Monday, August 10, 2009

The Prayers Upon My Wall

Its been a while since I wrote and I have little original thought for now. I am in the process of moving and in the decorating process thought it interesting what prayers and such that were on my wall were the ones I brought along.
This is one of my favorites. The first line of which always conjurs the chanting of the trisagion in my mind.

Almighty and eternal God,
so draw our hearts to you,
so guide our minds,
so fill our imaginations,
so control our wills,
that we may be wholly yours,
utterly dedicated to you.
Use us, we pray, as you will,
always to your glory and the welfare of your people;
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

And the Litany of Reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral

"All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.
Father forgive.
The covetous desires of men and nations to possess what is not their own.
Father forgive.
The greed which exploits the labors of men and lays waste the earth.
Father forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the homeless and refugees.
Father forgive.
The lusts which use for ignoble ends the bodies of men and women.
Father forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.
Father forgive.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Friday, June 26, 2009


Three thoughts, which I'll share before coming to a point:
1. I had a conversation yesterday with a friend about how much Christianity focuses on life-and-death issues, or life after death issues, etc. Some religions have very little to say or do with what happens in or after death.
2. Brian McLaren, writing in the beginning of Finding Our Way Again: The Return Of The Ancient Practices about interviewing Dr. Peter Senge, wrote about some why books on Buddhism and spirituaity sell so well, especially as compared to "Christian" books. "I think it's because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief. So I would want to get Christian ministers thinking about how to rediscover their own faith as a way of life, because that's what people are searching for today. That's what they need the most."
3. Several celebrities died yesterday (Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson). A dear friend is leaving to go back to the other side of the world and I don't know when I'll see him again. The manager at the store I had worked at for several years, who seemed to be the rock on whom the entire thing was built, was suddenly fired and I am unsure if I will be in contact again. An old co-worker from the same store died about a week ago.

These three, somewhat separate issues, have run together into one single, albeit complicated, issue. How do I deal with loss? How do we, as a culture, deal with loss? How does "Christianity" deal with loss? How should it?

Our culture has a strange relationship with death. We fight aging in every way possible. We do all we can to maintain separation between the meat we buy at the store and the breathing bleeding animal it comes from. We simply refuse to think about it until it happens, then it sneaks up on us and leaves us with heads spinning. We run coverage of the lives of celebrities for days at a time. Why? I think it is because it scares us and we don't know how to respond to the fact that we ourselves are mortal. Here I suggest the point I have been building towards: We no longer know how to mourn. We look back on the lives of celebrities who seem much bigger than us. We re-play their lives until we are media sick of them, like a song over-played or too much cotton candy. Then we forget about them. It reminds me of a friend who won't drink scotch anymore because he had two nights of drinking till he puked on it.

In our personal lives, we are little better. Even when dealing with the loss of little things (i.e. not the death of people, but the loss of a job, the loss of a valued item, even the loss of a parking spot!) we are frequently unsure how to cope. In an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Gabriel Byrne, the star of HBO's "In Treatment", discussed how people in acting classes dealt with "hard stuff" (my words not his, read as raw emotion, deep issues, etc). He said that men typically respond easily when needing to bring out anger and women the same with tears. Its all in them, bottled up, "our bodies acting as repositories for those emotions". We face loss, do not know how to process it, feel anger or tears, and hold on to them. These are our "lives of quiet desperation." In death, we are left confused, angry, and/or sad, and it sticks that way for the rest of our lives, wounding us, paralyzing us, and just adding to that emotional build up until we explode or collapse or die ourselves.

