October 16, 2017

A Long Pause from Impermanence

By Chaplain Mike

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.

• C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Part of the “post-evangelical wilderness” experience is a deep sense of longing to be at home.

Psalm 63 carries the heading, “A psalm of David, regarding a time when David was in the wilderness of Judah.” Wandering in the desert places left him hungry, thirsty, eager for a renewal of the vital experience of worship and fellowship he had known with his brethren in the Temple.

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.

I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.

• Psalm 63:1-2 (NLT)

David longed for home. There’s no place like home.

As wonderful as “a personal relationship with Jesus” sounds to our individualistically-oriented ears, Scripture, tradition, history, and experience teach us that this relationship is most fully realized in the communion of saints.

When the family sits down at table together, the abundance of our Father’s provision becomes most apparent to us. At the table, our identity as family members is confirmed and reinforced. We take our part in the family story. We recall and celebrate unique experiences we’ve shared together. We laugh about our idiosyncracies and foibles. We discuss the broader world from a perspective that looks out from our front door. Here we praise and tease one another, and address family concerns. Here the memories of family members no longer with us are recalled. Here we welcome the newborns, the children, and baptize them into the family’s ways—we teach them the silly kids’ songs, tell them the old jokes and stories, and at some point show them the secret family handshake and codes and let them in on a few of the skeletons in the family closet. Here we welcome guests, translating our strange dialect into words they can understand and, hopefully, appreciate.

You simply can’t know these things in the same way when you’re on the move, sleeping in tents, having to pack up and travel to the next location all the time. There’s a certain charm to sitting around the campfire, but it’s the ephemeral thrill of the open road, the wanderer, the hobo. You feel the exhilaration of freedom for a time, but hauling water and firewood, sleeping on the ground, dealing with the weather, bugs, and strange sounds in the night, and setting up and breaking camp gets old after awhile.

The word the Bible uses to talk about Israel settling down in the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness is instructive—rest. God gave them rest. It just felt downright good to sit a spell and put their feet up for awhile. However, as wonderful as that homecoming was, Hebrews 3-4 tells us they never really found complete rest, even in the good land. A settled home in this present world could never fully satisfy the hunger in their hearts for the city in the age to come. They looked for a city built by God himself, a permanent home of righteousness and peace, the home God creates through Christ for his forever family in a new creation.

Nevertheless, having a “home” here and now is also vital, as essential as it is for desert travelers to find an oasis, or better yet, a destination that provides some kind of long pause from impermanence.

Never was C.S. Lewis’s wisdom more evident than in the opening pages of Mere Christianity, when he spoke to this subject. You can talk about personal belief, a Christianity of essential truths that one embraces, a faith with which one, as an individual, agrees. You can set forth a “mere Christianity” that satisfies a seeker’s heart, mind, soul and spirit, and introduces him into a vital relationship with the true and living God.

“Mere Christianity” brings these believers into a great hallway in God’s magnificent mansion. You mingle there. You converse with others who have entered through the front door. You talk about how great it is that you have been invited and welcomed in. You praise the gracious hospitality of your Host. You are humbled at the generosity of the One who made it possible for you to have a home.

And then you notice that some are making their way into various rooms along the corridor. Peeking into one of these rooms, you see comfortable chairs, a crackling fire in the hearth, and a table spread with a feast. Not sure if you are invited in, you observe, and then go back into the hall.

After awhile, you begin to feel a bit uncomfortable. You’re running out of things to say to the others mingling there. You look around for a place to sit down, but there are no chairs. Your stomach growls, but your eyes spot no food being served. You wonder where you will sleep that night.

You’ve been welcomed in, and you’re thankful to be out of the cold and rain. You sigh; that’s better. A place of respite from the storm. A hallway where you can rest for a little while.

But it’s a hallway. And soon you are restless once more.

Comments

  1. Even when you have found a home, as I have, I still want to contribute to helping others find a home as well. That is why I continue to participate here. In my case I found an Evangelical Church, which, while not perfect, felt like home almost from the moment I stepped through its doors. From the moment we arrived in our town it took 13 years, four churches, two church plants, one church closing, and one distinct call of God to move on. That is not to mention the numerous others we visited.

    Would Michael Spencer have found it home? One of the disconcerting things about reading “Mere Churchianity” was that Michael knew what home looked like, but never found it for himself. I am hoping that maybe we can start to move beyond “Mere Churchianity” and help others find their way home as well.

  2. Damaris says:

    I enjoy reading the more controversial posts that garnish lots of comments. They stimulate my mind and educate me about how other people see things. But I especially love posts like this, Chaplain Mike, or Adam’s post earlier. They feed my heart. Rather than stirring up or emphasizing differences among us, they create peace. Thank you very much.

