Belden Lane says that when we come to the desert, the desert teaches us what we care about most and what we most need to let go of, letting the the pieces fall away into the emptiness; and there, meeting God.
In 2016 that is exactly what Todd Wynward called on a group of “committed fierce companions” to do. The invitation went out across the country to those who are made uneasy by, or as Martin Luther King Jr. says, “maladjusted” to the ways our modern society and culture cause harm to the Earth, to each other, to our ways of thinking, and our spirituality. And fierce they were — seven individuals from various walks of life heeded the call and traveled to Taos, New Mexico.
This wilderness trek, this crucible in which we challenged ourselves to enter into the emptiness and the void of desert and solitude, compelled each member to introspectively challenge ourselves and the ways in which we live in relationship with the World. This self-examination is far more than looking at how we as Christians and members of this global neighborhood impact each other, it is also about how our mentalities towards each other, ourselves, God, and the Earth are re-shaped and re-invented through community, relationship, and wilderness.
To be in the wilderness for even just one week is to experience new forms of interdependence, but also to feel your body in new ways — new challenges, new fatigue, new limits — and to overcome them. A group learns that each member is important, and the individual learns their importance and role, in carrying the equipment, food, and resources necessary for survival. It is a powerful thing to rely on each other to meet needs, and to rely on your immediate surroundings for needs of water and shelter. As Jeff Boehr (age 60, Bluffton), one of our participants, put it, “You are immersed in and confronted with the deep connection of your body, mind, and spirit with the Earth. It is more than a living on the surface camp experience. The community experienced and potential spiritual depth available to experience can be life-altering.”
Our trip started with five days of backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, all of our food and gear strapped to our backs. Five days of rain, hail, sun, clouds, and some of the most stunning mountainscapes and vistas. Four nights of frigid temperatures, warm fires, hot meals, many laughs and stories, and of course, sleep. Each morning we checked our maps and headed out into the mountains forests – whether following a path or not – to make it to our next destination. Breaks were often times to partner up and share reflections on a particular guided conversation or question Wynward challenged us with, and this intimate interaction and relationship-building spurred us on into a deepening of our trek.
Conversations often happened like this – either partnering up, or sharing a reading and reflection as a whole group. It is impossible to talk about this trip without emphasizing just how important and impactful each member of our “company” was to one another’s experience. The depth, vulnerability, and determination each person carried themselves with allowed for an openness and care that created and held a safe, powerful, and fun space for the week. Todd also planned time for quiet times of reading and writing as a part of processing our new context and new experiences.
One day consisted of hiking up Gold Hill (12,717 ft), a challenge-by-choice, 9-mile side-hike, where we lost our bags and enjoyed a different pace of exploring the New Mexican mountains. Feeling light and adventurous without our packs, our group fought through elevation and limited water to enjoy the most breathtaking sight of the trip — the ability to see for miles and miles around in every direction, a mountain face covered in boulders and wildflowers, wind whirling around us. In an uncolonized space like this, how can one not feel the presence of God.
After our five-day expedition, we made base camp in Lama, preparing for a few more days together. One of those days was a hike down into the Rio Grande River Gorge, boats on our backs, paddles in hand. Kayaking down the gorge was equally as significant as being out in the mountains. To see the beauty of the river, its wildlife, and its carving into the mesa, while also learning about the pollution and degradation of the water made the experience stick with us. To feel and understand both the power and vulnerability of our water is a critical part of understanding one’s sense of place and environment.
Watershed Discipleship, or Watershed Way, is a term that has been picking up steam as a way of place-based learning, lifestyle, and growth. Concrete aspects of Watershed Discipleship are about learning from our watershed — the water, the ground, the wildlife, the people — and understanding the rhythms and health of the natural landscape. The next part is living within your watershed, and working on restoring and healing the deep wounds and trauma caused by human carelessness or greed. The Rio Grande helped us to understand the significance of our lifeways and mentalities towards our systems. Many in our group came from places of abundant water, but to be able to grasp water in a desert where water is a precious resource that has been contaminated helped to put many of our own patterns of consumption in perspective.
Our final two days together involved a 24-hour solo experience, leaving from base camp to head back into the woods on our own. 24 hours to sit in silence, to read, to write, to think, and to be commissioned to fashion a “manifesto,” a commitment to how we want to better be in the World. The big idea — how are we becoming the people God has been waiting for? How are we tuning into the hurt of the Earth and those in it, and responding? How are we accepting an invitation to be co-conspirators in God’s dream and love for the World?