Christianity, has often spent years in debate and discussion of what happens after death, sometimes with the "discussion" elevating to the point of bloodshed. When faced with death, we assuage ourselves with bumper sticker theology and pithy phrases. "They're in a better place" "Its all for the best. God has it all as part of his plan." We quote Paul's letter to the Thessalonians and say that "we do not mourn like those who have no hope." But this comes back to Senge and McLaren's statement that Christianity posits itself as a system of belief rather than a way of life. We know what we are supposed to think, believe, say. But we, like everyone else in our large cultural bin, are left unsure what to do. So how then do we create a way of life that allows us to cope with death, with failure, with loss? I sure don't know, but I am certain I am in need of it myself.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Working out salvation with fear and trembling

I have had fifty ideas bouncing around the past few weeks that are the culmination of my most eclectic of theology the past few years. One of the more significant issues is relating to the concept of grace. Grace- the means of our salvation. I have these two conflicting ideas about sacramental grace. My liturgical side says that grace is conveyed through the sacraments. That is, they are the vehicles, as it were, by which grace comes to us. My Quaker side says that the physical aspects are superfluous, that life itself is sacramental. My instinct says that it is both. Grace is given to me in the traditional sacraments AND in all of life God is offering sacramental grace. I find grace sporadically though. Yes it is offered at all times, but sometimes I am very aware of it and better able to receive it. That conversation I really needed, the touch that said it would be ok after all. In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren said something akin to liking longer lists of sacraments than shorter ones. This is my attempt to make the list as long as necessary :)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

No More Front Porches?

I spent a substantial amount of study in the latter half of college looking at the idea of community. I studied what the term meant to different people, how it was developed, how it was hindered, how it ties in to the current lifestyles we find ourselves in, and how individuals or the church relate to it. It was a focus piece in several of my classes and I spent a semester in an independent study looking at differing communities and what was formative for them. From street gangs to monasteries there were numerous overlaps in what bonded the groups together. One of these things was a dreaded phrase heard in the small town of my childhood all too often: "being in each other's business." That is to say, when you are in community you are often so close to others, often in ways you might not even want to be, that you begin to "intrude" on other's lives. You may even be a spectator for much of it, but eventually, if there is any care for the other person, it is hard not to get involved, to step in, to help out. One of the books I read when looking at this subject was No More Front Porches by Linda Wilcox. In it she talks about how through much of American culture, houses had front porches on which people sat. "Whether you had a large verandah that circled the house, or little more than a front stoop, you adorned it with comfortable chairs and spent hours there, talking with friends and relatives, watching what was going on in the neighborhood, looking out for others, and keeping in touch with your world. Front porches symbolized relationships and being involved with life beyond your front door. Today, life has changed. Few new homes offer a place to nestle as twilight sets in and few people have the leisure time for this lifestyle, or even for the relationships that it represents." In the busyness of our current culture, this happens little. But today I sit on the great gift my rent buys me here in Grand Rapids: a front porch. It sits across from a main road, behind which is a wooded hill leading up to the zoo. Beside me the road curves around to meet another major urban artery and each has its sidewalks paralleling on either edge. People walk past: a guy in a grey J Crew windbreaker with a well-manicured poodle, a scruffy looking probably homeless man with three bulging plastic bags of grungy clothes. When I am out here I am no longer a consumer watching corporate ads and satellite television or even seeing the world through the high definition pane of our bay window. When I am out here I am part of the neighborhood. I am local. I am in the same category as the blossoming apple in the front lawn, the flagpole, the geese across the way, the littered cans, the neighbor watering her plants who smiles and talks to me for the first time since we moved here nine months ago. The homeless man who walks by affects me. We are part of the same world now. The littered cans I have driven by forty five times make me think of picking them up for the first time. We are part of the same world now. They affect me and I affect them. I am no longer a spectator. I am no longer a consumer. I am able to be a force for change and I fight my apathy and distanced cynicism by living here, on this porch, in this world, in their world.
"And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst the world." This is missional in its core meaning. How often do we, as churches, stay inside our air conditioned "sanctuary" and hold programs to invite in consumers to come to where we are? How often do we sit on the front porches of our churches and actually live in the community, caring for its needs as a member of it, rather than the pious missionaries hoping to save its occupants? As I see it, where one and a front porch are gathered, there is Christ in the midst. Here he sits on the couch beside me and smiles as I begin to care.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Day Science Died part 1: Into and Disclaimer

