This Weary Pilgrimage

Life can sometimes be a "weary pilgrimage' (hymn-writer Philip Doddridge) , but ultimately I believe it is God who leads us through the wilderness. Its nearly two weeks since my last posting, because much of my energy has been focussed on a church Family Camp, which occurred up at One Tree Point near Ruakaka (Northland), over a recent weekend. Our camp theme was set last year, but underwent several iterations before the final event.

We knew we wanted to hear from the couple in our leadership team who had experienced the trauma and grief of losing a beloved son two years ago. That got us thinking on the Journey theme. The young woman who had actually researched possible sites and booked the camp knew it would only hold 100 people, and rather optimistically hoped that we would have to accommodate twice that many; that got her thinking on the theme of tents and temporary housing, and the Feast of Booths when the Hebrew people recall (and still reenact) their years in the wilderness and their utter reliance on God. I had read a parable called The DreamGiver, by Bruce Wilkinson, which I thought might offer a framework; after I had actually visited the camp site, I got very enthused about the physical environment and the possibility of actually acting out some kind of spiritual journey. Crystallisation actually occurred when we were brainstorming a catchy name for the camp, long before we had any clear idea of the programme. We were in a sermon series on the Ten Commandments at the time, and one of our little planning team came up with "Exodus - Eastview is leaving town." We loved that, because the Biblical Exodus has heaps of images we could use with all ages together, to teach us about how our spiritual journey takes us through "wilderness experiences" today. The Dream Giver motif and the Feast of Booths faded into the background, but I'm sure they informed our thinking as we planned a relaxed family time together.

Our main speakers were of course a highlight, though their story of learning of, and coping with, the death by drowning of their 29 yearold oldest son, was gruelling and emotional. I have posted about the Mangatepopo tragedy more than once in the last year, so I wont retell the story here. But it was privilege over two hours to share in the intimate details of their thoughts, feelings and faith struggles as they shared their personal grief and confusion with the staff of the Outdoor Pursuits Centre, police, coroner, OSH, and media, as well as the six other families who lost a child. For some, who are new to our church family, this was the first time of hearing, for others who had been on the edge at the time of the tragedy, it brought new insights. Because the formal inquest has only just been completed, all of us were able to learn the timeline, see photos, of the gorge and river, consider the facts and the various interpretations, and process the questions that had been raised in court. Clearly these deaths were avoidable, and yet because they happened, hundreds of people have been impacted for the better. Does that explain it? Not for me, the confluence of human responsibility and divine sovereignty is still a mystery. But I am deeply grateful for John and Jeanette McClean’s transparency in sharing their difficult wilderness journey of recent years and for the impact their faith story has had on our community and way beyond.

Of course, not everyone who joins Jesus on the journey of faith will have to face this kind of cruel wilderness experience. So as well as hearing this story we shared at mealtimes a couple of short interview spots with people who have faced a different kind of emotional desert. One long-time follower of Jesus shared about her years of struggling with depression, and what that felt like spiritually, what helped and what didn't, and what wise words she had for others facing depression or anxiety. Then we heard from a young doctor who was so convinced of Gods call to train as a medical practitioner that he applied to Auckland University four times over six years, and kept on going despite the successive turn-downs. He is now a surgeon-trained GP, but boy, he had to have determination thought those wilderness years. H etold of how thsat felt, what helpd and what wose words he would have for a young person seeking guidance in their choice of career.

One of the most "successful" aspects of the camp was a Sunday morning Prayer Walk, and I will recount it in some detail, perhaps over several posts, in the hope that it might be of some use to readers who lead congregations. The original idea came from the Pilgrim's Progress-type parable in "Dream Giver". It tells the story of '"Nobody" who lived in the land of "Familiar", content with his boring life until one day he woke up to the fact that God had given him a dream. This dream had been planned before he was born – and it meant he was a unique "Somebody" who was intended to participate in God’s purposes. After Ordinary had woken up to his dream, and set out on his journey into the unknown, he headed away from Familiar toward the borderlands where most nobody ever went. It was a very uncomfortable place to be. Doubt filled his mind with uncertainty and soon an invisible Wall of Fear stopped him from going on. At one point he even turned round and headed back towards Familiar, but the Dream Giver spoke to him and filled him with fresh courage and hope. But as he broke through the wall of fear and headed out towards his dream, "Border Bullies" from his own family tried to stop him. Later on he had to face Giants who opposed him and placed rocks in his way; he conquered them with the help of "Champion", his spiritual coach.

The next stage in the journey came as a surprise, a wide and hazy wasteland consisting of nothing but sand, rocks and a few scraggly trees. How could he ever find his wonderful dream? As he walked on he got hot, tired, thirsty and despondent, and called out to the Dream Giver for help. But no answer came, through he did find a spring and some strange tasting fruit. But his feet were sore and the trail was hard to see; he wept as he stumbled through the sandy waste, feeling lost and alone. It seemed as if his dream was gone and so was the Dream Giver. Then he saw a shimmering Someone in the branches of a spindly tree. "Faith" told him the Dream Giver had sent her to help. But Ordinary felt it was too late, his dream was dead. Faith reminded him of the fruit and the spring, but he was too depressed to care. Faith headed on across the desert, alone, but later he decided to follow her. Eventually he found a bountiful sanctuary and received fresh hope for the ongoing journey.

We wanted to use the Exodus story and the image of the wasteland as a reminder that the experience of feeling lost and alone is normal for people who want to follow God's dream. There are dry times, hazy times, lonely times, times when we feel abandoned by God and drained of resources. Isaiah and Jeremiah both had those desert times and so did Jesus. Paul wrote about them in his letters and many of the great Christian heroes have testified to their own journey through spiritual wastelands. The Dream Giver encouraged Ordinary to journal some of his thoughts along the way. Here is an extract:
I thought my dream was just around the corner, but instead I found myself in a wasteland.
• I was disappointed by the delay and I questioned the reality of my earlier hope
• Now I know the wasteland was not a waste. It has taught me to trust the Dream Giver even when he’s nowhere in sight
• As I follow Faith I am being prepared for whatever lies ahead.

"We are all faced with great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations." (Chuck Swindoll) With perseverance and faith I pray we can discover the difference.

Next week: What's in your kit bag?

O God of Bethel, by Whose hand
Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage
Hast all our fathers led.

Our vows, our prayers, we now present
Before Thy throne of grace;
God of our fathers, be the God
Of their succeeding race.

Through each perplexing path of life
Our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread,
And raiment fit provide.

O spread Thy covering wings around
Till all our wanderings cease,
And at our Father’s loved abode
Our souls arrive in peace.

Such blessings from Thy gracious hand
Our humble prayers implore;
And Thou shalt be our chosen God,
And portion evermore.

Philip Doddridge 1737.