September 23, 2017

Jeff Dunn: Crossing Over

Crucifixion with Saints, Fra Angelico

Crucifixion with Saints, Fra Angelico

This was first posted in August, 2013.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9, NIV)

Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Revelation 2:4, NKJV).

I hope you will allow me some leeway in today’s homily. I want to invite you to journey with me, a journey that started forty years ago today. It is my journey, yes, but we may find it intersects in ways with your journey as well.

It was August 25, 1973, a Saturday, and I was trying to find a way to get out of a commitment to my friend Steve to go to an outdoor concert at his church. I had three lawns to cut that day, but amazingly I got them all done before Steve came to pick me up, so I was stuck. I had to go.

It was a beautiful afternoon. A stage was set up in the parking lot of Centerville First Baptist Church, and various local “Jesus music” groups were singing and sharing testimonies. I don’t remember anything that was said or sung that day, but I do remember the other teens my age. They were laughing and smiling—genuinely happy without having to drink or smoke anything to make them that way. By the end of the afternoon I said to myself, “These guys have something real, and I will give up anything in my life to have what they have.” That “something real” was Jesus. That day I met him face-to-face with his grace and mercy and forgiveness.

I threw myself into that church. Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night services. Saturday night youth coffee house. This was in the height of the Jesus People and charismatic movements. This small Ohio Baptist church was bursting at the seams with those hungry for Jesus and eager to learn from Scripture how to follow Jesus in their daily lives.

Coronation of the Virgin (detail), Fra Angelico

Coronation of the Virgin (detail), Fra Angelico

When it was time to head to college, I chose Oral Roberts University, a charismatic university in the far-flung reaches of Oklahoma. (It was 1976, not 1876, yet my friends still thought that most people in Tulsa would be riding horses, and some of them were—really—concerned about Indians.) There I studied broadcasting while continuing to seek the Lord with all my heart. I was startled to meet others who, though they professed to be Christians, did not have the same zeal as I. They didn’t have daily devotions, they didn’t go to Sunday night vespers. Many were not even “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” I began to judge these as lesser Christians. After all, they didn’t believe the way I believe, the way I had been taught, so they must not be as good of a Christian if even Christian at all. But it was ok, because those who came to preach in our chapel told us just how much God wanted to bless us and do all sorts of good things to us if we would only give more and dream big dreams. By the end of my four years, I had found myself (if I were to be honest) somewhat lazy in my faith as well.

Graduation gave way to marriage, then children. We found ourselves moving several times between Ohio and Oklahoma, with a one-year exile to Orlando. Each move brought a new church home, always staying in evangelicalism. (Including six years in a Methodist church—but it was a charismatic Methodist church …) And with each stop I felt farther and farther from the God whom I loved.

I was no longer experiencing discipleship. I was being pampered and coddled. Instead of being shown how to love one another, even when it is hard to do so, I was told just how special I was to God. Instead of communion being the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, it was about how partaking would bring me healing and strength and blessing. I was told that if I believed the right beliefs (which seemed to be a moving target), Jesus would come into my heart and be my personal savior, with the emphasis on personal. Leaders of these churches planned and worked to meet my “felt needs.” Evangelical books I was given to read were just self-help platitudes with scriptures dropped in here and there. Worship songs talked about how good it feels to be loved by God rather than the rich theology of those dusty old hymns. There was very little theology, as a matter of fact, very little need to train my mind to think of God. After all, God thinks good thoughts of me all day, and that is all that matters.

On top  of this, I spent many years working in Christian media, both broadcasting and publishing. While no one actually spoke these words, we knew that in order to increase our business we must manipulate people into buying our books or listening to our music using faith as the tool. We did it again by dealing with “felt needs.” I came to a place where I felt dirty and cheap, using Jesus to sell things no one needed.