Shalom, a Hebrew word, means the completeness of peace and restoration. If we are truly seeking right relationship with God, it is impossible to not enfold the Earth into our understanding of what is in need of restoration. Our story and God’s are entwined in continued collaboration in working towards shalom, right relationship between us and all things. This is what the wilderness teaches us — the importance and incontrovertibility of these bonds and relationships. And this is what we are extending to you — an invitation to join the mission, to join in the seeking of lifeways that bring healing and a God-inspired shalom.
The trip was long, the trip was fun, and we all learned more than we could have imagined. John Stoltzfus (age 44, Lansdale) summed it up best, “The experience both exceeded my expectations in stretching me in both body and soul. I was both exhausted and filled by the end. This is not a ‘once-and-done’ kind of experience, but one that will continue to inspire new ways of living and being in relation to others, God, and the Earth.”
By Tyler Eshleman, Program Coordinator at the Taos Initiative for Life Together (TiLT)
Richard Rohr–internationally famous speaker and writer and overall incredible spiritual teacher–citing me? Wanted to share the good news, and this recent post.
Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation
Insula dulcamara (detail), 1938, Paul Klee, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland.
The Process of Divinization
Levels of Development:
Joseph Chilton Pearce’s book, The Biology of Transcendence, points to both culture and the cultural entrapment of Christianity as blockages to potential growth toward transcendence. Each stage of brain development provides a biological window to connect with higher levels. But if the child or teenager is threatened or shamed, these possibilities for higher connection die off and the connections to the more primitive, reflexive, reptilian brain–which is hardwired for defense and survival–are strengthened. People stop developing or they even regress. Unfortunately, our culture’s approach to childrearing and even the Church’s teaching style have focused on shaming, punishing, and threatening, just the opposite of what Jesus modeled. Pearce points out that Jesus and other great spiritual teachers throughout history intended to awaken us to “the illusion of culture and the reality of our transcendent nature.” 
Indeed, Christianity has not emphasized our inherent transcendent nature for at least the last five hundred years. We just wanted to flee earth and get to heaven! Christianity allowed itself to be co-opted by cultures for the purpose of social control and order. As Todd Wynward, a longtime friend in New Mexico and a former intern of the CAC, writes in his book Rewilding the Way, “We are the people God’s been waiting for. Why is this so hard for modern Christians to believe and embrace? Because God’s amazing expectations, and our divine potential, have been hijacked by empire-based Christendom and subverted by the framing stories of dominant culture. . . . Your native, indigenous character as a child of God has been distorted. . . .” 
It has not always been this way. The early church fathers and mothers were quite clear about God’s goal for humanity. Augustine (354-430) described the mysterion, the mystery, in one phrase: “For even as Christ became a human being, so now human beings could become like Christ.” It is that simple. What Christ put together, we too have the opportunity to put together. In the second century, Irenaeus said that Jesus became what we are in order to make us what he himself is. That’s daring language. We lost the courage to talk that way in later centuries. Christianity became much more juridical and rational, much more transactional than transformational.
The early church understood the mystery of holiness as a true process of theosis, which is the Greek word for divinization (2 Peter 1:4). Gregory of Nazianzen (c. 306-391) said, “Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man. He took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.” This teaching lasted probably into the 14th century to some degree, but largely among the mystics, and only among those who prayed from within.
Dame Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416) has this deep sense of the organic union between the soul and God. Hers is still an optimistic worldview. In Chapter 54 of Revelations of Divine Love, Julian writes, “So greatly ought we to rejoice that God dwells within us, and more greatly ought we to rejoice that our soul dwells in God. . . . In fact I saw no difference between God and my substance. [Wow!] But as it were we were all one. And still my understanding accepted that our substance is in God.” That is to say, God is God, and our substance is a creature in that God. This is why she’s still considered orthodox. Julian is fascinated with that absolute unity, and yet she maintains the I-Thou relationship of the two.  We are one and not two, and yet we are two and not one!Think about that.
