the wall & the wilderness


lent is not a ritual.

it is a time to think seriously about who Jesus is for us,

to renew our faith from the inside out”

– joan chittister

* * * * *

 one of my all-time favorite carnival blog posts was called a nifty chart for the journey. it included a chart that i adapted from one of my best-reads-at-seminary called the critical journey:stages in the life of faith by hagberg & guelich.  consider it my free gift to you that cost me thousands of dollars in tuition.  i refer to it often in talking with people who find themselves a critical juncture in their spiritual journey.  they’ve hit a “wall” so to speak and know that they somehow can’t go back but they don’t know how to move forward, either.

if you haven’t seen the chart yet, check it out here:

the first three stages (recognition of God, life of discipleship & the productive life) are important, but many people hit a spot in their journey called “the wall”, a place in their journey where things just stop working for one reason or another. i’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of the chart, but recently i’ve been thinking about how scary “the wall experience” is.  it is a much easier path is to stand at the wall, dance around for a while, and go back  (which i have seen many a person do, by the way.  they leave the confines of what they had once known for a while, wrestle with some questions, and find themselves back in the traditional confines in some shape or form because it doesn’t feel like there are any other good options for them, their kids).

but to really go “through the wall” and enter into the wild and dangerous wilderness of a journey inward, which is stage four, requires a whole other degree of courage, patience, and perseverance. during stage four we wrestle with hard questions, we cry out to God for direction and hope, so much of what we once knew is stripped away and we’re not sure what’s left. as john described in his comment on the wrestling with the word “christian post: “i can tell you honestly that I was so scared and freaked out about what was happening to me. contrary to what some people might think, there was nothing cool or rebellious about watching a faith that I loved, begin to unravel and become undone.” yeah, going through the wall is not pretty. it’s a vast and dark and lonely wilderness and scary beyond belief.  no one i know has been giddy about giving up so much of what they once knew and having to find peace & a place & a new direction to walk after being stuck in a clear and definable groove for so long.  and this isn’t always just related to “spiritual church-y” things. sometimes we leave the safety of a marriage, we lose a family member, we lose our jobs or our health or a whole variety of things that force us out of safe & contained and into the wild unknowns.

the beauty of the mysterious spiritual journey is that if we are willing to keep wrestling, seeking, moving, trying, listening to the movement of God’s spirit deep within us, we can pop out of stage four–the journey inward–and move into the lovely journey outward, which is stage five. we live from a free-er place, a full-er place, a less demanding place.  we love more freely.  we might still have questions but they don’t torture us as much.  we have more hope, not necessarily in the system (ha!) but in God’s spirit-at-work-in-our-lives-and-others.  we find new life that might not be as pretty or shiny or inspiring as before but it feels on more solid ground (and lovely in its own way).

i have been thinking a lot about the wall and the wilderness lately, especially today as we enter a season of lent, 40 days of stripping away and getting to the essence of our spiritual journey-without-all-the-trappings on the path toward resurrection & new life & hope.

for some of you, you’ve been in this wilderness of going through the wall for a long, long time.  you’re tired. you’re lonely.  you’re confused.  it’s dark and even though your heart might get stirred online here and there, you and look around your neighborhood and what your options really are it just gets lonelier and weirder.  you think about going back but you know you can’t.  you just don’t know how to move forward, either.   for others of you, you have made it through one wilderness and maybe found a new place of hope and peace but it seems like you might have hit the wall again in a different way (this is me right now).  yeah, i get these weird stuck & scared moments where i just wonder how i ended up here and which direction i’m supposed to walk next.   for others of you, you may be out of the wilderness completely, in a great place that you are really happy and content with.  and yet others might be a combination of all of these at the same time.

i have no idea what your spiritual journey looks like right now, but i feel confident of this–God wants to be with us in the midst of the barrenness, the parchedness, the loneliness, the weirdness, the darkness, the confusion. i am very thankful that Jesus knows what it’s like to be human, to hunger, to thirst, to be shamed, to be tempted, to be rejected, to be misunderstood.  he experienced many of the things we experienced and i am guessing his 40 days in the wilderness weren’t pretty and happy.