All my life I believed in objectivity as one of the great pillars upon which the modern mind, and through it the modern world, is built. My hero, my father, was a scientist. A self-made man with a background in biology and later-than average entry into medical school, my dad extolled the sciences as though they were the true measure of a person's importance. "If you can make it in the sciences, you can make it anywhere." Modernity's virtues of reason, rationalism, and empiricism were those I was taught to cultivate and the objectivity of science, was the pedestal from which one could look down on all the other wishy-washy fields. But my belief in objectivity turned out to be the same type of belief most Americans hold towards that other great pillar our society, capitalism. By that I meant that they cling to the ideal and will defend to the death the right to private property or the market to self-regulate. But when it is their job being cut, their industry failing, their children going hungry, the indignation of betrayal streams forth and they take all they can. So it was with me and objectivity. I upheld it until my experience showed me its limits and then I rejected it. I do not mean that I don't believe one should not make great strides towards objectivity. Indeed, especially in the sciences, one should be as objective as possible. But being as objective as possible is a whole different thing from being objective. I believe, as I should think most do, that people should be as righteous as possible. Few think people are actually fully righteous. "Basically good" is the most even the optimist will. Science is a means to an end.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Followup to "Man's Inhumanity" and "Plots To Kill"

I don't believe anyone reads this regularly (I certainly do not write regularly) but if you do, I apologize for the long delay in my response to the "Man's Inhumanity To Man" post. My long consideration of the issue and the normal length of time between posts combined with a busy beginning of the year led me to my conclusion:
I don't know.

I would like to come down on one side or the other on the appropriateness of violence in all situations. I cannot, however, do so with any integrity. There are a few statements I can make with some certainty however.

Violence is never the best possible solution. It may seem to be the only expedient solution or the only viable solution. Conceivably at least, there is a better possible solution. And the Kingdom is about the power of the improbably possible. As Bonhoeffer (who immediately comes to mind when I think on such matters and was one of the two sources that helped me come to my [lack of] decision) stated in Discipleship, “There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian.”

The issue of violence directed at the less powerful by those in power seems clear cut to me. The power of the powerless and the efficacy of non-violence seems clear cut to me. Here the issue is an extreme. It is the issue of violence towards those violent ones in power. Or, can we in any way justly be the latter sword in "live by the sword, die by the sword"? Assuming we accept our own returned death by the same proverbial blade, can violence be used for the Kingdom. Certainly, it can be used, yes. Anything can be. But is it ever something one can do rightly. Is it ever the appropriate and righteous action, and (a whole different can of worms here) in God's will? That is where my eternally qualified maybe comes in.

I am obliged to give credit to John D. Caputo for his work What Would Jesus Deconstruct? for these next thoughts. Concerning the same sort of decision in approaching abortion, he writes "all too often ethical life comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils, and we are not afforded the luxury of choosing an undiluted good... The demands of love and justice are self-conflicted in those situations. There is no one right answer. Life is not fair."

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Last Paper I Wrote In College

This is the last thing I wrote in my last class at Wheaton. Bear with the section specifically on Pilgrim's Progress. I had to tie that into my own pilgrimage story. It was a pleasure to read the book again and see it through much older eyes than those of the twelve year old who first picked it up. If you have not read it, I heartily urge you to do so.

