desert

Flowering in the Desert: The Church in an Inhospitable Environment

I am in Mexico as I write this. I can look outside and see the sun at work drying the hard brown earth. Children playing soccer make dust devils swirl as they run. San Luis Potosí lies nestled in the arid mountains of central México. It’s difficult to imagine that anything can grow here, since so much of the year passes without rain. Yet everywhere you look you can see small patches of green fingers poking out from the ground—a little grass here and there, cacti, mesquite trees. The bougainvilleas paint purple and red pictures against a brown backdrop.

Walking out in the countryside, however, emphasizes the inhospitable nature of the environment. Rocks, sand, mountains—at times an almost lunar landscape. Beauty, but a dread kind of beauty—angular, lots of sharp barbs and keen edges.

As I walk, I puzzle over who it was that wandered into this part of the world first and thought it might make a good home. Water is a mission rather than a natural resource. Food requires imagination and ingenuity borne on the bent back of sun-scorched labor.

And yet, in the midst of this uncooperative terrain life blooms. Stubborn plants prosper. Animals breed. People live and love and create; they produce children who laugh and old people who still sing.

“How can this be?” I wonder. In conditions less than hospitable to life … life flourishes. Sinuous. Unyielding. Spiny.

It makes no sense that I can see. Still there is life.

People have speculated recently about the viability of Christianity. In particular, the church and its waning popularity has stood at the center of the discussion. The numbers seem clear: the church, with few exceptions, has fallen on hard times. The soil that only a few generations ago was fertile and black has hardened—just a few unflagging tendrils peeking through cracks, a flash of color here and there from plants that will not surrender, a tree or a cactus that has made peace with its grim environment.

But there is life … and if you look closely, more life than first meets the eye. There are churches thriving under impossible circumstances: announcing the reign of God, pursuing justice, tending the sick, feeding the hungry, holding hands with those left to die in the desert.

It occurs to me that the church has experienced lean seasons in the past. But every time things green up for a bit, we think the fat years are permanent, that the land of milk and honey knows no drought or blight. But plenty never lasts.

On the other hand, neither does lean.

What an inhospitable environment can produce is strength and focus, and the tenacity to do what we have been given to do, even though we may never see it result in the kind of fecundity we think signals “success.”

Heroes and saints are almost never made during easy times. The first holy mothers and fathers bloomed in the desert, after all.

Heroes and saints aren’t people who do great things for God because they have no shortcomings, no flaws, no challenges from their environment; heroes and saints are people who do great things for God in spite of the fact that the deck’s stacked against them, that the shortcomings and flaws always threaten to undo them, that the environment in which they live doesn’t want them. Heroes and saints are people determined to live their everyday lives as if God matters more than the sum total of their weaknesses and challenges.

We may very well be in the desert.

Now, I think, is the time for heroes and saints, for a church unwilling to yield.

Flee to the Desert

Been thinkin' a lot lately about St. Anthony of Egypt, whose feast day was January 17th. Love his vision of the Christian life, rooted completely in Jesus' way: give up EVERYTHING for God. No, really, everything, that you own and possess, get rid of all that shit, if you really wanna find God. So Anthony did, sold off everything in his rather comfortable life, and took to the Egyptian desert. Everything that we all just take for granted in our lives- food, house, clothes, wealth, all possessions- given up, for God. It gets better, though, because Anthony begins to really understand why Jesus calls us away from our possessions. See, all those things that we cling to, they keep us from dealing with ourselves. That's what Anthony got to learn out there in the wilderness, that all those pleasant distractions help us forget about the Self, that is our worst enemy. Anthony's famous for wrestling with those demons out there in the sand, but the worst part of his struggle was the temptation to give in to sin and evil, centered ultimately in Self.

Anthony woulda made a great Buddhist, as he teaches us to cling to nothing, not even, and especially, the Self. Anthony would also made a great Mulsim, because he teaches that our greatest struggle--in Arabic, jihad--is with the sin that we allow into and control over our Self. But in the end, Anthony became one of the great Christians of all time. Jesus calls us to give up everything, not just so we can find our way to God. That's actually the easy part. Jesus calls us into the desert life so we can also confront our Self, and the sin that we keep all nice and tucked up within it. When we understand the discipline it takes to make the Self a servant of God, rather than a servant of wordly possessions, or the sin that creeps so easily within, we understand the life Jesus leads us all to live on our way to God.

Now, I obviously don't live in the desert, and certainly have just as many possessions as anyone else! So I usually have to improvise to make my way to a "desert." I have found it now and then. I push all my possessions away, and take a deep breath into my Self. I wrestle wtih all the demons that I find there, and confront the worst of Me. Right in the midst of this cloudy and cluttered world that Anthony fled. I still have the luxury of returning to all my distractions, but I do look forward to the day when I don't. Yea, by God's grace, and a lot of work, I'll just go set up some lean-to somewhere--the middle of one of those big old cemeteries has always appealed to me- and take up this life of a monk, a "monad"--alone, like Anthony...like Jesus. Like Siddartha, and Muhammad, and the great saints of God's Truth. Alone with the gift of the Self God gives me, that, with discipline, leads me right to her...

