Barbara and I, in our 27 years of married life, have left the United States three times to do mission work. While these moves always involved sacrifice, tears and a little apprehension, they all pale in comparison to the move that we made five months ago to return to my hometown of Clemson, SC. Why, you may ask, would it be harder to return home than go to a foreign country? How could returning home be more difficult than learning a new language and culture in an unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous place?
I believe that the answer lies in the security that we can often derive from the approval of our peers and superiors. In our case, our moves to Mexico and Brazil to do missionary work were applauded by those whom we respected most. We were sent out as heroes, and a strong missions society provided for us financially. We also were being sent out to do church work in a manner with which we were very familiar and comfortable.
In contrast, our move to Clemson involved something very different. After 30 years in traditional full time church ministry and upper level leadership, we decided to make the controversial decision to leave our ministry positions and begin a house church. Many of our peers thought we were crazy. Our motives were questioned. We experienced the phenomenon that when you go against the grain of church culture, you will likely be perceived as a threat to the beliefs and stability of the institutional church.
Perhaps, for some, this would be a standard day at the office, but for me this has been quite difficult. At times, I have been tempted to question myself and our decision. How could it be that something that I feel called by God to do is questioned and criticized by so many? How will we support ourselves and transition to new careers at 55 years of age? What if we fail in our new adventure? If I am doing God's will, then why do I feel so disoriented and afraid? I never realized how dependent I had become on our church culture, my reputation and the approval of men.
However, I have taken great comfort in the fact that some of God's greatest work was done by disoriented, afraid, insecure and unpopular men and women in the wilderness. In fact, it seems God does some of his best work in the wilderness, not in the stability of religious institutions. He extracts us from the normal patterns of life, puts us in the wilderness, and allows disorientation to do its work. In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch concludes that "the theologically most fertile sections of scripture were in those times of extremity, when people were well out of their comfort zones." Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and so many others were called out of their familiar, secure surroundings to deserts, jails and caves. In many instances they felt abandoned by their previous support structures, friends and family. Of course, we only need to look at the life of Jesus to see that he had nowhere to lay his head, and spent his ministry time in an occupied land surrounded by hostile religious leaders.
The truth is, I have needed the wilderness for renewal in my life. Author Wolfgang Simson describes the wilderness as a place of spiritual death to the old, a place of "religious detoxification" for dealing with 'baggage.' He goes on to say that in the desert, your religious ego and your fleshly consumer-oriented Christianity have to be killed. While I am still not at a place where I "like" the wilderness, I have begun to see my time there as a wonderful opportunity for spiritual renewal in my life. I am thankful for a wife and family that believe in me, and for being surrounded by a community, in my Clemson house church, that has also made the decision to venture into their own wilderness. God has arranged the wilderness for our benefit. He doesn't intend for us to stay there forever, but He certainly plans for us to emerge transformed.