Rest For The Weary: A Tired Pilgrim’s Reflection on Spiritual Pilgrimage
(1) Pilgrim’s Digress – Musings on My Meanderings
My journey has always been. By that I mean that there was never a time when I was not being pulled or impelled or stepping towards the place where I am now, spiritually speaking. Some of my earliest memories are classically “spiritual”. I remember prayers, my mother singing psalms and Christian songs to lull me to sleep, moments in Sunday School My other early memories, and the continuity of my childhood containing so much I do not remember, contribute just as much to my faith. There was my mother’s love and listening ear, my father’s smile of satisfaction of simply being with me, habits formed, morals learned, development encouraged. I look back at my childhood in an amber afterglow, the halcyon days of romantic youth. Yes, there were rough times. I am the eldest child and thus the only one who remembers living on food stamps or the darkness surrounding my mother’s pallid pregnancy with my brother. But the child is the father of the man as it is said, and everything I now value, even that which I do not possess, is owed to the seeds planted in me then. Curiosity, critical thinking, appreciation, care for others, respect for truth, these are the atoms which the fusion and fission of time have used to construct who I am.
Childhood strains awkwardly into adolescence, then bursts through without care for the feelings of those involved. It came upon me in realizing the world was not just mean sometimes, like the friend who sometimes would not share, it was quite often cruel and capricious. A change in wardrobe and ceasing to raise my hand when I knew the answer (betrayal or hiding of myself as I thought of it in this social experiment) brought respect and admiration from peers. “You’re so much cooler than you used to be,” exclaimed one classmate. To feel welcomed and a part of something is every adolescent’s dream, so in sixth grade, the “me-who-was-not-me” became the face I was to wear. But faith continued to blossom. In the youth group at my quite familiar church were kids who seemed cool, older kids who were funny and actually invited me to do stuff with them. At their helm was the youth pastor, my new spiritual guide. It is no wonder to me that for so long the Church has called those who direct the flocks “father”. As teenaged eyes rolled in shame at out of touch earthly father, here was a new man who was incredibly cool, really pious, and knew all the right answers to all the right questions. We followed our piper in joy in our tight knit community, where our searching souls found a place, and I learned what it meant once again to belong. Everyone was together was together and we had everything in common. Things were sometimes rough outside of our group. I was mocked at school for not swearing or wanting to talk about sex. But I learned about daily devotions and there and in community of believers I felt God often. I was not always good enough, but I repented a lot and did a lot, and God felt very real. Unfortunately Eden as we think it never lasts. Family problems tore the beloved youth pastor from our midst and feelings of betrayal tore at my soul. Yet, as he left, he commissioned me to go out and put into practice all I learned from him. In what was my third trip to Alaska that summer, I finally enjoyed myself as I began to actually live as who I felt I was.
Now my senior year loomed before me and I was a bit perplexed. I suppose it is here I should say that I never thought I would live that long. I knew, deep in my being, that I would not have to worry about college. Jesus would come back any second now (there were many fearful moments when I came home to my house to find it empty and I was stricken with the terror that the rapture had happened and I had been left) or sometimes feeling more likely, I would killed. I had spent time in conversation with the father of a girl who was killed in the Columbine massacre purportedly for standing up for her faith. Perhaps I would die like that, my death a glorious testimony. Or perhaps it would be something more random, a car accident maybe, and countless from the town would come and the gospel would be heard by multitudes. But clearly I was still there and now forced to make decisions about my future. My friends from church had dissolved and gone their separate ways in the wake of the youth pastor’s absence. I was betrayed, abandoned, isolated, and the God who would use my death was no longer felt. I repented more. I prayed for hours. The sheer immensity of the future let itself press upon me. God would answer me, though, if I asked enough. “What should I do? Where should I go?” I felt nothing, I gleaned no response. Application deadlines loomed closer and I was kept from doing anything else until they were done. So very alone, my heart turned to despair and I wandered my house, quoting Shakespeare in my hurt. “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Knives clutched in my hand, I wondered how best to go through with my death, or if I could summon the courage. I could not, and I convinced myself that if I did not want my life, I would give everything to Jesus, to do as he pleased. This platitude satisfied my for quite sometime. Despite his lack of guidance, I simply (and somewhat unhappily and questioningly) chose a college. Soon, a girl came into my life. “Should I date her or not God?” Again I received no response. She came on strongly and so lack of action led to a relationship (albeit one always tinged with doubt about it being in God’s will).
