This Week’s Sermon- Transitioning From The Desert

This Day's Thought from The Ranch

(Part 5 of our series on “Transitions.”  Here are the link to Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.)

by Alan Lowry
Founder of Guitarists Into God (GIG),
a music ministry at Saddleback Church

Note from Eric: I’ve asked my friend and a member of our board of directors, Alan Lowry, to write this week’s message for you as part of our series on “Transitions.”  In today’s message, Al shares how God has helped him through his own “desert” times.  Al will also be leading us in worship at our 2nd Annual Ranch Retreat here in Illinois in October.  We hope you’ll join us, too!  You can learn more about the retreat by clicking here.  Here’s Al’s insightful message…

A little over a month ago, a group of soon to be friends engaged in a conference call to plan a fall retreat at Eric Elder’s midwestern ranch. Most of us had not personally met, but quickly into the call, we began to get excited about the project and an instant bond was made.

Sometimes, we would get off topic and chat about various problems we had faced or were facing. Topics like caregiving, illness, financial hindrances and other struggles were shared freely amongst our team.

By the end of our chat, we had discovered that unexpected change is manifest in all our lives and we elected “Transitions” as our theme for the retreat.  That being established, Eric challenged several of us to write our thoughts on this topic for some upcoming “This Week’s Sermon” presentations.

The last several weeks have produced excellent submissions from the others, and I began wondering why I was having such a hard time getting my own thoughts off the starting block.

At this time, I’d like to confess to you that I’ve been doing some desert walking lately; mostly metaphorically, but some of my wanderings have been in actual deserts.  Many picture California, where I live, as endless beaches with mountains in the backdrop.  We’re blessed with this, but our coast also contains some very diverse terrain, and yes, that would include deserts.

A few days ago, after much thought, reflection and a ride through the desert on my mountain bike, it hit me like a brick why I was currently struggling so hard with this topic.  While trying to identify some past event that has changed my course, I failed to realize that right now, today, my life is in flux, and it has been for a long while.

I resembled that biblical character in Luke 6:42 who was advised to remove the log from his own eye before trying to identify the speck in his friend’s.  Admittedly a loose comparison, but that’s all I got. 🙂  I don’t know what others’ formulas are for discovering and dealing with unplanned transition, but for me it often requires a physical change of environment to help usher in a new, more positive mental perspective.  Getting out of my familiar setting seems to be a first and very important step toward purposeful change.

Many of us have found the number 40 to hold great significance in the Bible. Well ironically, it occurred to me today that 40 years ago this October, I was introduced to my first desert, the Mohave, as I rode my bicycle from the Midwest to California on what turned out to be a one-way, life-changing transition.

I shouldn’t be so surprised, as historically, there are many instances where God has used deserts and other uncomfortable situations to realign men’s objectives; to transition them.

The first that comes to mind is the Israelite’s 40-year excursion in the Sinai wilderness; a bleak desert that had them reeling to return to slavery. This set the bar for future desert endeavors that included the likes of Jeremiah, Elijah, David, John the Baptist and Jesus.

Most of us have our lists of incidents that can cast us into confusion or even depression; a desert place. Sometimes, we become so weary, we can’t even identify what got us there. This was the case with me, but in my recent reflections, brought on by this writing challenge, I have identified some of the markers that have been affecting me.

I won’t elaborate on each one too much, but here are some adjectives that describe some hard hits over the last seven years:

  • My sister and father-in-law’s deaths,
  • financial loss,
  • cancer (virtually all my family have the Bracha 2 breast cancer gene),
  • ministry burnout,
  • home displacement,
  • and elderly caregiving, which ended last year with more death.  (Last November, my mother-in-law, for whom we’d been caregiving for several years, was admitted into the hospital and died. On the same day, my Michigan family notified me that my own mom had a stroke that morning. We made funeral arrangements here, and I flew back to be with mom for a few weeks before she passed away on January 1.)

You may have some like issues on your list, which may have resulted in mental or spiritual paralysis, hurling you to your own desert place.  If you are that rare individual without these personal setbacks, perhaps all that might be required would be to turn on the daily news.

How can anyone make it through situations like these?  I’d like to take a brief look at the lives of two of these biblical models, Elijah and Jesus mentioned prior, and how they handled their own desert experiences. Notice the different ways they dealt with them.