so this lenten season, i am going to intentionally open my heart to God in this season of wilderness. to strip away some of the unnecessary junk that i still hold on to that it’s again time to let go of.  to move in my heart and remind me of what’s at the core.  to help me be unafraid to go into new places in my faith journey that i may have been unwilling to go before. to seek peace. to be willing to repent and turn away from what’s hindering, hiding, festering and turn toward hope.  to restore in me a clean heart that’s not so weary and burdened with “the church.”  to make space to listen to the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the friend, the companion, the one who keeps calling me to a simple faith in a complex world.

where are you at this lent? this is the first year we are really practicing intention in it as a faith community, with fat tuesday, ash wednesday, the whole bit, refuge-style. it’s been fun & challenging for me, for us.  some like it more than others, but i think the challenge is good, important and roots us in deep and sometimes unfamiliar soil.  i love julie clawson’s recent thoughts on lent, that the question isn’t “what am i giving up?” but “how can i allow God to transform me this season?”

here’s what i hope for those of us who have found themselves at the wall & in the wilderness–maybe for the first time, maybe yet again:

that we hold on and listen.

that we remember that even though it feels like we’re alone, we’re not.

that we strain to hear the heart of Jesus without being strapped with all the unnecessaries.

that we open our hearts to love.  wild, scary, stripped-away love.

that we open our hearts to life.  new life past the wall, beyond the wilderness.

yes, hope is dangerous, Jesus is dangerous.

but i think that’s the idea.

  • are you at the wall? in the wilderness? as always, i love to hear your thoughts and it helps so many others feel less alone, too. while i agree that we have to do the wilderness alone, i think we can go a little crazy out there in the desert unless we have some other voices in our heads that remind us we’re not the only ones.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • If I were to be honest, I’m 80% between stage 4 and 5, and 20% wrestling with The Wall….it’s definitely not a single stage life I live, ha!

    Honestly, though, I think after coming through the wall the first time, you do cycle back as you run into things that “don’t work anymore”. Sort of a “change, review, evaluate, adjust, move forward” cycle…which is pretty natural.

    I find myself at the wall less and less, and I think it’s my “intellectualism” that keeps returning me, trying to figure out how today’s Church’s doctrine came to be….

    This lent is a biggie for me… I really don’t know why, but for the first time in years I’m taking it pretty seriously. I’m excited to see what the next 46 days have in store… my guess is that it’ll be pretty paradigm shifting.

  • Oh Kathy…like I’ve said, this blog and the one you wrote a while ago of similar content…really gave me the words to understand some of what I was/am going thru.
    While I think I’ve encountered ‘walls’ of various varieties in my life…they were ‘nothin’ compared to the ‘Crisis of faith wall’. Attempting to breech it has been like a living hell at times…I guess I ‘expected’ that having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus…and being religious about all of that…would protect me from ever having doubt, struggling with disbelief or feeling lost…even abandonded by God.
    Today, there are days when I’m not sure I’ve move beyond the ‘wall’ …but more see myself as beginning to see daylight thru the few fortuitous cracks…I feel hopeful I WILL NOT DIE HERE>
    Yet, Everything I’ve prided myself in knowing or having learned up until now…hasn’t been of much comfort…all of the knowledge, bumpersticker bible quotes and heady theological books have not made this process less scary, painful or lonely at times. The only comfort has been the people who have been unafraid to walk beside me…in the desert or a darkened path. Your words and friendship have been an encouragement.

  • I have read this several times today. I can’t tell you how comforting this is. Thank you.

  • Funny, I don’t think of “the wall” as the obstacle. Its more me and my “state” – whether I am a strong climber, alone , without ability, filled with super powers to walk through, able to take hold of hands reaching to help me over or blind to the existence that there is a wall etc. etc..

    But I know I am drawn to the wilderness in all “states”. … .. …

  • Kathy, I love you!
    Thanks for putting into words what I have been experiencing. I am so thankful to have others who understand and remind me that I am not crazy or a failure as a christian.

