Journey, Wilderness and Comfort: The Movements of the Spiritual Life

At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him.”—Mark 1:12How is it that in one single verse, Mark explains the journey of the spiritual life? It’s fascinating to simply sit with this solitary verse recorded in Mark’s Gospel and to sense the movement, undertaking and activity that Jesus experienced. Friends, in this one, single verse, there is a great movement that needs to be understood. I say “movement” because the spiritual life is a journey from one movement or place in life to the next. We never stay static. We are invited to always to learning; always be growing and always being transformed.First, let’s recall the context of Mark’s powerful singular verse. This verse comes immediately after the wonderful story of Jesus' baptism and being told that Jesus was the “beloved of God.” That moment in the life of Jesus, and in the life of all of us who follow Jesus, is crucial and essential. We all need to hear those same words for ourselves. Each of us needs to know that we, too, are the Beloved of God. I have come to understand that,in this historical event in the life of Jesus—the entire trajectory of his life shifted. Nothing was the same for Jesus when he heard these words—and nothing for us can stay the same when we hear these same words for ourselves. Prior to this, Jesus made furniture. After this event, Jesus made people. He freed people caught up in their own web of religion and offered them freedom. He compelled people to leave their boats, their careers, their people groups and their tribes to enter a new phase—a new place and to have a new understanding of God in their lives. This was his mission. Through his teaching and his life, he offered a different way; a different truth and a different life. This is still true today.The Journey of Discovering Who We Really AreThat’s what happens when any of us hear our true identity from God about who we really are. God told Jesus who he was. Today, that same Voice tells us our true identity—that we, too, are the beloved of God. Until we know this for ourselves, we will live into the lies of life that try to convince of us three lies:

  • I am what I do.
  • I am what I have.
  • I am what other people think of me.

These three lies form a web of sorts, that catches  and snares every person on the spiritual journey of life. By attaching our hearts to just one of those lies means that we will discover the sticky residue that each of those lies manifest in the human heart. Those lies accumulate untruth within us. These lies do great harm to our hearts. We will lean into our doing. We will acquire too much stuff and positions to prove we are really somebody. We will be co-dependent about our reasons of living is for what you will think of  me.God knows that there must be a powerful force to help us get free from such lies. These lies have wedged their way into me. They are in my story and I believe they are in your story as well. This web seems to be able to catch us off guard and in times when we thought we were “done” or “through” with that lesson or insight. For some of us, we keep on returning to re-learn the deeper truths of these same, timeless truths.Rather than beat ourselves up that we feel remedial or stupid or forever broken, we can also learn to be gentle with ourselves.  Being gentle in how we learn lessons in the spiritual life is key. There's been too much harshness imported in our teaching; too many loud voices screaming at us; too much information and too little love.What’s interesting here, is to note that the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness are actually, the three temptations that Satan confronted him with. These temptations were about his identity, power and to do spectacular things in life that would hinge to his mission. But there’s more to this story.Does God push, force and drive us?Mark’s verse here tells us that the same Spirit that rested on the physical body of Jesus was now not resting but actually: “pushing,” “forcing” and “drove” Jesus out into the wilderness.  Read the verse again before you move on. We move too quickly sometimes in reading the Scriptures that we miss important insights that could actually help, free or heal us.   As you read the verse again note that these are the literal translations in the ESV, Message and Amplified versions of this verse. Jesus was pushed. He was forced. He was driven.Jesus was pushed. Jesus was forced and Jesus was driven by God’s Spirit. We may feel initially uneasy about the descriptor words about the power of the Spirit that Mark is offering us. We may prefer a softer, more gentle—way of the Spirit. But Mark uses real, tangible and powerful words to show us how God operates.  When I look at my own story; listen to hundreds of stories of modern day followers and read the ancient accounts of men and women, who through the centuries gave a written witness to their own spiritual journey here’s what I’ve discovered.There are times in our lives when we simply feel compelled, duty-bound, coerced, pressed or even forced to do something. This “feeling” that I want to attempt to describe is a sort of inner mandate that we simply “have to move,” “have to head in a whole other direction, have to step out in faith that somehow we just “know” what we have to do. I “ought” to do something and I know it and I cannot NOT do this thing that I feel so ought-driven to do.We have to simply go. We sense we have to leave. We must make a break.My Own Journey of Being PushedI have experienced several of these kinds of defining moments in my life. Allow me to share five of these times of feeling what Jesus must have felt:

