December 15, 2017

Another Look: A Journey to Wonder

Cross Candles Sketch Sm

First posted August 24, 2010. This post gives an overview of my own story about a journey from evangelicalism to an “ancient-future” form of faith. Your own mileage may vary, of course, but I thought it important to put a personal touch on the things we’ve been discussing from Robert Webber this week.

* * *

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.

Geth balcony 1 sketchAnd 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. It is interesting how all of us have come from different places and arrived at InternetMonk. I have been thinking of posting some more about my own journey, and would love to hear about others as well.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      A year ago, many congregants at the church I attend had opportunity to “chart” our life and testimony (a hybrid of a chronological time-line and graph). I think most of us found the result illuminating, encouraging, and profound. Mike, as you say, it was interesting to see how different our life-stories are.

      • Pattie says:

        Rick…..different paths, for sure……but all marked with same trail of breadcrumbs called “faith” that is HIS gift to us.

  2. I had a completely different experience of church and Sunday school.

    Having to wear dress clothes.

    Smell of old ladies.

    Funereal organ music.

    Sit, stand, kneel–routine is everything.

    Hating the kids from rich families.

    Making “sheep” out of cotton balls and toilet-paper tubes.

    Stultifying moral lessons.

    Beliefs that seemed more and more stupid the older I got.

    Fundamentalist neighbors giving us little comic-books about the end of the world, the Beast, and 666.

    (Okay, I’ll stop making fun of your blank verse now.)

    In retrospect, the thing that strikes me about church is how totally useless and unnecessary all these traditions are. They’re like some strange psychological compulsion that got passed down from one generation to another, until it is either cured or mutates into something even stranger. Your autobiographical approach underscores this psychological dimension. (You write “He was there,” in much the same way that one might recall believing in Santa Claus.)

    If “God” is too big to be confined to any one denomination, what about other religions?

    • Jake, I believe in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. My faith came to me as a gift from God through the church.

    • Eeyore says:

      “(T)he thing that strikes me about church is how totally useless and unnecessary all these traditions are…”

      “If ‘God’ is too big to be confined to any one denomination, what about other religions?”

      In my mind, these two questions/ideas are linked. The point of traditions – *any traditions* – is to pass on key cultural beliefs and practices in the context of a community. The key weakness of such is that the practices get separated from the beliefs that originally motivated them, and lose context. A lot of contemporary American evangelical church practices (traditions by any other name) – and that seems to be what you’re describing, correct me if I’m wrong – fall into that category. The original point of them – to honor and teach about Christ – was lost (insofar as it existed in the first place) and appearance-maintaining moralism was all that remained, despite whatever the official doctrinal statements said.

      As for the second part, different cultures will key into different practices to help understand and internalize ideas. IOW, there’s no reason (apart from cultural snobbery) why a church service in central Africa needs to smell/sound/look like a service in Central Oklahoma, apart from the basics (ecumenical creeds, bible, baptism and communion). What should unite Christianity – and make it distinct from all other faiths – is not a particular music style, clothing, Sunday school, whatever, but the insistence (as CM pointed out) that God’s ultimate self-revelation to mankind is in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      ->Making “sheep” out of cotton balls and toilet-paper tubes.

      Yikes! When leading our kids one Sunday a few months back, for snack I had the kids make sheep out of marshmallows and pretzel sticks. I hope that doesn’t make me a bad leader. At least they got to eat them!!! 😉

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        My daughters (aged four and six) love that kind of stuff. I hated it when I was a kid. I was happier if I could go off into a corner with a book. It turns out that every kid is different. (Who knew???) It’s really hard to come up with stuff that resonates with every kid. I’m not sure what the solution is. Other than if you have a kid in the corner happily reading a book, leave him alone.

    • Pattie says:

      @Jake…..

      Religions?

      With the exception of Jews, non-Christian religions mostly have tiny little threads and scraps of the Truth of the One and Only God…..Christians have the tapestry, although often we are looking at such a small section of the tapestry that we can miss the large, complete picture. (And Jews were given the loom in the first place.)

      Traditions?

      Can be good, bad, and indifferent, but they are the spotlights on the Cross and Resurrection, not the Masterpiece we are coming to admire.

