Category Archives: Spiritual Self Care

How Spiritual Growth Happens … Overcoming Arrested Development (part 2 of 2)

This is the second in a two-part series. In the previous article, I made the point that the normal and expected pattern of our lives was to move away from not only emotional childishness, but also spiritual childishness. The goal of our lives is to grow towards wholeness or completeness, which includes becoming spiritually “mature” or “complete.”

I then made the point that, too often that growth is hindered by the fear — often stoked by misguided spiritual teachers — of entertaining or exploring our questions and doubts. The assumption is that doing so will cause our faith in God, and our spiritual union (or relationship with God) to be diminished, if not lost altogether.

My contention is that often, the exact opposite is true. What we need to do, in order to move towards a deeper, more authentic, fully integrated faith is to explore the new information and experiences, and find ways of integrating them into our spiritual lives. As I said in the previous article, this might mean letting go of some of our assumptions and beliefs (“putting away childish things” as Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11).

In my work with people as a spiritual teacher and counselor, I’ve come to see that periodically, people will reach points of serious questions about what they’ve been taught to believe about God, the Bible, and life. Sometimes this happens because of new information gleaned from studies in science, philosophy, or comparative religion. Other times questions arise, because of experiences people have, where it seems that the actual unfolding of their lives — and observations about their neighbors — seems very different than the things they were taught.

The Map and the Ground

In his book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart,” Gordon Livingston offers a collection of life lessons. The opening chapter is devoted to the first lesson, which he titles: “If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, the map is wrong.” Here’s how he tells the story of how he learned this:

Once, a long time ago, I was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, trying to orient myself on a field problem at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As I stood studying a map, my platoon Sergeant, a veteran of many junior officers, approached. “You figure out where we are, lieutenant?” he asked. “Well, the map says there should be a hill over there, but I don’t see it,” I replied. “Sir,” he said, “if the map don’t agree with the ground, then the map is wrong.” Even at the time, I knew I had just heard a profound truth.

That is the experience — and struggle — of many people I have known and worked with over the years. The actual territory of their lives — their experiences and what they see going on around them — do not match the “map” they have (in this case, the Bible teaching they’ve been exposed to).

When our spiritual map doesn’t agree with the ground in our lives, it creates a crisis. We are taught, when this happens, that we need to trust the spiritual map, and assume that we are in error, that we just don’t really understand what we’re seeing in our lives. Sometimes this is good advice, and interpreting our experience through the lens of scripture is helpful.

But sometimes it’s not helpful at all. Sometimes the things we learn reshape our understanding of the map. One extreme example would be how Christians resisted the insights of science about the earth revolving around the sun, because of Bible passages the used the phrase “the sun stood still.”

When people reach these crisis points in life, and start to question the things they’ve been taught, they interpret this crisis as a sort of spiritual breakdown. But instead, this crisis could lean to a profound breakthrough.

Those questions and doubts need to be looked at. People need to come to terms with what they’ve learned and what they’re experiencing. If new information or experiences call into to question the things they’ve been taught, maybe they need to re-look at what they’ve been taught.

It’s not all-or-nothing

What is unique about the Bible — and the whole of Christian teaching — is it’s confounding diversity. Many — if not most — people who grow up in church contexts do not understand or appreciate this. They tend to assume that whatever slant of Christian teaching they’ve been exposed to is the only form of Christianity there is. They tend to assume that whatever method or approach to Bible interpretation they were exposed to is the the only way to understand the Bible. So if they encounter things that contradict what they’ve heard and believed, they assume that Christianity itself must not be true, and that God must not exist.

This is the damaging error of the New Atheism. It creates a simplistic all-or-nothing mentality. They poke holes in Fundamentalist beliefs about God and interpretations of the Bible, and jump to the immediate conclusion that it all must be rejected.

Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been interpreting it wrongly. Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been reading into it and expecting it to teach us more than it intends to teach. Put another way: Maybe the map isn’t wrong … maybe we’ve been reading it wrong.

