Just over a decade ago I began a journey, disillusioned by my experiences with “church” and the type of Christian faith and practice it advocated. I was a pastor, and thus a spokesperson for this brand: through teaching, preaching, and counseling. The crisis for me came in having to admit that what I had been taught — and was teaching — wasn’t really working in my own life. The faith and spiritual practices weren’t adequate to deal with the struggles and challenges of my life, or in coming to terms with the traumas of my past.
On a leave of absence from my ministry position, I committed myself to face — with “ruthless honesty” — the spiritual questions I had been unwilling and/or unable to face when I was preaching and leading a church.
It’s not my intent to chronicle this journey: there have been many twists and turns, and it’s still ongoing. But what’s important to say is this: What has emerged is not a story about faith that was lost, but rather a faith that has been refined. What is emerging is something that is — I think — deeper, more real, and more precious.
My observation is that many people go through similar process in their experience of recovery. And now that I’m back working as a pastor, I’m also seeing many people go through a similar process of spiritual transformation that starts out looking more like spiritual disillusionment, doubt, and/or “giving up on church.”
It feels like the end of something, but it could be the beginning of something better.
Your tribe does not have exclusive rights to “Being a Christian”
I am learning that following Jesus is a multi-faceted process, and that “Christianity” is a much larger tent than I had realized. I fell into the error of assuming that what I had experienced and learned was “the Christian faith,” and when I saw its failings and inconsistencies, I assumed that the only alternative was to dismiss the Christian faith as a whole.
After a year or two of drifting, I began to see that things are much more nuanced than I had been led to believe. I discovered that there are many people like me, with the same questions and reservations about the version of Christianity I had. What they did … and what I’m doing … is living out a different expression of Christianity.
So one of the things that’s emerging for me is a deeper appreciation for what I would consider to be the mystical core of the Christian faith. That is, the mysterious connection between the human and divine. That is, the experience of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” that Paul talks about in I Corinthians.
In his excellent book “Answering the Contemplative Call” Carl McColman writes this:
“We need to be like Mary of Nazareth, offering ourselves up so that our very bodies can offer hospitality to Christ. Like Mary and Martha of Bethany, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, like Simon the leper, we are invited to receive God?—?within us. This is not a mental game, as if we just have to think, ‘God is inside me,’ to make it so. After all, God is everywhere, so God is already inside you (and me, and everyone else) whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.
“Therefore the key is to learn how to recognize God’s presence, and, in recognizing that presence, choose to embrace it, respond to it, and love it. And the only reason to love God’s presence is because we love God.”
What I’m finding is that this mystical heart was missing for me. Make no mistake, I was certainly taught about the importance of having a “relationship with God,” and the need for having daily “quiet time.” But this was basically set aside time to read and study the Bible, and then pray. And of course “prayer” was essentially an act of speaking to God in my mind and asking Him to do things for me and for other people. Then I would get confused and disappointed because so often God would not do the things I was asking Him to do.
This is a process
I think there is so much more going on … so many more depths available in our spiritual life. There is an essential internal work, where I focus on God’s activity of bringing healing and insight and strength to my heart. That is the essence of it: the experience of inner transformation. This is what the Bible calls “sanctification:” the ongoing process of having my own ego laid aside, and the divine nature of the Spirit emerge and live out more fully in my being.
This is what was going on in Jesus’ life when he spent that 40 days in the desert, and when he would go off to lonely places in the night, and in early mornings to pray. He didn’t just sit and make lists of things he wanted from the Father. There was some kind of internal shaping going on. And this internal shaping is at the heart of the experience we can have as Christians. This experience relates to a set of beliefs that we espouse, but it goes much deeper.
I’ve been a Christian for decades, and it’s astonishing for me to realize how much is there that for all these years I just missed. Maybe the mystical core wasn’t being taught in the circles I was in, or maybe it was there, and I wasn’t listening.
These days, I’m listening.
In writing the book “Not so Overwhelmed: changing the world without wrecking your life” I’ve been struck by the presence of paradox in so many aspects of the spiritual life. As a Christian leader I’m focusing the book on spiritually minded people who want to do good in the world.
But here’s the question: Do you want to not be overwhelmed, or do you want to do good in the world?
“Wanting to do good in the world” is often what puts us in situations where we feel overwhelmed. The solution for being overwhelmed might seem to be “cut back and do less” … but on the other hand, isn’t doing things to change the world our goal? Somehow we’ve got to deal with this tension: The Bible promises that followers of Jesus will have a “peace that passes understanding”, yet sometimes following God’s call into serving others brings more challenges, not less.
