earth’ (60). McRay explores the biblical narratives of Jubilee, Jesus and Elisha-Naaman story, articulating a ‘hermeneutic of reinhabitation.’ He argues, “Our best chance for justice and peace is to enact Jesus’s blend of Jubilee and watershed transformation. Like Naaman, we must learn to move from profane control to holy conversation through acts of reinhabitation”(72).

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann tells her story of caring for the Detroit River watershed, the place of her baptism. She describes the fight for clean water in the city and its effects on the poor and marginalized.  Erinn Fahey, also in the Detroit Watershed, is a water engineer.  In her chapter, she explores the contradictions between the discipline of engineering and her vocation as a green engineer. Sarah Thompson interviews Atlanta community organizer, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, discussing environmental racism and ecojustice in the Atlanta Watershed, the next stages of the civil rights movement, and the witness of Christian Peacemaker Teams in violence reduction around the world.

 Matthew Humphrey calls evangelicals away from a posture of abstraction to one of action for inhabited bioregions. Humphrey lives in the lower Mainland of British Columbia. He discusses the [North] American lack of place (“Americans have careers not places”) He reads the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard against the displacement of Aboriginal Canadians (in Indian Residential Schools) and the history of displacement of Native. Humphrey encourages us to inhabit our place, and become ‘settlers’ allies’ for ‘the sake of the land and its inhabitants’ (121)

Sarah Nolan interviews Erynn Smith and Reyna Ortega of The Abundant
Table project in Ventura County, CA, discussing their experience as organic
farmers and activists and the challenge of trying to practice agriculture which offers alternatives to the destructive farming which surround their community (138)

Sasha Adkins maps the disaster the problem of plastic from a public health
perspective and the damage it does to bodies and global watersheds calling us to examine our spiritual problem of disposability. Victoria Machado discusses the confluence between bioregionalism and the Catholic Worker movement (i.e. the local and contextual
nature and mission). Tevyn East and Jay Beck explore the Carnival de Resistance— a traveling carnival and school of transformation which promotes environmental justice and sustainability. They contend art serves watershed discipleship by supporting cultural transformation and spiritual recovery (181). Myers concluding essay explores the need for a theological and hermeneutic recovery, and the need to re-place our church practices

This is a rich collection of essays. I was familiar with the concept of Watershed Discipleship from Todd Wynward’s Rewilding the Way (also a great book). This book highlighted the perspectives and actions of a dozen theologians and activists. Two major themes jumped out at me as I read these essays. First, they underscore the importance and meaning of place. Missiologists and church planters talk about Incarnational ministry, but they seldom challenge the assumptions bequeathed to us by urbanism, Industrialism, and the Doctrine of Discovery. By conceiving of discipleship bioregionally, the authors in this volume are cognizant of the relationship between persons and their ecosystem (as well as their built environment). This opens fresh possibilities for what mission ‘in place’ means. It doesn’t involve simply asset-mapping a neighborhood for human services. It means understanding food systems, the impact of human communities on Creation, and how environmental problems impact people, particularly the poor and the marginalized. Mission in place means caring for both the community and creation within your bioregion. This is missiologically significant.

Secondly, I appreciate the hopeful tone of these essays. Because of the impact humans have on their environment, many books on environmental justice are kind of bleak. However, each of these authors believe social change and a more responsive relationship with Nature is not only desirable, but possible. They allow their faith and the eschatological vision of a restored creation to inform their thoughts and actions. The overall tone of this book was inspiring, getting me to think about what I can do in my own watershed (a region I’m new to and know little about).

I recommend this book to anyone who wonders about the relationship between our environment and faith—our bioregion and the life of discipleship. You will get a sense of what others are doing in the realm Christian creation care. Several of these essays open new avenues for Christian mission. I happily recommend this book and give it five stars. -★★★★★

Note: I received an electronic copy of this book from Cascade Books (an imprint from Wipf & Stock) in exchange for my honest review.

Ethics as Discipleship: a book review

Recently I sat through a presentation where the presenter made the claim that people always act out of their own self-interest. That ethical egoism was enshrined as the only option for personal decision making made my inner-ethicist cringe. In that environment it was too much to hope for a full-scale discussion of ethical approaches (i.e. the role of rules, formational habits, or even the ‘greater good’). While this discussion didn’t happen in a religious environment, the moral decision making of Christians often looks the to the same as everyone else. And as much as I may balk at that presenter, we live in an ethical-egoist-age.

9780830824656In Pursuing Moral Faithfulness, theologian Gary Tyra explores the realm of moral decision-making under the rubric of Christian discipleship. Tyra is professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University and has more than three decades of pastoral experience. His approach to ethics as discipleship aims to set ethics within a larger frame. One that has the possibility of theological and moral realism, accounts for the Spirit’s role in moral guidance, and balances respect for rules with considering consequences and cultivating character (21-27). The goal of ethics is to make thoughtful ethical decisions in keeping with what it means to be a follower of Christ.

