I first heard about the theology of the wilderness from Sarah Bessey. Biblically speaking, the wilderness was often a place of wandering, of exile, of exodus. It was for the misfits, the poets, the prophets, the outcasts. It was a place outside of the city gates, cities where inhabitants lived comfortably with their families and friends and communities. The wilderness was a land of unbelonging. Wanderers were far from any place they had ever called home, the distant memories of safety, of security, of inclusion only a far-off glimpse in their rearview mirrors.
And yet. The wilderness was where Jacob wrestled with God and received his blessings. It was where the Israelites were led by pillars of fire and cloud. It was where Elijah heard the still, small voice, where Hagar sat down to die but instead was met by “the God who sees,” where the Lord spoke to Moses, where Jesus was tempted but ultimately overcame.
The wilderness might seem a lonely, barren wasteland. It may feel unfamiliar, or perhaps like a punishment of some sort. And yet. If only we had eyes to see, we might find for ourselves springs of water in the wilderness. We might find flowers in bloom. We just might hear a voice calling out, cries of straight paths and God among us.
We just might see that the wilderness is the perfect place for God to do a new thing.
I’d like to think I’m pretty well acquainted with the wilderness. I’ve been a Christian for all of my adult life and have spent more time than not outside of those city gates, sometimes of my own choosing, but more often because the religious gatekeepers said I couldn’t come in. I was divorced from my first husband, so I was sent outside for a season to think about what I’d done. I asked hard questions, challenged the status quo, demanded better of a faith that claimed the brown-skinned refugee from Nazareth. I was sent outside again, told I was being “divisive” and “angry.” At one point, I left the city all on my own, walking away from what felt like a dry, dead religion that made me deep-in-my-bones weary. Always, I eventually heard the voice of Love calling me back home. Always, I assumed home was found where I had left it — probably because I had never known anything else. Not once did I consider that maybe, just maybe, I could make my home in the wilderness.
I’m in another wilderness season these days. I’m tired of and disappointed by capital-C-Church. Our family has its roots in ministry, and isn’t it funny how the things we love most are also always the ones that hurt us the deepest? I don’t feel safe or secure or even welcomed anymore in groups that say they love our trans-racial family to our faces but then criticize us for saying Black Lives Matter behind our backs. I’m sick of political parties using my faith as a pawn. I’m sick of fellow believers confusing their faith with a party affiliation. I’m weary for my LGBTQ+ friends and family, for indigenous rights as we violate their land, for those who are unhoused and uninsured and food-insecure, for a planet that I want to leave for my sons and daughters but is showing the signs of our abuse more and more these days. I hear the ground crying out with the blood of Michael Brown, of Tamir Rice, of Philando Castile, of George Floyd, of so. many. others. I look around at what we’re doing to one another, to ourselves, and I think: if this is Christanity, then I want nothing to do with it.
Except there’s Jesus. I know Jesus. I love Jesus. And I want everything to do with him.
And the Jesus I read of in scripture, I find, seems to be chasing me down out here in the wilderness — not to bring me back to the city, but to set up camp here. To enlarge my tent, to plant my gardens, to build my home, set my table, to drink wine from new wineskins. To cling to him alone as my guide. To remember what’s beyond the veil and live, as Audrey Assad wrote, in the rhythm between two worlds. Someday, as she says, I will set sail for what is Eternally Next. But for now, I wait, and I remember.
There’s a beautiful community out here in the wilderness, one of dreamers and lovers and peacemakers and poets and creators and prophets and painters and farmers. One of people who have started to wake up and remember they were destined for more. We thought we were being sent out here to die, but instead we found we’ve never been more alive. The table out here is vast, and it is long, and it is wide, and when we say all are welcome, we mean all. Justice is our heartbeat, joy is our song, resurrection our harvest, and we feast continually on the goodness of God.