December 15, 2017

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation Part I (Reflections on Sabbatical and What I Learned)

Technically my sabbatical isn’t over for another week, and I won’t be working for several more weeks, but I am eager to start writing some of my reflections on this time in my life.

On the last day of Cornerstone, as I finished my last seminar on “Transparency and Vulnerability In Community,” a woman was waiting to talk to me with several other questioners. I spoke with each one, and then came to her.

She began talking about her husband and, to be brief and to the point, she was basically talking about me.

His church and ministry experiences, his feelings and responses, what he was doing to cope….it was all very familiar.

She was deeply concerned for him, and wanted to know what to do.

It was a poignant moment for me, because it was a moment to see not only if I had learned anything these past seven weeks, but if what I had learned was now inside me, part of me.

I told her that I was on much the same road as her husband, and that I’d had many of the same feelings of panic and confusion at the loss of familiar anchors and markers. I wasn’t sure where it was all going to come out, as I was just beginning to learn how to navigate without so many of the assumptions that had guided me for 30+ years of ministry.

But I told her that I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t afraid to be myself anymore. I wasn’t afraid of the consequences of following Jesus to the places of honesty and vulnerability. I was no longer afraid of the religious systems and their custodians that had alway promised to give me security and purpose if I would just cooperate. I was no longer going to live my life as the guy who, because he was a preacher, took everyone’s expectations as the script for my happiness.

I was no longer in doubt that my real self, my true self was the one place I could be sure God would meet and love me.

I told her how important her encouragement would be to her husband. That he was probably feeling very rejected and alone after being the center of attention in church for so long and then losing those relationships. I said that I’d learned that God sometimes has to separate us from the things we depend on so that we can understand his love for us. In those times, we can begin to see clearly that what we’ve been holding onto and calling God probably wasn’t.

She started crying. I completely understood why. She loves this man, and she feels like she can’t reach him as he spirals downward out of his certain trajectory toward what appears to be a ministry systems failure resulting in a crash.

In fact, the only way for God to take you in his hand, take away your fear of flying or of falling, to show you that it’s his mercy holding you up, not the plane you’re flying, is to let you fall.

I read it in an amazing, life altering quote from Walter Brueggemann in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church:

“The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you…by the grace of God.” — Walter Brueggemann

I quoted Brueggemannn to her with my eyes closed. It was hard to say it, because it is so true, it’s like the shining of the sun up close.

God loves your husband so much that he won’t let him draw his significance and identity from all the things he’s depended on before. There is something new in front of him. I have no idea what it is, but this is the path. Yes, the one that leads under the church bus, and out the other side to an actual world where happy people have been living all the time we’ve being in this awful script.

I gave her a hug and told her to write me. And as I walked away, I realized it was for that couple, but it was also all for me. It was me talking to a stranger, but it was really another voice speaking to me and my own journey.

It was time for the long drive home, to face a new day and whatever it brings. To face reality and to be the person God created, loves and delights in. One thing I can be certain of: I’ve left much behind, and what I am bringing with me is not what I took away. There’s been a house-cleaning, and some of what was very familiar is gone.

God has lightened the load, and he’s reminded me that the life he’s given me isn’t the sum total of what others think or what others have convinced me to believe. Life comes as a gift from Jesus, and there’s no apologies for what it does in me. The life God has for me isn’t on tap and it’s not under the control of people. It’s his free outpouring to everyone who is thirsty.

There’s a reason He said “don’t be afraid” more than anything else. Following Jesus is scary, because you can’t hold on to much else except him.

Comments

  1. From what I have found working with people who fear flying, the automatic responses to what the unconscious mind regards as danger persist, regardless of faith. I believe they are supposed to, in order to protect us from things we can’t react consciously to quickly enough.

    For example, when walking in the woods, if you are about to step on a snake, hormones are released to cause you to freeze in your tracks BEFORE you can seee the snake; it takes 1/30th of a second for the eye to work. If you had to wait until your eye worked, the snake is so quick it would have bitten you.

    In a profound moment with another person in which there is a heart-to-heart connection, other hormones are released (oxytocin) which stops the anxiety hormones from being produced.

