“The desert is a dangerous place. Nobody goes there unless they really have to…” These are the words that begin countless Godly Play stories. These stories share the history of God’s people, where they came from, where they went, and most importantly how God met them wherever they were, guided them, protected them, and gave them a home. Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, the wilderness played a critical role in these stories of lost, wandering, and lonely people. It was through the wilderness that God spoke; whether through a burning bush or by the words of an angel near a rushing river. It is in the wilderness that these people of God shed their past and entered into a new way of life, fully reliant on the one true God.
Most of us have, literally or metaphorically, had wilderness experiences in our lives. We have felt lost and lonely. We have felt the drive to go out, away from everything we know, to begin again with a new start, a new perspective. The gift of keeping these wilderness experiences metaphorical is that no matter the depth of emotion you may feel, the rest is relatively controllable. You can distract yourself with food, conversation, and the stuff of life. But when you step over that boundary by actually, physically putting yourself in the wilderness, you have chosen another layer of vulnerability. You no longer have the safety of distraction, comfort of your bed, or control over surroundings. You are lost, alone, and in even greater likelihood than before, physical danger. Wild animals roam. Weather is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Bugs are everywhere. Dirt is everywhere. It’s a different world than the one we usually construct for ourselves. Yet, we are created for, and even by, this very same wilderness.
This last July, I brought a small but courageous group of five on a wilderness excursion, rightly called: The Journey: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness. This rite of passage was developed by Pastor Joel Martyn for anyone 14 years old through adulthood. This experience is a three-fold process. The first stage is Severance. In this stage, participants reflect on where they have come from, what has brought them to the experience, and what they will need to sever themselves from in order to fully immerse themselves in the wilderness. Using the story of Jesus being led out into the wilderness after his baptism, we discussed and reflected on what it was we had to leave behind and what we brought with us to the experience. We were given time to sit alone and write out a list of all of those things. These lists ushered us into the second stage, Threshold, as we threw them into a low fire – a sign of our readiness to let go. From this point, after watching our paper turn to ash, we were led one-by-one to areas where we would spend the next two days and two nights in solitary with only water, prayer, and the Bible to sustain us.
This period of time was so intensely personal; it has been hard for me to find words to fully express what happened. I can say that I experienced what I had only previously read, straight from mystics of our religious history – The Word of God kept me full. In this time, the word “faith” took on a new meaning to me. Through the wilderness, God nourished my faith. Through the ups and downs, the points where I thought I reached my emotional and physical limits, the Spirit pushed me through, refining me with a new inner strength. At the end of this Threshold stage, when I found myself reaching a new limit of exhaustion and loneliness, I finally heard the call to return to camp. I said goodbye to this new, sacred space I had inhabited for the past 48 + hours, and trudged back down to camp.
We assembled back where we began, around the fire. After some discussion, we were invited into the third stage of our experience, Incorporation. When we felt ready, we stepped one-by-one over a line of fire where we were blessed in the name of the Trinity, into our new life. And finally, we feasted together. Fresh food filled our bellies. The joy of fellowship filled our hearts. We were new people, grounded in a new personal and spiritual strength, with no rush to be anywhere except right where we were, with each other.
No matter how different the wilderness experience may be for each individual; whether you join the next group on The Journey, or not, I know with a clarity I did not have before that it is in the wilderness places that God will find you. You will not be alone. You will be changed. Without wilderness experiences we lose sight of ourselves, we lose connection to the earth and each other, we forget our Creator, or God, who pulls us from the ashes of our past and repurposes us for a greater future.
When have you been called, or even forced, into a wilderness experience? How did God meet you there?
If you do not feel that you have experienced the wilderness, what is keeping you from taking the steps necessary to enter the journey? From what do you need to sever yourself in order to immerse yourself in the journey God is calling you to enter?
If you are feeling lost in the wilderness now, what are the limits you have reached? How has the Spirit pulled you through, even when you couldn’t yourself? What do you need in order to cross the fire into incorporation?