Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wild Wilderness

Abbey Birthday Prayer
I want to invite you to pray with me. This has been my prayer, a fervent and urgent prayer at times. In 2014, Mike Ramsey, my spouse and accountant, did some projections for the Abbey. He does these for a little place called Mutual of Omaha, so I figured it was serious when he said, “The Abbey will close in a year.” We had enough grant money to make it one more year. I said, “What if this happens? What if that happens?” and we played with the spreadsheet and the best case scenario was 18 months. That year led to the even more challenging year of 2015; the year in which we graduated from an identity as a part of First Church and becoming an independent new church start. That is when I found Psalm One. When it was hard to imagine our future, when it didn’t seem very fruitful or possible, I leaned into this ancient poetry and the image of a tree bearing fruit in due season. This prayer reminded me to be planted. It reminded me that maybe it wasn’t our season yet. Join me in praying this Psalm as we give thanks for the past and set our hearts towards the future.

Psalm One
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on God’s law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in due season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Scripture: Exodus 16: 2-3
2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’


The people of Israel are complaining. This is after Moses saw a burning bush; after the Pharaoh tried to kill the Hebrew baby boys; after plagues and crossing the sea; and everyone is still complaining. They are in the wilderness and they are hungry. They are complaining to, against, and probably about Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and God. There was probably a “go back to Egypt” contingent organizing, sowing dissent and disagreement; saying, “Why did you bring us into the wilderness to die?”

It sounds a little harsh to the modern reader, but we are not the ones wandering hungry in the desert, painfully aware that no one has a strategic plan, or a GPS. or enough provisions to make it to the Promised Land. All they had were the leaders that brought them this far. They were longing for the fleshpots, which must be some kind of Egyptian crockpot that had some meat, or the taste of meat, not the nice meat you give to the Egyptians, but the parts you give to people you don’t treat like people. The wandering folks were hungry, they remembered Egypt, and they remembered eating from the Egyptian crockpot. They were not remembering their forced labor, they were not talking about the violence they experienced, the pain of losing their children, or watching them being raised as slaves. Right now the only thing that mattered was getting something to eat. At least when they were in Egypt, they had something to eat!

I like to imagine God responding to this moment, gently and softly, “Oh my darlings, did you forget how the sea moved for you? Did you forget how you toppled an empire’s designs of exploitation and death?” God responded to the wilderness hunger with manna. The, wilderness landscape is covered with food, this divine bread called manna. The Israelites learned to collect and eat what they needed. They learned that hoarding the gift invites it to rot, turning it into food for worms. God sent the bread of life in a place that seemed barren; bread of nurture when the landscape seemed impossible and death seemed so near.

The story of our faith is written in the wilderness. The people of Israel will always grumble and complain again and again. They will be attacked and survive. They will leave Egypt, but Egypt will stay in their hearts and minds. It will be a constant struggle to get Egypt out of the people, to get bondage out of the people. They will build an idol and yet they will claim their identity on a mountaintop with Moses and Ten Commandments. The wilderness is where they found their way to the promise they had only imagined when they sat around the fleshpots of Egypt.

As the Abbey turns seven, I want to ask you to stay in the wilderness with me. We don’t usually like wilderness, it’s not our first choice. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we idolize certainty to the detriment of our faith. In most churches, particularly those older than seven or ten years, there is a committee that I like to call the “Go Back to Egypt Committee.” This committee usually meets in the parking lot. You can hear this committee when you hear phrases like: “We can’t do something that big, we are too small. Those people aren’t contributing, but are receiving. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have enough people. We have never done it that way. We tried that. I just want the church to be here for my funeral.” Yes, that last one is more real that you can imagine!

I want to ask you that as we celebrate our seventh year, that we stay in the wilderness, that we stay open to the next steps and the next phase; that we imagine beyond where we are, knowing we have come this far. The Go Back to Egypt Committee is powerful because we know the details, we know the systems and the structures. Even if we know they are not the best, we at least know them. Perhaps you have felt this in your own journey, those wilderness moments that are hard and defining, and those choices to stay in a career or a system that is hard out of fear of making something new.

