It's life drunk deeply, lived to the hilt—where we walk with the God who is surprising, dangerous, and mysterious. It's the terrain where God doesn't make sense out of our disasters and our boredom, but keeps meeting us in the thick of them.
But unless we trust in His character, we'll never venture in. We will sit at the stream all day, dying of thirst, but not daring to drink. To follow God is to drink and drink from the stream, even if it means—especially if it means—getting swallowed up.
Let Mark Buchanan show you the entrance to the Holy Wild, where you can live face-to-face with the beautiful, dangerous God of creation.
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The Holy Wild
By Mark Buchanan
Multnomah Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2003 M.A. Buchanan, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe God of the Holy Wild
The summer I wrote this, we discovered a nest of snakes living in our house. It was a hot spell, and often we retreated to the basement to escape the worst of it.
We weren't the only ones, it turned out.
A mother snake, at some point, had found her way into our house (we left most of our doors open that summer to create airflow). She had slithered into the back corner of the coolest, most interior room, and there hatched a brood of baby snakes: tiny black serpents, with slender, tapered bodies and teardrop-shaped heads and little, red flickering tongues.
I hate snakes. I once heard about a man who, digging in his garden, hacked his shin apart with his spade when a garter snake slithered up his pant leg. I understood this: the panic, the wildness, the madness, the willingness to maim yourself to protect yourself. If it had been me and not Adam and Eve in Eden, we wouldn't be in the trouble we're in, but not because I have greater virtue; simply because it was a serpent who seduced them. I'd have killed it first.
One evening I came home from a deacons meeting (was this itself a sign?) and Cheryl, wide-eyed and pale, met me at the door. "We have snakes," she said, hissing and writhing, snakelike, herself. She and my son had already managed to capture in a jar two of the babies. It was my job, I was told, to track down the mother. I began with stiff caution, jabbing sticks under furniture then leaping back, expecting Medusa's head to come shaking out at me. Everything I rousted out-a wisp of dust, a stray hairpin, a snip of thread-startled me. Every sensation of something touching me-the edge of a quilt brushing my shin, the corner of a desk biting my hip, a strand of cobweb trailing across my neck, the frays of cut cloth tickling my arm-sent me into a spasm of thrashing. After a while, I got more bold, more determined, especially since I had looked everywhere and found nothing.
"She's gone," I said. "Must have got out somehow. She's a bad mother. Abandoned the little ones to their fate. Imagine that."
Cheryl wasn't buying it. "Check again," she said. "Take a better look under the hide-a-bed. Mark, I spend hours in this room every week. My parents are coming on Monday to sleep in this room. I won't rest until I know it's safe."
So I pulled the mattress off the hide-a-bed and poked my head under the frame.
There she was, curled up on the back ledge of the bed frame. She was only about fourteen inches long and no thicker than my baby finger. But in my phobic, manic alertness, she may as well have been a Burmese python, smugly swallowing the dog, just getting started.
What followed was ten minutes of slapstick comedy-a burlesque of blundering, scrambling antics, a wild pantomime of overreaction. I chased that snake around, trying to pinch its thin, wriggling body between two blunt-end four-foot sticks and drop it in a small-mouthed jar. It kept getting free, to the accompaniment of our shrieks and hollers, and would scoot off to another corner and pile its body into dense coils. After several tries, it was glaringly obvious this approach was futile. I asked my son to fetch my garden gloves. I would have to pick it up.
I did it. There was no heroism or elegance in it. I held the snake away from me like I might a dead fish that had been left out in the sun. But I did it.
Over the next few days, as we found more snakes, we discovered that our nine-year-old daughter Sarah was fearless with them. She would simply pick each snake up with her bare hands, hold it near her face, scold it as though it were a naughty dog who chewed up the hose, then set it loose in the garden, telling it to go find its mother.
Here's the thing. Ever since, it's been hard for me to rest in that room. Walking into it, I slow, halt, turn, look now this way, now that. I even look up, as though I'm dealing with a fat, hungry tree snake, its body languidly draped along the curtain rod, its head undulating downward. Every nerve in me is heightened, every muscle taut and trembling, and the little hairs on my arms stand up.
