July 21, 2017

Another Look: Seasons and Paths of Formation

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Note from CM: I’m starting a class tonight at our local United Methodist church, based upon my book, Walking Home Together. The first lesson will be about the various seasons of our lives and what characterizes them. I thought of this post as I was preparing.

Little children, I’m writing to you because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus’ name. Parents, I’m writing to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I’m writing to you because you have conquered the evil one. Little children, I write to you because you know the Father. Parents, I write to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I write to you because you are strong, the word of God remains in you, and you have conquered the evil one.

• 1John 2:12-14 CEB

• • •

One fact I did not understand when I was younger is that life is made up of different seasons and circumstances that can virtually define any given time in life, or even the entirety of your life. I could hardly grasp that I would be called to adapt and change and learn and respond differently — sometimes for extended periods of time — regarding aspects of life over which I would have little control. I still find it hard to deal with change and disruption of my plans and expectations. And if this is true of me, one who has lived a relatively trouble-free life, what of others who have faced monumental challenges and tragic life-altering situations?

A lot of “discipleship” does not take this into account either, but comes across as generic and all-purpose, a program for all audiences — read your Bible, pray, get involved in church, find places to serve.

What they never tell you is that you and life and God and work and relationships and the way you think about all these things and what you need to flourish in life and love is different at age 22 than it is at 35 and very different at 50 or 65. Discipleship programs rarely, if ever, let you in on the secret that you may have to trudge through vast swaths of wilderness in your life, hungry and thirsty, exhausted and threatened by heat stroke. Nor do they talk about the challenges of good times and the temptations of prosperity and the successful seasons of life and the fact that they may or may not contribute to one’s personal growth.

They also don’t take into account that each person has his or her own inner landscape, climate, and weather — that life with its seasons and circumstances looks and feels somewhat different to each individual.

There is a conformist tendency in institutional religion which suggests that because we’re all in this together, we must learn to deal with life in basically the same manner. This effectively disregards the apprenticeship approach Jesus took with his disciples and the apostles’ insistence that we live in the freedom of the Spirit.

This presents a great challenge for ministers and congregations who want to encourage spiritual formation in their churches. Taking each person’s unique situation into account and responding with grace and edifying love can be daunting.

Brothers and sisters, we ask you to respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. Think of them highly with love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else.

• 1Thess 5:12-15 CEB

There are many aspects of church life in which we are called to be formed in Christ together — worship through Word and Sacrament and catechesis, to name two — nevertheless all of us must also learn to walk in newness of life as individuals who have died and been raised up in Christ.

As a parent, one of the most surprising things I had to face was how different each of my children would be. I had to learn how to balance giving attention to their individual stories with composing our larger family story. This is the same challenge the church faces. There is no one-size-fits-all discipleship “program.” Run as fast as you can from any church that gives you the impression they think there is.

Another false notion about the seasons and circumstances of spiritual formation is that they lead to perceptible progress in the believer’s life. As though there is a definable pattern of personal development. Over the years, the spiritual life has been likened to a journey. That suggests a road with recognizable landmarks and destinations. It has also been envisioned in terms of climbing a ladder, though Protestants have usually been suspicious of this as advocating a system of meritorious works. And this is not a leftover relic from medieval theology. Mission statements of many contemporary churches are quite explicit that they expect certain measurable evidences of “growth” to become apparent in the lives of their members.

However, in Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, a book of Henri Nouwen’s teachings on the spiritual life, we read this different perspective:

The movements of the Spirit, Nouwen observed within himself and in others, tend to come in cycles throughout our lives, with only a broad and hardly predictable progressive order. Instead of stepping up to higher and higher stages, as if achieving one stage leads to the next level and the next, we tend to vacillate back and forth between the poles that we seek to resolve. We move “from fear to love” and then back “from love to fear,” for example in a dynamic process that is never complete. Rather than resolving the tensions once and for all, the movements continue to call us to conversion and transformation.

