Monday, September 16, 2019

City Notes '19 | The Ultimate Exodus: Picking Blackberries and Bushes on Fire + What's In Your Hand?




The way Jesus saw every situation and every person changed every thing. It made every blind man an opportunity for divine encounter, every woman a potential missionary, every beggar first place for discipleship, every religious leader a seeker, and the results were extraordinary. We forget that the Kingdom emerges and advances in the most unlikely ways, through the most irritatingly unqualified people; it spreads like wildflowers planted whimsically by a love-crazed Gardener, and is brought to fullness by a truly wild King. + Danielle Strickland


The quote above was how I first encountered Danielle Strickland in her fantastic foreword to Alan Hirsch's and Mark Nelson's Reframation: Seeing God, People, and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames (another favorite book from 2019, not only because they introduced me to Danielle). Once I read her words, I looked to see if she had authored any books, and that's how I found The Ultimate Exodus: Finding Freedom From What Enslaves You. I expected much, and I was not disappointed. 

I love The Ultimate Exodus. I read Strickland's brief and bold work in two sittings, and I'm excited to see its accessibility and application for a broad variety of people unleashed, including myself. 

Below is the beginning of three excerpts from this work that God knew I needed to read right now, and perhaps you do, too. Also, don't miss the "Finding Freedom" questions at the end of each section, as well as a collection of them from the entire book at the end of each post. I know these will provide little sparks to fuel my prayer life in the year(s) to come.

Chapter 10 | Picking Blackberries and Bushes on Fire Excerpt

Moses answered God, "But why me? What makes you think that I could ever go to Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?" "I'll be with you," God said. 
+ Exodus 3:11-12

Nothing can prepare you for who God is. Where God is present, things shift. God has this way of filling normal spaces with difference. You end up with a confrontation that is itself an invitation to live differently. Every confrontation with God leaves people different. We take off our shoes and find a spot on our knees.

Powerlessness leads to willingness, which brings God close. 

In the New Testament, James put it like this: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). When we meet God, things happen inside of us. God brings things up. He confronts things in us. 

God tells Moses that he hears the cry. That's really deep, because Moses knew the Israelites were crying; he simply concluded there was nothing he could do about it. It was too hard, and he had already tried and failed, and so he was moving on with his life. But God wasn't moving on. He can't get over oppression. Not without stopping it. So God shows up. And things start to change. If Moses learned one thing in the desert, it was humility. No question about it. He was humble. He might have even become a little too humble. If the argument he has with God is any indication, he is still pretty convinced he has no chance of doing anything about the situation. And he's right. It's too hard for him. It's too hard for us, too.

Sometimes it takes years in a desert to get to the place where we agree with the truth about our own powerlessness. When we do finally admit it, it is not defeat – it is the opposite of defeat. It's an invitation. 

I wonder if part of why Moses needed God to show up with an invitation was because of his own guilt over what he had done – his murder of an Egyptian, even his abandonment of his people. It's interesting that God doesn't bring it up. What God does bring up is Moses' humanity. 

Perhaps this is how God brings up our sins – he burns them with his presence.  

There is no awkward history or strange silence with God. There is with us, of course. Moses has a background of oppression. He most likely compromised his own background and beliefs in the palace. That's got to be difficult to live with. He messed up and actually murdered someone. That's hard to swallow. Then he had to make a run for it. Buried all of Egypt and Israel in the desert and moved on with his life. There is a lot happening on the inside of Moses at the burning bush. Trust me. When Moses took off his sandals, I think a lot of dirt came out. 

I read that burning bushes happen all the time in the desert. It's not uncommon in the heat of the desert for a bush to catch fire. What was uncommon in this instance was that the bush never burned up. So Moses went to see. This is the encounter that changes something in Moses. It's when Moses encounters God. Right from the beginning God uses natural things in a supernatural way. We expect fire to fall from heaven and consume the bush and shake the earth and for Moses to be transformed from a shepherd to a superhero and change the world that way. But instead, God comes gently, naturally almost. He comes in a still small voice. A burning bush in a desert of burning bushes. But this one was different. That's the thing about God: When he says he's with us, he's not speaking figuratively. He really is with us – right where we are. And on that day in that desert Moses notices. That might be the real miracle. 


Story 1 | Seeing Flowers in the Concrete

I often wonder how many times we miss God because we keep expecting the supernatural signs instead of the natural wonders all around us. Years ago I felt called to plant a church in a very depressing place. It was a concrete jungle of oppression. I was walking on the sidewalk as I set out to survey the land when I saw it. Between the cracks of the sidewalk there was a flower. It was beautiful. Everything was concrete, but that little flower grew right through it. The concrete could not stop life from coming. I felt something happen in me that day. I went over to the flower. I took a picture. I thanked God for the reminder that he planted and grew life and that no amount of human construction could stop the inevitable spring of his Kingdom. He was coming to this would if he had to push his way through concrete. But he was coming. I felt hope. It was such a small experience – I wish it had been a meteor that fell from the sky and left a massive hole in the earth and everyone in the neighborhood repented and I was able to call it a day and move on. That's not what it was. But it shifted something in me. I noticed it. And I went over. And something shifted in me, something grew in me. Hope.

