Friday, February 28, 2020

Lenten City Notes '20 | The Dusty Ones: Walking with Good Boundaries & A Wanderer's Rest



"When Paul says to 'walk in the Spirit,' we are being invited to walk the same path that Jesus did. We revisit the hard stuff. We reconcile with people who crucified us. We walk the same city that rejected us. That is why people who are living the life of the Holy Spirit can engage pain and don't see it as an enemy of faith. We don't skirt around it. Like Jesus, we walk bravely in the life of resurrection ... " + A.J. Swoboda


In honor of the season of Lent beginning this week, and to continue in similar themes of 2020's first set of City Notes on Diane Comer's He Speaks in the Silence (with thought-provoking considerations around interactions with God that involve The Fear & the Fury & the Beautiful No), I now look forward to introducing you to A.J. Swoboda's The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith.

I appreciate A.J.'s writings, particularly during this season of Lent, as both his books, Dusty Ones and his A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience, have greatly served me in considering this journey leading into Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. 

And now I hope these excerpts will serve you on the road ahead. Here is a link to the first of three posts:

Lenten City Notes '20 | The Dusty Ones: Wild Wanderings in the Desert Spaces

And below is the content for the second of three posts: 

"Walking & A Wanderer's Rest" excerpts adapted from A.J. Swoboda's He Speaks in the Silence: Finding Intimacy with God by Learning to Listen


Wandering in Good Boundaries with the Gift of Bounded Creativity

Garden life, paradise, was not "free" in the way we often think of free. Nor are our own existences free of the confines of boundaries and limitations and lines of demarcation. A cage-free, boundless, infinite, limitless, "do whatever you please" sort of life is a myth unsupported by both experience and the witness of Scripture. Real life had, and still has, boundaries. Real life knows that it won't last forever and can't attain everything it wants. ... Eden teemed with all kinds of living beings that reproduced within their given boundaries of its species community. The place had a purposeful and thoughtful infrastructure. In fact, the structure of the physical space in creation has reminded some of a very-well-thought-through set of architectural plans. To that end, a number of Old Testament scholars have sought to examine the story of creation in architectural terms; like an architect, God separates light from dark, land from sea, all acts of delineation that an architect would be doing. ... And moral boundaries existed before Adam and Eve ate the fruit and sin entered the world. Boundaries, as it were, were not a result of the fall. Boundaries, as such, mustn't be falsely understood as a result of humanity's disobedience, sin, or the fall. A good creation has rules. Boundaries are good, not bad, and helped create a world that would flourish and be good.

True freedom is only true if there are boundaries. Imagine a free world with no stop signs, speed limits, or lines on the road. That isn't freedom; it is chaos. But while there were, as there are, boundaries and rules, there was such creative freedom in the garden that was pregnant with great possibility. Adam was invited to name the animals. Eve was free to walk around in the garden. Adam and Eve were free to enjoy sexual relationship. Eden had freedom and boundary. I like to call this bounded creativity  an existence marked by brilliant creativity that simultaneously respects the divine boundaries. God desires us to be creative and bounded at the same time. The splendidly intentional way God creates the world with bounded creativity suggests a nuanced brilliance behind the whole thing. ... The gospel of Jesus reinvites us into this kind of bounded creativity, an invitation that demands great creativity and boldness and also great obedience and faithfulness. The Christian life is to be both right-brained and left-brained. On one side, in creative freedom, we are called to push ourselves to make and create and work the way God created us to. On the other, we do so while faithfully living within the limitations of our lives.  

When the boundaries aren't respected, we can almost expect that disarray will come as a result. I was reading the story of a pastor who started a church that exploded into massive proportions. He wrote tons of books that influenced the masses. He became famous. He traveled the world and taught. Then, after a personal crisis, he stopped pastoring. After he left the church, he started changing his views and theology and began to reject the story of Jesus. He did an interview in which he said that once he'd left the boundaries of the church, he finally felt free to "be himself." Some might applaud that. I don't because Christians are transformed to be more than themselves alone. They are "hidden with Christ" together (Col. 3:3). Some of us want to leave the church because once we leave those boundaries, we can be and do whatever we please. But that can be very harmful to our souls. God uses His Church as a rope that tethers us to His Good News. So we are invited to be creative within the boundaries of faith, church, and Scripture  not outside of them.