When we come to these points of question and concern … there is indeed a spiritual crisis. But that crisis may actually lead us to a deeper understanding and experience of God and the Bible, and the spiritual life. Maybe this is the crisis that will lead us to a new stage of faith.

Stages of Faith

In 1981, James Fowler wrote the groundbreaking book “Stages of Faith,” which developed the idea that the spiritual life of people wasn’t simply linear, but advanced through various stages. This was not a new concept by any means, and Fowler was building on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Carl Jung’s stages of human development.

Fowler’s work has been widely quoted, and used by many to gain deeper understanding of how spiritual growth happens. He suggests that, just as human beings move through distinct stages in the biological aging process, in intellectual and moral development, so too do we move through stages in our spiritual development.

Fowler puts it this way:

“A stage then, we may say, is an integrated set of operational structures that constitute the thought processes of a person at a given time. Development involves the transformation of such “structures of the whole” in the direction of greater internal differentiation, complexity, flexibility and stability. A stage represents a kind of balanced relationship between a knowing subject and his or her environment. In this balanced position the person assimilates what is to be “known” in the environment into her or his existing structures of thought.

“When a novelty or challenge emerges that cannot be assimilated into the present structures of knowing then, if possible, the person accommodates; that is , generates new structures of knowing. A stage transition has occurred when enough accommodation has been undertaken to require (and make possible) a transformation in the operational pattern of the structural whole of intellectual operations.”

As I said, Fowler was not the first to suggest this, and he was not the last. Carl Jung before him, and psychologist and author M Scott Peck, and philosophers Ken Wilber and Jim Marion have also put together their own understanding of stages of faith. It’s important to note that they describe the stages in different ways … they don’t agree on all points, by any means. But they do agree on this one thing: spiritual growth involves moving through stages.

An Analogy From Nature

Another way of thinking about how it works for us to “put away childish things” is analogies from nature. Like an animal shedding its skin or shell, our development often comes in crisis turning point experiences.

The late educator and columnist Eddie LeShan tells this story about how she came to think of how people go through transformations. (She’s not specifically talking about spiritual transformation here, but the principle applies, nevertheless.)

“There was a time in my life when I was thinking about writing a book about middle age. I was at a social event, and I was introduced to an oceanographer who started a conversation with me, asking if I knew that lobsters have to de-shell. He told me that they get crowded inside their three-pound shells and they’re uncomfortable, and it’s not possible for them to go on living if they stay in the shells. So what they do is go out to the seas unprotected. They might get eaten by another lobster or some large fish, but they must de-shell. The whole, hard shell comes off, and the pink membrane that’s inside grows and eventually becomes a harder shell and a bigger one.

“At first, the story didn’t hit me, but soon I became preoccupied thinking about lobsters. I even was dreaming about them. I told my therapist about my dreams. She said, ‘That’s exactly what you’re writing your book on middle age about…going to the reef and taking off your familiar shell even if it’s dangerous.’ That has become my philosophy of life. You know, if you stay where you are, you’re dead before you’re dead.

“I’ve learned that the thing you need most as you age is the courage of the lobster. You’re going to go through things where you have to become much more flexible. You have to be willing to change, and courage is the most essential part of it. I believe courage implies a lack of denial, that you really are willing to face the issues, whatever they are, and the you grown from there.”

As I hope is becoming clear in all this, the experience of facing our struggles, questions, and doubts is often the crisis point that marks a transition from one stage of faith to a deeper stage of faith … assuming that we keep working on it. Assuming that don’t simply abandon the spiritual pursuit altogether. We let go of the shell we once carried that gave shape and protection, but no longer fits. This doesn’t mean an abandonment of our faith, or a disruption to our union (relationship) with God, it means a deepening and strengthening of it … unless we choose to give up the process.

This is Threatening … Especially for Certain People

Of course, not everybody understands or appreciates this. Your questions and struggles might be threatening to other people. Going through the process will involve some discernment on your part, as you evaluate who in your life are the safe people to talk to about these things.

