Thursday, February 27, 2020

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

"Discipleship is dusty. This is, one would think, why we find that the earliest Christians self-identified as 'the way,' not the arrived.' ... Jesus came to seek and save the lost, good news for the lot of us. I once heard that the late novelist Walker Percy had said that the most important difference between people is between those for whom life is a quest and those for whom it is not. This is for the quester, the seeker, the sojourner, and the wanderer, basically, anyone still doing the er — those along 'the way'." + 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, The 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.

"Wild Wanderings in the Desert Spaces" excerpts adapted from A.J. Swoboda's The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith.

Humble & Wild Wandering

Light shines best through cracks. For that matter, cracks are the only way light can actually get through. Indeed, the truth of Jesus shines brightest through something that's broken. Following Jesus is hard for the simple fact that Jesus is wild, not caged. Jesus, one finds, isn't tame. He isn't docile. God is feral, wild. This wildness of truth can't be trapped in words or phrases or idioms; truth is the very wild God in Jesus. ... We need the wild, dangerous truth of Jesus, which is wild and dangerous through the shattered lives of saved sinners. 

Paul was aware he hadn't yet arrived. His brilliance lies in the fact that he never tries to fake it. "I press on toward the goal," Paul writes to the church in Philippi (Phil. 3:14). Paul's words here were most likely written as he was strapped by the ankles to a burly Roman guard while under arrest for treason against the Roman state ... Rodney Reeve writes in his Spirituality According to Paul that either Paul had something otherworldly going on in his heart that could allow him to be this free and optimistic and hopeful in a prison cell, or, frankly, Paul was in complete denial. Which is often how hope comes across  it can easily be interpreted as denial.

Hope isn't denial; hope is taking in your real-life situation and finding God smack-dab in the midst of it. ... Paul spoke, ironically, of being free in a prison. It turns out that freedom in Christ does not necessarily include freedom spatially, or relationally, or vocationally. More often than not, we will blossom most in those stuck places we'd never want to be or dreamed we'd be in in the first place. This process will require first and foremost that we cease trying to escape our prisonish environments for better lands where we think real growth can happen. Maturity can only happen right here, right now. Christian growth has never been dependent on ideal environments or perfect conditions. Prison cells have always done the trick. And so, like Paul, we must learn to embrace following Jesus precisely where we are. Nowhere else will do. We will never be able to follow Jesus anywhere else other than here and now. 

Christian spirituality is a slow train that must inevitably stop at every little Podunk town in our life  nothing can be skipped over. Our efforts to learn to love and follow Jesus must meander through wherever we are as we wander our way through life. "Not all those who wander are lost," wrote Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, brilliant literary genius that he was, certainly knew that wandering and lostness aren't exactly the same thing. 

One can wander and be right on track, just as being in the desert doesn't necessarily mean we are deserted. Wandering and discipleship go hand in hand for the Christian. 

We press on down the bumpy path, as it were, along the roughest of terrains. This path is straight but never smooth. This may be sad news for any of us who were duped into following an easy Jesus who bears an easy kingdom. Jesus clearly left the hard stuff about the kingdom of God in place  he asked people to abandon possessions, leave families, and give of themselves with wild abandon. His kingdom wasn't easy. The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama once wrote that Americans love the cross; or, rather, they love the cross so long as it's conveniently handed to them in the size of a lunch pail and comes equipped with an easy-grip handle. But Christ's kingdom wasn't and isn't convenient. 

One biblical scholar, in a conversation with me, referred to the Bible as a "wandering text," a term I've come to believe bears great weight and truth. The Bible is written for wanderers by wanderers. I appreciate the words of Jill Bledsoe, who captures the Bible's ability to speak to humans in the storms of wandering. "The storms in my life," Bledsoe writes, "have become workshops where I can practice my faith in God's sovereignty."

The Christian faith, wrote Vincent of Lerins, is "what you have received, not what you have thought up; a matter not of ingenuity, but of doctrine, not of private acquisition, but of public tradition; a matter brought to you, not put forth by you, in which you must be not the author but the guardian, not the founder but the sharer, not the leader, but the follower." 