True creativity is possible only in the context of boundaries. Some of the most incredible literary works are done by people who have found their freedom in prison cells. Is this a mistake? Why do some of the best writings come from prison? When you're in prison, you're stuck to be free. You are stuck by space but free to be you. It was in prison that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," some of the crispest and clearest testimonies to freedom ever considered. It was in prison that Dietrich Bonhoeffer could write with majestic clarity his Letters and Papers from Prison. It was from prison that St. Paul could write letters that would become Scripture. Creativity is often best exercised when there are some boundaries. I resonate so deeply with these words of Bonhoeffer, written from prison: "I think that even in this place we ought to live as if we had no wishes and no future, and just be our true selves." Perhaps that is why Paul could write as much about freedom as he did from prison. 
Jesus said the truth would set us free (John 8:23). He never said that "being free" always led to truth. We don't arrive at our true selves by throwing off boundaries of truth; rather, we arrive at reality and truth by accepting these boundaries that God has graciously given to us. A river without banks is called a flood. A flood destroys. A river brings life; a flood annihilates.

But we also don't find life by merely living the rules. We live a life of creativity within the boundaries. We find freedom in the realm of God. It's true: accepting we will die sets us free to receive life from the Giver of every good gift and give freely from His bonds of love to others. 

In an interesting play on words, Genesis reports that God sent Cain to Nod, a riff on the Hebrew word nad, meaning "wanderer"  a person who would never find rest for his soul. Interestingly, neither Nod nor Cain is ever mentioned again in the Bible. It's as though Cain is still wandering, displaced, as it were, somewhere in the land. Calvin, interestingly, wrote that Cain's sin caused him such internal "homelessness" in his heart that it was similar to a robber who can't sleep at night because of the guilt of what he's done. Cain's sin caused him to be a wanderer both physically and spiritually. Cain wandered through the earth because he didn't respect the boundaries of God's creation. It is no mistake, in light of the story of Cain, that Paul captures the idea of sin as "wandering" away form the faith (1 Tim. 6:10). ...

When we sin, we wander further and further from the truth. God has some hard words for Gomer as she goes down this path with Hosea. As Gomer is about to move toward full-blown adultery and enslaved prostitution, God says this: "I will make her like a desert" (Hosea 2:3). This opens up a way to understand wrath in the Bible as a means of bringing back. Wrath, in one sense, is God's way of doing honest hospitality. It is God's way of letting a wanderer who wants to wander continue to wander in that sin. Real life is the result of someone surrendering to God, "Thy will be done." Wrath, I've heard it said, is the result of someone to whom God says, "Thy will be done." ... So God's judgement is actually a form of grace. In judgment, you may feel rejected, but you are simultaneously being acknowledged as a human being who is loved. By taking time to confront you, God is equally taking time to love you where you are. The Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6). We have forgotten in our culture that there is a huge difference between judgment and condemnation. If we are in his love, we can be judged, but we will never be condemned. In fact, that is why Jesus can say that he did come to "judge" but not to "condemn" (see John 3:17; 9:39).

Voices in the Wilderness

In his book Reflecting the Glory, N.T. Wright suggests that one of the frightening things about the wilderness experience is how many voices one hears in it. It's hard to discern between those voices  which ones are truthful and worth of our attention and which are dangerous and should be ignored. What is the devil and what is an angel? The desert is the place Jesus debates the devil and is comforted by the angels  imagine the chaos had he confused the two. The wilderness is the place where we wonder, "Will I make it, or is this the end of the line?" Everything depends on which voice you listen to in the desert. Certainly, the desert is a scary place, but it can be a God place. Just because it is dry doesn't make it evil. The wilderness is scary, but sometimes, very holy.

In not going out the other side of his grave, the resurrected Jesus chose to come out the same exact path that took him in. True resurrection isn't the result of an escape door out the back of our death. True resurrection requires real death, and the ones who are resurrected go back across the same terrain of pain that brought them there. Jesus came out the same path on which he'd been carried in.

