Very happy to make a bit of room here for author, speaker, spiritual director, and future wine-sommelier (yes, for real), Adam S. McHugh.
He wrote Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture and is working on his second book now, tentatively called The Listening Life. You can read Adam’s blog here or follow him on Twitter. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad he’s my pal.
(P.S. This post here would have made a big difference to me personally during my own wilderness season, so I’m honoured to share it now – for all of us who have spent a bit of time in the wilderness.)
There are those moments in the Bible when the people are gathered in the radiant city praising God and having the goodwill of all.
Have you ever noticed that those moments are few and far between?
Is it just me or is the wilderness actually the mailing address for God’s people, and occasionally they buy a pilgrim fare to the city on the hill? Even when a fortunate generation lives in the vicinity of the temple, the wilderness outside the city walls seems to lie in wait, ready to swallow them when the Babylonians come to town.
Whether it’s Adam and Eve chased out of the garden by an angry flaming sword, Cain wearing an L for Loser on his forehead, Abraham finally moving out of his parents’ house at age 75, the Hebrews on their way out of Egypt to receive the covenant they will struggle to keep, Israel circling the desert like buzzards waiting for death, David pursued by a schizophrenic king who is calmed by classical music like Hannibal Lecter, the northern kingdom fleeing from Assyria, the southern kingdom scattering from Babylon, John the Baptist getting his weird on out by the Jordan, Jesus saying WHAT UP to the Adversary for 40 days, or John the Revelator going all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy on Patmos, the proper context for God’s people seems to be….the wilderness.
I am in a wilderness season right now. Why am I surprised?
I should probably be surprised when I’m not in a wilderness season. The life of faith in this world seems to get expressed mostly in the wilderness. Perhaps this broken, visited, and waiting world is the wilderness.
Two weeks ago I left professional ministry. I spent 15 years preaching from pulpits and warped music stands, teaching eager college students and drooling senior citizens, praying that God would bless food to people’s bodies even though food is already blessed, sharing powerful insights with others about marriage and the spiritual life and boundaries that I don’t keep myself, sitting in hospital rooms looking awkward, standing by death-beds looking awkward, standing by the church door after the service looking really awkward, and drinking, without exaggeration, billions of cups of coffee with people, all the while wishing I was drinking beer, if for no other reason that I could kill this caffeine buzz that I’ve had for 15 freaking years.
Now I am cast out of the city walls and find myself, once again, as a wilderness dweller. I won’t lie: when it gets dark, there are a lot of scary eyes out here. I suppose I could spend the next months fighting the wild beasts, but I have learned from experience that they will overpower me if I try. So I’ve decided to befriend my befriend my blood thirsty companions. I’ve given them names and know just what treats will keep them from eating me. Clyde the Jackal of Despair likes skittles. Muffin the Wolf of Failure enjoys chocolate. Cuddles the Veloceraptor of Where the EFF am I Going? is soothed by a good snuggle.
What is the wilderness?
The wilderness is a place of loss. I cannot help but look back and remember what has been a part of my life that no longer is. I grieve the end of relationships that I treasured.
The wilderness is a place where time is slow. City life moves fast. The wilderness has no clocks.
The wilderness is a place of desolation. There is nowhere we can flee from the presence of God, but I’ll be damned if I know where he is.
The wilderness is a place of transition. Transition is the in-between space, suspended between what has come and what will come. Another way of putting it is that transition is a place of ANXIETY.
The wilderness is a place of wandering. There is no cut path, no road signs, no GPS. Destinations usually prove to be mirages. You must wait for someone to show you the way out, and you have no idea when they’ll come.
The wilderness is a place of quiet. It is lonely and secluded and private, no matter who else is in there with you. Sometimes it is a peaceful quiet. Sometimes it is a terrifying quiet.
The wilderness is a place of changing identity. You go in as one person. You invariably come out as another. You have surprisingly little control over this process.
Some will tell you that you can avoid or get out of the wilderness with the right prayer, the right Bible verse, the right counsel, the right church, or the right book. I suspect that the people who tell you that are in the wilderness themselves. Trust this former pastor and chaplain when he says this: you cannot avoid the wilderness. Hell, I wrote “the right book” and I promise you it’s not gonna save you from the wilderness. It didn’t save me from it. If you don’t go to the wilderness, the wilderness will come to you.
It’s your choice. You can try and fight the wilderness. You can try to escape the longing, the pain, the struggle, the doubts, the anxiety, and the ominous quiet. Or you can set up camp and embrace the wilderness life, the life without control, without constant noise, without certainty, without clear agenda.
In the wilderness you will be hungry. Sometimes God prepares a feast in the presence of the wild beasts.
Adam McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church. He drinks wine in the wilderness.