  • When I first met Gwen at a party, I just “knew” that I would marry her. I did marry her. I felt compelled. I felt driven to pursue her with wild abandon. I am so glad I followed that inner sense of “oughtness.”
  • When I came to the realization that I was not a card-carry denominational man. That I had never been comfortable with my roots anchored in a particular way or system that defined me; shaped me and molded my thinking that was truly not me. I left the denomination. There was such a clear, distinct sense of “oughtness” rising up ---that I discovered I could NOT –not do what this sense of being driven to do was telling me. I remember feeling that really, I had no choice in this. I would live a lie unless I left. There are many implications to think through in regard to this in today’s world.
  • When I was preaching a sermon in the church that I led, I had a deep sense of feeling “pushed.” It was in the fourth Sunday worship service in a very large church and I had a sort of private, quick epiphany or panic attack perhaps which rose up with me and informed me saying “This is not you. This is not where you belong at all. I want you to get out.” I got out. I felt as if I was living in a smoke filled room and I could not breathe. I could not find my breath. I felt trapped. I felt like I was imploding or would implode if I did not “get out.” When I left, I began to breathe again and I came alive again—but in a different way than before. I felt really alive—like a sort of new birth.
  • When my first grandchild was born and the subsequent birth of all of my grands, I sensed this same urging rising up with me. “Seize this role, Steve. Rise up and be the spiritual influence this child needs. This is your role. These people are your true legacy.” I was flooded about my real role in life and my real legacy that would define me as a man. IT was powerful and life-altering. Much of my “repositioning” today is a result of the tectonic plates of my inner world shifting. I suspect many of you can identity in some way, shape or form.
  • I am having this same inner "pushing" right now as Gwen and I attempt to "reposition" our life and calling. We agree that we simply "must" do this for reasons we alone know and a deeper sense that this is right for us. We are not being pushed away or out.  It is an inner sense that we are recognizing as an invitation--not a commandment. We could ignore or suppress this. But at this stage of our lives, we feel a sense of "oughtness." We ought to do this and walk into a new chapter waiting on us.. a chapter off the 8-lane freeway of a busy ministry and to live the life we speak about, write about and want to live.