Tomorrow we will begin to delve into Spiral Dynamics, a developmental schema integrating spirituality and the sciences of biology, psychology, and sociology. Like Julian of Norwich, it is very optimistic. Rather than blocking the evolution of consciousness as much of Christianity seems to have done in the last few centuries, Spiral Dynamics is acknowledging that as humans adapt to changing conditions, new intelligences are awakened that in turn shape our future. As Wynward puts it, “divinely revolutionized humans are to be conspirators with God’s dream of heaven on earth.”  Ken Wilber says that only healthy religion is prepared to operate “as a conveyor belt” moving us all the way to the higher stages of consciousness. Mere education cannot do that.
The Process of Divinization
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
 Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit (Park Street Press: 2004), 126-127.
 Todd Wynward, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God (Herald Press: 2015), 26.
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, True Self/False Self (Franciscan Media: 2003), disc 3, CD.
What does a transformative, earth-honoring Christianity look like at ground level, lived out in daily action?
Reforms of personal habits—such as recycling and eating locally and shopping responsibly—are important steps. But we’ll need to embody a more robust Christian environmental ethic if we are to become the people God yearns for us to be, and address the overwhelming ecological crisis facing us today. We’ll need to do something wild, and embody watershed discipleship.
Watershed discipleship? It’s a provocative term blending two domains rarely joined in our imaginations: one scientific, the other religious. Yet it’s this kind of paradigm—both data-driven and deeply spiritual, both ancient and new—that Jesus followers will need to adopt in the coming decades if we are to play any significant role in our planet’s healing.
What is watershed discipleship? It’s a movement that’s being worked out, on the ground, in many locations. Activist and theologian Ched Myers gives the term two meanings, and I’ve contributed a third. In a nutshell, watershed discipleship means:
Being disciples during this watershed moment. At this crucial point in history, our choice is between responsive discipleship and reactive denial. We can’t pretend any longer: God’s earth is not just our grab bag and our trash can, to do with however we will. There are consequences to our actions. Interlocking and immediate crises of climate change, diminishing resources, and widening ecological degradation compel us to make environmental justice and sustainability integral to everything we do as disciples of Jesus, asserts Myers.
Being disciples within our watersheds. Wendell Berry warns us that abstract concepts such as “saving nature,” “global thinking” or “creation care” are well intentioned, but often do little unless rooted in actual landscapes. The real question, Berry states, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods….” Myers suggests that followers of Jesus today must be people of specific places, who root their prayers and practices in actual watersheds of care.
Being disciples of our watersheds. Becoming an engaged citizen of a particular place—being molded by its particular constraints, seasons, bounties, and boundaries—is a primary task of watershed discipleship. It is the “re-placed” identity we as a species must rediscover if we are to unshackle ourselves from the ecocidal, dis-placed path of empire. We need to go to school on our surroundings, as the ancients did, and learn core life truths from our own home places. As followers of our primary rabbi Jesus, we need to treat our region as rabbi and teacher as well.
I realize my attempts to explain watershed discipleship are more descriptive than prescriptive. That’s because watershed discipleship is fluid; it remains a “work-in-progress,” an intriguing and powerful concept only discovered and defined as we live it out in our places each day.
Albuquerque Mennonite Church did something unusual last year: they became the focus of their own mission. Our own lifestyles in North America are what need changing, AMC realized. We’re the ones who need to be converted. As we continue to follow Jesus and be faithful to God, they asked, how do we live in right relationship with water, land, creatures, and one another? After living so long as un-placed and dis-placed consumers with global appetites and little local awareness, how do we learn to re-place ourselves and become denizens of our specific bioregion—the high desert of northern New Mexico?
As a church body they began to respond to these questions. In early 2014, they initiated an educational series called “Becoming a People of Place,” gaining a scriptural and theological background for earth justice and reconciliation. Then, in April, they hosted a capacity-building event they called “Re-Placing Ourselves,” to increase their own capacity to be watershed disciples. Other church communities participated, hailing from up and down the Rio Grande watershed, from the headwaters near Alamosa, Colorado, to where the river flows into the gulf near Brownsville, Texas.
