October 19, 2017

Another Look: A Journey…to Wonder

Starry Night, Van Gogh

First posted August 24, 2010

I have spent my adult life primarily in Bible-believing, non-denominational church settings.

I experienced a conversion during the “Jesus Movement” of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

I went forward during an invitation in a Southern Baptist church. Got dunked.

Our youth group was serious about Bible study.

We attended Bill Gothard, “Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts” seminars.

I still remember listening to the first Maranatha “Praise” album. On vinyl.

I myself wrote testimonial songs about Jesus and sang them with my guitar.

I once sang in meetings for an evangelist who wore a white belt and shoes.

I wore a wooden cross around my neck

I cut my hair so I could go to Bible college.

We studied dispensationalism there and read the Bible through that grid.

We suspected that Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College might be liberal.

We certainly did not trust the amillennialists. They spiritualized the Scriptures!

No way would we approve of baptizing babies.

Or wearing robes in the pulpit.

Or using the RSV.

Or, heaven forbid! the Good News Bible!

Roman Catholicism? We quietly considered it a cult.

I never even heard of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Some of our professors thought Francis Schaeffer was off his rocker.

The “Church Fathers” to us were Lewis Sperry Chafer and C. I. Scofield.

Calvin and Luther were OK, as long as you stuck with, “The just shall live by faith.” They were awfully weak in their ecclesiology and eschatology, however.

Billy Graham allowed liberals on the platform. A definite no-no.

Our pastoral department frowned on public invitations. Too much appeal to the emotions. Just teach the Word!

Charismatics were deluded. Maybe not even Christians.

Denominations were apostate.

Women preachers? What are you, crazy?

We were forbidden to listen to anything that might be interpreted as “rock” music.

I think we were “soft” fundamentalists though. A pastor once turned his back on me at the table when he found out where I went to school. He was from Bob Jones University. He considered our school, and therefore me by association, compromised.

All I wanted to do was teach the Bible.

I carried all this into my first church at the wise old age of 22.

Kyrie eleison!

I preached expository Bible messages.

We sang hymns and choruses. With organ, piano, sometimes guitar.

We baptized those who got saved.

I visited the shut-ins, led the youth group, held “sword drills” with the kids, separated myself from the sinners, performed a lot of funerals, tried to dry all that wetness behind my ears.

We had a baby.

I was ready for seminary. We moved back to Chicago.

In my heart, I was moving away from fundamentalism, but I had no conception of leaving the Bible-believing nondenominational way of life and church.

I found I couldn’t subscribe to dispensationalism anymore. At least not the pre-trib variety.

I liked rock music too much.

I was ready to think for myself a little bit.

We settled in an independent fundamentalist church anyway.

We thought Willow Creek was liberal, maybe even heretical.

And so it continued…

…it took a long time to break free.

I’m still breaking free.

Why? What’s so bad about this environment of faith? Why must I break free?

Certainly not because I no longer believe the Bible. I trust and value God’s Word more than at any other time in my life. It’s the Story in which I found life, the Story in which I live, the Story that continually brings Jesus to me.

Not because the people I’ve known in those circles were bad. They remain dear friends, and I love them, and we love Jesus together.

Not because I got hurt or disillusioned in some personal way.

Not because God didn’t work in and through us in those settings.

Rather, it is because I can no longer believe that God confines himself to those settings.

Because it all looks to me now like a little tunnel where people hide from a great big scary world. Where I hid too.

But now I see that this world is exactly where God is and has been all the time.

Because I now believe, even though I don’t remember it consciously, that God was there when my parents brought me to the font to be baptized as an infant.

And he was there when I looked with curiosity and fascination through the books we had at home about Jesus and the twelve disciples.

And when I was a young child and wanting to stay with my parents in “big church” to see the light streaming through stained glass, the colorful robed people processing down aisles and across balconies, the somber vision of the white-haired minister kneeling to pray before worship; the rhythm of his words when he preached. Singing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Amen.”

My mom taught me to follow the words in the hymnal by tracing a path with her finger. I loved hearing her sing.