As you read my own accounts here, though brief and succinct, I wonder what may rise up with in you about having a similar sense of being “pushed” out to a whole new terrain—a brand new landscape that had your name on it and you did what we all have to do when this comes, we get up and enter this new place---that we don’t even know the real name of yet.The Wilderness We All Must Enter in LifeThis brings me to Mark’s words again of this place where Jesus was pushed to go. It’s called—wilderness. I once heard Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard and Richard Foster state in unison and with one voice that “wilderness” is the predominate metaphor of the spiritual life. I remember a visceral reaction when what these three spiritual magnates were really telling me. I didn't like this lesson and what's more I resented them saying such a thing. But in time, I have come to agree. I believe what they shared is really true. I, along with each one of you, would need to embrace the idea and concept of wilderness to understand the spiritual journey. We would need to go into wilderness and let wilderness do what wilderness does to the soul.In wilderness, we are stripped down. We have to face our illusions that we may have long held to be true and right. We have to let the long days and lonely nights of wilderness begin to de-construct belief systems, rigid box like thinking and false narratives that we have clung to—thinking them to be really true—only to have our boxes fall apart. Things fall apart in the wilderness. Perhaps this is their God intended purpose.. We let go of things, hard-held beliefs and even convictions handed down to us by parents, political parties and denominations. We are stripped. We have to come to terms with a whole other reality that we discover and are, in fact, discovered by in wilderness times.Ask someone what they learned after their spouse died and a wilderness happened? Ask a corporate woman what they experienced after being fired from a highly esteemed job—a wilderness. Ask anyone who has failed at something they really wanted to accomplish in life. Ask anyone who has divorced a spouse having clung for so long that divorce would never be an option. Ask anyone who has lost a child. Ask anyone who as trekked into a wilderness uninvited, unwelcomed and unwanted. Ask anyone who has transitioned to another country and had to endure that long, lonely season of having no friend, no family; no church, no community and who has left all the food, people and place that comfort gives. We don't have to look far around or far within to find that wilderness is actually everywhere. As Paul says, we are always carrying the death of Jesus within us--even while we are living. Strange isn't it?  Not really.  Let me explain a bit more.Jesus was driven into a wilderness. And from this verse if we say we want to be followers of Jesus, we must embrace our own sense of being driven into wilderness times where we give up security, all that we know to be true and enter a deep, dark time of testing. It is the way of God for such times. Jesus could avoid it and never can we. We can’t go around a wilderness. WE can’t go over a wilderness. We can’t go under a wilderness. We all, just like Jesus, have to go through a wilderness.The movement of the spiritual life is moving and living; then moving into a wilderness--then emerging into a sort of "promised land".  This is the classical understanding of the spiritual life and it is really hinted at, if not explained here by Mark.Facing the Wild Animals WithinMark reminds us that the first things to show up in Jesus’ wilderness times were the wild animals. I recently read a study showing that in 1st century Israel there really were no really “wild” animals. There were no loose and wild lions seeking to devour people. There were no bears. So what kind of “wild”animals was Mark referring to that confronted Jesus? A wild dog? Maybe. A herd of wild boars? Maybe. I’m not sure actually.But what I know is this. The wild animals that always seem to assault me are the inner ones. Voices of shame. Lamenting voices speaking about my failures. Wild voices that are self-condemning and always self-critiquing. They are always trying to literally pull me apart from the inside. It is these voices that always seem to show up for the hundreds of people I listen to when they are alone, hungry, afraid and tired from the journey of life. These wild voices seem to fall into one of three categories jeering us about what we have done; what we really want in life; and what will really satisfy us in life. Right here, in one of these three wild voices, we will be confronted with what we truly believe and about what is really true.It’s in these dark wilderness times that we make inner resolves about how we will stand in the face of such wild voices. This is what Jesus did. He resolved in each jeering taunt the truth that he knew and the truth that would compel him forward and out of the wilderness.In the contemplative life, we are offered a beautiful lesson. Those who want to live a life marked by inner peace and a sense of shalom are not immediately granted the fruits. It takes time---and I read this week a year of learning to transition is not too long to think about when we are leaving one place on our journey and entering a new one.  I can tell you that in my own journey and understanding, I have had to embrace the fact that my journey is taking a whole lot longer than I thought and even wanted. I must simply walk through some wildernesses to understand some of the fruit of the life I am hoping to cultivate. It takes time.Finally, Mark reminds us that after—and only after, he had gone into the wilderness and faced the wild beasts and even Satan himself—that Jesus would find comfort.  Comfort comes--that  is the good news for us. But it is in the wilderness that we find the comfort we actually want.Friends, these are important words that can encourage us right now in whatever desert we are living in or through. There is comfort. Mark tells us that the “angels attended him.” Other translations tell us that Jesus was cared for. Jesus was "ministered to"…that the angels "continually ministered to Jesus."  Think about this.  Comfort came and does come to us as well.As we move through our own wilderness times, there comes a sense that we are not alone; that we are not forsaken; that we are not in this by ourselves. We get to experience—and yes, the word I’m saying here is “experience” the loving comfort of the love of God. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he says he literally “prayed” that we would experience a sense deep within us of God’s love. This kind of comfort, Paul explains “surpasses our understanding” (Ephesians 3:19). This is the kind of individual and personal ministry that God is about. This kind of beautiful, specific and unique comfort is what really defines the heart of God. It is the kind of love that we, my dear brothers and sisters are invited to taste as the beloved children of God. This is the kind of love and experience that actually defines the kind of God we love and serve today.At Potter’s Inn, Gwen and I have walked with many people who come to us in their defined time of wilderness. They are tired, worn out and beaten up by many things in life—including religion. But what we are witnesses to, is this: As they walk through their wilderness times---wilderness of their own vocational journey; wilderness times of feeling like mis-fits in church; wilderness times of being so worn down that they feel ‘dead on arrival’—that comfort comes. Peace is fostered. Inner contentment is realized. It’s uncanny and it’s true.I hope that this may encourage you in what ever circumstance you find yourselves in and that when you feel that are you are being ushered out and into a wilderness that you may remember Mark’s powerful, singular verse and may this one verse bring great hope to us all in a time of political, relational, ecclesiastical, vocational, or physical wilderness that we will have to walk through.If you’re in a wilderness defined by disease or diagnosis: take heed.If you are in a vocational wilderness and are living in the land of in-between, take heed.If you are a liminal space—a space of wilderness defined by geography, emotion or relationship, or even a spiritual wilderness-- take heed.There is movement. Trust the movement. Trust that comfort is on His way!