Wheaton College became my new home and with it a new group of people where I felt I could be (mostly) myself. With college came people who raised questions and made better arguments and spurned the mindless fundamentalism I had embraced in my youth group. Also the question of a major and with it, that old specter, the future, raised their double heads. Several semesters of keeping up the sham of trying to live out what I thought to be my father’s dreams for me in the world of the physical sciences finally fell out at the bottom with my G.P.A. and any last shred of care I had for the field. I would be what I had longed for many years, someone important in that field of utmost importance; I would be a pastor. The news was broken to my parents and girlfriend over advent. My father seemed to think it a phase. My girlfriend thought it sounded abysmal.
Then I got mono. I was stuck in my bed with nothing but hours and hours and my doubts and fears and unable to connect with anyone. I sometimes think of the stages of my spiritual development in terms of the cardinal virtues. Here at one of my lowest points, I felt very distant from everyone and thus had little love and little hope, but I did have faith. I knew God was still there. I was mad that he would no longer answer me, but he was there. The mono abated, but my body has never been quite the same. As the mono subsided, so too did the depression, but the spiritual dryness continued.
Junior year of college came and with it girl troubles. My girlfriend of three years broke up with me and the world went dark again. Too soon I poured my affections into another girl whom I adored and who seemed to understand me better than anyone I had met. Very late nights staying up talking with her combined with a constant cycle of breakups and making up pushed me to my physical and mental limit. Depression set in again, but spiritually I was doing ok, still dry but ok. I knew I needed God in this time and there were lots of breath prayers and nights saying “help me, help me, help me” repeatedly for hours.
That summer I had an internship at my home church with the relatively new senior pastor. In that I found a new role model and I began to understand loving other people that were way different from me. For the first time, I hurt for the alien, the fatherless, and the widow. I felt as though I could be honest about my faith as I never could before, and that it would not break if I had doubts or questioned things. My spirituality became a little more real as I felt something again (hurt for other people, but it was a start. I no longer had a need to defend my faith as it was strong on its own, after all “all truth is God’s truth” and my soul could step from militant fundamentalism into something larger as I searched for truth.
I still felt nothing from God though, and this continued into my senior year of college. Another bout with depression, another bout with illness at the end, and a little misunderstanding in planning meant I could walk with my class on the assumption that I would finish a couple credits over the summer. Sicker still and isolated from anyone but my immediate family in my tiny town, I did nothing on the classes. My pastor and mentor left for another church and the congregation took another step or two in the conservative direction as I took a few in the progressive direction. I read a lot then and found some comfort in several emerging church leaders who used language that connected with my journey, had deconstructed what I was wrestling with, and yet maintained a vibrant spirituality that seemed to span the ages. Comfort does little to inspire towards growth though and after another year or two of trying very hard for any sort of feeling of God or connection with him, I began to give up. It had been nearly seven years since there was anything. So much before that was emotional manipulation anyway. Maybe I had just felt something because that’s what I thought was supposed to happen and the music moved me to that point anyway. Where was God in all the world’s suffering anyway? Where was he in my suffering? I slowly let the doubts sink in. At first I went to bed terrified many nights. Soon it all faded into a large dull blackness. It was not scary without God, just cold, empty, alone. I found joy where I could, in the company of others, in creative projects, and most of all in cooking and good food I could share with others.
My lack of college degree was a bother though. I had finished, painfully and awkwardly, many of the classes I needed. One more, it seemed, remained. Just two credits in my major. This meant a class in Christian Education or something similar enough to convince Wheaton to take it. It had to be cheap though, and local. Spring Arbor University was close and had a one month class in January on Urban Ministry. My concern for the less fortunate had only increased with time and I knew my way around the Christian lingo that would be thrown in. I fought my way through the class, trying not to become cynical, or let my true feelings show when the talk became very small-minded and judgmental. I could not help but find myself swept up in the energy of the class though, and after meeting every day for a month and taking several weekend trips together, I came to truly care about most of the people. I found myself in a leadership role, esteemed amongst them, and my public prayers were long, heartfelt, and sincere. I winced at things they said periodically, but my faith was a mustard seed again. All too soon though, the class was over, and I, ever the odd one out, went back home as they returned to a normal campus life and their studies. The year continued, sometimes with glimpses of hope, sometimes darker than before. I had learned so much and had many great insights in the past years, but it was now eight years of parched spiritual dryness.
