Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wander in Wonder

The Israelites. God’s chosen people. All they had was His promise, a beautifully crafted promise with the images of milk and honey, expanses of land to call their home, and an unhindered relationship with their Maker.

I wonder if they thought this Promised Land was the beginning of their journey…or the end.

Were they waiting until those first drops of milk and honey touched their tongues to start earnestly worshipping and seeking God in a new way? Did they believe they would find something invigorating in that place that would set in motion a beautiful harmony, a perfect existence that would only draw them closer to their God? Were they standing in Egypt worshipping an empty deity they believed would not be a real and vital part of their lives until Canaan?

Or were they holding on to that promise as their final destination, as that place where everything would just stop and become bliss? Where they would have earned their reward and be placed in honor as God’s people, without another care or worry to haunt the remainder of their days?

Did the Israelites believe they were a people created for Canaan…or that Canaan was created for them?

They were a people who felt lost, a bitter people after awhile. And why shouldn’t they be? Back in Egypt, they knew what life was like. They knew how to worship their God, where to find Him amidst their trouble. They held on to the hope of His promise, of that land flowing with milk and honey. It was a stark contrast to the life they knew, but they could picture it.

Forty years in the desert will change a people. Forty years wandering in the wilderness. Where you swear that you have passed that rock before, probably a dozen times. Where the heat beats down on you day after day until you can’t tell if the sun is rising or setting, or perhaps neither at all. Where beads of sweat pour down your brow and cloud your eyes. Where you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, from where or to where or why. Where God is nothing more than a figment of your imagination because you can hardly hear His promise any more, can hardly imagine a taste of any milk or honey, though there’s plenty of manna and quail to go around. Where you’re so sick of manna and quail that you could puke.

The desert sucks. It is…nowhere. How can you ever hold out hope for a promise of the future when you’re nowhere, stuck in the middle of nothing, and just wandering? Making a nick in the rock every time you pass it to make sure you’re not crazy the next time around, that the hot sun is not playing tricks on your mind.

Yup. It’s the same rock.

We have all been there. Walking in circles, not knowing why. Struggling under the weight of things. Searching for direction. Thinking back to the place we left and longing for its stability. We know in our hearts that it was not what we were created for, that there is nothing back there for us. But we can barely remember the promise we left it all for. We hardly know what it was we thought was out there. We only remember feeling like we had to move, then striking out with purpose only to grow weary and lose it as we pass that same rock, that same bush, that same tree. Watch the same sunset, the same sunrise, the same expanse as nothing seems to change and whatever promise we thought was out there fades into a mirage somewhere between the manna and the quail.

We know the desert. We know the wilderness. We know the wandering.

But were they wandering at all?

Were they not following God, whose constant presence led them in cloud by day and fire by night? Did He not show them the next step, the way to move, how to walk? Did He not feed and care for them?

They were not alone. They were not lost. They simply felt that way. Because they had given up everything they’d known for a promise. That’s all – just a promise. A dream of something better, a deep conviction in their hearts that God would bless them with that milk and honey. They had nothing to go on but His word and that unignorable feeling in their hearts that they were made for something more, that something better awaited them.

They said they were wandering and we believed them. Because we have known that feeling ourselves. But not for a moment were they lost.

They were merely unsettled. A people without a place, but only for a time. A people knowing they could not turn back, knowing that nothing waited in Egypt for them. Nothing valuable, anyway, except perhaps the stability they had come to depend on. The predictability. The routine. Knowing that they heard the faint echoes of the promise, still deep in their hearts, even when they couldn’t remember the exact words or what had been so enticing about it. They were just unsettled – not where they used to be but not yet where they were going. Called, but not fulfilled. Journeying, but not yet arriving.

They felt like they were nowhere, and getting there fast. Or perhaps endlessly dragging out the journey, getting nowhere never.

But they were being led, so they were never wandering. They were simply following, responding as they had been called, going out in pursuit of the promise. Holding onto something unseen. Being hallowed and holied by the journey itself, shaped in the wilderness on the way to Canaan.

Following the Lord by cloud and by fire, forsaking all for the promise – just the promise – of more.

Reading the Bible

Nearly two thousand years after the last words were penned, after the ink has dried. Two thousand years after Christ walked this earth as God made Man for our benefit. Two thousand years…and we’re just now starting to feel like we might have this Bible He left us all figured out.

But we are way off. Tragically so.

We have invested a great deal of resources into proving the historical accuracy of His Word, and our discoveries make us feel like we’re closer to proving the existence of a God that no one in our generation has seen. There is a mountain where He told us there was a mountain. Evidence of a great flood. A still-missing ark that we swear we are close to unearthing. We have even found the shroud of cloth, so we say, wrapped around Christ’s face for three days in the grave. From this, we hope to one day know what He looked like.

Looked like here. Once upon a time. Then, we will rejoice and say that the Bible is true, that at least in the historical sense, these events really happened. These stories took place. They are about real people in a real time, and we have the evidence to prove it.

It doesn’t tell us a great deal, if anything, about our God, though. Except perhaps that He’s better than any high school history teacher because He actually got most of us to open the text. We don’t read history to change our lives.