In Douglas Adams’ humorous sci-fi novel The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, he introduces us to the ultimate torture chamber, the Total Perspective Vortex. Victims put into this box see the entirety of the universe and themselves in perspective as a tiny dot on a tiny dot. It is designed to drive men (and other various creatures in the universe) mad. Zaphod Beeblebrox, sometime president of the galaxy, is placed in the Vortex by a ghost named Pizpot Gargravarr.

The door of the Vortex swung open. From his disembodied mind Gargravarr watched dejectedly. He had rather liked Zaphod Beeblebrox in a strange sort of way. He was clearly a man of many qualities, even if they were mostly bad ones. He waited for him to flop forward out of the box, as they all did.

Instead, he stepped out.

“Hi,” he said.

“Beeblebrox …” gasped Gargravarr’s mind in amazement.

“Could I have a drink please?” said Zaphod.

“You … you … have been in the Vortex?” stammered Gargravarr.

“You saw me, kid.”

“And it was working?”

“Sure was.”

“And you saw the whole infinity of creation?”

“Sure. Really neat place, you know that?”

Gargravarr’s mind was reeling in astonishment. Had his body been with him, it would have sat down heavily with its mouth hanging open.

“And you saw yourself,” said Gargravarr, “in relation to it all?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah.”

“But, what did you experience?”

Zaphod shrugged smugly. “It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby? I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!”

Zaphod survived the Vortex because he was not a tiny dot on a tiny dot in relation to all of creation. As far as he was concerned, the universe did not exist without him. He was the center of everything that existed.

That was what I had become: the center of my universe. And what a small, crowded universe it was. There was no room for fear and awe of God—God, no doubt, was in awe of me. After all, that is what I was being taught at every turn. And I was sick of it. With no sacraments to serve as anchors, my ship was adrift on the endless sea of me Me ME.

Transfiguration (detail), Fra Angelico

Transfiguration (detail), Fra Angelico

My first love had turned into a plodding existence, saying and doing all the right things so as to fit in with all of the others who passed through the Total Perspective Vortex and came out smiling smugly that they were they center of all things. I had become Mary and Joseph, walking three days back to their hometown before they discovered Jesus wasn’t with them. He was about his Father’s business, while I was about my own.

I longed for, yearned for, a return to my first love. I sought programs and activities and services to get me there. I got up earlier and prayed more and read more and did more. I fasted and confessed and … and then I just gave up. That is when God met me. About six years ago the Lord began emptying me of myself. He began to strip away the nice Christian wallpaper I had put over my real self. He helped me to see that I really am just a tiny dot on a tiny dot in the vastness of things, and that was freeing to me. For with myself so small, I could once again begin to see just how big and wonderful and awe-full God truly is. Now I find silence to be louder and sweeter than Christian noise, and I find it much more peaceful to have simple dreams than big dreams.

So I have come to the 40 year mark of my journey of faith with barely any faith left. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they finally assembled before Joshua at the edge of the Jordan, ready to enter the land promised to them. I’m sure it took those last several years to get everyone fed up enough and tired enough and hungry enough to leave the familiar wilderness for the unknown. And once they crossed over, things were not easy for them. There was much building and fighting and learning and praying and believing to be done. The last several years of my life have been years of upheaval and tumult and pain and hunger and a longing for Jesus as he knows himself to be, not as I think he is in my own Total Perspective Vortex. I will not be the center of things when I cross the river. And I am now prepared to cross over.

I am at the river’s edge. But for me, the river is not marked Jordan.

It is the Tiber.

• • •

Postscript, October 2014:

I was confirmed into the Catholic Church this last Easter. What I discovered through the whole process was that I was really Catholic all along

Comments

  1. Faulty O-Ring says:
    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And I have dimples on my butt.

      In a nation of 300 million, you’re going to get cases of individual strangeness.