It’s doubly challenging for people to go through this if they are in a public position of leadership. If their experience causes them to question some of the assumptions and beliefs of their particular group, they are thrust into an uncomfortable position. John Pavlovitz writes about this in his book “A Bigger Table,”

“Spiritual growth is often misdiagnosed as simple vacillation, or worse, ‘backsliding.’ When Christians, especially pastors, begin to evolve in their understanding of the Bible, their view of God, or even their core theological principles, those around them tend to hit the panic button. Often there is an overreaction around these leaders, an implication that they are somehow less faithful or less committed, when in reality the opposite is almost always true.

“In their desire to know God more deeply, to follow Jesus more closely, or to understand the Scriptures more completely, many pastors and church leaders find they are at odds with the status quo, which ironically they often helped establish. They can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of publicly arguing with their former selves. But there is plenty of precedent. In fact, we see in the apostle Paul just how the Spirit of God moves us from the trajectory we were once on, even if that trajectory was formed in pursuit of God.”

Let’s be honest: most people in spiritual leadership positions have a hard enough time doing the work they are called to do, without “going there” into unexplored spiritual territory that might disrupt the beliefs they are paid to teach. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Upton Sinclair:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Sinclair was talking about politics, but you can see how the principle applies to spiritual teachers who are teaching in environments where there is strict adherence to the “party line” about many theological issues. We might paraphrase Sinclair by putting it this way: “It is difficult to get a person to question something, when their salary depends on their not questioning it.”

Be Reasonable

Please understand that I’m not suggesting that people deliberately and relentlessly seek out teaching that contradicts what they believe. Our world is awash in a sea of information, much of which turns in on and contradicts itself. I don’t think anyone needs to seek out information or experiences that will challenge or contradict their faith. Those things will come naturally.

All I’m asking is that we don’t shrink away from those things. I’m asking that we keep pursuing our faith, and that we seek to continually integrate all our knowledge and experiences into our spiritual life, and vice versa. I’m asking that we recognize that true spiritual growth often happens on the other side of The Door of our certainties.

A Personal Invitation

Does anything I’m writing here resonate with you? Are you struggling with unexplored questions and doubts that you don’t feel safe talking about? Trust me, you are not alone. Let me know if there’s any way I can be helpful to you.

Arrested Spiritual Development in Christian Circles (part 1 of 2)

“Thinking is a sacred activity. The heart cannot embrace what the mind rejects.” – Anonymous

As best I can understand it, the job of spiritual leaders and teachers, from a Christian perspective, is twofold: (a) to equip people to do the work they were put on earth to do — ie. to live out their life purpose — and (b) to help people grow to spiritual maturity — ie. to become fully developed, or “complete.” This I get from the teaching of Bible passages like Ephesians 4:11-13.

We’re helping people grow, with the goal the they be:

  • equipped for important works of service in the world
  • nurtured to be a fully developed spiritual human being (someone who is mature, complete, perfect, whole)

Much has been made of Jesus’ famous and poetic words in Matthew 18: that people who want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven must become “like little children.” Jesus’ words in that passage have caused some people to highlight the value of having a “childlike faith.”

Fair enough, but Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 must be understood in the context of other teaching in the Bible that emphasizes the need for growth to maturity. It’s true that we must enter into the spiritual life like children — with open and humble and receptive hearts — as opposed to being proud and closed-minded. But the goal is never to STAY like little children — as other other passages (like Ephesians 4:11-13) make clear.

In fact, in two separate instances (I Corinthians 3:1-2, and Hebrews 5:11-14), New Testament writers express exasperation with their readers, because these readers are still in a childhood stage of growth, when they should be more like adults. They require teaching that is “spiritual baby food,” when they should be ready for solid food. This is not acceptable!

There’s a difference between having a childLIKE faith, and a childISH faith. We can maintain a childlike sense of openness and humility all throughout our lives … but we need to grow up. We need to develop.