This book divides into two sections. Part one introduces readers to Christian ethics and names the major ethical options (i.e. deontological and consequentialist approaches, and the effects of our cultural moral relativism on our ability to make ethical decisions). Part two aims at describing the ethic of responsible Christian discipleship: Christ-centered, biblically informed and Spirit empowered moral decision making.

Tyra is a pastor and theologian. His ethical formation came from studying with Lewis Smedes at Fuller Seminary (and practical theology from Ray Anderson). Throughout this book he focuses on the practical dimension of moral deliberation in the Christian life. The rubric of discipleship enables him to include the best elements of deontological, consequential and virtue ethics.  In this respect his approach reminds me of Dennis Hollinger’s (Choosing the Good, Baker Academic, 2002).

One of the features of Tyra’s approach is his use of scripture. He points to the ethical insights of Micah 6:8, the importance of consequences and God given wisdom for proper moral deliberation evidenced in Proverbs 2, how Jesus’ antithetical statements in the Sermon on the Mount (Mathew 5:21-47), reveal God’s heart in a way that hyper-literal observance of the law did not (216-219). Tyra doesn’t explore Torah at length or the ten commandments; he is more interested on what the heart behind a law is than mere legal observance. Laws and consequences are re-framed relationally. So is formation (the Spirit’s work guiding and enabling our moral life). I think his articulation could have been sharpened by a more substantive engagement with the Pentateuch and the concept of covenant. however, Tyra paints a practical picture of what responsible Christian moral decisions look like.

This is a good introductory book for Christian ethics. Tyra argues for a thoughtful approach to ethics which defies the relativism of our culture. This will be a good text book, and a helpful resource. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

Good News Lent: Wilderness Introduction

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Mark 1:12-13

Are you in a wilderness? It could be one of your own making—sin and shame isolating you from others. It could be a wilderness hoist on you through circumstance: the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, a debilitating illness, the loss of a job. Maybe you went to what you thought was the land of promise, and found yourself in a  barren wasteland. However, you got here, you are not alone. Jesus also walked in the wilderness. For forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness is a poignant image for Lent. It is this episode from Jesus’ life that the church got the ‘forty days’ that determine the length of the season. Forty days Jesus fasted, so we fast forty days (minus Sundays). There Jesus was victor over temptation, so we take this time to pursue holiness, attentive to our proclivity toward sin. Yes, Jesus’ wilderness experience is foundational for our experience of Lent. But does the wilderness hold good news for us? Jesus faced the devil in the dry arid air of the desert. He did so, for the joy set before him. I see five reasons the wilderness was good news for Jesus, and is good news for us!

The Wilderness is Where God Wanted Jesus to Be

judean_wildernessWe are told in Mark’s gospel that the Spirit “sent” Jesus into the wilderness.   Jesus emerged from the Jordan, dripping wet from his baptism and the Spirit sent him to the desert. The NIV’s ‘sent’ is a rather tepid translation of the Greek ἐκβάλλει. The word carries the force of ‘drove out’ or ‘expelled.’ Jesus was forced out to the wilderness, there by the Spirit’s compulsion. He was in the wilderness because God wanted Him there.  Why did the Spirit want Jesus there? Matthew gives the reason, “He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by devil” (Matt. 4:1).

There was contest that needed to happen between Jesus and Satan at the outset of his ministry. The ultimate contest would come later, but this wilderness time was important. Jesus had heard his Father’s voice, saw the heavens open and felt the Spirit’s presence resting like a cooing dove on Him. He couldn’t go back to carpentry; his Kingdom mission was inaugurated. God sent him to the wilderness, but he didn’t expect him to stay there.  He went to quote Deuteronomy at the Devil and strengthen his resolve to face what lay ahead

Spiritually the wilderness is a liminal space, it is a place between places. Jesus was stepping out of the life as an obscure Galilean carpenter, to a lifestyle which included itinerant evangelism, divine healing and political rabble-rousing. This was a big change in Jesus’ life, even for the Son of God. The desert gave Jesus the space a place to transition.

Where does God have you? If you are in a wilderness right now, perhaps the Spirit has driven you there because He is transitioning you to something new, something significant. This is a time to pay attention and ask God what He is doing?

 

The Wilderness Clarifies Identity and Allowed Jesus Space to Connect to God

 

God took Jesus to the wilderness after affirming him in baptism. Jonathan Martin writes:

[T]he reason that God sent Jesus into the wilderness was not to weaken Him­—so that his showdown with Satan would become “the ultimate test”—but rather to strengthen Him and cement in His heart the truth of His identity. Fresh from hearing the words of confirmation on which His entire life and ministry would be built, there was no safer place than the wilderness for Jesus to go next. Even though His experience in the wilderness wasn’t easy—He fasted for forty days and forty nights and was confronted by the devil—the devil wasn’t the only one he encountered there. The Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness, rejuvenated with the affirmation of His identity in God’s eyes, and allowed Him to step away from His day-to-day life until the noise ad hurry of the world around Him was stripped down to the point where He could easily distinguish the voice of the accuser from the voice of the Father. The same can be true for us. [1]

Belden Lane says, “Desert and mountain places, located on the margins of society are locations of choice in luring God’s people to a deeper understanding of who they are. Yahweh frequently moves to the boundary in order to restore the center, calling a broken people back to justice and compassion.”[2] As with Jesus, so with us. We move (or are moved) into wilderness spaces to discover who we really are. It wasn’t enough that Jesus heard the Father affirm Him in baptism. He needed space to clarify what those words meant—to be moved by the Spirit, to connect with Father. He needed time out of the limelight to clarify His identity, and to hear God’s voice.