In addition to learning, praying, and connecting, the church was doing. Members started changing their shopping habits and taste buds, engaging more with local and community supported agriculture. Others built hoop houses and are looking to establish their own CSA. A “pilgrimage” group studied their own community to see what place-based initiatives and organizations were already established in the area. A “Zero Waste” group took a first step by sorting and weighing a week’s worth of trash they found the church dumpster, and provided insightful feedback to the congregation. Others organized field trips to a nearby recycling plant, a commercial composting facility, and a local water reclamation plant. One member led a series of “urban homesteader” how-to courses while others learned about composting and vermiculture. In its 2014 annual report, the Zero Waste team discussed whether they would concentrate on reducing the church’s material waste stream, or broaden their agenda to examine the church’s use of energy, water, and toxins.
None of these steps are life-changing by themselves. Taken as a whole, however, these small actions reinforce one another, allowing an earth-honoring church to act as leaven in the loaf of dominant culture.
Your Way is My Way
My friend Stephanie came by yesterday to plug in her electric car. She once lived next door to us and we shared a washing machine, but now that we live twenty miles apart, we’ve become her way station. She can do errands and bring her kid to gymnastics, and then visit with us and top off her battery in case it’s a bit low for the return trip home.
Out here in our little mountain town, electric cars are still oddities. Convenient charging stations and smooth level roads are rare or nonexistent. But Stephanie’s household and mine are partners striving for a better kind of life together, so we get creative. When she arrives, I drag her 220-volt extension cord through my house and plug it into the outlet for our clothes dryer, which we rarely use due to the abundance of Taos sun that strikes our backyard clothesline. This time when she visited, we updated each other on our latest findings: she’d discovered a farm in our region that sold flour from wheat they had grown and ground, and I told her about the barley I’d planted this winter so that we could provide our own fodder to our milk goats instead of importing so much hay from farther away.
Stephanie’s household and mine are on a journey of watershed living together. It’s slow, and we stumble, but we help one another on the path. Inspired by the ancient Biblical example of Ruth, we’re beginning to say your way is my way. We’re making a few steps on the path of energy descent and community resilience, and learning to live a bit more within our niche as citizens of our watershed.
Stephanie is an educator and activist with a Ph.D. Like many of my friends, she is intelligent, passionate, creative, and suspicious of organized religion. She left institutional Christianity a long time ago—it was far more hurtful than helpful to her as she was growing up—but she likes the way my wife and I are trying to follow Jesus. We give her hope. She’s part of the loosely-affiliated band we call TiLT—the Taos Initiative for Life Together. Some of us identify as Christian, others do not, but we all strive to reimagine the good life in America, starting with our own. We’re inconsistent and distracted with other concerns, but we often find ourselves growing food together, raising goats together, educating children together, wandering the mountains together. We run camps and start schools and lead treks and build greenhouses and mentor apprentices and manage non-profits and conspire to change our lives together, journeying deeper into the Watershed Way.
Walking the Watershed Way
We’re not journeying alone, either. A few months ago I was licensed by Mennonites in New Mexico and Colorado to be an educator and capacity-builder for watershed discipleship in the way of Jesus. What does that mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I mean to find out. My first step will be to visit with existing congregations and groups in the region to find out what they are already doing and highlight some of their place-based practices they might want to share with others.
Next, I want to encourage the communities in our Mountain States region to enter into a ten-year exploration with us, an invitation to life-change that we’re calling “Walk The Watershed Way.” How can we each—in our own context—free ourselves from harmful lifeways and transition into a better future together by altering habits, innovating systems, and living lighter on the earth? We’re living into this question in 2015 by initiating a decade-long period of shared exploration, initiating and observing significant change in our own lives and in our communities. Each year, participating communities will craft an annual reflection and then share it with other communities, describing the best practices, struggles, questions and surprises that emerged for them during the year. Peer communities will help develop measurable next steps and guiding questions, and together we’ll head into the next cycle.
Why did we choose ten years? Three reasons. First, it’s a timeframe that encourages continued attention and accountability. Our earth is going to undergo significant change in the next ten years. As we participate in this change and check in with each other each year, we want to think and act patiently like trees, but probably not so patiently as tectonic plates. We need to have a healthy sense of informed accountability within community, because our planet’s health will be changing and we need to stay vigilant.
Second, a ten-year timeframe gives a sense of practical urgency dosed with a healthy forgiveness. It makes us plan, prioritize, and prepare, without feeling defeated. The kind of structural changes we need to make—in areas such as food sourcing, housing, energy, transport, community economics—are not going to happen over night, or even in a year. Ten years seems like a daunting but doable time frame that honors the significant transition work ahead of us, yet gives us breathing room. It allows us to make mistakes, and learn from them.
