Since the beginning of October, I've darkened the doors of a church three times, only one of which was to attend a service. Shortly after leaving, after having one of my blog posts go viral, I was interviewed for a newspaper article. I was spiraling, and I wasn't sure how to handle it all. At the suggestion of a dear friend and mentor, I allowed myself to enter a period of wandering in spiritual wilderness. To figure out who I am. To discern who and what I want to be and do. To ask questions. To wrestle. To doubt. I envisioned this period to last the traditionally biblical forty days.
Today makes 84 days since the article was published. Today makes 84 days since I began my retreat. For the sake of full disclosure, I'm nowhere near ready to come back to reality, to civilization, to church...
The suggestion to enter a time of isolation and contemplation scared the hell out of me. Even though I identify primarily as an introvert, I love people. I thrive on human interaction, conversation, and affection. What can I say—I'm an only child. I like my fair share of attention. Thanks to some friends, I've gotten better about keeping this impulse and desire under control, but I still have my moments.
Still, I took my friend's advice. At least I've done my best to do so. I've stayed fairly close to the edge of the proverbial woods, but not so close as to avoid the wilderness altogether. The most surprising realization I've come to is that just because one enters the wilderness does not mean they have to do so alone. At times I've felt like I've been flying solo. The reality is that I've not been.
While this might come as a surprise to some people, I'm not perfect. In fact, I'm pretty damn broken. I say this because I think more of us need to admit to our flaws, and not the superficial ones that merely scratch the surface. I'm talking about the flaws that are only revealed to people who can be counted on less that two hands. All of us are in the wilderness in some sense. All of us are wandering in some way, shape, or form. What does this mean? It means we're all traveling companions, usually within earshot of each other.
When I first joined GCN, I had not started seminary yet. My fellow message board members and I shared our Christian faith, which for most of us was fairly intact. Nearly five years later, some of my closest friends and I share a different common thread: we're wandering, questioning, doubting, exploring. For some it's been Buddhism, for some atheism or humanism, for some paganism or Wicca. For me, in the last 84 days, well I can't really say what it's been. Buddhism. Hinduism. Neopaganism. Humanism. Or maybe it's simply been that I've been resting on the outskirts of Christian orthodoxy.
My point is this: I'm not alone. No one is alone (yes, all you Sondheim fans, I just went there). In this fact alone I've found some solace. Traveling along a river, climbing some cliffs, traversing a canyon, I find comfort knowing that someone is only a duck-call away (forgive me, the lowly city boy who struggles with nature analogies). Even this afternoon, I had a phone call with a new friend who is also asking questions, who is engaged, who wants to go deeper. In fact, I've had a number of these conversations as of late. Maybe that's why I'm content being in the wilderness. Maybe the wilderness has more to offer than the real world, than the insanity of urban, bureaucratic institutional life.
Maybe this is the church of which I'm a part. The doors are the gap between two trees on the edge of the forest. The hymns aren't found in lyrics by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley, but instead in the sound of various birds. Baptism happens on the shore of rapids and the Eucharist isn't Welch's grape juice and sweet Hawaiian bread but it's whatever the land provides that day. Small group doesn't require sitting in a room lit with humming flourescent lights on uncomfortable folding chairs. It means walking silently along the untraveled path with people whom you may have just met five minutes ago. The sermon doesn't come from a pulpit. It comes in the wind, in the rain and the thunder, in the rustling of leaves and in the crackling of fire. And all the while, I'm not alone. We're not alone. We are each others' traveling companions. We are church.