Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

One of my favorite essays I’ve ever read was Brian Keene’s Bleed With Me. It was about what artists have to do for the sake of their art, which is essentially to bleed for others. Our pain, our hearts, our souls laid bare in order to convey the truth of art. Put another way, it is the vulnerability and transparency of the artist that is the source for the best art experience.

Admittedly, there are varying levels of transparency. Sometimes the emotional truth is easier to get to through the distance of fiction. Even on my blog, it’s still fairly safe, after all, it is my platform with moderated comments (though that doesn’t stop the occasional troll). Encountering people in the real world is an entirely different matter because be it blog or story, once it’s sent off, it’s in the hands of the readers for them to experience as they will.

Transparency is a learned skill. People might be born open, but we learn to protect ourselves, to shut people out, and build walls. Personally, I’ve been blessed to have a half dozen pastors who get in my face, hold me to account, and walk with me (not engage in CYA meetings to say they have checked in). I am also in a recovery program. And let me tell you, I’ve had to confess that I suck at transparency. In fact, I’m convinced that I need an introductory program of steps to make it to the first 12, just to get me to the sharing part.

As much as we may sometimes want to, we can’t live alone. We have blind spots. We’re biased to our own stories, positively and negatively. Live life outside of our paradigm. People who grow up abused may consider that the norm until they develop relationships with people outside their experience. We live from a place of fear, wanting to protect ourselves from pain. For many, that means suppressing emotions or otherwise leading a flat emotional life. We have a distrust emotions, for some it’s a Charismatic paranoia, afraid of letting emotions sweep us away as a part of the faith experience. Step outside of our mindset of how people ought to behave and deal with how they do, meet them where they are.

So how do we begin to access our heart? How do we begin ending that awkward dance of disconnectedness? We long to feel close to another, be it intimacy with God or simply a connection with others, yet live in the shadows of not knowing what to share, or fear over-sharing and chasing people away. It’s funny, some people need conflict to access their hearts while others are so conflict averse, they find it easier to walk away from relationships. We have to come to a place where we learn how to listen and know ourselves. Sometimes we’re so numb we have to begin by praying to have our hearts woken up, to have the fear broken, and be released to be the real you. And that’s risky: people may not like the real you. Start with what you know. The power of confession is admitting our failings. There is a power to putting our feelings to words through prayer, sharing our stories of woundedness, and finding healing as we push one another forward.

Moving forward is the key. Some people become stuck and need help to not suffer needlessly for the wrong reasons. Some days it hurts more than others and people cry out. For some, in the superficial sharing, pain can become romanticized, An openness about woundedness brings with it the danger of exhibitionism—an emotional Munchausen syndrome—as if the superficial sharing is the end of the process. While people don’t need to be categorized as being drama queens seeking attention, open wounds don’t heal, so we can’t stop with just airing problems.

Sometimes a person in pain can’t recognize their hurt and nor diagnose a treatment. All they know is that it hurts. We’re all afraid of the pain, none of us wanting it in our lives. We want it to be fixed, ended, to be made better and while we wish we could go back to the way things were or snap our fingers and make everything better, it is a process. One which requires time. The proper community plays a role in this process. Cries for help are met with care, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, fellowship, and in all things, love; all the things that make and should characterize a community. Shared pain stops being paralyzing. In the sharing and bearing, community is build as they carry one another in shared hope, in their common search for Christ.

Learning to stand and walk (not hide) midst of pain and misunderstandings involves allowing the opportunity for people to speak into your life, to walk beside you, to break through our fears and loneliness. To allow others to know what’s going on and pray for you. For those with similar stories to find you and lead you. It allows community to spring up in a time of need and do its job and in so doing the community acts as witnesses and agents of grace and love and peace.

Wounded stories become opportunities in peoples lives. Moments of confession, to reflect on and live out our faith, and to build community if we’re bold enough to wade into another’s pain and story. To do so means we have to move outside of our own preoccupations and agendas and needs and worries. It means a withdrawal of self to allow room for another. It may mean allowing them room to vent, cry, be angry, be silent, rest; in short, to be a safe place.