Then, one day, one glorious day, it was over. It came suddenly, and my heart so longing for it and yet so out of shape, nearly missed it. I do not remember what it was, except that it was spring, and for the first time in a decade or so, I could rejoice with new life. They came again and again, from unnoticed places, popping up in smiles and tears and consolations like bubbles in champagne. God was here. Writing even now, brings a tear to my eye. God was here all along and I did not even notice it. My doubts and questions melted, not because they were answered, but because compared with this, they were insignificant. Like the psalmist questioning God and then turning to praise with those questions still left unanswered, I was taken up in the glory of life. God was everywhere. Everything had beauty and significance and flowers and light. Even the dark and scary things I encountered only pointed at a need for this bright one in my life. Hallelujah.
I found I had yet one more class to take for my degree. It would have to be at Wheaton. I knew now, that seminary was indeed the place for me, so whatever distance I needed to cover to finish, I would undertake. Spiritual Theology was the class, and seldom have I been so excited or nervous for a single class. The enrollment process was labyrinthine and tedious. I had not been on campus for three years. I did not know the professor, although my always warm advisor Dr. Wilhoit recommended him with great fervor. Like a new convert, I devoured everything. Then, one night, the professor, Dr. Schwanda, talked about personality and spirituality. He claimed that some are “thinkers” and some are “feelers”, and that many times the “feelers” experience of God is thought to be the true experience of God and that the “thinkers” are often jealous of this. Light shone on all the last eight and a half years of my life. God was there too. I had experienced him time and time again, daily, or weekly at least. All this time, I was convinced I was forsaken. Why had no one told me this? The rest of class was a blur that night until a song later, when tears streamed down my face. The last decade was redeemed with a single sentence.
I continue to grow. I continue to see God everywhere. I know I am not very good at receiving his grace, but I am working on it. I think I have finally found a church in my new home where I can experience God in the service and find true community again. Sometimes I think back on my darkness in anger and in fear of it coming again and sometimes I laugh at how silly and myopic it was. I savor the anticipation of this advent season in looking to Emmanuel, the God who is with us.
(2) Pilgrim’s Process – Christian’s Spiritual Journey
The journey of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress is deceptive in its simplicity. This year is the third time I have read it (albeit the first time was an abridged version) and each time it says something completely different to me. Christian leaves everything, family, home, city, to journey to Heaven. His goal is nearly always his focus, and the reason everything else falls by the wayside. He is certainly a simple character, intentionally so of course, and as such the journey seems a bit stark. His journey is never much about what he does proactively, it appears more about how he reacts to the circumstances, places, and people who come upon him. It is the other characters who interact with him who make the journey colorful. Most significant amongst these others are Christian’s two traveling companions, Faithful and Hopeful. Faithful, seemingly much less conflicted about his journey, has had a different journey altogether. He is not tempted by much of what plagued Christian, and although he did have conflicts, he stands quite firm in his proclamations in Vanity Fair. Seemingly denouncing nearly everyone in the city, his execution is not the death of Christian’s faithfulness, but rather the impetus for a new travel companion. The second personification of a cardinal virtue, Hopeful, takes his more cheerful place alongside the rest of Christian’s journey. Evangelist (always looking like Billy Graham in my mind’s eye), who pops up from time to time on the journey, points towards Bunyan’s understanding that the good news of the gospel is not a one time conversion, but something continuous. We are always in need of conversion. Indeed Christian is quite well on his way before falling at the foot of the cross itself, where his burden is unleashed and he is clothed anew. At the House Beautiful, Christian is bolstered in every sense with food, advice, encouragement, armor, and a weapon. Bunyan will not have Christian’s journey completely an isolated work of the self.
It seems interesting that the people that waylay Christian the most are not those who directly confront him or challenge him physically, such as Apollyon, but rather those who direct him subtly astray, such as Worldly Wiseman. The castle of doubt looms for much of the latter journey, representing the nagging thoughts at the back of Christian’s mind. There the largest being in his journey, the giant Despair, imprisons the travelers for some time. Even as they near the Celestial City, they enter the land of conceit, where those who think themselves better for coming so far along in their journey are drawn. Bunyan, in somewhat stereotypical Puritan fashion, more easily rebukes the quite worldly pleasures of fleshly delights and physical distractions than he does the mental battles against the faith. Doubt and despair plague him for a long time and those who seek to slightly turn his focus, rather than those who bid him stay or cease his journey are the more troubling opposition.