Third, ten years from 2015 is 2025, which marks the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism. Five hundred years ago, a little bit after Martin Luther tacked his protests on the door of the Catholic Church, the forefathers of the Mennonites and Amish broke the law and scandalized Catholicism by baptizing one another and forgiving one another’s sins, without needing professional priests to do it for them. Anabaptism means “again baptizing,” and these brave folk had the wild idea that true discipleship was about adult choice-making, not about being saved through institutional allegiance and infant baptism. Five hundred years after these transformative actions, it seems fitting to have a reckoning, and ask: as followers of Jesus, what are we doing today that is transformative and earth-honoring? What adult choices are we making now that are transforming today’s institutions of consumption and conformity?
Choosing Your Own Path
Where will this exploration of the Watershed Way lead our faith communities over the next decade? I’m guessing that no two communities will follow the same path. Some may be inspired by the example of Albuquerque Mennonite, and turn collective will toward goals of xeriscaping, zero waste, and incubating community-supported agriculture. For other groups located in dense urban areas, walking the Watershed Way may turn both prophetic and political such as what is happening in Detroit, where some faith communities are resisting powerful interests that willingly accept unpaid water bills by corporations but turn off the taps of the poor. Others might enter into a bioregional food covenant like my friend Stephanie and I are doing here in Taos, and see how we can adapt to what is available in our area.
I am a Mennonite, an environmentalist, and an unapologetic follower of Jesus. But where I live in northern New Mexico, the Watershed Way is practiced more deeply by other traditions. I’ll be joining an ancient river, not creating something new. Over the next decade, I’ll be learning from my Native neighbors at Taos Pueblo how they have been able to walk the Watershed Way in this bioregion for thousands of years; I’ll be learning from traditional Hispanic farmers and ranchers how they have been practicing the Watershed Way here these past five centuries. I’m guessing that, where you live, you have mentors and guides too.
Watershed living is my path of earth-honoring, Jesus-following discipleship. For me as a “half-done” Christian, it is not an intellectual exercise; it is experiential and transformational, a learning-by-doing that results in liberated lifeways and systemic change. Is this path for you? That’s for you to decide. God’s gifts of clean water and pure air and good soil are in the balance; our industrial society is damaging them at a horrific pace. How can we half-done Christians change our ways, and become the people God yearns for us to be? Whatever path you choose in these transition times, I believe that it must be both personal and political, social and spiritual, individual and communal. What will it be for you, in your place, in your situation? Perhaps you’ll encourage your church to “go green” with solar panels and encourage your electric company to provide cleaner energy. Perhaps you’ll harvest roof rainwater and advocate for clean water laws. Maybe you’ll get a few folks to commit to a bicycle-based lifestyle and fight against fracking. Or maybe you’ll grow more of your own food and support local food hubs connecting producers to consumers and help low-income people get healthy, fresh food. Maybe you’ll travel into the woods for weeks at a time, and discover you need a lot less from industrial society than you thought.
We’re heading into transition times, my friends, an unknown wilderness for which there are no maps, only sketches. God is doing something new, and the Spirit is troubling the waters. As Ched Myers observes, whenever the Holy Spirit is poured out in human history, traditions are disturbed and institutions disrupted, because our untamed God is not a domesticated deity, but the One who liberates us from our enslaved condition.
In a wilderness time like ours, we need a wilderness guide. The Greeks had a word for this: hodégos, meaning a leader for the journey or a guide for the way. It comes from two other words: hodos, a noun describing a road, path a way or a journey; and hégeomai, a verb that means I lead or I think. Hodégos, then, means a conductor, both literally and figuratively—a wilderness guide, or a mentor on a spiritual path. In Jesus, we have the ultimate hodegos, the eternal guide for wilderness times. He not only knows the way, he is the Way, and calls us to follow along unfamiliar paths. By following his call, we’ll be joining countless other disciples before us who have left empire behind for a wilder way, trusting in the words God loves to say: Be not afraid, for I am with you always, to the ends of the earth.
Sometimes modern Christians, in our excitement about Jesus, think the incarnation of God first happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. Actually, when we Christians get our theology right, we affirm that is when the human incarnation of God happened, in Jesus, but that God has been inhabiting creation since time began.
