Mourning the Gentle Locusts of Egypt with mewithoutYou on the Way to the Promised Land

pale horsesThis last month has been one of great upheaval. For those of you unaware, my wife and I just uprooted our lives in Orange County, California to move to Deerfield, Illinois in order to pursue a Ph.D. in theology there. While this is a fantastic opportunity that I’m still pinching myself over, we had to leave our jobs, families, friends, and basically every regular feature of our life behind to do so.

Needless to say, this has not been without its challenges of various sorts. Wrapping up a ministry, leaving an office in the hands of another, charting routes, selling cars, packing up an apartment, driving across country, saying goodbye to friends and family, and the half-dozen other major steps I could list are all–taken simply by themselves–large undertakings. We praise God we’ve had wonderful friends and family who have helped us throughout the process, or we would never have survived.

As I sit here on the “other side” of the biggest steps in the ordeal in Trinity’s library, though, it’s all a bit surreal to think about. To be honest, I think it’s going to be a long time to process the meaning of this move for us just in practical terms, but the existential ones will likely take even longer.

One thought that’s struck me in the process, however, was triggered by the release of mewithoutYou’s newest album Pale Horses a month or so ago. It’s kind of been the soundtrack of the move for me. It was the album stuck on repeat in my car as I drove around Orange that last month, running errands, making final purchases for college group events, or the last drive to the coffee shop up the street, or over to our friend’s house for the final time before the trip out.

On it is one particularly powerful song called “Red Cow.” It’s one of the most mewithoutYou songs to ever mewithoutYou, full of lyrical gravity, gut-wrenching vocalization, rocking distortion, and passion. It’s why I love this band. Weiss’ lyrics on the song fall into a characteristically, stream-of-consciousness meditation that slips back and forth between scenes from, possibly a trip through the Midwest and a telling of the Biblical story of the Exodus. And in the middle of it, of course, he tackles issues of meaning, symbol and reality, the captivity of idolatry, and so much more.

Here, give it a whirl:

As I said, I listened to this album and this song a lot while I was driving around that month. There’s so much going on in there that I’d love to unpack. But listen after listen, the line I kept coming back to was this gem, sung in the mournful, longing voice of the Israelites:

O for the land we knew before the frogs withdrew,
And the fragrant pomegranate blooms where the tender locust flew.

In that one line, Weiss invokes the narratives of the wilderness wanderings of Israel after Moses led them out of the land of their slavery, Egypt. After the initial thrill of liberation wore off, the Israelites were quite prone to grumbling. A couple of days of thirst and hunger, a couple of hours too many of walking, and the newly-freed sons and daughters of Jacob were ready to throw in the towel and return “home.”

Exodus 16 gives the account of one such instance:

They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:1-3)

Here they are, just a couple of months after God stretched out his hand to work mighty wonders before them in order to make them his own. He brought frogs, flies, and locust, rained down hail and blackened the skies, bringing the mightiest Empire in the ancient world to its knees before their eyes. Not to mention bringing them out of grinding slavery of the worst sort.

And what’s their response? Grumbling and mourning ingratitude of the sort that actually caused them to misremember and distort their time in Egypt. It’s not just that things are tough out here, but back in Egypt they used to “sit by the meat pots” and eat until their guts were full. It was practically paradise in their telling.

Now, for years this story had frustrated me to no end. I just didn’t get it. I mean, I understood, theoretically, that all sin, all face God with that same gross ingratitude deeply lodged in their hearts. But there seemed to be something extraordinarily obtuse about the whole sorry affair.

And yet, here, as I drove along a number of those mornings, stressing out about all the things I had to get done–the hard conversations, phone calls, running around, managing stressful personal relations, my own rising sense of anxieties over the exposure of all my inadequacies that were sure to come–I found myself thinking a number of times, “This all would have been so much easier if I’d have just stayed home. I wouldn’t have to say goodbye, or worry about finding a car, or McKenna getting a job, or whether I’d measure up to the road ahead.”

Of course, nothing about my last gig was even remotely like slavery in Egypt. I loved my last job and church–that’s part of what’s been so hard about leaving. But here I was, preparing for a journey to the very good thing God was giving me–the “promised land” of challenging study and adventure–and I’m sitting there, longing for the lands that the “gentle locust flew.” A little difficulty, a few nights going to bed wired and waking up exhausted were managing to crowd God’s extraordinary mercy and provision out of my vision for the future.

Isn’t that the way of things? Our good, beautiful God promises a hope and a future just on the other end of hardship and yet, at the first taste of uncertainty and struggle, I clamor for the ease I used to know.

I’ve been slowly learning to thank God that his way of giving is not like ours, though. It is not tempered by our feeble and fickle gratitude. He doesn’t just sit there, waiting to see if you’re grateful enough, or trusting enough, or righteous enough before he continues to care and provide for you. He’s the good God who makes his sun shine on the righteous and the wicked and has patience with his children as the grow and make their way into the sun.