  • Heck Moses had a million people with him and he still felt alone in the Winderness/desert.
    I haven’t followed your links but just what you said here has resonated with where I find myself wandering these days (months, years). I am not alone in my aloneness–a comfort. Last year I know one thing I learned: change ain’t easy.
    Thanks, Kathy for walking out these parts (the ones we get to see on your blog) in public.

  • My faith remains, but I too am weary of this gaudy old lady we call “the church”. All her money and trappings have served to make her look like an old woman with way too much makeup rather than the bride of Christ. We all know of her many imperfections. How do we move beyond that?

    Helping the old lady maintain her lifestyle doesn’t do much for most of us. Focusing on others and building relationships seems to hold the most promise. I want and need the body of Christ, yet I am finding that most of the relationships that I am building are with those who are not yet part of that body. With few exceptions, those are the people to whom I am most drawn. That is the space where I find peace.

    Changing the metaphor yet again – For me I find the church to be the builder of walls, walls designed to keep out those with whom I am building relationship. For some strange reason, the church imagines it is the keeper of God’s garden, the garden it has walled off. I have discovered that God’s garden is much larger than the corner the church has walled off.

  • thing with walls not only do they keep others out … but we often become trapped inside … He said, He was the Door, walk on through but but don’t stop at the doorway cause He also tells us – there are greener pastures ahead.

  • Oh, thank you, so much for reposting this chart.

    I had found it, printed it, and it was among my “you’re not crazy, really you’re not” lifelines for a number of months as I went through my wall.

    Recently, I was talking with a friend and wished I’d not misplaced that sheet of paper, and surfing like crazy through my old bookmarks to find it again, to no avail.

    So thanks, honestly, for revisiting it.


  • christian – yeah, i think that’s so true, the cycle and re-visiting the wall in different ways, from different angles depending on new places in our journey. i am with you on the lent this year, too, it has been good to explore from a new place of openness on where i am in the journey at the moment. thanks for sharing!

    joy – oh how i love you, let me count the ways. thank you for your honest & real journey. no dying today, yeah!

    mj – i am so glad. thanks for reading, it makes me happy that these words somehow bring hope.

    annie – thank you for sharing another angle on the wall. that’s what i love about the convo, really, that we all have our unique perspectives and experiences on the journey & are somehow learning along the way. i really like what you are saying is that so much is about our “state of mind/presence/whatever you want to call it” the stillness of lent or of slowing down our lives or ? does help somehow get more in touch with it, i think?

    debbie – no, you’re not crazy and i know you and you are most definitely not a failure as a christian, ha ha. you are one of the most wise, compassionate, loving, generous people i know. i am so glad that somehow from across the miles & all these wacky years we can share this journey together. a lot’s happened in the last 16 years, eh????

    minnow – change is brutal, especially when some things are so deeply engrained in us for so long. thanks for reading and being part of the journey here. the wilderness is so forming, so hard, so good, so lonely sometimes.

    sam – oh i always love your thoughts! i really liked this line, knowing that it’s a different kind of take on the word “wall”- “For me I find the church to be the builder of walls, walls designed to keep out those with whom I am building relationship. For some strange reason, the church imagines it is the keeper of God’s garden, the garden it has walled off. I have discovered that God’s garden is much larger than the corner the church has walled off.” thanks for sharing…

    mark – for some weird reason the past few days your words have lingered and i have been listening for ways that i make my own walls, creating ways to keep myself “stuck” instead of leaning into full freedom & gratitude for what is right before me. and oh, it’s good. sometimes i get afraid of it.

    gloria – i am glad it got some mileage and you have a new copy!

  • Hmmm, yep, I got the t-shirt for the wall! I have a feeling there are more walls to come, but the place of peace, relaxation and freedom on the other side of the wall, gives me courage to face any future walls like the one I came thru. And talk about faith…so deep, there are no longer any words to describe it. Who’d of known?? Thanks for putting all this into words. Nice to know we are not alone in this path. mjj

  • Mother Teresa comes to mind. Only it appears that she hit a wall and stayed there for many years, secretly. Very sad, but deeply instructive to us.

