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By MIKE PILAVACHI
RegalCopyright © 2004 Mike Pilavachi
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Chapter OneEntering The Desert
The urgent need for the Church today is not for more clever people to explain Jesus better. It is not for more attractive people who by their looks and personality will make Christianity suddenly more trendy and appealing. It is not even for more committed and disciplined people who will advance the cause of the kingdom of Jesus by grit and hard work. The great need today is for deep and authentic people.
British evangelist David Watson said something like this about 20 years ago. I believe it is truer today than it was then. In a superficial world that demands instant pleasures and then discards them just as quickly, the Church is in great danger. In our attempts to be culturally relevant we could, if we are not careful, become as shallow as the surrounding culture. That would be a great shame. These are days when growing numbers of people are becoming weary of hype, gimmicks and the quick sell. This generation is increasingly asking if there is something deeper than the slogan, something more lasting than this year's instant celebrity.
Jesus came to usher in another way. He called it the kingdom of God. More than that, He came to announce that He is the way, the truth and the life. He came to invite the world back to reality. He came to take us deeper. Many in the Church recognize that we are called to live in the real world in such a way that we make a difference. And so we must. We must engage with our neighbors and take a genuine interest in their lives. We have to listen to their stories and not just tell them our own. We must love them unconditionally. If any people have a mandate to care for this planet, it is surely Christian people, children of the creator. The Lord shouts from the Scriptures again and again that the agenda of caring for the poor, the marginalized and the hurt is the Christian agenda. He tells us that He hates, even despises, our religious feasts if we do not let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream (see Amos 5:21-24).
Instead of engaging with the world, too often we act as if the church were a castle. We hide there together, protected by the moat, with the drawbridge up. Then once a year we feel guilty and decide to go out there and do some evangelism. So we spend a few weeks practicing our Christian dramas and Christian mimes and our testimonies. We are told never to go into enemy territory alone and so are sent out in pairs for safety. The day arrives, the drawbridge is lowered and we rush out to witness. After a week we run back to the castle of the church, dragging the few unfortunates we have captured more by accident than design. We raise the drawbridge and for the next few months do things to ensure that our captives cannot communicate with non-Christians either. And we call that evangelism. Antievangelism would probably be a more accurate description. The God who sent Jesus does not want us to let down the drawbridge and conduct hit-and-run raids once a year; He calls us to break down the walls of the church-to be a church without walls, a church for the community.
Two days before writing this, I took part in a youth festival. One of the other speakers told the young people not to forget the three legs of the Christian faith. She described these as prayer, Bible study and fellowship with other Christians. So far so good. She then told everyone to be very careful not to associate with nonbelievers. She advised the young people to have close friendships only with Christians. "Don't think you will lift a non-Christian up to your level," she said, "they will only drag you down to theirs." To illustrate the point she made a young man stand on a chair and try to pull her up. He couldn't. She then effortlessly pulled him off the chair and down to her level. As far as she was concerned, the case had been proved.
I am not sure it is possible to move much further away from the example of Jesus. He came to Earth and got His hands dirty. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He befriended lepers and "sinful women." Why do we prefer to stay in the Christian ghetto where it is safe? I believe it is because we have a spirituality that just about works in church but does not work in the world. The bottom line is, we do not believe the Scripture that says, "The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).
Taking a Necessary Journey
Yet if we are to go further into the world and make a difference instead of being yet another voice that adds to the noise, we have to listen to the call to go on another journey-a journey into God Himself. If we are to offer life instead of platitudes, we need to catch more than a glimpse of glory. To attempt to change a world without being changed ourselves is a hopeless task. This is where the gospel of the Kingdom really is good news. Jesus Christ not only invites us to a new beginning, but He also offers us a new life and a new heart. He invites us on a journey that takes us to some unexpected places and, to be honest, some places that many Christians have been taught to avoid like the plague. Specifically, if we want to move in the power of the Spirit, to live the life of the Spirit and to carry a depth of spirituality that alone can change a world, He invites us on a journey into the desert. It is sometimes a very painful journey-a trip without the warm fuzzies-but it is, I believe, a necessary journey. This adventure is only for those who are committed to being a voice to, and not merely another echo of, society. It is for those who want to be passionately committed to Jesus, to the King and His kingdom. It is only for those who are sick of superficiality both in themselves and in the Church. Above all, it is for those who long to be "transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" (2 Cor. 3:18).
Why have I written a book on how God uses the desert places to change us? So often it is in the desert that God prepares and shapes us for a life of effectiveness and power. The desert produces real people. The subject fascinates me. The fascination is not a detached, intellectual fascination but one that is deeply personal. I have spent a good part of my life in the desert. If I'm honest, I can't say I have enjoyed one minute of it. However, I am so glad for it. In the pain I have found purpose, in the suffering I have learned perseverance and in the loneliness I have met Jesus.
Coming to the End of Myself
To start at the beginning, my parents emigrated from Cyprus five years before I was born. I was their first child and up until I started school I did not know any English children and spoke only Greek. My first day at school was a nightmare. When I realized that my mother was going to leave me on my own in this building with all these strange and loud human beings, I screamed the place down. The following months I remember as a time of complete isolation. Even when the language barrier improved, I remained painfully shy and spent the recesses walking in circles around the playground on my own while all the other kids played around me. I would count the seconds until the bell rang and my agony would be over until the next time. There were times when I used to hide behind a wall or in the bathroom until the bell rang so that no one could see me.
