The Call of the Desert (2)

2. The Invitation

Jesus says: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” The invitation reminds us we are seen, heard, known and loved. And that someone who loves us wants an opportunity to appreciate us. To listen to us. To pay attention to us. To give to us. To honour us.

To withdraw with Jesus is to be in the presence of one who knows us: who knows us through and through; better than we know ourselves; better than we want to know ourselves sometimes. It is to be with someone who knows our needs before we ask, who is so attuned to us that they anticipate how we feel, they understand how we view the world, they never judge us for thinking as we do, and while they might disagree with us, or even be disappointed at the choices we make, they never criticise or condemn. Here we are known for who we are: the best and the worst of us is known: and yet we are loved.

The best and the worst of us is out in the open. And yet we are loved. The One who truly knows us, loves us with a loyalty that never wavers. Loves us with a passion that is rich and warm, intimate and detailed, yet also more vast than we can begin to imagine. This is the miracle and the mercy. That knowing us as we truly are, Jesus loves us. That knowing not only the best but also the worst of us, Jesus loves us. That knowing me as I am, Jesus loves me. And in Jesus, God loves me. GOD loves me. God LOVES me. God loves ME.

God loves me in Jesus. So here in God’s presence, I do not need to pretend. I do not have to put on an act or play a role. I do not need to be anyone other than who I am, or anything other than how I am. As I am, here and now. I can relax and be myself.

God knows me and loves me, so here in God’s presence, I do not need to be anxious, whether for myself, or for others, for all needs are known and encompassed in the economy of grace. Whatever I am carrying, I can let it go, because Someone will take care of it. God will handle it for me.

God knows me and loves me, so here in God’s presence, I do not need to be afraid.

Have you ever known yourself to be received, welcomed, embraced, valued? Here is a daily, hourly, constant invitation to re-enter that experience. The moment might have been fleeting, but the truth of it is eternal. And because it is eternal, it is always present, always available. You can access it here and now. In the last words of John Wesley: “The best of all is: God is with us.”

The best of all is: God is with you. If you have never had a sense of God’s presence, have you ever known love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, coherence, harmony, inspiration - in any form? If so, that is a tiny glimpse of the wealth God holds in reserve for you. Here, now, you can re-enter the truth of that moment. Remember it, and your mind reassembles its elements. We cannot go back in time - not in any physical sense - but when we recall an experience of abundance, our mind recreates what it felt like to be there. An element of the past - the sense of abundance that we discovered there - is recreated in the present moment. Here and now, in the present moment, which is where we live. This happens whether we are conscious of the memory or not. Once we recognise that this is what is happening, we can use the process, deliberately, to increase our strength and build our faith.

Moments of grace such as these are like the clear joyous note of a bell in the back of your mind. At any time, wherever you might be, you can imagine that bell sounding. Think of it as the voice of Christ, calling you to withdraw with him into a “deserted place” for rest and refreshment. This is a place created for Jesus and yourself; a space created by your mind, using your memory and your imagination; a space in the present moment. And in this space, Jesus wants to hug you, thank you, encourage you, bless you. You are invited to relax, receive and be renewed.  

God encourages us to withdraw with Jesus so that we can be heard, healed, refreshed and revived. Jesus invites us to spend time with him so that he can enjoy our company, and we can enjoy his. The Spirit beckons us into a place where we can receive and rejoice in abundance. You are called into the divine presence for no other reason than that God loves you and you love God. This is our daily, hourly, permanent privilege as children of God. The sounding bell is a constant reminder of the truth on which the Gospel rests, the founding call of the life of faith: to open our eyes, our hands and our hearts, and accept that God loves us and wants to pour out upon us abundant life.

There are those who seek us out and want to command our attention because if we follow them or respond to them, they feel needed, wanted, esteemed and whole. Such people, Jesus warns us, are “thieves and bandits.” We may find them exciting, fascinating, even compelling; their words and actions may resonate with values we hold dear; they may involve us a movement that is important; we may believe that their cause points to truth. But they are still “thieves and bandits” because ultimately they are not interested in us or in what they can do for us. We do not matter to them at all; not as ourselves; not as people. We only matter to them because we support their cause. We only matter to them because we feed them, and if by drawing upon us they exhaust us, they do not care very much. If they care at all, it is that they have lost a source of supply.

