Are we living close to Jesus’ return?

Sunrise by sergey-pesterev-223092-unsplashOne of my objectives in writing this blog and publishing my book is to help people begin to realise what a unique generation we could be living in, none other than the years before the coming of Jesus in glory.

I was reading Luke chapter 10 in my daily devotions yesterday. In a verse that I have always skipped past, I noticed that Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” How often God uses a little hidden verse to stir your heart in faith. Jesus was in effect saying that they, of all generations, were privileged to live in the days of His coming and the kingdom of God being inaugurated. So many prophetic words, so many hopes, so much build up of anticipation, over the centuries, and the disciples just happened to be alive at the right time and in the right place to be witnesses of it all.

If there was a specific generation of believers who were alive when Jesus came as anointed Messiah 2000 years ago, then logically there will be a specific generation of believers who will be alive when Jesus splits the skies and returns on the clouds as king of kings and lord of lords! That is, if you really believe what the bible says.

Usually we can ignore that concrete reality; as long as we just recite the creed in a general fashion – believing that on one vague future day Jesus will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’ – as long as we don’t consider what historical time frame that will be, then we are safe. Safe from considering whether that time could be near, safe from preparing our lives to live ready for his return, safe from the challenge of what the decades preceding his coming will be like from a biblical point of view.

But if we do start to ponder, as I have been doing these last few years, whether we, our children and our grandchildren could be the very ones upon whom the fulfilment of the End Times prophecies comes, then it messes with our heads, in a good way! We start to examine bible prophecy with a more vital interest, we watch the signs of the times with a fresh set of spectacles, we begin to see everything we do as Christians and as church with a clearer and more urgent purpose.

Doesn’t every generation of Christians believe they are in the last of the End Times? I would answer ’no’ from what I read of church history. There are definitely some groups throughout the church age who have had a strong eschatological fervour. These have been particularly prevalent at turns of centuries or times of impending disaster. Yet they are small pockets of Christians. What is different now is the sheer number of Christians worldwide who are sensing that God is calling us to prepare for the return of His Son Jesus.

There is so much more to say about the urgency of the times right now, which I will look at in future blogs. However my basic premise begins with a Holy Spirit stirring in hearts. And when that surge of interest and expectation of End Times things is global, and then you add some incredible prophetic signs of the times, then it is certainly worthy of attention.

Could we be those to whom the Lord says as he returns, ‘blessed are your eyes that see what you see’? This is where I believe End Time thinking is best started, not with our heads in the clouds, but with our heads between our knees in prayer; Lord could it be this generation? This is End Time reality check 2.0. That is one of the things I am wrestling with, and I hope you might wrestle with it too.

God bless, William

Posted in End Times, Forerunner foundations | Leave a comment

Reactions as I talk about End Times

Jetty imageI have started sharing with people about my End Times book project in the last few months. With friends, Christian colleagues, various people I have met. Their reactions fascinate me. For some, the theme draws a blank; I might as well be talking about an obscure area of science or writing about time travel. For others, they are really, really interested, responding with their own sense of urgency about the signs of the times.

A third response really interests me. There is a slightly awkward silence followed by some polite comments. Often good conversation ensues but the initial reaction is telling. What I read into this is threefold. Some Christians feel as though they should be interested in End Time thinking, but really don’t know what they believe about it. Some are both supportive but wary, hoping that I will not be coming from an extreme or wacky point of view. Still others give a vibe of disconnect; that teaching about End Times and the return of Jesus is remote or not very relevant to the real issues of today, to their daily discipleship and to the current mission of the church.

Hmm… maybe I am writing this book for all these people. Certainly some extreme End Time teaching has put Christians off from engaging with the clear expectation in scripture for Jesus’ return. And also, because there are contrasting views on eschatology (i.e. End Times) and bible passages that focus on these subjects, people tread warily in conversation. It is like an enhanced version of the old adage ‘don’t talk about religion or politics’. And ignorance on such fringe issues of Christian beliefs is surely better than disagreement…is it?

I don’t think so. And so I feel encouraged that I am writing about these things. What could be more relevant than addressing the state of the world, how the bible sheds light on future events, and about the powerful hope that we can have through faith in Jesus? My book is certainly not the last word on this subject, but it is a helpful word, a provoking word, an important word to the church today.

I hope to keep blogging about these things closer to the launch of my book, The Forerunner Cry. If you are reading this, I hope that you find it interesting.