While we have to move forward in our pain, wholeness can’t be given from one to another. Not a friend, not a romantic interest, not a well-intended seminarian, but only through the blood of Christ. It means washing our own wounds and past, giving them up and letting go of them. It means finding forgiveness, for ourselves as well as others. In so doing, our wounds become occasions for new visions. In our weakness we have a reminder that we can’t do it alone, that we have to move forward while clinging to God’s promises. We need to let the light of His amazing love work through us, holding us together, holding marriages together, dispelling the lies of isolation and abandonment.

We need to know and own our own pain, our own story. Being authentic, raw, and vulnerable is risky. Being a wounded healer means allowing others to enter our lives, connecting their story with yours … without having any idea where this will lead or what it will look like. We can only hope that life on the other side of the journey to wholeness—the journey our of our dark places—will be a much better place.

***

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers
Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant
Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant

We all carry around hurts with us, pain which, left untreated, has a way of settling in and rotting us from the inside like a festering wound. Sadly, hurts and lies have a way of shaping us as we carry them around inside us like an infection. Be we wounded by parents, having felt the cold indifference of friends, the sting of a careless word from a pastor, a sense of abandonment at a critical time, or just the tragedy of life in a fallen world, our stories of what carves out pieces of us are all too similar. As much as our American culture teaches us to “suck it up”, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, eventually we come to the realization that our own strength will only take us so far.

The walking wounded run a risk when we choose to encounter another’s pain. Our instinct may be to flee, find a way to distance ourselves from them, even ostracize them. After all, it’s an emotional risk to put ourselves out there in order to be arms of comfort, ears of compassion. Ultimately, we’re also faced with a two-pronged tension: we can’t find healing in one another, yet who can alleviate suffering without entering into it?

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:3-5

Christ identifies with us in our pain and woundedness. Our stories are His stories from a life He experienced alongside us. Leading us by example, making our story His, knowing our hurts and fears. He lived with eye to hope, no matter how dark it got. Hope provides a glimpse of the destination we wish to reach. Home.

We don’t take away one another’s pain. There’s no way for us to. What we can do is share one another’s pain, bear one another up. It’s messy, there are no universal steps because life, like the people in it, is creatively individual. So we also have to give each other room to move. It’s also from this place of brokenness that is a starting place for a profound journey.

Entering the complexities of our inner lives, our inner journey, involves sifting through and dealing with the muck of transformation. We all want to lead safe and protected lives, yet we aren’t called to safety (another tension we have to live within). Still, we search out a safe place to confess, repent, and heal. Seek those who are safe, possibly those who can relate to our pain, our woundedness. Those who are willing to be raw and failing yet be at one other’s disposal. Muddling through the faith and doubt, light and dark, hope and despair, that often comes with the real inner work of transformation.

And we continue to let Christ in as we pursue an emotional intimacy with Him. Continuously learning to give ourselves over to him. Continuing to wash our past and brokenness in the blood of Christ.

***

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers
Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant
Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers

“…I have found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is the most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others. This has helped me to understand artists and poets who have dared to express the unique in themselves.” –Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person

We are called to be wounded healers taking care of our own wounds, while prepared to treat the wounds of others. The idea of wounded healers led me to Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer which I’ve been meditating on for the last few weeks.

A lot of folks don’t know what to do with folks who are truly hurting. They are quick to label them crazy or drama queens, accuse them of self-aggrandizing behavior. To be fair, condition not always easily recognized, hidden behind walls, retreated to caves to lick wounds (ironic that our instinct is to withdraw from those who would help us). On the flip side, people who are hurting aren’t always the most cooperative of “patients”, often scared or indifferent and stubborn, or whatever else their posture of woundedness, unable to give voice or words to their state of despair or hopelessness. Burdened with the weight of guilt and shame, and self-contempt, they might pull away from people, not wanting to let others see our wounds believing them to be too ugly.

They have a sense of being lost, believing themselves without family or friends or anyone to understand or relate to their plight. As they bottom out, not knowing whether they want to live or die, unable to give any direction (or even perspective) to their story, they become prisoners of their own existence. People feel alone when no one seems to be around to walk through your pain with you, to simply be there to pray with, talk to, comfort. That’s part of the healing power of being present.

A desperate cry demands a response from their brother. Not indifference or isolation, not intellectual platitudes of a well-intentioned seminarian. These are easy emotionally, safe responses, sometimes betraying a hubris and insensitivity, an aloofness to the pain and suffering of others. As Larry Crabb said, “the solution to the problem of disconnection is connection.” To become present to one another means that we have to encounter each other in a very real and very human way. The comfort of presence allows us to smell, feel, hear, and see another. It’s a connection through each other’s story that puts a lie to no one being there, the lie that no one cares. It lets the wounded know that there are people waiting on the other side of the dark time.