You are a child of God! The Father declares His love for you, the Spirit of God rests on all who are His. We need this space to understand what it means that we are His. We need to ‘unplug’ and take time in obscurity to cement this and to learn to discern the voice of God for us.

The Wilderness is a Place of Preparation

When Jesus left the wilderness, his public ministry would begin. It would culminate on a Roman cross. Along the way he would cast out demons, heal the sick, announce good news, and challenge the religious and political structures.  He would gather a handful of followers that he would pour his life into, so that they would lead the movement in his absence. There was a lot of work to be done and it would take all of him.  Jesus spent forty days fasting and praying at the outset of his ministry.  This time in the wilderness was preparation for what lay ahead.  These wilderness spaces are our preparatory school as well.  As the desert clarifies our identity—we see ourselves in all our vulnerability, weakness, brokenness and wonder—we sense God’s call to step out in compassion for the world. The obscurity of the margins is where God prepares us for the work ahead.

Do you know what God is Calling You to? Do you have a sense of the type of work he would like to do through you? How are you being prepared for that task? Our wilderness is where we discern God’s call and gain the courage to step into it.

 

The Wilderness is a Place of Purgation

The wilderness is where Jesus is tempted by the devil (Jesus’ temptation is the subject of my next post).  This is also the space where we face those ugly bits in ourselves. The Christian tradition calls this purgation—a purification of the soul from sin. Jesus was the sinless Son of God, but even he faced temptation. The wilderness is the space where we can wrestle our demons all the way down.  We all have comforts and strategies we employ that we use which prevent us from examining our heart’s condition: we use the demands of work and commitments to crowd out self-reflection; we fill our down time with Netflix binge watches of our favorite series; we fill our bellies with a tub of cookie dough ice cream or engage in some retail therapy. We are good at distracting ourselves with work, food, and entertainment. Perhaps we self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. When all these are stripped away through fasting or circumstance, we begin to see ourselves for who we are and to deal with the parts of our soul we work so hard at avoiding.   Lane writes:

The way of purgation involves an entry into what is unnerving, even grotesque in our lives, into what quickly reveals our limits. It seems at first, like most beginnings in the spiritual life, a mistake, a false start, an imperfection in God’s planning, a regression in our own growth. Only in hindsight do we recognize it for the unexpected gift that it is.[3]

The good news of the desert is that as our defenses are stripped away and our sin is laid bare before God, He transforms us. When we emerge from this marginal, liminal space, we are made new. The wilderness is a hard place to be, but it is where God has his way in us.

The Wilderness is Where Jesus ‘Back-stories’ the Good News.

The good news about Jesus is made coherent as part of the larger story of God and Israel’s story.  N.T. Wright’s project has been to show how Jesus fulfills Israel’s messianic hopes.  Jesus does this in two ways: he recapitulates Israel and its sacred symbols around himself and he does the sort of things the Hebrew Scriptures attest that only God can do.  The Hebrew Scriptures, what Christian’s call the Old Testament, provides the backstory essential for understanding who Jesus is and why he came. When we look again at Jesus wilderness wandering, we see God reenacting Israel’s own wandering. The people of Israel went through the Red Sea and spent forty years in the wilderness; Jesus left the Jordan for forty days in the wilderness. Israel was led by God’s presence in a pillar of fire by day and a cloud by night (Exodus 13:21); Jesus was compelled forward by the Spirit. Israel was tested for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus was tempted by the devil. But while Israel grumbled, complained, and failed their wilderness tests, Jesus would emerge victorious.  Jesus’ reenactment showed him to be the New Israel, fulfilling covenant with God, walking faithfully with him.

Something new was happening in the Judean countryside. A Messiah was coming that would fulfill all of Israel’s hopes and longing. A man would stumble out of the desert that would embody everything Israel was supposed to be.

Jesus came. He suffered the wilderness, he overcame the time of testing and he would lead his people to the good land. Praise God that Jesus came to be what we could not be for ourselves. Thank you Jesus for going before us, marking the way through the wilderness and showing us the way forward as we trust in him.

 

Whatever your wilderness is, press into it. Jesus walked this road and there are good things in store.  God will take this time to show you who you are, to help you see clearly who He is, to guide you, to show you the way forward, to prepare you, to cleanse your heart of Sin.  The desert is harsh landscape, and these are difficult days. There are gifts here too.

[Note: I previous edition of this page, titled it “Wilderness Part I.” However I decided to break Jesus’ Temptations into several posts, and treat this an introductory post].

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Jonathan Martin, Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You Are More Like Jesus Than You Think. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2013), 51.

[2] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscape: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 46.

[3] Lane, 27.