A Review of
Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost: A Story of Church
Reviewed by Janna Lynas
The wilderness can conjure images of adventure, wonder and unexplored time and place that calls to our curiosity with promises of discovery. It’s phrases can be summed up on bumper stickers and billboards. Intelligent marketing and social media posts share images, stirring idyllic visions of peace and tranquility and finding oneself on a mountain ridge, a sunset illuminating the last glimpses of the day’s end that will certainly lead to a brilliant tomorrow.
It seems so easy – just find that same place and you’ll be there – the joy-filled wilderness where all is well. What those bumper stickers and billboards don’t do is expose the long, hard road of the wilderness because to arrive at the mountain top, you must wander through the valley. It’s cliche, yet true. I should know, I’m still on that faithful and confusing road, wandering, but not lost.
In her book, Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost: A Story of Church, author Traci Rhoades bravely details her own spiritual wandering, while beautifully stating with gentleness and grace the truth behind her faith journey, following the Holy Spirit within to learn about the faith practices of the churches in her community. Her patient words breathe life into my own weary soul struggling to find where I belong.
“Sometimes it was the people of God who loved me well. Other times it was the church building itself.” (5) And so Rhoades begins to tell of her earliest experience with the church in which the building itself was never locked, the moments that have taken her breath away, acceptance of the sovereignty of God in regards to life, death and eternal life and infant baptism and communion (or the Lord’s Supper). She expresses no judgement over these traditional church battlegrounds, but instead tells a brave story of asking hard questions, wrestling with conversations shared with trusted friends and ultimately returning to her confident faith that continually grows.
Rhoades also deeply values the faith stories of others, turning to people she has met through life circumstance or she has sought out online. Reading these stories revives a hopefulness in me that I’m not alone. As I read, I found not too distant company and understood community in these tragic but beautiful stories that speak of broken trust, misunderstanding, failure to care and connect and sometimes betrayal among believers. The constant for Rhoades as well as many of the contributors to her book is the belief that Christ is still present, still here and still for us, even when humans aren’t. The desire is for being found, being seen, and for worship across faith traditions, family expectations and cultural demands.
My own journey has always revolved within and around the church. The institution has been a constant in my forty-seven years on this earth, my husband and I giving ourselves and our family to the ministry of the church for the last two decades. And what I have found from these years is that I have more room than my faith tradition for mystery, more capacity for love and justice and the questions it will bring when I step aside from overly programmed service, and more grace to give, the judgement I’ve felt from the church dissolved and not available to others I encounter. I feel free but lonely, still wandering and wondering where I belong.
And then I read this quote she includes from fellow author Sarah Bessey, “I speak in tongues and I pray the hours. I dance and clap at church, but I also sit in silence and meditation I place my hands on people when I pray for them, and I light candles. I follow the church calendar observing Lent and Pentecost, Advent and ordinary time, but I worship in community with believers who do not – and likely never will – and I belong there.” (114) Bessey, Rhoades and the souls who have laid bare their lives here gives me hope and a desire to not give up, to remember God knows my heart and has created within me a void that can only be filled with his love often shown through his imperfect people.
My husband and I left our spiritual home of 22 years, a place my children were dedicated and baptized, where we first served and then became staff. It was excruciating. Even now, as I write, my daughter is driving back to this address, to her place of worship and community to help lead worship as our churches begin to open their doors to gather again in the aftermath of a global pandemic. My choice was to leave, my daughter has chosen to stay, and I am at peace with that.
Rhoades also writes about the importance of passing on to her daughter the truths she is learning about worship and prayer, the significance and unity found in ancient practices of the church and the grace required to hold space for each other because we all won’t embrace it in the same way.
Finally Rhoades tells us, after all of her vast and varied experiences within the larger church from Southern Baptist to Catholic to the Reformed Church, she is committed to her faith family. It doesn’t meet all her needs, no one church ever will in this life. Rhoades concludes, “I think when we allow for more mystery in our faith, it has room to breathe. Breath is life. Breath is spirit. None of us have God figured out, though God doesn’t seem to mind one bit… It’s why I explore, and what I’ve discovered awakens a thirst in me for more and more living water. Also holy water and fresh loaves of homemade communion bread.” (126)
As for myself, I’m somewhere in between the valley and the mountain top. I can’t see the sunset just yet, but I know it exists and I’ll find it again. The view will be different I think, but perhaps more majestic than I remember. There’s a place for me, filled with imperfect people doing their best to listen and notice and extend grace when they’ve forgotten. There’s a place for rest and rhythm of life that enjoys God and people and differences and sees them as all beauty.