Let me create a couple of scenarios, an amalgamation of people struggling with a dry period in their spiritual life. Let’s talk about John and Mary, two different people (fictional) who in different ways are walking through the wilderness, and are finding it hard to go to church.
John has experienced an unexpected and shocking cluster of deaths, in his family, a colleague at work, and a couple of tragic accidents of leaders in the community. John is in his early 50’s, in good health, a good job, a good family. A good guy all around. Yet he’s finding it hard to go to church. Strangely enough, at his age, until now he hasn’t experienced death within his close circle of family and friends. Death has always been at arms length, something that happens to someone else. Now with the cluster of death, he’s asking a lot of questions that haven’t been very real before, questions about life, death, who God is, what God is really like, why bad things happen, the often inexplicable and seeming random nature of things that happen. The answers that he’s looking for don’t seem to be coming, and the life and vitality he consistently has found in the church just don’t seem to be there anymore.
Mary recently went through a divorce. For her, the church has also been a place of spiritual life and vitality for a long, long time. But now after her divorce, church has become a place that reminds her of the pain of her present life and grief over what she has lost. She and her family always attended church together. Now her kids are gone from home, and she has to attend alone. She and her husband were active in lots of ministries together. Even though he has left the church, there are constant reminders of what is no longer true. And the caring people of her faith community ask her how she’s doing to the point that she is tired of answering the question and just wants to stay away to avoid having to talk about it one more time.
Now both John and Mary, to their credit, are still coming to church. And I suspect that this time of walking through the wilderness will not last. There will come a time when being a part of their congregations will once again be full of life and vitality.
As a pastor, I haven’t had the option of walking away from regular attendance, but I have known my times of walking through the wilderness. There have been times in my life and ministry when I was going through the motions, when I wasn’t sure where God was or even, if I’m honest, if there was such a thing as a personal God who cared a whit about me.
I don’t think that’s unusual or should be particularly alarming. Life is like that. Most marriages go through dry periods. Most people go through times of vocational uncertainty. We get restless, bored, flat, directionless.
I’m a marathoner – not a good one, just one who hopes to finish the races I start. In every marathon I’ve run there have been times when all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t think about getting to the next mile marker or the next water station, much less the finish line. I cared nothing about whether I was maintaining my pace. It was just put one foot in front of the other and then one more step and one more stop and so on. And in every case, I have finally gotten to the exhilaration of the finish line.
My own spiritual wilderness wanderings have been like that. One foot in front of the other. Get up and go to church. Sing the hymns, say the prayers, listen to the Word as best I can. And I always know that by putting one foot in front of the other, I will get through the wilderness. And when I get through the dry period, I have without exception been able to look back and see that my life of faith was not dead and God was not absent.
Shouldn’t we somehow be telling people that such times are normal and even to be expected.? I almost feel like when people join our church I should give them a guidebook that tells them to expect times of barrenness and offer some counsel for getting through them.
My question today is how many people give up in the middle and never find their way back to spiritual life and vitality.