We are human and we will fail one another. We can’t and won’t be there perfectly for one another, despite the well-meaning promises between parent and child, spouses, boy/girlfriends, friends. It’s all a part of the mystery of people. They’re so individually … peoplely. It’s easy to point out the failures to draw near to others. We forget, they’re people too, wounded in their own ways, and like the rest of us, have to work through their own fears, hesitations, self-preoccupation, and self-protections in order to reach out to others. It’s why the idea of dealing with people who are deeply wounded and hurting leaves them befuddled, not knowing what to do.

We’re all called to be wounded healers, but it’s hard to lead another out of pain if you’ve never allowed yourself to deal with your own pain. Sometimes you have to head straight into the pain to come out of the other side

Our own emotions—anger, fear, disappointment, resentments, distrust—may keep us from drawing near to our “neighbor” when they are wounded (by themselves or by life). Healing can begin with a simple forgiving embrace, a confession of failure, not justifications and rationalizations. Few people want to keep screaming in the face of their pain. They want someone to listen, to truly listen. Few people don’t hope for recovery, don’t want to be restored or find wholeness, who’d rather find temporary shelter in the attention of their stories. We’re not called to camp out in our woundedness or brokenness, but it is the hope of that promised wholeness keeps us pursuing the way of Jesus.

The gospel story isn’t that we sin and God forgives, or that we’re just sinners. We’re children, heirs, called to a life of joy. We are to make his life our own and be transformed. He is the source of healing, the Balm in Gilead. We are to grow to look like him, not just as the suffering servant, but becoming fully human. And making the journey to become fully human and return home.

***

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers
Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant
Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

Finding Our Way Home

Thinking about my relationship with my wife has—running it through the filter of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son—has made me realize a lot about my relationship with God. And vice versa. When you wander down a dark tunnel, the longer you walk in that darkness, the longer it will take you to find your way out/back again, pure and simple. It’s a long, self-exposing journey.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re all looking for a home where we could feel safe. A place of belonging and rest. Home. God has made His home, a place for us to return to, a place He calls us to. But God is also a jealous love, wanting every part of us all the time.

I know that I struggle with the idea that someone wants to know me, sees me, and still accepts, loves, and pursues me. So the words to that familiar hymn, “prone to wander”, ring true as over and over I have left home. Thoughts, feelings, passions, busyness all take me away from home, from God. Trying to stave off the travails of the human soul, the loneliness and sorrow; fill a hole, desire, and thirst only God could satisfy. Looking for affirmation, validation, appreciation, affection from friends, family, or fans. Not realizing that I can’t look for my true self, my true home, there, I have gone off to find somewhere else what I believed what I couldn’t find at home.

It boils down to we don’t trust in love. It’s hard to. It’s difficult to believe in a love that doesn’t compare, that doesn’t reward, that meets you where you are, as you as, because that’s not what we do and isn’t how our world operates. The world teaches us that love is conditional. That striving for success, popularity, power, denying that love is free, is all part of buying into the belief that you have to earn it. It feeds our doubts about our self-worth.

A lot of people live their lives never fully convinced they are loved as they are. Never be able to love or unable to receive love, or allow ourselves to feel and accept love without strings attached or pre-requisites. Their stories have an eerie similarity to them: their parents may not have given them what they needed, their teachers may not have believed in them or otherwise tore them down, they were abandoned at a critical moment (by parents, peers, or even a church). Whatever was their bedrock for stability was shaken or removed and they learned not to trust.

In God we have an invitation to intimacy, to a safe place to call home. We have a nearly instinctual resistance to him. Our independence, our need to control, prevents us from coming to our senses and falling to our knees. Unwilling to dare to let myself kneel down and be held by a loving God. To believe in the promise of forgiveness. Healing. Wholeness. As the Good Shepherd, God goes out and looks for His lost sheep. With God not content to let us stew in our sin and brokenness, we have to confront the question: if God is trying to find, know, and love me, how am I to let myself be found, be known, and be loved?

