This is turning out to be one of the most momentous seasons of my life. Last November I embarked on what Richard Rohr calls a “further journey”. After thirty-eight years I stepped away from pastoring a local church to begin a new ministry career that’s turned into an inner journey of God-discovery and self-discovery – a wilderness journey of sorts.
Have you ever faced your true self? Awakened to the reality of who you really are? Stripped of what’s false? Become illuminated? It can be a soul-shaking experience. Just ask Peter the moment after that rooster crowed and his eyes met the Master’s in the courtyard of his denial. However wilderness can also be a wonderfully transformative experience as well. Henri Nouwen dubbed it “…a place of great struggle and great encounter.”
To a city boy like me the great outdoors has always been both beautiful and fearsome. Years ago I took part in a two-week “wilderness trip”, canoeing and hiking the Catskills. Immediately my normal daily routines went out the window – no appointments to keep or programs to be in charge of… no city hustle, bustle and noise. No bathrooms, toilet paper, soap, showers, bed, clean sheets, home cooked meals, or even a wristwatch to tell the time, either!. The wilderness was enormous and I was small. Full of a loud silence I wasn’t used to. I was thrust into the unpredictable and unfamiliar, never more conscious of being out of control in my life. Keenly aware of my limitations I felt vulnerable. Silence and solitude of wilderness will do that to you.
Things got simpler. Life suddenly consisted of keeping on my toes and staying alert. Paying attention. Things went deeper, down to the bare essentials; to what was important and counted most – being alive and God. All the fluff I relied on to keep me comfortable and feel good was stripped away. And without the scaffolding it wasn’t long before the real me was exposed. I became impatient, irritable, cranky and really, really selfish. I stopped caring what the others thought of me. Everything – the compulsive, self-centered me – was right there on the surface for all to see and meet. But God was there in the silence and solitude too (he seems to do his best work there). On the river and trail, without my props to distract me his voice became clearer and his presence stronger. I emerged from my wilderness trip with a new perspective on what was really important. I’ve had a particular love and appreciation for hot showers and toilet paper ever since.
Now years later I’m in another wilderness – an interior wilderness. I’m in “the place of great struggle and great encounter” again. God-discovery and self-discovery continues. It seems I have to go deeper still and travel further…
I’m again in unfamiliar territory, transitioning beyond the known, the safe, and the comfortable; away from my dependence on the outer trappings, facades, and scaffolding of the ministry roles and responsibilities that used to define me as a senior pastor and gave me a sense of importance in a world that measures relevance by productivity and being out in front in the spotlight. Instead I’ve been called into this wilderness where I’m being forced to slow down and get alone with God so I can be reoriented towards him and my true self. I’m no longer a senior pastor or an area leader in my movement. Am I still relevant? Am I needed? Who am I now?
And here’s what I’ve been learning so far…
The wilderness is not to be feared or avoided… Ruth Haley Barton wrote that it’s “an opportunity to be ourselves with God”. It’s an invitation to get alone with him and be set free. Although it’s unsettling and disorienting at first, the more I hang in there and remain open, forced to face God, my false compulsive self is being exposed. My scaffolding is being stripped away and I’m coming to know my true self, loved and valued. No quotas need to be met in this place in order to be accepted. I’m coming to know in a simpler, deeper way that God is “for me, and with me, and in me” plain and simple, no strings attached. My mission now is to live from this God-given, freer and secure self.
This wilderness expedition has also given me new understanding of success. I’m slowly discovering a new productivity. I’m learning how to be productive in a different, truer way. A way God designed me to be. It’s a productivity not measured by numbers. Now success is being able to live out of the true self-shaped by the Father’s love rather than from my false self shaped and fueled by wounds and pains from my past. I don’t have to prove myself. I don’t need a position or title or a busy calendar to feel good. Success is doing my best to pursue the things God has uniquely created and gifted my true self to do. Success is bearing the fruit of simply abiding in Christ as I live and respond to God’s love.