April 24, 2014

The Second Turning: or How JT, a Field of Dreams, a Marble Tomb, and Learning to Do Nothing Saved My Life

JT Concert

This is a book about the second turning.

In the first turning, a Christian experiences the transformation from a natural person to a spiritual person. Instead of “self” being the center of life — exploring, cultivating, adoring it — God becomes the center. This miracle is brought forth by the Holy Spirit giving us new life in Christ. It is a necessary, indispensable, basic step.

But it is only a first step. The work of the Holy Spirit should not stop here but lead to a second turning in which the spiritual person again becomes natural.

- Walter Trobisch
Foreword to Out of the Saltshaker and into the World

* * *

I first read Walter Trobisch’s words over thirty years ago. They struck me then as extraordinarily wise and needful for my life. I have spent the last three decades making the second turning.

When I had a spiritual awakening in my late teens, I found myself in a new world of fundamentalist Christian faith and practice. Let me talk about one aspect of that world today. One major theme that drove me was the concept of “giving up things for Jesus.” I honestly couldn’t tell you how much of that came from the preaching and teaching I was receiving and how much was my own imperfect understanding of what this new life was all about. All I know is that I had the idea that following Jesus meant leaving the world behind — and that meant giving things up.

So I did. I gave up playing baseball. I gave up listening to “secular” music. I gave up any thought of pursuing a career outside of “ministry.” I gave up “small ambitions” and set myself on a course to change the world by signing up for Bible college and promising to follow Jesus, even to the ends of the earth. I had made the “first turning.”

I spent a year in community college and still remember the conversation when some of my former teammates begged and argued with me to play baseball for the college team, but my mind was made up. That was behind me now. I had given it up for Jesus.

I can still see the view from my dorm room at Bible college. It looked down on the music building next door. A dumpster stood along the walk between our buildings. One day after I had gone home for a weekend I brought back boxes of classic 60′s and 70′s rock albums and with fear and trembling threw them in that dumpster. We couldn’t listen to them at school anyway (one of 10,000 rules there), and I just couldn’t justify keeping them any longer. It was clear to me that they weren’t compatible with a life with Jesus that was defined by hearing his call, climbing out of the boat, and leaving the nets behind.

The fact that I was in Bible college was due to a concession by my father to his headstrong son. He gave me a very good set of arguments as to why I should go to college or university and develop skills and perhaps a career that could stand me in good stead if my enthusiasm for ministry wore off or if it did not work out for some reason. Of course, I knew better because I thought I had heard Jesus call me to give all that up. So I didn’t listen to my father, a choice I’ve often regretted.

That was my understanding of the life of following Jesus. Give up the old. Lose your life. Die to self. Separate from the world.

Of course, there was a positive purpose too, for all this giving up things. But that purpose was narrowly defined: it was the Bible, full time ministry, and that was it. I had no idea that Jesus had any bigger purpose for my life than that. I did not understand that Jesus’ goal for me was that I would flourish in him as a forgiven human being in this age and in the new creation, and that through that grace I would extend love to my neighbors and be fully engaged in this life as a person of faith, hope, and love.

In order for me to get on that path, a second turning was needed. The one who had been awakened to the spiritual life now had to become natural again. Let me tell you briefly about four experiences along the curve of the second turning.

james-taylor-photo-1It wasn’t until the late 1980′s that I returned with any sustained seriousness to listening to “secular” music. I distinctly remember going into the public library in Waukegan, Illinois and checking out James Taylor’s cassette of Never Die Young. I had always been a fan of his and occasionally listened to his songs, but now I wore that tape out, and — ask my kids — car rides were never the same. This was the beginning of the renewal of my love for singer-songwriters and the kind of music that meets at the intersection of folk, rock, and pop.

