This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. I can’t remember how Derrick and I “met.” I have a feeling it was somehow through Bruce Reyes-Chow. Either way he’s a thoughtful and creative pastor who bleeds black and gold, so pretty high in my book. For more information about this series, click here.
A few weekends back, I had the great privilege of officiating a good friend’s wedding. It was in this beautiful camp about an hour north of Portland, Oregon. You had to walk up a small wooded trail leading to a clearing surround by tall trees. It was a little chapel in the woods, an intentionally made sacred space surround by nature. The following weekend, I lead a retreat for the same friend’s church at a camp that was on the Oregon coast. I took several walks out on the beach. I love the ocean! The sound of the waves, the seeming endlessness of the water, nothing in nature compares in my mind. Normally in places like this, surrounded by the clearest reminders of the goodness of God’s creation, my spirit reconnects to the Divine in a way that it can’t in any other facet of my life.
This time…. Nothing. I felt nothing. Both times I was fully aware that I was somewhere beautiful and yet, that connection to God was nowhere to be found. No prayer, even a simple one, emanated from me. It was a bit of a bummer, but it made me aware of something, that I haven’t really been able to put my finger on. I am in a spiritually dry place. A desert, some would call it. I’ve been here for a while now. This is a new experience for me. While I have certainly had times when I didn’t feel so connected to God, and even times when I questioned God’s existence, they have never lasted this long and I have usually been able to take some pretty predictable steps to get out of my spiritual funk. I began seeing a counselor when I saw this was becoming something of a crisis for me. When I talked with my spiritual director/counselor about this place in my life, what he said to me was one of those jarring things that people in helping professions can get away with saying. Basically, his advice was “don’t rush to get out of the desert”.Frustrating, right? I pay this guy to lead me out of my dark night of the soul, and he wants me to hang out there?
As I have sat with this, it has occurred to me how much discipline is required to stay in the desert place. The tendency is to rush for an answer, some cure for your ailment. To be asked to sit with this oftentimes when us religious folks talk about being in the desert, I get the feeling that we imagine ourselves like Jesus, driven into the wilderness by the Hoy Spirit, ready to overcome anything once we emerge. My desert experience probably feels a little more parallel to the Israelites escaping Egypt – bitching and moaning while inflicting additional pain upon themselves and others. It is from the Exodus story that I have been attempting to extract something of worth to accompany me in this dry time. Here’s what I’ve gathered:
Don’t focus on the “good old days” – It’s almost comical how quickly the people of Israel begin to think they were better off in Egypt. A friend of mine once had a mantra that he would repeat: I will not long for Egypt. When in dry places, it is easy to long for what was, even if it wasn’t a place of liberation. Part of moving forward through the desert is actually moving forward.
In this dark place, I have caught myself having nostalgia for times that weren’t even particularly good in my life, simply because I don’t want to be where I am now. This strikes me as self-defeating. It’s been helpful to connect with people from those periods of time who remind me that where I am, and where I might be going, are much better than where I’ve been. It is certainly hard for me to see that in the moment.
Stay away from idols – Feeling distant from God makes it easier to make something (or someone) else the object of your worship. My golden calf has been my work, an irony when I think of what I do, though I doubt that I am the only person in the pastorate who has made an idol of ministry. Whatever might give you meaning or purpose can become an object of worship. When feeling distant from God, filling the void with some non-God things is always a recipe for disaster, even if those things are good things. This is really difficult for me. I realize now how much of my identity is tied up in my work and it is unhealthy. This is my god now.
Desert food is different from normal food – I’ve often wondered why quail didn’t become a staple food in the post-Exodus religious life of the Israelites. Quail and manna were gifts from God when they were hungry. Surely there were quail in the Promised Land. (A quick Google search confirms that there are, in fact, quail in the Middle East.)
What do you do when you can’t trust your normal practices to sustain you? You have to find food in other places. Journaling, solitude, being in nature… those are the things that usually fill me. In this period of when I can’t seem to find enough to nourish me in those places, I struggle to find new things that will keep me going. While there doesn’t seem to be much out there for me right now, the nourishment I do find is in a strange place. I am in this unusual position as of late where I get to have spiritual conversations with those who don’t share my faith background or who are from very different braches of Christianity from how I was raised or what I currently practice. Maybe it’s because they use a different vocabulary for their spiritual life. Maybe it is because they speak more of mystery and questions than statements of fact about the unknowable. Maybe I’m just bored with “Christian-ese”, but those conversations have given me something I can hold on to, even if only temporarily, while I try to find nourishment in my normal places.
Strange guides – In the desert, the people of Israel had to rely on unusual signals and strange teachers to get them through their ordeal. They had to trust Moses and Aaron. They had to follow pillars of clouds and fire. I’m sure that after years of wandering, they had to begin to question the validity of their guides.
My main guide is a two and half year old. He forces me to take myself less seriously. He makes me sing silly songs. He makes me watch goofy cartoons. He makes me laugh when I’m in no mood to laugh. He wakes up singing. He greets everyone who crosses his path with a smile. He embraces life with joy. I want to be my son when I grow up. What’s more, he and his sister force me into a routine. They add liturgy to my daily living. (Thanks, MaryAnn McKibben Dana for that wording) When my mind and heart feel like chaos, they force me to have order. If you’re in a spiritually dry place, and you don’t have kids, find some to hang out with. Most parents I know are willing to lend theirs out.
I have to say, it has been difficult to lead a faith community when I feel like my own spirit is running on “E”. I often feel like a huge fraud, trying to give something to people that I don’t have myself at the moment. Knowing that others in ministry have been through this kind of thing before me has been of some comfort. I don’t want to stay in this place. I hate the way that it feels, but I guess one of the key things about being in the desert is realizing that you don’t travel alone. I am especially grateful for my online community right now. Knowing that I am on a journey with people all over the world, some I may never meet “in real life” (HA!) has brought me more comfort than I can say. No one wants to feel like they are going through the desert alone.
Rev. Derrick Weston is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs in Ohio and director of the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch College. He is a beer snob, jazz lover, Pittsburgh-native (Go Steelers!) and bacon enthusiast. He and his wife Marnie have two small kids ages 2 and 5 months.