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”) is “to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener.” 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” 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; on the other hand, growth and maturity (transformation) comes through isolation experiences in a “wilderness” or “desert” that affirm one’s spirituality.
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.” 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.”Attention is a process, according to Ramsey, that results in “cognitive activity” 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.”
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.” 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.”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; 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. 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” 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.”
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. 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.” 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?’
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.” This is a concept worthy of deeper exploration and understanding.
 Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2006), 13.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 119.
 Stanley, Ibid., “Rules of Engagement,” 156ff.
 Shelly Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the life of a leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabus Publishers, 1997), 10.
 Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A Scholarship of Practice Centered on Attention?” Management Learning 45, no.1 (2014): 1.
 Trebesch, v.
 Ramsey, 5.
 Stanley, 95.
 Trebesch, vii.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 30-34.
 Grant R. Osborne, Matthew: Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI” Zondervan, 2010), 2374.
 Stanley, 135-136.
 Luke 4:14.
 Trabesch, 3.
 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