By Bill Mefford
I remember as a kid hearing the Old Testament story of Israel being forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years because they believed ten of the twelve spies who were sent to scout out the promised land and who came back with negative reports. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, came back with a positive assessment, believing the promised land was theirs to be had, while the other ten said there was no way (check out Numbers 13). For their disbelief and their willingness to return to Egyptian slavery, God made them wander in the wilderness for forty years.
Geez, overreact much?
As a kid, (and yes, as an adult), I thought that was a little over the top. I don't blame God for being a little ticked; I mean, God did just deliver them from slavery. That should give him a little bit of street cred. But denying people their destiny for forty years for doubting seemed a bit harsh to me then, and now.
When I was a kid I remember asking about what they did for forty years. Did they literally wander around in circles for forty years? Does wandering around circles have some kind of mystical quality about it that cures doubting? And did they know how long it was going to be? If so, why wander? Why not just sit it out?
These are some of the questions that I thought then and, as is often the case for me, these are some of the questions I still have.
I have heard far too many sermons on this passage with the message that God hates doubting and God hates doubting so much that God might just punish you by allowing you to wander aimlessly for forty years if you doubt. This is one of those places in Scripture that makes for some really bad sermons, especially if emanating from someone who is already given to judgment and condescension. And as much as I did not want to doubt, as much as I wanted to have absolute faith, I confess I have doubted. Like a lot.
I actually have no doubt that God is real. I have no doubt in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the cross. And I do not doubt that Jesus has saved and transformed my life. My doubting isn't there, though for some who are reading this, your doubting might be located in these areas and let me tell you straight up - IT IS OKAY TO DOUBT. You're not going to hell because you doubt, because you think.
For me though, I doubt myself and what I do. I have oftentimes doubted whether I was living into God's desire for my life; doubted that what I was doing had any real impact on peoples' lives; doubted that I was doing what I am supposed to with my life; doubted that God actually has a plan for my life. My doubt has always been more about me far more than it was with God.
I found myself doubting a lot when I was younger. It felt like almost everything that happened was a crisis of my faith, in some way at least. But nothing compares to the last few years. For a lot of reasons I feel lost. Not lost in terms of my salvation, but rather, untethered to any guiding direction or deeper meaning for my life. I honestly could not tell you if what I do on a day to day basis has any Kingdom consequences at all.
I haven't lost my basic moral compass - I still know the difference between right and wrong (which is saying a lot these days). But I cannot shake the feeling that what I am doing may or may not make a difference of any kind.
Now, I am not writing this because I am fishing for secret messages of encouragement. I am not sure random messages via Facebook or email from people will end this lostness I am in the midst of. I am writing this because I can't help but feel that others are either feeling this now or have in the past. I write this to hopefully resonate with others. I write this because I sure as hell hope there is a way out.
I have thought about whether this is some kind of liminal space. Liminal times are for those going through rites of passage; passing from one particular stage in life to another. An example of a liminal experience is when someone goes through their passage to womanhood or manhood for instance. It is a time when participants are stripped of their titles and are prepared for their new roles in society.
Thus, I don't think this time in my life is a liminal time - it just feels too damn long. But I recognize that this lostness largely started (though not entirely) when my previous title, which had come to define me in so many ways, was taken from me. Living lost is more than just a liminal space. This does not feel like preparation. This feels like purposeless and aimless wandering.
So, for now, I am lost. And I can't help but feel that perhaps there is meaning in being lost; like maybe my purposeless has purpose. It brings me back to the Israelites who were wandering for forty years. I keep wondering about their wandering. Surely, over the period of forty years, they experienced at least glimpses of abundant life during that time. Surely, some experienced love for the first time, or deep friendship, or deep loss and sadness. Surely, they laughed and cried and laughed even more. Maybe the forty years kind of became a running joke; like each New Years' day they made the resolution to still be wandering this time next year.
Maybe they got used to being lost. Maybe they were able to find meaning of some kind in being lost. Since none of us, this side of heaven, know what life eternal will ultimately be; since all of us, whether we are living lost or have a divine sense that we are doing exactly what we are called to do each and every day - all of us can only see through a glass dimly. Therefore, until we come face to face with the Creator, we are all, in some small way, experiencing life in the wilderness. We are all living lost. To a degree.
Still, that is small comfort to those of us who wonder if our lives have deeper meaning; who wonder daily if God has forgotten us; if God just has more important things on her mind. We want to serve, we want to give, but we also want to know that our service has deeper meaning. I do not know that now and I am not sure if I will again. So, for now I am living lost and even in the midst of that lostness, there are moments of laughter (lots of them actually), moments of deepening friendship, moments of love (tons of these). Living lost is more about a lack of direction and I know there are worse things in life. But I wouldn't mind even a glimpse of the promised land.