That image of a flower is now tattooed on my arm so I never forget. One of the first people I met in that neighborhood, seemingly a hopeless case at the time, was named Flower. I hoped for Flower because God had planted hope in me. A normal day. A normal me. A normal flower. On fire. 
 Earth's crammed with heaven, 
     And every common bush afire with God; 
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes   
    The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. 
+ Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Finding Freedom Questions

1) How might God be trying to get your attention? 
2) Is there a whisper you should be listening for?

Chapter 11 | What's in Your Hand? Excerpt

Moses objected, "They won't trust me. They won't listen to a word I say. They're going to say, 'GOD? Appear to him? Hardly?'" So God said, "What's that in your hand?" "A staff." 
+ Exodus 4:1-2

Story 2 | Becoming a Faith Community Where Kids Play in "Needle Park" 

Years ago my family moved to a very poor and drug-addicted neighborhood. The place we first stepped on to pray about the possibility of a church plant was the place we thought we should begin. It was a dark, horrible park in the center of the area, nicknamed (appropriately) "Needle Park." That park, intended to be an oasis in a concrete jungle, had been taken over by dealers and users. It had become a scary, forbidding, violent place. It was the obvious choice. We prayed about how to begin our ministry. What was the most strategic way forward? As we prayed, I kept getting the impulse to go hang out in the park. Like it was a normal park.

Eventually, we went for it. My friend Rob brought his guitar, I brought a picnic blanket and my two-month-old son, and we went to the park. To hang out. We walked into the middle of Needle Park like a little family on a picnic. It was hilarious. Everyone looked at us like we had lost our minds. Like we were very, very lost. Rob spread out the picnic blanket, and we both sat down. I held my baby on my lap as Rob started to sing. Insanity, right? Well, it felt like it. People stared at us in dumbfounded wonder. Rob leaned over to me and whispered, "Is this the strategy?" I simply nodded. Shortly after we sat down, a one-armed man came over to the blanket and introduced himself. His name was Bandit. Not even joking. He asked us what we were doing. We told him we had recently moved to the neighborhood and were looking for friends – simply hanging out in the park. He told us to count him among our friends, and he sat down with us to hang out. Soon another person came, and another. Our picnic blanket was a magnet for people who needed friends.

Several months later we started an initiative every week. Our faith community started to bring our kids to the park to play. We did a needle sweep, wiped down some of the equipment, and then just let our kids be kids in Needle Park. It was like nothing we had ever seen before. As the kids started to play, everyone else stopped what they were doing and just stared at them. The drug dealing stopped. The using stopped. The swearing stopped. Everyone just stared at the kids. 

The kids were oblivious. They simply were being themselves
 – playing, screaming with delight, using slides and swings that had been unused for a very long time. Now, let me fast-forward to my last visit to that neighborhood, almost fourteen years later. I was walking right through the middle of the area and had to cross Needle Park to get to the house I was headed to. I saw it first from a distance. There were blossoming lilac trees lining the walkway (there was a walkway!) through the park. A brand-new play area, sparkling clean, with kids playing on it. A community center in the middle of the park, offering games, lunch, and some organized recreation. You know what wasn't there? Drug dealing. Needles. 

The darkness has left the park. Light has made its home there now. How did that happen? Well, it happened because we took what we had and who we were, and we offered it to God to use for his purposes. It was an example of the incredible plan God has to use what we have and who we are to confront powers of darkness with the values of God's Kingdom. This never ceases to amaze me. The strategy God chooses to use very time he invites us ... is with whatever we have.

What God uses at the start is what he uses at the end; he uses what we have so he can use us.

God invites Moses to use the stick to liberate his people. I used to think it was just about the stick (or staff). And to be sure, it's a lot about the stick. But there's more going on here. Later on, Jesus demonstrates the prominence of God's question to Moses over and over again, most obviously at the feeding of five thousand hungry people. He tells the disciples that they should feed the crowd, and the disciples start freaking out. 

Freaking out seems to be the basic response to God's invitation into supernatural living, so if you are prone to freak out, take comfort. Anyway, the disciples list the obvious obstacles to the task: We don't have enough money, there is not a store nearby, and so on. Jesus then asks them what they do have. Sound familiar? Okay. So you don't feel prepared. You aren't ready. You lack qualifications. But what do you have? Let's start with this. 