Imagining is hard for us. Imagining the Promised Land when you are in bondage in Egypt is probably near impossible. But it is the space that gives life. We see this not only individually with our choices but also communally, with government systems that we have to dream beyond. This is why there can be such appeal toward the past. “Remember the systems of 1950? Let’s go back there, when it was great, even if it wasn’t really great for everyone.” Egypt is always whispering or shouting, “Come back!”

Our larger United Methodist church is struggling with the wilderness of a new day. There is an organization called the Wesley Covenant Association, that wants to make the Methodist church great again. They want to go back to a day when everyone just came to their local church because they grew up Methodist and they all loved to serve on a committee or 10. Maybe everyone really worked a 40 hour work week and were paid enough to have one partner stay at home. They want to go back to the day when stores were closed on Sunday and kids didn’t have soccer games during worship. Their answer is to dive back into the kind of theology that served a different time, when the church held more power and privilege, a time when diverse voices were less valued and women didn’t have a seat at the table. But we are in a wilderness time and going back is not an option.

The Abbey has been the most uncertain adventure. It is a gift. I was on the road to being a really good religious professional. There would have been the facade of certainty, I could have climbed the ladder to big church senior pastor. It was my dream, or so I thought. When we started the Abbey, I didn’t even drink coffee, but Chris Smith, owner of Beansmith, knew all about coffee. And when we started the Abbey, I didn’t know about staffing or permits or painting or spreadsheets - but Janelle did, and Jeannie did, and Mike did, and Barb did. For every unknown there has been someone with gifts who emerges in the just the right moment.

In 2015, when we set out on our own, my only hope was to grow enough that first year that when we ran out of money the Conference would see some merit in funding the gap (after I begged them to bail us out - which I planned to do, of course). And do you know what happened? I never had to ask them to bail us out. That year, two things happened: one, this community grew in giving, our giving doubled in one year. Two, our campus ministry grant came through. I set totally unreasonable (but necessary, if we were going to exist) goals for the next three years. I turned them into the Bishop’s office, knowing that if I was the one receiving them I would have laughed because they were such a stretch. And yet, every year we have made it. Every year, I worry; every year it looks uncertain; and every year I am amazed at our sure and steady growth, at people taking ownership in this place and at the generosity inspired by our work. And the truth is every time I get really confident, I am quickly reminded to stay in the wilderness. In fact, the Sunday I announced that our morning service had grown so large we needed to split it in two, was the smallest Sunday attendance we had experienced in nine months. The truth is, I looked out and thought can I stop this train? Can I say that mailer was a typo? Can I just go back to Egypt?

I am asking you to join me in the wilderness for a while longer. I’m asking you to stay flexible and fluid and dream something impossible. We are in the wilderness. What will it look like for us to include more people? What does the space look like for our next steps? How do we staff for the future? I have participated in plenty of “inclusive churches,” particularly in Dallas, where everyone was a close family and it was actually hard to be included. I have participated in small churches that liked being small, so folks were not really welcome. We have held enormous smallness in tension, including and maintaining relationships. We have leaned into this living sanctuary and made it active to a diversity of people all the time. We have hosted more non-profit events than ever before and included more people in our work. Our work now is to stay in the wilderness, to stay open and bold and flexible when certainty seems so attractive and actually attainable now - in a way I only dreamed years before. As we turn seven, I ask you to pray with me from the Psalm One and to imagine all the seasons before us, seasons of yet more growth, more room for more connection, and more relationships.

May we stay in the wilderness together.

What have you experienced in reading the Exodus Story? What do you hear in the scripture?
What has wilderness looked like in your life and your story? What did you learn from the wilderness?
How do you experience uncertainty? What is that like for your spirituality?