  • I really like this chart! It makes a lot of sense to me right now. I am really dissatisfied with the church I attend every week but I love the people I fellowship with there. It is a crazy thing! I am in a writers’ group with three other women from this church and it is one of the highlights of my life right now. So honest and open – dealing with real struggles and a handicapped child and getting older . . . There are definitely some things I love! My volunteer work is so fulfilling. However, I feel less and less like the rest of the conservative Christians who vote Republican and can’t see any other way that sit next to me on Sunday mornings. Lent, for me, is a chance to listen to the still small voice of God and sense God’s calling in a deeper way. I am challenged by your blog to be more thoughtful and clearer about what I believe. Thanks for your faithfulness!

  • Oh my there’s a rhythm to the what seemed like a random journey. This is intriguing and lovely. Think I’m at the beginning of stage 5.

  • In the past 5 months I have moved 2 states away from the home I’ve known for 30 years, lost a baby, had to learn to live on 1/4 the salary we’ve been living on, and abandoned my role as stay at home mommy (which I LOVED) to my husband, and haven’t been to church (which was very regular and comfortable to me); all the while reading your blog and watching recycle your faith videos- I am standing at the wall SCREAMING “I just want to go HOME!” but I can’t.

  • len – thanks for the link. it always makes me happy when that fun little chart gets passed on.

    michelle – we should make some t-shirts, ha ha. “i survived the wall” or maybe “i survived teh $*!^&!^!*$( wall and it damn near killed me” …i agree with you wholeheartedly, though, that after the big one it’s much easier to do the others. as i bump up against it now from different angles i am not as scared for as long. oh, the beautiful journey…glad we can share it together.

    john – thanks for taking time to comment. welcome. that intensely private part makes me sad but i see why it was necessary for her. she is one of my heroes in so many ways & those private letters to her spiritual director were amazing and also strangely familiar. i hope we can find more ways to help each other through the wall experience openly instead of in hiding, though. ultimately we have to go it alone but having friends on the path who don’t think we’re nuts and remind us to stay the course & embrace the journey helps….

    patty – i am glad you liked it and i love that you are always seeking God’s voice & direction & passion & calling and finding it in ways that might look very different from what they were years ago. the journey’s wacky, that’s for sure, but oh so good. love you.

    mary – “there’s rhythm to what seemed like a random journey.” beautiful. ah, stage 5 is the best….enjoy….glad you are part of all this nuttiness & beauty.

    kathleen – precious kathleen-who-cared-for-my-babies-when-they-were-born-and-is-now-all-grown-up-and-in-the-thick-of-it-darn-it! i hate that you are in such a hard spot, the wilderness & the wall & feeling trapped. i wish it were easier, no doubt. pain & loss & suffering is definitely not what we added to our list of hopes. sending tons of love & hope in the midst…glad you are reading and are part from afar & hope somehow someway it helps remind you you are not alone in the wrestling & the wondering. jose says hi, too, btw.

  • Kathy

    Thanks for “the Wall chart.”

    Been using it the last couple of weeks where I fellowship.
    We’ve had some great discussions and testimonies

    A small home group, 10 – 14 folks.

    A few young saints, 5 – 6 years with the Lord,
    but mostly well seasoned saints, 25 – 40 years,
    who have hit “the wall” many times in many ways.

    It’s amazing how many different ways just don’t work anymore. 🙂

    The young one’s get down on themselves “THINKING”
    they have to do more and accomplish something for God.

    THINKING gets me in trouble.

    Psalm 94:11
    The LORD knows the thoughts of man, that they are vanity.

    1Corinthians 3:20
    And again, The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.

    Luke 12:40
    Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour
    “when ye think not.”

    Matthew 24:44
    Therefore be ye also ready:
    “for in such an hour as ye think not”
    the Son of man cometh.

    Stage 5 “learning to live out of a totally different place”
    Stage 6 “The Life of Love, It’s all about God.”

    When I “stop thinking,” “Think Not” the Son of Man comes.

    Total trust. Let Jesus do the thinking. When I stop, Jesus shows up.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.