And we have thrown ourselves into the stories of the pages of the Bible, looking for ourselves in this or that parable, this or that account of faithfulness or faithlessness. We have tried to define ourselves by its standards, by the things God has said about the men and women who went before us. We want to be the repentant tax collector, not the Pharisee. We want to give all we have like the poor widow and not just a tenth like the wealthier elite. We want to pray with the heart of David, whose raw honesty with God still touches something inside of us today. We want to walk the streets with Paul, rock the prisons, and refuse to escape. We want to heed the words about the dangers of pride, somehow humbling ourselves and sacrificing all we have for something greater than we could dream of. We want to be bold enough to put our most precious firstborn on the rock of sacrifice, to build an ark when people think we are crazy, to go into the dangerous street corners where people are not looking for God’s word, to bring hope to the hopeless, to watch our words and our drinking and our sexual morality (or lack thereof). Heaven forbid, we gasp, that we could ever love our money or our wealth so much that we couldn’t fit through the eye of a needle – camel or no camel. We see ourselves in these stories, and when our hearts ache, we run to the pages of our Bibles and turn to the places where we know we will see others like us.

Rahab – who stood in the gap between God’s people and His promise. How we long to stand in that gap!

David – naked and prostrate, but beautifully honest. God always seems to answer this man; what is he doing that we cannot grasp?

Isaiah, Elijah, Elisha, a host of other prophets who were bold enough to speak His word, even when it was unpopular.

Job – suffering indescribably yet with that lingering hope that something more must be out there.

Even in the lesser characters, in the more debased, we often find ourselves and see that they, too, had their place in the story of Christ. Perhaps He can redeem even us and put us in His story. History.

It’s not that this is necessarily bad. It shows one dramatic truth that I think we lose even in the present, but through these words, we know it must be eternal: people are basically the same. The fact that at any given moment, no matter the state of our heart, our feelings of worth, our questions or answers – we can find ourselves in these pages.

The problem is…this Bible, this book we look so dearly to for guidance, for instruction on how to live, is NOT ABOUT US.

That strikes a hard blow to a lot of people, and I often find myself included in that. It’s not about us. If it were, it would be a burden too big to bear. We would (and we already are) set ourselves in a cycle of endlessly trying to prove and improve ourselves, to boost our worth, to live right lives according to the stories we find in those pages. It is impossible; these are not the things we can simply do.

For example, and I will only give one though there are many, take the teachings on selflessness and sacrifice. We read those words, and we think, “Yes, Lord! That is so beautiful! To be selfless!” Then we concentrate our efforts on cultivating that absence of self in ourselves, stopping to check every now and then whether or not we’re succeeding. Stopping to think about ourselves to see if we’re thinking about ourselves, even in the hidden parts of ourselves, or if we have truly given up ourselves to be less ourselves…and all of a sudden, all of the questions are about us again. The opposite of selflessness.

This – this Bible – is not about us. This Bible is about God. It is HIS story, and He’s been gracious enough to include us. Because we are half of this relationship. But we are the half of this relationship that we know well, that we know best and most intimately. We know what we are like. In our highs and lows, our darkness and our light, our moments we would boast from the mountaintop and those we’d rather bury in the basement. We know how we are as people.

What the Bible teaches us is WHO GOD IS.

It is His involvement with His people. His plan of redemption. His goal for creation. His love and mercy. His grace. His response to what we already know of ourselves.

When Christ walked the earth, teaching in the cities and followed by hoards of people, some often asked Him about this or that. He did not turn them back to the Scriptures they knew and say, “See how you are kind of like Moses here…or like Job…or like Isaiah?” He wasn’t interested in them finding themselves in the past; what good would that do anybody? Instead, He pointed to the stories – His stories – History – and said, “See how I responded to Moses…or to Job…or to Isaiah? I am STILL a God like that.” It is not that we are copies of the men and women who walked before us.

It is that God is a carbon copy of Himself, perfectly loving and present throughout the stories of all people.

This is why our hearts ache. This is why we never seem to find that which we are thirsting for. And I am guilty of it myself. Opening the Book to read a chapter here, a verse there, or to dive into full study, and winding up either praying for the same answer He gave to a prostitute in a doomed town or else bitter that He doesn’t seem to be giving me just as He gave the prophet on the mountain. I don’t get what they get; that was His gift for them. But for so long, it seems we have been unspokenly taught to read the Bible and find ourselves.

It is better to read it and find God.

To find not the deeds of God, but His character revealed. To pray for His promises instead of the very specific answer He gave someone thousands of years ago. To embrace our relationship with Him, which is the only way to come close to living a right life. We lose ourselves not in trying to lose ourselves, but we lose ourselves in WHO HE IS. We find out about our God, and are encouraged by His people but more by His presence. His absolute, unshakable presence that reveals His promise and fulfills His work in us. Sets us free. Allows us to simply be.

We stop looking for ourselves in His word, and we lighten our burden. We don’t have to hold ourselves down or beat ourselves up because of what we are or are not, because of what He said to someone sorta kinda like us in the remote past.

The one thing we know about the men and women we look to, the ones we identify with in those pages, is that they were simply themselves. They came with no pretense, no comparison of themselves to the past, to someone who lived long ago and they’d never met. They approached their God as they were, individuals with a unique heart but the bold honesty and vulnerability of simply being.

It is that to which God responded – not to Abraham or to Moses or to Job or to Jeremiah or to Paul or to Peter. He responded to man being man, regardless of man’s deeds. He responded to that openness, that thirst, that yearning. That is what the stories of the Bible are meant to show us. That is how we should read it – looking for Him, not for ourselves.

Looking for His presence, His promise, His intervention, His grace, His mercy, His love, His attitude, His posture, His character. Because we are His people, each one of us unique. We will never find anyone, not in all of His stories, just like us.

But if we change our thinking and read in search of Him, we will find Him even now. Because He is STILL a God like that.