As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, divine incarnation actually happened first about 14.5 billion years ago, when this amazing universe was created, through an action we now call “the Big Bang.” That’s when God materialized and manifested and decided to expose who God is. That was the beginning of a process through which God brought forth light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, and every kind of animal, and called it all good. We monotheists believe that one good God created everything, and that God’s blessing fills everything around us.
A God-infused world should be enough justification for God-followers to treat creation as holy, and realize we walk on sacred ground. But a lot of Christians today ask why they should care for the environment, because they’re not seeing a bunch of Bible passages telling them to honor the earth. I get it; after all, that’s what we’re trained to do as Christians—look to the Bible to guide our behavior. But there are other primary texts we should be reading too: like Jesus did, we should always be reading nature, and reading the signs of the times.
Would we look first to the Bible for guidance if our house was being bulldozed and our family was inside? No. We’d stop the bulldozer, or we’d bring our family to safety. Would we look to the Bible first if someone was pouring gasoline into the drinking water of our children? No. We’d stop the perpetrator and make sure our family has clean water to drink. We need no book—even the Good Book–to urge us to these actions. They are natural.
Our current planetary situation is this grave. Our house is being bulldozed; our water is being poisoned. By us. The earth is the miraculous and abundant house that God gave us to enjoy, and we are destroying it. The Greek term oiko—as in economics and ecology—means home, and our ecosystem, our life systems, are being permanently degraded every day by our own actions personally and by industrial society globally. You might not sense it yet, because your water is still drinkable and your air still smells good and your grocery store still sparkles and your trash disappears and your neighborhood is not submerged under rising sea levels. But millions of other citizens of our earth home—both human and not–are feeling it everyday. And we Christians keep wondering if the Bible exhorts us to do something.
Reading Nature: The Earliest Bible
Authentic disciples have always read the Bible in one glance, and read the big picture in another; they have always read the signs of the times, interpreted Scripture, and moved when the Spirit says move. Take slavery for example. There are several Bible verses condoning slavery; if Christians took only those as a guide, without being guided by a larger sense of love and justice, we would be perpetuating a society that was truly anti-Christ, promoting the very cruelty, inhumanity and oppression that Jesus came to liberate us from.
So please don’t wait until Scripture convinces you to care for God’s precious gift of creation. I’m doing exactly that in this article—provide Scripture-based encouragement for you to adapt your actions—but the time for transition is now. Don’t wait for another Bible study or a worsening headline; God has been calling our culture to earth-honoring repentance for a long time now. And we’re the ones to do it. We just need to remember to pay attention to what is sacred.
Many Christians feel God’s presence in nature, sometimes more often than in church. How about you? Many of us feel unconditional love when touched by a sunrise, and see resurrection hope when plants emerge in Spring. In Romans, Paul speaks to this awareness: God’s nature is plain to see in creation, in the things that have been made (1:20). Richard Rohr names the obvious: the natural world is the first and primary Bible. Creation is our first and final cathedral. As the 16th-century “Doctor of the Church” Thomas Aquinas states so well, creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine. Sometimes Christians are so focused on being “Bible-based” that they forget something vital: Jesus and his followers had no New Testament. Let me say this again: Jesus and his disciples did not rely on our Bible; they looked to nature, personal experience and their tradition of Judaism to find God’s good way. Think about how many times Jesus uses natural objects to illustrate his teachings: salt, light, mustard bushes, yeast, fish, foxholes, figs, grapes, lilies, sheep, goats, cedars, palm trees, olives, mountains, rivers, sparrows, sand, stone, sea, wheat, watering holes, ditches, donkeys, camels and more. He was educating people about God and Spirit through nature. From what we know of Jesus and his posse, they were a gang of transient foragers and fishers and gleaners, at least as comfortable sleeping and eating outside as they were under the roofs of men. This was not new; he was following in the footsteps of his tradition, a people who always found God revealed in untamed spaces.
Camping as Communion
As a wilderness trip leader, I’ve spent more than a thousand nights outside, and there I have often felt God’s presence. Most of my life, however, I’ve lived indoors, like most modern people in industrial society. Dwelling in our insulated houses with weather-clad windows, we need to remember that the ancient Israelites chose to be a tenting people. They did not have to be; they did so because they knew God was easier to connect with in the wild. It was no accident that Moses found God in a burning bush on the far side of the desert, in uncolonized space.
