Tag Archives: Wilderness

…and a Time to Return

Set up road markers for yourself,
    make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Jeremiah 33:21 (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I had the privilege of watching as a play I wrote was produced a couple of different times on stage. Having spent most of my life journey in the state of Iowa, I’ve observed a repetitive theme of those who leave our rather quiet, fly-over homeland for more exciting places. Yet, eventually, most every one returns home. The reasons for return are as varied as the individuals who leave, but for most every one who leaves there comes a time to return.

There is a good story there,” I thought to myself. And so, I sat down to write a play and tell the story of a small town Iowa boy who is forced to come home. In his returning he must confront his past and the reasons he left in the first place.

Over the past few chapters in the anthology of Jeremiah’s messages, I’ve mulled over the way the themes of wilderness and exile play into life’s journey. There’s a corollary theme in the return from wilderness and exile. Just as the hero of every epic spends time in the wilderness, so that same hero must return to carry out the purposes for which he/she has been prepared.

In today’s chapter, the theme of Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles living in Babylon is all about their homecoming. “Drop breadcrumbs along the road to Babylon,” he tells them. “Mark the way because the time will come for your return home.”

Sometimes on this life journey I’ve observed that the return home is long awaited and desired, just as Jeremiah describes in today’s chapter. Other times, like the prodigal son, one’s homecoming is filled with remorse and repentance. Then there are those times when the return home is part of a larger story about the necessary confrontation required in order to progress yet further on life’s road. And, I suppose, there are times when coming home is a cocktail of all these.

As this morning dawns, the little town where Wendy and I live is preparing for our annual Tulip Time festival. As happens each year there will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of individuals who will return home to participate in the festivities (we’ll have some of them staying in our house!). I’m thinking about their respective life journeys, the varied stories they represent, and all of the emotions (and perhaps confrontations) that these homecomings will entail. There is a time to leave home, and a time for those living in exile to return.

I’m whispering a prayer in the quiet this morning for each of them, and for God’s goodness and mercy in each of their respective stories.

Sticking It Out

The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the Lord.”
Jeremiah 30:3 (NIV)

I know it’s the natural pessimist in me, but when my team goes down early I’ve historically been quick to bail on them. Turn off the television. Go find something else to do. There’s no sense in wasting my time watching my team get thrashed. It’s not going to get any better.

Except when they make a spectacular comeback.

Along life’s journey I’ve actually gotten better at sticking with the game. As Yogi Berra might have said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Sometimes the best of things happen in extra innings after a rain delay.

In today’s chapter there’s a continued shifting wind in the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s message.  It’s been chapter after chapter of nothing but apocalyptic judgement and doom. Now, over the past few chapters the momentum of the game has shifted. As the actual events unfold, God’s message through Jeremiah turns to hope, redemption, and restoration. But you’d never know it if you bailed out in the first few chapters.

This morning I’m thinking about life’s long game. In a world that’s rapidly changing, the discipline required to hang in there, stick with the plan, and have faith in the process is harder and harder to come by. I find myself pressured to want instant results and immediate wins. My experience is that life rarely works out that way. The joy of redemption is made possible by the long slog through wilderness and exile. Shortcuts are simply an illusion that cycle me back to where I started.

If I want to reach redemption, I’ve learned that I have to stick it out when my team is down early and the outlook is bleak.

“Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be Alright”

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

Thirteen years ago today I was living in a personal exile of sorts. I was in the process of a divorce that I had once promised myself would never happen. Rumors were flying, most all of them untrue. I had become a social pariah among many whom I’d once considered friends. I remember at the time clinging to the fidelity of a few individuals who “had my back” along with a word picture of living each day like a turtle. I stayed within my self-protective shell and continued to press forward, slow and steady. Not only did I firmly believe that God had not abandoned me, but I had faith that there were redemptive purposes God has planned for me on the other side of this difficult stretch of my life journey.

Jeremiah 29:11 (pasted at the top of this post) is one of the most optimistic, Pinterest-worthy verses from the entirety of God’s Message (see the featured image, a screen shot from Pinterest). Yet those who quote this verse and post it probably have little or no understanding of the context from which it was originally penned.

Jerusalem is in ruins. Solomon’s Temple, once one of the wonders of the ancient world, is reduced to rubble. The treasures of Jerusalem have been plundered by the Babylonian army. The best and brightest of Jerusalem’s people (artists, artisans, musicians, writers, thinkers, teachers, politicians, prophets, and priests) have been chained and led back to Babylon to serve King Nebuchadnezzar and ensure that no one is left in Jerusalem to mount a revolt against him.

As you can imagine, those forced into servitude in Babylon are anxious and fearful. They find themselves in a strange land among a strange people with different culture, history, philosophy, and religion. Nothing is familiar. Nothing is safe. Nothing is sure. They just want to go home. Life in exile is filled with constant uncertainty.