  3. Scott M says:

    Chaplain Mike, as with your other posts, this is well written.
    I wish I would have raised the children with the family table. Instead we ate in front of the TV. Much to my dismay as I look back on it now.

    • widge44 says:

      I, as the mom in the family, tried and maintained for years the family table, but eventually got out-voted to where we are now using TV tables in front of the TV at dinner time. However, I have watched how God can even use these shows to create family discussion and connection that we might not have had. Technology allows us to pause a show and have the kind of conversation that I know bears the handprints of God. He will show up wherever we invite him. Thanks for this post…

      • that”s a very creative response, widge44, that kind of flexibility should be rewarded over time.

        Greg R

  4. “But it’s a hallway. And soon you are restless once more.”

    Have you considered the possibility that maybe you have been the problem all along?

    I have sympathized and empathized with Micheal’s protestations for years, but you can’t make a religion out of mere protest anymore than Lewis tried to make one out his ideas about “mere Christianity.”

    • Brad, I think you miss the point. Lewis was saying you can’t live in the hallway, embracing only mere Christianity. I’m agreeing with him here. The hallway is inadequate and can never be “home.” One must choose a room. I may not have found my “room” yet, but I know there is one where I belong.

      • Hi Mike,

        I apologize for misunderstanding your point. The conclusion struck me as kind of cryptic and I clearly read into those parts that were less than clear to me as you were wrapping up, but I did so based on what you wrote in the preceding paragraphs. Anyway, sorry.

    • Of course you are correct that protest is not, by itself, constructive. But I think people who become deeply restless and troubled with evangelicalism are trying to get beyond the protest to something else — a way to articulate misgivings honestly, but faithfully, within a meaningful community. I suspect most will ultimately do so in and around evangelical churches or will jump to Protestant confessional churches.

      The strong feeling of protest that comes across in some comments here reflects, I think, not so much the sum total of people’s hearts as their need to air and work through deep misgivings that they could not (or cannot?) articulate fully or honestly elsewhere.

      • Danielle,

        “But I think people who become deeply restless and troubled with evangelicalism are trying to get beyond the protest to something else..”

        But these people never seem to get beyond the protest. They’re perpetually restless. Take Micheal’s book for instance. It’s laced with great examples where the American church has gone awry, but it’s so thin on defining what Jesus Shaped really means – unless it just means: protesting all things evangelical.

        • “Wilderness” is not just a metaphor, Brad. Some of us are truly there—in an actual post-evangelical wilderness—we have been there for some time, and we have not seen signs of an oasis for a while. You may be correct that some of us are simply stubborn enough to walk around in circles and not really look for water. However, many are doing what Lewis suggested (to go back to his metaphor)—we’re peeking into the various rooms along the hallway, hoping one of them will provide us a comfortable chair and place at the table.

          I’ll be quite personal here. My wife and I attend an ELCA Lutheran church right now. Lovely people. Good-hearted pastor. They respect the Word, though theologically they’re weak. The liturgy has been a source of nourishment. Is this the room in which I should settle?

          Remember, this is the question of someone who has been an evangelical pastor for almost 30 years! I’m not fully satisfied this is my “room”. I have too much “evangelical” in me for the ELCA at this point, and too much ELCA in me for the evangelicals!

          Some place along the way, I will have to decide, and whatever choice I make will involve compromising something. Like the Promised Land to Israel, no church tradition can provide a perfect place of rest. There is no “perfect fit.” I am fully realistic about that.

          I am also in no hurry. I have a meaningful ministry in my vocation. I worship with God’s people each Sunday. I get a chance to read, study, write, and interact with all of you on iMonk. Occasionally, I preach and lead worship. Jesus still loves me and always will. All in all, life is not bad. Even in the hallway.

          • I have often said I’m too Baptist for the Pentecostals and too Pentecostal for the Baptists. This from someone who was raised Methodist and had a Jewish mother.

            God help us all.

          • Some place along the way, I will have to decide, and whatever choice I make will involve compromising something.

            I guess for many of us, we are in the process of deciding what are the negotiables, where are the areas that we can compromise, and where do we draw a line in the sand. This is not easy. Making things much harder are

            1) the relationships we’ve built along the way, even at churches where we are unsatisfied; Even in my restlessness, GOD has put me in touch with some of the greatest people that walk the planet. It’s probably largely because of these friendships that I’ve stayed as long as I have. These friendships, built on discipleship, have given me much hope and encouragement that help me get through church…. sorry if that’s too snarky for some.