    In dealing with these automatic responses, what I have found is that if a person relives that moment, and quickly thinks of just one scene of flying and returns to the profound moment, the two become linked if this is repeated daily for a week or so.

    Each scene from flying needs to be linked in this way, so that — after doing this — protection from those automatic feelings is established.

    I have worked with many people whose faith is unquestioned to provide this comfort. So I don’t see it as a test of faith, but just as a test of the way we were designed (long before airplanes).

    If you or your readers would like to talk it over, my email address is tom@fearofflying.com and a video on dealing with these feelings is at http://www.fearofflying.com/video_hs.shtml

  2. Thanks for the Brueggemann quote. Describes my experience over the past four years. This is a wider spread experience than any of us really know. All of us are being forced to leave the comforts of institutionalism for the dynamism of life. It is healthy and requires us to be more open to the care of others. It is God’s grace at work.

  3. Ryan Cordle says:

    Thanks to Capt. Tom Bunn, I am no longer afraid of “flying away” during the rapture!

    I’m sorry; had to do it. This was a great post, and I love the Brueggemann quote.

  4. Thank you.

    I know how scary it is being on a faith journey, when your goal is hidden and your companions are changing.

  5. Bryan K says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for years, and it has ministered to me on many occasions. But Michael, you simply don’t know how much I needed to hear what you said in this post, and how much I needed to hear it right at this moment.

    I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday School class for a couple of years now. I’ve got a great group of people, people who love, accept, pray for, and support each other. They say they appreciate my teaching, but I feel I’ve learned far more from them than they have from me. I’ve also taught a number of Discipleship Training classes at my church, and I’ve been a leader in the FAITH evangelism training. I’ve been doing sound for services and special events at the church for 16 years now. I say all of this to show that I deeply love and am deeply involved with my Church.

    But some members of the church, none in my SS class, have some problems with me, and would like to see me removed as a SS teacher. The first incident occurred a couple of years ago when I was teaching a DT class on Revelation. Someone in the class made an offhand comment about how they didn’t see how anyone could believe in evolution, and that anyone who believed in evolution must be an atheist. I pointed out that I accepted the evidence for evolution, and that Christians had many different views on the subject of origins and the interpretations of Genesis one. I then moved back on topic to Revelation. The following day I received a call from the associate pastor saying that he and the pastor wanted to meet with me. A few members of the class had gone to the AP to complain about what I said re Evolution. Note that they didn’t come directly to me, as Jesus commands. The meeting with the Pastor and the AP went well, but half of the class didn’t show up for the rest of the sessions. (Interesting side note: it was the younger members of the class that dropped out. The older, 50+, people stayed on.)

    This past week, I got a call from our AP asking if he could meet with me. There were two problems this time. Some church member or members saw me having a beer with dinner at a local restaurant, and was apparently disturbed by that fact. Again, instead of following Jesus’s command and coming to me personally, he went to the church leadership. More dramatically, some church members took issue with the lone “Obama ’08” bumper sticker I have on my car. One member got into the AP’s face, stuck a finger in his chest, and said something to the effect of, “No one who supports that man should be allowed to teach in this church! You need to do something about it!” Of course, these people didn’t come to me directly. The meeting with the AP went well, and I told him that I had prayed dilligently about the matter, but I had not been convicted to change anything. I also told him that if he and the pastor ever thought that my views diverged far enough from what they think those of a leader at our church should be, I would willingly step down. He said he was not asking me to do that, but appreciated that I would offer. I also told him that I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to directly discuss the issues with the people that had complained about me, as the scripture commands. He said he would pass that request on to them.

    This whole recent incident has discouraged me greatly. My commitment and leadership ability is being questioned by people who don’t know me, and won’t take the time to sit down and talk with me to find out what I really believe and where I really stand. What concerns me most is that one day our church leadership will decide that I do need to step down as a Sunday School teacher. I fully understand that our pastor is the leader of the church, and I will willingly abide by any decision he makes. But it bothers me that these things are even issues. It bothers me more that those who complain about me don’t abide by Jesus’s commands and come to me directly with their concerns, that they hold resentment against me that is, in my opinion, undeserved.

    So you can see why I needed to hear what you said in this post. Thank you.

