Sunday, March 29, 2009

be content with the foolishness of wandering (a sermon)

My wife and I, along with a whole team of people are here in Madrid to start Oasis Madrid, a church that began in 2006. From time to time people will ask me, “So, how do you start a church, anyway?” Sometimes I’ll say, “Well, it starts with just meeting people.” Other times I’ll say, “You’ve got to begin with articulating a vision.”

The real answer is that, actually, we have no freakin’ idea how to start a church. We just make stuff up. There, the secret’s out: this church is led by dimwits.

Honestly, we practice what I call “the foolishness of wandering.” Don’t let that scare you off, however, because I think the foolishness of wandering is inevitable, and good for our soul.

As humans, we tend to think of “wandering” as a bad thing. We pity people whose lives are “going nowhere”; we want our lives to “go somewhere”. We want to be certain about tomorrow. We are driven to eliminate uncertainty when we make all kinds of decisions, from choosing vegetables to deciding on a career. I even know a guy who took 4 hours once to choose a wallet.

Often, people will ask me how one can be sure of God’s will for one’s life. Once, someone asked me this and I responded through a series of letters. In the last letter, I told a story that relates to our inability to know things beyond the supposed-shadow of doubt. Here’s what I said:

Once a young person asked me what she thought God’s will was for the next step in her future. She listed about 5 options, all of which were very different kinds of things. It was clear that, were she to choose option 1, for example, she would be automatically opting out of option 4. Doing this would then cause her to opt out of a whole array of possibilities…

Should she…
1. Work at a gas station for the next year to earn money to go to a “secular” college?
2. Go to Christian college to study for the ministry?
3. Travel around Europe to study art for a year?
4. Take a job in her father’s business that would be regarded as “long-term”? or
5. Marry her boyfriend and not plan on working at all (because he was “set” financially)?

She honestly wondered what she should do. She asked me, “Should I do option 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5?”

My answer? “Yes.” Yes, any one of those may be in line with God’s will for you. And, in fact, all of those may be in line with God’s will for you. The fact is: God may have given her all those options and then not revealed to her (on purpose!) exactly which one [to take] so that she’d have to take a leap of faith…This is the language of relationship, after all.

You see: the foolishness of wandering has beneficial value for us. We’ve got to leave behind the thought that the foolishness of wandering does more harm than good.

I’m convinced we think of the foolishness of wandering as bad because we are simply uncomfortable with the fact that, most times “we don’t really know, you know”. It is extremely hard for us to let go of our compulsion--our demand--to acquire more knowledge than we even need. In fact, knowledge has become our new rule, our standard of and guide in living. We live as though we remain the guardians of the modern motto “Dare to know!” Since the Enlightenment we have been obsessed with the acquisition of--and the theory of--knowledge. In this way, knowledge has become our inherited family idol. The modern experiment has come to an end, however. It has now been stated (by even the scientists!) that our knowledge of things is riddled with uncertainty, even if we are unaware of this—and most times we are. It is inevitable that we will always hit a wall—a limit in our ability to know things without (what we consider to be) “the stain” of uncertainty.

The limitations of knowledge should not disturb us, however, because it only means that life takes more faith than we realize. Life takes faith because you cannot know if you will get a certain job. You cannot know if next year or even next week will be easier or harder. (Paul, you cannot predict that you will like your new job. Kelly, you cannot predict that you will get a job. You cannot predict that you will like your church, impact your city, or make many friends. You cannot even know that you will be alive tomorrow!) We know many things (don’t we?) but we cannot know for certain if we will succeed or fail; many times, we cannot even know if we are right or wrong about something. Foolishness is inevitable because we can only know so much.

Another reason foolishness is inevitable is because God is God (and we are not) and “God’s ways are not our ways.” Because of this, when someone follows God, they will often feel or appear foolish to normal people. The apostle Paul refers to this as “the foolishness of God”.

The foolishness of God can be illustrated clearly in the experience of the Israelites after they were freed from slavery in Egypt. During this time of Lent we are gleaning insights as to how to live in the deserts of life because Lent is a desert time for the soul. So, we have been looking at the experience of the Israelites in the desert before they entered the Promised Land in an attempt to learn how our lives should be ordered during this season. So to posit that we should be content with the foolishness of wandering, we need only consider this simple fact:

The Israelites were led by God the entire time they were in the desert. The Bible says that God led the Israelites by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the pillar moved, the Israelites followed and when the pillar stayed in one place, the Israelites set up camp.

