Today begins Lent, a Christian tradition with practices that even non-Christians recognize. Most see it as a 40-day period to “give something up” to practice discipline and deepen spirituality. However, the meaning of Lent is to engage in spiritual preparation for the Easter celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. More than just giving up chocolate or social media, the absence is filled with spiritual practices to prepare one’s heart and mind in deeper ways. (A great annual read is Jon Swanson’s book, Lent for Non-Lent People: “33 Things to Give up For Lent” and Other Readings).
Lent has an Old English meaning of “spring season,” or what we say today as “spring cleaning.” Kel and I are excited about this year’s spring cleaning season as we are now empty-nesters and ready to redecorate some rooms that have needed it for some time. In the same way, Lent is a season to conduct a cleaning of our hearts by removing the clutter so that God can do his work. There are areas of our life that need renovation. In fact, an Old Testament reading at the Lenten time is Joel 2:12-14:
That is why the Lord says,“Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.”Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish.
In the Bible, the phrase “40 days, 40 nights” is often associated with a time of wilderness. The wilderness was like a Lenten time of examination, reflection, testing, and then restoration (at its end). Regardless of whether one is a Christian or not, there are times in life where we enter into the wilderness and feel like we are being tested and wandering. Of course, my opinion is that these are spiritual moments whether we recognize them as such or not.
Here are three realities about wilderness seasons in our lives:
1. The Wilderness Doesn’t Come With a Map. The central problem with a wilderness is that it is a wild and wandering time; it doesn’t come with a map. We don’t know what’s ahead and we face terrors and predators that try to attack. Wilderness is difficult for “control freaks” and a challenge for performers (who need an audience for self-worth). For a longer period than is comfortable to us, we are asked to keep stepping forward without assurance of what’s around the corner ahead and even whether what we value will survive.
Wilderness tests us. And when it’s done testing, it tests us even more. Wilderness tests us beyond what we think we can handle. And that’s the point of wilderness: It forces us to let go of what’s in our grip. Moses had to lay down the staff that was his identity and protection. He had tried to control when to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, but no one followed him after he killed the Egyptian. It was only after an extended time in the wilderness that his calling was realized.
We often forget that the Apostle Paul spent three years (YEARS!) in an Arabian wilderness before launching into his ministry season. Wildnerness seasons and success seem to go hand in hand, but there are many hands are less friendly to shake. Wilderness pulls us in and doesn’t promise to let us go.
Despite the fact that we don’t have a map for our wilderness seasons doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose or map to it; we just don’t have the map in our hands. But God does. These tough seasons our opportunities for us to examine our hearts and return to God, the whole focus of Lent. Too often, though, we try to remain in control as if our personal happiness, comfort, or fame is the central goal.
And that brings us to the second reality of the wilderness:
2. The Wilderness Exposes our Desires. In the Old Testament, Elijah had just had the “super bowl” of moments on top of Mount Carmel. All of the people in the country recognized the power of God and his teaching ministry had proved it in spades. He then outran the king’s horses down the mountain to set what arguably still remains as the world sprint record (though an unrecorded time). A few days later, he receives a threat from the queen (that she is out to kill him) and it strikes fear into Elijah and he goes into hiding.
I can relate to this. Maybe you can too. I can so easily become fearful or worried and feel like it’s me against all odds. It doesn’t take much for that to happen. But (and I love this) God visits Elijah in the wilderness and asks, “What are you doing here?”
It’s one of the most powerful questions we who do coaching with leaders can ask at any point. I have a friend who is a marketing consultant who asks it as she looks at a company’s advertising, Facebook page, and more. “What are you doing here?”
I think the wilderness times do that for us too; we are asked the same question at a deeper level.
What are you doing here?
How would you answer that? Right now? When you’re attending your next conference? Leading your next meeting? Making your next “to-do” list? Pulling open your next book to read? What are you doing here? Jesus rephrased it to “What do you want?” and “What do you want me to do for you?” If we’re honest with answering the question, our true desires and goals are exposed. And they’re not always admirable.
My colleague, Dr. Amber Selking of the Selking Performance Group (she is the performance coach for Notre Dame Football), has a fantastic podcast (Episode 28) and she recently shared about a practice she does with leaders called “the legacy plaque.” She has leaders make a printed paper plaque with a description of the legacy they were leaving at the end of their work/leadership. It would be what they wanted to be known for.
Different from an epitaph, legacy cuts to the core of why we lead, develop products, influence others, attend conferences, and more. It might be a good practice for this Lenten season. I did it and was surprised with what I wrote and it’s been something I’ve been reflecting on ever since as I think through how my work aligns with it. This sets up well the third reality.
3. The Wilderness Reminds us Who is Great. Wilderness strips away the veneer and false props that our “stage persona” is often built on. We may not actually stand on stages, but we prop our identity on external attributes to mask the deeper realities. It’s what the passage I quoted is getting at: It’s better to open our hearts to God and others than to pretend that we’re open. In the wilderness times, we are given the opportunity to recognize that we don’t have it all together, that we have deep needs, and that God is really our only hope for any form of redemption and success (in spite of all of our success and work to be in control as if we’re the main hope).
Have you experienced an extended season of wilderness? I can identify three such seasons in my life, all very different. Most recently, I went through about two years of restlessness where my heart was being stirred for a coming change in my work life. I knew God was up to something, I just didn’t know what and where it was to be. It was disruptive and clear and had no answers for a long time. And where I thought it was leading was shut before me.
So, when a new opportunity came along at Bethel and I could sense my mind and heart both jump toward it, I was prepared and knew it was the obedient step (which God confirmed as we walked through the process). And that step has opened up new opportunities as well, but ones that could’ve only happened with the right timing.
Are you facing a wilderness time right now? Is there a level of restlessness for something new in the future? Do you have some goals that have set idle for too long? Is there too much clutter in your life right now that keeps you from feeling successful in work, life, relationships, or in your relationship with God?
Are you facing a time of wilderness? Do you feel like you too are wondering what you’re doing “here” right now? You may want to consider getting some coaching. I have two one-month coaching programs coming up (March an April) that may fit well for you time-wise and fit your budget well too. Many coaching programs are cost-prohibitive for those in Christian ministry. I keep my personal program small in size for those in Christian leadership and nonprofit work so that they can receive the highest level of coaching without having to break the bank. These are difficult days – I get it – and I want to help you take your best next steps.
May this Lenten season be one where you find answers to some of the deeper questions that have pestered for too long.