  3. T.S.Gay says:

    “When I mention religion”, said the parson in Tom Jones, “I mean the Christian Religion; and not only the Christian Religion, but the Protestant Religion; and not only the Protestant Religion, but the Church of England.” Whatever we may think of its defects, Parson Thwackum’s pronouncement has several merits. Whatever we may think of his conclusion, and of the almost truculent confidence with which he reaches it, we cannot mistake his meaning. Plainly enough here is no anxious appeal for ambiguity, no peculiar and private piety, certainly no hesitating agnosticism. This man is not advocating a vague and inoffensive religiosity to suit all tastes; indeed, he’s not advocating anything, but pointing to something definite which he himself knows, and which has all the concreteness of history in it. As a Christian he has received something; he shares in something given, something handed down to believing multitudes and to himself across the tragedy and corruption of the human centuries. His bigotry may be indefensible, but his stand for objective fact is not. He will have nothing to do with the easy suggestion that all religions are but aspects of one and the same religion. And he is right.
    Granted that it is only the great vision of the Church Universal- One, Holy, and Apostolic- which tests and deepens such denominational loyalties; still the complementary truth may not be forgotten, that the great whole is made up of these several parts. Thwackum was not wrong in what he asserted, but such a man is often wrong in his denials. It is in this dual aspect of our religious loyalties that any ecumenical movement finds difficulty. Perhaps those types and my desired synthesis for any Church may be only reached in terms of thesis and antithesis…. set out by John Henry Newman and Oliver Cromwell respectively. “Depend upon it” said Newman, “the strength of any party lies in its loyalty to its first principles.” Said Cromwell to the Presbyterians of Scotland, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” Any stream taken will be worthy and effective in the terms of that polarity. Different Christians must consciously rediscover and reaffirm their historic meaning within the purpose of God; not in order to standardize and perpetuate the past, but in order to learn in humility how that past may contribute to the rediscovered unity of the One Body. This shows us how crucial and why we strive for the true nature of the Christian Church.

  4. It’s interesting to me that a lot of your pre-“conversion” experiences parallel mine, with one exception. I was raised by Baptists and therefore was not baptized as an infant. Back then, they didn’t even have the “baby dedication” services that we see now in churches which don’t practice infant baptism.

    I was taken to Sunday School each week and was an avid student, learning my lessons and memory verses, and experiencing church life as my family participated in the church. However, as I reached the age where kids my age were “going forward” to join the church and be baptized, for some reason there was a blindness that kept me from joining in and doing that just because all the other kids were doing it. My parents didn’t pressure me either, and a couple of years later i started asking questions about spiritual things. This along with events in our family was what prompted me to respond when I first actually understood the gospel a few months later.

    I see that time as a time that God was using to prepare my heart. He was involved in all the steps that led me to “get saved” (as well as all the steps since). So I think that it’s not so much the liturgical style that’s important but the faithfulness of the members who are teaching the children the Word that gives the Holy Spirit room to work in a child’s heart.

    If you look at the stories in the Bible where people encountered God, each one is different. Nobody else saw a burning bush but Moses. Only Isaiah had the vision of the angel putting a hot coal on his lips. God works through people who agree with me theologically, and who disagree with me theologically. Who am I to say He’s wrong to do that?

    • “God works through people who agree with me theologically, and who disagree with me theologically. Who am I to say He’s wrong to do that”?

      I have wondered this same thing the last few years. In my tradition, the ‘Liberals’ and even the Neo-orthodox were dangerous heathen. Today I see them (us?!) as brothers and sisters under the same grace and faithfulness of an audaciously loving God.

  5. Amazing.

    Except that I went the Charismatic route, I could have written this post. A lot of the Christians I know who are my age have a similar story.

    My neighborhood, growing up, was deeply Catholic. That seems odd to say growing up in Dutch Reformed Western Michigan but the Catholic church was right behind our house. The convent was right next to it, and the rectory was across the street. The sexton, with his four sons and eight daughters, was our next door neighbor.

    I grew up with a deep case of Catholic envy. The funky old pre-Vatican II chapel was hot, stuffy, crowded [on Sundays], and deeply kitschy. By contrast, the liberal RCA church my family attended was like the drawing room of a maiden aunt, dusty and well-kept, but getting a bit threadbare. When I expressed my doubts about the principal doctrines of Christianity to the minister, he assured me that our church was thoroughly contemporary and that many in the church shared those same doubts. What was important was to “celebrate” those doubts and be a kind person in spite of them. I wish I had paid better attention to the sermons when I was younger, because the people of my parents’ generation tell me that the minister of that church was a great pulpiteer, and I often wonder what a great liberal preacher must sound like.

    When I expressed those same doubts in a clumsy attempt to romance the sexton’s oldest daughter, she slapped me across the face and told me I was going to Hell.

    Then came Vatican II. The Catholics tore down the funky old chapel with all the candles and plaster saints and built a new one that looked just as arid and empty as any Protestant church. There was a crucifix, and some abstract sculpture of a generic female which I guess represented the Holy Virgin. My Catholic schoolmates almost immediately celebrated “the Spirit of Vatican II” by becoming just as profane and blasphemous as I was.

    There were some Baptist churches in town. They were attended mostly by newcomers who had come up from Appalachia to work in the factories. These churches were alien to me, They had pianos instead of organs, ad their ministers were called “pastors”. People from those churches knocked on your door and asked if you “were saved”. They were fans of Billy Graham, and were always inviting people to special services at their churches. There was another kind of Reformed Christian in Western Michigan during my boyhood. They attended the Christian Reformed Church. We called them “crap goodies” and hated them. They had their own schools (so did the Catholics, but only up to the eighth grade), their own scouting organization, and their own labor unions. They didn’t drink. When I asked my parents about them, I was told that they separated from our church because our church didn’t believe in Jesus strongly enough.

