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A certain brother committed an offense in Scete, the camp of the monks, and when a congregation was assembled ‎on this matter, they sent after Abba Moses, but he refused to come; then they sent the priest of the church to him, ‎saying, “Come, for all the people are expecting you,” and he rose up and came. He took a basket with a hole in it ‎and filled it with sand, and carried it upon his shoulders, and those who went out to meet him said unto him, “What ‎does this mean, O father?” And he said to them, “The sands are my sins which are running down behind me and I ‎cannot see them, and, even, have come to this day to judge shortcomings which are not mine.” And when they heard ‎this they set free that brother and said nothing further to him.‎

The desert became the place where men and women went to live out the gospel just as Christianity was becoming the religion of the empire. They went there, not to flee the world, not to disparage their humanity, but to fully embrace it. They went to the desert to wrestle with demons, to free themselves of the cultural trappings that so easily are mistaken for the truth about the world. They went there to step outside of the cultural systems that are hostile to the teaching of Christ.

The arrogance of our time is that we think we know better. Contemporary protestant Christians scoff at the desert fathers and mothers, deriding them, accusing them of taking the easy way out. All the while, unaware of just how culturally conditioned our Christianity really is, how the current debates splitting our churches, at the core, have little to do with teaching of Jesus, and much more to do with truths we have constructed for ourselves.

Once a command was given to the brothers who were in Scete, saying, “Fast this week and celebrate the ‎Passover.” So some of the brothers came from Egypt to Abba Moses. While he was boiling a little food for them, ‎his neighbors saw the smoke of his fire rising up and they said to the clergy, “Behold, Moses has broken the ‎command and has boiled some food in his cell.” So they said to them, “Hold your peace, when he comes to us we ‎will speak to him.” Now when the Sabbath arrived, the clergy, having regard to his great ascetic labors, said to him ‎before the whole assembly, “O Moses, though you broke the command of me, you established that of God.” ‎

Maybe the time has come for us to return to the desert, to hear the words of those who struggled with demons, and learn what it means to seek God above all else, and to follow the way of Jesus that calls us to love our neighbor. Maybe it’s time to realize our political and cultural forms of Christianity always lead to idolatry, division, and hatred. It’s time we realize the desert isn’t a physical place, it’s a posture; it’s the call of Jesus to take up our cross and follow. Let’s put down our dog whistles and virtue signals, letting go of our religiosity, our piety, and above all our ideology, so we might finally see the world and our neighbors as a gift.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

4 Comments

  • Jim Payton says:

    I’ve found there is much to be learned and pondered from the Desert fathers and mothers. Thank you for this.

  • RLG says:

    Of course, Jason, Abba Moses was a loner monk of the fourth century. He didn’t fit in with mainstream Christianity or the Classical Christian faith or the Christian church. He wasn’t a follower of what we call the church fathers. We have plenty of eccentrics today that don’t fit either, just like Abba Moses. Choose carefully who you follow into the desert.

    • Jason Lief says:

      Or, maybe we should be careful about how we define “mainstream Christianity”? After 2000 years, we now are the ones who have the ultimate truth about what counts as mainstream and classical. Praise be!

  • William Harris says:

    Abba Moses is such an interesting character, not least because he is black and face faced prejudice in his day. His insistence about not judging anyone is radical, a good thing to read in Lent.

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