We’re exploring the question, “How do we walk out our faith in the midst of pain, suffering, disappointment, and loneliness,” with a book club discussion on Thursdays about Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. Today’s post from Kelli Woodford is inspired by Chapters 14-16. Kelli is a cherished sojourner on my pilgrimage of faith, a kind and generous word-weaver of truth that makes my soul say, “ahhhh”.
Somewhere Between the Lost and the Found
We started out right in the center of the map.
My husband preached every week. I led worship, taught Bible lessons to children, shined my slow cooker for the potluck, welcomed visitors, and touched people’s hands ever-so-gently when they shared something emotional. We washed windows and scrubbed sacred toilets on Saturday so every expectation would be met with a sparkle on Sunday morning. Even our kids never missed a sermon or prayer meeting. You see, we weren’t just there every time the church doors were open — we were the ones with the keys.
And then, somewhere, we got a bit lost.
Seeking remedy, we moved to another church in a different state. This one didn’t need a preacher and their ‘first lady’ was as sweet as her iced tea. We’ll sit in the pew awhile, we thought. We’ll just love people and be fed and support God’s Kingdom by getting our hands dirty in the daily grind of this local church.
Then we’ll be found again.
But after awhile, the familiar gnaw began to re-surface and mystery’s faded colors once again replaced certainty’s bold hues. We found we were hungry for something that couldn’t be defined. Famished, actually. For something. All we knew is that those who had all the answers were more suspect than ever. And we found ourselves edging out of the center. Wondering where this road would lead.
So here we are. Somewhere between the lost and the found.
Somewhere on the edge of the map.
Our wilderness doesn’t look like manna for breakfast, but more like an isolated house in the middle of a million cornfields. That lonely island of living, throbbing, breaking humanity surrounded by naked earth.
And somewhere there is a map that contains even this place.
The lines of my earth look so much like this ancient farmhouse, starkly erect in the vacancy of winter’s lonely fields. And my mother (who knows me) asks me gentle if I feel lonely, too. Do I miss the people always in and out and the calendar-ful of activities? But the truth is that I have long been alone in spirit, so I have found myself more complete by being alone in fact.
For this is my wilderness season.
I look out my windows and inhale years of dirt turned over, black as midnight sky, so that something can grow in this place that seems a hundred miles from nowhere. This is, at the same time, both emptiness and fertility. There is no church here that we have come to lead, or to start, or even to join. No, we have come as rogue pilgrims. We, for once, have not said, “If we build it, they will come,” but rather, “If we come, He will build us.”
Oh, and He must.
For isn’t this what the empty fields scream at me, day and night? That to be filled, one must first be empty? Because nothing can stand in all this upturned humble earth and not feel the growth begin. Not feel the groping of the roots, the yearning and the stretch.
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the geography of this uncharted place, known as the wilderness. The simultaneity of the island’s isolation paired curiously with the sweet respite of being alone. She says that everyone on the map is professing the same faith, holding up our hearts to the same God, but those in the center of the map look vastly different from those who find themselves at the edge. In the center, a clear vision has been cast and it works its way into the hearts of those within the four safe walls of the church. Those faithful to be led by a human shepherd and content to build what they consider the Kingdom of God on earth right there, found and kept safe in their building programs, communion trays, and choir robes. These are the people that give weight to the map and keep it from blowing away.
And then there are others.
They find their communion is over cheez-its and tall, frothy Heineken in each others’ living rooms. They wonder in unison what you do when no church seems big enough to hold all that you know to be true about God. They relent their questions as they look in the eyes of children, who seem to lead them somehow. No sermon-security-blanket with three points and a poem is needed, there, on the edge of the map. For the things that seem so vital and real in the center are up for grabs in the wilderness. The sermon is brought by a free wind blowing in a big sky and sound systems pale next to love resonating strong from camaraderie’s listening ear. And the risk and adventure of the edge are often too frightening for those holding down the map. Too unscheduled. For their songs echo a bit too savage and their language slices perhaps more fierce. Because the God of the wilderness is a God who can hardly be defined, much less confined to a dusty theology or the docile kitten that stands in for the Lion of Judah. And all the refined words we ever used in preaching and teaching ring a bit hollow, not because they are untrue, but because someone else’s surety means less to us now than it ever has.
Now we must discover Him for ourselves.
And that, I think, is the real blade’s edge of the wilderness:
“The unscripted encounter with an undomesticated God.” (Taylor, p.171)
For “while the center may be the place where the stories of the faith are preserved, the edge is the place where the best of them happened.” (Taylor, p.177)
So here, where the mystery is bright and the windswept land my teacher, I will stand with the brave of the past. The ones who know the geography of this land between the lost and the found. Many whose stories we know, but also the unsung heroes who have shown themselves Abraham’s true seed,
not knowing whence they go,
only firm on this one thing: the destination is in the journey itself.
Q: J.R.R. Tolkien is famously quoted in these words: “All who wander are not lost.” Can you relate to that? How does the landscape of your wilderness season compare with the description in the post?
Q: In the past, what has been your perception of those who do not regularly attend church, but who still consider themselves part of the Bride? How has that perception been changed or challenged?
Kelli Woodford is in the middle of the the most surprising paradigm shift of her faith journey. She is daily discovering Presence in the sacredness of common moments, Jesus in all the junkies, and that being found often arrives close on the heels of her willingness to become lost. It’s a wild ride. Which maybe shouldn’t surprise her . . . after all, He’s not a tame Lion.