This is where it's not just about what you have but who you are. See, Moses is a shepherd. Which is what the Israelites were when they first went to Egypt. And Egyptians despised shepherds. They thought of them as backward and the work as dirty. Shepherding didn't pay well and wasn't very glorious; the Egyptians were into bigger and better things like industry, buildings, and glory. So when God asks Moses what he has and Moses responds with the stick – it's not just about the stick. God is asking Moses to go confront Pharaoh with himself. As he is. He does not need to be someone else. He does not need to impress Pharaoh. 

Moses simply needed to start with who he is and what he has, and then let God take care of the details. (And so can you.)

Story 3 | Making Cupcakes for Neighbors & Brothels

A thriving brothel chaplaincy network in Australia started with an old lady who baked some cupcakes. My friend Jan was sixty-six at the time. She was living in a nice suburb and attending a nice Baptist church in Melbourne. I was the social justice director of The Salvation Army in Australia at the time, and I was trying to figure out a way we could impact the women caught in trafficking and exploitation in the legalized brothels in Australia. Jan's daughter was a good friend of mine. I got a call from Jan to meet up for a cup of coffee and found myself hearing her dilemma. Jan's phone number was only two digits different from the phone number of the brothel in her neighborhood. She kept getting these awkward calls when people mixed up the numbers. It was disturbing to her and her husband, and Jan was considering changing her phone number. But on the day she was planning to make the change, she felt the Lord speaking to her as she was reading her Bible. She felt a challenge: "Why are you changing your number, Jan?" She told God about her discomfort with the situation and the calls she was getting. And she felt the Lord telling her not to avoid it but to do something about it. So she called me. We were in the middle of talking about her situation when she asked the golden question: "What should I do?" Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I had no idea what she should do. Seriously. No idea. 

But I started to brainstorm with her about what she would normally do if a neighbor were in trouble or had just moved in. She responded that it was normal for her to take over some cupcakes and introduce herself, asking how she could help. That's when it struck me: Let's just be normal. What if we just did the most normal thing? So, I told Jan, that was the strategy. She would bake cupcakes, and we would go introduce ourselves to the brothel. Just like we would normally do with any neighbor.

Thankfully Jan believed that was a good strategy. We met on a Tuesday morning and prayed together before we went and knocked on the brothel door. She told me that she had sensed over the weekend that she should be the one who knocked on the door. I was a little offended and responded, "But I'm the professional!" Jan responded, "I'm the neighbor." 

Now, hear this. In the Kingdom of God, neighbor trumps professional every time.

We walked to the brothel and Jan, armed with cupcakes, went up the steps and knocked at the door. One of the brothel managers came to the door to ask what she wanted. Jan was so nervous, she simply shoved the cupcakes forward and said, "I brought cupcakes!" 

That's when I saw it. In my own mind I saw the most evil demonic spirit of sexual exploitation over Australia shrink back and shriek, "No! Not the cupcakes!" Because what happened next was inexplicable. The manager of the brothel invited Jan inside to meet the women; Jan was able to tell them that she was a neighbor who saw them and wanted to get to know them. It was unbelievable. 

Fast-forward with me. This time about eight years. There is now a network of brothel visitation teams across the nation of Australia. Armed with cupcakes, they bring relationship and connection and hope and the possibility of freedom with them every week to women trapped in prostitution. 

God has never and is not now looking for amazingly gifted people with advanced weapon systems or schemes of brilliance that will baffle the world. He is looking for shepherds with staffs to confront superpowers not with their amazing courage or ability but with the simple idea that it must be God with and in us that can use us. It's a partnership of eternal significance, power, and consequence.

Finding Freedom Questions

1) Who are you (in light of who God is)? Start there. 
2) What's in your hand? What does God want you to do?

10 Ultimate Exodus "Find Freedom" Questions for Prayer:

+ What are some of things the expressions of goodness and beauty and life – that take your breath away? 
+ How might God be trying to get your attention?
+ What scares you about the prospect of greater freedom in your life? 
+ What do you need to do to move toward the pain in your journey toward freedom?
+ What can help you to embrace an emptying process so that God can do something new in and through you? 
+ Can you think of some ways you resist the emptying process of the desert in your own life? (Example: Who do you need to forgive to be free?)    
+ Is there a whisper you should be listening for? 
+ What are you afraid of? (Example: What other people think? Insignificance? Failure? Weakness? Risk?) Why don't you try going to those places, in your prayers or your thoughts or in real life, and inviting God's presence into those spaces? Let Him show up right where your fear is. Let perfect love drive fear out. You will encounter the sign of God's presence and power as you invite Him in. Trust me: He'll be much bigger than you were expecting. 
+ What disciplines can you incorporate into your life to stay active in your pursuit of freedom? 
+ What is keeping you from Sabbath rest?


Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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