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

        Are butt-dimples weird? I want a statistical analysis on my desk by Saturday controlling for BMI and age. Just as soon as you finish my TPS reports 🙂

      • Faulty O-Ring says:

        They can be cured with enough prayer. God intended buttocks to have a left cheek and a right cheek–period., Just don’t ask us to endorse your dimpled lifestyle, or insist on displaying your butt in public.

        Individual strangeness?! Pick any two churches or religions, and there will be people moving in one direction to the other, or vice versa. This week we are being shown evangelical to Catholic, apparently at random. More or less the same kind of testimony can be found for any other religion.

      • What are butt dimples…seriously?

      • HUG, didn’t I see you in a movie a while back? Were you showing your dimples to LBJ?

  2. Good to see Jeff’s comments in print here again.

    “What I discovered through the whole process was that I was really Catholic all along.”

    Very profound. This is far more convincing than being driven by the church into becoming something one didn’t want to become,

    • Joseph (the original) says:

      “What I discovered through the whole process was that I was really Catholic all along.”

      Hey! Same thing happened to me!

      After 8 years of parochial school education, years of being a devout altar boy, recruited for the priesthood when I was 14-years old, I too realized I had not been a genuine Catholic all those years.

      It was after a rather dramatic epiphany when I was 20-years old that I had an encounter with the very Jesus I had been attempting to engage with through the extensive layers of doctrine, tradition and liturgy…

      I suppose I was a budding Protestant all along, but only because I had a questioning nature regarding the emphasis of Mary and the litany of saints (one for every occasion!). And my experience with the sacraments that were not grace infused, especially confession. That was always a negative experience for me…

      But heck! I could recite those Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s faster than a winner during Bingo Nite shouting out their victory!

      However, I wasn’t really protesting anything theologically. One Sunday at Mass the Holy Spirit nudged me with this impression: “I am not going to meet with you through this worship expression from this point on…”

      I recognized that same voice as the One that previously had invited me, “You can go back to the way you were, or come, follow Me…”

      I think the swimming back and forth across the Tiber keeps those waters stirred up with all the activity that has happened throughout the centuries. I am sure I may have passed a few of you as I swam away from the RCC only to end up on the shores of the expansive Evangelical Wilderness…

      Saude!

      • Perhaps you and I were tandem swimming across the Tiber away from the RCC.

        • You can swim away but like Joseph only wind up in the wilderness. At least I know where all your episcopal comments come from !!!!!

          • Like Joseph? Eh?

            I don’t really understand your comment, but I’m glad that you at least now know where all my episcopal comments come from.

            Now, if you wouldn’t mind, could you tell me where all my episcopal comments come from, so that I can be as well informed as you? I hate being in the dark…

  3. Jeff…..so happy that you have joined the huge, loving, and slightly dysfunctional family that is the Church!!!

    • Are you saying the joining of the Roman Catholic Church, or are you saying he was not part of a church before?

    • jazziscoolithink says:

      Oh Pattie, I wonder if you see the naive arrogance in such a statement. Well, at least “the Church” isn’t forcing the baptism of Jews and then killing them for not being Catholic enough. At least, not anymore.

      • flatrocker says:

        Oh jazz, so clever of you to diffuse naive arrogance with patronizing smugness.
        Battle on my friend, battle on.

        • jazziscoolithink says:

          flatrocker,the thing about the pan telling the pot that it’s calling the kettle black, is that they’re all black.

          The point is that claiming to be “the Church” (at the exclusion of all other churches) betrays an ignorance of the fact that “the Church” was never truly unified in doctrine or anything else–and the effect of such a claim has led to the loss of countless lives, and Protestants are not innocent in this either. I think we would all do well to be a bit more humble in our claims of who’s in and who’s out. I’m sorry the way I did that offended you.

          • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

            Bossa Nova jazz or Continental Jazz…or Cool Jazz? Make mine jazz flute, please…

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            How about Jazz as 100-year-old slang for “Sex”?

            (That’s how the word started.)

          • flatrocker says:

            And jazz, I don’t want to be confrontational, but you might want to consider the impact of powerful terms like “naïve arrogance” and “betrays an ignorance.”

