Welcome to the Wilderness
Welcome, welcome, my friend. Here you are, at the beginning. Isn’t that a sacred place to be?
There are a lot of reasons why folks like us find ourselves in the wilderness. And right now, it’s even feeling a bit crowded. We are in the midst of a shift in the Church that has resulted in many of us here, outside the city gates, exhausted and scared, sad and angry, and yet just a little relieved.
You don’t have to have it all figured out right now. You aren’t required to have all of the answers you seek when you aren’t even quite certain of your own questions just yet. You certainly don’t need to know where you will end up by the end of this experience. But being willing to begin takes great courage, especially when your heart is a bit battered and broken, when your story hasn’t worked out the way you thought it would.
I’ve loved the metaphor of the wilderness for many years now. It just seems to fit with what I understand of the world and my place in it. If the city is a metaphor for certainty and belonging, then the wilderness is for our questions and our truth.
You wouldn’t have picked up this book if you didn’t understand the wilderness in some way. If you hadn’t found yourself out here, beyond the city gates, on your own or with a ragtag little company of makeshift companions.
The wilderness can be a strange, disorienting, lonely place for a soul, I know. It can be filled with danger and loss. But along the way, we do find each other. We come across little clearings, like this, where we can spread our quilt for a while, sit around the fire together, and share some time, maybe a thermos or two of tea.
I’m glad you’re here by my quilt and campfire. You’re so welcome here.
I don’t know what propelled you to embark on this journey. Some of us, like myself, very consciously found ourselves leaving the city and entering the wilderness because of our questions, our doubts, our but-what-about questions.* Others of us were never welcome in the city to begin with; the wilderness has been your primary address for as long as you can remember. You have much to teach us. However we found ourselves here, look up, look up, you can see the stars out here in a way you never could inside the city gates. You’re not as alone as you feel.
* It’s worth noting that I am writing to you as someone who was made for that city of certainty and belonging. I mean, I’m a nice white lady who is married with kids. The “city” usually loves women like me. So when I left the city gates, it was on purpose and it was a choice in some ways. But for many of us, we never belonged in the city—maybe it’s because of our sexuality or gender identity, maybe it’s because we are not neurotypical, maybe because of how we were raised or how we look or our body, or how we move through the world. The city tends to value conformity, and for people like me, that’s an actual possibility until it isn’t. But for a lot of us, conformity isn’t even possible and so the city was never our home, which is important to name.
This book is my own hopeful offering of what has served me in the wilderness, the practices and postures I have found to be good companions when danger feels close and losses have accumulated and loneliness a constant. The tools you actually need or eventually use might be different—because you’re gloriously, wonderfully different from me. That’s one of the reasons why I tend to steer clear of prescriptive advice and how-to manuals or instructions: you will discern what will serve you and what you can release without my interference. What I’m offering are the knowings I arrived at the hard way, through mistakes and missteps and outright failures. These are the practices I still embrace in my daily life, the things I wish I had known when my back felt the final close of the city gate behind me with nothing but wilderness ahead. I hope to simply be alongside you as a companion for this time.
Some of the practices might meet you right where you are. Others you’ll remember in a few years when you need them. A few might not work for your own journey, and that’s okay.
In a lot of ways, I may be writing the book I wish I would have had twenty years ago. Back then, I was in the early stages of what folks would now call “deconstruction,” but back then? I had no such language. It was just after 9/11 and I was a young pastor’s wife, a fish-out-of-water Canadian in south Texas, and everything I thought I knew about God was disappearing like campaign promises. In the years since then, I’ve spent a lot of time out here in the wilderness. This big sky and wide-open space have become a second home to me, even when I feel alone. It’s here I discovered that the wilderness isn’t a problem to be solved, it is another altar of intimacy with God. I never would have imagined that would be true all those years ago. Water in the Literal Desert?
About twenty years ago, my husband and I were driving through Arizona, not quite halfway between our old life in Texas and our new life back home in Canada, towing a seen-better-days U-Haul stuffed with our worldly goods.*
* Note: “worldly goods” in our case meant particleboard furniture and secondhand books.
The August heat was radiating off the road, but we kept the windows open because our air conditioner was never able to keep up with the American Southwest. Hot air thundered into our Chevy, whipping my hair out of its ponytail; my legs were stuck to the seat. It felt like I had been hot for years, and maybe that was true. This Canadian gal had never managed to acclimate to the temperature properly. The years we spent in south Texas had been a bittersweet roller coaster with beauty and sorrow, devastation and joy. The one constant was my inability to handle the heat well.
Brian had just resigned from pastoral ministry, and we were limping home to Canada to reimagine our future, more than a little brokenhearted and burned out. Once idealistic, I had become cynical about fog machines and voter guides. Brian may have been the one to leave his Jesus-y job behind, but I was the one losing my faith altogether. We were still grieving our latest miscarriage and questioning many of our experiences in full-time vocational ministry and the ways we were taught—or expected—to be in the world. Everything I knew about God had become a gigantic question mark, and everything I thought about Christians had become a howl of betrayal and frustration.
The sky was blue, the horizon endless, our pain immense. We talked (okay, fine, I ranted) all the way across the red desert. My soul was as parched for water as the landscape around us.
God had once felt as near as my breath; now there was only space, space, space.
When we stopped for gas and lunch, I opened the car door and stepped onto the shimmering pavement, a river of perspiration snaking down my spine. “Ugh, I’m so sick of being hot!” I complained, tipping my head back in exhaustion.
“Have you ever considered that you’re not having a spiritual crisis, and perhaps you’ve just been overheated? For many, many years?” asked my husband mildly, taking his life in his hands. I threw an empty water bottle at him and he laughed.
As Brian pumped gas, I bought water and hopefully-only-a-day-old sandwiches from the gas station store. He parked to the side of the station and then we followed crumbling signs pointing to a picnic table in a clump of scrubby trees along a ditch. We continued our conversation from the car.
“I feel like I’m wandering in a desert,” I said, gesturing at the landscape around us. “I’m not who I used to be, but I’m not sure where I’m going next either. There isn’t much out here but a lot of space. It’s scary. Like who I was has disappeared. Like God has disappeared.”
“That’s fine.” Brian was unbothered. “I figure God meets us in those places of space more than when we are pretending to have it all figured out or cram our souls full of our own opinions and certainties. I’m not worried.”
But I was.
My fears weren’t unfounded. I knew how it went. The system we were a part of operated best when we all knew our lines and followed the cues. If someone stepped out of line, the response was swift and often merciless: if you weren’t “in,” you were very, very out. And if you were on the outs, well, you didn’t just lose your church, you lost your friends, your community, and in our case, even our source of income. The margin for error felt small because it was.
Copyright © 2024 by Sarah Bessey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.