Arrested Spiritual Development

I believe that many spiritual leaders and teachers in our world are suffering from arrested spiritual development, and are inhibiting the spiritual growth of the people they teach and lead. They are stuck in an immature phase of spiritual development, and they are passing on this same kind of arrested spiritual development to the people around them.

This happens for two reasons: Continue reading Arrested Spiritual Development in Christian Circles (part 1 of 2)

What Followers Expect from Spiritual Leaders

People today have profoundly mixed — and dysfunctional — views about leaders.Especially spiritual leaders. On the one hand, we idealize them. We project onto them qualities of wisdom, spiritual zeal, and impeccable morality. We really want them be close to God, to exemplify the virtues that we struggle to live out. We want them to be uber competent in their role, but we also want them to exemplify all the virtues and character qualities that we deem to be important. We want them to be larger than life! To think about them struggling with the shameful things we struggle with robs us of the hope that we can “get over” our problems.

There is a word for this: childishness.

This is what kids do. They adore the adults around them, assign them magical qualities, and feel the need for the adults around them to be all-knowing, and completely virtuous. Part of the process of growing up involves becoming disillusioned about our parents and teachers … discovering (often to our great dismay) that they are human and flawed, just like we are. After recognizing this, we learn to come to terms with it, and begin to relate to them in a more mature way.

But there’s another side to our view of spiritual leaders, which, by the way, is the inevitable consequence of idealization and projection: we are quick to judge and condemn them when we see their flaws. There is a secret part of us that loves to read about the downfall of people in high positions. We naturally resent hypocrisy, so when people in positions of moral or spiritual leadership are found to be lacking in the very qualities they espouse, we have no mercy.

We want our leaders to be air-brushed models of morality and spirituality. We react strongly when we see their flaws. More than once I’ve heard the truism stated: “If you want a spiritual leader you can admire with no reservations … make sure that person is dead.” That way, you don’t have to worry that you’ll find out things about them that let you down.

But wait! That’s not even a safe strategy: I’ve found out things about Gandhi, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that I sort of wish I hadn’t known.

Maybe we should amend the saying: If you want someone you can admire with no reservations, make sure that person is dead … and then don’t study their life too closely. Learn too much about them and you might just discover that they were human after all.

I have a better idea: how about we adopt the perspective that the writers of the Bible seem to have adopted — stop making human beings the heroes of our stories, and let them be flawed characters. Let Jesus be the hero and model, and be okay with flawed human leaders like the confused disciples, pricklish Paul, wavering Abraham, prideful David, and so on.

How about we give our spiritual leaders — and ourselves — an important gift: the gift of humanity. We still hold them to standards of teaching and living; but we let them be human, with strengths and weaknesses, with admirable qualities and limitations.

Several years ago I was invited to consult with a church whose pastor had been accused of misconduct. The pastor went through a process of repentance and restoration (which unfortunately was cut short, but that’s another story). In the course of this work, I preached a message to help people come to terms with his leadership and teaching, in light of the knowledge of his struggles and sins. You can see the video above.

I hope this sermon can help you — and others, if you share it — develop a more spiritually-mature, discerning view of spiritual leaders.

Before watching, note this important qualifier: By giving a message like this, I’m NOT intending to give leaders a “pass” on the need to exemplify what they teach.Far from it. One of the foundational principles in the Thriving Leader Blueprint program I run is that the power of our influence comes from our being — our very lives — not our words. You can read more about this in my article: “Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It.

The message above is for the rest of us, for those on the receiving end of spiritual leadership and influence, who are trying to come to terms with the humanity of those leaders, when they (inevitably) fail to live up to this.

Why WE Need YOU to Have More Solitude and Quiet

We need more solitude in our lives — not just for our own well-being, but for others. Talking about this is tricky today, because many people struggle with loneliness and isolation, and the pursuit of solitude could make things worse for them.