Jeremiah, meanwhile, had been left behind. So the ancient prophet writes a letter from the rubble of Jerusalem to all of the exiles in Babylon. Compared to the doom, gloom and dystopian vision he’s always painted in his prophesies, his letter reads like a wise grandfather telling his grandchildren not to worry. He assures them God has not abandoned them. It’s all going to be alright. It is in this letter that Jeremiah pens the famous verse. While things may look dark and hopeless in Babylonian exile, God has a plan and a purpose for their good, and for their future.

I’ve come to understand that along life’s journey I will face personal periods of wandering, treks through wilderness, and/or stretches of personal exile. In wilderness, in exile is where I always meet Lady Wisdom. In hindsight I can see that she called out to me from the security and comfort of home, but I refused to listen. It is in exile I find her. It is in the wilderness, stripped bare of the illusions of my securities, that the ears of my heart are open to what she has to say. Her lessons are essential to God’s ultimate plans and purpose for me.

This morning happens to be my birthday. It’s the 52nd anniversary of the beginning of my life journey. This morning in the quiet I am thinking back to thirteen years ago when I woke up in a strange place of personal exile. What a different place on life’s road I find myself this morning. God’s plans and purposes are continually being revealed. I’m grateful for the things Lady Wisdom had to teach me back then.

One of the theme songs of Wendy’s and my life journey together is flitting through my head this morning. It’s a riff on Jeremiah’s encouraging letter to all those in exile from brother Marley:

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Stages of the Journey

“Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. At the Lord’s command Moses recorded the stages in their journey. This is their journey by stages….”
Numbers 33:1-2 (NIV)

Yesterday our daughter Taylor was featured in a blog post by Ivory House photography. It was an artistic and poignant photo essay of our very pregnant daughter, and a tribute to all of the incredible qualities that emanate from her empowerment as a woman. Last night I read the essay and took time to appreciate how Whitney captured the beauty of Taylor and her pregnancy. I was struck at the new stage of life into which Taylor is ushering us as she gives birth to this little man we are so anxious to meet.

I woke up in the wee hours this morning. My heart was stirring. My brain wouldn’t shut down. I got up and started journaling. What came out was a stream of thoughts, fears, and hopes as I sense Wendy and me on the precipice of a new stage of our life journey. Unexpectedly becoming grandparents at the end of this year is a significant piece of it, but just one piece. This has been a year in which certain callings and responsibilities have been relinquished. There are new things coming for us at work that were unforeseen a year ago. We feel God pressing us forward in other areas of life. Again, things we didn’t see coming a short time ago.

This New Years Eve will be our 12th Anniversary. Twelve years. In my unending journey through God’s Message I’ve come to learn that twelve is a significant number. It’s a number of completion.

One stage coming to completion.
Another stage about to begin.

Old things pass away. New things come.”

Some days I’m amazed at God’s synchronicity. Finishing up my journaling, I opened up today’s chapter and what do I read?

Journey, stages, and God’s command to Moses record the stages.

Every life journey has its stages. In my experience, some stages are harder than others. Some stages feel like an endless trek through Death Valley, while others are an oasis. Some stages are an uphill grind, while others are a coast. Some are obstacle courses, and some stages are mountain top experiences so full of goodness and life that I don’t want to let them go or move on from them.

Moving from one stage to another may be a relief, or a sudden terrifying drop off the cliff, or an anxious unknowing. No matter the shift, I always find the transition comes with questions, trepidation, fear, and anxiety. Even transitioning from a difficult stage to an easier stage is still a step of faith. I rarely know what a new stage truly is until I’m well into it.

Moses and the Israelite tribes had stages of their journey from slavery in Egypt to Promised Land: Victories. Trials. Blessing. Conflict. Miracles. Struggle. And, God wanted them to record it.

Pay attention,” God says. “Record. Remember so you can look back and see in context….”

Where have we been?
Where are we right now?
Where are we going?

This morning I’m thinking back to the stages I’ve been through. Through all the ups and downs I can see God’s provision, God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness, God’s presence and leading. That’s helpful as I turn my gaze ahead and contemplate the next step.

I stand at the precipice  of a new stage of life like the Israelites standing at the River Jordan. What will this new stage be?

Only one way to find out.

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

Into the Wilderness

The Israelites are to set up their tents by divisions, each of them in their own camp under their standard.
Numbers 1:52 (NIV)

Today we begin a sojourn through the book of Numbers. It’s one of the most ancient of texts in God’s Message and the fourth of five books known by many names such as the Torah, the Law, the Books of Moses, or the Law of Moses. It picks up the story of the Hebrew people’s  “exodus” from slavery in Egypt. Having escaped from Egypt into the Arabian desert (as told in Exodus), they camped at Mt. Sinai where Moses was given the commandments and the law (as laid out in Leviticus).

Every sizable journey begins with preparation. In today’s opening chapter we pick up the story as Moses carries out a muster of the twelve tribes and a census of men capable of fighting. They are preparing for a march, and the tribe of Levi is given the role of the set-up, take-down, and transportation of a giant tent called the Tabernacle, which served as a traveling temple for the nation. The destination of the wandering nation is “the promised land,” but first they have to traverse the wilderness.