Thanks, William

 

Posted in End Times, Life observations | Leave a comment

A fresh rethink and a new book

IMG_5023A lot has changed for me in my reflections and writing recently. My last blogging post was at the end of 2017. In the last twelve months I have been silent on this site, for a reason. I have been quietly writing a book in the last four years, and have found a publisher to partner with me in going to press. The publisher is Authentic media in Milton Keynes, and my book is on the End Times called ‘The Forerunner Cry’.

This has taken all my head space and creativity; I never knew the detail involved in a major publishing contract, in the editing stages, and in the sorting out of the background admin! It has been an exciting and daunting process, and this will become the public face of what I have been praying and thinking about for years.

I am convinced that we are living in extraordinary times, times spoken in the bible as ‘End Times’. Jesus and the apostles spoke prophetically about the generation that would be alive in the closing years before Jesus returns. My book is attempting to teach and encourage Christians to live well amidst ‘glory and shaking’ – amazing blessing and spiritual life and also great world turbulence and troubles.

Therefore this website is changing too. It is becoming both the landing page for interest in my book, and also some more focused and regular blogs about the End Times and christian discipleship in these days. I hope you will enjoy the changes and engage with my upcoming blogs. If there is any way I can stimulate and equip the church and ordinary christians in thinking clearly about the signs of the times, then I will be happy.

Thanks for reading.

God bless, William.

Posted in End Times, Life observations | 2 Comments

Jerusalem the capital of Israel?

jerusalem.jpg

I haven’t addressed any contentious issues in my blog so far. That line is being crossed, I guessed, in what I write today.

The remarks of President Trump this week, announcing American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel, have sparked fury and condemnation around the world. Yet I do not join in the immediate condemnation, and I think this statement could be hugely significant in different ways than our media portray.

If you look at the surface of the Middle East issues, and you want above all else justice for the Palestinians, you would profoundly disagree with President Trump. And if you are committed solely to a delicate path of brokering peace, and forging deeper reconciliation between Israel & Palestine, I can understand your anger this week. However what if, despite our best intentions, the possibility of peace is beyond our lifetime? What if it is on the eschatological horizon of Christ’s second coming? What if God is allowing this as part of the shaking of all things in the End Times?

I know that on one hand what I write seems naive, yet on the other hand it is looking for another perspective. One of the chief difficulties for the church in the last days will be the danger of being offended at God; offended because we don’t understand what he is doing, outraged because his ways of glory and shaking are not necessarily our ways.

Respected Christian leaders Desmond Tutu has responded this week, saying that God is weeping over Trump’s recent move. Well I am sure God weeps over all the injustices perpetrated in this world, but just maybe God’s hand is somehow in this. I have wondered this last year if Donald Trump’s presidency would be used of God in some momentous way beyond the divisive and sometime foolish things he has done. The full text of his statement, although simplifying issues and ignoring the extent of the Palestinian grievances against the state of Israel, is more moderate and nuanced than reported. It also carries behind it a weight of debate on this issue by the American congress over the last twenty years.

There is a doomsday clock, created by atomic scientists, which ticks closer to midnight, corresponding to the potential of manmade global catastrophe. This year it stand at an unprecedented 2 1/2 minutes to midnight. Yet there is also a theological End Time clock which is also ticking, one that we glimpse many times through scripture. That clock is also closer to the midnight of Jesus’ return, when he will set his feet on mount Zion in Jerusalem, as the true king of all the earth. Jerusalem will be pivotal at the end of the age, and that time could be sooner than we think.

I admire and applaud all who work on the ground for peace and justice in Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have personal friends who work on both sides of the Israel/ Palestine divide who are all doing amazing kingdom work. I also stand in awe at what the bible calls the ‘mystery of Israel’ – the way God is at work amongst the Jewish people in the last days, which must include the chaotic situation in this part of the Middle East.

Whatever your stance on these things, please keep praying for God’s sovereign hand on the affairs of the Middle East, even if we don’t understand the depth of what is happening. I do not think simple condemnation of Trump is the answer today, but rather opens up a door to greater searching of our hearts and a deeper cry to understand God’s heart and ways.

Thanks for reading.