The truth is not from within ourselves; rather, it comes from without. We're not, as many in our time have come to believe, orthodox unto ourselves. Truth is beyond us, not from within us. So we go to find it, or He who comes finds us. The minute I'm my own basis for truth, no one can teach me a thing. ... Remember this (humble and wild posture) because it's not if you wander. It's how you wander. ... 
"The spiritual journey is not a career or success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that becomes more and more profound." + Thomas Long, The Human Condition

The Paradoxical Nature of God & Our Wanderings

Consider for a moment how the prophet Hosea (in Chapter 5) describes God simultaneously as a "moth"  that little fluttery, graceful, soft creature that can't be touched without being killed — and a "lion"  that fierce, strong, powerful king of the forest. Hosea describes God as a "moth lion." What was he after? In harmony with so many other sections of Scripture, the paradoxical nature of God is being highlighted. God is as tender as a moth yet as fierce as a lion. God isn't a mean old curmudgeon in heaven doling out rules. Nor is he a kind "bro" who softly loves and admires everything we do. God is at one moment a fierce lover, a graceful judge, and a demanding friend. Paul would later give clarity to this idea when he wrote to the church in Rome: "Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God" (Rom. 11:22, emphasis added). This is why God is a moth lion. He is simultaneously graceful and fierce. ... Again, this is the same exact lesson that's being offered by John the apostle when he speaks of Jesus as "grace and truth" who came into the world (John 1:14). John not only begins his Gospel offering these conflicting images, but he will draw an illustration of this in the following chapter. In chapter 2, John tells us Jesus first goes to a wedding and turns water into wine. Then he enters the temple with whips to drive out the animals and turn the tables over. John was illustrating the "grace and truth" of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who brings grace (new wine) into the world but also bears truth (a whip) in the world. And John's way of telling us this is that Jesus bears both wine and whips, grace and truth, simultaneously. These images reveal a spiritual world of conflict, or paradox. Similar to these conflicting images, the Christian life is a life of holy conflict.

The Christian life reflects a knowledge and respect of this paradoxical nature. Isn't it telling that in the New Testament, a Christian is called both "God's child" (Gal. 4:7) and "Christ's slave" (1 Cor. 7:22)? We are at once welcomed into the family and invited to a life of radical obedience. In the same way, Christ followers are both finders and followers. They have found eternal life, but they will need to take a lifetime to learn all about it. To embrace the cross is to embrace a life at odds with itself. A Christian invites personal conflict as a pathway to Christlikeness in the same way the cross consisted of two boards going against one another that eventually became the scene of salvation of the world. 

It turns out that the image of wandering is likewise a conflicting image. In short, the image of wandering cannot be seen as either merely good or merely bad, angelic or demonic. Wandering is both a virtue and a vice in the Bible  it is good and bad. The people of God wander in the Bible as an act of obedience and being in the will of God. However, the people of God also wander in the Bible as a result of sin and disobedience. Wandering is what happens when God's people sin, worship another god, and lose track of who they are and where they are going. But wandering can simultaneously be a by-product of following God. Wandering can be bad or it can be good. I have reflected on that fact from time to time  the holy ones were all relegated at some point to wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes. Wandering, the author of Hebrews tells us in chapter 11, verse 38, is the way of the faithful  the world was not worthy of them, and because of this, they never really found their home. And the faithful never really do. For this reason, Jesus had no place to lay his head at night (Matt. 8:20). The world was not worthy of him. Christ wandered for thirty-three years to his eventual death on the cross for the world. And so we must enter into the complexity of wandering. Wandering can be good, bad, hurtful, and unhelpful. Wandering, as an inescapable theme of the Christian experience, is just as much an inescapable theme in the grand story of the Holy Bible.

In the end, the truth of Christianity is found by those who are gutsy enough to walk it out, not those who are heady enough to merely reflect on it. Christ is primarily found along the journey, not in a lecture. ... There are true theologians — those bold souls who put into practice all they learn. True lovers of God metabolize into their lives all the great truth Christ has spoken. But the danger of another type of theology always lurks — Helmut Thielicke called it "diabolical theology." This kind of theology, like the first, is known. The problem is that it is not lived. This, Thielicke says, is the theology of the demons. ...  Anyone who desires to actually know God for God's sake is in for quite the journey  a journey, mind you, that doesn't just happen for happening's sake. God has an agenda. He always has. And he always will.

There is an inherent danger of constantly talking about the "journey;" we can easily become duped into thinking we never have to arrive somewhere. In fact, I might show my own cards and suggest that this is one of my own critiques of using the image of wandering as a way to look at the Christian life (even as I write this book about it!). The danger is we see spirituality as one big walk with no destination. But we are called to arrive eventually. Paul "pressed on toward the goal." A journey without an arrival is a race without a finish line. ... Colossians contends, "He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (1:13). Jesus similarly spoke of being "born again" (John 3:3). Such dark/light, dead/alive again language is far removed from that progressive, uphill, smooth-over-time journey we might imagine. Rather, we transfer from one kingdom to another in the blink of an eye  one moment we are in the womb, the next we are in someone's arms. The moment of birth isn't a process  it's a moment. Yet therein lies the contrast between conversion and salvation. Certainly, while conversion remains momentary, the ongoing process of living our salvation is a progression, a journey. In a sense, we have arrived; in another sense, we continue to walk. ... That is why Jesus could tell his disciples who had left everything to follow him to ask, seek, and knock. Being a disciple does not preclude our need to continue striving.

