Thursday, October 20, 2016

Into the Wilderness

When you and I think of a wilderness, we usually have in mind a place of rugged mountains, trees, terrain with few if any paths, let alone roads, wild and possibly dangerous animals, and someplace we wouldn’t normally choose to spend the night alone.

When we hear the term “desert,” we probably think of sand dunes for miles, sand flies, mirages, maybe camels, with only an occasional oasis.

In the Bible these terms are often interchangeable, and the land that is spoken of as either desert or wilderness is chiefly known by its lack of people, not just its untamed condition or missing vegetation. It is a place where life, especially the easy life of settled towns and villages, cannot be maintained. Often in biblical lands, it was due to scarcity of water.

In Christian circles, we apply these terms to hard times when things seem desolate and we feel “lost.” When we speak of being in a “wilderness experience,” it usually carries with it the idea of aimless wandering, uncertainty, and usually a level of oppression like that of the children of Israel—a time when we feel God is not near.

But I was challenged recently to consider a study on how the Scripture references the wilderness, or the desert, when it comes to the experiences of God’s people. The Bible presents us with a very different picture. The qualities we assume may be there, but so are many others. Consider the following.

Moses, raised as a prince of Egypt, takes the deliverance of his people into his own hands, fails, and has to flee to the desert. Was he not supposed to deliver Israel? Well, we know that he was, but at this point, he had decided to on his own, having never yet been called by God for the purpose. Although he was used to power and luxury in the palace of Egypt, he found himself fleeing Egypt and heading to the anonymity of the wilderness. We find him residing with a shepherd’s family, marrying a shepherdess, and having a son in the wilderness of Midian (see Exodus 2). But, think about it. The prince, by age 40, was powerful but self-willed. He had a sense of justice, but an uncontrolled temper (he did murder someone, after all). And while important, he was alone. In God’s providence, it was in the wilderness where he found a wife and had a family. He spent 40 years learning “desert living” (which would, providentially be quite important as Israel's leader). And most important, he met God and heard His call (Exodus 3).

Israel, delivered from slavery, crossed through the Red Sea on dry land, and went into the wilderness where they also met God and heard his voice. They received their “constitution.” Because they failed to believe God when told to conquer the land of promise, they wandered for a generation in the wilderness. Was that wasted time? I would argue that, in addition to the removal of an unbelieving generation, the wilderness experience made these former slaves a nation who saw God provide miraculously for 40 years—manna, quail, clothes that didn’t wear out, pillar of fire and cloud, miracles, deliverances, and more. He led them out of slavery, and prepared them to come into the land of promise in the wilderness.

Where did David flee when Saul was after him and found God close at hand—even guiding his almost daily escapes? The wilderness of Judah.

Where did Elijah go and hear God’s “still, small voice?” The wilderness/desert of Sinai.

Where did John the Baptist go to preach (strange choice!) and find people coming to hear the message of repentance? The Judean wilderness.

Where did Saul go after his conversion to be instructed by the Lord  in preparation for his apostolic ministry—Arabia, which is as “desert” as it gets.

And where was Jesus when he passed the test that Adam and Eve failed when he successfully resisted Satan’s temptation? He was on a 40 day wilderness excursion, led there by the Spirit--see Mark 1.

One more thing: Moses, Israel, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Saul/Paul, all were led by God to the wilderness and met God there.

Perhaps rather than shun our “wilderness” moments or “desert” experiences, we should instead ask ourselves if, since God has brought us to this place, are we ready to meet God there? And in each of these cases, meeting God in the wilderness led to empowerment and effectiveness, and was the path to receiving God’s promises. Isn't that what we all want?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The One Time I Get Jealous of the Freshmen

"Oh to be 18 again."
Someone recently referenced a song with that line in it, and when I heard it, my first thought was "not me!" As a 6'2", 135 pounder, I finished high school knowing I'd miss my friends terribly since we were not only graduating but my family was moving. I was going to school in far away Ohio, and a host of unknowns were in front of me. I spent that summer as a camp counselor at the most conservative Christian camp in Michigan, which was both fun and a little weird as I look back on it, and made $30 a week--I think that's what lots of camps still pay, by the way. Being smart was not considered an asset by my peers, and my lack of any notable (or even noticeable) athletic skills was definitely a deficit. Until I got contact lenses, my rather thick glasses were the perfect finishing touch! I look back now and see what amazing things were ahead, but I'm happy not to relive it.