As I’ve said before, this leads me to be reticent about promoting the idea of “growth” or “transformation” as though this is something that can be clearly observed or that “progress” can be marked as an unambiguous fact. As Nouwen himself writes:

After many years of seeking to live a spiritual life, I still ask myself, “Where am I as a Christian?” — “How far have I advanced?” — “Do I love God more now than earlier in my life?” — “Have I matured in faith since I started on the spiritual path?” Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. There are just as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. Many of the real struggles of twenty or forty years ago are still very much with me. I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, and for a deeper experience of God. And I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.

…it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit.

Seasons come and seasons go. We travel onward in our journey with Christ. Where we are on the road at any given point in time is debatable from our point of view. What we can know, and what we must cling to, is that Christ has called and enabled us to be with him on the road, that he is with us, that he will not forsake us, and that he picks us up every time we fall.

The Lord directs the steps of the godly.
He delights in every detail of their lives.
Though they stumble, they will never fall,
for the Lord holds them by the hand.

• Psalm 37:23-24 NLT

Comments

  1. ,Chaplain Mike, thanks so much for this. I have found what you say to be true – I’m now on the “older” side of life and when I look back I wonder about so much. Regarding the church and discipleship programs it seems that the “one size fits all” is the usual approach and this can lead to much angst in one’s life. Your comment –

    “They also don’t take into account that each person has his or her own inner landscape, climate, and weather — that life with its seasons and circumstances looks and feels somewhat different to each individual.

    is something I’ve recently come to understand – why the church should persist with one size fits all programs when they’re only too happy to proclaim the uniqueness of each individual is something of a conundrum.

  2. “One size fits all” sanctification programs… constant, inevitable spiritual “progress”… all perfectly observable and quantifiable by external observation.

    Yep, we American Christians are about as Modernist as you can get. 🙁

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > sanctification programs … “progress”

      Let’s just call it Hucksterism.

      Progress implies a goal; so what does the Progressed Christian look like? [or why not borrow a new-agey term like “Ascended”? That has more panache]. Shouldn’t the one leading you towards progression be a progressed person?

      > Modernist

      I doubt there is anything uniquely modern about this kind of hucksterism; it seems common all through history. The modern twist is that we can now apply for copyright and have distribution licenses …. although the trade in Masonic, Order, and Lodge contracts/charters back-in-the-day is a fascinating topic. It blew my mind the first time I read about that. We’ve been playing this game a long time.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Progress implies a goal; so what does the Progressed Christian look like? [or why not borrow a new-agey term like “Ascended”? That has more panache].

        Join Bo & Peep behind Hale-Bopp…

  3. Articles like this are the reason I spend time here. Thank you CM.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > There is no one-size-fits-all discipleship “program.” Run as fast as you can from any
    > church that gives you the impression they think there is.

    +1

    > climbing a ladder, though Protestants have usually been suspicious of this as
    > advocating a system of meritorious works

    Suspicious, but if phrased just right…

    > Mission statements of many contemporary churches are quite explicit

    In their defense – how would a Mission Statement not sound these triumphalist notes? It is a “Mission Statement”. Once you are in the territory of Mission or Vision statements you are, IMO, circling the drain towards this kind of thing. The very concept of “Mission” is wrong-headed as the framework for a community. How about: “Who we are?”, full-stop.

  5. “A lot of “discipleship” does not take this into account either, but comes across as generic and all-purpose, a program for all audiences — read your Bible, pray, get involved in church, find places to serve.”

    With the exception of prayer, which in varying forms it would seem it is always time to do, the seasons of life can sometimes bring us to the odd place where it is definitively not time to read your bible, get involved in church or find places to serve. Sometimes silence and reflection is necessary and is found to be impossible in a swarm of social and intellectual activities.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      So true; we need far more sympathy for the issue of Competing Concerns. There are so many things I desire to spend more time doing… but I am now too old to frequently stay up until 2AM.