I’ve often thought of that as a comforting sort of thing, but the fact is: the Israelites likely had no idea why God would lead them like he did, where he did and when he did.

If I was God (or, to be more accurate, “If God were me”) I would have led the Israelites to the Promised Land by a more direct route. I would have led them out of Egypt, due east and then hung a Louie. “Voila! You’re home.”

But, because God is God and I am not—and because God’s ways are not our ways—here’s what he did. He led them out of Rameses, south (not east!) to Succoth, then to Etham (still further south). From there they were led to the edge of the Red Sea where the people were hemmed in on one side by the water and on the other side by Pharaoh’s murderous army.

Likely, it made no sense to the people why God would lead them by such a route. Wasn’t the Passover miracle enough? Why was there need for another miracle? Yet that is what happened.

“Now,” you would think, “after passing through the Sea, it’s time to get those folks headed north to the Promised Land!” But, God’s ways are not our ways, so God continued to lead them south. First, to Marah where they could not even drink the water. Then, to Elim where there were pure wells of water, enough to tempt the Israelites to stay there forever. From there, they were led still further south to the Desert of Zin and Mount Horeb, where there was no water.

From there, God led them to a place called Rephidim, then to Mount Sinai, still further away from the Promised Land. Here, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments but the people of Israel didn’t know what was going on, so they made a golden god they could tie down and transport.

From there, they went staggeringly to Taberah, then to Hazeroth where Moses’ brother and sister were struck with leprosy. At least they were finally headed north now.

From there, they went up to Kadesh Barnea, just south of the Promised Land. While they were camped there, God sent some leaders into the Promised Land to scout it out. Upon return, 10 of the 12 leaders said, “There’s no way we can drive out the people! What is God thinking?! This is foolishness.” Of course, they were right about that.

So, in keeping with his foolishness, God let his children have what they wanted: more time in the desert. They went to Hormah, then to the wilderness, then to Kadesh. From there, they were led east, then north, then southeast, then south to Mount Hor, where Aaron died. From there, they were led south to Ezion Geber, then north past Kadesh Barnea (again, for the third time) then south to Elath, which took them past Ezion Geber again. Now, remember: God led them this way! They didn’t just do this on their own. This was the way God wanted them to go.

From there, they went north again to a place infested with vipers. Here, if the Israelites were bitten and wanted to be healed, they were instructed to gaze upon a bronze snake that was fastened to a pole. Uh huh. That also makes a lot of sense.

From there, they could have (I suppose) entered the Promised Land by way of, uh, land. But God didn’t do that. He led them on a route that took them east of the Dead Sea, and had them set up camp at a place near the east bank of the Jordan River during flood stage (because starting a battle is always easier if you have to ford a raging river first).

I think you get the point: God’s ways will often seem like foolishness to us, so we need to learn to be content with the foolishness of wandering if we are going to follow God.

To learn how to do this, however, we need an example. Well, we’re in luck, because Moses is a pretty good example for us. I say this because at the end of his wanderings in the wilderness, on the eve of his death, while he stood atop Mt. Nebo, overlooking the Jordan River, peering into the Promised Land, it was said of Moses that he was the humblest man who ever lived.

And there’s our first clue as to how to embrace the foolishness of God’s wandering ways: humility. Humility says, “I don’t care how clever you think you are. Uh, in case you didn’t notice: you don’t have a clue, mate.” Humility is God’s way of saying to us: “Remind yourself daily not what you do know, but what you don’t know.” The humble person says, “I know that I don’t know. I am keenly aware of my own limitations.” When you come to that point, you’re free of yourself and free to follow God, no matter how crazy following God seems in this world. Humility is essential if we are to embrace the foolishness of wandering.