I remember times after youth choir practice, wandering around the dark hallways of the church building and coming upon a little chapel lit by an eternal flame. The smell of the old wood. The feeling of silence.

I remember the wonder. He was there.

I recall the pastor visiting my grandparents in their home, always friendly and kind.

Kneeling at the altar rail for communion.

Wishing I could be an acolyte carrying the flame.

Singing my first solo as a robed elementary choir member.

Joking with our choir director and having so much fun.

I remember, though vaguely, my confirmation class. The white-haired minister spoke to us in somber tones about how God met him and changed his life. I felt so serious as I bowed my head in prayer.

Standing outside at night after youth group as the snow fell upon the old stone church building.

He was there.

Somehow, one day that world ended.

It was dark for what seemed like forever. And then…

…a newborn fundamentalist came into the world.

In my born-again mindset, I looked back on childhood as the time when I was lost and knew nothing of God. Is that right?

Now I wonder.

Don’t get me wrong. Whatever my “conversion” experience as a young adult actually involved spiritually, I know for sure that I needed God’s intervention to turn me around at that point. I was the prodigal son. However, for years now, I’ve known that the narrow-minded path I started walking on at that moment is not enough, at least for me. It’s not a big enough God. It’s not a big enough life. It’s not a big enough vocation.

I hope I’m going forward now into something newer, bigger, more wonder-filled.

But in doing so, I find I’m looking back a lot.

Perhaps my desire for an “ancient-future” faith is a longing for nothing more ancient than the childhood where God first made himself known to me in ways that made a child dream.

Stained glass.

Eternal flame.

Brilliant robes.

Smell of old wood.

Wonder.

Comments

  1. The story sounds all too familiar… Ok, take away the bible school and the pastoring but I’m still breaking free.

  2. I never had any experience of the stained glass, old wood or robes as a child. Visits to Anglican churches in high school (I was in a school choir and we annually did a Christmas carol service in a local Anglican church) were my first exposure to any of that. Before that, it was fundamentalist all the way down. I have vague memories of Sunday School, of Christmas pageants, blue carpet, the hard backs of wooden pews, learning and singing hymns like ‘Trust & Obey’ from hardcover hymnbooks (the ones I enjoyed singing the most were found in a section entitled ‘Hymns for Informal Occasions’- a phrase which now seems like a bizarre oxymoron) and learning to read from a Good News Bible (yeah, Children’s Bibles were for wimps- when I was a kid, we learnt to read from the unabridged version!) while the preacher preached his interminable sermon. Funny thing is, though, the newborn (-again) fundamentalist bit still holds true. Once you’ve made a decision, everything before it kind of goes out the window.

    There’s a weird disconnect there. As though, even if you’ve been (as it was in my case) a Baptist since you were crawling, God can’t get at you unless your mind has matured enough to grasp some basic theology. The experiences and impressions of childhood are, taken on their own terms, strictly worthless. I don’t think the rejection of one’s past, then, is exclusive to those who come into fundamentalism from other traditions. It obtains to some extent even for those who grow up within that tradition.

  3. Mike, Thanks for sharing! Is always a comfort to know we are not alone in our wanderings.

    • Amen, thanks CM for the encouragement to keep going. I smiled so often while reading this as parts of your life are so much a copy of my own.

      • CM…thanks again for sharing your path and its struggles. Sometimes I feel a little sheepish for not having a “good conversion story”! I was raised Catholic, I struggled with what I beleived and why as a teen, went a little wild in college (but never missed Mass or the Dean’s List) and re-dedicated myself to God and my Church at 21, about the time I got engaged and “we” began to find a parish.

        As many of us know, some people get knocked off their horse on the way to Damascus, others of us unfold under His love and protection little by little, as hard to notice as the gradual growth and blooming of a daisy.

        God loves (and deals with) each of us as if we were the ONLY one He loves. Hard to get my head around, because I can only REALLY love one human like this, but He can hold all us one on one as His beloved.