    • Yep. I’m currently in one of those “not reading the Bible” modes. Meh…Been there, done that. I’ll get back into it someday. Not too worried.

      But if I was to share that with some of my fellow churchgoers, I’m sure they’d be horrified.

      • I don’t know if I should recommend this course of action, but I at one point I stopped Bible reading for a period of time. It seemed that when I read the verses, I always saw the same things and felt the same things.

        Having a cooling off-period helped me to re-approach it from a different place.

        • Yes.

          I lead an adult Sunday school class and facilitate Saturday men’s group, so it’s not like I’m not reading it, but I definitely don’t have any sort of routine going right now.

          My best Bible-reading came when I felt the Lord offer this advice: “Rick, don’t feel you have to plow through the Bible in a year. Read and re-read a section over and over until something in it speaks to you, then move on.”

          It really kept the whole Bible-reading thing fresh. I’d stay in a particular section for sometimes a whole week, and then have this little A-ha moment. I need to do that again, but only when it doesn’t feel like “I NEED to,” if that makes sense.

  6. >> …it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit.

    I expect my friend Robert to chime in with this regularly, but Henri Nouwen? Henri doesn’t know whether he has matured any along the way? This does not make me want to read Henri Nouwen. From the get go, I have been keenly aware of looking back over the past year, and years, and taking stock of whether I have made enough distance along the road to be able to look back and see where I was a year back, or whether in fact I seem to be wandering in a big circle. That isn’t saying there haven’t been ups and downs along the way, but looking back over the past forty-some years it charts out as an ever rising line, and I fully expect this to continue, not only for the rest of my time here on this planet, but forever. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t crash and burn, but I do have the Lord Jesus on my side, and I believe he will go the distance. So far so good.

    I’m not saying that I don’t struggle and that it has been a breeze. Looking back, the whole thing is a struggle, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon, but the progress and growth are very real to me and I do not want to go back one day, nevermind years, or, God forbid, back to the beginning. In many ways it has gotten easier, tho at the same time the tasks get harder. I want to emphasize that my measurement is of myself. This is like when you are growing up and every birthday someone makes a mark on the wall how tall you are. Except in that case you reach a limit, and as I have discovered in my old age, start going down again. But I expect spiritual growth to continue forever.

    I dunno. I understand that this can’t be done in your own strength and ability without help from above and within, but at the same time I understand that there is a real effort involved in cooperating with the inner guidance and gentle push of Spirit. Without that effort, nothing happens. In my experience, browbeating from others or the self is counter-productive, but it sure helps to have encouragement and uplifting, as if the good news was actually good. Adam queries, “Shouldn’t the one leading you towards progression be a progressed person?” Aside from the ruination of the word by progressive liberals, the answer to that is “Yes.” The trick is in finding such mentors and shutting ears to the naysayers. Jesus is the Way.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Henri doesn’t know whether he has matured any along the way?

      Yeah; I always assume this is a rhetorical device, and not Honest Self-Evaluation. Or it is the critical error of measuring against the standard of Perfection [whatever that is].

      Because… have I made progress as a Human Being and/or Christian over the last 25-30 years. Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. I now look back at young me and think “that guy used big words – and had no idea what he was talking about”. Part of maturation is a battering down of over confidence.

      > but the progress and growth are very real to me

      Ditto.

      > “Shouldn’t the one leading you towards progression be a progressed person?”

      The problem, of course, is not only finding that person, but defining that person. Depending upon one’s own “landscape” that could be different people for different people. For me figuring out what to DO with these highfaluting notions of Mercy was a struggle – they are beautiful, but often just seem pointlessly theoretical. Miroslav Volf helped me so much with that; but it is an issue other people seem unconcerned with. Different strokes.

      This might be a topic of greater struggle Born & Bred Church People than for those who are grafted in; B&Bs, particularly Evangelicals, seem to have a greater cultural expectation of a one-grand-answer. In contrast to an expectation that any answers are like rare crumbs that fall from the table.