Since their untamed God was at home in wild lands, you can bet the ancient Israelites took camping seriously. Reading God in nature was at the heart of the Israelite experience of the divine. Tent traveling was how they experienced life and encountered God, not in metaphor but in fact. In truth, tenting was such a pervasive part of daily living and sacred ceremony in Biblical times that the word tent shows up 333 times in Scripture. That’s right: not 3, not 33, but 333 times. They lived in them, slept in them, ate in them, worshiped in them, died in them, gave birth in them. Camping was both covenant and communion. Camp itself was sacred space, holy ground, “for the Lord your God moves about in your camp” (Deuteronomy 23:14). God traveled with his people as they traveled.
God’s vision of ideal society, from ancient times, has been camping communion with his people on Earth. I mean this literally: God is a big fan of tent camping. Civilized society tends to forget this elemental truth, and as we continue to shield ourselves from nature and distance ourselves from living with the land, it becomes harder and harder to see the original meaning of ancient earthy scripture. For example, in most modern translations of Leviticus, God tells the ancient Israelites, “I will put my dwelling place among you” (Leviticus 26:11). Yahweh is making a promise to walk among his people and journey with them as they journey. Dwelling place is rather abstract and displaced, isn’t it? A more literal translation is both more accurate and more intimate: “I will pitch my tent among you.” God wants to camp with His people, on the ground, in the dust. This ancient vision from the earliest days of the Israelites is later invoked at the opposite end of the Bible in the Book of Revelation, when the author paints a future picture of creation redeemed.
The writer is describing a band of God’s people (like the ancient Israelites) who have suffered and journeyed, and, in our civilized English translations, we read that God “will shelter them with his presence.” This is a beautiful image in itself, but an even richer dimension of companionship and caring emerges when we read a more elemental rendering: God will literally “spread his tent over them.” The Lord will be their shepherd, their trip leader. He will care for their needs and bring them to springs of fresh living water (Revelation 7:15-16). Today’s Christians are the spiritual descendents of these wilderness-dwelling people.
But we modern folks, in our race to upgrade our lives, have lost our wild, vital connection to the natural world. Richard Rohr observes that, with the invention of the printing press nearly six centuries ago, people started reading books far more than reading nature itself. We have substituted ideas and words for direct appreciation of and participation in the world immediately around us. In my view, the more we progressed in written literacy, the more we lost in eco-literacy. These days, we rarely know where our food originates, what native species dwell where in our places, what original people once lived there, where our water comes from, or where our waste goes. By becoming so dis-placed and de-natured, we lose our participation within God’s miraculous world and instead turn “nature” into the other, an external commodity to manipulate that is inert, non-enchanted, marketable and far from holy. This, bluntly, is not the way of God’s people. God’s people always pay attention to the wild world around them and seek right relation with creation.
[This article was published under a different title in The Mennonite, May 2015]
We’re the people God’s been waiting for. If this sentiment seems heretical to you, I understand. Like me, you’ve been raised in Christendom, a breed of institutional religion initiated by the Roman emperor Constantine that replaces the liberating Way of Jesus with a way that encourages its own accumulation of unequal wealth, military might, and political power. Christendom is a control-oriented corruption of authentic Christianity. It teaches a distant and judgmental God lording it over a miserable human race, holding out the hope of an otherworldly heaven as a carrot. Under this model, humans aren’t supposed to do much but worship and obey, avoiding sin as best they can. One of the greatest tragedies of Christendom over the centuries is that it has domesticated our God-given human potential.
No matter what you’ve been taught, know this: God has always desired for us to be conspirators in God’s dream, collaborators in redemption. What is this God project? Heaven on earth.
From the beginning, God has dreamed of an ideal society, something that Jesus called “the kingdom of God”: human community embodying covenanted right relationship with each other and all creation. So why hasn’t God’s dream been fulfilled yet? The wild truth is that God needs us, and we humans have yet to do our part.