Posted in End Times | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Desert Spirituality – help in moving through unfamiliar terrain

In my last blog, I mentioned some books and resources that I had found helpful writing on desert spirituality. I have been trying to find some wise authors who have been ministering to my itch to discover God as He leads me deeper through a desert place.

solace of fierce landscapesI left out one book, which is a longer and more profound treatment of the desert in Christian understanding. Belden Lane wrote ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes – exploring desert and mountain spirituality’ in 1998. What makes it profound for me is that he interfaces his academic writing as a theologian with both the experience of accompanying his mother through cancer, Alzheimers and death, and his consequent journey as a Christian to encounter God through loss, crisis and recovery. That is not an easy thing to do! Lane lays bare his personal adventure of faith as many things in his life are stripped away. Then he draws the reader closer to God through the wisdom of Christian writers over the centuries.

Lane splits his book into the trio of images of encountering God in the desert, the mountain and the cloud. These three are part of the classic pattern of understanding the Christian life as purgation, illumination and union. He explores the relinquishment which the desert demands, its insistence on emptiness and indifference to our soul’s needs, even as that stripping away prepares us to know God better. He then follows the stage of growth embodied by the mountain, as we encounter God as Moses did on the heights. Lastly he focuses on the experience of the cloud of union with God. There one abandons one’s separate identity as they are enveloped in the all encompassing love of God.

Lane also explores what is called the ‘apophatic’ tradition of prayer, in which silence is a way of being with God, where language is inadequate. Also called the ‘via negative’, this is a mystical Christian tradition that suggests all analogies of God are ultimately inadequate, and that God is beyond all our experiences of Him. Rather, God’s desire is to draw us deeper into mystical union with Him, into transfiguration, into wonderment.

This book takes some time to read and reflect on. What have I gained from reading this?

  1. The book provides a challenge to my own Christian tradition. I am not familiar with  the writings of St John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart, or others from the mystical tradition of Christian prayer. The call to silence, to prayer and being beyond words, is an interesting counterpoint to the very wordy Charismatic spirituality I am used to, what can be sometimes looked down on as ‘pop spirituality’. Yet I also have to maintain a critical distance, enjoying the treasures  of the biblical word and ecstatic baptisms of the Spirit found by by the Protestant traditions, even as I dive into ‘silence beyond language’. It certainly provides some interesting possibilities for dialogue between traditions!
  2. The writer deals with the gritty reality of living with pain, sickness and loss and in doing so, encountering God. He speaks of ‘discovering grace in a grotesque landscape of feeding tubes and bed restraints’ of watching his mother like a ‘desert monk wholly absorbed in ascesis, the intimate exercise of holy living and holy dying’. In doing so Lane experienced the erratic spiritual growth, stumbling slowly with a dying parent along the desert’s purgative way’. These insights are very helpful for may Christians today, providing a way of embracing confusion, tragedy and loss, rather than denying them in a way that cripples our faith in God.
  3. Lane also gives and example of how one can make some desert space in one’s life even if you are far removed from any physical wilderness. He shares about making a ‘habit of being’, or ordering his life around desert spiritual disciplines. These include for him: a nightly practise of silent prayer, routine participation in the worship life of a community of faith, periodic backpacking trips into wilderness places, meeting with a spiritual director and reading from the classical  traditions of Christian prayer.
  4. The writer gives me fresh personal incentive to take a retreat/ pilgrimage to Mount Sinai. I have been toying with this for a while, and have made some tentative plans to join a Christian pilgrimage to the Sinai region. For the desert tradition, Mount Sinai figures as a mountain of the imagination, ‘a landscape of terror and theophany…evoking  the deepest desire of the human heart for untamed mystery and beauty’. For me such a pilgrimage is an intriguing way of stepping in the shoes of Moses and Elijah, of pursing encounter and fresh spiritual insight, and journeying deeper with God.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes’ would be a long and thoughtful read for anyone like me who is looking for helpful navigation markers on a wilderness journey of prayer.

Thanks for reading.

 

Posted in Desert and pilgrimage, Life observations | Leave a comment

Resources for desert prayer

sandwriterSince I started to follow the Holy Spirit’s prompts to think about desert spirituality, I have been looking around for what others have written.

It is an interesting search, in that spirituality from the desert is both an ancient stream of prayer experience and wisdom, and also a way of approaching prayer from the heart. There are writings spanning 1700 years of church history, from when the early Desert Fathers began their pilgrimages into the Egyptian wilderness, through to modern reflections on their lives and sayings. In between one can find the influence of the Fathers on numerous writings of contemplative men and women, in many of the monastic traditions. This is because the commitment to prayer, solitude, simplicity and the transformation of the heart – so exemplified by St Anthony and his fellow pilgrims – became either foundational principles or impetuses for the future great monastic movements.