    • I agree that one can’t get very far without hope, and there’s hope in being able to say “this is good” and “here’s what I am going to try and do.” I think it’s helpful too to be able to accept and be thankful for the changes one can see or the ‘progress’ one seems to have made along a path.

      I think the wisdom in what Nouwen is saying is that our expectations and evaluations of ourselves are best held lightly. Otherwise we become attached to them and reliant on them. And that means my interpretations become important – my judgments become decisive – and the price of feeling uncertain or disappointed become unacceptable or frightening, when they might have been healthful. In my experience, a terrible irony becomes likely: in my attempt to approach the world from a standpoint of love and maturity, I might strive after it in a fearful way – but nervous energy is the wrong kind of fuel for that fire, as fear has a way of subduing all its competitors. It’s hard to progress if the goal is progression.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > our expectations and evaluations of ourselves are best held lightly

        Very solid advice; all religion aside.

    • –> “Henri doesn’t know whether he has matured any along the way? This does not make me want to read Henri Nouwen.”

      That seems a little bit harsh, and I’m almost just the opposite: it makes me WANT to read Nouwen! If a guy can admit he’s not sure he’s matured…well, that’s about as brutally honest as CM’s post yesterday about limping to the pulpit to preach. I’ll gladly read more from a guy who wonders if he’s matured over a guy who says, “I have it all figured out”.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        There is a big space between “I have not matured” and “I have it all figured out”.

        Personally, if someone says “I have not matured [at all]”… I have a problem trusting them. Because, … really? Over the course of decades you’ve learned nothing? Figured out nothing? Know yourself no better?

        Again – I take his statement as a Rhetoric Flourish, for the purpose of emphasis.

        There is also another possibility: perhaps some people were just much ‘better’ when they started? Less damaged, better families, or destined for a ‘higher doom’, etc… Perhaps those of us [such as myself] who can **easily** perceive progress were simply much worse specimens? I can accept that as a possibility.

    • Different strokes for different folks, Charles

  7. In my circle, the emphasis on growth is so one may exhibit the fruits of the Spirit because “only by exhibiting these can we know who is truly the Lord’s”–who is in or who is out. The emphasis during the worship service is on listening to “the teaching”, i.e., the sermon, and taking notes is encouraged so you can go home and study its points in order to grow in understanding, as “understanding” is equated with spiritual growth. There is a distrust of the liturgy–it’s just “rote repetition” and doesn’t require a “warm heart” so there is no opportunity for “growth”.

    It’s this obsession with “taking our spiritual temperature” that has just about worn me out; I’ve been taking mine so long the thermometer is broken. I suppose I’m a heretic, though; I’ve been praying the Daily Office for a couple of years now and, as several mentioned yesterday, the rhythm of doing this provides rest and comfort when everything else in my life seems so chaotic.

    Posts like these are a balm to my soul. Thanks, Mike.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      In my circle, the emphasis on growth is so one may exhibit the fruits of the Spirit because “only by exhibiting these can we know who is truly the Lord’s”–who is in or who is out.

      Which has the side effect of “More Truly The LOORD’s Than Thou” one-upmanship and counting coup on those Lukewarm Goats.

      And didn’t this Rabbi from Tarsus write something about “if I have all Understanding, yet…”?

      It’s this obsession with “taking our spiritual temperature” that has just about worn me out; I’ve been taking mine so long the thermometer is broken.

      “Are You Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure? Are You Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You…?”

      That way lies Madness.
      Wretched Urgency Madness.

    • I’m with ya, Scott. As I shared yesterday, I’ve heard the words “we need to ramp the men’s group up,” and it has sent shivers down my spine. What’s wrong with humble gatherings on Saturday mornings of coffee, donuts, a low-key studying of the Word, and sharing/praying for each other?