            In both of your responses you site the historical disunity and numerous atrocities the church has committed as evidence that “the Church” has never existed. And that it “betrays an ignorance” to even consider this possibility. As if the only acceptable version of “the Church” is one without blemish and is perfectly executed in all of its endeavours. I would contend that while this is a noble goal, it is not what we are called to be. The Church is foremost about relationship. And when we see this and live this it is truly glorious. There is also ample historical evidence of the church doing this exceptionally well. And when we lose sight of the goal of relationship it is devastating, as you have illustrated. But whether we execute properly or not, the question becomes are we to be in relationship with one another in His name? And if we see faith in the relationship as paramount, then the inevitable breakdown in the process won’t lead us away from the relationship. This is what we pray.

            I think as sophisticated moderns, we are trained to put faith in the process. And when the process degrades and inevitably fails, we simply find a new process that seems to work. This is true in our professions, our politics and to a great extent our families. But faith in the relationship – if we see this as the essence of who we are – can not be walked away from. If we truly draw our identity from the relationship, the process failures that surround it will not break us apart.

            In short, you cite evidence of the failure of church processes as proof their is no “Church.” This is a false connection. The Church exists for a far different reason than as an exercise in perfection.

          • ” But faith in the relationship – if we see this as the essence of who we are – can not be walked away from.”

            Sometimes walking away is the only way of preserving and honoring the truth in the relationship; sometimes walking away is the only way of maintaining the relationship; sometimes walking away is the only relating that can be done.

          • Sometimes walking away is an act of faith…

  4. The other day I told OP I would go with him. I told Bobby once do you think you’ll stand there alone. Do you know how I long to stand with you all when we get there. Just wrote this morning’s poem dwelling on it all. Forgive me I wanted to share.

    I’ll stand with you

    So many of us with all our own ways
    Yet in You there is a room for more
    Our focus with You on this today
    A revealing love to what’s in store

    Right subjective to what we think
    We swim a river and find we’re dry
    Wondering why we didn’t take a drink
    Or at least attempt just once to try

    Now I’m not so much for the latest fad
    Or to the tradition only because it’s old
    Love in the blood by which I’m clad
    Covered in the grace more precious than gold

    I will not find it in the traditions of men
    From the beginning the one coming from You
    Here I find meaning in the word of a friend
    One that I surely take to my heart as true

    Your voice that first whispered to me
    It was You at all times by my side
    Grateful in love still being set free
    I’ve no longer a reason to hide

    Like the deer that runs a long way from a foe
    I will drink long and hard from the stream
    In the end it will be with the love that I know
    You go so far beyond anything I could ever dream

    • I like your poem, w. You wrote it first thing in the morning? I can barely think two words first thing in the morning. Kudos to you, w.

    • OldProphet says:

      I’m going to transcribe this poem and hang it In my office It’s wonderful! And where I’m at right now

  5. Congratulations Jeff on joining the Catholic Church. I recently also joined and found the home I had been searching for a long time. Unless you actually go through the process you have no idea how freeing it can be. The sacraments, traditions, and yes you hit the nail on the head the understanding of how little we are in the grand scheme. It isn’t about us but all about Christ and his love and grace poured out for us. It is about calling truth the truth and sin a sin. It is about living for Christ and not the world and knowing the difference. May the Lord continue to bless you with his love and guidance and keep you focused on his cross. It is an affair of the heart not just our own theological ideas. Some people have such a hard time submitting to something greater than themselves and love a theology of their own making so they can be happy. Anytime someone’s Lord looks and thinks like them they should know they are in trouble. Keep fighting the good fight !!!!!

  6. Asinus Spinas Masticans says:

    I am continuing to pray for your recovery, Jeff

  7. Jeff, I’m glad to know that you’ve made it Home.

    Also praying for your recovery to good health.