Although on the surface things improved over the next few years, a wound remained that has affected me ever since. All the way through my teenaged years I felt myself to be different. I was the outsider. Even when friendships came my way, I would expect them to break down, and often "what I dreaded ... happened to me" (Job 3:25).
Then just before my sixteenth birthday, I met the Lord Jesus and became a Christian. At first the whole thing seemed so amazing. I had never needed much convincing that I was a sinner, but to discover such a Savior-that was almost too much to take in. To realize that God knew me completely and yet loved me, that He was committed to me and would never leave me nor forsake me (see Deut. 31:6) filled me with joy and hope. From the moment I met Jesus, I wanted to be a full-time pastor or missionary. But the opportunities did not come, and I had to concentrate on my studies instead. I was sure that once I had graduation under my belt God would launch me into a full-time revival ministry. To my surprise He didn't, and I found myself at Birmingham University for three years. After earning my degree, I took a "temporary" summer job in the accounts department of Harvey Nichols department store in Knightsbridge. They asked me if I wanted to sign a proper full-time contract so that I could take vacation and sick leave. I refused because I was convinced that within weeks I would be in Christian ministry. I worked for Harvey Nichols for eight years!
Those eight years were tough. I had sermons inside me but nobody would listen. Sometimes in my frustration I would preach to the mirror. Often the preaching was so anointed that I would go forward to recommit my life in response! I became involved in a local church and everything I tried seemed to go wrong. I ran an open youth club for unchurched young people, but it was closed down after the police had to intervene one night when we nearly had a riot. I organized an interchurch youth mission that hardly anyone attended. I even produced and directed a nativity play as an outreach to the community. It was a fiasco. One of the shepherds turned up drunk, and the angel Gabriel (who happened to be the church secretary) poured black coffee down his throat (to no effect) before his big scene. The inquest at the deacons' meeting afterward was one of the worst meetings of my life. While all this was going on, I found my job both stressful and boring. Accounting was not my gift, so I had to work twice as hard as everyone else just to keep up. (I still occasionally wake up in the morning in a cold sweat because my balance sheet won't balance.) I wondered if God had forgotten me.
As the years went on, I decided that the dreams I had would never materialize and that I would have to come to terms with life as it was. At first I struggled with feelings of bitterness and self-pity as I complained to God that life wasn't fair. There were times when the despair was overwhelming and the loneliness was almost unbearable. Then everything came to a head. I gave in to my feelings of isolation and began to withdraw from people. The dawning fear that I might never marry and have children ate away at me. Everything I had tried in ministry went wrong. Then division in the church leadership surfaced, and I found myself in the middle of the dispute. At the same time, some people whom I thought were close to me let me down. Eventually, I couldn't stand it anymore and ran away. I ran away from church and, for a short while, from fellowship. The worst part about the whole thing was that I could not run away from myself. Only someone who has suffered from depression can understand what it is like to look forward to bedtime every day and go to sleep hoping that in the morning the feelings will somehow go away.
Coming to the Beginning of God
The desert is a dry place. Nobody goes to the desert in search of refreshment. The desert is an inhospitable place; it is not comfortable. The desert is an incredibly silent place; there are no background noises, no distractions to lessen the pain. The desert is the place where you have to come to terms with your humanity, with your weakness and fallibility. The desert is a lonely place; there are not usually many people there. Above all, the desert is God's place; it is the place where He takes us in order to heal us. I believe this theologically because I see the truth of it in the Scriptures. I also believe this experientially and personally as I have found it to be true in my own life. The worst of times can also be the best of times. While I was going through those eight "wasted" years, I would ask God regularly why He was taking so long to rescue me. Now my main question is, Why did He not keep me there longer? In that time my arrogance was dealt a mortal blow. My tendency to rely on my own resources and gifts was undermined so that I began to inquire of the Lord in a way I had never done before. My prayer moved from an attempt to persuade Him to bless what I was doing to a sincere searching to find out what He was doing and then spend my energy in blessing that. In the desert I saw my ambition for what it was and eventually came to the place where I determined to seek God for Himself, whether I had a ministry or not. More than anything else, I found that when I came to the end of myself, I came to the beginning of God.
"Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there" (Ps. 139:7-8, emphasis added). I discovered that God met me at my lowest point. He became my comfort. I knew His love for me when I felt myself to be the most unlovable. I developed a desperate hunger for His presence. For in His presence I began to be healed. Then in His perfect timing the desert came to an end. Doors that had remained shut for years suddenly flew open. I found myself in a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Exod. 3:17). I do not want to give the impression that since that time my life has been organized and I have gone from one spiritual victory to another-that would clearly not be true. I also do not want to suggest that I do not ever visit that place of pain. However, praise God, I do not live there any more.
There is an amazing verse at the end of the book of Song of Songs: "Who is this coming up from the desert leaning on her lover?" (8:5). There is purpose in the desert. The purpose is that we should return from the desert no longer leaning on our own understanding, strengths and talents but instead leaning on the Lord, whom we have discovered there to be our lover. In order to lean on Him, we must first acknowledge that we cannot walk by ourselves. Then we have to trust that the One we lean on will support us and hold us. Dependence and intimacy are the two major lessons we learn in the desert.
The journey to the desert and what happens in us and to us there is the subject of this book. Let's explore this dreadful and wonderful place together.
Excerpted from SOUL SURVIVOR by MIKE PILAVACHI Copyright © 2004 by Mike Pilavachi. Excerpted by permission.
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