Walking in and with the Spirit doesn't look all that pretty to outsiders. Had we watched Israel walking through the desert on their way to the promised land and taken note of how many loops, circles, and mistakes they made, we would have thought that they looked like complete fools who aimlessly followed God. In fact, Pharaoh looked at Israel in the desert and thought to himself, with hardness of heart, that they were "wandering around" (Exod. 14:3) out there in the desert. Pharaoh probably saw their wanderings and thought to himself, "Man, they're just a group of lost, bumbling, confused people." But of course, God was with them. God went with them in the cloud and the fire. More often than not, it's possible to appear as though you are lost when in reality you are on the right track. Whether we are on the right path or not is not for Pharaoh to decide; it is God's business. One may be tempted to look at a person of faith and say, like Pharaoh, "They're lost." But that would be to misunderstand the nature of faith. In God's economy, often those who look the most lost are the ones on the right path. And that is because those on the path everyone is on will look down on those who are on the path few are on. And the pharaohs of the world can only look down skeptically on those whose journeys look way more chaotic than theirs. 

Jesus Walks, the Spirit Leads. Will We Follow?

Karl Barth pointed out in his Church Dogmatics that Jesus both can walk through walls and "stands at the door and knocks." Barth was caught by this paradox: Jesus asks us to invite him in, but he also has the power to walk through walls uninvited. Barth writes, "It is quite true that a (person) must open the door to Jesus. ... Another thing also remains unreservedly true, that the risen Christ passes through closed doors (John 20:19).


It is telling that the psalmist in Psalm 23 never confesses that he "walked around the valley of the shadow of death. Nor did Jesus walk around the grave. He really went there. And he really came out the same way. Christianity is not a death- and pain-denying religion. Christianity does not invite us to walk around death or the way therein. Christianity does not invite us, as one author put it, to have a "hidden but cherished illusion of immortality." Why? Because if you are in denial about death; we enter it with Jesus. We walk through it with him. Jesus goes back to the places that hurt him dearly. He revisits painful stuff. Unlike us, Jesus had hard skin but a really soft heart. We reverse it. Often we have soft skin and a really hard heart. We neglect to recognize that we are resurrected with him, the same Spirit who lives in us will actually lead us to places that hurt, to places of pain, to places we don't want to go. Paul's Letter to the Romans says, quite simply, that "the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you" (Rom. 8:11). For followers of Jesus, that is important. The same Spirit who caused Jesus to rise out of the grave and in whom he walked through such painful places is in us. And if in the renewing life of the Holy Spirit Jesus revisited all of his painful places to see healing take place, then shouldn't we? ... The Holy Spirit does not lead us away from the truth of the pain we have caused others or has been caused to us. The Holy Spirit leads us to that and through that. In walking in the Holy Spirit, we are called to reconcile, to the best of our ability, with those we have hurt. It is often along the terrain of pain that we find the closeness of God infinitely apparent. Forgiveness, therefore, is the art not merely of "letting pain go" but of bringing pain into the glorious future in hopes of resurrection.

Callings in the Desert

If a burning bush in the desert can be God's pulpit, then any place can be sacred. The calling of God often comes in the desert. "In the life of Christ," writes Miroslav Volf, "the call comes in the wilderness, the mission takes place in the villages and cities." God calls us in the dry place to go and do a task somewhere. This point reshapes our understanding of our role in the world. Christianity does not become our avenue away from the world but our avenue back into the world to bring healing to it. ... We don't use the cross as a way to escape the world. We encounter the cross that we might enter into the world and embody Christ's "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18).


Resting in Who God Is Helps Our Hearts to Stop Wandering

Obedience rarely fits perfectly into our current work schedule. Sabbath is a hard thing to keep. It turns out rest requires a lot of work and intentionality. Rest never "just happens." Anyone who attempts to keep a Sabbath will run into some personal crises. ... Sabbath is saying to the world that you are no (working) value to it for that day. You find your value solely in your Creator. ... We do wander with God through dry places and find ourselves in him. But wandering can be a very negative thing as well. And it becomes increasingly a problem when we refuse to enter into the rest that God has given to us. When we never fully enter in, we wander. Our souls wander. Our hearts wander. Our thoughts wander. And we never really just are. We are perpetually in a state of "bastard Sabbath."

We are a people who have been miraculously saved from our sin; no wonder we are impatient people. We wonder how, after years of being on the journey with God, we can still struggle with the same old sins that held us down at our conversion. How can we struggle with the same old junk years after the fact? Why doesn't God deliver us quicker than he does? I mean, he's all-powerful, right? Can't he get me out of this mess? Of course he could. But that would get us out of the whole "growing up" thing.