I may never sleep in that bed again. After we found the snakes, we had a string of stifling hot nights-nights like huge furnaces, roaring and devouring, the surface of things glazed with heat. Nights that skewered and roasted you like a pig on a spit, turning slow, dripping, shriveling. On nights like those, we used to escape to the coolness of the basement to sleep.
But no more.
Instead, we now suffer upstairs, suffer all night long. There we lie, listless and restless, prickly and sweaty, longing for relief. On the worst of these nights I almost give in, slip downstairs, open the hide-a-bed, and crawl in. But I know it's no good. Every time I shut my eyes, I would see them, thousands of them, every length and thickness of them, twining, coiling, darting, hissing, squirming. I know that if I ever got to sleep's threshold, to that blissful, hypnotic place where your body hovers over oblivion and starts to ease down, something would graze the nape of my neck or tickle the hollow in my collarbone, and I would leap up, wild with panic, punching the air and slapping myself.
I don't trust that bed.
The funny thing is, the bed hasn't changed at all. It's just as sturdy, just as comfortable. It can hold my weight, soothe my soreness. What has changed is my experience. I now harbor a suspicion that dread things lurk beneath. And so I approach the bed with a guardedness that I won't let drop.
This book is about resting in the character of God. I take it to be that resting and trusting are near synonyms: I rest where I can trust. I rest on the bed that I'm assured won't buckle beneath my weight, in the room where I'm confident I won't be left vulnerable to enemies or predators, in the house where I'm certain I won't be exposed to toxins or contagions. If I doubt any of these things, if I lack trust, I may sleep in the house or the room or the bed-but I won't really rest there. I'll do it out of sheer exhaustion, maybe, but not out of trust. I'll be fitful and anxious, always checking my back, tense and clenching, a hair trigger on my reflexes.
My point: How I think about the bed determines whether or not I rest in it. The bed, as I said, hasn't changed. But I have.
Sometimes our faith in God is like that: snake-infested. God doesn't change, but how we think about Him does. Dread things, we suspect, lurk in the basement. It is hard for us to rest in God, because it is hard for us to trust.
My first book was called Your God Is Too Safe. In it, I invited us to be done with the god of our own invention, the god who resembles a museum curator, pale, quibbling, fastidious; or a group therapist, vague, earnest, doting; but not the Lion of Judah, fierce and wild and good. I diagnosed our inner stuckness as a mostly theological sickness, an impaired vision of God as God. For various reasons, we would rather contrive a god who is perfectly content to make his bed in the servants' quarters than worship the God who is on the loose, ruling from the heights, slipping in among the ranks, skulking about in disguise, equally absent and present in most disruptive ways. Then I prescribed a way out: the practice of holy habits. These are disciplines that, like well-treasured and well-guarded family recipes, have been passed along from generation to generation among Christians. They are simple, adaptable, workable, and they train us in a steadiness toward God, "a long obedience in the same direction." I coined two terms in that book. The first one, borderland, describes the condition of stuckness-a conversion without regeneration, an initial encounter with Jesus that doesn't lead to a life abiding with Jesus. It's an acquaintanceship devoid of intimacy, dependency, obedience. People on borderland have grown comfortable with boredom. They have settled for a God "on call," a God available for crises and fiascos, who does a bit of juggling with weather patterns and parking stalls but who otherwise remains unobtrusive as a chambermaid, tidying things up while you're at brunch, leaving a crisp sash of tissue around the lid of the toilet bowl to let you know all is in order. The problem, obviously, is that this god-so kind, so shy, so tame-has nothing whatsoever to do with the God of the Bible. This god resembles not even remotely the God whose Spirit broods and dances, the God who topples entire empires, sometimes overnight, the God who reveals himself in the Christ who looks big men in the eye and says, "Follow me," and then walks away, not waiting for a reply. The God who calls us off borderland.