So there is a collection of writings about those early inspirational desert-praying saints, mainly biographies and collected sayings. There is also a wider resource, across church traditions, of how to approach a prayerful, contemplative life. There is so much to sift through, in printed and virtual formats, that one almost needs a guide to find what is most helpful. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions, have some very good devotional writings over the centuries. The Christian mystics of medieval times, such as St Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, St John of the Cross, are well-known sources of wisdom. Modern monastic figures, like Thomas Merton, have likewise attracted a large following. As an evangelical Protestant, this is a deep well of spiritual reflection which is new and foreign to me.

My personal journey in the last few months has led me to a modest selection of books, but some that have helped to orientate me to desert prayer and the wider monastic tradition. I share these for any help or use it may be for others.

  1. There are some sources of the lives and writings of the Desert Fathers which have been inspirational

st anthonyThe Life of St Anthony – St Athanasius.

Written by a friend and disciple, this story of St Anthony is beautiful and inspiring. It may well be an idealised account of the saint’s life, but the vivid impression of his heart, his discipline and the context of his life is great to read. Athanasius gives great attention to Anthony’s asceticism, his feats of spiritual discipline, his spiritual battles, and later in life, his leadership of this monastic way of life and his ministry in words and healing to many who came to him. The author concludes his reasons for writing thus: ‘that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify him….even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world.’

desert fathers

Sayings of the Desert Fathers – Penguin Classics.

The collection of wise sayings of the early desert Fathers is here in one place, along with a very helpful introductory chapter about this monastic tradition, its strengths and challenges. These sayings have been a spiritual source of nourishment to many traditions of the Christian faith, and universally popular, maybe because these where ordinary people who ‘had an air of eternity’ in what they said and how they lived. As the compiler of the sayings writes in the introduction: ‘the picture that emerges from these primitive sources is of entirely, indeed ruthlessly, committed but sensible men and women, learning to live with nature and with others in a harmony that grew out out of a prayed life’.

2.  I found some modern testimonies, of people trying out a monastic way of life, helpful to read.

genesee diaryThe Genesee Diary: report from a Trappist monastery – Henri Nouwen.

This well known Catholic scholar took a seven month retreat from his writing and lecturing to become a temporary member of a North American monastic community. His daily diary of his experience of prayer, study, manual work and living in community is full of helpful insights. It reveals the honest wrestling of a mature Christian who is exploring the fruit and challenge of living a contemplative life. Returning to his busy life, Henri thinks about the value of that prayer experience: ‘ I can say that I have a most precious memory which keeps unfolding itself in all that I do or plan to do. I no longer can live without being reminded of the glimpse of God’s graciousness that I saw in my solitude, of the ray of light that broke through my darkness, of the gentle voice that spoke in my silence, and of the soft breeze that touched me in my stillest hour.’

abbots shoesThe Abbot’s Shoes: seeking a contemplative life – Peter Robinson.

This is a complementary account of a young man giving two years of his life in the 1960’s to join a Trappist monastery in Australia – the Lady of the Southern Star. Now, after a lifetime of ministry as a pastor, broadcaster and revival preacher, Peter returns to this stream of desert prayer as a sustaining rhythm for his current life. He reflects on all he learned within that holy, enclosed community and acknowledges the call of the Spirit into the desert: “My singing of the Psalms morning, noon and night is my occupation. I am dreaming of many tiny monasteries, ‘invisible’ in urban and rural wildernesses. In holy obscurity such will shape the sinews of history.”

 3.   There are some considered reflections on desert spirituality by today’s theologians, which draw out that wisdom to modern life.

These have been really useful to measure my own journey through lenses of my experience of God, compared to desert spirituality, because, though from a different time in history,  the theological and practical insights are timeless.

way-of-the-heart.jpgThe Way of the Heart: desert spirituality and contemporary ministry – Henri Nouwen.