Our lives revolve around two poles: community and solitude. A healthy life includes both. Let’s be clear about that as we begin. Rabbi Eliezer Shore describes this balance:

“Most true spiritual seekers, at some time in their journey, must struggle with the dilemma posed by these two opposites [community and solitude]. While personalities differ, tending some towards solitude, others to community, most of us waver uneasily between the two, constantly searching for the proper balance in which we might best serve God. … An emphasis on community in no way denies the validity of solitude, rather it seeks to engage the contemplative in an even higher purpose, namely, that of bringing the entire community into an enlightened relationship with God.”

Some people tend toward isolation, and their need is to nurture more healthy relationships. Several years ago I wrote an article in Leadership Journal about this need for spiritual leaders. What’s true for spiritual leaders is true for many others as well: we struggle to develop healthy relationships, which creates challenges in our pursuit of healthy solitude.

Then Why is Solitude so Important?

For many reasons, but here I am going to focus on just one: we need solitude in order to know ourselves, to come to clarity about what we think and believe; so that, as we move out to relate with others, we can bring our thoughts and perspectives into the relationship, and not simply be absorbed into the thinking, relating, and value patterns of those around us. This allows us to be interdependent without being codependent. Continue reading Why WE Need YOU to Have More Solitude and Quiet

Why “Simplifying my Life” sounds like a good idea … but probably isn’t

 I love the idea of people simplifying their lives. I read a lot of books and websites about minimalism. I know that living a complicated life is part of our problem today, and so we should simplify whatever we can.

Most of us have too much stuff and try to do too much. Simplifying can lower our stress. If we’re in recovery, simplifying life is important, because stress and chaos lead to relapse. If our lives are too full and overloaded, it only makes sense that cutting some things out and simplifying will be part of the solution. They will help us have happier, more fruitful lives.

But if simplifying becomes our ultimate goal,

we’re never going to be happy,

and we’re going to miss out

on opportunities that make life meaningful.

Anything worthwhile is likely to be stressful, time-consuming, and will complicate our lives. If simplifying and lowering our stress is our primary goal, we will have to stop doing many important things, because they make life complicated.

What do you cut?

Here’s a scenario that has played out many times in my work as a pastor: A person in the church is volunteering in a ministry and doing a great job. But they are feeling too busy and overwhelmed and feel the need to simplify their lives. Guess what is the first thing they cut out of life in order to “simplify”? Of course: their volunteer work in the church.

Meanwhile, they’re working at a job they hate, with working conditions and expectations that are out of control, and/or they are caught in demanding, dysfunctional relationships where they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to please people who are perpetually unhappy, and/or they are gone many weekends pursuing sports and other activities for their kids, and/or they’re watching a ton of TV.

But when they realize that they are too busy and stressed out, the thing they pull back from is the volunteering they do to help other people. They let go of the thing that is easiest to step away from, but it is also likely the key area that has the potential to make their lives fruitful and fulfilling.

We all know that we need to simplify our lives. The real challenge is to discern what needs to be cut and what should be kept. If you want a simple life, just sit at home and watch TV. Do the minimum for your job. Limit how much you socialize. Do minimal shopping to get the necessities of life, and then go home and relax. No responsibilities, no difficult relationships, no complications. You can have a simple life. But it would also be a boring, depressing, and spiritually empty life.

Engaging in service doesn’t simplify life, but makes it meaningful

If we really want to change the world, to leave the world a better place, we have to realize that doing so is going to be challenging and time-consuming. It is absolutely not going to simplify your life. It’s going to complicate your life.
By the way, that’s true of many important and meaningful things. Having a child will not simplify your life. Getting a pet will not simplify your life. Falling in love with someone will not simplify your life. Having a meaningful career will not simplify your life. Recovery will not simplify your life. But any one of those things might be a huge blessing and pave the way for great joy and fulfillment.
Kept in its proper place, simplicity is a key goal and value. Elevated to an extreme, simplicity is an illusion and a barrier to true fulfillment. The real issue here is: What is your priority? We need to build our lives in such a way that our key priorities get done, and we can only do this by making room in the other areas.
Only you can determine your priorities. Make sure that “having a simple life” is not the main one.

Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

 

I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:

“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.

“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Continue reading Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

Who is your “spiritual teacher”? Do you even need one?

“The missing element in many spiritual quests is the spiritual guide. … When a person finds out that all his efforts at self-improvement are movements around a circle, that the ego does not really intend to give itself up in surrender to the Spirit and therefore only pretends to do so, he realizes that left to himself he cannot succeed in really changing his inner center of gravity. Help is needed from some outside source if he is to free himself from such a hopeless position.”
– Paul Brunton

We use different terms for it in our various circles, but do you have a spiritual teacher, or guide? Is there someone who is helping you grow in your spiritual life by modeling that kind of life (even if imperfectly), by teaching you about it, helping answer questions, and showing you things about yourself that you might not have seen otherwise? Who is the person who helps you make sense of the deeper questions about meaning and purpose in life, who helps you sort out the problems and questions that you run into?

Some circles use the language of “discipling,” others spiritual direction, still others “shepherding” or pastoring, and others spiritual teacher or master. In Jesus’ time, serious spiritual students had “rabbis” or “teachers.”

Ever since coming back into church ministry in 2011, after going through a time of spiritual disillusionment and then renewal, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role of the pastor in churches and in people’s spiritual lives. I’ve come to believe that, all too often, what churches look for from their pastors, does not really encompass this role (of “spiritual teacher”).

Churches look for pastors to do three things: (a) provide teaching from the Bible in the form of sermons (b) provide leadership for the church organization, and (c) be available and compassionate in crisis situations, like hospitalizations or deaths. Depending on the congregation, (a) and (b) are sometimes switched in order of priority, and (c) is usually a distant third.

The role of spiritual teacher (or “discipler” to use the language some use in Christian circles) doesn’t really fit here. The “teaching” part of being a spiritual teacher — at least as I’m thinking of the term — is more than just preaching. It’s not about simply presenting concepts (like a preacher does from the pulpit) … it’s about helping people apply those concepts to their lives. If the church numbers in the hundreds or thousands, there’s no way the pastor can have enough interaction with people in the church to know what’s going on in their lives and help them with their questions and challenges.

Here’s my concern: If the pastor is not fulfilling this role, who is? Most pastors I know will say, “I’m not able to provide that kind of personal attention and care to each person in my church … that’s why we have small groups. People get that kind of care in their small groups.”

But do they really?

Let’s assume a church is divided into active small group Bible studies, or support groups. Can the small group leaders — who have other jobs, and often get very little training or preparation for their role as small group leaders — really fill this role of being spiritual teachers for people in their groups?

I’m sure that sometimes they do … but usually not. Usually the leader’s role is more that of facilitator or host. Plus, small groups shift around so much, and fizzle out so often, that the percentage of church attendees with a long term relationship in a small group — let alone one with a small group leader who functions as a spiritual teacher for them — is rare indeed.

I’m not sure what to think about this … and I really do want to know what others think. Do you think this is a problem? Do people even want to have someone who functions as a spiritual teacher in their lives? Or is it enough to have a pastor who is more of a figure-head and example at a distance? I’d love to know if it’s just me who thinks this role is really needed.

 

Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

 

If you are seeking to do important work in the world, but feel overwhelmed by it, this is for you. If you are challenged by anxiety and stress, and struggle to balance your service with the rest of your life, this is for you. If you want to lower your stress level without lowering your performance level, this is for you.

What: Free Teleseminar / Webinar  (you can access audio only by phone, or also see video)

When: Wednesday, June 7

Time: 7:00pm – 8:30pm (central time)

(REGISTER HERE – OR AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE)

Here’s what you will learn:

Continue reading Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

Are you ‘losing your faith’ or is your faith being refined?

 

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.

 

More spiritual doesn’t always mean more peaceful

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.