We’re heading into the wilderness, which is a crucial, prescribed path for every spiritual journey. Moses had his years of exile in Midian. Elijah had his flight through the wilderness to Mount Horeb. Jesus went “into the wilderness” for 40 days to fast and to be tested. Fascinating to connect that at Jesus’ transfiguration it was both wilderness wanderer’s, Elijah and Moses, who appeared on the mount with Him.

The hero’s journey of every great epic includes a journey into a wilderness of unknown territory. Bilbo had his mountain and Mirkwood. Luke Skywalker had his Dagoba, Harry, Ron, and Hermione spent almost an entire book alone in the wilderness seeking the Hallows. The wilderness is where we find ourselves (the good, the bad, and the ugly). The wilderness is where we are tried and prepared for the purpose. Without the wilderness, we will never be prepared for the ordeal through which we reach the reward and begin the road back.

This morning I’m looking back at my own life journey. There have been various stretches of wilderness wanderings spiritually relationally, artistically, and vocationally. I’m quite sure there are more to come before the journey’s end. Wilderness is a part of the process and, as we’ll find in our sojourn with the Hebrews, the longer I refuse to embrace the process and learn the lessons I need to learn, I will continue to wander.

Time to lace up the hiking boots. Here we go.

Peace Amidst the Crazy

WildernessOnce again David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him….
1 Samuel 23:4 (NIV)

The story of the outlaw David and King Saul continues. Saul and the army of Israel are on the march looking for David and his rag tag contingent of outcasts. In chapter 22 David had about 400 men, in today’s chapter his numbers had grown to about 600. Whenever there is good intelligence of David’s whereabouts Saul goes after him. David and his men are constantly on the move, camping out from place to place in the remote areas of Judah like the picture in this post. He even wrote a song about this specific period of time. It’s known today as Psalm 54. I would give it a better title like “Backroad Blues.”

Beneath the story line, we continue to see an underlying theme of contrast between David and Saul. Consider that in today’s chapter we find David constantly looking to God for guidance:

  • [David] inquired of the Lord, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” (vs 2)
  • Once again David inquired of the Lord (vs 4)
  • [David asked ] “Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.” (vs 11)
  • Again David asked [God], “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?” (vs 12)

Even the song David wrote at this moment in time has, as it’s central lyric, a clear expression of David’s reliance on God’s provision:

Surely God is my help;
    the Lord is the one who sustains me

Contrast this with Saul who continues to go his own way. He seeks out spies. He depends on rumors. He seeks out any solid intelligence he can gather about David’s whereabouts. The one thing that that we never read is, “and Saul inquired of the Lord.”

As I look back across my own life journey, I can see God’s hand at work guiding my path. As I have written on more than one occasion, I am nowhere near the place in life I had envisioned when I set out on this faith journey 35 years ago. And yet, all along the way I have actively sought divine guidance in choosing my path. Even my restless wanderings from the straight and narrow path included many conversations with God. I am thoroughly convinced that I am right in the place where I am supposed to be, though I don’t have the time nor space in this blog post to share all of the reasons for my assurance. Buy me a cup of coffee or a beer sometime and I’ll be happy to tell you my stories.

Today, I am reminded of the person I wish to be. I wish to be a person of simple and active faith like David. It’s doesn’t always lead to comfortable places or situations, but I have found that it always leads to a place of inner peace amidst stressful circumstance. I would rather be on the run, hiding in the caves of En Gedi with the assurance of God’s presence, then living in a comfortable palace without Him.

Chapter-a-Day 1 Chronicles 11

Wilderness These are the chiefs of David's Mighty Men, the ones who linked arms with him as he took up his kingship, with all Israel joining in, helping him become king in just the way God had spoken regarding Israel. 1 Chronicles 11:10 (MSG)

Great leaders aren't great leaders without great followers.
Great followers are made when a leader earns their devotion.

The prophet, Samuel, anointed David as God's choice for king when David was just a young boy. David did not ascend the throne of Israel until he was 40. Between his being anointed king and his ascension to the throne, an epic story unfolds. After his initial headline grabbing defeat of Goliath, David's rise to fortune and fame was short lived. King Saul, jealous of David's popularity and God's favor on him, puts a price on David's head. David spends the better part of 20 years on the run living in caves in the desert with a rag-tag band of warriors and mercenaries.

It was in the Judean desert that God prepared David for the throne. It was in the wilderness that David became a great leader. As he and his men scratched out a living and hid from Saul's army, David earned the respect and devotion of his men. A select group of highly gifted warriors rose from the ranks. Like comic book heroes, the Mighty Men became legendary and helped David inherit the promise God made to him in his youth.

Life's journey has its share of stretches through the desert and wanderings through the wilderness. They are difficult paths to walk and they often seem endless. Nevertheless, they acheive God's purposes for us. They prepare us for what God has in store down the road. They prove us and refine us. They develop maturity and wholeness. King David would never have been King David unless he'd spent half of his life in the desert earning the respect of the men who were single-heartedly devoted to him.

Press on. There's a reason you find yourself in a difficult place.