In the case of the Israelites, their complaint provides an opportunity for God to flex again, providing the manna, the bread of life that would feed them in their wilderness wanderings. For his children today, we have the promises of our Savior that he is the bread of life who sustains us day by day (John 6). Of his graces and mercy there are no end. He is the one who provides us our daily bread–both physical and spiritual.

And that is my hope in the middle of all the transitions and weirdness–wherever he takes us, Jesus will never stop giving us what we need most: himself. And if that’s true, it’s all gonna work out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Dangerous Seminary

dangerousIn a recent series over at the Gospel Coalition, a buddy of mine wrote about how he wouldn’t trade his seminary experience for anything. It was a deeply formative experience of learning, joy, life, pain, and spiritual growth. I found myself nodding my head in agreement. I loved my years in seminary, not because they were perfect, but because in God’s purposes they were key for forming my character and ministry instincts.

That said, seminary can be a dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re getting into.

Addressing himself to pastors, seminarians, and professors within the seminary culture at large, Paul David Tripp writes of the attendant dangers when it comes to the way pastoral training is undertaken nowadays. He tells the story of a friend whose passion for gardening his roses led him to become an expert in all things concerning roses. He was technically proficient and knew all kinds of arcana when it came to the care and growth of roses. One day though, as he was working on his garden, he realized that it had been years since he’d actually taken the time to enjoy his roses without working on them. Tripp then asks:

Could it be that this is very close to what a seminary education might do to its students? Is it not possible for seminary students to become experts in a gospel that they are not being exposed and changed by? Is it not dangerous to teach students to be comfortable with the radical content of Scripture while holding it separate from their hearts and lives? Is it not dangerous for students to become comfortable with the message of the Bible while not being broken, grieved, and convicted by it? Is it not important for seminary students to be faced daily with the personal implications of the message that they’re learning to unpack and deliver to others? Is it not vital to hold before students who are investigating the theology of Christ the frequent and consistent call to life-shaping love for Christ? Could it be that many students in seminary are too academically busy to sit before the Rose of Sharon in awe, love, and worship? Could it be that in academizing the faith, we have unwittingly made the means to an end the end? Shouldn’t every Christian institution of higher learning be a warm, nurturing, Christ-centered, gospel-driven community of faith? Could it be that rather than having as our mission students who have mastered the Book, our goal should be graduating students who have been mastered by the God of the Book?

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Kindle Locations 631-640). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

I can attest that in my own years in seminary, one of the greatest challenges was to see the text as something more than a puzzle to be solved, but rather a Word to obeyed. I’d be lying if I didn’t still struggle with having a devotional life that doesn’t immediately slide into some kind of study session. Resist this at all costs.

I don’t for a minute want to discourage an future pastors or current seminarians from digging in to their time at school. What I would urge you is the heed the warning in these questions. Fight to keep a real devotional life. Do not ever see the text simply as a task to be conquered, but strive to be conquered by the text. Open your study sessions with prayer and stop in the middle to pray regularly. Do not leave seminary with a shriveled devotional life.

Pastors, do the same as you prepare for your sermons. If this didn’t happen to you in seminary, it might happen as you enter the professional life. One simple but key question to always ask yourself after all the exegetical research is done is: “How am I putting this into practice?” Not, “how can my people put this into practice?”, but “how can be engaged with it?” Your studies of the text are not done if you have not gotten to the personal level, and eventually your preaching and pastoring, if not simply your personal holiness, will show the signs of this neglect.

If you’re a seminary prof reading this (which I’d be surprised at because there are much smarter things for you to be reading than this blog), please pastor your students. I loved that a number of my brilliant professors at seminary had also cut their teeth in the pastorate, and that even the ones who hadn’t, still encouraged us to deeper levels of discipleship, not just technical proficiency. Even if they resist you, don’t listen to them. They are the students, you are the professors: assert yourselves here. They need this and so do the congregations they will eventually pastor.

Finally, I’d encourage anybody in formal ministry, connected to it, elders, pastors, or involved parishioners to read this book. If you’re in seminary, it might help you cut off some signs of spiritual disease early. If you’re a pastor, it might save your ministry. If you’re on a search committee, it might help you know how to look for a pastor, not merely a professional. If you’re an elder, it’ll help your congregation care for the pastor you already have.

Soli Deo Gloria

Studying Doesn’t End With Classes (The Gospel Coalition Piece)

studying-300x168The funny thing about answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” is that I was often told those things, but I simply didn’t hear them. Which is why I don’t imagine I’m going to tell you anything a good seminary professor hasn’t already attempted to say. If I had to boil down my advice, I’d say that studying doesn’t end when classes are over—it’s only begun. Faithful ministers need to be continual students of the Word and of their people.

You can see what I mean by that over at The Gospel Coalition.