Emerging from the ghetto of listening only to “Christian” music (except for the classical music and a few folk singers that had at least kept me connected — barely — to a lifeline to the world outside), I began to listen to the words, thoughts, and emotions of a broader spectrum of the human race. Many of the singers to whom I was listening, like JT, were people of my generation who were singing about my experiences too. I became more reflective about my own life and more connected to the world around me. A bit of humanity returned to my heart, and continues to flow into it through all kinds of music to this day.

And then there was baseball. Though I followed my MLB teams to a degree, baseball had virtually disappeared from my life as an area of major interest. Then I had a little boy. A little blond-haired boy who loved sports and played as hard as hard could be. It wasn’t long before Little League became a major part of our life. The ball fields became our neighborhood, and our friends there became as entwined in our lives as our friends at church were.

I was reminded of what it was like to grow up in a small Midwest town and be part of a community. I learned more of what it meant to be a Christian (and a pastor!) relating to people outside the walls and programs of a church. I learned how to ask my neighbors to forgive me when I was short-tempered or inconsiderate, or when my words were out of line. I learned how to listen to my neighbors when they wanted to talk about life with someone they assumed might care. I learned that games are not a waste of time or an idle amusement but a context for life and love.

My life and thinking was so narrow and small, so constricted in that world of evangelical churchianity! My refusal to study at a college or university that offered a broad range of subjects and experiences had limited my perspective on the world and had stunted my education. When Gail and I were asked to be members on a mission team to India in 1996, little did we know how much our minds and hearts would be expanded. Not only did our view of God grow greatly, but our appreciation for the world’s wonders, the diversity of its peoples, the intricacies of its history, and the extent of its brokenness and needs grew exponentially as well.

I also learned that word “neighbors” includes the man who goes with his wife for a picnic each week on the manicured lawn of the Taj Mahal, a monument to undying love. There they sit, sharing love and conversation and experiencing romance and wonder just like people all over the world do.

taj-mahalI have never seen the world the same since standing in front of that marble tomb, since arriving on our first flight into New Delhi and seeing a crowd of thousands milling outside the terminal of the airport, smelling the ever-present and indescribable pungent aromas that awaken all of one’s senses, attending a Hindu wedding, sharing tea with simple brothers and sisters in Christ, seeing a river rise to incredible heights in monsoon season, marveling at the breathtaking green hues of the rice fields, visiting Dickensian style orphanages, meeting and talking and praying with lepers and the nuns who serve them, and dealing with the discomforts and epiphanies of world travel.

On these and several other mission trips I was privileged and helped by many to take, I received much of that education, much of that understanding and perspective that I had foolishly declined pursuing before.

Perhaps the most gracious gift of God in helping me around the second turn was the privilege of being with a family in a time of loss. A gifted high school player in our baseball community was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This was before I served as a hospice chaplain, when my time at the church was coming to an end, and when I would soon move into another career of learning to be a friend and pastor to the dying and their families. This was, to this point, the most profound experience of my life, and I could write for days detailing its importance for me and my family.

The funny thing to me about the whole experience, looking back, is that I really didn’t do a damn thing. I just went to the hospital, sat with the family, engaged in conversation and occasionally said a prayer. Over a year and a half we became good friends with a deep bond. Life has obviously never been the same for this family and they bear an indelible grief. But the experience changed me too. It is no exaggeration to say that I learned more sitting with them and watching the community rise up to support them through their ordeal than I learned in Bible college, seminary, and years of ministry in various churches.

Funny it was, because by that time, you see, I had been in pastoral ministry for about 25 years. But it was only then, I think now, that I really became a pastor, that is, a pastor who was successfully negotiating (by God’s grace) the second turning. Before that experience, I think I saw “pastor” as what I did. I came to see that a “pastor” is what I am. It is not merely my career path, my occupational title, my position or function. I am a pastoral person. It is my identity, not a role. It’s what it means for me to be fully human. And whether or not I ever serve in a church, or if I were to lose my chaplain job tomorrow, or if I were never to mount a pulpit or serve the Lord’s Supper again, I would still be “Pastor Mike.”