In our sacred stories, God originally walked and talked daily with humanity along the riverbanks and among the trees. Moses also regularly encountered God face to face. During the exodus, Yahweh was so often present for personal consultations that Moses had a conference room set up in the desert, something he called “the tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go there (Exodus 33:7). This was no distant interaction: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11). God showed up to discuss strategy and imagine next steps, like a coach working with a team. Israel was to be God’s pilot project, a priesthood of all believers, a light to the nations, an example of how societies should live. The Israelite people would have no king; they would be content with enough and not covet too much; they would not mimic the social and economic class systems of the empires around them; and they would live in covenanted right relationship with God, with one another and with the earth. This would be no kingdom of humanity, but a kingdom of God. In order for the Israelites to fulfill such high expectations, Yahweh breathed on their leaders, giving them spiritual resiliency for the long haul.
Jesus’ High Expectation for Humanity
Do you recall Jesus’ first public words upon return from the desert? “Change your life!” He exhorts in the first chapter of Mark; “The kingdom of God is at hand!” (1:15) From the first moment of his public ministry, Jesus promises that God’s dream of covenanted right relationship is available at our fingertips; what we need to do is get on board and live it out day by day. This expectation is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:16). As John Dominic Crossan emphasizes, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God is about the transformation of this world into holiness, not the evacuation of this world into heaven.
Sometimes we forget: God’s dream of heaven on earth is a partnership requiring our full engagement. It’s at hand, but it’s not being done for us; we need to grab on. In this light, look again at an incident when Jesus could not do his healing, transformative work: Jesus could not heal in his hometown because the people did not believe it was possible (Mark 6:5). But right before that, in the preceding chapter, a woman reaches out in trust and finds true healing (Mark 5:25-34). The uncomfortable but exciting message: unless humans do their part, the kingdom of God cannot be realized.
I’m guessing some of the early disciples were as taken aback as we are about Jesus’ expectations. Can’t God just rescue us and fix everything? Jesus corrects this notion by sharing some expectations that remain mind-blowing even two thousand years later: In John, he says that his disciples have the capacity to do even greater things than he has done (14:12). I’m sure that shocked more than a few of his followers, and a few more probably fell out of their seats when he added, “I no longer call you servants . . . I have called you friends” (15:15-17). Jesus makes it clear the divine project of heaven on earth needs friends, allies, partners. To empower his disciples as collaborators in this God-project, he breathes on them, giving them pneuma, Spirit, filling them with his own liberating power and an electrifying mandate to forgive sins and release economic debt and free people from oppression.
Talk about high potential! Jesus expects nothing less than social transformation out of his cell groups. Filling them with spiritual power, he expects his highly imperfect followers to be capable of incredible things, to go viral with the community-based kingdom of God, sharing the vision and practice of covenanted right relationship that will spread like leaven in the loaf.
The Early Church Passed It On
The early church faithfully carried Jesus’ message: divinely revolutionized humans are to be conspirators with God’s dream of heaven on earth. Saint Irenaeus, a second-century father of the church, taught that human existence is a process of “soul-making.” He asserted that humanity was created immature, and that humans needed both free will and a difficult world in order to develop into the divine likeness. If this concept sounds different or dangerous, it might just show how influenced by Christendom we are, as it was a central tenet of the early church before Constantine. We can trust Irenaeus as a mainstream source: his most well-known work was entitled Against Heresies, and he was a key player in defining “correct belief” as early Christianity evolved.
Reclaiming our potential reclaims our role in the partnership God has always desired with us. God needs us to realize his dream. Saint Augustine, during the fifth century in Rome, expressed this divine-human interdependent partnership in a memorable maxim: “Without God we cannot; without us He will not.” It’s a strange and wonderful realization: God chooses to conspire with us and in us. Thomas Merton, the most well-known Catholic monk of the past century, echoes this same sentiment in a way that makes me think it might actually be true:
God seeks Himself in us, and the aridity and sorrow of our heart is the sorrow of God who is not known to us, who cannot yet find Himself in us because we do not dare to believe or trust the incredible truth that He could live in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed we exist solely for this. . . . But we make all this dark and inglorious because we fail to believe it, we refuse to believe it. It is not that we hate God, rather that we hate ourselves, despair of ourselves.
If we once began to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.
We are the people God’s been waiting for. Why is this so hard for modern Christians to believe and embrace? Because God’s amazing expectations, and our divine potential, have been hijacked by Empire-based Christendom and subverted by the framing stories of dominant culture. It’s time for our re-education.