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The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith

by A. J. Swoboda

Wandering down the road less traveled seems to be a harmless pastime in most settings, but when it comes to living the Christian life, the idea of wandering away has a worrisome connotation, one that brings to mind the lost sheep or the lost son from the parables of Jesus. Those stories are cautionary tales, even though they have happy endings. In The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens You Faith (Baker Books, 2016), A. J. Swoboda asks readers to suspend their preconceived notions of wandering and consider the many pathways, and the many wanderers, presented in the Bible. In the Preface to The Dusty Ones, Swoboda writes: “This (book) is for the quester, the seeker, the sojourner, and the wanderer; basically, anyone still doing the er — those along the way. You are just the wanderer God has always had in mind.”

Swoboda begins The Dusty Ones by addressing the idea that preachers and pastors are often expected to be non-wanderers; people able to keep to the straight and narrow path without a problem. In answer to this expectation, Swoboda writes that “[The] world has only seen one Preacher who could boast of perfection.” He goes on to describe a well known wanderer, the Apostle Paul, pointing out that Paul says “we preach not ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:5). This is because, says Swoboda, a preacher’s life is also a one that contains times of wandering. “To stand up and pontificate –wrinkle-and-wandering-free– that we don’t continue to wander toward Jesus is a lie. We all wander…the best preachers wander, stumble and scratch their way through life but keep going…Only the best preachers are willing to talk about it. True preaching isn’t reality modification. False preaching sweeps reality under the rug of the “sermon”.

As for those who are not preachers or pastors Swoboda notes, “The sacred writings of Scripture are a wanderer’s handbook, of sorts — an honest and loving friend for the wandering journey…Given the amount of wandering the ancients did, wandering must not be caricatured as some extracurricular activity that only a few immature Christians do in their seasonal time of sin or disobedience… [I] want to suggest otherwise: wandering will be at times, the very will of God the Father. Any caricature of this won’t do. Christian wandering isn’t extra credit; it’s often the class itself.”

Swoboda does admit that the image of wandering is almost exclusively seen as negative in the Bible. “Wandering is what happens when God’s people sin, worship another god, and lose track of who they are and where they are going.” Here Swoboda maintains, “Wandering is both a virtue and a vice in the Bible — it is good and bad.”

One of the many wandering stories included in The Dusty Ones is the historical desert trek of the Israelites on their way out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. This account illustrates the idea that wandering is “the class itself.” For Swoboda, who is a pastor in Portland, Oregon, using historical references can be viewed by his congregation as offensive. “In contemporary culture,” he states, “there is a pronounced, visceral prejudice against living in and giving authority to the past.” But, Swoboda insists, to learn to have a conversation about present day wandering it is necessary to have a conversation about the biblical wanderers of the past. From this starting point, then, the author investigates the curious and startling nature of life spent in the dry and dusty desert. There are stories about the tent-dwelling God, how heat and hunger reveal the heart of human nature, and the amazing truth that the desert can be the place of our salvation and the source of our mission.

Of all the scenarios that Swoboda presents in The Dusty Ones, the situation that resonated most with me was in the chapter called “Losing Jesus.” Swoboda first tells of a friend who left the Christian walk because he lost the feeling that God was present with him. Then Swoboda takes a look at the story of the young Jesus, who chose to remain in Jerusalem while his family and neighbors left the city to return home to Nazareth. Swoboda describes what the anxiety filled parents did as they searched for the missing Jesus: 1. They checked with family who were their traveling companions to see if Jesus was with them. 2. They went back to the last place they saw Jesus — in Jerusalem. 3. They were persistent — they looked for Jesus until they found him — three days.

Swoboda says that what Joseph and Mary did is exactly what we need to do when we sense we have lost Jesus:

  1. Search for him among people who know who Jesus is and what he looks like. “This is why we need the church,” Swoboda says. “This is why we need community. This is why we need others around us who know Jesus. Because when Jesus has been lost, we will have given ourselves a community of people who know precisely what Jesus looks like and how we might find him.”
  2. Return to the last place we saw Jesus. Swoboda asks:”Was it in the reading of Scripture? Was it in prayer? Was it in serving the poor? Was it in singing to him?”

3.And finally, keep looking. “This speaks to the great perseverance and long-suffering of Jesus’s parents to locate him…Jesus was eventually found.”

Swoboda concludes, “And Jesus can still be found… If I were sitting with [my friend] Stu now, I would tell him that even Mary and Joseph lost Jesus. Even they, the parents of the Son of God, knew what it was like to feel out of touch with their child. When we feel as though Jesus is gone, our response is critical. Will we take that feeling of loss as a reason to search him out, or use it as proof that we have been fooled by faith?”

The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith by A.J. Swoboda contains many examples to demonstrate that wandering is a key part of a Christian’s life, and that Jesus also was a wanderer, both as a youngster and as an adult when he was an itinerant preacher who had no place to rest his head.(Matt 8:20) This is the perfect book to take on a trip, either short or long, and its also a good book to discuss with friends who are traveling with us on the journey of life.