Into the Wilderness…

Eight years ago this Spring, Mandi and I left the friendly confines of Tulsa, Oklahoma and rolled in Chicago, Illinois so that I could attend seminary.  We did not know a soul when we arrived, and needless to say, it was a little scary.  God was good to us, however, and we very quickly found ourselves immersed in several communities of wonderful people, for whom we are forever grateful.

I in particular found myself among a sort of “league of extraordinary gentlemen” at seminary; guys whose theology was shaped by deep pastoral and missional concerns, who loved Jesus and his Church and longed for a better future for the Church’s witness in America, and who saw personal spiritual formation as being at the heart of any kind of renewal movement.

One of those guys was a friend by the name of Dave Neuhausel.  Every once in awhile I’d run across someone at school of whom I would say to Mandi, “I would let THAT guy be my pastor any day of the week.”  Sound minded, straight-hearted, and full of care for God’s people.  “Pastor” was like an essence they exuded.  Dave was one of those guys.

We sort of lost touch after seminary, but when Mandi and I moved to Denver in 2009, it was a HUGELY pleasant surprise to realize that Dave was on staff with Denver Community Church as their outreach pastor.  Dave helped welcome us to the city and got me networked very quickly within a marvelous community of pastors and leaders here in Denver… it’s hard to put into words how appreciative I am for that.

In any event, I am thankful for such (old) friends, and especially thankful when they agree to give me a (much needed) week off of preaching, which the Good Reverend Neuhausel did last night at Bloom.  Without really knowing what we’ve been teaching on so far this year in our community, Dave taught on the (very appropriate Lenten) theme of the Wilderness. That God reveals himself in the Exodus as something of a “Wilderness God”, who is present to his people in times of extreme hardship and deprivation, and actually intends to USE such times to shape us into the kind of people he wants us to be.  (You can listen to the talk here.)

One of the more interesting and illuminating moments of the message was when Dave compared “wilderness experiences” to “liminal moments.”  Liminality is a word that simply means “threshold”, and is often used to

“…refer to in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes.”  (From the Wikipedia article on Liminality)

As such, “liminal spaces” serve as thresholds where old worlds, ways of thinking and being, etc., are let go of, and new worlds, ways of thinking and being, etc., are slowly embraced.  The child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used to talk in a similar vein about “disiquilibration” in the process of learning for children.  That is, when a child experiences a new event or piece of knowledge, her old structures of knowing and understanding are “shaken” (dis-equilibrated), which leads to NEW and MORE COMPLEX and ultimately MORE ACCURATE forms of knowing and relating to the world.  To put it simply, now that the child has encountered a cow and gone through the disequilibration of that encounter, every furry thing with four legs is not “puppy”.  Now that the child has entered into the “liminal space” of leaving an old form of knowledge behind and stretched out towards new knowing, a whole new world is possible.  Without such experiences, the child will simply never mature.

BUT HERE’S THE THING – Liminality, disiquilibrating experiences, wilderness, etc., SUCK.  They are by their very nature frustrating, disorienting, destabilizing, scary, and sometimes downright painful.  And yet…

…it occurred to me as I was listening to Dave last night that I have not had a single moment of significant growth that did not come on the other side of an experience that was deeply frustrating, painful, disorienting, hard, scary, etc.  EVERY ONE OF THEM has been borne out of tension, stretching, “falling apart”, “dying” on some level…

…and then rising again.  Perhaps Jesus put it best (as always he does) when he said that “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed; but if it dies it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)  This pattern of the old dying away so that something new and ultimately more beautiful can be born is built into the very fabric of the cosmos.  And yet… we fail to embrace the wisdom of it for our own lives.  Like the Israelites in the Wilderness, we bicker and complain… we turn our hearts back to Egypt… we wish that things could just go back to “the way it used to be”…

…and in so doing we resist God’s better future for our lives.

If Lent is about anything, as Dave wisely taught us last night, it is about entering into – indeed EMBRACING, as a core and regular element of our faith – those experiences where God leads us to the limits of our knowledge, the limits and end of our old ways of living and being, the end of our sense of self, the end of sweet seasons, so that new knowing, new living, new being, new self-understandings, new seasons… indeed a new world, can be born.

I’m saying, EMBRACE THRESHOLD EXPERIENCES.  They are the only way we come into maturity.

Grace to you.

5 thoughts on “Into the Wilderness…

  1. Really great article, Andrew.

    Lent this year is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Starla and I are following the full-on Eastern Orthodox regiment, including the various services and daily readings. The “Lenten Triodion” text is probably the single most life changing prayer/devotional book I’ve ever worked through. It basically has daily prayer services that begin with and end with the Lenten season. Awesome stuff, if you don’t have it you’d love it (I mean…you’d love if you did have it, you don’t have to not have it to love it but… you get the point).

    • Hey Eric… thanks for reading! I’d be really curious to know specifically how Starla is doing with your transition into EO… surely a “liminal” experience if ever there was one!

  2. Well, after looking up the word liminal (leave it to you) I’d say it is indeed a liminal experience for her. I had the advantage of 2 theology degrees walking into the deal, which profoundly minimized the shock factor of OE from a basically evangelical/independent Christian perspective. All I can say is that it has been miraculous how she’s taken to it, being a Rhamanite and all. She actually inspired me to take up the morning and evening prayers from her example. She’s been up early every morning since we got serious about it and has been engulfed in them.

    We’re both still working through many of the concepts and will be for a long time for sure, but its a lot of fun. How’s Lent treating you so far? Any different than previous years?

  3. Man that’s really amazing… to hear that there’s been grace for her transition into EO.

    Lent for me… you know, I’ve done some really intense things in the past… this year, I felt led to pay more attention to a handful of mental habits that have not been healthy for me… and above all to enjoy God and to serve the church well… for whatever reason, Lent has wound up coinciding with some really tough/painful/disorienting life experiences for a lot of our folks… so much of what we’re talking about has been to help guide people through those things… and I’ve felt a leading this year not to pummel myself spiritually but to spend my strength on those who are being pummeled, and there are many.

    So God is at work
    Even in the darkness : )

  4. Boy do I hear you. My parents have undergone some crazy stuff in the past month. In particular, my mother lost her business and her house due to alcoholism. I just returned from driving her to our house from AZ. She’s living with us now. We’re on day 2.

    Ministry, true ministry, is work among the dying. I watch some of the things father George (my priest) deals with on a weekly basis and can hardly believe that any man can endure such things. If he’s not doing a hospital visit, he’s burying someone. If he’s not burying someone he’s marrying someone. If not that then he’s conducting one of many services throughout the week, counseling, confessions, meetings, etc. Plus he’s building his own house by hand (its a pretty incredible place, visited not long ago).

    I have infinite respect for ministers who are really engaged with their flock. The minister is expected to be both constantly available, yet constantly working. I don’t know how ya’ll do it. My hats off. You’re doing God’s work bro. He’ll give you the grace and mercy to continue no matter the obstacle.

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