By Jonathan David Faulkner
I got stuck in New Mexico once, in a town high in the mountains, somewhere between Albuquerque and Denver. Waiting for a bus that would take me north towards the city that would, in a lot of ways, define my spiritual life henceforth. A place where the abused kid would be transformed into the beginnings of the God-directed man. It was dry, the coolness of late May was already giving way to the heat of June. I had not slept in over 24 hours and my fluid intake had consisted mostly of coffee and one bottle of water. I could tell I was dehydrated when I stepped off the train that had picked me up twelve hours earlier in Hutchinson Kansas. A train ride that seemed more ridiculous in its scheduling than having a layover in Chicago when you are flying from Dallas to Detroit. It would be another 10 hours from that moment to the time I would get in the car with Riccardo and go the wrong way down a one way street and nearly get hit by a car, my first experience in Denver.
There I was, down to my last dollar, not sure what God was going to do, not prepared for the Amazing work of grace that would be the next three months. I was essentially alone, waiting at the old train station, watching for a bus that would eventually be four hours late. No gas stations, no water fountains, no place for me to quench my thirst, just me and the dry air and a town that was oblivious to my existence.
There was an advantage to that time, I had all my books with me, my Bible held its usual place in my travel bag. I took it out and began to read it. Something I had often done in the three weeks of near complete isolation in the time since Sterling’s graduation and the time I left for the trip. I had found myself continually drinking of its wine, tasting of its life giving words. I was two years out of Albany Baptist, two weeks out of counseling and two years into a degree in Christian Education with an Urban Concentration. I had not opened my Bible much in the previous years without it being an obligation. Part of some morning religious practice, void of true communion with the spirit or understanding of its words. Along with the church, scripture was in need of redemption for me. But in that time before this trip I had spend a lot of tiem reading it, pouring over it and even, I found, praying it. In the dry and empty state of my soul, believing in God and knowing much theology but not truly knowing Him.
I prayed the prayer of my youth, the prayer of a kid who had met God on a concrete floor, served in Dallas and been called to Urban Ministry. “Lord, show me your heart.” In that dry place, in the middle of that dry little town. I was not sure of what I was actually asking, I was not sure what I was expecting to find in such an inquiry, nor was I prepared to receive an answer. I wanted to fall in Love with God again, I wanted to know who I was in Him. The war between desiring to know Him and be accepted and liked by my peers was about to be put to rest. Had I known that I would have ran, gone to Tarshish as it were, had I known what God was going to do I would have fought it. I am glad for the sake of His glory that I did not. Three months later I left Denver on the beginnings of a journey that has, to this day, been the greatest adventure a young man could ask for.
But it started in a dry place. It started in a time when I felt so far from God that I could not say I truly knew Him. When my study of scripture had been purely academic, meant to meet some requirement I had placed on myself. I would stay in that place of spiritual dryness for the next month in a half, a time when God was completing the work that the deprogrammers had begun. Breaking my heart for His people, tearing me down to the point in which I would say, a month later: “God take it all, let there be nothing left.”
For some of us, sitting in the dry places seems like a contradiction in the Christian Life. We seem to believe that any state of dryness is a sign of spiritual incompetence. We think that going out in the wilderness means we are away from God and that we need to get back to where we are constantly drinking from the mountain stream. We think the dry and the desolate are negative to our spiritual development.
Dr. Briones once asked our Pauline Literature class: “What do you do when you need a break from studying scripture?” Meaning, those of us who have dedicated our lives to study of scripture and the application therein, who can get burned out on it, how do we deal with such a dilemma. My answer was “to read scripture.” In that, my strategy was to step back from the academic study and pray the psalms or practice one of the many meditative disciplines’ I had learned. To just sit with God and His word and let the Holy Spirit refresh me and refresh Scripture in my mind. I had to sit in the dryness of the early minutes of those moments, embrace them, acknowledge the condition.
Desolation was an important part of Jesus Ministry, 11 times in Luke we are told that “Jesus went away to a quiet or desolate place. The temptation of Jesus happened in a dry place and after it was over Jesus was ministered to by His heavenly father, in the dryness. Not after He had returned to the city, but while He was still in the wilderness.
I think those dry places are meant to be places where we wrestle with God. Like Jacob wrestling with God by the river, they become times for us to receive from God directly, void of the distractions and pressures that come with ministry. I would even say that they are necessary to our growth and development as believers. That there are times we must leave the responsibility of life behind us for a season and take a sabbatical. Taking the time, not to minister to one another, but to be ministered to by God. Then, when God has replenished us, we may return to the busyness of life.
There is a statistic, in my field, about pastors who work in the inner city. That is that 40% of them will go into another field after 10 years of Ministry. Another 35% will leave the inner city for smaller churches, burned out and in desperate need of a change. Two of my closest friends in the Pastorate have passed away at young ages (35 and 40) because of the lack of a break in the rigors of pastoral ministry in an Urban environment. Both of their surviving spouses shared with me laments of not taking enough time off, the second lamented their first vacation in 7 years being canceled due to her husband’s death. We need times in the wilderness, we need the dry places, we need to feel dry. If only to be reminded of our need for God to fill us, or to wrestle with those things that may be hindering our relationship with Him.
Yes, God is always with us, He is continuously present, and He will speak life to us if we ask Him. But if we never simply sit and let Him fill us we are going to become quite ineffective in being used to fill others. It is good to have nothing left, it means we are in a great place to be filled and satisfied in the spiritual meat of scripture and drink deep of the presence of Christ.
It may benefit us to seek the wilderness, to wake up in the morning and go out into the spiritual dessert to be filled and satisfied in Christ. Then, throughout the day we can walk with Christ and speak life to others, being aware of His constant life-giving indwelling. Pouring out the love we are shown to others, drawing them deeper into community with Him and with one another.
Do not fear the wilderness, or despise the dry place, turn your face to Heaven in those times and be drink and eat and be filled on the heavenly bread and wine.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry