Biblical Landscapes – The Desert

If you have ever seen pictures or movies set in the desert they are usually dry, hot and barren landscapes. My mental image of the desert come from the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia; lots of camels walking up and down hills of sand. In Australia we have lots of stories related to the harsh desert and wilderness areas of inland Australia. In the early explorers period of European settlement it seems that explorers died in the outback due to the heat and lack of water in the desert. Perhaps like me you have an image of the desert as a harsh and dry place.

The desert areas in Israel vary in their geography. Many areas that we might think of as desert are called wilderness areas because almost everywhere in the middle east is dry. In the bible, the desert or wilderness might just refer to areas outside the city. For example some translations say that Jesus withdrew to the wilderness, others say he withdrew to the desert.

Rather than debate the geographical definition of a desert. I want to look at the biblical significance of the desert or the wilderness. There are three key insights that I want to share with you from my recent visit to the wilderness or desert in Israel.

  1. The desert as an image of simplicity – when a person or group is in the desert within the biblical narrative it is an image of simplicity to life. In the desert people would live in tents so there isn’t the complexity of buildings as there is in the city. In biblical times the desert was a simple working life rather than the complexity of the working farming communities. In the desert the food choices are much more limited, for example during the biblical Exodus the people of Israel complain to Moses about the choice of meat they had available to them in Eygpt compared to the basic food in the desert.

The desert can be a place of danger even death if people don’t know how to find food and water. There were people groups in the bible that preferred the desert nomadic lifestyle. Today in Israel there are a lot more options for living in desert areas but it still represents a much more basic lifestyle than that of the city.

  1. The desert as a quiet place to hear from God – the complexity of noise in the city can sometimes drown out the voice of God. In the bible God often calls people out into the desert in order to speak to them. Abraham lived in the desert and heard from God about his future as the father to a great nation. Elijah headed out into the desert to hide from his enemies but it was here in the desert that God spoke to Elijah and strengthened him (read 1 Kings 18-19). Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness or the desert to spend time with his Father in prayer. The lack of distractions in the desert makes it easier to listen to God.
  1. The desert is the place of preparation for a future mission – the book of Exodus and Numbers the people of God were being formed into a nation as they wandered through the desert. In the book of 1 Samuel David was being formed for Kingship as he ran from Saul through the desert. In the gospels Jesus was preparing to begin his earthly ministry during his 40 days in the desert. And Jesus withdrew to the wilderness before he headed to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission on the Cross.

In many biblical stories the desert is like the modern day retreat centre. Just like the desert in biblical stories the retreat centre is usually a quiet place where people head for some time away to reflect on their life. Most contemporary retreat centres are comfortable without being luxurious; the person going on the retreat doesn’t need the distractions of a 5 star luxury resort. Just like those who were called into the desert, many people spend time in a simple retreat centre to listen to God as they transition into a new period of ministry or mission.

My desert experience was visiting a retreat centre prior to my ordination as a Priest. We were asked to spend three days in silence to listen to God as we prepared for the ordination day. We were given a small room with a basic desk so that we could write in our journal. To add to the wilderness experience the retreat centre was off the mobile phone coverage area so we couldn’t check Facebook or email.

The retreat centre is a special place not because of the place but because of the transition that takes place. Just like the desert in biblical times, the transition that God takes people through is what is important. We might not need to go into the desert ourselves but we do need a simple place that we can go to hear God. Where is your desert place?

The desert was an important image in the bible because it was an image of seeking out God. At times in the bible the desert is just a physical landscape that people travel through, not every reference to the desert is a reflection of the thoughts listed above. Yet if we open our minds to the idea that the desert is the biblical equivalent of our retreat centre then perhaps we will gain new insight into the biblical text.

Please leave a comment about your thoughts on the desert in Biblical narrative.

Israel landscapes - Beersheba Israel landscapes - Dead Sea Israel landscapes - En Gedi Israel landscapes - Jordan Valley

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Where are you heading personally? Vision Part 2

In a previous post I wrote about where are you heading in your ministry.  Whilst it is important to steward your ministry well, most of us won’t stay in the same ministry our entire life.  So how do you work out a vision and direction for your life that fits into what God is doing within the ministries that you are planted?

When I was younger I thought my youth group was the best thing I had ever done.  Every Sunday night I would go to Church, during the week we would catch up, I would write talks, help out with meetings and do whatever was needed.  After three years of giving everything I had to this ministry I started to see life after the youth group.  It was like I grew out of the youth ministry as I grew older and I needed to move on.  Since then I have seen the same pattern repeat itself within every ministry I have served in; it is just the length of time that changes.  Sometimes it is six months sometimes three years sometimes 10 years.

In your life have you seen this pattern in ministry:

  1. Discover a new ministry
  2. Soak up everything you can from the group
  3. Devote everything you have to the ministry
  4. Pass on everything you do to other leaders
  5. Move onto the next phase of your life

It is Ok to spend a season in a ministry and move on.

The challenge for us is to be guided by what God is calling us to rather than drifting from ministry to ministry.  If you are going to stay in ministry long enough to contribute, you have to go through a period where it may not be as enjoyable as when you first started.  If you leave a ministry when ever it is no longer enjoyable then you are not moving by God’s call but by your own desires.

