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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

While Walking in the Darkness – I Saw the Light

Written by: on March 21, 2015

Our pastor cluster met today; the cluster is eight to ten pastors who gather together once a month to share ministry, encourage and support one another and to pray together. It is an all-day experience from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. A highlight is reading and discussing a book every two months. Today, we completed the book by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change. Stanley understands the purpose and practice of preaching (or, for that matter, any effort to communicate the gospel as “sermons, talks, teachings and messages”[1]) is “to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener.”[2] The goal of preaching, as stated in the book title, is change – life change through effectively communicating the gospel. This book was an excellent choice for our cluster as it affords more than knowledge; Stanley encourages and elevates the pastor.

Stanly outlines a process how we can experience and communicate change. To communicate for change, involves several intentional steps: set a goal, isolate/articulate a specific point that can lead to change, and “create a map”[3] or a plan that can be worked to get there. I found many areas of correlation between Communicating for Change and a second read for this week, Shelley Trebesch’s book, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader. Both authors are seeking to understand and achieve a deeper, fuller spiritual life. On the one hand, spiritual growth (change) occurs through “owning” one’s experience and engaging in community through relational experience that elevates spiritual understanding;[4] on the other hand, growth and maturity (transformation) comes through isolation experiences in a “wilderness” or “desert” that affirm one’s spirituality.[5]

There is a relational connection between the concepts of change and transform; they are parallel and, paradoxically, overlapping concepts. We learn through what is happening in our lives. This type of learning, as we discovered in reading Caroline Ramsey, is “practice [experience] centered learning.”[6] A key to change and transformation, for all of the authors I have mentioned, is deliberate, intentional effort to recognize and apply our life experiences. For Trebesch, this means to process deeply and to “seriously evaluate life and ministry.”[7]Attention is a process, according to Ramsey, that results in “cognitive activity”[8] that leads to a better awareness of our context and filters out the “noise” that prevents skillful and wise application of learning practices and opportunities. Stanley’s focus is on change; the application of what we hear and experience ought “to teach people how to live … to do something different instead of just think about it …to know what to do with what they have learned.”[9]

What we might learn through difficult experiences is not always apparent.  Reading Trebesch’s book on Isolation makes one aware of how easily we can miss the learning opportunity in difficult times. Her writing is founded on a basic presupposition that all leaders have “isolation experiences.” She goes on to note that “despite the pain that often ensues during an isolation time, these are crucial for the development of a leader.”[10]  My initial reaction to Trebesch was a failure to recognize my own isolation experiences. My thought process was reinforced when initially I could not connect with her definition: “[T]he setting aside of a leader from normal ministry involvement in its natural context usually for an extended time in order to experience God in a new or deeper way.”[11]What is she talking about? A Sabbatical? There are two processes that she outlines early in the book that made it accessible to me: First, there is a wide spectrum of events that lead to isolation experiences; the event can vary in terms of intensity and is not always easily recognizable as isolating one from ministry. She then describes the nature of voluntary and involuntary experiences of isolation;[12] the definition and examples clarified how we enter isolation experiences and what the experiences mean in our spiritual growth and relationship with God and each other. I did relate to many personal isolation experiences, some quite dramatic that I had not identified before.

There are a number of really practical applications in Isolation; in fact, it is the delineating of many steps and processes that make this work accessible and applicable. A good example is the fourfold process in isolation experiences. In looking retrospectively at my experiences, the application of stripping, wrestling, intimacy (identity) and forward looking or uplifting are easily identified.

One of the highlights for me in Isolation is the example and interpretation that Trebesch provides on Old and New Testament examples of isolation experiences. While reading Stanley and Trebesch, I discovered that both authors used Jesus’ temptation experience in teaching their principles. Grant Osborne in his commentary on Matthew calls attention in 4:1 to how Jesus was “led” by the Spirit, while in Mark 1:12 the Spirit “sent” Jesus, or more forcefully, “the Spirit cast him [Jesus] out” into the wilderness.[13] It is important in understanding the significance of the wilderness experience to note that God led/sent Jesus which is interpreted as testing as opposed to Satan tempting; God does not temp; God seeks to restore and lead to deeper faith (Jas 1:13); this can happen through testing that the Lord God allows to occur in life. These concepts factor into both authors exegetical application. Stanley uses the temptation/testing experience of Jesus by focusing on his own personal experience of “being tempted.” He notes that we must “own”[14] an experience before we can make it applicable to ourselves and definitely to others. Trebesch emphasizes the “wilderness” side of the experience. Most people can relate to feeling alone; there is no help or answer, nobody has ever experienced what I am going though in this moment. Often God seems absent or far away.  Her emphasis is on the outcome of the wilderness experience: “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit.”[15]

I have shared a number of times from Psalm 42, but I never interpreted this text through the lens of isolation experience. Trebesch’s exegesis is refreshing and has brought new and dimensional meaning to crying out, “Why are you cast down, O my soul …? Hope in God …” This is my personal favorite chapter in the book.