Written a decade after his visit to Genesee monastery, this wise book examines the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers to see how it is helpful to Christian ministry in our modern world. Nouwen gives profound psychological insights into the need for three desert values. One is solitude, where we find out true self in Christ through furnace like struggle and encounter, leading to a compassionate ministry. Another is silence, which is the mystery of the future world, helping us to be true pilgrims and to guard the fire of the Spirit, which in turn allows God’s creative word to be heard and spoken. The third is prayer itself, more of the heart than of the mind. As Nouwen writes about this central theme: ‘prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at that point of our being where three are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one. There God’s Spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place.’

silence and honey cakesSilence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert – Rowan Williams.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes about what the lives and writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have to say into the modern search for spirituality. He touches on issues of truly loving ourselves and our neighbour, of what ‘fleeing’ and ‘staying’ mean in the desert. Fleeing for people today may not be from our ordinary lifestyle and community, but from ‘illusory landscapes in which life appears easier, to as to inhabit the landscape of truth as more than an occasional visitor’, where non-wasted words which are transfiguring come from a depth, from quiet and expectancy. Staying, as Williams explores, means learning to stay where you are, and giving yourself to your real, embodied journey of holiness. The well known saying, ‘stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’, involves pledging yourself to your life now, not what is fantasised about,  your personal walk lived uniquely before God.

The last book I have been reading – Belden Lane’s ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes’ – has been the most profound for me, and I will devote another blog to that for reasons to be made clear.

If you have read this far, I hope you have found some tantalising insights or quotes that could help you in your spiritual journey. Because there is ancient wisdom echoing down from saints of long ago, some of the cloud of witnesses encouraging us on our race of faith.

May God bless you on your journey.

William

 

 

Posted in Life observations | Leave a comment

Adjusting to a desert journey

compass

‘Compass’ by Denis Vrublevski

I was wondering to myself, as I trimmed my beard earlier in the week, just how long a desert prayer journey might take.

For those who read any recent blogs of mine, I have been following a spiritual nudge from God to take time aside in my life to let him lead me through a desert experience. I felt I had to embody a prophetic picture of myself stripped bare in a desert terrain with little more than a beard, cloak and staff with strong winds whipping around me. For the last nine months I have tried to be silent more before God, to be attentive and journal the things he has shown me about my life, to read what saints ancient and modern have written about wilderness and prayer, and to find a deeper relationship with Jesus through it all.

I haven’t blogged as much as I might like partly because this prayer experience is personal and also because I am taking a while to orientate myself – what  element of the desert exploration is a prayer posture, what part is the exposing of interior of my heart, what portion is a prophetic treasure trail listening to the call of God? It is all good and fruitful, but not much is easily communicable.

The only disconcerting thing is that God didn’t put a time limit on this journey, just a starting point. As it is for many that find themselves in a desert place in their faith. Some of our wilderness places are forced upon us, circumstances that strip us back. Some are ones we feel led to explore, as treks of exploring spirituality. Whichever it is, God’s only biblical promise is that He likes to encounter His people in desert places. Prophetic destinies are shaped there, the voice of God is heard there, miracles of provision and life are given there – the wilderness is abundant in spiritual potential, even as it is stark in its apparent barrenness.

My praying and reflecting on wilderness and spiritual journeys can at times seem a luxury, a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of extra if I find the time in my days and weeks. And yet I realise it is an essential part of my life right now, a gracious trail God is leading me on to bring me greater wholeness and closeness to Him.

I am finding it a fulfilling place to be, because I am meeting with Him and He is speaking into my life and the world I inhabit. Yet, at the start of the year, the Lord is reminding me that the longer I stay here, I am also finding things in the desert of my life that are not pleasant. There are attitudes, compulsions, emotions, fears, caverns deep in my soul – things that could discourage me in life. Yet I trust that Jesus is allowing these things to surface so He can bring healing, transformation, life and faith to these un-sanctified parts of me.

A friend of mine recently gave me a piece of prayer-art she had made for my 50th birthday. She beautifully portrays the life that God brings in a desert place, as Isaiah chapter 35 amply suggests: ‘water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert’. I must stay here 0n this journey until more of my wilderness is transformed, and more of the glory of the Lord is displayed around me.

img_2394

‘Streams in the desert’ by Shelley Gregory

‘Come Holy Spirit, transform the desert of my experience. Let it become a holy place, a space of meeting and encounter with You’.

Posted in Desert and pilgrimage, Life observations | Leave a comment

Turning 50 and thankful!