    P.S. I’d ask anyone reading this to please, if you can, remember me in your prayers during this trying time. Thanks.

  6. Bryan K

    Such stories……

    You know this is the story of so many people. Those who are trying to serve Jesus in the institutional church are learning the price. So sad.

    Have prayed.

    What this has to do with Jesus completely misses me. We are about beer and Obama, not the Kingdom of God. Hard to fathom.

    MS

  7. Mark Palmieri says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes!!! This stuff is what I call “necessary love” from our Father and Lord Jesus Christ who are LOVE! What is hard for me to grasp at times is that EVERYTHING God allows in my life…is LOVE. God is love, therefore everything comes to us from his very being, or who and what He IS, He is love. It is all meant to help and bring us to Him. How great is our God?…..He is the GREATEST!!!

  8. Hey Bryan, if you’re willing to relocate I’d love for you to come and teach in my church even if I might disagree with you on some stuff.

  9. Bryan K

    My prayers are with you.

    I’ve been there, done that myself. I was accused of not being Biblical because I chose to write a letter to the pastor, rather than confront him face to face. (Which I would have been willing to do to talk about the points that I had written.)

    Your sister in Christ

  10. Bryan K,
    I am praying for you as well. I am troubled by the fact that the pastor and AP didn’t tell those people to talk to you directly at the outset. I just dealt with a situation this past week, where a person had spread some stories about another in the church. I told the young man to go and talk to her directly and let her know that he was doing so in obedience to Matthew 18. She is unrepentant but also not a church member, so there is nothing else to be done about it really, but he learned a great deal from the experience. We had a good talk about forgiveness and how to deal with people. He is a fairly new believer so this was a challenge for him for sure. It didn’t go as I would have hoped, but his obedience to God’s way of doing things really made an impression in his life and his walk. It’s pretty telling that the teaching on how to handle those situations in Matthew 18 is followed by Christ’s teaching on forgiving people over and over and over again.
    Hang in there brother. I will pray for you every time I read back on this thread and as often as I remember besides that.

  11. This sure makes me glad that I never fit in with one of these little cookie cutter church groups or got my kudos from being one of the “sold out ones” in bible school. Now their loosing their footings and Im helping them along by giving them books like “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism”. Those guys dished out some serious snob and Im loving going down to the Catholic Church because its increasing the speed spin cycle on the old matrix that produced all this B.S.

  12. A few weeks ago a priest told me that sometimes God takes away graces so that we can grow. I had never thought of that before.

    And now this article…

  13. Paul in the GNW says:

    Michael,

    I am glad you have come to a more comfortable place spiritually, or maybe come to be more comfortable in a different spiritual space. Either way, I keep praying for you.

    Paul

  14. bob pinto says:

    The picture of the man at the baggage counter spoke volumes.

    The baggage that was supposed to make the journey and destination comfortable became detrimental somehow.

    The rules of the game keep changing. I used to define thinking as taking certain incomplete pieces of evidence and coming to a conclusion.

    I now regard thinking as getting totally conflicting pieces of evidence and then coming to a conclusion. No matter what you do, you’re wrong.

    A headache often has an unknown cause. But all you get is the headache and you have to figure out what caused it.

    “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

    Mother Teresa

  15. Don’t have time right now to read the comments, but (thank you) times 1000 for this post. I’m dealing a lot with self-definition these days, and this post was very helpful — and the Brueggemann quote crystallized everything you were saying.

  16. Michael:

    Thanks for reminding us that we believe in a God who sinks our ships and takes away our security blankets. This is precisely how God saves us, not by means of some deus ex machina, let alone through some inane program given us by a guy in a $1,200.00 suit, with pearly white teeth, and perfect hair, and slim, tanned wife wearing a mini-skirt with big breasts. In fact, that guy just might be Satan, our accuser. This accuser holds up the mirror and shows us that standing there in our Oakland As t-shirt, jeans, baldness, off-white, slightly crooked teeth, and paunch that we are quite unattractive. Hence, we need to follow his program that will makes us more like him, the worldly ideal of perfection.

    It is through all this, God shows us Christ crucified, His Son poured out for our sakes. In this we see not only our need for Him, but for each other to be companions-on-the-way.