St. Anthony of Egypt, please pray for all of us, especially as the Lenten season approaches....that God may help us find our way to our deserts, and into Her heart, and a more complete Self, as certainly as She helped you....

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RECLAIMING EDEN

(a continuation and extension of)(RECLAIMING EXODUS)

The story of the Garden of Eden is an Exodus story. It is the first Exodus story and the story that arches over and encompasses and undergirds the rest of the Bible. Like any Exodus story, it is a story of God providing deliverance from bondage and the ensuing roundabout journey into the freedom of the wilderness where we have a continuous opportunity to discover God and to experience God and to learn how to be in relationship with God and through that relationship be resurrected and transformed into the here-and-now Kingdom of God.

God created this chaotic universe because God wanted free-willed life. Without the power to say "no", there is no free-will. Within the confines of the Garden of Eden story; if Adam and Eve do not defy God, if they do not say "no" to the limitations imposed by God, they will not have free-will and the Garden of Eden will not be a utopia, it will become a zoo, a gilded cage - a life without freedom, a life without hope, a life without a future - a place of bondage. Instead, by defying God, the Garden of Eden becomes an incubator and a proving ground. Being driven from the Garden of Eden into a stark wilderness is not a punishment, it is an Exodus. Like any Exodus, it is a roundabout journey away from bondage (and a place to which God never wants us to return) into the freedom of the wilderness where Adam and Eve and all the people of the Bible and all of us are to discover God and learn how to be in relationship with God and, ultimately, how to be - here and now - a community of love and grace, of equality and inclusion, of healing and justice as restoration - how to be the Kingdom of God. The story of the Garden of Eden is not a story of failure, it is a story of success for God and us; it is not a story of condemnation, it is a story of affirmation. Free-will would be meaningless if God did not expect to be surprised by us.

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Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 4950 East Wabash Avenue, P.O. Box 3125, Terre Haute, IN 47803-0125 (812-877-9959). Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an open and affirming congregation where Doug has served as Elder and Treasurer and enjoys his continuing membership in the choir as the lowest voiced bass. For 2011-2012, Doug is an at-large member of the Indiana Disciples of Christ Regional Board. He graduated in 2009 with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University and a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University in 1997. Since August 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has been published in DisciplesWorld and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. In the summer of 2010, Doug became a contributor to [D]mergent. Of the 11 articles he has written, 5 are in the top 10 all-time most-viewed articles at [D]mergent. Doug is married to Carol, a First Grade teacher, and is the father of two sons. Jason is a professional musician (oboe, flute, English horn, and piccolo) who is working on a Master's degree and licensure in Special Education.

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The previous [D]mergent articles by Doug Sloan are listed here in order of publication: ..........RECLAIMING CHURCH ..........GOD IS... ..........RECLAIMING GOD ..........RECLAIMING MIRACLES ..........RECLAIMING NOT ..........RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS - an epistle ..........RECLAIMING FORGIVENESS - it's personal ..........REFORMATION II ..........GOD IS - an update ..........RECLAIMING SCRIPTURE ..........RECLAIMING EXODUS

RECLAIMING EXODUS

Exodus is not punishment. Exodus is deliverance from bondage and slavery. Exodus is a journey during which we have a direct experience of God providing deliverance. Exodus is a journey by the roundabout way to wilderness. Through Exodus, we leave behind a life of domination and enslavement, a life without freedom, a life without hope, a life without a future. Exodus is a journey from one desert to a very different desert - from a civilized and even opulent desert of slavery, ignorance, tight limitations and empire ruled by a dominating exclusive elite to a stark desert wilderness of freedom, learning, choice and community ruled by equality and inclusion. By taking only the bare essentials into the wilderness, we leave behind that which held us in bondage. Exodus takes the roundabout path to avoid conflicts for which we are not ready, conflicts which we would unavoidably lose, conflicts which would yield despair and drive us back into bondage. The least important purpose of Exodus is escape. The most important purpose of Exodus is learning to live in constant relationship with God and through that relationship be resurrected and transformed and become - here and now - the kingdom of God. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 4950 East Wabash Avenue, P.O. Box 3125, Terre Haute, IN 47803-0125 (812-877-9959). Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an open and affirming congregation where Doug has served as Elder and Treasurer and enjoys his continuing membership in the choir as the lowest voiced bass. For 2011-2012, Doug is an At-Large member of the Indiana Disciples of Christ Regional Board. He graduated in 2009 with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University and a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University in 1997. Since August 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has been published in DisciplesWorld and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. In the summer of 2010, Doug became a contributor to [D]mergent. Of the 9 articles he has written, 5 are in the top 10 all-time most-viewed articles at [D]mergent. Doug is married to Carol, a First Grade teacher, and is the father of two sons. Jason is a professional musician (oboe, flute, English horn, and piccolo) who is working on a Master's degree and licensure in Special Education.

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The previous [D]mergent articles by Doug Sloan are listed here in order of publication: ..........RECLAIMING CHURCH ..........GOD IS... ..........RECLAIMING GOD ..........RECLAIMING MIRACLES ..........RECLAIMING NOT ..........RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS - an epistle ..........RECLAIMING FORGIVENESS - it's personal ..........REFORMATION II ..........GOD IS - an update ..........RECLAIMING SCRIPTURE