Fear Not, Wanderer

That Sunday morning before I headed out the door to make my walk to the church building, I told my wife goodbye and half-jokingly warned her that it might be my last sermon. I knew the message that day would be controversial, and I was preparing her (and myself) for the fallout. It was a juncture that I expected would define my future within a context where my views had already started to feel increasingly out of place.

As it turned out, it wasn’t my last sermon. (I still had a dozen or so left.) But that Sunday quickly became a watershed moment in the unexpected journey on which I had found myself. In many ways it was a symbolic farewell – not just a farewell to a job or a chapter of ministry, but to an entire cultural and theological Sitz im Leben that had for quite some time been my home. It was me parting ways with a scaffolding of expectations and unspoken rules that I could no longer pretend to climb. Someone asked me recently if that specific Sunday was the “beginning of the end.” I thought about that for a second and said, “No, it was the end of the end.”

But in a more important way, that moment was a symbolic beginning – a long-awaited step into a new and unknown frontier of spiritual curiosity and personal honesty. Walking to church knowing that I was about to get myself in big trouble was a surprisingly liberating experience. It was as if I had at long last allowed myself to embrace the adventure of letting Jesus lead me off the map. Or at least off any of the maps I had access to. Looking back on that fateful Sunday, I’ve come to see it as the long-awaited breakthrough when I finally and fully adopted the identity of a wanderer.

Since then, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what it means to wander. Here I am, in a place where I don’t believe all the things that have been handed down to me, nor do I fall in line with all the influences that have shaped me. But at the same time, I’m more committed than ever to the pursuit of truth as a follower of Jesus and a citizen of his kingdom. Where does that leave me? What does it mean to be on this journey? How do I move forward in seeking the same destination while nevertheless taking a new road to get there?

My interest in this subject isn’t purely autobiographical. The thing about wanderers is that they tend to bump into each other. As they crisscross the spiritual plains in search of a place they can belong, their paths inevitably intersect. And in this season of personal transition, I’ve discovered first-hand that I’m not wandering alone. There are plenty of other people on a similar journey, wrestling with a past that no longer defines them and a future they can’t quite see. Some wander publicly. Some wander privately. But they all seem to have one thing in common: They’re burdened.

If you’re a wanderer, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You feel the weight of other people’s criticism and disappointment. You’re weary of the constant misunderstanding. You carry a crushing load of skeptical questions and uninformed speculations that seem to have no end. You strain beneath the hardship of isolation, broken relationships, and a lost sense of belonging.

It’s easy to romanticize wandering when you’re sitting on your couch. But what I’m learning is that there’s nothing cool or sexy about any of this once you’re actually on your feet. It’s frustrating and disorienting and sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it. But if you’re a wanderer like me, then I think I may have a few hopeful things to share.

Take the following principles for what they are: notes scribbled down along a journey that is far from over. There’s nothing magical about these. They’re simply observations. But to any wanderer feeling the weight of a burden – or, frankly, to any non-wanderer who might want to learn more about the burden we wanderers are carrying – perhaps these thoughts will offer something insightful. In seeking to follow Jesus outside the confines of my past experiences, here’s the good news I’m coming to learn.

Moving into new horizons of belief and practice isn’t always a drift from the truth.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” wrote Tolkien. That’s an attractive and neat-sounding sentiment to most folks. Until those folks have to actually apply it. When a community of belief discovers that someone from within their own ranks is beginning to wander from what they hold dear, it’s hard to affirm that not all who wander are lost. We immediately want to defend our positions by demonizing the drifters. After all, if they’re wandering away from us and our beliefs, they must be lost, right?

It’s hard enough to find yourself gravitating toward convictions that don’t always align with the community around you. But to find yourself in that position while also having to navigate the denunciations of others is an entirely different sort of challenge. When the wagons are circled and the lines are drawn, it’s natural for others to write off your journey as yet another case of backsliding, compromise, or apostasy. And that’s a tough place to be.

But here’s what you must keep in mind: To the person stuck in one place, all movement looks like drifting. Even growth. Even progress. Even discipleship.

The fact that the in-group will think you’re straying from the truth shouldn’t deter you from your quest. What they really mean is that you’re straying from their own concept of the truth. And if that concept can’t ultimately stand the test of careful analysis and reasonable scrutiny, then there’s nothing to fear in leaving it behind. Just look at all the reformers and revolutionaries in the history of the church. At one time or another, almost all of them were written off as a heretic by at least someone. (Good grief, Jesus himself faced this accusation his entire life!)

Asking uncomfortable questions, digging beneath the surface, and challenging easy assumptions – these aren’t things that people do when they’re drifting from the truth. These are what people do when they’re seeking the truth. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Aligning with a different community isn’t always a betrayal of the previous one.

