So here's the long-awaited final installment in the "doldrums" series. You can find the earlier installments further down, if you missed them. Working this out has been good for me. I learned something. I think I'll struggle with this for the rest of my life, but at least I know some of the how and why. Okay, the blog:
Out in the desert, the Israelites find themselves stuck between the promises of God.
Promise 1: “I will deliver you out of Egypt.” (Looking around. Definitely out of Egypt. Pharaoh face down in the Red Sea. Promise 1, check.)
Promise 2: “I will deliver you into a land flowing with milk and honey” (Looking around. No milk. No honey. Lots of sand. Promise 2…?)
They’re out of Egypt, but not in the land of milk & honey. At times they can literally SEE this fabled land. Early on in their desert sojourn they’re camped right on the border, ready to drink said milk and eat said honey, but experience what we might call “trust issues.” They grumble, they whine, they complain. They doubt. They doubt God can clear MilkAndHoneyLand out for them. They doubt the God who utterly boatraced the most powerful nation on earth can take care of a few suffixes. They doubt.
Again the passage is written as if this is a surprise to God. Again He talks a big game about plagues and death and ending the Israelites right then and there. Again Moses “has” to talk him out of it. But again, my bedrock belief about God is that He’s omni-omni, and that there’s no way this latest bout of whining takes Him by surprise.
I love the Olympics. I love discovering new sports, particularly in the winter games. Speed skating is ridiculous and I even like Curling. Back when the winter games were in Torino/Turin (was there ever a final verdict on what to call that one?) I found Biathlon. Biathlon is this crazy event with like 200 contestants. They cross-country ski 4 kilometers with a .22 rifle on their backs. They fly into this target range where they have to shoot five targets in five shots from a distance of 50 meters, sometimes standing, sometimes prone. Then they take off for another 4 kilometer loop to do it again. But here’s the thing, for every target they miss, they have to ski a 150 meter penalty loop. So you could ski into the shooting range in first, miss one target and ski back out in forty-seventh because of the penalty loop. It’s crazy.
Any first year seminarian can tell you that the word sin has its roots in archery. In Hebrew the word is “hataat” meaning “to miss the mark” or literally “he missed.” Sin is missing the target God sets. I find it fascinating that in Biathlon “sinning” results in a penalty lap, which is exactly what happened to the Hebrews.
Again God relents, this time settling for punishing them with a long walk in the desert. A really long walk.
There’s a pastor in Portland I like name Rick McKinley. I listen to his sermons on podcast when I can. He talks about how God will often redeem our sin and struggle to accomplish good. He calls it God’s judo move. I think God does a heck of a judo move here, although it’s not a famous or glamorous one. The Israelites have been trekking across the desert for two years and some change. In that time God has laid down the most extensive law code in the history of man. Show of hands: who thinks the Israelites are ready to take off the training wheels and take the new law code out for an unsupervised spin?
On the other side of the Jordan are all manner of people and pagan religious practices just waiting to get mixed up and muddied into the Israelites. So God does the Judo move, turning the Israelites disobedience, doubt and punishment into a training period where they can learn the law and live with God undistracted.
Not to say that God made the Israelites doubt so they could go on the training trek. No. They chose that on their own. The blame lies squarely with the Israelites. God promised them something. He brought them front and center to it. They whined like my 7 year-old and doubted God could do what He said He would do. So they get a forty-year penalty lap. God didn’t cause the doubt, but he does a judo move to redeem the doubt.
So there they are, stuck between the promises. If you’re Moses or Joshua or Caleb you gotta be pulling your hair out. So close! And now you’re walking the wrong way. Even if they can discern God’s judo move, it’s an icy cold comfort, knowing they were that close, seeing it, smelling it, but not being able to get there.
I feel like that a lot. I feel like that right now. Stuck between the promises of God. He’s brought me thus far and He’s promised more. I can see the “promised more” from where I am, but I can’t see how to get there, and so I grumble. Rather than patiently wait for God to get me there, I wail about my present conditions. Never mind these conditions are far better than the place He delivered me from. Never mind He’s promised me a land of milk and honey. I grumble. Eventually, I doubt.
These days I have a lot of doubt. I doubt people like me. I doubt in my ability to do my job effectively. I doubt I’m a good dad, a good husband. I doubt anyone thinks I’m creative. I doubt anyone cares about what I write. And so I take a long walk in the sand, but rather than having faith in God’s judo move, I doubt that too. So I wake up grumbling in the sand, grumbling as I gather the manna He’s provided me, grumbling as I travel the road He set me on. Only I don’t want people (or God) to know how much doubt I have in my heart, so instead I try to name it something hip and artistic—the Creative Doldrums. Rather than confess my doubt, I hide behind the faux creative shield of “uninspired.”
It’s not a lack of inspiration. It’s this grumbling, this doubt that shuts down my ability to create. That locks me out of who He made me to be. It’s this doubt that bleeds the color out of my world. Because of course God is the Creator and the source of all creation. Of course all good things come from Him and all that. Of course all the Sunday school answers that are pooling in the front of my brain.
Of course doubt is the antithesis of inspiration.
(a really long pause while he thinks about the implications of this statement. For you it maybe a second or five. For him it was two months.)
The original point was this: I was reading Don Miller’s new book and I ran across this paragraph and it got me terribly excited and inspired.
“…I wonder if that’s what we’ll do with God when we are through with all of this, if he’ll show us around heaven, all the light coming in through windows a thousand miles away, all the fields sweeping down to a couple of chairs under a tree, in a field outside the city. And we’ll sit and tell Him our stories, and He’ll smile and tell us what they mean.”
I read this and saw color. And now I see that it wasn’t because it was great or beautiful writing or because it was terribly creative. It was a truth that cut through my doubt. Another piece of my salvation fell into place. He said it right—Jesus and I will ride these very English bikes into heaven, grinning and singing and whooping at the tops of our lungs. We’ll fly down those fields with our feet off the pedals and the wind singing a perfect roar in our ears and skid to a stop under that tree where God smiling, sitting in that chair waiting for us.
Because it wasn’t really Mr. Miller or his book that inspired me. It was the Jesus in him that cut through my doubt so I could hear what I needed. And as I made notes and wrote I realized it wasn’t as instantaneous as it felt. The tank had been slowly filled by my time in the Word. By Joseph in prison and Jesus in the upper room. By Moses and Israelites groaning in Egypt and grumbling in the desert. The Holy Spirit flipped the switch I think of as “inspiration,” but Jesus is constantly battling the doubt in my heart.
We can be inspired by lots of stuff, but the true source of Inspiration that drives our ability to create is that divine sparkplug, the Holy Spirit, living in us. When I stop listening to my own heart and listen to Him, I am Inspired. He whispers to me that I do have value. That He created me this way and He likes the stuff I write. He whispers into my heart that I do have something valuable to say, because He’s the one that created me to say it. He whispers, “don’t come to the tree without good stories to tell. Don’t come to the tree without telling the stories I made you to tell.”
(another long pause. Take as much time as you need.)
Even now I can feel my doubt creeping back in, stealing the inspiration I have to work on different projects. The good news is that at least now I recognize what’s happening and how it’s happening. So I tattoo the Holy Spirit’s words on my heart as insurance and protection against the times when I don’t feel it.
1 week ago