The Dark Night of the Soul: The only perplexing thought in Isolation are the references made to the phrase or concept “Dark Night of the Soul.” Trebesch refers to the biblical understanding of the term “as a natural part of the life of faith” and refers to it as a part of her own experience.[16] She also highlights the concept as she relates Jacob’s night-long experience of wrestling with the angel; it is, she notes, a natural part of the “stripping” and “wrestling” that takes part in the isolation fourfold process. Trebesch refers to St. John of the Cross and understands the term to mean “an isolation experience when God cannot be found.”[17] I personally felt disconnected from this concept and I am left with questions. John Coe in his article, “Musings on the Dark Night of the Soul” presents the concept of “developmental spirituality.” He questions it this way:

… is there a ‘developmental spirituality’ that provides an understanding of the various dynamics involved in the spiritual growth of the human spirit across time and the divers manners in which the Holy Spirit works with the person at different times … At some point in our spiritual pilgrimage, [have] we … cried out to God or wondered in our deep: ‘God, where are you? What is wrong with you? Why are you so distant? God, what is wrong with me? ‘Why do I feel so dry inside? Why do I not seem to care the way I used to about you? What have I done wrong?’[18]

His thesis is that there are times in our spiritual journey during a “dark night of the soul, … the Spirit secretly does a deep work in the human spirit-a work that is so profound bur feels so foreign to the Christian’s experience that it is often interpreted as the absence of God.”[19] This is a concept worthy of deeper exploration and understanding.

[1] Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2006), 13.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 119.

[4] Stanley, Ibid., “Rules of Engagement,” 156ff.

[5] Shelly Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the life of a leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabus Publishers, 1997), 10.

[6] Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A Scholarship of Practice Centered on Attention?” Management Learning 45, no.1 (2014): 1.

[7] Trebesch, v.

[8] Ramsey, 5.

[9] Stanley, 95.

[10] Trebesch, vii.

[11] Ibid., 10.

[12] Ibid., 30-34.

[13] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew: Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI” Zondervan, 2010), 2374.

[14] Stanley, 135-136.

[15] Luke 4:14.

[16] Trabesch, 3.

[17] Ibid.

[18] John H. Coe, “Musings on the Dark Night of the Soul: Insights from St. John of the Cross on a Developmental Spirituality,”  Journal of Psychology and Theology 28, (Winter, 2000): 293

[19] Ibid.

About the Author

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6 responses to “While Walking in the Darkness – I Saw the Light”

  1. Miriam Mendez says:

    Ron, thank you for your insightful and rich post! I loved how you weaved in the different, yet similar, perspectives from various authors. You wrote, “It is important in understanding the significance of the wilderness experience to note that God led/sent Jesus which is interpreted as testing as opposed to Satan tempting…” This experience of God leading/sending Jesus into the wilderness is a reminder that in our isolation experience we are never alone. Although it may feel as Trebesch states, “an isolation experience when God cannot be found.” Or as John Coe states, “it is often interpreted as the absence of God.” Through my own experience that is exactly how it felt–I was alone. Yet it was as I went THROUGH the experience that I was able to grasp that I was not alone (believe me this took a while). I realized that my not “feeling” God’s presence did not mean that God was not present. God is always present–God’s promise–“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Thank you Ron, for the reminder.

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    Hey there Mr. Buckeye, I really like the way you dig deep with these readings. To continue the “Dark night of the soul” thoughts, as they can definitely be difficult to wrap our minds around, and frankly who really wants to go down that road.
    My wife, read Mother Theresa’s letters, a book that compiled some of her writings. I think the book was titled “Dark Night of the Soul”. In it she confesses that she only once heard of felt the presence of God and that was many years ago. She wrestled with the not hearing, not feeling the rest of her life. But it didn’t stop her from doing what she knew God would want her to do.
    Interesting addition to what you’ve written, you may enjoy or be challenged by the read as well. I’ve got a question for you, but I’ll put into my response to your comments in my post.

  3. Richard Volzke says:

    Ron,
    I liked the quote that you selected, “Stanley outlines a process how we can experience and communicate change. To communicate for change, involves several intentional steps: set a goal, isolate/articulate a specific point that can lead to change, and “create a map” or a plan that can be worked to get there.” Change is hard for anyone to go through. What I have found, in my ministry, is that it is doubly hard to introduce change into the church vs. other organizations. Having a working plan is key to success of any endeavor.

    How can we, as leaders, get churches and pastors to see that change can be a good thing, and to adequately put resources into proper planning?
    Richard

  4. Ron,

    Excellent, thorough post as always. I like how you connected several readings here. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Sounds like a great group of friends you have there. I am glad to see that. Sounds like a very fruitful time of fellowship each month. Good for you.

    I thought that this week’s reading was important, although it seemed a little lightweight to me for various reasons. Trebesch seemed to focus on those who are in full-time ministry only. I get that. But what about those of us who have vocations outside of full-time ministry? God still deals with us too. And we are just as vital in the Body of Christ as those who are in full-time ministry. Just my take on the reading.

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Ron thank you for your great insights. It was good to read Trebesh’s book on isolation this. I have always had a different perspective about isolation and Trebesh’s insight were go for reflection. I also appreciate your statement “It is important in understanding the significance of the wilderness experience to note that God led/sent Jesus which is interpreted as testing as opposed to Satan tempting; God does not temp; God seeks to restore and lead to deeper faith (Jas 1:13); this can happen through testing that the Lord God allows to occur in life.”

    Thank you

  6. Ron, just catching up on some comments to complete my semester. I love the way that you have worked in so much of our reading this far into such a meaningful post. Isolation/the dark night of the soul is such a difficult topic to engage without a precious personal experience. I made the comment elsewhere regarding Chinese pastors who have been imprisoned and counted a blessing because they are allowed to return to their first love and experience with Christ. At first these Chinese pastors experiencing their dark night of the soul cried out to God with no answers. It was only after perhaps months of imprisonment and isolation that they realized that God was answering them in the veritable silence that they experienced.
    What an amazing thing to be in prison and find that Christ is closer to you in that prison then he was as you ministered and carried out what you assume to be his will. Though I have only had a few of these experiences I know the agony that such a season brings upon the weary soul when God is silent. But yet I also know that it was in the midst of those difficult times that I grew the most in my faith and in my walk with my Jesus. Bless you my brother. Great work here.

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