  8. With Ned Yost and friends in the news, I couldn’t help but think of you Jeff: hope you are enjoying this crazy blue ride with the Royal faithful.

  9. Jeff: So glad to see you in print at Imonk again. Praying for your return to health. Like so many of us this age who came to faith in the Jesus People movement of the 1970’s; I’ve had similar experiences to yours. Young and foolish and prideful, but full of zeal for the Lord. In that first flush of new conversion excitement; that “first love”. The deconstruction of self for me began in earnest in December 2012 when I was laid off of the job I held for 25 years. All of a sudden I’m not Mike the Geologist anymore. Who am I, what am I, what do I do now? They don’t give full time jobs to sixty year olds anymore even with all the experience in the world. You’re too old, past sell-by, not worth the investment, too expensive. Boy, howdy, I had heard all that about men deriving their meaning through their work; but I thought I’m immune from all that. Spirit filled Christian don’t-cha-know, overcomer, victorious, faith filled, able to leap tall trials in a singel bound (Mike stops here and laughs and cries at the same time). I’m really happy you’ve found a home, Jeff. Home sounds good. Evangelicalism really is a Job’s friend. Thank God for InternetMonk.

  10. I can appreciate that Jeff, for reasons unknown, has felt he needs to join the schismatic western branch of Christianity to feel whole, and I do wish him the best.

    Unlike him, I have ALWAYS known how utterly ‘small’ I am,and how utterly LARGE God is, I didn’t need any organization to tell me that.

    I also realized, many decades ago….that I AM ‘catholic’……so much so that I have felt no urge or leaning to become ‘particular’, as in ‘roman catholic’…..but I guess different people have differing internal motivations.

    W…..I love your poem.

    Blessings,

  11. “What I discovered through the whole process was that I was really Catholic all along.”

    What a fascinating statement. And what irony there is in giving up and God meeting you there. Michael Spencer wrote somewhere about pulling back from finding the right “theology” to find the simple place where one is simply loved by Jesus. Perhaps this is what you mean.

  12. Jeff, it’s good to see your name in a byline on this site again, and I’m glad things are working out for you in the Catholic Church.

  13. OldProphet says:

    Lord, I’m thankful that Jeff has found his tribe. May he be fruitful and receive blessing there. I pray that You will look down and by the wondrous power of your Spirit will heal him. I ask that you destroy and cast out all diseased and foreign things that are attacking his body and cast them far away. May your power heal his lungs and make them new as you did to the lepers. Let his healing be a sign to all that you are a God of miracles who loves us and cares for us. Amen

  14. Jeff you are one of the many reasons why I love IMonk. I deeply cherish seeing your writing Its refreshing, beautiful, and nice. I’m grateful for your story and hope you find peace in the Catholic faith. Also, you’re in my thoughts, my heart and prayers. Keep us posted, shoot me an email from time to time. You are so deeply loved by so many. We’re walking with you bro!

  15. “What I discovered through the whole process was that I was really Catholic all along.”

    Three or four other people picked up on that sentence. I will add that to me this was the “money shot” of the whole piece, but also the one I would dearly like to see unpacked.

    Grace and peace to you my brother.

    May God make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.

  16. It is good to hear from you Jeff, if even a brief postscript.

    You’re the Tim Hardaway of Internet Monk.

    (Please, someone humor me by acknowledging the cheesy reference).

  17. That Other Jean says:

    I suppose I don’t get the existential terror of being an inhabitant of a tiny dot in an infinite universe. I’m with Carl Sagan:
    http://www.exquisiteartz.co.uk/ekmps/shops/exquisiteartz/images/carl-sagan-quote-the-pale-blue-dot.-space-print-poster-canvas.-sizes-a1-a2-a3-a4-3813-p.jpg

    And yet on that pale blue dot, we exist. Surely that is a miracle.

    I’m happy for you, Jeff, that you found a home in the Catholic church. It’s good to hear from you again.