      Maybe we’re only lukewarm. 😉

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        +1

        > Maybe we’re only lukewarm

        If “lukewarm” means I do not believe there is much beyond “humble gatherings on Saturday mornings of coffee…” then that is me exactly. What does on “ramp up” to? … whatever, isn’t it still meetings on Saturday mornings?

        • This gets back to your question, “What is the goal?” To what are people ‘leveling up’? Is this a video game?

          (“Congratulations, you have unlocked Armor of the Lord Level 6! Please proceed to the Dungeon Room for a Quest.”)

          Whatever the jargon, the conversation easily slips into a mode where everyone is supposed to be moving toward a fixed point off in the distance. God and other people are helping me get to ‘the goal.’

          But if the goal is supposed to be union with God, and love for other people, then there is no “fixed point off in the distance” that makes a worthy target. What if the destination is the other people enjoying donuts? (And the person in the corner who isn’t sure if they should get a donut…) To arrive at one’s goal would be to get to where God is, and where others are.

          It’s a little easy for our progress metaphors to slip off from the truth that if one were to find God going around in circles, then one had best start going in circles.

          • –> “What if the destination is the other people enjoying donuts?”

            I’m a participate in a Wednesday men’s group, led by someone else, This person is much more “missional” than I am, and it comes through in his jargon and lingo. Most of us in the group are resistant to what he thinks “missional” means, and I often want to tell him, “Maybe our mission is the eight guys in the room, just sitting here and talking about our walk and struggles.”

            In fact, here’s a case in point. One of the guys recently shared that he’d had an interaction with a doctor that made him so angry he stormed from the doctor’s office in a huff after telling the guy off. He then shared that he called the doctor back later in the day and apologized.

            He then said, “I don’t think I would’ve done that if I wasn’t a part of this group.”

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > you have unlocked Armor of the Lord Level 6!

            The similarity between Evangelicalism and Dungeons & Dragons … something which slow transformed from amusing and ironic to unpalatable.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Maybe we’re only lukewarm.

        All too often, “lukewarm” is part of a one-upmanship smackdown:
        “I THANK THEE, LOOOOOOORD, THAT *I* AM NOTHING LIKE THAT FILTHY LUKEWARM OVER THERE!”

    • Scott, let me guess. Your church is into John MacArthur. And you’re being naughty by reading the Book of Common Prayer.

      I won’t tell anyone.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I think I need to get more sleep.

    When I brought up Internet Monk this morning, I first read that title as “Seasons & Paths of Fornication”.

  9. HUG! Did you not receive your memo?

    Working harder always makes things better. ALWAYS.

    So stay awake, return, and see what it says. Your efforts will be rewarded.

    If that doesn’t work, you should persist in not sleeping until you have it right.

    Sincerely,

    The Twentieth Century
    and
    Perfectionists from All Ages

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Danielle, I grew up as a Perfectionist.

      Fallout from being a Kid Genius, expected to Know Everything about Everything and Master Everything the First Time. What it taught me was “If you never attempt anything, you can’t catch hell for screwing it up.”

      And all too often the churches make it worse.

  10. This is a really good post, CM. It could be shuffled in with Michael Spencer’s best and fit right in.

    –> “Discipleship programs rarely, if ever, let you in on the secret that you may have to trudge through vast swaths of wilderness in your life, hungry and thirsty, exhausted and threatened by heat stroke.”

    So true. The women’s group at my church has really taken the “Armor of God” thing to heart, really playing up all the pieces and “if any of you women need help, we’ll help you armor up.”

    I cringe. You see, I have my own Armor of God story, and it led directly to my spiritual desert. After a pretty good, long initial walk with Jesus (ten years), I felt I was totally armored up. I was into the Bible, had a great spiritual routine, was “still on fire” for the Lord, etc. etc. I distinctly remember saying to God, “I’ve got Your Armor on God. I’m ready for anything you send my way.”