Ignoring the place of true love, combined with our need to fill our inner hole, causes us to look elsewhere. The deepest cravings of our hearts demands to be filled, enabling addictions. Our lostness makes us cling to different things to find (self) fulfillment. Chasing after lust confused with love, admiration, food, drugs, sometimes even a friendship can call you away from home, all are deceptive ways of finding self-worth. If we’re running around asking “do you love me? Do you really love me?” of those around us, we’re defined by the world and the loud voices who want us to buy into the lie about ourselves. If we’re hurting and chase a high to numb ourselves from the pain or feel a sense of peace, we’re unable to full experience life. And these have inner consequences as we end up running further and further away from home and the less we’re able to hear the voice of the one who loves and speaks love to us.

Stepping into the kingdom of God means giving up a sense of control. As our lives spiral out of control, as we come to, but haven’t quite arrived at, our end of self moment, we want a sense of control over the burgeoning mess of our lives. The difficult path begins when we let the situation inform and teach us, a process of letting go, dying to fear of not knowing where things will all lead. When we begin to hear a voice that could only be heard when you are willing to feel. When we’re willing to do the hard work of staying in the pain of this world, while in pain, and dealing with the pain.

Accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often harder than giving it because giving it means we’re in control. Anything else means that we are entering into a scary place, like much of faith, and becomes about surrender and trust. We enter into a place beyond earning and deserving. A place of grace. Home.

Coming home is a long, self-exposing journey, part of the spiritual adventure.

And I’m praying for the strength to live out that journey.

God’s Failed Ambassadors

Or Don’t Trip … He Ain’t Through With You Yet

While I was thinking through what I was going to say about “The Story of (My) Christianity”, I was left with a bunch of issues that I struggled with. It’s the whole idea of God sending us to be His ambassadors and then seemingly not being able to equip us adequately for the job. I see it in my church. I see it in my life. I see it in my heart. Shouldn’t there be a more demonstrable difference between “us” and “them”? Why are we still so broken?

A friend of mine put it this way: “If God is to be the all powerful diety he is, why does he not do more to change us when we confess his Lordship over our lives? Yeah, yeah, free will and all that, but still what are we saying when we are calling him “Lord”? Isn’t part of that an invitation for Him to change us? Sure, it takes work on our part, but I could use some help and, if you believe the surveys, so does everyone else. When I look at the Christian community, I see epic fail and it’s really hard for me to just say that it’s all our fault. If we are to be representing Him, and if we are calling Him the Lord of our lives, then I would think we would get more help…and if He isn’t then how can we say the blame is all on us?

We were created in the image of God and declared “good”. Good. We forget that part of things, that as image-bearers, we have inherent worth. We don’t always live up to that potential, what we were created to be. We could look at our place in the greater scheme of things as a matter of us not being able to save ourselves, but that’s not the whole story. We’re invited into a way of life, a life of transformation. We don’t have to remain as we are, mired in the mess of our lives. We can seek a path of wholeness, become humans to be restored in all the dimensions of humanity.

Probably points more to our misunderstanding of God and our relationship with him. We don’t have to be perfect to be dispensers of God’s grace. Martin Luther spoke of Christians as being simultaneously saints and sinners. It has taken me quite a while to understand that God’s not interested in fixed vessels. We have it in our heads that we need to be perfect, have our act together, be the “best” representatives that we can be because how else can we be used by God.

This idea of perfection has crippled my spiritual walk. The Bible seems to not only demand perfection, but it seems to imply that perfection is attainable now. Then someone pointed out to me that I had a screwed up view of “perfection.” When we read the word “perfection” through our modern mindset, we see the Greek ideal of perfection. We can’t attain that. Yet for most of my spiritual life, I was tormented by the guilt of failure because I couldn’t reach this goal of perfection. My life was littered with seemingly endless failures. But when you read perfection more through the eyes of the original audience, you find the Hebrew idea of wholeness. Being complete is something that we can attain.

We are no more immune to sin and temptation than our neighbor, as much as I (and many in the churches) would like to believe otherwise. We’re sick and we need resurrection, divine healing. He calls us to join with Him, to be set free of the lives we’re imprisoned in into a new world, a new way of living. In our imperfection, in our brokenness, we know each other’s pain and weakness—without room for judgment—and can best be there for one another. We can be the consoling arms of God for one another.