This is why Jesus warns us against them: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” and contrasts himself with them: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The difference between Jesus and the “thieves” is not just a matter of intention or attitude or morality: there is a different dynamic at work in the relationship. The dynamic between the “bandit” and his followers always tends towards destruction. However, the dynamic between Jesus and his disciples is positive, healthy, creative, liberating, life-giving. Jesus does not seek us out, call us or command us in order to meet his needs. He is only concerned to meet ours. He wants to feed us. He wants to set us free. He wants us to know peace. This is how we know that he is good for us, because in him we discover abundant life; through him we receive abundant life. This is how we know that Jesus is with us: because we experience abundance. This is how we identify those places where Jesus is at work: because they feed us, usually on several levels at once. We feel enriched, replenished, fulfilled.  

We are called into a “deserted place” to spend time with Jesus. We are complex personalities: this time is necessary to us for three reasons. Firstly, we need it so that we can know that we are received: seen, heard, understood and welcome - regardless of how we feel about ourselves. Secondly, we need it so that, with Jesus, we can unpack the abundant life that the Father has given us. And thirdly, we need it so that we have time and space in which to enjoy what we have received.

Abundance has to be “unpacked” in order to be seen, discovered, appreciated, felt, made specific, personal and real. Abundance has to be “unpacked” so that we can enjoy it. Otherwise it remains - like an unwrapped present forgotten under the Christmas tree - an unrealised potential. We need time and space so that we can take the blessings of God’s life into the very depths of our being; so that we can reflect upon all that God is giving us, and discover the abundance in it. God’s grace is always sufficient for us. But the abundance may not be obvious; the blessing may not be apparent; it may not look like grace at all.

The art of abundance is paying attention. The art of abundance is the process of paying attention. In the “deserted place” Jesus pays attention to us, and with him we pay attention to who we are and where we are and what is happening within us and around us. We pay attention to what we have in our hands, and to what we might be able to do with it. And in the process, we discover abundance. Discovering abundance - especially in “deserted places” - is a process. A creative process. We pay attention to what we have, in our hands, and we pay attention to the process of working with it.

In the “deserted place” we spend time with Jesus paying attention to what we are given, and as the process unfolds, the abundance is revealed. What had appeared to be barren ground is discovered to be soil full of seeds. The process of paying attention is the equivalent of pouring fresh water on that dry soil. Now the conditions are right for the seeds to germinate. Now the life in the seeds has everything it needs to grow, develop, mature, blossom, fruit, multiply. The life that was always present, but latent like seeds hidden in dry ground, is enlarged in quantity and enhanced in quality. It spreads across the dimensions. It is magnified to a glory.

As the abundance is revealed - as we discover it for ourselves - so other changes are set in train in a rapidly expanding dynamic which occurs across every dimension simultaneously. This process of change is not linear: one cause having one effect. It is exponential: one change stimulates multiple effects in a multitude of directions, at the same time or within a very short space of time. The result is expansive, radiant, marvellous. The “deserted place” begins to change. It becomes a “broad place”, a “spacious place”, our personal corner of the promised land.

The call of the Gospel is the invitation to follow Jesus on a journey into a “deserted place” but in the course of our journey the “deserted place” is changed forever. This is the effect of the people of God passing through the wilderness. The desert becomes a garden. It becomes a place of abundance, a “broad place”, a “spacious place” where, with our feet on firm ground, we have room to breathe, think, move, act.[1]

This is how our faith is lived out: by making the journey into the “deserted place” so that we can discover - or rediscover - the abundant life that God has already given us. And understand that he has promised us more.

Again and again in Scripture, God calls the people to this process. There were times when the journey was a physical reality: for example, when Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua and others led the Israelites out of oppression in Egypt, through the Sinai desert, and across the Jordan to take possession of Israel. Or when groups of Jews began to return from exile in Babylon to rebuild a national life in Jerusalem. Then the journey was real, the desert was real and the hazards of the way were very real too. These two collective journeys lived on in in the peoples’ memory as stories and legends, songs and psalms; as epic tales of exploration, liberation, wandering and homecoming: times when they looked into their soul - as a people - and discovered their identity. The desert journey revealed to them who they were, and what God could make of them.

Around them were woven dozens of other tales of travelling. Individuals such as Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, Naomi, David, Elijah and Jonah were led through the wilderness or driven out into the desert, and in the process, found God and themselves. In the process. The journey into the “deserted place” was the outward expression of an inner transformation, a dynamic, a chain of events, a way of life that followed a particular pattern. And had a specific effect.

These journeys not only expressed the faith of the people who undertook them; they demonstrated what faith is and how it is created. People did not always set out in faith, but specific elements in the process of journeying generated faith in them as they went along. The stories were remembered not just because they were about faithful people, or even about people discovering faith, but because they show us what faith is and what it means to exercise it.