Here are four things to help you determine where you should be heading personally:

  1. What is your calling?  Your calling doesn’t usually look like a job description.  It isn’t often that your life’s call is Year 12 Geography teacher at Summer Bay High.  Your calling is some way that you will make a different in the world so describe it in unique ways.  Your calling is most likely not just the things that you are good at but the things that make you stronger as a person and as a disciple.  Your calling will never draw you away from God but will help you build God’s Kingdom in a special way.
  2. What season are you in?  You may be in a season of growth; you may need a season of rest.  You need to reflect on what season you are in because God may be asking you to sow into a particular ministry for a particular time.  If you feel you must commit somewhere for the rest of your life then you may miss the opportunity to sow into a great ministry for a short period of time.
  3. What are you preparing for?  Are you developing your craft for a future season?  We can be so focused on what we are doing now that we forget we need to be preparing for what is next.  This might be further study, it might be connecting with mentors who are at the next level, it might be reading more books or developing your platform.  Even if you are in a season of great productivity you should be preparing for the future.
  4. What is your life’s work?  Sometimes you need to imagine how you will view your life after you retire.  Whilst most of us have no idea about every single job that we will hold in our life, it is important to focus on what significance your life will make as a whole.  Some people will have three or four ministries throughout their life others will serve in 10-15 different places.  What difference will your life make as a whole in the Kingdom of God?

Whilst this might sound focused on you, I really believe that we have to let God be God.  We have to constantly be asking God how can I serve you?  It is not our vision but God’s vision that we should be following.  If you are heading nowhere in your life then you will get there.  If you want to be heading in the right direction then you have to be looking to God.

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Where are you heading? Vision Part 1

Andy Stanley wrote that the end of a God ordained vision is God.  So if you are heading towards a vision then you want to make sure that it is God ordained.  You want to make sure that you are doing what God created you to do with your life, in order that you can come closer to God.  The reverse would be true as well; the end of your vision is you, because it is you that set the direction and it is you that chose what was important.

In ministry we can often get lost in a minefield of vision, which is ironic because vision should be crystal clear.  The reason that we get lost is because we don’t know whose vision to follow:

  • Senior Minister – any Senior Minister has their own reason for being in ministry and they have the greatest say over what is seen as important in your church.
  • Elder’s board or church Council – are the church leadership team really discerning God’s ordained vision for your church or is it vision by consensus?  Sometimes church boards are made up of people who are just “helping out” and have no clue what God wants for their church, other times a church board is filled with the most gifted people.
  • Finance Committee – a good finance committee works out how to achieve the vision that God has ordained, yet in some churches the Finance committee determines what vision the church can afford.  If God ordains the vision then God will provide, don’t settle only for what you can afford.
  • The Ministry – we often are look for the new vision for our ministry as though it is separate from the vision that God has for our Church.  Don’t let your ministry be heading in a different direction from the rest of your Church.

So how do you know which vision to follow?  We know from scripture that people without a vision will perish so which one do we pick?  It is important to reflect on these key things:

  1. Branding is not vision – sometimes we rush into a vision statement because we need to brand our ministry.  A good vision can take at least six months to discern, most likely it will take around 12 months.  A vision is going to set you heading in a particular direction for the next ten years where as your branding will only last 2-3 years at best.  If you like a particular style of marketing or branding then run with it but don’t confuse branding for vision.
  2. You are not your ministry – it is important for you to separate your own personal vision from that of your ministry.  God wants you to do something with your life that may be different to what God wants from the ministry you serve in.  In reality the ministry should keep going long after you have left the position but God still wants you to build the Kingdom even though you move onto the next position.  Don’t confuse what you want to do with your life with where God is calling the ministry to go.
  3. Ministry has its season – perhaps you don’t know where your ministry is going for the next ten years but you can discern where you are heading for the next season.  In youth ministry it is sometimes difficult to have a vision beyond five years.  In University ministry students move on every 3 years so a vision must accommodate each season being quite short.  If you are called to lead for a season then pursue the vision as best you can and leave God to work out the next season.
  4. Ideas come with a strong vision – when you have a strong vision of where you are heading over the next 10 years then usually you are full of ideas.  People who run out of ideas are either run out of vision or are heading in the wrong direction.  One church used the phrase  “no rowing ministry” to describe when the wind has changed direction but we row the boat where we want to go.  If your vision is God ordained then the ideas will come.

A practical example

There was a Church that started a youth ministry by asking the young people what they wanted.  The answers that the young people gave were passionate and exciting but they were all ideas of things they could do rather than a vision of where they were heading.  The leaders called me after six months to say they had run out of ideas.  When I asked them about their vision they clearly didn’t have one; they only had a list of ideas for fun youth nights.

After focusing them on discerning a vision and asking them to think about where they were heading they came up with a list of what they wanted young people in their ministry to be like.  In the end they clarified a vision around helping young people to know Christ.  Over a year later they were still going strong and they were developing more leaders and they were full of ideas.  Where there was no leadership towards a vision the group almost collapsed but when the leaders had a strong vision of where they were heading then the group thrived.

So where are you heading?

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