This “Pastor Mike” wasn’t formed by what I gave up. Some of that was a necessary part of the “first turning.” New converts need a period of separation from the past, a “boot camp” experience of sorts to help us realize we’re in a new world. That’s fine. But boot camp is designed to end in short order. What really forms us comes after that: when we learn to embrace life from a new perspective.

For me, it took a little music, a few games, a bit of education, and a lot of doing nothing. And I’m still making my way around that second turn.

Comments

  1. JoanieD says:

    Beautiful post, Chaplain Mike.

    I don’t think we have heard much about your time in India. I would be interested in hearing more sometime.

  2. Adrienne says:

    Outstanding post Chaplain/Pastor Mike ~ did I laugh at the dumpster thing, My entire collection of Beatles LP’s went into the dumpster.

    “The one who had been awakened to the spiritual life now had to become natural again.” EXACTLY – PERFECT description.

    Pope Francis has said that priests/pastors should be a shepherd who has the smell of the sheep on him. I think that is what you experienced “just sitting” with people in their time of loss and grief.

    It’s funny. When I had my “first turning” my brother got so angry with me that we barely spoke. Now that we are getting to know one another again I felt free to ask him why the anger. His answer was very interesting, “Because you seemed to turn your back on everything else.” He was right – I thought that is what I was supposed to do. I am so glad for the second turning.

  3. Thanks for sharing your journey with us Pastor Mike. You are indeed a pastor … not just to those you see face to face, but to all of us who read your words daily. Thanks for all you do.

  4. Perhaps we should be more patient with some of the younger leaders in evangelicalism, who are themselves working through their ‘second turning’, and may not have yet negotiated the mind-opening experiences which come with growing older.

  5. “Before that experience, I think I saw “pastor” as what I did. I came to see that a “pastor” is what I am. It is not merely my career path, my occupational title, my position or function. I am a pastoral person. It is my identity, not a role. It’s what it means for me to be fully human. And whether or not I ever serve in a church, or if I were to lose my chaplain job tomorrow, or if I were never to mount a pulpit or serve the Lord’s Supper again, I would still be “Pastor Mike.”

    Thanks so much for this. As a pastor who no longer serves “on staff” in a church, I have moments where I wonder if I’m being useful in ministry…Then I pause and consider the people I’ve been able to truly know and love since I left the pulpit. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have had time for them when “pastor” was my occupation.

    Here’s a synopsis of my pastoral life since I left church employment…

    - I’ve enjoyed watching Braves baseball at least once every week during the season
    - viewed numerous movies that weren’t rated “PG”, and didn’t have a Bible study based on their content; felt no shame or guilt for doing so
    - held cookouts for friends and neighbors without the idea that I needed to use the events as “evangelism opportunities”‘
    - done premarital counseling and weddings for several couples who couldn’t find a pastor to do their ceremonies because they lived together, though those same pastors told them they were in sin because they weren’t married (I hear rumor that a former pastor I served with is quite critical of me for doing this)
    -officiated at funerals for older members of my rural community that had been forgotten by pastors “on staff” at local churches
    -welcomed two healthy, beautiful baby girls into the world, though one former pastor told me God’s blessings might be withheld if I didn’t follow my calling to “be” a pastor
    -discovered and enjoyed the richness of fixed hour prayer, and skipped out on fixed hour prayer without feeling guilty
    -haven’t received one phone call in four years complaining that I, as a youth/college pastor, didn’t organize a trip to Six Flags or the beach for some sweet mom’s unruly teenager; nor have I had any instruction from leadership that I need to do a teaching series on bad language, because the pastor’s nephew and his friends have been heard telling dirty jokes.
    -skip church occasionally to stay home and watch princess movies in bed with my baby girls. Movies by Disney. The same Disney that has “Gay Day”. And enjoyed the movies they produced.
    - wrote and taught series on spiritual topics that really interest me…the liturgical calendar, liturgy, sacraments, etc.
    -listened to Muddy Waters to the point that it drives my wife insane

    Since “pastor” is no longer my occupation, I can safely say that my pastoral life is richer…Would it be sacrilegious to reframe that thought by saying, “I got my mojo workin’ “?