  4. Thanks Mike, I really needed those thoughts today. I was raised in a Lutheran church and left it when I was a young adult. I ended up in a very narrow minded (almost cult like) sect of the Church of Christ. They convinced me that my past was all a loss and I wasn’t really saved until I would be baptized for the right reason in the right way and belonged to the right church. Long story short, I have been in and out of that church, with side trips to every other denomination i town (EXCEPT the historical churches) looking for TRUTH, because without it, I knew I would be lost, and I felt things just did not seem right with what I was being taught in the Church of Christ. (very fear based ). This has gone on for almost 30 years.
    I started reading this blog about 2 years ago and somehow came across a post M S had written titled Dr.StrangeLiturgy. In it he writes about what he loves about the historical liturgical worship service. So many bells went off in my head, that I had missed that, and that there was something there I had not considered. I was so totally convinced it was all wrong, that in 30 years I had never considered it. I have visited several churches in the last year, and am strongly considering going back to the Lutheran church, but still have fears that are hard to overcome, such as taking the name Lutheran (because man made names and creeds are sinful- so I was taught) I saw this cartoon this morning on FB and it filled me with extreme anxiety.
    https://sphotos.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/c0.0.403.403/p403x403/311663_125119980962232_1071497242_n.jpg
    The Lutheran church has so much to say about trusting in Christ alone and forgiveness of sins, I find it very healing. I guess I was just curious if you or your readers still have trouble with some of the indoctrination they have had even after they have left it completely. And thanks again for writing this morning, I too remember wonder from my childhood church.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      My “indoctrination” was mostly The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay (“END TIME PROPHECY IS BEING FULFILLED EVEN AS WE SPEAK! WE MIGHT NOT HAVE A 1978!! OR EVEN A 1977!!!”); it took 10-15 years for the conditioning to wear off, with ups and downs along the way. It’s like they graft a controlling overlay onto your personality and call it Being Saved/The Holy Spirit.

      Without reinforcement the conditioning overlay should fade with time. But there will be ups and downs and flashbacks along the way, triggered by people, situations, and/or events that remind you of your prior treatment and indoctrination. My last flashback (due to some news event) was in 1988, roughly 10 years after I entered the Post-Evangelical Wilderness.

      And you DO notice that part of the conditioning comes down to “We and We Alone are God’s One True Church, the ONLY REAL Christians, All Others Are APOSTATE, HERETIC, and WILL LEAD YOU TO ETERNAL HELL!!!!!” Convenient that.

      • I know that last paragraph all too well 🙂 The reinforcement part is what is tricky, because I have “friends” still in it such as the one who posted the above link. I just have to keep reminding myself “WHAT is the gospel?” and then I can talk myself out of the fear. Thanks for your answer, I suspect it will be with me for awhile.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          As prophesied by a certain Jerry Garcia:

          “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been…”

  5. Chaplain,

    It would seem that as we continue a faith pursuit, with the Creator, that He must increase and we must decrease.

    That process of seeking to bring our lives in closer alignment with the purposes of God will mandate a prerequisite greater allocation of many aspects of our theology, doctrine, and life practices; to an undefined space we might term the “mysteries of God”.

    The antithesis of accepting this all-powerful Creator, allowing for the “mysteries of God”, are all the carefully defined fundamentalism doctrines and inscrutable practices bound in personal preferences, prerogatives, old ways and simple ignorance.

    Regretfully many people are too content, or are unwilling, to accept that God moves in His mysterious ways as He may choose without regard to our tightly constrained fundamental boxes.

    I would further postulate that when a life crisis comes, that many in fundemental circles, harbor a rage misdirected toward those around rather than acknowledging their real frustration with a Sovereign Lord God who can not be contrained in a fundamental box.

  6. Wow I love your story Chaplain Mike!

    In the past eighteen months I remembered my mother taking me to church when I was 3 or 4. It was an Anglican church. I was terrified at being left in Sunday School. They spoke of someone I had never heard of named Jesus, and something called disciples. He was there!
    There were a few times I went there. And again, at 11 or 12 I went to church for Easter.

    I embraced the counter culture and various people witnessed to me about Christ. And then I ‘accepted Christ’ and became a Christian in a very similar environment to Chaplain Mike, except it was Pentecostal. The dispensationalism (Hal Lindsey was the greatest theologian in our minds!) . The church fathers were at Azuza Street, all before them (except for Luther) were probably lost. I came to realize that we were part of the remnant of Gods people. Anglicans, Lutherans, United Church of Canada, Catholics and anyone who prayed out of a book was lost. I was suspicious of Baptists because they did not believe in the Holy Spirit.

