As we enter graduation season, summer weddings, and major times of transition for so many, I thought I’d dig into the treasure chest and dust off a word that I gave to a group of students a few years ago: advice as they prepared to transition out of a time of intense spiritual study and growth. Perhaps it will resonate and encourage some of you.
The following words were presented to a group of students in the Discipleship Training School in Penang, Malaysia before their graduation in July of 2005.
Coming Down from the Mountain: Remembering as a key to life after a spiritually rich experience
God has spoken things to you during this experience – you might have new excitement or fresh vision for the future. A lot has happened in your hearts. You might be asking: what do I do now?
What is on my heart is to encourage and challenge you to obey God, specifically in the area of memory: you need to Remember. In my experience, this is key.
Many of you will be familiar with C.S. Lewis’ beloved The Chronicles of Narnia. Many people use his books for various illustrations, as I use The Silver Chair now, because I think it will be helpful. In the book the lion Aslan, the Christ figure in the books, is sending a girl named Jill and her friend Scrubb on a mission. They have been called to the world of Narnia to help rescue a prince who was stolen by a beautiful, powerful, deceptive witch. Aslan gives Jill a number of signs, or what we might consider truths, that will help her to be successful in her mission. These are the last words Aslan speaks to Jill as he is about to send Jill on her journey:
… remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And, secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters. And now, daughter of Eve, farewell –
– C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair (1953). Toronto: Scholastic,1995.
Your experience over these last few months has been a very concentrated time of spiritual learning and growth. Life isn’t always like that – spiritual growth isn’t always that intensive. Some of you have immediate plans. You are transitioning into university, to further spiritual study, into marriage or jobs. Some of you don’t have plans just yet.
Whatever you do, you will need to live out your faith, practice obedience. Sometimes the air will seem very thick, and it will be hard to remember that you love God, that he’s changed you, what the truth is, that you love people, that you are OK, holy, growing….
So, I want to talk about Remembering and about one really important thing we as believers need to remember.
As you study the Bible, especially the book of Joshua, there is no question about whether God will speak to his people, direct them and give them victory. That is clear and promised. There is no question about whether God’s people will hear his voice. The question is: Will God’s people respond to God in obedience and realize victory?
Let’s read Joshua 4:1-7:
When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan from right where the priests stood and to carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
In the book of Joshua, the Israelites constantly mark significant lessons from God, and significant victories with altars of stone. You see this throughout the Old Testament. God wants them to remember specific things.
What do Memorial stones show us?
1. People have a natural curiosity about things
2. Humankind has an inherent capacity to forget
This is a terrible consequence of the fall; people are forgetful, even about the miraculous work of God: people adjust and adapt to circumstances, and in this way lose perspective of God’s reality. We lose perspective and we lose it fast! Israel was commanded to totally change the circumstances of Canaan, to make it agree with God’s view of the world. What we see by the end of the book of Joshua and the beginning of Judges is that within a generation of entering the Promise Land, Israel instead ‘adapted’ to the view of the world.
3. People need help remembering truth about God, history, reality
4. People need to remember God’s sovereign work in history so they can live well in the present
One of the most significant commands for God’s people (which we see in the Old and New Testament) is that we Remember. And God has given us a lot of help.
He gives constant reminders to us of his promises in nature. Rainbows – think Noah. Stars – think Abraham. Sand – the Patriarchs. The written word. And God constantly uses symbols and signs that mean certain things and remind the people of faith of all of the promises and goodness of God, things like circumcision under the Old Covenant and communion in the New.
But with Israel at the Jordan, as they prepared to enter the Promise Land, God commands Joshua to set up the memorial stones so that kids will ask parents what they mean. These signs create a chain of signification that arrives at an understanding and memory of God. The story of the crossing at the Jordan would remind the parents of another crossing in Israel’s history at the Red Sea. The Red Sea would recall Egypt and the incredible narrative of the nation’s 400 years of bondage to foreign masters, God’s unprecedented and miraculous deliverance of the whole nation, God’s promises, God’s sovereignty, and from that story names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, would appear on the tablet of the mind and engage it into the tradition and evidence and reality of God’s purpose: fellowship with man. With twelve stones, parents had an opening to tell the entire history of the human race and to teach their children about God’s ultimate purpose for the earth!
We need things like Memorial Stones in our lives that will remind us of God’s word and God’s work.