            2) for some of us, the choices we’d make as a single person are not as quickly made married. Maybe this is just a cop out (I’m open to that possibility), but I have to involve and include my lovely wife of 14 yrs in my dessert wandering……is that worth it ?? So far, not enough to church shop, but I’ve come very close, and may yet take that route.

            End of ramble: I appreciate all the thoughts on this post, and I agree that at some point we have to move beyond merely a protest of something, but I am DAILY grateful to have a forum to work this stuff out with brothers and sisters who know what I’m going through and don’t just tell me to get holy and snap out of it.

            Greg R

          • ooops, that shoud be “desert wandering”……but “dessert wandering” is probably a LOT more fun……

        • I agree: for those who are in the wilderness, there is always the danger of getting too attached to our own questions, critiques, or wanderings.

          However, it is also true that the process, though not neat and not safe, can be productive. When I began my wilderness experience, I confronted a great many concerns and doubts I had no clue how to solve. I simply did not seem to have the resources, in my own tradition and native language, to understand what I was confronting, how to express it, or how to live faithfully as a Christian in the midst of it. Suddenly, I was adrift with no good way back and no map showing where to go.

          Crisis or opportunity? I don’t know: But along the way I have learned a lot from mainline Protestantism and Catholicism. I’ve discovered liturgy and some aspects of larger Christian tradition and practice that have helped me immensely. I’ve discovered a more sacramental and nuanced way to think about my faith. With these resources, I have finally learned how to say “I believe – help thou my unbelief” and move forward as a whole person rather than a contradicted one. Perhaps I should have gotten to this destination much sooner and perhaps not everything I did was constructive. But I have somewhere to hang my hat now. And I understand a few things I didn’t — couldn’t — have understood before.

          I hope this makes sense!

          • Very profound, Danielle. My experience has been similar, I think. At the beginning of his book “Orthodoxy,” Chesterton compares himself to a man who sets off from England to discover new land. After much wandering he finds a green and pleasant isle and realizes that he has been brought back to where he started. In the same way Chesterton looked everywhere for faith and finally found his way back to it. Maybe our journeys will look like that from an eternal perspective.

  5. The evangelical church is like kinfolk for me. Kinfolk that aggravate to no end, but kinfolk, nevertheless. Of course they are not all the same. I have visited nurturing small-town churches and community-orientated city churches. But living in the suburbs means mega churches of a type that are nothing like going home.

    For over a year I routinely asked God to lead me to the right church. This is what He led me to understand from visiting a variety of churches.

    There is no such thing as the perfect church. Every church has this inescapable truth in common. Each is a collection of imperfect people bringing all the challenges, scars and bruises that this callous world inflicts.

    No matter where I decided to worship I would find lonely, hurting, alienated people if I only chose to notice.

    Where I chose to worship was not nearly so important as that I worship. I can pray and study alone, but we are meant to reach out to one another. We are most obedient to Christ when we care for one another.

    So for now I will continue to worship at a mainline UMC. It is just as far from perfect as any other church, but at least they tolerate oddballs like me.

  6. We had one pastor who used to tell our congregation, “There’s no such thing as a perfect church, and if you ever find one, it will no longer be perfect after you arrive.”

  7. This was a great and challenging post. I sat in the cozy dining room of one church for several years. A few years ago, I looked down at my plate and realized that what I thought was a nutritious and delicious plate of food was really just junk food and I was getting fat and proud. That was largely my fault. But then the people around me started throwing food and when the food ran out, they resorted to eating each other. I couldn’t handle it and retreated to the hallway where I still feel like I wander despite my attendance at another church…*sigh*

    I don’t comment very often here, but this site has been tremendously helpful to me over the last few years. Thanks for what you all do to keep it going.

  8. This morning my Bible reading happened to be Jeremiah 29. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles seemed so relevant to this discussion.

    Many Christians feel that this earthly journey is akin to being exiled in enemy occupied territory.

    Many evangelical churches teach that exile will be brief because Jesus is returning any ol day now.

    Jeremiah told the exiles to build homes, plant gardens, pray for peace in their communities and draw closer to God.

    I believe that many who are uncomfortable with the present day evangelical church desire to do exactly that. They know that we must draw closer to God here and now, regardless of where _here_ happens to be. We should pray for peace in our communities. We should be actively involved in our communities.

    But I don’t think we can wait for the churches to lead. Each of us needs to find ways to be the change we want to see.

  9. Thank you, thank you once again for the helpful articles and comments. As some have already mentioned, this blog is one of the places that provide a vital lifeline for some of us in the wilderness.