Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

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Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.

 

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The Spiritual Quest of David Bowie

Was Bowie a budding contemplative?

I have never been a great fan of rock music. My preferences have always run towards Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. So I have never given much attention to the rock scene.

That is, until I read the tribute that Simon Critchley wrote on the death of David Bowie. It is titled Nothing Remains: David Bowie’s Vision of Love. It was published in today’s New York Times.

It is a beautiful and loving tribute. It begins with this extraordinary statement: …for me, and for his millions of fans, he was someone who simply made life less ordinary. Indeed, Bowie’s music made me feel alive for the first time.

After reading that, I thought to myself: How many people would say that after their encounter with a worship service in most of our churches? That’s what a lot of Christians claim for the gospel. But how many Christians, let alone outsiders, really experience that sense of being fully alive?

Critchley goes on later to say: Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the wierdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story.

Does this language sound vaguely familiar? It should, for it describes the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. He, too, drew people, particularly outsiders, into an extraordinary intimacy.

Finding the Spiritual in an Unexpected Place

But what was especially impressive to me in Critchley’s tribute was how he highlighted the theme of “nothing” that recurs over and over again in Bowie’s songs. Nothing is everywhere in Bowie, writes Critchley.

Now most of us, including me, would be inclined to interpret this as a profound nihilism. But what fascinates me is how Critchley hears behind this theme of nothing, a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight.

What Bowie was negating, as Critchley sees it, was all the nonsense, the falsity, the accrued social meanings, traditions, and morass of identity that shackled us. Says Critchley: At the core of Bowie’s music and his apparent negativity is a profound yearning for connection and, most of all, for love.

 If Critchley is right in his interpretation, then Bowie’s negativity is an expression of that spiritual virtue of detachment that contemplatives through the ages have seen as an essential condition for experiencing that deep connection, that intimate love, that they have named God. In this value given to detachment Christian contemplatives share a common understanding with Buddhist and other Eastern practitioners of meditation.

When I read Critchley, I feel strikingly at home, because the language he uses is quite resonant with the language I encounter in the masters of contemplative prayer that have so deeply shaped my understanding of the spiritual life.

I feel as if Bowie was on that contemplative quest in life, even though Critchley and probably Bowie too would not so name it. But Bowie’s yearning is cut from the same cloth as the yearning that the psalmist writes of when he says:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? [Psalm 42:1-2]

In saying this, I am not trying to co-opt Critchley or Bowie as anonymous Christians. Rather I am expressing my amazement at finding the spiritual in the most unexpected places. Maybe I need to broaden my musical tastes and listen more intently to the music of my own era.

Chasing Emptiness

The prophet Hosea offers two evocative images for the pursuit of vanity.

An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.

An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.

One of my joys in reading the Bible happens when a poetic image in the text suddenly arrests my attention. I stop to consider it. Then my imagination kicks in. I begin to make associations that carry me in unexpected directions.

That happened a couple of days ago when I was reading the prophet Hosea. I was just beginning to read Chapter 12 in the New English Bible translation. It begins:

Ephraim is a shepherd whose flock is but wind,
a hunter chasing the east wind all day;
he makes a treaty with Assyria
and carries tribute oil to Egypt.*

One of the great themes of Hosea is his denunciation of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) for seeking its security by manipulating power politics in the Middle East. On the one hand Israel seeks a treaty with the Assyrian empire. On the other it delivers tribute to Assyria’s rival, the Egyptian empire. The hope is that maybe Israel can remain safe by playing one power off against the other.

Hosea, however, sees the whole diplomatic exercise as a game of illusions. Earlier in chapter 8, he says that Israel is sowing to the wind and is reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Its diplomatic games will bring no peace. Instead they will bring disaster. His words proved true when Assyria sweeps down in 722 B.C. and obliterates Israel from the political map.

Shepherds of Emptiness

Hosea returns to this theme in Chapter 12 when he picks up this same image of sowing to the wind. But this time, it comes across in two arresting images (at least in the NEB translation). First he compares Israel’s pursuit to a shepherd who herds a flock of the wind. Its flock consists of nothing but invisible air. I immediately make the association with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

The Israelite king and his court may think themselves astute politicians. Hosea, however, suggests they are nothing but shepherds of illusions and herdsmen of emptiness.

Then the prophet goes on to compare Israel’s diplomacy to a hunter who chases the east wind all day. It was this image that so captured me.

Hunting has traditionally been a favored sport of the aristocracy in many cultures. (See the stone relief above from the ancient Assyrian empire.) It offers the thrill of the chase, whether that be after the lion, the deer, the boar, or the fox. (The favored prey varies from culture to culture.) As the prey races through the forests, over the hill ridges and down into the valleys and then across the plains, the horsemen follow, hoping to wear the animal out and corner it into its death.

That’s the association that Hosea’s image brings to my mind. Except that the prey that Israel pursues is the east wind. It is impossible to ever capture and imprison the wind. As one chases it, it forever eludes capture. In the end it is the hunter who is worn out, not the wind.

Now I find that a powerful image for the pursuit of vanity, however, we define vanity. When we pursue vanity, we are constantly pursuing something that slips out of our grasp in terms of giving us true, deep satisfaction. Just when we think we have achieved our dream, we find it has dissolved into thin air.

In many ways this image of the hunter chasing the east wind strikes home for me as a description of my own personal spiritual journey. For many years, I pursued God, like the hunter chasing the swift gazelle. But God always seemed to slip out of my grasp. All the reward I got for my obsession was exhaustion and frustration.

It is the tried and true experience of deeply spiritual people (as described by some of the great spiritual writers) that we can never cage God and force him to bless us with a vivid sense of his presence. As one of my favorite writers on prayer, Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom, puts it, God is like a wild tiger.** We cannot domesticate God. He is beyond our control.

