The new book, which is already but not yet released, is basically about life in the wilderness. Not the literal wilderness, unless you see the city as being such, which it certainly can be for many, but rather the spiritual and emotional wilderness, the place where security of life becomes a very tenuous enterprise. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that in the book I don’t wrap things up in nice little bows or Ten Steps to Wilderness Prosperity or say that if you just work hard enough, you’ll find your way out in no time.
At the same time, I didn’t respond to the topic of spiritual wilderness with almost 300 pages of “I don’t know.” My goal, my hope, was to see how Scripture itself models a response to times of wilderness, and pattern the book after that response. I used a setting and characters of a fictional church community to deal with the theology that arises when we are in times of real confusion about what is going on, when things just aren’t working like they are “supposed” to work.
This is important to me for a couple of reasons. One, because I think this is where so many people are at. Maybe not everyone. Everybody has issues of some kind, no doubt, but for many these issues aren’t wilderness issues. They’re rich young ruler issues, or Saul of Tarsus issues, or some other kind of issue that may be borne out of being in a secure place, whether they are supposed to stay in that place or not. But those people aren’t really my audience. Even though I think God has a message for such people as well – I argue God has a preferential option for all people — there’s the fact that I don’t personally know what it is like to be in such places.
I’m a wilderness guy. I’ve spent most of my life in the wilderness. Sometimes I was thrust into the wilderness and sometimes I made decisions to go further into the wilderness. Times of poverty growing up were part of the former, my choice to go to Wheaton was an example of the latter.
To be sure, I’ve had the occasional oasis. An oasis is a place of refreshing in the midst of the desert. I think there are all types of spiritual oases. Trips to somewhere beautiful. A special celebration. A particularly good friend who invites honesty and responds with openness. Amy is an example of a more substantive oasis in my life, a marker of sorts, someone who provides a consistent partner in the travels.
But, as I realized again this last weekend I’m definitely still in the wilderness. I think that’s why the book still resonates with me when I read it. I’m still in the midst, having found some counsel and guidance but totally still feeling the constant tension of rootlessness, without a settled life or home or place.
Life has some significantly nicer attributes than it did even a few years ago. Yet, I’m still entirely on the edge of expectation in so many areas. I cannot continue in my schooling if I don’t receive more funding, and I await to hear from Fuller if I have received any more funding for next year.
I don’t know where I will work, but I do need to work, and with where I work comes a bit more focus on where we will be. Jobs are not plentiful in the field that I am pursuing, so unless my book sales utterly dazzle me beyond anything I could hope for, we’re unsettled.
I have a church, a church I’m a member of and Amy is contributing to in an increasing way through worship, but I’m not really sure where I’m contributing. Which is certainly ironic, given the nature of the book. Certainly there’s a lot ironic about our present church situation given the nature of both books, but our priority is more about where we feel the Holy Spirit is leading us, rather than a model we think fits our ideals. That’s a big wilderness experience. We both feel led to this church and we wait to learn why this place is the place God is leading us. I think part of this too is a reverberation of our general unsettledness.
I have a lot of good people saying nice things about me, to me, shaking my hand, greeting me by name, encouraging me that I’m “on the right track.” But there’s nothing solid, no palpable expression of “this is your place” or “this is your position.”
Everything is open.
I must keep walking, keep moving, keep working, reading intensely, writing brilliantly, studying profusely, pushing forward into this cloud of unknowing hoping that I will hear someone say, “this is your place.”
I’m not there yet. And sometimes it really hits me. In a society which declares identity based on material possessions or vocational substance, I don’t have much of an identity at all. That I earnestly, and sometimes even successfully, try to keep hold of the perspective my identity is wholly in Christ, there’s still the reality of family, and security, and just plain human desires for one’s own establishment.
I don’t have that. I’m in the wilderness, waiting for so many to respond, waiting for a nod of approval that brings with it palpable change, trying to contribute and do my part, knowing that my part is in need of review by others in order to find acceptance in this present society.
This is a tension which can, and so often does, push people out of the center and into the chaos.
I don’t want to be that sort of person. I don’t want to be that sort of scholar or academic. I want to be someone who discovers words of God and resonates these not only in my writing but in all my life, in my choices, in my patience, in my love, in my hope, not trusting Egypt for salvation or sustenance, but pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of me.
But today I feel the weight of the wilderness, I hear strange birds and can’t quite see the trail or where it goes. I feel the burdens of so much responsibility demanding my success, but I don’t know where this will come from, who I should trust, when should wait and when I should take out a machete and cut my own trail.
How Long? That’s still my question. Which is why I wrote the book, and which is why the people who are themselves asking that question are the people with whom I feel the most affinity. We are people who are on the outskirts, who aren’t invited to the popular parties, who don’t talk to the important people, or wear the nice clothes, or drive the enviable cars. We are people who wait, because there is nothing else except to wait, and who try to keep hold of hope in the midst of a whole lot of silence and frustration and tenuous realities of life.
God has a message for us too. That’s the promise. That’s the hope. That’s the call that comes out of the wilderness.
But sometimes the wilderness just gets plain exhausting and tiresome.
That’s what I think about it today. I’m tired of it.
But still, I press on. Because I also still hope.