One of the dangers along the spiritual path is viewing God’s work in our lives primarily — and even exclusively — as a healing journey. Pushed to the extreme, this archetype can create the expectation that the purpose of God’s work in our lives is to make
the hard things in our lives easier, to make the painful things go away. It doesn’t always work like this.
As I say later in the book, rather than make our lives easier, simpler, and more comfortable, sometimes following our calling and being open to God’s work our lives makes things harder and more complicated.
Author Belden Lane writes about the insights we can gain from ancient monks, nomads, and pilgrims living in the desert. This collected body of wisdom is often referred to as “desert spirituality.” Desert spirituality is focused on having a meaningful spiritual life even in the midst of challenges and hardship. Here’s what Lane writes:
“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. … It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.
“One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”
The paradox here is that being followers of Jesus actually does make our lives better, easier, more full. We do experience the “peace that passes understanding.” At the same time, being followers of Jesus sometimes takes us into desert places, hard places. It helps us overcome overwhelm, and in contributes to overwhelm in its own way.
In her book Soul of a Pilgrim, modern mystic and “urban monk” Christine Valters Paintner writes: “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wilderness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience….Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.”
This is not a tension that is ever resolved in this life. Following Jesus simplifies, but also complicates our lives. The work of God in our lives brings inner peace, even as this work also creates challenges of its own. Maybe the simplest — and most honest — promise we can make is this: Following Jesus will make our lives better, but not necessarily easier.
One of my favorite books of late has been “The Mystic Heart,” written by the late Wayne Teasdale. Just to be clear, I don’t buy all of his assumptions and arguments in the book, but there is a lot of really helpful teaching in it about what mysticism is and how it shapes our lives. I wanted to share a couple quotes from the book about how the pursuit of the spiritual life goes against the grain of our culture.
We live in a culture that is blind to the spiritual life. It is spiritually illiterate, morally confused, psychologically dysfunctional, and heavily addicted to violence, entertainment, and consumerism. It is “religious” to a point — that is, as long as it doesn’t cost much. Most Americans, we are told, believe in God, but too few realize that life is a spiritual process, a journey in which certain skills in self-mastery have to be learned. We cannot depend on our culture either to guide or support us in our quest. We must do the hard work of clarification ourselves.
Our life here is under a cloud of illusion and delusion; we are pulled now in this direction, now in that. It is important for us to be self-directed: We must decide where our life is going, what direction it will take and why. That kind of decisiveness requires courage and perspective; it means that we must cut ourselves free from our cultural conditioning.
In another place, Teasdale talks about the journey of life — the purpose of life in terms of an inner development that ultimately creates the foundation upon which our outward service and contribution to the rest of the world is built on. Here’s what he says:
Life is a journey from hypocrisy to sincerity, from self-centeredness to other-centerdness and love, from self-deception, ignorance, and illusion to self-honesty, clarity, and truth. We are all immersed in these struggles, whether we realize and accept them or not. Even if we reject them, have made a choice.
It is really only through an intense life of spiritual practice that we become aware of our human condition. As long as people are content not to look, not to embrace their ultimate vocation to [become like Christ], they will chase after every distraction that comes along as a substitute for a life of depth. In the United States, for example, entertainment has become our collective practice. We live from TV show to TV show, from The Today Show to The Tonight Show. The personal cost is great: deeper ignorance, confusion, and despair, and less authenticity.
I want to know God as a follower of Jesus. The Bible helps me do that. The Bible points me to the Source of spiritual life, but it is not the source. The Bible points me to the One who I worship, but it is not what I worship. I’ve recently come across two quotes that have helped me out by articulating this in helpful ways. Enjoy …
In his book Integral Christianity, Paul Smith writes this:
Christians have sat down at the Restaurant of Life and the waiter has come to give us our particular designated menu, the Bible. Christians have studied their menu in every detail until they have understood what was offered. And, for hundreds of years, they have not ordered from the menu. Instead, they had tried to eat the menu!
No wonder they have been grumpy, under nourished, and doctrinaire. Eating the menu instead of ordering from it is the traditional church’s idea of having a spiritual experience (except for a conversion experience among evangelicals and worship among charismatics). When we learn how to order from the menu we can get a nourishing, great-tasting, wonderful meal. A cognitive framework is of great help and encouragement, but it alone is not enough. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.
On a related note, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say about the Bible:
I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink.
The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.