    And what happened next? Did He send hordes of demons for me to fight? Did He drop me in the midst of atheists to evangelize? NO! He proceeded to drop me in a desert, a spiritual desert, with absolutely no sense of His presence. I was there about 5-7 years.

    Do you know how good armor is in a desert?! IT HAS NO BENEFIT when there’s no enemy to fight! It’s cumbersome. It’s hot. It’s heavy. It actually HURTS one’s ability to survive! I want to yell out in church, “If you discover that the Armor of God isn’t actually helping you, COME SEE ME!”

    So no, discipleship programs don’t help in some situations, perhaps the ones that are hardest on a person’s soul.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > IT HAS NO BENEFIT when there’s no enemy to fight!

      Oh, so true. Well put.

      So often I remember this big build up, “spiritual” excitement… then nothing happened. Nothing at all. Nothing changed. Shortly thereafter it was back to exactly like before.

      Evil, if it was present, knew to stay in the shadows, leaving us confused. Why present itself? That would provide direction. That was what I considered for years. No I doubt it is even present; it need not bother, we’ll make a mess on our own.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I was into the Bible, had a great spiritual routine, was “still on fire” for the Lord, etc. etc. I distinctly remember saying to God, “I’ve got Your Armor on God. I’m ready for anything you send my way.”

      You asked for it…

      “Do it, Merlin! Whatever the cost!”
      — Uther & Arthur Pendragon, Excalibur

  11. I guess the question is if there is such a thing as spiritual growth?

    Does Christ in fact transform us? Am I more Christlike now than 10 years ago?

    If we believe that we can grow the next question is: Can we adopt practices of life that feed growth?

    • Does Christ in fact transform us? Am I more Christlike now than 10 years ago?

      The question is, what does that look like?

      This is actually a very important question for me. Because for the longest time, I believed Christ did transform people, that the end goal was to be more Christlike over time. Then I discovered many of my pastors and spiritually leaders would hide spousal rape, would hide child molestation, would scream at gays, would want to deport immigrants, would screw over the poor, would want to increase their wealth…so many things.

      My conclusion, in one life shattering moment that broke me for a week, was…no, Christ does not change people. If he does, it’s a brief moment at conversion, but there is no ongoing sanctification or progress or anything. Because the people who should have been most changed…aren’t. And are anti-christs to the core.

      And I think my generation, all the dones and nones, realize that deeper than any argument can reach.

      We know you. And it’s over.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > all the dones and nones, realize that deeper than any argument can reach
        > We know you. And it’s over.

        +100

      • I’m sorry to hear that is your experience Stuart.

        I have seen the opposite. I have seen lives transformed. I am not talking about perfection, but substantial change and people become more Christlike.

        Among my immediate group of friends many of us became Christians out of the counter-culture and we were rough characters. There was a move of God in the 1970s that swept hundreds and thousands of messed up people into Christianity.
        We hung out together in our early 20s. And 40 years later most are still carrying on strong for Christ, and have stable marriages. And we are ordinary people, not pastor superstars or anything of the sort. I have seen so much of this in my life that I have always thought this was normal, and you are the first person to tell me otherwise.

        Your story is sad to hear, and from the many things you have said it sounds like you have seen some very twisted forms of Christianity. Yours and other stories I have heard like it make me thankful that I grew up with two alcoholics that made life hell and that by 15 I was joining them and doing drugs as well. I met Christ as a young man and just joyfully said that I would follow him, I had no bad examples to spoil it for me.

        My road out of that life was very hard, I came out with an entire camel train of baggage. Before she died I asked my mother what she thought my life would be if I had not met Christ and she said I would have ended up in a maximum security prison.
        I have had many Christians draw alongside me in my earlier years who helped and encouraged me. But Jesus has never forsaken me, I have failed him, but he has held on to me and continued to change me.

        • Baptist Fundamentalism and Charismatic Fundamentalism, with a lot of Evangelical Fundamentalism in and around them.