It Takes a Long Time to Grow a Salad

SaladIMG_0029It takes a long, long time to make a salad like this. Let me explain. In 1997, I woke up in the middle of the night and it was, as if I heard an audible Voice telling me to get a pad a paper and to start writing. It wasn’t really audible but it was as sure as a message telling me to do something that I have ever heard. So,  I got up. I picked the yellow pad on my desk and began to write these words, “It will be called the Potter’s Inn.” What followed was about an hour of note-taking where I wrote down the vision of Potter’s Inn ministry. That document became for us, as important as the Magna Charta or the Declaration of Independence. We have it to this day and still refer to it in times of discouragement.The vision was clear and precise. There would be an actual, physical place where those who were weary and tired would come for a respite. The journey of life and faith is hard and challenging and ever since the beginning of Jesus’ teachings, there were always “places” where people would come for renewal, guidance and rest.The English novelist J.R.R. Tolkien described such a place in  famous, Lord of the Rings where he gives words to such a place. It would be  “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.”  Gwen and I have long wanted our own Potter's Inn retreat to resemble Tolkien's description. We sat out to live this vision.  Today, 19 years  later, people from over 80 nations have come to Potter's Inn.  Some tired; some needy; some thirsty but all in search of a resting place for their own journey.This was the beginning of Potter’s Inn. Step by step for the past 19 years, Gwen and I put this vision and transformed it to what is now known as The Potter’s Inn at Aspen Ridge, a small, beautiful retreat nestled in the  Colorado Rockies. A part of the vision that we followed called for a garden where guests and staff would go to pick fresh greens, pull carrots from the good Earth and harvest tomatoes from vines that were ready to give up their goods. 19 years later; 19 years from when this first vision was “seen”—today Gwen and I picked the first fruits—the very first vegetables from the Potter’s Inn garden. We came home. We made a fresh salad composed of tender lettuce; fresh spinach, young orange carrots and a few other goodies. We sat down on our porch and it felt like church. I was overwhelmed with the beauty in my bowl. I was humbled knowing that it took 19 years to make this salad.Eugene Peterson describes a journey like this as a “long obedience in the same direction.” I can give witness to the fact that our long obedience in the same direction has been long; been one of obeying the Vision and the Vision giver and with a resolve to keep going forward. At times, we wanted to quit--for it has been so uphill.  When people come to our retreat, they are often amazed at the beauty but they do not know the long, hard winters both physically and emotionally, as well as financially, we have endured. They do not know the people who have come and gone--the sheer amount of work it has taken to put legs to this vision. Its been a lot of plowing so to speak. It's been a lot of hoeing. It's been a lot of work.In our day of instant, quick and immediate returns, we have perhaps forgotten the long obedience needed not only for a vision to be fulfilled but for a life to be lived well.Luke wrote a biography of the life and teachings of Jesus and Luke described the childhood days of Jesus by saying, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor (Luke 2:52). Jesus indeed had a long obedience. As his years increased so did his wisdom. As he lived well, he was graced with favor by both people and by God. It was a long obedience.  Through trials, testing and tribulation, we see the seeds Jesus himself planted. some have taken root in me and some in you. What he began, we now are feasting upon today. It took him sacrifice and for all who persevere today, sacrifice is not an option--it is a requirement.I am thinking as I write this, of my grandchildren. They have a long obedience in front of them. The journey is going to be uphill, hard and challenging. They will not be able to fast-track their formation. They will not be able to get all they will need at “fast-food” joints. It takes a long, long time to grow character. My grandchild, still in utero, will need to go through pain and birth and pain again many, many times to form their soul. They will have to be tested. Their morals; their choices; their beliefs will have to be tried by fire and tempered by the anvil of failure and forgiveness. Mistakes will happen. Failure will come. Contentment will be learned.   Through all of this and more, character will be forged. It will take a long, long time.It takes a long time to grow a marriage. Everyone knows the wedding is the simple part; the easy part and perhaps in the end, the least expensive part of growing a healthy marriage. Some lessons a couple will learn will be very expensive to learn. There will be unlearning and re-learning and transformation. The man will fail and ask for forgiveness. The woman will succumb to a force she may have never known; never admitted to nor ever wanted. But through time; in time and by time, the heart of the couple will grow deeper in love than the innocent love expressed on their wedding day. One day, one partner will lay his spouse down. It will be a giving up that is unimaginable to those of us who have never done this kind of laying down. Couples who hit bumps in the road through failure, unfaithfulness, and other collapses can, indeed find a new place of beginning yet again.On my 60th birthday, I will never forget the horrible fight that erupted between Gwen and me. I said to her in utter hurt and frustration, "Gwen, we've been married a very long time. You should have known this about me by now."  I was angry, disappointed and totally frustrated that I was having to explain what I thought was a basic like and dislike.  As we cool down, we learned how much we still have to learn about each other. We learned how deeply we still needed to really listen to each other. It was yet, another turning point for us in our maturing marriage.It takes a long time for a preacher to learn how to become a pastor and not just a teacher. Lessons are easy to spin off each week. But to earn the mantle of being a pastor is sacred honor that comes only in time where trust is nurtured and wisdom is cultivated. Getting the degree is the easy part. Earning the trust is far more challenging.It takes a long time for a entrepreneur to take a breather from the uphill climb of starting a business; of launching a new product. Nine of out ten new businesses fail. Nine out of ten new churches fail.  Nine out of ten partnerships fail. There is a lot of failing before we find our sweet spot and recognize what true success really is all about.It takes a long, long time for a boy to become a man; for a girl to become a woman; for a youth to grow their soul as well as their bodies. A soul tends to mature far slower than does a physique of an athlete.  The literal meaning of "education" means to pull out what is already inside. It is not the amassing of information that leads to greatness. It is all about transformation.  No one who knows everything recognizes that they need to be transformed. Only the broken beg for change and forgiveness--the proud never do and never will.The Bible gives this kind of notion a word called, “perseverance.” To preserve is to endure; to live with determination; to have the resolve to not quit; not give up but to stick to the task until it is complete. We learn through the writings of Peter--a man who failed many times as a leader--that perseverance is a true virtue. It is something to be rewarded and the reward really comes only to those who do not quit.  Our salad was our reward.Our salad tasted as if it were the bread and wine of communion. Just like we hear by the pastors and priests, the bread had to be broken and the wine had to be poured out—both symbols of loss and a seeming dead end. But as we chewed on this leafy, green eucharist for our dinner, we were transported to a place of profound thanksgiving. We bowed—we wanted to bow—because God did this. Through the 19 years, through the cancer; through the death of other dreams; through the walking by faith and not by sight, we saw, yet another piece of the vision fulfilled. I placed a fork in my salad and slowly lifted the spinach, lettuce, carrots drizzled with a homemade dressing, I was so, very, very happy—do deeply content.To be honest, I would have to tell you that not all of the Vision I received that night has happened. Some of it has and I still find myself wondering how in the world will what is not yet—will actually become. Will it happen in my life time? Am I only the one who planted and there remains another who will come water and yet another who will see the harvest. I am old enough now---through my long obedience to trust that my part is really but one, small part. As a wise man once said, “We are but the light bulb and our real job know is to just stay screwed in.” I like that and it makes sense.This sacred salad serves as a moment in time for me to see; to have and to enjoy a true respite on the journey. I can still taste this sacred salad. Can you? 

