Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Christ Over the Coronavirus City Notes '20 | A Beautiful Disaster: The Way of the Desert to Form Beautiful Souls

"God uses the desert of the soul — our suffering and difficulties, our pain, our dark nights (call them what you will) — to form us, to make us beautiful souls. He redeems what we might deem our living hells, if we allow Him. ... As I grew up in the desert, God grew my soul, painful but essential lessons that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else." + Marlena Graves

As we continue to shelter in place during the novel coronavirus pandemic in the midst of Eastertide, we are continuing in similar themes of  He Speaks in the Silence and The Dusty Ones in this next set of City Notes for 2020.

While I considered Marlena Graves' A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness already one of the most powerful books I've read in the past few years before the pandemic hit, I'm now finding myself returning to it more and more. Marlena is a new favorite author, and her writings continue to greatly benefit me. Perhaps these snippets from A Beautiful Disaster will also help you during this desert season. Below is the content for the first of three posts.

"The Way of the Desert to Form Beautiful Souls" excerpts adapted from Marlena Grave's A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness

The Desert Drips with the Divine

Eventually, God sends all who truly seek to know him into a spiritual wilderness. That's why St. John of the Cross calls this dark night, this desert of ours, a "happy night." The night is happy because, though it brings "darkness to the spirit, it does so only to give it light in everything; ... although it humbles it and makes it miserable, it does so only to exalt it and to raise it up." N.T. Wright notes, "Wilderness has been used in Christian writing as an image for the dark side of the spiritual journey. Conversion, baptism, faith — a rich sense of the presence and love of God, of vocation and sonship; and then, the wilderness." The spiritual desert wilderness is harsh, wild, and uncontrollable. Barely inhabitable and yet breathtakingly beautiful. Inarguably dangerous and possibly deadly but also transformational and even miraculous. Solitary and unfamiliar but full of grace and spiritual activity.

The desert is a blessing disguised as a curse a study in contrasts. While theophanies and divine epiphanies regularly occur there, so do unimaginable times of depression and despair. We hear many voices and sometimes have difficulty distinguishing among God's, our own, the world's, and that of devils toying with us, meaning to eat us alive. The desert heightens our senses; paradoxically, we're acutely aware of both God's presence and his seeming absence. Truths once obscure, or mentally assented to yet not experienced, suddenly stand out in sharp relief, while the superfluous recedes into the background. In the desert wilderness, miracles happen, temptations lure, and judgment occurs.

The wilderness has a way of curing our illusions about ourselves and teaching us to depend more and more on God. When we first enter, we're convinced we've entered the bowels of hell. But on our pilgrimage, we discover that the desert drips with the divine. We discover that desert land is fertile ground for spiritual activity, transformation, and renewal.

Shedding False Identities to Fulfill New Creation

In our twisted and hurting states, in our search for ourselves, for our identities, we often butcher our own names because we've accepted what others or our environment says about us. As a result, we assume aliases that deform us. Our aliases morph into pigeonholes we can't crawl out of, labels we can't escape — self-fulfilling prophecies. We do things we'd never imagine doing ... There are sins deep within me. But instead of scampering out of the light and into dark recesses like a cockroach, I stand unveiled before God's holiness. ... As I called out to God all day long and ruminated on Scripture, particularly verses in Isaiah (42:3: He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged) and Jeremiah (3:12: "Return, faithless Israel," declares the LORD, "I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful," declares the LORD), hope crystallized within. I started believing that maybe Jesus wouldn't kick me when I was down. Maybe there was hope for me, and maybe Jesus had a new name for me.

Before God can divulge our God-given identities in our desert-of-the-soul wilderness experiences, there is something we need to know: he requires that we be brutally honest with ourselves and with him. If we desire to find out who we are, we have to confess who we have been (like Jacob was with the angel of the Lord in Genesis, "I am Jacob," which means "deceiver"). ... Thomas Merton reminds us that "we are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves." ... We have to confess our unholy names (sins and unholy bents and dispositions) to God, but we also need to confess our false names and identities to trusted others within the beloved community for transformation to happen. As James 5:16 tells us, healing happens when we come clean with one another and pray for one another. We will have to be prepared for what happens when we do come face-to-face with God and ourselves in the desert wilderness and then choose to confess what we see. 

In the desert wilderness, we are invited to discover that we're guilty of hideous, deeply ingrained sins we were too self-righteous to see before, sins we quickly identified in others but were blind to in ourselves. And even when we recognize our sins, we find that we more readily excuse in ourselves what we despise in others. That is, we cut ourselves the slack we refuse to cut others. 

It is only in coming face-to-face with God and our self-illusion that we are ultimately stripped of those illusions and false identities. That is purification. It doesn't happen in an instant but little by little throughout our lives as our hearts are transformed to look like Jesus's heart. If God were to instantaneously transform us into who he created us to be, to at once right all the wrong in us, to at once purify us of everything in us that is not of him, that would be the death of us. Don't we writhe in pain when he begins to peel off layers of falsehood like one would peel off a Band-Aid? It's a painful process, one I believe is best depicted in C.S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace is undragoned. Acknowledging our profound depravity and receiving God's forgiveness will drive us to profound gratitude and humility — because we are scandalized by his goodness, beauty, and grace. ... Each time we shed a false name or label, that part of us becomes a new creation of beauty. 

The wonderful thing is that when God reconciles all things to himself, when he is finished purifying us, when he is finished remaking us into Christ's image, he'll reveal the full meaning and implications of our names. Revelation 2:17 tells us, "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it." On that day, God and each one of us will be the only ones who have a full understanding of our God-given identities.

Remember that it was while he was in the desert that Moses learned God's great name, "I AM" (Exodus 3:14). And it was in the desert that God showed Moses his glory by declaring his name: "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7). ... God uses the wilderness experiences in our lives to teach us his name. If we, like Moses, wish to see God's glory, it will often be in the wilderness that we see it. The beauty of the desert experience is in beholding God. It's as if he woos us out into the wilderness so we can behold him. In the desert, he seeks to know us and to be known by us. As we behold him, we come to know him. We learn his name and his ways and become increasingly whole. ... It is good to remember that when we enter a new wilderness experience, it is easy to forget who we are. And when we forget who we are and whose we are, circumstances go downhill quickly. Feasting on the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers of the Orthodox tradition, John Chryssavgis tells us, "Unfortunately, the reality is that we tolerate being less than we are called to be. Pride is not the ultimate sin; forgetfulness of our origin and destiny is, in fact, the ultimate tragedy."

Next post: Christ Over the Coronavirus 
City Notes '20 | A Beautiful Disaster: In the Care of God While We Wait

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Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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