On the cusp of my 50th birthday, feeling quite content and expectant…

I think over my different decades and see times of growth and change, spiritual milestones, failures or obstacles I overcame, stages of family life, the clear hand of the Lord on my life and, if I look to see it, some good fruit at every stage. That is much more due to God’s grace and favour than my ability or planning. 

The last ten years have been the most settled, in one place, one area of ministry, growing through the seasons with my family and group of friends. There has been some personal weakness, pain and a more hidden pruning, alongside happier, beautiful times, but all resulting in a richer life and long term fruit. My personal healing has led to a better focus, the sorting out of priorities helping in a more balanced life, the gradual spiritual journey of the Beacon becoming a more lasting community and ministry.

So I look back at 50 with much thanks and little regret, especially when I can see the golden thread of God’s purpose and grace through all the happenings of my years and of those I love. I will give thanks and look forward expectantly for where the Lord will lead us.

As the Message bible says:

Roms 8v15-17 This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

God’s blessing. 

Posted in Life observations | Leave a comment

Learning from the Desert Fathers

icon-stanthony-1I was in prayer at the Beacon, at the start of the busy after Easter season of activity. I was preoccupied and trying to quiet my heart to listen to God. Suddenly in my mind’s eye I could see myself amongst a whole group on a conveyer belt, the kind of travelator you find in an airport. I was looking for the ‘off switch’, feeling uneasy at the speed and direction the moving escalator was taking us. I then noticed  a track just next to it, leading off into the wilderness. The path I took seemed to be a choice I could make. I knew again it was about my desert prayer journey.

Back in the fourth century church, there were a lot of people trying to get off the conveyor belt and take the less trodden path into the wilderness. They were called the desert fathers.

I am continuing in my exploration of desert and wilderness as a spiritual journey. As I have  thought about this in recent months, the stories and sayings of the desert fathers (and mothers) have deeply impressed me. Centred around Egypt and the north African Meditaraneum rim, a whole group of Christians began to move away from their busy lives and contemporary society to dedicate their lives to prayer and extreme devotion to God. These were not famous Christians or the intellectual elite of their day, just ordinary people who felt a call to the desert. They became well known for their asceticism and wisdom, people like St Anthony, Marcarius, Arsenius, Moses and others. Beyond sheer extremism, what were the motives behind this desert spirituality?

A few things become clear as one reads their stories. One is that they turned aside from the world in order to encounter God. They were seeking to ensure their own salvation, choosing to live not in the company of others but alone before God. These people would build basic shelters or live in caves, and live in great simplicity apart from civilisation. Arsenius, a wealthy Roman educator once asked God to show him the way of salvation. A voice came to him saying, ‘Arsenius, flee from the world, and you will be saved.’ That was the start of his desert journey. Their lifestyle is a great challenge to our materialistic culture today. How do we flee the incessant pull of materialism around us?

Secondly, the desert fathers felt that their harsh, ascetic lifestyle was necessary to identify with Jesus. in the fourth century, persecution of the church had ceased and martyrdom (the greatest demonstration of one’s faith) was not possible. So Christians sought an alternative martyrdom, to lose their lives in giving everything up to follow Christ.

A Christian brother once asked a hermit, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ He took off his clothes, and put a girdle about his loins and stretched out his hands and said, ‘Thus ought the monk to be: stripped naked of everything, and crucified by temptation and combat with the world.’ Where our modern world promotes self fulfilment and how to become someone unique, their thinking was, ‘how can I become nothing and how much can I give up for Christ?’

Thirdly, these saints sought solitude, prayer and silence, not as a retreat, but a place of transformation. A desert hermit said, ‘let fear and humility, fasting, and weeping, take root in you’. They saw themselves as sinners in need of mercy. They explored their own motives and thought lives so that what was sinful or disordered could be brought into the light of God’s forgiveness. In our culture we often seek time out, more for the sake of rest and recuperation, not for the more uncomfortable process of exposing our inner life to the transforming presence of God. Where are my quality times of prayer and solitude to let God touch my inner life?

Fourthly, these desert pilgrims distanced themselves from people to as to better serve them later on. They discovered that, withdrawing from the need for people’s demands or praise so as to focus on God, gave them greater capacity to love people and bring counsel to a needy world. St Anthony spent twenty years praying in almost total isolation in the Egyptian desert. When he emerged he wasn’t eccentric but amazingly balanced. His solitude has somehow become a space into which people could be invited to be ministered to. Through fighting demons and finding his heart transformed, Anthony gained a compassion and insight into people’s hearts that brought comfort and direction.

