The Lonely Wilderness

A new birth changes everything.  It’s normally a time of all consuming joy and celebration.  I remember when my oldest, Isaac, was born and I thought my heart might explode with the joy that came attached to that chubby bundle of baby.  A waiting room of visitors were there to welcome him into the world.  Hugs, laughter, and new baby boy gifts were abounding.  It felt like, for a period of time, life was perfectly perfect.  And it was, until about a week later.  That’s about when the sleep deprivation kicked in, the extra help trailed back into their own lives, and I realized my time and my identity were no longer all about me anymore.  This new birth was still very much a welcomed addition into my world, but I quickly realized that more of me was going to have to be given to this 9 lb 7 oz infant than I had been told in all the expert books.  

It’s really not much different when you’re born into Christ.  After you finally surrender yourself into the arms of this King who bids you to come and follow Him, everything in life feels perfectly perfect for awhile.  Or at least, it did for me.  I had this crystal clear understanding about why I was here- on planet Earth.  I was relieved and thankful to have my sins washed away, to have the fear of death taken away.  The hope of abundant life on earth and everlasting life in heaven made the moments of my days somehow lighter and brighter than they had ever been.  I knew that this new birth had set me on a path toward the greater upside down Kingdom.  However, I had been mostly unaware that I had entered the Kingdom through the birth canal of a narrow gate.  I had simply been following the Good Shepherd into a new pasture.  

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” – Matthew 7:13-14

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There is an ancient text, the second book of the Bible actually, that is commonly referred to as Exodus.  The title is an interesting one.  The  Greek word “exodos” means “a going out” or “a departure”.  The Hebrew title for this piece of holy writ is simply “Names.”  Therefore, it seems fitting to me to borrow from the narrative of the Exodus to better understand the next leg of my own journey.

God’s chosen people, the Israelites, had been oppressed in Egypt for over 400 years when God delivered them from slavery.  God used the unlikely character of Moses to guide the people to His plans for Deliverance.  After waiting and suffering through the bartering with Pharaoh, the nine awful plagues in the land, and repeated rejection of the Pharaoh to free the people, Moses gave one final instruction to the people for their own protection.  And so, by faith, they painted the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their homes and waited for the Passover: the final plague of death to pass through the land of Egypt.  The homes with the blood covering were spared while every other home in Egypt from the greatest in the land to the lowliest woke up to a howling cry of grief- the loss of their first born.  The penalty of sin is no respecter of status.  Finally, the hard-hearted Pharaoh broke & the people were set free to worship and serve the Lord.

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And just like that, by faith in the sprinkled Blood of the Lamb on our hearts, we are set free from a life of slavery to sin and judgement.  We depart from the wide path, from a life that leads to destruction.  By faith, we step through the narrow gate, to a “hard” life that leads to the Ultimate Life and those who find it are few….more evidence of this upside down Kingdom.

“you were ransomed ….. not with perishable things such as silver or gold,  but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” – 1 Peter 1:18-19

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Fast forward in the narrative of the Exodus, the joy of the Great Deliverance from the hand of Pharaoh has turned into a life of wandering in the desert wilderness.  The people start to complain and grumble, even though God has provided food and water in miraculously new ways.  He leads them onward each day via fire by night and a cloud by day.  Even still, the people start to wonder why God would bring them out into this desert to die.

The challenges in this desert place make them doubt the goodness of this unseen God who supernaturally delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh and parted the Red Sea for them to walk on dry ground.  The sin in their hearts causes them to look back at their days as slaves in Egypt as a better lot after all.  They think it might be better to just turn back and return to their old life.  Rather than worshiping their Savior, these stubborn people would prefer to worship a god like the nations around them and so they fashion an idol and exchange the glory of God for the image of a created thing.  They did not consider Him who called them to be faithful to fulfill His Promise to bring them into the unseen Kingdom, the land flowing with milk and honey, and abundant goodness.

They didn’t get the memo: they weren’t adequately prepared for the difficulty on the other side of the narrow gate.  The wilderness was a season set apart to prepare them for what was on the other side.  They were called into the Wilderness so they could become intimately acquainted with the wonders of this unseen God who came for them.  They were making an “exodos”, a departure, from who they used to be into who this King created them to be- a people set apart for His glory.  They had a new holy language to understand & live by, new customs & habits to value, and hearts that ultimately needed to be molded to desire, love, and trust this gloriously unseen God who had heard their cries for deliverance.  The best part of all was that He desired to reveal Himself to them.  He wanted to make His dwelling among them, to be a blessing to them, and bless the nations through them, just as He had promised to Abraham.