Faith is not about who we are, but about how we travel, whether we are willing to make the journey: to set out, keep going, stay on the road. The journey begins in all sorts of places and for all sorts of reasons but for these characters it always ends in the discovery of abundance and/or in the claiming, or recovery, of a portion of “promised land.” The goal or purpose of the journey takes various forms because it is shaped to fit the individuals concerned, but it is always recognisable as abundant life.

Indeed it is possible to argue that the journey of the imagination came first, before any specific historical events which might underlie tales of the Exodus and the return from Exile. It is possible that instead of these events shaping the religion, culture and imagination of the people, it was actually the other way around: that this image, of life as a process that could only be lived to the full by exercising faith, was already part of the Hebrew awareness. If the Israelites were predisposed to see the Journey as the great paradigm of their life with God, then the Exodus and the Exile became formative in Israelite culture because they were important historical events which reflected and reinforced their understanding of the nature of faith and how it was applied.  

We tend to think of faith in terms of doctrine, statements, assertions, creeds, convictions, ideas and beliefs but faith is only partly about what we think. It is rather more about how we think, and how the way we think influences everything else about us. Alternatively, we might think of faith as experience - as an emotion or energy that is revealed or conveyed by speech or action. But again, this understanding is incomplete. Faith is certainly energy, but it does not always express itself as a strong emotion, and it is revealed and conveyed, not so much by what we do, as by the way we do it. The truth is that we are complex, multi-layered personalities: our faith is an expression of our whole selves, and of the extent to which we are whole, or at least aspiring to wholeness.

It is the vision of life, especially abundant life, and most especially abundant life for all, that encourages us to embark on a venture in faith. We are led, and fed, by what we see. What we see engenders faith in us - or not - depending on what it is we are looking at, focusing on, or imagining. As Jesus puts it in Matthew’s Gospel, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Whether we are “seeing” with our physical eyes or with our mind’s eye, the process is the same. What we see becomes what we think about, focus on, pay attention to, speak about, lean towards, believe in, act upon, do. Our focus determines our reality.

We catch a glimpse of something that attracts us - usually because it looks like a form of abundance - and head towards it. We see something that is worth doing - usually because we hope it will generate life - and do it. We are caught up by a vision of abundant life and work to make it real. We search for vital - that is, life-giving - work. Vision turns a movement into a journey. A vision of life, in a form that is available, accessible and suited to our need, gets us moving and gives us purpose and direction. The faith to step out, move out, move on and keep going is generated by what we see, what we imagine; by the vision we place - and keep - before us.

The vision that most effectively engenders faith is the vision of abundance. Fruitfulness. Fulfilment. Quality. Quantity. Profusion. Plenty. Peace. Overflow. Beauty. Magnificence. Grandeur. Majesty. Infinity. Potential. Glory. Abundance can take many forms: for example, an object, a location, a relationship, an experience, a building, a lifestyle, an attainment or an achievement. But whatever form it takes, it points to a richness beyond itself, a plenty that is - or feels - unending, a wealth that resonates with an instinct deep within us. We want it, and we want it to the full. In faith, we embark on a process which we hope will enable us to find, engender or create what we have imagined, or at least something that resembles it.

We use processes to move towards what we have seen. The more creative the process we deploy, the more it will also be an expression of faith. To exercise faith in this holistic sense is to be engaged in a creative process, a process of creativity. Processes that are creative expressions of faith generate life. The more they are creative and faithful, the more life they generate. Even at the lower end of the scale, they can generate a recognisable abundance. The more people invest their creativity and faith in the process, the more abundance they will generate, convey, share.  

To exercise faith is this ability, first to see, and then to move towards, or work towards, what we have seen. Faith is the process we use to move from where we are to where we want to be (or to where God wants us to be). To keep faith is to hold to our vision and pursue it even though the process takes a long time and throws up many difficulties. Faith is dynamic. It is a way of moving, working, growing, creating, allowing a project to emerge and enabling it to develop to fulfilment. Faith is a way of changing and responding to change. A person of faith is someone on the move towards their personal vision of abundance, or working with others on a shared vision of abundant life for all. Or both, at the same time.

We “see” the vision with a combination of physical sight and imagination. Both are important and support each other. We feed our imaginations by looking around us and paying attention to what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste. What we see inside our heads changes as we express it, as we work with physical materials - or with other people - to realise the vision.