Now, there’s a reason Moses became so humble. The reason goes back to the beginning of Moses’ story--which is really the beginning of his desert wanderings. For starters, Moses found out after he became grown that he didn’t even know who he was. He grew up in Pharaoh’s family, but later learned of his Hebrew descent. After this identity crisis reached its pinnacle, Moses was driven into the desert for forty years, where he became a simple shepherd. At the end of that identity crisis, God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. (By the way, it doesn’t make sense asking someone to be a leader when they’ve spent the last forty years looking after a bunch of dumb sheep!) To commission Moses, however, God appeared to him in a bush that looked like it was on fire but did not burn up.

At that moment, Moses realized his inability to meet God’s challenge to leadership. Moses knew this would make no sense to the people of Israel, so he asked God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

To that, God said something to Moses that shows how Moses came by his humility honestly and it also proves to be a more basic key as to how Moses survived the foolishness of wandering all those years. God’s answer to Moses’ question is so profound that Hebrew scholars have difficulty translating it. In my Bible God’s response to Moses’ question (as to who this “God” is) is “I AM WHO I AM” but it can also be translated as: “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.”

I’m convinced the second rendering has merit here because God is only encountered by us through the story that is still untold. Our fullest experiences of God yet lie in front of us. In saying “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”, God defines himself as the one who is yet to be found by us, if we will search. To do this, however, we have to admit that we cannot know God exhaustively in the present. There is always more to be discovered. We have only begun to see who God is and what life is all about.

This is important for us to keep in mind, because if we think about God only as the “I AM” (but refuse to see that he is also the “I WILL BE”) we make God into an object that can be analyzed. We prefer the mere “I AM” God because it gives us some semblance of control. When we objectify God in this way we create an idol, fashioning God into something he is not.

In some strange way, when Moses met with God he came to know that God is, essentially, unknowable. Theologians refer to this as God’s ineffability. It includes the idea that our knowledge of God is limited. Typically, we construct our religious systems on what we know about God; in the ancient church, however, theologians wisely began with what they didn’t know or couldn’t say about God. From that foundation they proceeded to articulate how we experience God, but even then they continued to measure what they knew of God by the standard of God’s ineffability. For example, in the fifth century, Augustine wrote about our dependence on words to describe God, while noting that words are but signs that merely point to reality. Even in the 13th century Aquinas said that, most of the time, the best we can do is to speak of God by way of metaphor.

The experience of Moses confirms God’s ineffability. In saying to Moses “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” God was, in essence, saying “You can’t grasp who I am. All you need to know is that you will discover more and more of me in the future. And when you get to the future, you will see anew that there is still more and more of me to be discovered.”

So, how did Moses do it, then? How did he finish well? Since he knew that he didn’t know, all he could do was take one step of faith after another. Like Moses, the best you can say is that your life is a risk God took--and it is a risk God asks you to take, too. The point is: you don’t have life without faith-risk, just as there is no adventure without the foolishness of wandering.

Moses did not know what the future held. He did not even know who this God was who was leading him into the future. With the words ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE’ God is telling Moses, “You won’t know fully who I am and where I am leading you.”

And with those words, God is telling us that he cannot be made our object. God will only be yours to the extent that you realize he is not fully yours yet (for you will always encounter more, still more, still more of him always in the future, the future, the future, for his very name, his very nature proclaims: “ I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”).

That must have been enough for Moses to remain content with the foolishness of wandering. And it really can be enough for us, too, but the commitment to follow a God like this takes risk, doesn’t it? It takes risk, but it is never boring, you can be sure of that.

So God invites you on an adventure tonight. Yes: it involves plenty of wandering, because you don’t get the adventure without the wandering. But, we can do it, because God will be in it.

So, first: Abolish your idol. Destroy your demand “to know.” You don’t know. You can’t know. You don’t need to know. Will you be jobless? Will you be happy? Will you be in Spain? Will you be married? Will you succeed? Will you have children? Will you be misunderstood? Will you be healthy? God says, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” When you get there (wherever “there” is) God (the one you don’t know yet) will already be there—and he will still be ahead of you. And that is enough.

The God who led the Israelites in their desert wanderings still has the same name today—and tomorrow. It is a name defined by mystery. This God, the God of mystery, the God of risk, the God who is not fully known by us, not yet, not yet, is the God of wandering, the God that feels foolish to us. Take up the adventure of wandering after God. Hear God calling you with these words, ever forward: ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.’ Amen.

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