The notion of going back in time does not appeal to me at all, even though I loved (and own) the "Back to the Future" movies. I can occasionally get nostalgic for aspects of the past that I'd consider superior to today, but we didn't have those good things in a vacuum--there were plenty of limitations and problems in those "good old days." Advances in medicines and treatments have improved the lives of many, and as the beneficiary of such advances in eye care (good glasses, then contact lenses, and then Lasik eye surgery), I am grateful to God for such advances.
Neither do I long for "do overs" in my life--although I have certainly got quite a list of mistakes under my belt that would be worth doing differently. Like most of you, I don't like thinking about my mistakes and past sins, and a few of them have had the kinds of negative consequences that linger or meant lost opportunities. But, I can appreciate the lessons I have learned through my failures, as God graciously forgives and brings beauty out of ashes, and I know that I wouldn't be the person I am now without those lessons under my belt. By the way, that doesn't mean those lessons could not have been learned in ways that were not mistakes or sins--I never want to say (or hear anyone say) that I had to sin to receive any lesson or benefit, since that is perilously close to what Paul forbids when he rebukes saying "let us sin so that grace may abound!" What I mean is that God, in his grace, does not leave us in sin and failure, but brings us out of them by his grace and can even redeem the results in our lives.

Now, I pastor a church in a college town. We see hundreds of 18 year olds show up, and frankly most of them (or you if you are reading this) look 12 to me. Some carry all the bravado you can muster as you try to figure out life away from home for the first time. Others simply have a "deer in the headlights" expression and won't snap out of it for a month or two yet. And your life seems like such a mystery.
No, I don't want to go back to that. I look back with much gratitude, but I'll stay where I am happily. But there is one sense in which I am jealous of you young ones among us (OK, two if you count not being stiff when I stand after sitting a while, or  hurting myself and not knowing how).
I am jealous of you because you are getting ready to embark into life during this amazing day of opportunity to serve the Lord. Yes, I know that we've ruined the ozone layer and the earth is doomed to get warmer (actually that's biblical since Peter says all will be judged by fire and the elements will melt--see 2 Peter 3). America isn't what it was (even if it never was what some people think it was, and it has always been very different for those not in the majority). The world has lots of new dangers from strange new diseases (Zika today) to haters of Christians (ISIS and other extremists). By any measure, the last days are living up to their scriptural billing.

In short, it's never been a better time to live for Jesus and make a difference. Here are some reasons.

1. You don't have to deal with the cultural "of course I'm a Christian, I live in America" thinking that used to keep many away from the gospel. The rise of the "nones" in America (those who say they have no religion) means people are finally seeing that they aren't Christian, that the "civil religion" of the United States is no longer some shade of Christian heritage, and so the contrast is clear. No better place for even a small light to shine than in growing darkness.

2. You have churches (including ours) that are striving to build biblical community and engage with one another in spiritual growth. The "Lone Ranger" approach to growth where everybody worked on their devotions alone, their witnessing alone, and their repentance and spiritual disciplines alone is being replaced by thinking that says we need each other in order to grow.

3. You have tools at your disposal that make biblical knowledge more accessible and shareable than ever. And you have more platforms from which to gain and share such truth than my 18 year old self could have dreamed of. Podcasts, e-books, webinars, conferences, and other resources mean that you can have more quality biblical input than any generation in history.

4. There are more opportunities to get to places in the world that need the gospel with fewer barriers and lower cost than ever before. While a missionary can't go to a number of places as a missionary, tourism and jobs overseas provide easy access to people who have been far from the gospel.

5. We live in a time of unprecedented growth in the global church. God is on the move in much of the world, and through prayer, giving, and going, you can be a part of this work in more places (and know about them through available media) than ever before. Creative means of connection and access already have people here discipling new believers in Muslim countries online in chats and messages.

6. Training opportunities and resources are at record levels of availability. You can have the equivalent of my entire study library available to you on a tablet for a fraction of the cost I paid, and access courses on just about any subject related to scripture and faith. Ministries abound that want to give you resources. Online and in person seminars, education, and training tools are available.

7. It's going to get more challenging to be a Christian in the U.S., and after decades (centuries) of having preferential treatment, the true church of Jesus now finds itself facing into the wind rather than having it at our backs. Real faith will be strengthened, even as false believers will be exposed and weak faith forced to grow. But these are the moments when, as believers, we are able to see life more clearly, and Jesus becomes more precious.

Why am I jealous when I'm in the midst of all this, too? Because, unless I live to be 120, most of my time is past. and my ability to grasp so many of the new opportunities is more limited (though certainly not gone). I don't learn new things as quickly as you who are younger, and the energy and strength of youth isn't mine, it's yours.

So, what shall I do? I hope that these words will excite some of you who are younger to grab hold of the days of opportunity that are in front of you. Even recounting these things makes me recommitted to doing all I can for as long as I can with whatever resources I can. And I also want to do all I can to help all of us at any age to see the amazing days in which we live and how we might grab hold of opportunities God has put before us to really live with excitement, hope, and confidence in these great days.