That is a challenge to our very social world, in which  our physical and virtual presence in sought daily, and immediate interaction and response is expected. Where is my holy space away from the social crowd, so that I can minister better to others? Not surprisingly, these saints became highly regarded as holy men and women, mediators between heaven and earth, people living at the limits of human need and therefore able to pray and serve the rest of the world.

Fifthly, the desert fathers saw their calling as a preparing for Christ’s coming. Their other-worldly focus was part of the early church expectation for the return of their Lord. Detachment from worldly affairs was part of their cry, ‘Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!’ They tried to live the life of the cross, in eager expectation that they were preparing themselves to enter into the full life of the Spirit. The very harsh lifestyle they maintained was to enhance spiritual longing in the light of the glory to come. It is said of Arsenius that on a Saturday evening, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the setting sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards heaven until the morning sun shone on his face. As Christians in our culture, we have generally lost that eager expectation for Jesus to come. We long for a better world, we work for the kingdom, but does our lifestyle reflect the Maranatha cry?

I read a quote from Henri Nouwen about the desert fathers (in his book ‘The Way of the Heart’ p24) that sums up the relevance of this alternative spirituality for our own faith journey as Christians today:

‘It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard is is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape that the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.’

So I find a challenging paradox in these saints of old. We want to engage well with our culture and transform our world. Yet an authentic spiritual life may also mean withdrawing in prayer and finding the less trodden path, the track into the wilderness, so that from that deep presence of the Lord there, we may offer something of heaven’s resources into our needy world.

Posted in Desert and pilgrimage, Life observations | Leave a comment

The desert place (desert musings 2)

desert-placeI confess that I have never been to a real desert. I have an idea of what they are like, from biblical stories and from natural history documentaries on TV. However I suspect I greatly underestimate the rawness of such climates. Even desert excursions promoted in travel magazines are controlled experiences of a wilderness.

In a way that is perfectly understandable. We shy away from hostile locations; humans are not suited to the conditions a desert confronts us with. That is why we try our hardest to tame our wildernesses, to build civilisations which eradicate such dangerous habitats.

So it is interesting how God often allows deserts to be the setting where he deals with the human heart. Could it be that is because the desert landscape is an analogy of the soul? There is beauty and barrenness, freedom and ferocity in both. The desert is a spiritual opportunity, one which many saints from the past felt drawn to, to meet with God.

These last few months I have sensed the need to withdraw from some things to turn my focus deliberately towards God, on what he would want to show me and say to me.

What am I discovering about the desert as a context for spiritual development?

A desert is a place away from the world, a setting of solitude. Being alone can be a luxury in a busy life, but I tend to enjoy space for leisure and time out. That is different from moving away from people and things so that God can have my full attention.

A desert is a harsher environment, where external comforts are taken away. I surround myself with things that cushion me in my daily life. Remove food, home comforts, entertainment – in short my lifestyle crutches – for just a few hours, and I can quickly feel disoriented and wary.

A desert is a place of silence.  I like quietness, but quickly realise that I become uncomfortable with prolonged silence, for what it exposes in me. There is interior noise, subtle temptations, profound restlessness that I am forced to deal with in the presence of God.

A desert is an arena where weaknesses are exposed, tested and overcome. Deep spiritual realities such as fear, anger, fantasy, impure motives, judgment and despair – all these I encounter when I journey through wilderness terrain in the gentle companionship of the Spirit. I need to encounter them in order to let my heart be transformed.

A desert is a space for prayer and reorientation. I increasingly find myself trying to carve out time to seek the Lord away from everything that cries out for my attention. Like characters from the bible, I long for thin places where I connect easily with God and let him define my identity and priorities.

A desert is a setting where prophets are formed and voices are found. I trained for the ordained ministry in a seminary in which ‘spiritual formation’ was the stated aim. These days I think that desert might be a more authentic place where God can call, encounter and send his people. I am not sure how much I have to say of spiritual weight. Yet, if I stay in the desert, I might find a clearer voice and have words of greater value to share in my world.

It was said of Jesus that he ‘often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’ (Luke 5v16). So maybe we should not try to tame our wilderness quite so much. Perhaps there is value in journeying into desert places, physically and spiritually, to be with God and to find our hearts being transformed.

More on desert musings again soon….God bless.

Posted in Life observations | Leave a comment