    My parents hated them because they were only slightly less fecund than the Catholics, and their candidates always triumphed over the Rockefeller/moderate Republican candidates my parents always favored. They were forbidden to do anything on Sunday, including tennis, television, and manual labor. I remember getting screamed at by a neighbor lady for seducing her son into sawing a board on Sunday and hammering it into our tree house. She called me a “little heathen” and dragged her son away. He was not allowed to play with me after that.

    The “crap goodies” got along famously with the Baptists, making common cause against the rest of us. I had never met a Pentecostal until about a week before I became one.

    Drugs did it. I am almost certain of that. Now, say whatever you want to say, but LSD changes you, at least the real stuff you could get early on. To this day, I can’t imagine anybody who had ever done LSD becoming a cessationist. It’s even harder to tell if I would ever have picked up a Bible unless I had been looking for some answers to what all those ergot derivatives were provoking in my brain. I knew I was in familiar territory when I read the first couple chapters of Ezekiel. It was reading of Matthew, though, that brought me face to face with Jesus Christ and His demands on my life. When I surrendered to those demands and told my family, they were afraid I had become a Catholic, or even worse, a Baptist.

    It was far worse than that. I was ready for the Pentecostals and their un-mediated experience of the Holy Spirit. I spoke in tongues but found it to be a very prosaic experience. The Pentecostal pastor told me that is was probably because I had so many outrageous drug-related experiences that I really didn’t need “just another high”. That was sound advice. A lot of my friends who came into Pentecostalism at just this time ended up doing exactly that, looking for another high. Most of them didn’t stay the course.

    The Pentecostals tried to teach me dispensationalism, but dispensationalism and Pentecostalism mix about as well as gasoline and matches. i don’t know why they keep with it, and all that Rapture stuff. I guess its all the excitement, but they just keep taking licks from the Brethren and the Baptists, who invented that doctrine. Dispensationalism struck me as being a very aesthetically unappealing architecture for the Biblical material, so I jettisoned it early on. By this time, I was enrolled at a Pentecostal Bible School. We probably played Chaplain Mike’s school in basketball. There were several Bob Jones-y schools in our league. They treated us like we weren’t Christians and tried to give us tracts during half time. We always beat them, and our cheerleaders were much prettier.

    There are a lot of Pentecostals these days. I was surprised to find them even in the RCA years after I left. Someone tells me they are now the most numerous branch of Christianity after the Catholics and I can believe it. If you are dispensationalist these days, you are likely “old-school”, meaning first wave. Not many Pentecostals want to be “old school”. They usually want the fresh winds of the Spirit. I sympathize with them, because it was that self same Spirit that blew me into Orthodoxy, albeit through the straits of Neo-Calvinism.

    The funny thing is that when I got up off my knees in the early seventies, I knew knew knew I had become Orthodox, even though I had never even heard of the Orthodox Church. My whole life was a series of experiences that said “that’s good, but that’s not quite it” until I wandered into Great and Holy Friday Vesper services on a whim.

    Sorry for trying your patience

  6. David Cornwell says:

    This is a wonderful discussion. Chaplain Mike said

    “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.”

    To me this is an example of prevenient grace. I say this not wanting to start a theological argument about free will, but just to argue for God’s grace preceding us, and being there even when we do not know or are not aware. Prevenient grace has been defined in various ways, but here is one example from the church of my childhood, which happens to be Methodist:

    “…the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.”

    All the stories that have been told in this conversation are pure examples of wondrous grace.

  7. Chaplain Mike:

    I think finally I might ‘get’ you.
    Thank you for sharing your story, there is so much that I relate to.

    I want to say I appreciate your hard work to keep this going. It truly is a watering hole in the desert

  8. CM,
    I had quite a parallel experience. Born Catholic, born again in ’76, fundamentalist house and store front churches, Bill Gothard, Maranatha albums, church ‘Elder’ at 24, music minister and quite a few of the others. Such a mixed bag of memories. Heady times. Lots of grace and growth and lots of goofiness I wish I could take back. I guess that’s the way of things as God chooses to keep His diamonds in clay pots.
    Chris

  9. Wonderful post. Getting older means going back to our true homeland: childhood.

  10. Wow!!! Almost my story exactly. I still have fear they might be right especially about hell and eschatology. I am an Episcopalian now and greatful every day of me new life!!!!

  11. Without going into my whole story, I’ll just say yours resonates very deeply, Chaplain Mike. Thanks for posting your private reminiscences; they are very validating for me.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    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.

    Never mind “sword drills”, did you get them jumping up and down for “Rapture Practice(TM)”?

  13. Totally resonated with my experience, thanks for this post.