Through the Desert

The appointed pastoral staff recorded a podcast today about sanctification. Yes…you read correctly! It is the process by which God fills us with love through grace. The result is that we become more and more like Jesus in thought, word, action, and even desires. 

A part of the podcast we talked about how our journey with the means of grace has shaped us. Means of grace are anything that puts us in a place to receive grace which in turn fills us with love and grows us in the image of Christ. Things like Scripture reading, prayer, worship, small group experiences, and of course the sacraments of baptism and communion are but a few practices that we can participate in that God then uses to impart grace.

The conversation reminded me of my own experience with the means of grace both good and difficult. For you see, I spent a year in the wilderness. No, not an actual wilderness but a figurative one. This was a spiritual desert in which I could not pray or read Scripture. Every time I would sit down my mind would race and I would become so distracted that I simply had to stop. It was frustrating and defeating.

To make matters worse, the desert time came almost immediately after the Andover campus was birthed and things outwardly were going incredibly well. We, meaning about 50 other folks,  started a new worshiping community. People were coming and God was at work in visible ways. I still remember that first Sunday when people walked in with the postcards they received in the mail. Now, who responds to direct mail anymore!!! God was working for sure. It should have been the most exciting time of my pastoral life.

But…

I couldn’t pray. And I couldn’t read Scripture except for preparing a sermon and then it was hit or miss. Not good…did I mention that I was now preaching weekly and responsible for pastoring a group of people? Not good when the pastor can’t pray.

As the days turned into weeks I started to grow mildly anxious. I at first thought that this was just me being too preoccupied with the busyness of this new season. “It will get better” I kept telling myself. Weeks turned into months and I went from mildly anxious to downright dreading even sitting down for a time of devotion. My mind racing. My body twitching. My spirit defeated.

To make matters worse, my imposter syndrome started to kick in as I began to wonder how much longer I could hold on. Imagine, a pastor who can’t pray or read Scripture. How can you preach on Sunday when you haven’t prayed all week? Good question…and one I feared I would learn the hard way at any time.

I won’t burden you with all the rest of the downs and downs, but what I have come to realize is that I was experiencing a desert experience some have called dark night of the soul. It is a time when the presence of God recedes, or at least appears to, and you are left with just your faith, or lack thereof. It is as if God is asking, “Are you really interested in me or am I just a means to your personal idolic end?” To be more specific…God was asking if I was being a pastor for my glory or God’s? Was the outward success going to be sufficient for me or was I really and truly wanting to be a follower of Christ?

I never actually answered that question with words. Mainly because I did not know what was happening at the time. But I did answer, through the grace of God, by deeds. I kept going when everything in me wanted to stop. I kept trying to pray even when it resulted in more frustration. Did I mention that it was through God’s grace and not my will-power? Well, it was.

And God, in his perfect timing, relented. Prayers started happening. Scripture became full of God’s living word and not merely ink on a page. It was as if I was being lifted out of a fog into a bright sunshining day.

Lesson learned. Honor and glory are yours Lord…You are the means and the end!

I tell you this as an encouragement, believe it or not! 

I have come to discover that my love for the Lord grew exponentially during the season in the desert. I now do not take for granted a word from God or an opportunity for times of devotion. My desires were transformed.

I also tell you this to not put myself on a pedestal. Oh how far I still have to go in terms of my discipleship. I still have moments of imposter syndrome and doubt. There are days when my prays don’t make it past the ceiling and I can’t remember what I read from Scripture.Yes, I have a long way to go. 

But I have been changed, shaped, and molded. My season in the desert is exactly what God continues to use to pull me closer. I haven’t arrived but I am in a different place thanks to God working through my dry season.

Perhaps you, too, are in the desert. Hear from a fellow traveler these three things:

  1. God has not forsaken you even though it feels like it. God does not build faith on emotions but on promises of truth. Cling to promises even when feelings fail you.
  2. Ask this question and be patient for the answer. Is God enough for you? If everything else were to disappear, would you be satisfied with God alone or do you have other priorities that are higher than your relationship?
  3. Continue to move and don’t worry about the pace, the progress or the lack thereof. Faith grows in fits and spurts and not a smooth line. Two steps back often leads to huge leaps forward.

If I can be of any help, email me at todd@1stumc.org. I would love to hear your story and be an encouragement to you through prayer.

Published by Todd Nelson

I'm one of the pastors at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky where I've served for the past thirteen years. The sub-title of this blog is "Grace is no accident" which happens to be the defining reality of my life. God's grace (gift) is the reason we have breath in our lungs and hope in our hearts.

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