We’re created for community. Even the most introverted among us (guilty!) are wired to be in genuine and authentic relationships with other people. It’s only in fellowship with others that our souls thrive as they were made to.

But would-be wanderers find themselves in a difficult position. Do they step outside their existing relational setting, risking the loss of treasured friendships and their own sense of personal belonging? Or do they stay within those boundaries and risk on the one hand becoming a source of divisiveness, or on the other hand experiencing a sort of quiet, unspoken isolation?

Anyone who has faced this dilemma knows that there’s no easy answer. Some stay put, and they have good reasons for doing so. But others reach the point where they need to align with a new community that appears to be a more healthy context for long-term relationships and ministry. And I think I speak for plenty of wanderers when I say that this decision comes with some very significant costs, chief among which is the accusation of betrayal.

Especially within the church, a sense of membership and belonging is healthy and good. But that very thing can also be a tool for abuse and manipulation when applied by insecure communities more worried about image and control than honesty and health. Unfortunately, this scenario happens all too often: Instead of a community graciously sending off a wanderer who has a good reason to leave the community, they case the departure as a betrayal. The wanderer is seen as a defector, blamed for her supposed unfaithfulness or lack of commitment.

Honest wanderers, however, don’t usually leave because of unfaithfulness. They’re not betraying anyone. Instead, they’re loving their existing communities by choosing not to let their own concerns and differences hinder its unity and mission. When a certain environment is no longer conducive to a person’s expressions of belief and practice, the community should celebrate any opportunity for her to move into a new setting where she can flourish. As it is, too many wanderers are haunted by the perception that they’re spineless traitors – a perception that often couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Learning from new voices isn’t always a demonstration of ingratitude for past influences.

In my own personal journey, one of the toughest questions to navigate is this one: How do I relate to the influences that loom large over the contexts I no longer see myself being part of? The personal mentors and teachers, the public authors and speakers, the large-scale movements and organizations – am I supposed to erase them from my memory and pretend I never found any merit in them? Or do I ignore my growing differences with them and continue to consider myself one of their students?

As we grow and change, we inevitable find ourselves in conversation with more diverse voices. The identity that once defined us in relationship to a certain theological tribe no longer does. We become more open to perspectives that would have made our former selves – and our former mentors – nervous. We’re more willing to find merit in what the broader community of faith has to say. I suggest that this is a good thing, and we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace it.

But even in branching out and seeking to learn from those who may be at odds with the guides of our past, I believe we can (and should) maintain a posture of gratitude. There are plenty of voices that no longer carry much weight in the way I think, believe, and live. But I can’t deny that over the years I have been shaped by them in ways I can’t help but be thankful for. I can’t deny that they have left me with nuggets of truth worth holding on to. Perhaps I no longer frequent some of those old wells, but that doesn’t mean I should deny ever having drawn water from them. I can thank God for my past while at the same time thanking him he hasn’t left me there.

When you find yourself less influenced by what a past influence or mentor happens to think, it can look to some like you’re turning your back on your roots. But don’t be so quick to buy into that narrative. You are where you are in large part because of the people who brought you there. Be grateful for that. Be grateful for them. Today’s artists don’t have to be a carbon copy of van Gogh or Picasso or Pollock in order to honor them in their own unique artistic expressions. And neither do you. Growth and gratitude don’t have to be at odds with one another.

Keeping everyone happy isn’t always a realistic possibility.

This is really the crux of the matter. Recently I read a story with some third-graders about a man who lost his donkey because he tried to make a various assortment of random strangers happy. It was an odd little narrative, but in the end, the man made a pretty significant observation: If you always try to make others happy, you end up making no one happy – including yourself.

That seems pretty elementary. But the more I think about it, the more I appreciate the difficulty of living within that sense of freedom. We naturally want others to think well of us. We don’t like whispers behind our backs or skeptical looks from across the room. But at some point, the wanderer needs to come to terms with the fact that some people won’t like his journey. And that’s okay. It’s not a reason to turn around and go back.

So don’t give up, fellow wanderers. Don’t let the negative voices turn you away from the positive trajectory you’ve set yourself upon. They’re going to talk about you. They’re going to think you’ve gone off the deep end. They’re going to manufacture rumors that simply aren’t true. But as for you, keep wandering. Keep searching. Keep questioning. And keep trusting the Spirit who leads you.

As for my own wandering, I don’t know where it will lead. And I’m learning to be okay with that. All I know is that I love Jesus, and I’m up for any journey that helps me to more faithfully seek his kingdom and rest in his love.

When I went out the door that Sunday morning to walk to the church building, it turned out that I wasn’t just walking across the neighborhood. I was walking into a new beginning, an unforeseen future, a necessary transition. I was walking into those open, wild places where the Spirit is on the move and kingdom people roam the land.

A year later, my feet sometimes get tired. But I’m still walking.

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