Put like that, it sounds simple. In that sense, God is simple, and God’s desire for us is simple. Abundant life for all. But while God may be simple, human beings are not. In practice, the application of this simple process is usually complicated, often contradictory, endlessly varied, and frequently resisted. It is a process of bringing order out of chaos: of honouring diversity, discovering common ground, building on shared values, and in so doing, reconciling extremes.

Human beings are complex, multi-layered personalities. In addition, each one of us carries wounds from our past. So the faith-process is never straightforward. Indeed it is likely that all our story-telling originates in our need to make sense of the human journey, of the way in which we need to see, think, speak and behave if we are to live life to the full. Despite the vast diversity of stories we tell, they all touch on a single, universal theme: how do we gain abundant life? And what happens if we fail?

Because we do fail. What we realise is never quite what we have seen, and if we have invested too much of ourselves in one very specific, closely-defined outcome, then we will probably be disappointed. Such setbacks raise in us an anxiety that the “abundance” we dream of is lost, or was never intended for us at all, or is forever unattainable. This is our greatest fear: that instead of being intended for life, we have been abandoned to death, a death, moreover, that is more than the cessation of life. What we fear most is the destruction of everything that we have ever valued: the utter annihilation of every good that we have ever known.

Faith and fear are active within us as two dynamics moving in opposite directions. Each moment, we choose between the two, by choosing how we are going to think about an event or situation. Generally, we use ways of thinking that were ingrained in us at an early age, that we learned from those around us as we were growing up, and which have therefore become habitual to us. Using these routine ways of thinking, our choice is made before we open our mouths to speak or move our bodies to act. And this choice is between processes governed by faith or processes governed by fear, because most, if not all, our mental processes are governed by one or the other. Moment by moment, we choose whether we are going to live from faith or from fear.

The life of faith begins as we realise that we are making this choice, and as we decide that, as often as we can, we will choose ways of thinking that are governed by faith, that tend towards creativity, life and abundance. The life of faith continues as we hold to that choice; and deepens as we hold to it despite the obstacles that fear throws in our way.

To choose life, and to keep on choosing life, we need to keep before us a vision of abundance. Our personal vision of what it means to live life to the full. The difficulties and dangers of the road do not have to mean that this dream is lost. While we retain our ability to imagine, the dream remains with us, ephemeral but alive, morphing, developing, growing, intensifying, magnifying.

Many of us have become so wounded by life that we have suppressed our large desires. Unwilling to add to our pain by revisiting dreams which may be forever beyond our reach, we choose not to imagine abundance for ourselves at all, in any shape or form. We deny our dreams, refuse gifts, resist any attempt to honour us or to celebrate who we are. We become convinced that it is not worth envisioning abundant life because it is not for us, and never will be.  

In one way we are correct. It is unlikely that we will ever realise anything that expresses our “sense of abundance” in its entirety. There is a good reason for this. Our “sense of abundance” is a window into infinity: how can anything we create or receive convey more than a fragment of the wonder of eternity? So yes, we are right. Abundance in its greatest, fullest sense is always beyond us, and always will be. It is a dream that can never come true. Not completely.

The trouble is that we draw the wrong conclusion from this. We conclude that because abundant life is always beyond us, it is impossible for us to enjoy it at all. We assume that it is not available to anyone, or at least not available to us. Or perhaps we decide that we have missed the boat, lost our chance, ruined our opportunities, messed up so badly that we will never know it now. We may even come to believe that anyone who claims to enjoy abundant life is a fraud, or a coward, or a criminal, or is somehow deluded, because the abundance they claim to possess cannot possibly be genuine or it cannot possibly be rightfully theirs.

We resist the possibility that there is abundant life for us because in this respect our fear is greater than our faith. But the call to withdraw with Jesus into the “deserted place” offers us a way out, and a way back to the life God intends us to enjoy. The emptiness and nakedness of the desert is purifying because it does not allow us to escape into any of our numerous distractions. It is honest because it reflects back to us the starved and emaciated condition of our souls. And yet it is also a place where we discover renewal, because we enter the desert with Christ, who shows us how to discover in the desert the bread of life that feeds us.

When we enter the wilderness with Jesus Christ, it is an altogether different experience to entering the desert by ourselves. Because Jesus shows us a vision of abundance; a vision that reinforces our will to choose life. More, Jesus gives us an experience of abundance; an experience that demonstrates how resources are found. Equipped with both a vision and a strategy, we are empowered to hold to our choice - to renew it and reinforce it, day by day.