    I picked up a curious book while on vacation in London Ontario called Escape from Reason it was written by a funny little man who lived in Switzerland. I read the first page and understood nothing he said. I kept at it. By the time I finally finished it my mind was opened a crack to a bigger world. I became convinced a Christian could think and also enjoy Art!
    I was in 2 non denominational ministries and began to soften my stand.

    As the years went on my world grew and so did my problems with my Christian world. I grew tired of simple answers that I knew were wrong or not thought through. I did not like that we had no connection with the Christian past. I no longer believed we had the Christian corner on truth. I tired of riding the constant ‘new wave’ of evangelical thought. I had problems that my worship space reflected no transcendence.

    About 4 or 5 years ago I took my kids to a Christmas service where we did not have the Christmas story, but a play about people stuck at an airport. So the next year we decided to take our children to an Anglican church because we knew they did pretty services and would talk about the Nativity. I could tolerate them reading out of a book, even though I knew they had problems.

    I was dumbfounded by the whole experience. The nativity was so real to me I told my wife it was like we had been there. When I went there I had been reading scripture for over 30 years. I recognized that the liturgy was mainly scripture, just reworded.

    I left my evangelical church within a year or two and ended up at that same Anglican Cathedral. I have embraced the Canterbury way and love its connection with the early church. There is a certain kind of depth there. And we are not afraid to allow doubt and faith to coexist. I am free to ask questions, God is not threatened.

    Also in the past three years as I have reflected back I see that God planted a seed in that Anglican church in Barrie, Ontario in a three year old boys heart. It was watered by various Christians through the years and ripened and ultimately harvested by Jesus people and Pentecostals. And now, I read my prayers and liturgy out of a book, and in joining with the historic church I recite the creeds. And I am discerning a call to priesthood in the Anglican Church of North America.

    • Loved your story, Ken. One question for you… How do you approach corporate prayer? It’s an argument I get regularly from my nondenominational friends -that there is no sincerity in memorized corporate prayer. Personally, I find it comforting and makes me able to really focus on the message…But I constantly hear that it’s “fake” and insincere. Thoughts?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It’s an argument I get regularly from my nondenominational friends -that there is no sincerity in memorized corporate prayer.

        Nondenominational where Sincere (TM) prayers always start with “Jeesus Weejust…”, continue in Pure Christianese stock phrases with “Loord” or “Father” every X words, and end “…In Jeesus’ Name, Amen”?

        Where the Sinner’s Prayer (TM) has to be recited Word-for-Word or it won’t work?

      • I have some thoughts on that. The first is that corporate prayer is more than just the people in the room. By using a Collect I am joining with the church worldwide AND those who have gone before us in a single voice. It is our link with the church universal.
        Some object: but it is not spontaneous! Neither are the psalms (when read) or the songs we sing (written by someone). Besides, I buy my wife anniversary cards and Valentines and those were written by someone else, but it is no less sincere.
        The advantage of corporate prayer is I can commit myself to it even when I don’t feel like it. It can carry me when I am too weak or cannot think straight.

        We use The Prayers of The People as a time in our service for local concerns and prayers, and people in our group are invited to pray out loud. So we are deliberately trying to balance corporate prayer with a local expression.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The dispensationalism (Hal Lindsey was the greatest theologian in our minds!) .

      Ah, yes. When the Bible consisted of 3 1/2 books (Daniel, Revelation, the Nuclear War Chapter of Ezekiel, and Late Great Planet Earth), with the last-mentioned overriding the other 2 1/2 in every case. Did you experience the “Christians For Nuclear War” corollary, too?

      The church fathers were at Azuza Street, all before them (except for Luther) were probably lost. I came to realize that we were part of the remnant of Gods people. Anglicans, Lutherans, United Church of Canada, Catholics and anyone who prayed out of a book was lost. I was suspicious of Baptists because they did not believe in the Holy Spirit.

