Smoke and Faith: A Personal Update

When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I rise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing until dawn.
Job 7:41

I’m writing to you now from North Cascades National Park. In its fiftieth year, this sprawling park of temperate rainforest and glaciated slopes has been shrouded in dense wildfire smoke for more than a week. My family and I have just been kind of waiting for the toxic fog to lift. We’ve huddled in our little trailer for days, pushing the limits of close-quartered family living. All the while, we’ve set our hopes on a new day dawning, presenting us with a wild and fascinating land, ready for our exploration.

In many ways this tortuous week of waiting out the smoke encapsulates where my soul is now.

I didn’t start out in a haze of smoke. At first things were crystal clear. At the beginning of May I decided to quit my job. I’d been the pastor of a small neighborhood-focused church for almost eight years. It was a good gig. My family was happy. I came home for lunch every day. Our church was full of sincere and wonderful people, but I also knew that the church was missing something, something I couldn’t give them. I felt strongly that God had given me a lens into the future at the church. If I stayed, I’d sink the church and myself, trying to give a gift I don’t have. On the other hand, God imparted a vision of me leaving, where the church grew strong and realized dreams, and the same happened to me.

When a great job opportunity presented itself I felt pushed along in these convictions. I wanted this job. It seemed like an excellent fit. It seemed like all the dots were aligning for the job to be mine. So I announced my resignation, started making plans to sell my house, and began dreaming about what life might look like in a new place.

That’s when the sleepless nights hit--or my personal swath of smoke, I suppose. I felt in my bones I was following God into this place. His presence felt so real and so determinative. And yet, at night I’d lie awake fretting over all the possible dooms that might lay at the end of the road. My community gone. My hard work at church gone. My family’s hard-fought peace, gone. Would my friends still love me when I’m leaving them? Would we find a good home in our new location? Would we make new friends? Was I a failure, throwing in the towel? Would I just fail in my next venture? These thoughts and more pounded upon my sense of calling, granting me no peace.

Then I didn’t get the job. An avalanche of devastation laid waste to my confidence. A new thick vapor of sickening thoughts emerged: see, I am a failure. Now I have to look like a fool to everyone who knows me. What am I going to do? I have zero plans for my family’s welfare, way to go dad! This noxious self-commentary tortured my sleep all the more.

One of our great regrets from the last eight years in the Northwest has been how little we’ve explored. So it came with a touch of redemption when my wife suggested we buy a travel trailer, move into it, and take the map by storm. And not just the travel stirred me. I felt, and still do, that I needed to get away to think and pray; to ponder thoughts about me and who God is calling me to become.

I've always dreamed of my own writing cabin in the woods. I never imagined it would have wheels.

I maybe should have expected a hard road. God’s call often leads into the thick of it. One of my favorite lines in scripture is from just after Jesus’ baptism. He ought to be basking in the sun, exultant; the heavens have opened, and the divine voice has dispensed the clearest adulation possible, “This is my beloved son!” What perfect clarity! But what comes next sounds more pernicious: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk. 1:12). That phrase, “drove him out,” is just one word, ekballo, which conjures the image of a bartender grabbing an unruly guest by the collar and throwing them through the doors of an old western saloon. Not exactly an image we typically assign to the Spirit. And yet, there it is.

I don’t feel quite unsaddled and tossed to the wild beasts of the Negev, but I feel a little ekballoed.

But Jesus faced off with the darkest of evils in that desert, and came through as a man ready to launch the work of the Kingdom of God. His trust, or faith, in God the Father, allowed him to look the devil in the eye and cast him out, unsatiated.

Perhaps that’s the point of where I am. What would my faith be if it didn’t help me through the smoke? It’s here in the smoke when bonds grow deep. It’s here when real prayers, raw, unprepared, tearful prayers, flow from your heart. It’s here that the fluff of life--all that malignant entertainment-driven drivel I tend to live on--and its hold over me becomes apparent. It’s here that we see ourselves in the mirror for what we are. It’s here that faith proves its weight. It’s here that the devil and his wiles are unmasked, dethroned, and cast out.  

Maybe you've been there too, in the toxic fog. Maybe you're there with me now. Cling to a faith that Jesus has been there too and knows the way to unpolluted air. Hold fast to his guiding hand and unyielding opposition to the devil's guile. Surely he can guide us both beyond our ekballoed state to a fresh sense of ourselves and our ability to minister with him. 

In the North Cascades the smoke blew out yesterday. A dawn of fresh and refreshingly cold air met us today. But in my spirit I continue to wait, huddled and clinging to faith that God knows the way. Most folks might write to you after such a spell, in the interest of tidying things up. I thought it might be helpful to put out a note from the haze. I sleep okay most nights, but the tossing and turning comes every now and again. The incessant calls of pessimism and self-doubt harangue me before the dawn; when they do I just get up, make a cup of tea, and write in my journal. It seems a more productive way to wait out the smoke until the clear dawn rises.

Postscript: I’m also doing really well. A bit of a paradox of being: I’m internally under tortuous maintenance, but I’m also loving my family in a way that I’d never known before. I’m healing from wounds. I can feel my joy returning--a zeal for life, long forgotten, returns in waves. I’ve had sweet hours of communion with Jesus. I’m beginning to catch a glimpse of who I am, beyond the smoke.

1 I hesitate to compare myself to Job. My own situation pales in comparison to Job's heap of human misery. But I do sympathize with his tortured sleep.


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