    • Lee: I watch only the Brewers or Cardinals play baseball, other than that, I identify with everthing you said. Isn’t it freeing to live this way? Especially ” …without the idea that I needed to use the events as evangelistic opportunities.” That is a great statement.

      • I must admit, I am a closet Cardinals fan, from the Gashouse Gang to current times. Something about the uni’s….

    • Josh in FW says:

      And you minister to the post-evangelicals via thoughtful blog posts.

  6. As a second career pastor negotiating my own second turning, I thank you. Your description of your experience resonates with me.

  7. Read that JT will be on Amy Grant’s new album.

  8. I love your term “the second turning.” It’s like after being a Christain for a while, we remember what you might call the vocational call to just being a human. We remember that it’s okay to be a person.

    We go to our secular jobs, not for the glory of God, or to evangelize all those nonbelieving coworkers, but just because we need to pay the bills and feed our families. We set out to become things like doctors, engineers, construction workers, salespeople, not to “advance the Kingdom,” but because we’re wired to enjoy and be good at that type of job. We (sometimes) eat healthy and exercise, not because our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, but simply because it’s good to take care of yourself.

    A big part of what you’re talking about means learning to live life without needing to justify everything with Christianese.

    • “We go to our secular jobs, not for the glory of God, or to evangelize all those nonbelieving coworkers, but just because we need to pay the bills and feed our families. We set out to become things like doctors, engineers, construction workers, salespeople, not to “advance the Kingdom,” but because we’re wired to enjoy and be good at that type of job. We (sometimes) eat healthy and exercise, not because our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, but simply because it’s good to take care of yourself.”

      And yet, could we not say that when you do these things, you are glorifying God, even if not consciously trying to do so?

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    When I had a spiritual awakening in my late teens, I found myself in a new world of fundamentalist Christian faith and practice. Let me talk about one aspect of that world today. One major theme that drove me was the concept of “giving up things for Jesus.” I honestly couldn’t tell you how much of that came from the preaching and teaching I was receiving and how much was my own imperfect understanding of what this new life was all about. All I know is that I had the idea that following Jesus meant leaving the world behind — and that meant giving things up.

    So how many years of your life did those locusts eat?

    That was my understanding of the life of following Jesus. Give up the old. Lose your life. Die to self. Separate from the world.

    Of course, there was a positive purpose too, for all this giving up things. But that purpose was narrowly defined: it was the Bible, full time ministry, and that was it.

    Eight hundred years ago, you would have taken vow after vow and disappeared within the walls of a monastery never to emerge again, separating from the world into “full time ministry” for the rest of your life.

  10. This is awesome, CM, thank you!! I always appreciate the musical story of those who, at one time or another, believed secular music was “wrong”. It was one of the thorns in my childhood, one I still carry with me today, and one that started to jab and bleed when I stopped running to return Home. So many misconceptions I carried in my ol’ rebel heart and music was a biggie. I really figured God would demand me to give up my love for the genre’s across the board that I’d fallen in love with and make me listen to Christian music only. Sigh. But alas, He pushes through, with gentleness and grace, and rises above those horrid misconceptions, taking us along with Him for the ride of our life! To this day I am stunned, in a giddy girly sort of way, when He opens the path up to some new song or artist. It’s like He continues to remind me that it isn’t about secular or Christian, it’s about Him giving my heart a new perspective and enjoying His gifts with that in sight. My most recent funtabulous finds are The Avett Brothers and Trampled by Turtles – good stuff!