          And a lot of that wasn’t hyperbole. I’ve seen and experienced all of that.

          Plus…this election.

          • I have some familiarity with what you speak of. My earliest Christian experience was Anglican, and it was positive. Coming out of the counter-culture it was Pentecostal, some of which was good, some not so good. The narrowness and anti-intellectualism was hard. The good side was that I really met Jesus and he did a real work in me. My acceptance of Christianity blew away people around me. The groups I was with you probably could easily identify with: pre-tribulation rapture, overemphasis on prophecy, turn or burn theology, six day creationism.

            But I came to Christ as a mess, even by societal standards. Because of my home life, I felt very much like I was a piece of sh*t (sorry – only way I can describe it). I was a paranoid pot-head with big personal issues from a family ruined by alcoholism, domestic violence and substance abuse. So the good news truly was and is good news to me. And when I met Christ the trajectory of my life changed. And it has been huge.

            I never dreamed I would study science and work some of the places I have, never dreamed I could work on a Masters degree (in my 50s yet!), that was all outside the realm of possibility. It truly has been a story of redemption that I cannot claim credit for. Sure, I have had to do my part in dealing with my own personal issues.

            When I began my science studies I fell out with the Pentecostal crowd. I felt rejected as they did not appreciate questions, the anti-intellectualism was disappointing and infuriating. And over a 15 year period I had to come to terms with the fact that my early Christian experience had been shaped very much by closed minded fundamentalism. It was devastating because they had really modelled that they were the only ones who knew Christ and rejecting their Christianity likely meant rejecting Christ.

            Thank God they were wrong. But I have often thought that some of the most messed up people I have met are those from fundamentalist backgrounds. For some their religion has a built in mechanism that shuts down the mind when it perceives a threat or has cognitive dissonance. And I have found that there are many others out there who have come from this background and for whom there has been redemption. The original Internet monk, and Chaplain Mike, Christopher Hall who was discipled by Hal Linsey and later became an expert on the Church Fathers, Roger Olson, Robert Webber, Yancey (I heard his testimony).

            I guess to sum it up my deliverance from it all has been that I have continued to look at Jesus, and to recognize that just as He extended grace to this dope smoking hippy, I too have extend it.

          • Your story is a good one, and the opposite of mind. I admire those who come to faith later in life to Christ. Those of us who are second generation, growing up in the bubble…it’s much harder. There’s little Christ has to save you from…so it comes out as him saving you from just being yourself.

    • –> “I guess the question is if there is such a thing as spiritual growth? Does Christ in fact transform us?”

      The disciples were with Jesus for three frickin’ years and what kinda growth did they have after that time? One of them betrayed him, another denied him three times before the rooster crowed, and all the others ran away.

      So to me, “spiritual growth” is kinda nebulous. I believe I’ve grown spiritually, yes, but I also know I’ve got a lot more “run away” moments still in me.

      • That’s because they hadn’t been baptized in the Holy Spirit yet. Once you have that second experience of baptism, you are now a normal Christian, instead of a subnormal one.

        ^ years of that teaching irked me so much

        • –> “years of that teaching irked me so much”

          I still hear it. I often point out that clearly the Holy Spirit was around BEFORE Jesus died, at least if you want to believe SCRIPTURE, but apparently those scriptures don’t fit with a certain belief system and get ignored.

        • Burro [Mule] says:

          Was that common in Independent Baptist circles? I thought thatteaching was a holiness/pentecostal distinctive.

          Ah, ekstasis vs. nepsis.

          • I spent 5 years in holiness/pentecostal circles after the IFB.

            They had drums and guitars.

      • In the total scope of things 3 years is not much. But evidently it did lay a foundation in the apostles lives. The question is how did they finish? After 10 years what were their lives like? or 20 years?

        One of my complaints about revivalist Christianity is the mindset that says it is a fast change. It is and it isin’t.