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I see so much of my own story in these wandering Israelites.  The couple of years following my own great deliverance and my new birth of the Spirit, they were hard days.  Maybe I had been warned and just couldn’t hear it for the newfound joy and peace I had discovered, but it sure felt like a desert place.  

As I made my own exodus out of the empty, vain, worldly life I was living- I was “going out” or “departing” from my old life.  And I had to go through a desert of testing, trials, and undesirable circumstances so He could prepare me for all that was to come.  I had assumed that everyone in my “wide path living” would be sharing in this new adventure with me.  I had hoped I would be completely accepted and understood- but as I looked around I was no longer on the wide path with my familiar traveling companions.  I wanted so badly to snap my fingers and get to the destination- to the other side of this refining fire.  I didn’t want to struggle with the same flesh struggles and temptations; but that old self was still inside of me battling for control- oftentimes wanting me to turn back and return to my old, easier, more familiar ways.

Surely, I tried to reason, my old ways weren’t THAT bad! Maybe I have made Egypt to be worse than it really was.  But at every turn, the Word of God & His glorious Presence would lead me onward, deeper into the wilderness, further from the person I once knew.

“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:14-16

It was a lonely time.  I was beginning to change from the inside out. It felt as though many did not know what to do with this new creation that was becoming me- and even more so, I felt the awkward newness of myself trying to find my way.

I was learning the language of my Father and I wanted to be like Him instead of the world around me- His love was pure.  I learned that my body was the temple of the Holy Spirit now, I was His dwelling place, and so I didn’t want to dishonor Him with my body.  I didn’t know much about His Word at all, but I felt the desire growing to seek truth there- it was becoming my compass for life. He would never leave me nor forsake me, I discovered. So I began to commune with Him in prayer not just once but all throughout the day.  And because He was winning my heart in this desert place, the biggest miracle started to happen- I started to really love Him.  I began to desire His approval more than the people around me.

Just like the Hebrew name for Exodus was “Names”, I was finding that He brought me out into this desert place to give me a new name: a new identity that matched the person He saw within me- the person I couldn’t yet see in myself.  It was in the wilderness that He began the inward heart work of helping me shed my slave mentality, and put on the confidence that I was now a child of God- predestined for good works that He had prepared in advance for me.  I had to learn how to hear and obey His Voice if He was going to take me into the spacious land of promise.

“I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope. She will give herself to me there, as she did long ago when she was young, when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.” –Hosea 2:14-15

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The wilderness wanderings are designed to break you, in a beautiful way.  It can make you feel lonely and misunderstood- an alien in this world.  It’s like a toddler learning how to walk for the very first time in your new life in Him:

“It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” – Hosea 11:3-4

There are times you feel like you missed the memo on how to fit in anymore.   But there are treasures to be found in the desert if you can quit looking back on your Egypt and press on towards knowing Him who called you into His glorious light.  The greatest treasure of all is not even the treasures awaiting at the finish line of this long wilderness journey.  Without question, the most precious gift of all is realizing that His love is too scandalous, too faithful & good, to have let you take the wide path that leads to destruction.  He called you there because the wilderness was the only place where you were going to learn to know Him and love Him above any created thing, to hear His Voice & follow His plan above your own.

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If I could go back in time, I would tell that young Mom that the sleep deprivation, the giving up of your body/time/identity, and the losing yourself in loving another- these are but minor hurdles to overcome in the journey towards something greater.  And I would say the same to my own soul in the lonely wilderness:  every bit of struggle, loneliness, and feeling misunderstood- you don’t want to skip those parts or rush through them.  They are the crucibles where you are changed.  They are the fire that burns away the old self and allows the new self to come to life.  Don’t look back at Egypt, but keep doing these hard things, on the narrow path, with great courage.  The Lover of your soul is coming for all the pieces of your broken heart in that desert & you don’t want to miss Him.  When you meet Him in the desert, your soul will be satisfied with His glory and you will be ruined for anything else on this earth.

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“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,  so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,  obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” – 1 Peter 1:6-9

An Upside Down Kingdom

It happened one ordinary day around 10am, as I was pouring out my heart in an attempt to engage my 5th graders in the reading passage of the day- a Chinese fairy tale excerpt about a dragon, a king, and a little girl on a mission to help her poor family by seeking out a “borrowed line”.  The text was challenging, but I was trying my best to sell it as one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard, all the while wondering what exactly is the point of all this?