The Great Value of Being over Doing

What I had to learn was that if I want—and I believe if anyone wants—to experience a vivid presence of God, then we must stop chasing God obsessively. If we try to grasp the wind, the wind will simply slip through our fingers.

But if we stop the chase and try to sit calmly and expectantly, we may find that God slips into our life and consciousness quietly and unobtrusively. The tiger dwells with us intimately in his own gentle way. He has become the loving house cat. The elusive wind makes its presence known to us by its gentle caress upon our face. We sense God’s presence not in dramatic miracles, but in elusive intuition. But that we know God by intuition does not make that knowledge any less real.

This is why the practice of contemplative prayer has come to play such an important place in my spiritual journey. In contemplative prayer we do not try to do anything with God. We give up speaking and arguing and debating with God. We even give up trying to be pious. Instead we choose to sit with God in silence. We simply be with God.

Being rather than doing becomes the royal gateway into the presence that we have spent so much time and energy chasing. And then comes another surprise. As we settle into just being, the Lord begins to fill us with his Spirit, pouring energy into us that issues eventually into action, but now action that moves in harmony with God’s will. We can begin as spiritual hunters to chase the values that eternally count.

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* The translation I was reading was an earlier version of the New English Bible. Verse 12:1 reads a bit differently in more recent editions. The book of Hosea has had a difficult history of textual transmission through the centuries, and so the Hebrew text is not always crystal clear. This accounts for a great diversity of readings in modern translations.

** This way of describing God comes from Anthony Bloom’s little masterpiece, Beginning to Pray. The book is now out of print, but I rank it high among the many books I have read on prayer. If you find a used copy, I suggest you buy it immediately.

Theme and Variations

How a Biblical Verse Retains Meaning through Variations in Wording

I have great admiration for clever translators. Let me give an example.

In my last posting, I quoted Psalm 46:10. I commented how this verse resonates for me with the whole experience of contemplative prayer. What is so clever about its translation is that it retains its contemplative focus even when you vary it by successively subtracting one word after another. Let me demonstrate:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

Now isn’t that cool?

Silent Persuasion

Silence Discloses a Hidden Presence.

I participate in an inter-religious dialogue group. One of the members, an engineer by occupation, says he’s an atheist. He is, he says, because he sees no rational or empirical scientific evidence for the existence of a god.

He has pushed me a lot for why I believe in God. I appreciate this pushback because it has helped me think deeply about why I do indeed believe God is. What I’ve discovered is that if you push me hard enough, I have to admit that it is not rational arguments. I find rational arguments convincing only because I already believe.

Nor is it emotional feelings or religious and mystical experiences. I have had some, but again I believe they are experiences of the divine because I already believe in the divine. Nor have miraculous or serendipitous events proved conclusive. Again I have had some events in my life where circumstances converged in a surprising way that I did not plan. But they do no prove God is for me or for others. They may be just pure chance.

No, none of these reasons are ultimately persuasive either to unbelievers or to me. What is convincing for me? In a strange way, it is the practice of silence. Let me explain what I mean.

I grew up in a deeply religious family, a family whose theological convictions ran in a fundamentalist groove. Like many young people after college, I too came into deep questioning of these convictions, largely because they made me feel so miserable.

My spiritual journey during my 20s, 30s, and early 40s was tumultuous. It amazes me that I did not just chuck Christianity out and settle into a totally unbelieving and uncaring lifestyle like so many of my generation. I continued instead to battle within myself.

The Turning Point in My Life

When I reached my mid-40s, I had reached my limit. I remember one night sitting on the sofa in my living room and trying to pray. Finally in exasperation, I said, “God, I’ve had it. I’ve tried everything I can to break through to you, but nothing has worked. From now on, if and when I sit down to pray, I’m just going to sit here in silence. If you are real, you are going to have to reach out to me and make your presence real.”

Well, no sky opened. No heavenly voice spoke. No vision of light flooded my soul, not then nor in the coming months. If I prayed at all, I did indeed sit in silence saying nothing or doing nothing.

Then over the coming months and years, something strange did happen. A sense of the reality of a divine presence in the world and in my own life did begin to settle into my life.

It was not a particularly rational thought. Nor was it a deeply emotional feeling. It was not any kind of bodily sensation. And it certainly was not a mystical experience. It was just there. I cannot describe it except that it was simply there, nothing more. And yet that presence felt real, very real.

Coming to Know through Letting Go

Shortly after that fateful night, I also stumbled onto a book that introduced me to the practice of centering prayer, which is a prayer of silence. It is a form of prayer taught by the Trappist spiritual master Thomas Keating. In centering prayer, you do not say anything, do anything, or even try to feel anything. You simply be, be with God and yourself in silence.

I cannot explain the power of this kind of prayer. You give up any effort to do anything. You just simply try to be during the time you practice it. Yet, I have come to be convinced there is an amazing power to this just being with the divine presence in the world and in our lives. You begin to have a sense of real communion with God but it cannot be expressed in words or images. In this respect silence discloses the divine presence in a way that nothing else can, at least for me. It has led me to an experience which theologians label as pure grace.

Some can say I am deluding myself. They may be right. I concede that possibility, for I cannot rationally explain the conviction that has settled into my being. Yet I feel compelled to live trusting in that conviction and trying to live in harmony with the him/her/it it discloses. And so I do.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Psalm 46:10-11, which reads:

“Be still, and know that I am God.

I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!”

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Hebrew translated “be still” can be translated in various ways. An alternate translation is “stop fighting.” But I love the wording “be still.” It is sheer poetry to me. For in a paradoxical way, the practice of emptying oneself in silence seems to lead to a knowledge that cannot be acquired in any other way.