        There is a change in the moment, but I would argue it is chiefly in the trajectory of the life and heart (repentance or change of mind). The real work of grace is conversion where we are molded into Christ’s image. That takes a lifetime.

        • It’s a process, yes.

          A friend has used a really good analogy that I kinda like. He says we Christians are like cruise missiles all locked onto the same target, Jesus, just coming from different launch sites and at various stages of our trajectories. Cruise missiles, he points out, also have intentional wobbling built into their targeting algorithms to help them correct themselves along the way.

          Makes sense to me.

          • To me the whole narrative of scripture suggests process, or that our spiritual lives are a journey. Paul’s letters suggest it as well.

            Maybe Charles Finney’s use of the altar call built into revivalist Christianity the idea that change is instant, I am not sure. So we ended up in the 20th century having this idea that we ‘get saved’ and then coast downhill from there to the pearly gates.

            From my perspective it is more like marriage. There is the initial ceremony and then you start learning how to live together and love each other – a lifetime of work.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Define “spiritual”.

    • Dana Ames says:

      I’m not sure of the origin of the idea of “spiritual growth. I do know that encountering an quote from Met Kallistos (Timothy) Ware a few years ago was the source of huge release for me from the kind of wretched urgency that demands it, along with my own perfectionist tendencies:

      “To keep us in simplicity, God may hid our spiritual progress from us, and it is not for us to measure ourselves.”

      The ending of the book of 1John was a great comfort to me as I was making my way through and out of the wilderness:

      We know that the son of God is come, and has given to us an understanding in order

      (what? That we may attain some sort of nebulous “spiritual growth?” No…)

      ***that we might know the one who is true; and we are in the one who is true, in his son Jesus Christ.

      THIS is the true God, even the life of the age to come.***

      (Most bibles have that last bit as “eternal life”, but aionios actually most often means “of the age”, and in C1 Judaism “age” was understood as “the age to come” – when God has done the huge thing the Jews expected him to do to end the exile.)

      Ch Mike, this is one of your very best.

      Dana

    • Christiane says:

      “I guess the question is if there is such a thing as spiritual growth?
      Does Christ in fact transform us?”

      in older age, you find the answers for yourself, but when you are younger, sometimes a nursery tale can help to explain these mysteries:

      ““Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

      ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

      ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

      ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

      ‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
      ( Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit )

  12. Ronald Avra says:

    Very good post and discussion today. Enjoyed the comments and discussion a great deal.

  13. Oh, man. Where to start? It’s a long story, and I’m tired. My church has made me tired.

    Thanks for this, Mike. I find comfort in what Henri Nouwen says and, as always, what you’re saying. It’s good to think I’m not the only crazy one.

    I also find comfort in the name of your earlier blog: “Weak on Sanctification.” It takes a load off.

    We’ve talked about this a bit: I’m in the later stages of grief about my church, well into the “acceptance” phase (I think, or am I in denial even about that?) and am trying to understand that I can’t fix everything.

    [I just deleted a bunch. This could have taken a while. So, for now, I’ll just say thanks.]

  14. I think it’s easy to make too much of Nouwen’s statement. He is expressing uncertainty about his progress, but he says nothing about deciding not to push onward in what seems to him to be the forward direction as a result of this uncertainty. Everybody has to be somewhere, everybody has to be moving in some direction. Nouwen continued moving throughout his life.

    Is it really surprising that those moving into deep territory keep encountering the same issues, at deeper and deeper levels? Or that they might sincerely doubt their progress when they again encounter, perhaps in a new form, what they thought they had put behind them forever? All the great mystics of every tradition say that the way forward along the spiritual path is not clear-cut and obvious, but branches in many directions and is hard to discern. There is not just one right way up the mountain, or down into the depths; the path itself is creative, in that you create it as you move forward, and it creates you as you travel it. The way into the heights, the way into the depths, is through a light that is much like darkness. Of course there is much uncertainty. But to keep traveling despite uncertainty and darkness is itself wisdom taught by the path.