Steve Dresselhaus

The instructions given by the spiritual director were very simple.  “By yourself, go find a quiet place to observe God’s creation.  Sit quietly and listen to what he has to say to you.   Then record what you observe and hear in a journal.”  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nature loving John Muir wannabe; so this was the dream-come-true assignment during a three-day spiritual retreat at a beach-side resort on the paradisiacal shores of Honduras’s Caribbean coast.

For some western-trained, evangelical missionaries and pastors steeped in the worldview of ancient  Greece,  which separates the spiritual from the physical,  this assignment would likely to be a boundary-testing stretch.  Unrecognized as the branch of Gnosticism that it is, our separating of the physical from the spiritual has created two distinct, non-mixing entities. Unaware of just  how deeply evangelical Gnosticism pervades the American church,  listening for the voice of God in nature  could be,  for some,  pushing the limits of acceptable Christian behavior.   To think that God could, would and does speak to us through something other than a Bible, a sermon, a book by the current celebrity Christian author du jour or via some other acceptable tool designed to fill the head with additional Christiany facts, can be hard to imagine. Our given assignment was not to learn more about God.  Our assignment was to listen to him and then obey him.   Our assignment, if you want to call it such, was to know God and enjoy him, not just fill our mental filing cabinet with more information about him,  as is so often  our American custom.

As a long-time practitioner of the discipline of solitude and as someone who often spends time with God  via his creation,  I was eager to seek out a secluded spot and begin watching and waiting.  Over the years, during my annual  multi-day personal retreats, Jesus has never failed to show me life-changing truths  in deeply personal and  tangible ways.  It was while listening to God in the absolute solitude of a remote ranch in the desert of Mexico’s Baja California, or while solo kayaking to uninhabited islands in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, that Jesus helped me develop my understanding  of the future, the nature and work of the church,  my role as a mission executive and a host of other things.  Currently I live in the Midwest, so the solitude of the wilds is more distant and harder to attain.  I now find solitude in a nearby convent where I hang out in silence in the company of a group of geriatric nuns.   Wilderness it is not, but the beauty of a convent chapel where well-meaning artists have attempted  to capture the beauty of nature and the glory of God  via sculpture, painting and woodwork helps quiet my soul in the rush rush world of  American Christianity.    Never, not once, have I been met with silence from God on any of these adventures where through solitude and my silence I seek him.

After making sure I was not in the direct line of fire from a falling coconut,  I sat at a wooden picnic table in the shade of a  palm tree.  The water’s edge was 100 feet away.  A gentle breeze came off the water, caressing   one- to two-foot waves into existence,  each one of which  took its turn massaging the shore line as it collapsed on the sand.  A lone pelican, surfing the gentle uplift of air on the face of the waves, glided by, scarcely moving his wings.  He was only inches above the surface.  In fact, periodically his wing tips would softly  tap the  sea’s surface.  While the grace of the large flying  bird was awe inspiring, his physical appearance when on land is so ugly as to be comical while simultaneously endearing.  His bill was as long as his body.  His stubby torso  was too short for his too long wings.  His brown/gray webbed feet were almost useless on land.  Walking  on terra firma turns this creature into a bundle of clumsy avian contortions.  But when he flies all his ugliness and onshore incompetencies disappear,  replaced by a ballet-like display  of grace.   He is only ugly when he is outside his niche, a place he was not meant to be.

As I watched the bird glide by, the Lord showed me I was like that pelican.  I was designed by the creator with a unique role, having a specialty niche King Jesus expects me to fill.  It is only when I attempt activity in a place I was not designed to be that my ugliness exceeds my grace and beauty.   A pelican trying to suck nectar from a hibiscus flower would not only be comical, it would be a dismal failure.  A hummingbird diving to catch a sardine… ain’t gonna happen.  By way of the pelican, Jesus reminded me  that I need to live in,  work in, and love the environment  for which I have been designed.  Anything less will end in failure, frustration and disappointment.

The American church and we American Christians need to find our internal pelican. Fill-in-the-blank cookie cutter cloning  has frequently replaced discipleship. Learning typically outranks living.   Our existing traditional church structures tend to mold everyone into an acceptable conformity.    This forces people to church shop till they find a place they fit. Those  faithful  who find their  fit are then selected to fill the  available programmed slots  such as preacher, Sunday school teacher, trustee or whatever.  Not too often is the ministry in a traditional  congregation designed the other way around where the gifting from God comes first and the ministry is built around the gifted person.   American parachurch seminary training  does little to help, as it squeezes potential pastors into a certain style of preaching. *   Never mind that preaching isn’t even one of the biblical  requirements listed for pastor; and, that of all the teaching tools and styles available,  lectures are far and away the least effective.  Institutional theological training, through the way it grades its sequestered students  and  through the  demands of  the evangelical industrial complex, nudges  us all into  becoming  hummingbirds when God desires some of us to be pelicans, or eagles, or geese.

What bird are you?  Get alone with God and listen.  Let God reveal your internal pelican to you.  Then go–and in freedom and joy, revel in doing what you were designed to do.


 *There are some institutions which value character development as highly or even higher than they do academic development.  We should be grateful for them.

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