I've held close the words of my theological hero Colin Gunton: "God works the long-term." We aren't taken to the promised land overnight. Patience is the attitude of wanderers because they know that God often takes a very long time accomplishing in our lives what he desired to accomplish when he created us in the first place. Patience involves holding dearly not only to God's sovereign plan but also to his sovereign timing. When we recognize that God works the long term in our lives, we can come to rest in the idea that all of life isn't about getting somewhere as much as it is about God making us into someone

God Goes Before Us to Give Us Freedom to Rest

There is no evidence that the Egyptians had a word for freedom. It was work, work, work all the time. The God of Israel and the God of Jesus is the God of freedom. Freedom, the kind envisioned in the Christian faith, is always like that dusty, wandering road to the promised land that takes as long as it does. Freedom is not merely something you receive; it is something that must be lived. Freedom is established in a heartbeat but lived out and entered into over the course of a lifetime. ... Declaring freedom and having freedom are different things. Israel could be in the desert "free," as it were, but it would take some forty years for them to actually enter into the space of freedom God had desired. 

Rest, as we come to find the story of Moses in the desert, is something God finds on our behalf. "The Lord went before them ... to find them a place to rest." What kind of God does this? What kind of God has time, let alone a passion, for finding rest? You see, the God in the Bible is the one who creates rest, who finds rest, who makes rest for his people. God is always looking for a place where his people might rest. When one compares the biblical story of creation to other ancient creation narratives such as the Enuma Elish, one is surprised that over and over one stark difference appears between them. Of all the deities in the religious creation stories, the God of the Old Testament is the only one who — time and time again, more than any other — mandates, who commands, who creates a day of rest for people. While other gods may demand seven days of work with no rest whatsoever, this God is different. The gods of contemporary society rebel against this kind of Sabbath insistence. Get to work, they say, never rest. ... The first thing in the Bible that God makes holy is a day, the Sabbath day. And when Sabbath isn't honored, all of God's creation begins to break down. ... Sabbath is a dimension of holy living that we are invited to enter into. This is precisely why one can only "enter (God's) rest (Heb. 4:3) according to the book of Hebrews. Rest is a place that is made, created for us (Heb. 4:9-11).

The Jews spoke of "keeping" the Sabbath. Nowhere in the Bible do you "create" or "make" Sabbath. You protect it, you enter it, and you keep it like you would keep or protect something that isn't yours and someone has asked you to take care of. In this way, the Jews understood Sabbath as a gift, not a rule or a law. They also understood Sabbath as a bride. It is the thing you think of, wait for, and constantly dream of.

The Sabbath is our weekly reminder that we are not God. To take a day a week and simply enjoy God is to give a double-barrel "no" to the world for a day. It is to say to the world that the world does not complete me — only God can and does. As Mark Buchanan has written, "We mimic God in order to remember we're not God. In fact, that is a good definition of Sabbath: imitating God so that we stop trying to be God. To Sabbath is to remind yourself who you are: imperfect, fallible, dependent, and not omnipresent. Sabbath keeping pulls the carpet out from under all our self-worship. 

We live in a 24/7 world. We are overworked, overscheduled, and overlived. There are no time protections for us to just be human beings. And we love it — secretly. When someone says "I am busy" with a very forlorn face, what they are really saying is, "Look at me, I am busy." Being busy is a trophy today. Blessed are the busy, for they will inherit the earth. That is our new motto. That's our American gospel. Because of our commitment to this gospel of never-ending busyness, distraction has become our liturgy. We envision ourselves as omnipresent. We think we can be here, there, and everywhere all at once. And it is killing us. Our stress has increased, our attention spans have shrunk, and our willingness to be anywhere for a long period of time has diminished.

(But) All of life for a Christ wanderer can be a Sabbath. All of life can be an invitation into rest — not rest from the day job or rest from responsibilities, but rest from striving from proving our self-worth. From saving ourselves. ... We can take heart that God is always seeking out a rest for us. As C.S. Lewis would remind us, "Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant times." There is always vacancy in the Sabbath inn.

Next post: Lenten 
City Notes '20 | The Dusty Ones: Losing Jesus, Finding Jesus, & Quiet in the Walk

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,


Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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