The other term, the Holy Wild, describes life with the God who is. The Holy Wild is what life, drunk to the lees, lived to the hilt, is like-life where we walk with the God who is surprising, dangerous, mysterious, alongside us though we fail to recognize Him, then disappearing the minute we do. It is the terrain where God doesn't always make sense of our sad or bland lives, our calamities and banalities, but who keeps meeting us in the thick and thin of those lives.
In Your God Is Too Safe, I used the famous story from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the most famous book of C. S. Lewis's most famous work, the Chronicles of Narnia. This is the story where Mr. Beaver, in response to Lucy's question of whether the great lion Aslan is "quite safe," explodes, "Safe? Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good."
It's a great scene. But equally great, and lesser known, is the scene from the Narnia adventure The Silver Chair. A haughty girl named Jill Pole lands in Narnia with Eustace Scrubb-once a spoiled and whiny child who, in an earlier visit to Narnia, experienced an agonizing but transforming encounter with Aslan. Jill gets into a tussle with Eustace at a cliff's edge, and she ends up pushing him off. As Eustace falls, Aslan rushes up and blows a huge stream of breath to catch Eustace and, magic-carpet-like, carry him far, far away, to safety-and to danger.
Aslan then turns and, to Jill's relief, walks away into the forest.
But she grows thirsty. She can hear from within the forest the sound of a stream. Her thirst finally drives her to seek the source of this sound. She proceeds cautiously, afraid. She soon discovers the stream but is paralyzed by what she sees there: Aslan, huge and golden, still as a statue but terribly alive, sitting beside the water. She waits for a long time, wrestling with her thoughts, hoping he will go away. Aslan finally speaks: "If you are thirsty, you may drink." Jill is startled by this, and holds back.
"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I am dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I-could I-would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And just as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her near frantic.
"Will you promise not to-do anything to me, if I come?" "I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls?" she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.
That is where this book-my third-comes in: There is no other stream. This is about living in the Holy Wild, living with this God who, without apology, without anger, without boast, swallows up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.
The God who gives us no options. Either we drink from this stream or we die.
Which raises the question I really want to ask. Jill's question. My question. Maybe yours, too.
Can God be trusted?
Is there no other stream? If I turn my back on the Lion to drink, will He leave me unmolested? If He swallows me, then what?
Is the character of God such that we can both risk for Him and rest in Him?
I have set out to write about resting in the character of God: learning to put all our weight-the fullness of who we are, what we dream, the things we cherish-in the fullness of who God is. To sing beneath the shadows of His wings. To pour ourselves out like a drink offering for Him. My conviction is that, unless and until we rest in God, we'll never risk for God. We will at most skirt the edges of the Holy Wild but never venture in, and probably not even that much. We will sit by the stream all day, dying of thirst but not daring to bend to drink. We will toss in our bed all night, dying of heat but not daring to crawl beneath the cool sheets waiting downstairs.
If I truly desire the Holy Wild-living face-to-face with the beautiful, dangerous God, not safe but good-I need to know who this God is. I need to know Him, more and more, deeper and deeper, with biblical clarity. To know Him in my head and in my creeds but also-with King David's instincts-in my guts and in my bones.
If I am to go anywhere with God, to follow Him, by hook or by crook, staggering, leaping, dancing, crawling, all the way into the Holy Wild, I need more than a textbook knowledge of Him. I need more than piety, more than erudition, more than good intentions.
I need to drink and drink from the stream, even if it means-especially if it means-getting swallowed up.
Many of us are confessional giants but ethical midgets. We talk a big game. We profess the highest, purest orthodoxy. Our creed is impeccable. "God is," we begin, and what follows could pass muster before the most rigorous theological council or inquisition.
But then the trouble starts. God is ... what?
"What comes into our minds when we think about God," A. W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy, "is the most important thing about us."
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
Not that any one of us can have a full understanding of God. Saint Augustine walked the seashore one day, pondering the majesty of God. He saw a small boy who had dug a hole in the sand.
Excerpted from The Holy Wild by Mark Buchanan Copyright © 2003 by M.A. Buchanan, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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