Throughout scripture, God continually commands people, especially leaders, to meditate on his word and work day and night. There are some clear examples of leaders in scripture who succeeded at this: Moses, Joshua, David, Josiah, Jesus. For the most part, these were ‘normal’ people who took God’s command seriously: they knew God’s word and believed it and acted upon it. We can tell by looking at their lives, by what they said, did, and by what they wrote, that they knew God’s word, and therefore his heart, his will, and his ways. As a result, their lives were shaped according to God’s word.
Where do we fit in all of this? I have two questions for you to consider:
1. How good are you at forgetting?
2. How good are you at remembering?
Like I said, Remembering is one of the greatest challenges of our Christian lives. Personally, I’m very good at forgetting, but I’m getting better at remembering.
Lately I’ve been thinking about striving and occasionally catch myself ‘striving’ to be righteous, feeling the need to prove to God that I’m righteous. Some of you might feel that pressure. You go home to churches or families, and you might feel pressure to prove that your experience here was worthwhile, that it was life changing. You may feel the need to prove that the money people gave you to come and learn, or the money that you spent yourself was well invested.
One of, if not the thing, we believers need to remember is that Christ has done all the striving. Christ has done all the spiritual work we would otherwise need to do to please God (work we could never accomplish because of our inherent moral failure):
He shall see the travail of his soul, and he will be satisfied. (Isaiah 53.11)
Travail, in Hebrew means, “labor, work, distress, anguish, oppression, weariness.” The passage goes on to say, The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous . That’s why Christ’s words, Come unto me, all of you who labor… I will give you rest! (Matthew 11:28-30) is so significant to us.
As we see in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, the striving we now do, instead, is to strive to be vessels that can receive the blessing of God. We do this as we strive to believe and obey.
Even in Joshua, in the Old Testament, the picture of ‘striving’ for Israel was to battle to receive. Think about the battle of Jericho. March around the city for seven days, don’t say a word, don’t shoot an arrow, be totally quiet, and on the seventh day blow trumpets and shout, but only when I tell you. Does that sound like a successful military strategy? But, God fought for them and granted them victory as they obeyed him and stepped out in courage. Victory was assured. They just had to go and claim it.
My challenge to you is to strive to Remember to battle to believe and receive. This is easy and difficult. The whole world is against us. And our circumstances tell us different things.
A way I have tried to describe the ‘battle to believe’ God and remember his truth is through the following poem:
toes curled over
the edge of
his own mind
a goldfish circling
to the same
memory of choice
the decision to pray
Day in, day out, you must Remember the truth of God spoken to you.
So, I want to challenge you today to cultivate in your lives ways of remembering. The Israelites used memorial stones, circumcision, the law, songs (see Deuteronomy 32). Today, we have things like communion, the written word of God (Psalms, Old Testament narrative, gospels, epistles). What will you use as tools for remembrance? Personally, I journal, write poetry, occasionally do some sort of art piece, I read prophetic words given to me in the past. These are ways I incorporate what God is doing in my life into memory.
When you leave this experience, go from the mountain of transformation into the valley of regular experience, things will be different. The air will be thicker. I’ve gone down from the mountain before. Perhaps you will go to an environment where people say there is no God, that morality is totally relative, that Christians are stupid, out of touch with reality, a reality very different from this environment. Perhaps you will be surrounded by people who value you for your looks, your grades, your bank account, your sex life, your achievements or what they can get from you; people, whether they say it out loud or not, who constantly try to tell you who you are, what you’re worth, or who you should be.
Your head is clear, here. But the air will get thicker, and it will be come harder to remember. However you do it, you need an outlet for remembering.
We need to live meditative, reflective lives, hearing from God. There is no other option, except confusion, fog. The good news is that your experience here has helped you to succeed, and in your lives you already have things in place for you to be the people of God who Remember his words and his ways. You’ve learned to spend time before God in silence, to cultivate a habit of worship, prayer, to meet together, to declare what you think and believe, the truth, to others. These are spiritual disciplines you have practiced here and can practice anywhere.
If you look at Israel in the time when Joshua was written, they did well for one or two generations. But within a few decades, by the book of Judges, they are more godless and perverted and evil than pagans!
They failed because they forgot. They did not do the work of continually Remembering truth. You have heard, and unfortunately will hear, stories of people who completed a program like yours, who had incredible and real spiritual experience, who turn from God. You may know some people like this.
Whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your minds from following God’s truth. The air has been clear and your mind is now clear, but the air will thicken. Take care that it does not confuse your mind. Remember the truth and believe the truth. Nothing else matters.
I want you to do well for the rest of your lives. You will do well to Remember.