The Wild and Peaceful Landscapes of Stillness

Gwen starring out at the vast oceanscape from a barrier island in North CarolinaDuring Sabbatical I had some amazing adventures in experiencing the difference between the stillness I thought I knew about and had studying about and the stillness that patiently lead me to wild and peaceful landscapes within me that I had never seen or even knew existed.There is nothing like being surrounded in stillness by an endless deep ocean and a crisp blue sky that seems to stretch to eternity. I sat still; I stood still, even holding my breath so as not to miss the glory of such a sight. Creation of the Creator unfolding right in from of me and I became a silent witness. What a privilege. I was honored and to this day I hold the honor in my heart.To encounter the Creator at his work while wrapped in stillness is to not remain the same. Stillness gave me the deep awareness that while being a silent witness, being actually present with God in a glorious display of nature right before my eyes, he too was present with me in the landscape of the dark, rugged crevices of piercing grief and suffering . In stillness I experienced my presence with God in beauty and his presence with me in brokenness. We were together and it was good. Nothing fixed or figured out. Nothing healed and made brand new.Stillness gave me an experience with Companionship and Compassion and Comfort. I wasn’t alone with my isolating fears and blinding tears. Stillness ushered me into that mysterious peace that had nothing to do with understanding anything. Stillness granted me the reality of Divine Presence. Stillness let me know God in the midst of what seems to be a godless situation. Stillness made an inviting space for me to know and listen to God say, “Be still and know me”. And I did.Stillness gave me space to listen to the unexpressed voice crying out from my desolate wilderness. This is what I heard:A Prayer for Tommy*Holy, precious, purest angel face,God, please kiss him with your tender grace.Double chinButton nosePerfect little fingersSweetest tiny toes.Holy is this momentLove and sorrow flowsHearts that ache to hold himAre held by One who knows.Tommy Jacob Smith, my fourth grandchild: born March 5,2015—died, March 5, 2015