  11. Great post, Cap’n! Maybe your rock records will run into my R&B collection up there in vinyl heaven. If one can get away with saying such to a Lutheran, you do good work!!!

  12. “The funny thing to me about the whole experience, looking back, is that I really didn’t do a damn thing. I just went to the hospital, sat with the family, engaged in conversation and occasionally said a prayer.”

    I remember a post that you shared a while ago about one of your chaplaincy experiences and I thought to myself the exact thing I’ve quoted above. I was amazed that it seemed like the only thing you actually did was have conversations with the family; that there wasn’t any sort of mystical or magical “power” that one needed to have in order to be a hospice chaplain other than simply having an interest in the person and their family and building a relationship with them.

    I think that all people really need when they are going through a tough time is for someone to be there with them and be a friend, not someone who has all the answers or knows how to “fix” the problem. The stories you have shared of your chaplaincy cases have made me realize this. So I thank you for them. It has made life much simpler for me.

    *And by the way, when I read “JT” I thought Justin Timberlake, not James Taylor. Yeah, I’m not old. :)

  13. When I became a believer in 1974, I took all my secular albums down to the “Drag” in Austin, TX, opened the trunk and either sold them or gave them away–Beatles, Led Zeppelin, PP&M, Hollies, progressive country (pre-Austin City Limits), Carole King, and even John Denver and (gasp) JT. Sigh. Then it was all Christian all the time in the fledgling but rapidly growing CCM movement.

    I have been “in ministry” (missions, church, parachurch) all my life, and directing our own home and parenting ministry since 1994. The “second turning” for me probably started when I gave myself permission to enjoy country music in the 90s. At 62, I’m still turning, but I must confess that although I appreciate artists of any ilk (Paul Simon comes to mind), I still prefer listening to indie acoustic Christian artists. And there are definitely limits to what my spirit can tolerate on screen.

    For me, the second turning has been getting free from the restrictive “Christian law” of conservative evangelicalism, and finding the grace-driven and faith-shaped life of freedom in Christ. That more “natural” Christianity is what I hope I can offer to others, not just in the real world, but also in the unreal world of cultural evangelicalism. For me, the barometer of the second turning has been finding freedom in Christ.

    I think Paul had this in mind in Romans 14: “Therefore, do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” Happiness comes from that finding of “natural” freedom in Christ.

  14. You truly are a shepherd. Thank you.

  15. melissab says:

    This was so good. I think I’m on my 3rd or 4th turning. Boy, looking back, I was insufferable when I “re-found” Jesus after a long time wandering around without any moorings. It took a long time to realize it was OK just to be me in my corner of the world.

  16. Danielle says:

    Thanks for posting this. It’s always exciting to see Walter Trobisch quoted!

    Also, your reflection really hits home. I suspect that most of this blog’s evangelical/post-evangelical readers know just the mindset you write about, intimately. Everything exists to be given up. Everything is probably evil. I’d better be pure. Being sold out means having no passion besides one only. Every service, I should feel convicted. And give up some other thing. I still remember listing to a commencement speech–at a liberal arts college, oddly–in which the speaker told us that the rest of our lives would be dominated by the reoccuring dilemma of resisting temptation. (His exact example was: whether to pick up a porno mag from the stairs in a hotel.) Now, no doubt resisting temptation matters, but as a dominant framework for viewing life… how very depressing. My test for success is all the things I have not done? Another speaker told us we have learned all we needed to know and needed to “hold out” against the evil in the world. Again, how sad. No beauty to be discovered “out there?” None?

    This misses out, I think, because it confuses spiritual formation with self-obsessed closing off from the world. It looks like self-denial; but if so, why so much fretting? And it’s an outlook tinged with so much fear and negativity. The result is, as you wrote, a tendency to turn from listening ” to the words, thoughts, and emotions of a broader spectrum of the human race” and the challenge of cultivating real love and connection to others, and to creation more generally. It is hard to make beautiful music when you are constantly worried about the evils of music.