(3) An Allegory Examined – A Comparison of Journeys
In light of my own fascination with the place of the three cardinal virtues in my spiritual development (first a God of love, then a God of faith, followed finally by a God of hope who brings back love and faith), I appreciate Bunyan’s choice for Christian’s traveling companions. When I think on Christian’s journey as a whole though, it seems like such an individual effort. It is merely him, sometimes accompanied, but never by more than a single companion for long. I look back on what I wrote above concerning my own journey, and while what I wrote there seems to be solely focused on me, my journey is always with, and a part of the movement of a community. Christiana’s story in this regard seems more apt. My responsibilities have never ceased just as hers did not. Her life came with her on her journey, rather than the singular focus leading to abandonment of all else that Christian illustrated.
Still, the giant of Despair in his castle of Doubt looms above much of my story as it did for Christian. Uncertainty and questions plagued my experience, falling in with depression chaining me to the wall of its dark dungeon. The key of promises were little help to me when the questions are doubts are concerning the reality of God himself. What good is a promise from a God who does not do anything and may not even have ever been there? Such were my questions and here I find my way parting from Christian’s. My journey has always been about God and his place in the journey. For Christian, it seems to be all about getting to the Celestial City and God has only an intervening role on occasion. He seems somewhat distant to me in Bunyan’s account. Heaven is a wonderful goal, I suppose, but in my understanding, it is neither my chief end nor the reason for my strivings. I think Bunyan shortchanges God in Pilgrim’s Progress. My journey is to come to love God with every last part of myself and to love his creation in reflection of that. God is here; the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The life lived now is a reflection of that, ever striving to understand, be more like and be closer to our present God. Christian’s pilgrimage seems bleak, strivings toward some ultimate goal in which all his effort is rewarded. He seems to be transformed only a little in the process. I hope for Bunyan’s sake, that even though he is now in the heaven he seems to long for, that in his lifetime he experienced more of God’s grace than he seems to indicate that Christian did.
(4) Progress Indeed – Barriers and Joys in This Pilgrim’s Progress
In one of our last class sessions we spent time reflecting on the place of spiritual dryness in our journey. I thought about it for some time and came to the realization that at this point in my life, spiritual dryness was my journey. It has been so much a part of the last ten years of my life. My jobs have been affected by it. My relationships romantic, familial, and otherwise have been slanted and influenced strongly by it. My aspirations, my academic journey, my interests and readings, all of these are, if not centered on, at least dramatically altered by the dryness which pervaded what was most of my mature spiritual life. It was not until this class though that I could come to see that dryness as a process rather than a barrier. Through what I learned in Spiritual Theology, my desolation was not the cessation of my spiritual pilgrimage. I experienced God along the way, but never knew it was him. It was a process that led me closer to him, closer to truth, closer to a living faith that transcended dry doctrinal understanding or hyper-conservative emotional reactions. It tested my faith, and I came through not with a perfect score, but with humility that made me dependent on grace. I was an Evangelical of Evangelicals, converted as an infant, of the conservative church an apologist, of the youth group the student leader, as for education a student at Wheaton, as for majors – Christian Education and Bible and Theology, as for zeal, active in every activity of my church, as to righteousness under the Pledge, blameless. But whatever I accomplished through my hard work I consider skubalon, for in it I found no consolation or anything substantive. As Paul writes in parallel to the Philippians, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.”
(5) Traveling Tips – Insights for Those Stepping Onto the Path
As previously stated, my spiritual journey is surrounded by other people. To anyone who is just beginning that pilgrimage, I offer the following advice that might have saved me years of heartache had I been able to hear it. There will be darkness. There will be easier times, but there will be times when God seems absent. And this is normal. Do not be surprised at it. You are told that there will be hard times, but God will get you through. There will be hard times though, when God is nowhere to be found. But do not, do not give up. He is there and continuing to seek him will yield his beautiful presence again. Also know that he will break you and your ideas of reality. He is the truest iconoclast and the most worthy to be such. The little things that seem so important will be taken away. The understanding of how he works will be surprised. It makes the way for something bigger, better, more real. Finally, I urge you brothers and sisters to know that his grace is sufficient for you. You need nothing else that he does not offer freely. Rejoice and be glad in the one who has saved you. I will say it again, rejoice!