Intergrity: Tough Times
Candles in the Desert
Psalm 23:1-3 NIV
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
He Made Me Lie Down
I wouldn’t lie down. I couldn’t lie down. I had to make a living, to provide for my family and for my impending retirement. There was no time to lie down. There never had been time, not in 39 years of professional life. I had never really rested. I never ceased from activity: project after project, season after season, Sunday after Wednesday after Sunday, never in almost 40 years.
The Desert Trek
I had just experienced the desert, a 5-year trek through a hostile, dangerous desert where one dared not lie down. Even my dreams were of hostile pursuit through constantly shifting landscapes and terror-fill urban streets. The traveler does not lie down in the desert; he keeps going. If you have not yet experienced the desert in ministry, please know that you will survive. If you are there now, receive the poem I wrote in that desert as a path through shifting sands. It follows this essay.
Scorched from the desert trek, I did not feel the call to be a worship/music pastor again. I felt the approach of a long awaited dream—a life of teaching the next and current generation of worship leaders and lead worshipers. Rather than cast myself on the marketplace of churches looking for worship leaders, I would strike out on my own, looking for a classroom and for students.
I would find a home for The Worship Renewal Center.
From time to time I had often found temporary classrooms and students borrowed from colleges, seminaries and universities. God had always blessed these experiences in powerful ways whether the students were in the USA or in Europe or the Orient. It always felt so right. It was the obvious fruit of years of study and experience—the natural function of maturity and youth meeting at the Throne of God, together trembling at the Word, to use Isaiah’s phrase. (Isa 66:1-2 NIV)
There was so much to write! I wanted to write one book in the mornings and another in the afternoons. There was a backlog of projects I never seemed to be able to get to because of the demands of the ministry. It seemed my church job was always interfering with my ministry. Now, there would be time. I had no plans to lie down. I never even thought about it.
Before I could get started, a former church called upon me to help with a transition in leadership on a one year contract. That work was demanding on many levels and was certainly no season of rest. My obsessive nature took over and I put everything into a ministry so familiar to me it was almost second nature. In this setting, beloved friends from a former life blessed us and hopefully we helped them. But it was all short term, simply a “Bethabara,” a “House of passage.” So we were in motion again, continuing our journey south to found The Worship Renewal Center.
If there were ever a place for “green pastures” it is Florida! Soon we had a part time job doing another interim. This meant more new relationships, more new songs and more new skills. But it did not mean lying down. I set to work trying to book myself and do my part to bring worship renewal to the church.
Then the economy went south, farther south even than Florida. For the first time in our lives my wife, Freeda, had trouble finding a teaching job. This job was vital to the plan of starting the Center. Pastors began to experience a downturn in giving and while they certainly wanted what I had to offer, it was also something they could do without. All the colleges in our denomination froze their hiring.
When Freeda finally got a teaching job, the interim position I had was over. I redoubled my efforts at finding work. There was much I could do: interim music director, interim pastor, guest speaker, guest worship leader, guest lecturer, arranger / orchestrator, consultant and writer. But I didn’t have a clue how to get the work. Everything cost money: a website, promotional materials, product to sell to extend the ministry. But money was scarcely to be found. Car payments and other such trivialities took precedent. Work trickled in, just enough to keep the gendarmes from the door and never enough to get the Center going.
Guilt over not providing, led to doubt about the Lord’s call to do this ministry. I tried to find a church, but we were committed to live where we were. For 35 years Freeda and I had gone wherever the work sent us but now we were committed to a place. We collided with the current youth craze in our denomination. Ironically, experience and education proved to be hindrances when possessed in abundance.
Had we missed the call of God? Second guessing our decision led to fear that God would not provide. I went through different anger spells: angry with the church, angry with myself, even anger at God.
Finally there was nothing to do but lie down.
And lie down I did. Writing, which had always been work but had never really been a struggle, became tortuous. I had no confidence that what I was writing was any good. I couldn’t lose myself in my writing so it became overly artful, even artificial and I hated it. So much for the “one book in the mornings and another in the afternoons” plan.
Lying down finally broke the Sunday-to-Wednesday-to-Sunday inertia that had carried my life forward and seemed an unstoppable force. More than lying down, I drifted onto a shoal of inactivity like a beached vessel.
In that exposed position a strange thing started happening to me. With no demands on my creativity and therefore nothing to be obsessive over, I began to obsess over traumas from my past, from high school, college and the ministry. One by one these traumas captured my mind. I was lying down and reliving traumas that I had never really had the time to process. Since my desert trek, my dreams had been quiet, even peaceful and enjoyable. Now past traumas robbed me of sleep and invaded my dreams when I did sleep.
The old adage, “An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop” was proving true. I gave in to the temptation to be prayer-less, so another layer of guilt and a steady spiritual weakening were added to my stress. I often heard my Jr High School teachers’ report of “Steve is not working up to potential” and my father’s declaration that I was lazy. I had no defense for either charge.
Each recalled trauma brought with it a temptation to contact characters in these past melodramas. It is easy to find people from your past. I am glad to report victory over this temptation but it was this final temptation to bring those people out of the past and into today’s story that caused me to deal with these issues on some internal level beyond the reach of words. When I did not yield to temptation, the remembered trauma broke like a wave on the sand and withdrew.
One evening in March of 2009 I was sitting in the backyard swing praying the evening service and I came to Psalm 23. How many times in a man’s life who is pushing 60 years of age and has been reading the Bible since he learned to read, has that man read Psalm 23? But, for the first time I saw the strength of the Shepherd.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
I would never lie down on my own; He had to make me.
On that pleasant March evening in central Florida, I knew the Shepherd had led me to green pastures and still waters and He had made me lie down. There was work for me to do that could only be done from a prone position. When I was prayer-less, he was disappointed, but He was not angry. When I railed against life, He listened patiently to my rant. When I pointed my anger at Him, wondering where His covenant promises were for us, He took the blows of my faithless fists.
All the while the grass was thick, the breeze friendly and the waters still and deep.
Had my calendar been full, my previous life-style of obsessive ministry preparation and presentation would have continued unabated. Past traumas would remain buried beneath the surface of my spirituality.
Far from forgetting His covenant promises to me, The Good Shepherd was comforting me in my discomfort with His rod and staff.
I write all of this without a teaching position and a nearly empty calendar. I also have a confidence in my Lord, my shepherd.
I shall not be in want.
Before my desert adventure, I wrote this poem/prayer.
Candles in the Desert
I light my candles day and night, each flame a prayer and my soul the burning wick.
Lord, let my weakness melt away and only strength collect beneath the candlestick.
Of what use is the candle’s glow in the light of the desert sun?
Can the candle’s feeble flame withstand the wasting desert wind?
Can the tiny warmth of a candle break the chill of the wide desert night?
I woke up in this desert, comforted somehow, by
The bleak desolation,
The trackless dunes,
The seditious sands,
The blinding winds,
The focused sun, and,
The menacing dark.
I thought I was lost, abandoned, forgotten, trudging along in a random, uncaring world.
But I am only in the desert, lured here by Your lovingkindness.
I will light my candles in this desert.
They will not add much light to the sun.
They will not, by themselves, survive the violent winds.
They will not greatly warm the frigid desert darkness.
But my candles will light my path.
I will shelter their slender flames from the ceaseless winds.
And I will sing my night songs in their light.
You lured me here to this desert so that I may remember that even here,
You are Lord.
Stephen Phifer, June 17, 2006, IWS, Orange Park, FL
“But then I will win her back once again. I will lead her out into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. Hos 2:14 NLT
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved