Saturday, May 28, 2011

Waiting and Wondering in a Wilderness

As I disappear from the institutional church landscape, I think about Paul and imagine the situation he found himself in shortly after his encounter with Jesus:

You have encountered the living Jesus in person. You have been so moved by the encounter that you redirect your aggressive passion. You put yourself out there to courageously tell anyone who will listen (especially the religious community in which you were carefully indoctrinated) that you know Jesus to be alive and all that you thought you were against was true after all. You no longer seek out the followers of what you thought was a misguided Messiah-figure to have them arrested and probably killed. You are now one of them and you are eager to bring your obvious gift of leadership and your keen intellect to bear on this new discovery. You can capitalize on your celebrity since you were a rising star among your people and the Christians will celebrate your conversion. Your aspirations to be a High Priest in the way of Moses has been shifted to being a prominent spokesman for the way of Jesus.You are the poster-child of the new movement.

Within days, your outspoken declarations that Jesus is alive find you in the cross hairs of the same group that killed the One who you know as a result of a direct encounter to be alive. You have riled up the same group whose clothes you guarded as they threw rocks at another follower of Someone you were certain was not only a threat to your theology, but was indeed dead.

As your reputation as a mover and shaker shifts from the arena of Judaism to the arena of Christianity, you are taken out of the limelight and shipped back to your hometown. For reasons that must be unbelievably perplexing and no doubt enormously confusing, you are no longer in the center of a perfect storm of evangelistic activity - a place where you could make a difference- but back in a place you had left years earlier to pursue a God-oriented dream.

Not only would you wonder as to why you are learning to make tents in Tarsus instead of using your abilities as a thinker and orator to debate for the Truth in Jerusalem, your family and friends also wonder why you have quit on your dream. After all, you had been educated among the best, preparing to carry the torch of a religion that is centuries old and was the religion of the one true God. How would you answer their questions? What would you say to Gamaliel, the one who had invested himself in you to allow you every opportunity to succeed as a priest?

As inquisitive as the community is, it doesn't compare to the questions you have in your own mind:
  • "Did I really see Jesus?"
  • "Why am I marooned outside of the center of activity where I can do some good?"
  • "How long will this last"?
  • "How will I know when I am to do something else?"
  • "Isn't time being lost as I sit here doing nothing to bring Jesus' vision for me to pass"?
Perhaps the biggest question is wondering what Jesus meant when he said you would be a witness to kings, and Gentiles and you would turn them from darkness to light. It is hard to make sense of such a grand vision while you piece together more tent parts.

I feel Paul's confusion. But I suspect that Paul wasn't completely out of the woods in his wilderness. Like others before him (Joseph in prison, Moses in Midian, Elijah by the brook, and yes, Jesus between birth and baptism), this was part of not uncommon strategy in which the human in question learns not only who they are but also who God is.

From the biblical record, Paul was in Tarsus for what appears to be at least a decade. A DECADE! By American standards, ten years is a lifetime! And even worse, Paul didn't know he would be there a decade. Nothing indicates that he could anticipate a certain length of time to be in this situation any more than Joseph could know that he would only have to endure the Egyptian prison cell for a mere two years before being remembered. Paul had to live each day with faith in the Jesus that had confronted him (not the other way around) and trust that Jesus knew what he was doing.

While Paul was a rising star in Judaism he was large and in charge. In the long decade he spent in Tarsus, not only he, but the embryonic Christian community in Jerusalem had to be broken of depending on Paul (or anyone other than Jesus) to do what was theirs to do as Jesus' followers. Paul had to realize that God wasn't lucky to have enlisted him with his celebrity and ability to carry the torch of leadership for all of Christianity. Rather, Paul was fortunate to be a servant of the One who was the real Leader of a movement in which the human community shared the load of love for the world. No one person other than the Master himself was meant to be the star.

So Paul waited, wondered and worked. He no doubt learned to relate to a very real Jesus while he did a very real job. He prayed as he patched and he loved his neighbors. He disappeared into God's heart.

During this period Paul allowed himself to be purged of a virus that had worked itself so deeply into the culture that the culture couldn't see the very God they thought they knew when He stared them in the face. Paul no doubt discovered a peace in letting Jesus call the shots not only for his own personal destiny but for that of the entire world. If Paul were to stay in Tarsus for 50 years, Paul knew that it was up to Jesus to determine how and when the vision he gave Paul would be implemented.

How unlike the American way. We are quick to add our expertise and energy to help God out. Paul learned to wait while he wondered.

Then one day without notice or expectation, Barnabas shows up and invites Paul back into the game- a game that in God's design, Paul had never left. The Paul that accompanied Barnabas to Antioch was not the celebrity that had disappeared into obscurity over a decade earlier. Paul was a human being who knew his place and instead of leading a charge for a new understanding of faith, he would follow the Leader as direction and opportunity were given by Him.

I find great encouragement in Paul's story. I humbly accept my place in Tarsus, doing real work while loving those around me. I trust Jesus to do what he wants when he wants while those around me ask questions for which I don't have answers. Like Paul, I know in whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him until that Day. 

And that's all that matters.

No comments:

Post a Comment