Scenes from the Wilderness

A story by Tim Isaacson//

November, 2004

Here’s me, ten years ago this month. I’m in an office in a suburban church, getting ready for an elder’s meeting. You may not believe it’s me because I still have black hair and no lines in my face.  But you’ll recognize the naïve enthusiasm.  The nervous look in my eyes is because I’m about to suggest that we make a decision.

I just returned from a retreat, and I have some things to share. The retreat was the culmination of a year full of frustrations and revelations.  We were seeking clarity as a church as to why we were not growing past our 300 mark.  It felt like God was giving us – or me anyway – desperation, discontent, and confusion.  If anyone ever tells you that God plays fair, slap ‘em.  God is good.  God always does right.  God is loving and merciful.  But he doesn’t play fair…at least not by our rules.

Frustrated and discontent, I went away a few months ago with one question, “Lord show me your kingdom again.”  He took me to many places in scripture, but the one that turned my guts cold was Rev 2:4.  Basically it says, “You started well.  You’re dealing with things that matter.  You’re not a spaz.  But here’s the deal, you’ve forgotten what matters most.  You don’t love me like you say you do.  Get it together.  Turn your junk around, and get back on track.”

Well, angels don’t really talk like that.  It is much more poetic and ominous than my paraphrase.  But you get it.

Just to be clear, the church wasn’t apathetic or immature.  We were doing a lot of good stuff, but something wasn’t right. I was confused because all the boxes they tell you to check were checked:  discipleship program, small groups, nice building, children’s program, contemporary music, thriving international missions program, etc. But no growth.  But a healthy church is supposed to grow and multiply, right?  It’s supposed to be a place that makes a difference in society and in the community it inhabits, right?  But we weren’t.

So while I’m scrambling to get my heart and mind around that, my friend Gordon Wohlers gives me a book by a couple of Australian trouble-makers titled The Shaping of Things to Come.  Talk about a mind-bender.  Suddenly I could see outside of the box I was stuck was in.  But seeing isn’t actually stepping out of the box.  Then the real kick in the head came.

My district superintendent, Glen Schreiber, suggested I attend the national Christian Community Development Association Conference in Atlanta.  Going to that conference was like the first time I ever walked into an evangelical church my first semester in college.  When I walked into that church and saw people singing with their eyes closed and their faces turned up.  When I felt the reverence, love, and joy in that school auditorium I remember thinking, “I have been looking for this all my life.”  CCDA was the exact same experience 23 years later.  It named what I had only been guessing at.  A Christian life that didn’t live for itself, but for others.  One that was more shaped by the gospels than middle-class culture.  One that walked into fear to overcome evil with good instead of building gated communities and moving away.

We needed to leave the multi-million dollar facility gifted to us, and step back into the wilderness.  We needed to leave a place surrounded by million dollar homes because our way of doing church wasn’t appealing to millionaires.  We needed to follow the Lord where he was going to lead us.

So here’s me in November of 2004.  Full of ideas.  A feeling of direction. But still needing to make a decision.  So the meeting starts, and I make a simple statement.

“We need to move.”

November, 2006

I’m freezing outside of the Canon Office Building in Washington DC.  Congress just decided to cut food stamps, WIC, and funding for Foster Care programs.  My wife and I are certified foster parents hoping to adopt a daughter.  I’m watching civil disobedience play out as several dozen people are arrested by the Capital Police and taken to waiting buses.

I am glad to be in a country where we protest and speak out. But I am angered by how messed up things are.  As an evangelical, many of my friends and mentors stand on the opposite side of the issue.  But not for biblical reasons.  For ideological reasons related to big government and conspiracy theories.  Raising their fists to caricatures that I have never seen or met.

Here in DC, I see how much I have taken the scriptures that clearly state God’s love for the poor and painted over them with layer upon layer upon layer of church culture, personal issues, politics, privilege, fear, and the American Dream so that the Bible can be expressed in ways that suit me.  There is so much to strip away.

So I hold my signs and collect my friends’ signs as they are arrested.  Later, I pick up trash and haul all the detritus of a protest back to the church.  It’s not that I didn’t want to get arrested.  Just the opposite in fact.

But they told us that men should expect to be in jail for up to 18 hours and my five year old was going to be in his first Christmas pageant the next day.  18 hours in jail combined with a 10 hour drive meant missing him in his role as a talking cow.

I was conflicted.  It wasn’t his last pageant, but it was his first.  And I had made a promise to my wife not sacrifice our kids or family on the altar of ministry.   It was a very cold day in DC.  But the scene in the manger the next day had an awesome singing cow.

October, 2014

Here we are sitting around the dinner table.  We’ve left Christmas pageants behind us.  We’re in the throes of full-on adolescence with two middle-school boys.  From a distance it looks like any other dinner.  Heather and Fisher on one side of the table.  Caedmon and I across from them.  But we’re not smiling and joking right now.

Right now we’re listening to my oldest poor out his anger and disappointment.  The innocence and friendships of elementary school has given way to the tribalism of puberty.  Right now he is raging about the consequences of being one of only a few kids of his race in the school.

How do we coach our son about dealing with something we have never had to go through?  To try to both listen and gently guide so that he doesn’t end up embittered, blaming, and scared?  We’ve gone from talking about racism, hate, and division as a social issue on television to trying to navigate it at the dinner table.  Sometimes I long for singing cows.  But what drives me to my knees is being helpless and asking the Lord to do what I cannot do.  Bear this burden for someone I love more than life.

November, 2014

I look in a mirror, and I wonder if my hair will turn gray fast enough to hide my balding scalp.  I can start to count the crow’s feet around my eyes.  But I like those.  It means I’m laughing.  But – still – there is something sad in the eyes.  A weariness that wasn’t there when the church chose me to lead them.  When the elders, sat around that table, said, “We’re with you.”

I’m laughing because it’s taken me a while to realize that I’m not the hero of the story.  The longer I am on this path the more I find myself fading to the background trying to make others the hero of the story.  It’s taken other people’s lives and sacrifices to show me that this isn’t about popularity, fame, or success.  All that gets drowned out by the tears.  Tears come from prayer walking broken communities.  Talking and struggling with families in impossible situations.  Cheering on kids who continue to make bad decisions because you never stop hoping they’ll turn a corner and start making the right ones.  That they’ll break the cycle.

Because those families that do, those kids who do, are the most precious gifts you receive.  It is an ironic laugh that comes from the discovery that your ministry is advanced more by owning your failures and repenting, than by your successes.  In all of this Jesus wins, even if it doesn’t feel like we do.

How do you live in lament without becoming emotional road kill?  I have no idea.  I suspect it has to do with being in a worshipping community, prioritizing the life of the family, and walking with friends on the same journey.  It doesn’t stop the tears, but it keeps you anchored in Jesus and not in yourself.

Ten years after having decided to step into this lifestyle of service and incarnation in a neighborhood and among people I used to drive past to get where I wanted to go has been costly.  It has cost me my arrogance, my isolation, my pride, my self-justifications, my ability to indulge my whims.  It has cost me the comfort of seeing all of life as owing me something.  Of seeing people and institutions as things that exist for my advantage and privilege.  Being in a multi-ethnic setting and church has cost me my color blindness and the comforts of willful ignorance.

I have no idea what the next 10 years hold.  If they are like the past ten then it will be a wild, unpredictable ride with an untamed God who has no concern for me fitting him into my life and every concern with fitting me into his.  I wonder what those moments will be.