Regarding Elijah, here’s the desert place in which he found himself:

There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:9-10, NIV).

Regarding Jesus, here’s his desert place, which I’m paraphrasing from Matthew chapters 4 and 5:

After being baptized by John, Jesus spent 40 days of fasting and praying in the desert.  At this time, Satan came up to him and tried to trick him and tempt him 3 times.  Satan fails, and starting with chapter 5, Jesus begins his public ministry.

In these accounts, we see that:

Elijah, himself coming off a 40-day fast, and following several great victories, became fearful of his life from a single death threat from Jezebel.  The result, was him hiding in the desert and becoming virtually incapacitated. His comments reveal that he feels himself to be carrying the world’s burdens on his own shoulders.

This is not to discredit Elijah, a great prophet of God, but in his state of burnout, I notice at least 3 distinguishing factors that I relate to:

  • He feels alone
  • He is burnt out
  • He is afraid

Although I’m not entirely certain what Elijah was up to during his fasting time, the Bible tells us Jesus was in constant prayer. He was preparing himself to serve by surrendering himself as a direct conduit to the Father’s will.

When Satan approached him, Jesus was wearing the full armor that he modeled for us to do battle. He was honed to fight; and win.  This would occur throughout the Gospels as Jesus would retreat to a quiet place to recharge his batteries.  Right up to the night before his crucifixion, Jesus separated from the world to spend one-on-one time with his father.

In these last few weeks, I have been making my own attempts at reflecting, rejuvenating and recharging. After all, I would like to be more like Jesus.

Some years ago, when I was going through a hard time, I asked my pastor, Rick Warren, the anecdote to burn out and depression.

Without batting an eye, he responded, “Worship.”

Rick said he would grab his guitar and worship one-on-one with the The Lord he loved.

The Warrens are no strangers to depression . Less than two years ago, their son, who grew up with my own daughter, Tessa, committed suicide. Throughout Matthew’s life, Matthew suffered from chronic depression.

One night, after spending joyful time with his parents, the burden of life became too much for him and he took his life.

The Warrens grieved long and hard privately, but publicly, they told us what brought them through this terrible desert; it was their strong relationship on an intimate level with Jesus Christ.

A few years back, Kay wrote a book called, “Choosing Joy,” based on what the Bible tells us to do in all circumstances.  Outside Matthew’s apartment, awaiting the bitter words that would come, and in the following months, that is just what they did: they chose joy.

Recently, I have recommitted myself to pursuing joy and these other Godly attributes described in the Bible:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

One concrete step I’ve taken during this time has been to grab my guitar and visit a prayer room at my church on a regular basis, just for the quiet purpose of intimate praise with the Father.

I pray for you as well, that together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we can attain what God has created us for:  To have a relationship with him that will last forever.

I think I’ll close with one of my favorite Matt Redman songs, based on Job, who lost everything but chose to go on praising God.

You can read these words, but why not consider singing them?

“Blessed Be Your Name”
by Matt Redman

Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

Blessed Be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

Blessed be Your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s ‘all as it should be’
Blessed be Your name

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

Follow-up from Eric:  I thought you might be interested to hear how God worked in Al’s life after he first crossed the Mohave desert on his one-way bike ride to California.  Although it had been 18 years since he had attended church, in 1983 Al stepped into the auditorium of Trabuco Hills High School in Southern California (where Saddleback was meeting at the time) and began his walk with Christ.  For a year leading up to this, his 30-year-old friend, David, had been dying of lung cancer and Al’s distress led him into Saddleback Church which had only a couple hundred members at the time.  Like so many others, Al felt God was talking directly to him as the message that day was titled, “Handling Grief.”  David died that night.  But Rick Warren’s message of hope helped Al through this and many future struggles.  God never wastes a hurt.  If you’re going through your own struggle, consider surrendering your life to Jesus Christ, who is waiting for you with open arms. And as I mentioned earlier, Al will be leading worship at our retreat in October.  We hope you’ll join us!  Click the link below for more details or to sign-up.

The 2nd Annual Ranch Retreat!

If you need a boost in your faith, we hope you’ll join us for our 2nd Annual Ranch Retreat here in the heart of the Great Midwest on Columbus Day weekend, October 10-12.  We’ll have great food, great worship, great messages and great fellowship.  Why not get away and see what God has to say?  Click here to learn more or to register.

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