      Question, massmind:

      How does this differ from the Mormons’ or JW’s version of Church History? Mythological Holy History of the time of the Apostles, then everything went Apostate until Joseph Smith/Taze Russell/David Koresh/Jim Jones/Reverend Apostle Joe Soap was touched and commanded by God to restore the New Testament Church and shepherd the Last Remnant of God’s People.

      And I’ve seen the “Last Remnant/Only True Christians” in action. Just down the road from my writing partner there’s a little KJV1611 Baptist church (a DOZEN strong, the youngest over 70!) that teaches “Only WE are Saved, All Others are Lost!” Tent revival every year, with lotsa Altar Calls — attended only by already-Saved Church Members. Where does it all end?

      • When I look at it now in retrospect we did have a similar mindset to various cults. We thought we had found the truth and trademarked it. Since then I have discovered that many others felt the same way about their movements.

        Much more helpful to me these days is CS Lewis concept of Christianity being a large hall with many rooms in which people take up residence. To me, the great hall that we share is the Nicene Creed and Trinitarianism. Different rooms have their own distinctives , and it becomes an opportunity for us to show theological hospitality to one another.

  7. cermak_rd says:

    I like this. In an odd way it parallels some of my journey. I grew up with Jewish grandparents that would light the Shabbat (they called it Shabbos) candles and pray. I remember being the one who got to ask the question at Seder one year and hearing the Haggadah read by my grandfather. Was the Almighty there? I don’t know but a heritage was there. An intentional passing down of traditions and a way of communing with the Divine.

    My father rejected any belief in any god for many years. In time, the pull of his heritage had him re-investigate and re-integrate the Jewish faith back into his life. When I had enough of Christianity and sought his counsel, he suggested I, too might benefit from re-connecting with my heritage.

    Have I found the Almighty here? I don’t know. I do know though, that I have found a deep connection to a people and a history, that I have found a code of ethics I can accept, affirm and wrestle with. That I have found a community that if I occasionally have outbursts of complete disbelief in the deity that no one will blink and everyone will have a tale to tell of a Rabbi, a relative or friend that has had a similar experience.

    Yet I do have fond memories of my time among the Christians. Gospel songs played on a mandolin, St. Louis Jesuit songs, Father Pfleger, Adoration in the quiet at an Episcopal church, that feeling of relief after Reconciliation. These memories aren’t meant to be suppressed because I’m in a different place now, they, too are a part of my life.

  8. I almost posted on Open Forum yesterday about something similar. Of late, a number of stories have surfaced about pastors “losing faith,” leaving ordained ministry, and even becoming atheists. Could it be that they are on the same journey but don’t see it that way? They feel or believe that there is nothing beyond what they have experienced in evangelicalism, fundamentalism, narrow-minded churches, etc., so they claim that they are atheists. If James Fowler and Scott Peck are anywhere near to being insightful about the stages of spiritual growth, then coming to such a place is part of the process of spiritual growth. The old answers, doctrines, interpretations, etc. just don’t cut it anymore, but, as you note, and as I have experienced, there is so much more for those who walk ahead trusting God rather than “jumping ship,” or, as most others do, “circling the wagons” in fear and attacking those who dare not to believe the old ways. And, the old ways do contain truth, but merely one part of it. Thanks for the post.

    • I wonder if you describe me…I consider myself agnostic but sometimes I wonder. I still have a major issue reconciling evil with God, and that fuels my skepticism. And maybe I was a knee jerk reaction to a system that reacts in a knee jerk fashion. I’m still trying to figure myself out.

    • I know people who lost faith (myself included at one point). The ones I knew did because they began to question their simplistic faith and were in churches where questioning is not really handled well.

  9. I guess this would be mine….

    1, Grew up Catholic, receive Sacrements as a youth.

    2. Move away from that in high school and college.

    3. Swallow the Mormon kool-aide and spend close to a year and a half figuring out …do I want to be Mormon or not?

    4. Have my “conversion” experience

    5. Get involved in Campus Crusade

    6. Become elitist in my thinking. If they were not reformed they were either A. a cult. B. in error. C. not Christian

    7. Confess my short comings…

    8. Follow “God’s will” across the country from California to Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. To do what fundagelicalism taught me.

