Death Valley Confessions

I had always maintained that God and his divine enterprises, his “kingdom”, were the overarching realities for all of life, but after the inferno that consumed so much of my life (loss of job, money, house, church, and friends) I began to question their relevance for life in the ‘here and now.’ If my life was a house, it burned to the ground. “How could this have happened? Was my life over? I picked through the charred and smoldering pieces, desperate for an answer, for a sign, something that I could use to rebuild and begin again. “Where was God” I asked, “and why hadn’t he protected us?”

The answer to these questions eluded me and over time a chasm opened up. On the one side of the chasm was God and on the other side, the ‘real world.’ The biblical admonition to be, “in the world but not of it” had become an impossibility, for I could no longer occupy both spheres at once. The chasm yawned opened and I fell in, tumbling into the darkness of the void.

The void is emptiness, the total absence of meaning and certainty.

The void is emptiness, the total absence of meaning and certainty. In this way the void is less like going to jail or traveling to another country and more like going to an alien planet. In the void, you are still aware of God but he is no longer familiar – he is different. In the void God is no longer willing or even interested in getting on your wavelength. The one who had once promised a “future and a hope” has now become the source of excruciating pain and disappointment. The void is kind of like Alice’s rabbit hole or Neo’s experience with the Matrix, for in the void reality is distorted and redefined.

There in the void, the questions flood and torture your mind. What will become of me?  Have I lost my spiritual walk?  Have I been living in a daydream all these years only to now awake from my religious slumber? Would I ever return to the life I once lived above the void? As my eyes adjusted to the shadowy darkness, I surveyed the landscape and it was devastating, worse than I had feared. I was looking at “dead bones” on top of “dead bones” and again the questions mounted. Was this all my fault? Had I really gotten it all that wrong? Was not God (his Spirit and his Word) the one who had shaped my dreams and expectations over all these years?

My questions were met with silence and my complaints were denied validation. God, as well as several of my closest friends, refused to consider these painful questions and disturbing complaints. In the void, things like, logic, fairness and sincerity have no meaning. In the void, the rules that govern life “above” do not apply. The void mocks and demolishes each one of our reasons, principles and sentiments. In the void there are no answers or consolation, only confusion. In the void I was disoriented and out of sync, out of sync with my God, myself and with the world around me. Protest and anger was all I had for protection.

“I have been betrayed by the one I had called Lord and savior!”

As the years passed, I came to accept the fact that God and I were locked in a stalemate with neither side backing down, so I decided to settle into my new life “below” the surface. I discovered that life “below” had some real advantages to life “above.” I am convinced that the book of Ecclesiastes, was written from the perspective of life “below.” What I did not realize was that life “below” was not the deepest place. Further and deeper down lay a simmering cauldron of lava. And then one day the cauldron blew. Out of the depths of my heart spewed bitter complaints and cursing, “I have been betrayed by the one I had called Lord and savior!”

I cursed at the heavens but the heavens held their peace, so with my relationship with God in complete disrepair, I did the only thing that I knew to do; I began a studied exploration of the badlands of my soul. I explored the rocky crags of bitterness and descended into the deep crevasses of inexorable fear. I walked the length and breadth of my personal Death Valley, and as I walked I cried out to God, lifting up anguished protests followed by desperate pleas for mercy, “Why God, why have you forsaken me!?”

“What are you counting on?”

I had heard about people with “hardness of heart”, those who had resisted God’s authority even to the point of open rebellion. The symptoms of my hardness had manifested in mistrust and bitter complaints. Gradually, over the course of months and years, without a dramatic breakthrough, there in the midst of these spiritual badlands, a tiny beam of light. The question quite literally came to me in a dream, “What are you counting on?” I thought about the question but I could not see that far into the depths of things – perhaps I was unwilling to look for fear of what I would find, so I decided to go another route.

I remembered this one “trick” that I kept for desperate times like this. Like Charlie Kauffman, I am not above tricking people into loving me, but where would I find these people who would recognize my inherent worth? Before what audience could I display my talent? Then I thought, “Perhaps there is a church in need of a minister . . . I have studied more than most people . . . I must have something to offer . . . something good . . . I just need to refine my message and improve my attitude. Maybe academia and theological discourse could give me the opportunity to shine!”

I had hoped that through the rigors of in-depth study (five years of graduate seminary) and with the right changes to my theology, I could fix the “dead bones” problem and move forward in life. But, while my studies opened up new perspectives, deep down I knew that things were still as I had feared and I was still in Death Valley. And then, a memory stirred. I remembered a conversation, one that I had turned to several times over the last thirty years, a conversation between God and the prophet Ezekiel.

‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’

“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” Ezek.37:1-4

Does living by faith mean living in a religious, “make believe land”? Does having faith mean sticking our heads down in the sand of denial or up in the oxygen depleted clouds of delusion? Faith in God is neither a fanatical escape nor a stoic indifference to the fallen order of things. We tend to like things “all or nothing” and “black and white”, but God meets us in the messy middle of our lives and faith refuses to look away from the mess. Faith is not denial or delusion, for it requires that we make an honest assessment of our situation, “behold, there were very many on the surface, and they were very dry.”

The discoveries I have gleaned from my experience in the void and the truth hidden in Ezekiel’s vision, continue to shape my life. The first thing I discovered is that the losses in our lives are neither trivial nor imagined – the “dead bones” are very real. The second thing I discovered is that God is not asking us to play make-believe and he is not downplaying the tragedy, “Now, now, it’s not that bad.” The third thing I am learning is that we will never be able to supply what is chronically missing in our lives or fix what is irreparably broken in this world and that is ok – such work is simply way above our pay grade. How would any of us know the first thing about “dead bones” coming to life?!

Now in answer to the earlier question from my dream, “What are you counting on?” If I am honest, I was always counting on God ‘backing me up’ in the world and giving me an advantage over the heathens. I was counting on a certain contractual deal where, if I faithfully served God, then he would be obliged to give me a privileged “seat at his table.” I was wrong. Somewhere along the way, I had conflated and confused God (along with his Spirit, his Word and his people) with my visionary dreaming and my personal ambitions.

I have learned the hard way that he never meets me in the place I think I should be – he only meets and deals with me in the place where I am.

I was surprised (more like devastated) to learn that despite how spiritual or godly my dreams and ambitions are; God is under no obligation to bring them to pass. And while I still believe that God speaks and that God promises, I have learned the hard way that he never meets me in the place I think I should be – he only meets and deals with me in the place where I am. It turns out that God’s promises are one-part pain and one-part hope. The one-part pain is the fact that even as we speak, “the present form of this world is passing away” and with it all our expectations of what we hoped that world would look like for us (ICo. 7:31).

I am still discovering right up to this minute that God is someone who I am ever discovering but never fully grasping – control and certainty are illusions, deceptive idols of the mind. My notion of God as the one who “backs up” my dreams is worse than useless – it is the source of insufferable heartache. Unfortunately, these notions die-hard, and I am gradually coming around to accept the truth. The truth is that God, the almighty creator and crucified redeemer, is not here to do my biding and he is not interested in doing a ‘fix up job’ on the “old me.” The God of Jesus Christ does not put Band-Aids on the “old creation” – life in Christ is nothing less than new creation! For he says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)! Notice, he says, “I am making” and not, “I will make.” The only question left is, what does “all” mean?


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