Sometimes, when we talk about faith as a journey, I wonder if it gives us permission not to have to land anywhere. ... But when Jesus spoke of asking, seeking, and knocking, we have to assume he meant that there was something that could be found and that he wasn't sending us on some kind of eternal goose chase. Seeking merely for the sake of seeking isn't true seeking. Seeking after something is what makes it true seeking. ... We're invited to "work out (our) salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12, emphasis added). Paul never suggests that we work to get our salvation. Rather, we "work out" the salvation we've already received. We receive it only to find that we are simultaneously provoked to till it and care for it and steward it the way my mother would her garden. You are given a garden; then you work the garden. A garden is the gift; gardening is what one does to keep and live out the gift. Mom didn't garden just to garden. Nor does God start a garden just to garden. God is after something. There is a goal. 

Dusty Ones Discover Salvation and Temptation in the Desert

The earliest Christians identified themselves as the people of "the Way" (Acts 9:2). As time went on, many medieval Christian writers went so far as to call the Christian a viator  a wayfarer, a journeyer, a wanderer through this life on his or her way to the heavenly world. Christians were people who were going somewhere  on their way. 

Still to this day, there remains a tradition suggesting the word Hebrew comes from habiru, meaning "dusty travelers" or "dusty ones"  an image of a people who continuously find their identity in a desert.

The sheer fact of how many times God's people wander in the Bible is telling. Wandering stories such as these, for me, lend to the Bible credibility and truthfulness. In the words of one scholar, wandering stories, as difficult as they are, bring the Bible a kind of "flavor of authenticity." They would have no purpose in the service of making God's people seem flawless or perfect. If the Bible is seeking to create a celebrity culture, it's doing a horrible job. The Bible isn't s story of celebrities. It is intended for creating a people for God. And if these stories are true, then the Bible must be an accurate account of faithful spirituality. 

Notice in the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Israel, God does not deliver his people to the promised land directly. Rather, they must first go through a desert experience as they make their way to the final destination. Or you could say that God saves his people, of all places, into the desert. ... And this fact that God saves his people directly into the desert and not the promised land on the way to their final destination reveals an important truth for us: as far as I can tell, there is no streamlined path toward arriving at holiness. ... The path to freedom never goes through predictable territory. Rather, the path of Israel's salvation went through a very dry, windy place. This can be a revelation for a Christian. We are often sent to a dry place. Salvation takes place in the wilderness, in the desert, in the dry places. I am also obliged to remind Christians that when they describe their walk or relationship with Jesus as "dry" (as in, I'm going through a "dry" season), they are unwittingly describing the primary desert experience of Israel's salvation. Often a desert is the sign that one has begun the process or deepening of salvation. ... Dryness, as it were, is not always something to be defeated in the Bible. Rather, sometimes it is a sign of God's inbreaking freedom. 

But there is a fundamental problem with the desert for God's people. For it is in the desert where we are tempted to abandon the one who has brought us there. In the desert we get lonely, and the food isn't as good, and we secretly start missing the comforts of our old oppressions. The desert is hard. 

In the desert, the invisible loves of our hearts that are not centered on Jesus begin to come out. Something about the desert can also pull us away from Jesus. ... Physical salvation did not immediately translate into emotional or spiritual salvation for Israel. While having been freed from their oppressive external enemies, Israel so quickly oppresses themselves internally with numerous invisible drives and forces. As I've often heard it said, it doesn't seem hard for God to get Israel out of Egypt, but it seems really hard for God to get Egypt out of Israel. The enemy is no longer external and visible. It's now internal and invisible  slavery soon becomes idolatry. ... A good many biblical scholars have argued over the years that Israel worshiped a golden cow because a cow was the predominately worshiped god in Egypt. The people of God, therefore, in being freed by an invisible God, were reverting to the worship of the god of their former oppressors. Rather than entering into worship of God the way God desired to be worshiped in the desert, they began to worship the way their old oppressors did. 

Return, O wanderer, to thy home, 
Thy Father calls for thee; 
No longer now an exile roam 
In guilt and misery; 
Return, return.

Return, O wanderer, to thy home, 
'Tis Jesus calls for thee: 
The Spirit and the bride say, Come; 
Oh now for refuge flee; 
Return, return.

Return, O wanderer, to thy home, 
'Tis madness to delay: 
There are no pardons in the tomb 
And brief is mercy's day. 
Return, return.

+ Thomas Hastings, "Return, O Wanderer"

Next post: Lenten 
City Notes '20 | The Dusty Ones: Waking with Good Boundaries & a Wanderer's Rest

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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