So we need to hear again Jesus’ call to accompany him into the “deserted place”.   Because the time we spend with him in this place will strengthen our creativity and our faith. It will enlarge our vision of the blessings that God wants to pour out on us, and that God wants to make available through us for others. As we spend time in this “deserted place” with Jesus, it becomes the “broad place” or the “spacious place” of which the psalmists sang. Our tiny portion of the promised land.

We are creative beings, made in the image of the Creator. Jesus, son of a carpenter, himself a craftsman, taught fishermen that their professional skills could be turned to a richer purpose: the task of sharing abundant life with everyone they met. The fishermen exercised faith in the use of their wisdom and skills, and Jesus showed them how that faith, wisdom and skill could be applied to a completely different context. Similarly, reminds us that we are most truly ourselves when we are creating things, replicating ourselves, making our mark, working with our environment, putting ourselves out into the world, enlarging our scope, expressing all that is within us, magnifying and making material our vision of all we might become.

Here again, faith is not about what we have, but what we do with it. It is not about the materials we use or what we make of them. We exercise faith simply in the act of creating. By practising our craft and making art, we express our faith in ourselves, one another, and in a larger reality. We do not invest ourselves in the products we create, because, however much we or others might value them, they are, at best, inadequate expressions of the glory to which we aspire. Instead, we invest in the process, in the act of creating. When we create, we are most truly alive, and most truly ourselves.

How do you see your “broad place”? What does it look like? What kind of scenery surrounds it and shapes it? Is it indoors or outdoors or partly both? Is it formed by fields, woods, moorland, hills or the ocean? Is it close to a lake or a beach? Does it have streams, waterfalls, rivers, lakes? Is it an island? Is it even on earth at all? You can choose any location that excites you.

Whatever its location, you will need some form of “enclosure” to define it, so that you can shut out the “real” world when you need to do so. This enclosure can be as solid as a castle or as insubstantial as a house of glass. It can be an artificial construction or a natural feature, such as a glade in the forest. It can be as large as a cathedral or as small as a cabin. It can be built on a rock or have freedom of movement, like a caravan or a boat. It can be ancient, even primeval - a circle of standing stones or a deep cave - or a light, bright penthouse on the top of a skyscraper. It can be a treehouse, a country cottage, a lighthouse or a houseboat. What matters - the only thing that matters - is that you get a buzz just thinking about it. It is a place you enjoy thinking about. It is a place where you want to be. It is the place you have always dreamed of possessing. It is the place that connects you with your most profound longings. You enjoy imagining it - you enjoy even the thought of imagining it.

Now allow yourself to imagine what your “broad place” looks like from within. Construct, decorate and furnish your enclosure. There are no rules as to how you should do this. It does not have to conform to architectural principles or building regulations. It can be larger on the inside than it is on the outside. It can exist simultaneously on different planets, in different worlds, in different dimensions. There are no constraints, no limits, no budget, and the only person’s taste that matters is your own. It can be full or empty, simple or elaborate, monastic or fantastic. The only criteria is that it reflects you, expresses what you want. You want to spend time there. You want to feel comfortable, guarded, safe, relaxed, at home. You want to be truly yourself. Your true self.

Once we have begun to imagine our “broad place” it is helpful to make it specific, personal and real in small but significant ways. I keep small items that remind me of mine: postcards, images clipped from magazines, samples of colour, textures, materials. At various times, they have filled a box, a file, a scrapbook. When I sift through them, I am nourished by what I see, touch, smell. There are pieces of music that I associate with the place, and when I am feeling in need of encouragement, I play them. Doing so heartens me.  

Occasionally, I sort out the scraps, discarding some and adding others. I find it helpful to allow my “broad place” to evolve, develop and change as I do. When I am under pressure, or find that much around me is uncertain, the “broad place” changes from day to day, adapting itself to my moods and desires. There are times when I need to imagine high walls around me; other times when I need the freedom of a large sky and a vast horizon. As I grow, change, learn, move on, the elements that attract me to my “broad place” have changed accordingly. I have found that it is important to “let go” of those elements that no longer serve me, trusting that I will find new ones, or rediscover the old in new forms, as I need them.

With Jesus, the “deserted place” becomes the “broad place,” but it always remains my place. Yours will always be your place. Jesus waits to be invited in. He waits for us to accept his invitation to join him on the journey. He does not impose himself or coerce us. He is the perfect guest, making himself at home but always treating the furniture with respect. Because he loves you, and your “broad place” is furnished with your dreams and your desires. It is the expression of your spirit. It is the place where Jesus meets with you, as you are, to meet your need.

And so that you and he together can create life in the world.

[1] Psalm 18.19, 36; 31.8.

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