    9. Get hammered for my sins

    10. Get hammered again…

    11. Drink the John Piper kool-aid as he is the final authority for everything.

    12. Realize my accountability partner lived a double life, while I got hammered again.

    13. Look at natural disasters as God’s punishment..until my thinking started to change.

    14. Avoid like cancer..women, (they could lead me into temptation, and I could fall) Catholics, Lutherans, mainstream Protestantism, charasmatics, atheists, gays, and be weary of those in science.

    15. Get hammered again in Crusade

    16. Get hammered in a fundagelical church.

    17. Realize that the rapture is pure science fiction.

    18. Realize that the Bible is not as cut and dry as I was taught.

    19. Face that ever creeping feling like something inside of me was dieing. Try and resisit it…

    20. Do a misison trip to the UK. Evangelize people door to door while not giving a rat’s behind about my co-workers or neighbors.

    21. Assert my masculinity as a man as men were supposed to lead women.

    22. Get hammered again

    23. Realize that many fundagelicals are intersted in maintaining a facade than being honest with themself and others.

    24. Realize the power and persuasiveness of the prosperity gospel.

    25. Struggle to hold on to my slipping faith. Having people pop up and evangelize me and treat me like I was a trophy.

    26. Drowning in questions that seem to come from all directions.

    27. Realize that buying the word of the super star pastor whether it be local of national (ie Lon Solomon McLean Bible or John Piper) was starting to suffocate me.

    28. Ask myself…Eagle why don’t you think about this stuff more? Pull my brain off the shelf, dust it off and start to think critically.

    29. Did I mention get hammered?

    I think for each person there is a story. Mine was one of burnout, being hammered, and doubt which the environments do not tolerate. But I’m still on this journey also. Heck I’ve reconciled with one person and trying to move forward.

    Maybe there’s hope! 😀

    • I think there is hope Eagle. A really good start is that you are being honest and authentic. I think the Almighty sees that and thinks that He may just be able to work with that.

      • Eagle, I agree with Ken. I was hammered a lot also, and I lost all hope over a long period of time. I think that maybe, that is when God can work with us best (when we are exhausted and give up trying to figure it all out) Don’t lose hope and stay focused on the ONE who can deliver.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I think there is hope Eagle. A really good start is that you are being honest and authentic.

        “If you don’t want to call it God, call it Truth.”
        — credited to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

    • Bless you Eagle. That’s a hard way to go. Sounds like you are looking for a strong Christian leader you can follow. Maybe you can find comfort in this verse from 1 John 2:27. I think the church John was writing had a slew of false teachers that made a mess of things and minds. They may have felt like you do. Then John writes them,

      “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.”

      That’s the Christian fallback plan for when things are a mess. Just quietly read the Bible, pray, and do your best to practice it. It’s a bold thing to say, but John said it first – You don’t need a teacher.

  10. Great stuff, Mike…thanks for letting us peak into your heart. I thought for a second you were looking into mine!! I went to all the Bill Gothard youth stuff…is he still single??haha. Don’t give up on your journey toward freedom…I am right behind you!

  11. The beginning of Christian freedom is the realization that there is nothing that you have to do (to be a Christian).

    The word is ‘nothing’.

    Either Christ has done it all…or He hasn’t. If He hasn’t, then we are all in big trouble. If He has then we are free(d).

    God is free. Free to love and forgive real sinners…like us. And He frees us in that.

    So, relax. And enjoy what He is doing for you, in the midst of all the turmoil and calamity that can often accompany us through life.

    And when you taste that bread and wine, know that His promises are for you. Freedom!

  12. Ahhh, a fellow ragamuffin as our brother, Brennan Manning would say. Someone looking for real truth, breaking free from legalism, but trying desperately to stay true to the Gospel’s message. May you be blessed by our Heavenly Father on your own Road Less Traveled, Chaplain Mike. I’ve been longing to find the real true God for a long time, although I freely admit I love stained glass windows, the safety of tradition, and flickering altar candles.