My eyes land on a line that sort of shakes me to the core but I don’t really understand what has shifted inside of me.  “You only lose what you cling to.”  The students don’t know it, but I hang in the moment as something begins to awaken.  Is this eternity written on the heart of a Chinese fairy tale?  Is the good news really tucked inside of this ordinary moment of teaching secular text to mostly uninterested 10 year olds who honestly just can’t wait for their teacher to shut up so they can go to PE?

You only lose what you cling to.” -Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

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“For whoever is bent on saving his [temporal] life [his comfort and security here] shall lose it [eternal life]; and whoever loses his life [his comfort and security here] for My sake shall find it [life everlasting].”- Jesus, Matthew 16:25, AMPC

Rewind 2 decades to another heap of ordinary moments and you’d find a freckle faced girl in a similar scene, only this time as a freshman sitting in English I with Mrs. Duvall.  You might note a life more blessed than she realizes at the time.  A stable home life, good grades, lots of wonderful friendships and support from loving people all around her.  Her biggest problems at the time might include topics like stressing over grades, fearing that she’s fat, wondering with whom she’ll steal a ride to lunch, and what new clothes might help improve her wardrobe.  She was born into great blessing, but she was blind.  And she did not know that she was loved with an unbreakable, unending, scandalous love.  She didn’t know of her own sinful heart & how it separated her from her Creator either.  She was unaware that she was being pursued and that her life was about to change.

Brokenness had to come into that blessed life in order for those blinders to come off.  She was loved too much to be left on that path that led to the Ultimate Loss.  Her self made, earthly kingdom was about to come crashing down.  She didn’t know that life was so fragile, that your days are a gift given to be given away.  Those were secrets yet to be told her at a later time.  As she was spending her days doing what all wordly teenagers do, she was building her own kingdom and clinging tightly to the story she was writing with her life.  It’s not even that it was all bad; its just that there was so much more- there was another greater Kingdom.

When the days of mourning came crashing around her, she knew that the kingdom of safety and security she had lived in for so long, it was gone forever.  With one tidal wave of loss, life would never be the same.  And how do you move on from that place?  How do you find purpose or meaning in outfits, straight A’s, and boys anymore when the blessed reality you were living in suddenly gets washed away?  How can emptiness and loss and brokenness ever be a gift?

Sometimes it takes awhile before a buried seed starts to show signs of new life.  It can take some time to really understand the brokenness of your heart.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” –John 12:24

God was simply preparing that girl for her entrance into the kingdom.  The scales on the eyes of her heart were beginning to fall.  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:34-36)

But how do you let go of the only kingdom that you’ve ever known?  When you’ve felt the sting of brokenness and also the progress of your own kingdom, how do you just abandon the path you’re on for a kingdom so mysterious?  How do you stop clinging so tightly to the only things you’ve ever known to bring comfort,  security, & identity in this world?  And yet, the King Himself extends the invitation to come after Him into the upside down Kingdom.  He doesn’t force, but He woos.  During the in-between moments of building that earthly kingdom, He gives glimpses of the futility of the pursuits of this visible kingdom.  And He awakens the courage of the soul to ask the question numbed for too many days: surely there is more than this?

This unknown beckoning is scary.  What does it even mean or require? Lose your life to gain everlasting life??  Is it possible to build both kingdoms in your life at the same time….to have a taste of each?  Is that the essence of a life well spent?  The seed falls on the soil of the heart: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24)  

Finally, the crashing comes.  What was thought to be the scariest step- the dying of self, pride, plans, & the expected path- in a moment turns into wonder, glory, and hope.  A long awaited second birth, a new citizenship granted, a soul suddenly alive for the first time.  There was a celebration that day in the unseen Kingdom- “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

The cosmic orphan finally had a place in the one and only lasting Kingdom- and she knew in her heart of hearts that she was the recipient of a great rescue mission- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  And this was just the beginning of the story- the first lesson of many to come: it is only in losing your life that you are free to find true, lasting, abundant life.  But the longer and harder you cling to this life of earthly kingdoms, the more you lose in the end.  You only lose what you cling to.  

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Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ – Phil 3:8

Two decades ago.  The lessons grow deeper in meaning & richer in reward as the years tick by.  Each new sentence on the page of my life has been a lesson from the King.  Don’t cling.  Lose in order to gain.  You were given a great blessing in order to be a blessing.  Pour out so you can be filled up in ways you never dreamed possible.  Keep your eyes on the King of Kings.  Your life is in His hands.  And His Kingdom is an upside down Kingdom.

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” – Esther 4:14