Leaving the wilderness: Advice for leaders and pastors

I wrote a book a few years back called Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places.  In it, I argued that our personal journeys mirror the Exodus journey of the Israelites long ago.  I see this in four major movements – 1) leaving egypt, the place of our bondage and fear 2) sinai – the place where we learn of our true identity and the pathway to life 3) wilderness – the necessary place where our identity is questioned, wrestled with, disrupted, confused, and worked through in lament and 4) union – our life beyond the wilderness where our deep identity as the beloved is internalized, believed, and enjoyed. home_nopeople

Now, if we get ‘stuck’ at Sinai, we become Pharisees, refusing to grow through the necessary confusion and suffering which deepens our identity and intimacy in and with God.  This can be the case for the most rigid fundamentalist who runs fearfully from any inkling of disruption or doubt, or the certain liberal whose dogmatism and close-mindedness is no less toxic than the fundamentalist’s.  The wilderness is the necessary place of humiliation for us all.  It is the way of purgation, in the classic sense, where we are stripped of our arrogance, our self-righteousness, our hypocrisy. The wilderness becomes the furnace for transformation.

But the wilderness is not a final destination.  I’ve found that pastoring and loving people in the ‘wilderness’ requires great patience (particularly for yourself as you navigate it!)  It is den of paradox, uncertainty, and confusion.  Bold and risky prayers are prayed.  At times, people find themselves exploring concepts that are deemed outside the lines by the doctrine police, whether on the left or right.  Sometimes we act and behave eccentrically.  We might even hurt others and ourselves, leaving a spouse, or leaving a church, or giving up on faith.  We need patience for ourselves and others as we wrestle with God, much like Jacob did, as they declare their confusion, much like Job did.  Those in authority will be frustrated, dismayed, reactive, and punitive depending on where they are on their journey.

But what if we don’t leave the wilderness?  I’ve taught for a long time that some find this to be a destination, where their questions and confusion are “baptized,” where uncertainty becomes the new certainty, where coloring outside the lines becomes a new arrogant and self-righteous identity.  While Sinai brings the danger of Pharisaical legalism and moralism, the wilderness brings the danger of existentialism and even Gnosticism, a sense that my experience is normative, that my expanded wilderness consciousness brings me greater access to God.  In fact, to our dismay we might find that this is a new ‘Egypt’ for us, another prison.

There is a group identity that comes with each of these.  Where at Sinai we connect through “dogma-bonding,” in the wilderness we connect through “trauma-bonding.”  Ours becomes the “messy” church, or the “broken” church, or the “open” church.  The new Gnosticism emerges through a sense that “we get it,” that “we’ve progressed further,” that somehow this group is no longer enslaved to the old dogmas.  And indeed, there is a freedom felt in this for many who were trapped in their old dogmatism and moralism. While honoring this new sense of freedom, we need to invite people to see the dangers of getting stuck in the wilderness.

Sometimes, this comes from the seeing that the arrogance and certainty here are just as toxic to them and others.

Sometimes, it comes from an intellectual honesty which admits that this new uncertainty is, in itself, a form of certainty, a ‘position’, a ‘confession’.

Sometimes, it comes when the wilderness wanderer realizes how exhausted he is.  The exhaustion I’ve seen here comes from a constant need to be different, edgy, open, engaged with new thinking, constantly defining himself as different or other.

In the last chapter of the book Leaving Egypt, I write on “Theosis or Neurosis.”  Theosis is the ancient way of talking about union with Christ, living out of our deepest identity as the beloved of God.  In this place, we have no need to compare or compete, no need to parade our eccentricities or edgy ideas, no need to apologize for holding a position or living from a particular confession.  We’re simply transparent.  We recognize the beauty and brokenness of all traditions, all dogmas, even our own, but choose to remain in the simul iustus et peccator of it all.

We relinquish the need to perfect others, to perfect our church, to perfect the community or the world.

We don’t give up participation in the process of bringing about the flourishing of it all, but we give up the need to do it on our terms.

We act with grace toward others, even those with whom we disagree.  From this place of identity, we need not treat the world as a theological combat zone.

We don’t mock and we lose the desire to be purposefully incendiary.

We live from a place of confession, within a tradition, with transparency and without elitism or dogmatic certainty.

We can honestly say, “I might be wrong, but here I stand.”

We become more patient with ourselves and others, recognizing that they’re navigating their own unique place on the exodus journey, and that at any time, at any moment, we might find ourselves together in Egypt again, waking up to new attachments and idolatries and enslavements together.  This becomes a joy, because we realize how human we are, and it’s ok…because we’re “in Christ,” the most secure location possible.

This is the journey I’ve been navigating in fits and starts for years, with many ups and downs, at some cost to myself and others, but with many “happy returns” along the way.  I suspect you can relate.

But knowing that there is an Exodus ‘map’ helps me see that promised land and yearn for its Rest.  I hope it does the same for you.

6 comments

  1. I have been thinking/writing about these same thoughts lately. About the courtship of truth and grace with which Hod leads us through this journey. I grew up yhe daughter of an Independant, fundamental pastor, my journey has been long and difficult to come into the place of resting in my Belovedness and the progression of my faith journey has been very much as you describe. I am so grateful for the opening of my mind, the gentle leading and the surrender which has kept me from getting stuck. I keep this thought before me daily- my most important choice is always my next one! Thank you for this post.

  2. Hi Chuck–“stumbled” across your blog. Thank you! Blessed to have read it and it’s bookmarked for sure

    Blessings

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