Our actions define our eternity. The strongest, most impactful message you can have about your faith is the one we speak with our lives. If we aren’t living it out, it invalidates anything we have to say on the subject. If what we say and how we live don’t match, we’ve probably already lost the battle. There’s the heart of my struggle. I’ve tried to follow Jesus and it’s hard. There’s nothing simple about it. It’s paradoxical. It’s counter-intuitive. Often I feel as if I know the truth, but have no experience of its reality or fail to fully live it out.

God is engaged in a gentle dance with us, wooing us to Him not wanting to force Himself on us, but rather wanting us to freely choose to love Him; to join with His redemptive mission for each other and for creation. He chooses to work through a failed people for reasons we may never understand. We are cracked vessels, works in progress. God doesn’t give up on us … we give up on ourselves. We aren’t defined by our failings and stumbling. We’re defined by how we get back up, bruised knees and all, dust ourselves off, and keep on our journey.

The Faithful Wrath

I don’t know why Wrath James White can’t simply say “Hey Maurice, I miss you. Why don’t you give me a call sometime?” Noooooo, instead he has to go all passive-aggressive on me and write a blog specifically designed to pick an argument with me. (Right, because we all know Wrath’s passive-aggressive … when he’s not being, you know, aggressive-aggressive.)

In the foreward of Orgy of Souls, I wrote that “faith is that sometimes tenuous, sometimes stronger than we think thing that keeps our world in order. [Wrath and I are] both men of faith in our own way, be it faith in ourselves or faith in God. We each are on our own spiritual journey. My faith follows a story, something that especially resonates with me as a writer. However, Wrath’s faith is every bit as rich and varied as my own.”

Why have I described both Wrath and I as men of faith? Because of one of the definitions of faith he cites: complete trust; something that is believed especially with strong conviction. Faith is an intuitive leap to what you choose to believe and how you choose to process the world around you. Any choice of a worldview requires a leap of faith, to believe that your worldview is the “right” one. I believe quest/knowledge journeys begin with a leap of faith, that is, what we choose to put our trust in. For some, it is ourselves (the individual or humanity). For some, it is science (the determination of our senses). For some, it is the spiritual (under the assumption that there is more to this life than presented, both in terms of the spiritual and in terms of after this life). To quote from the blog of my friend, Rich Vincent:

“Christianity does not consist in a series of verifiable and interlocking hypotheses. Nor is it a philosophical system consisting in satisfactory, mutually consistent propositions… the way that truth is sought and engaged with is not through detachment but through a living relationship of faith and love with the object we seek”. The Christian seeks more than “objective truth,” facts, or information. “The goal is not to find information, or even to discern fact, but to bring ourselves, as living subjects, into engagement with reality, culminating ultimately in a participation in the ground of what is real”.

Also, Christians don’t have a monopoly on truth. As Christ himself says, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18.37). In my faith worldview, Christ is the universal truth and all truth leads to him. Faith doesn’t always make sense to me, I think that’s one reason why we’re told to work out our faith in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I can only work out my faith in the doing. I have always seen myself as a soldier, someone who dives in to do the work. Your faith should drive you to action. It has its own dangers as I’m prone to working hard FOR Him, or doing good works for their own sake, rather than working hard to KNOW Him. And it’s the knowing of God that’s at the heart of my faith. Again, to quote from Rich’s blog:

An authentic encounter with the living and eternal God touches both our hearts and our hands. God calls us to nothing less than complete spiritual transformation. Those who desire to simply dabble in religion will get nowhere. Only thoses willing to submit to the rigors of regular acts of self-examination, confession of sin, and deeds of repentance can know deep and lasting change.

An authentic encounter with the living God will never leave us as we are – it will challenge our lifestyles, attitudes, actions, and motivations. The reason is simple: God regularly calls us to change – to repentance. If we are unwilling to change, we harden ourselves to spiritual transformation. Only a humble heart, open to God, ready to admit mistakes, willing to start again can know the fullness of what God desires.

Religion needs to be more than a get out of hell free card and church needs to be more than a collection of folks who huddle together to debate theology and revel in their rightness. The point of Christianity isn’t to make it into heaven, but rather the story we find ourselves in: we’re lost, dying, and in need of new life. Through Christ we’re found, saved, and given a model for a new way of living.

I believe that we’re all people of faith in our own way, it’s just a matter of what we choose to put that faith in, be it in ourselves, science, humanity, or in God. As such, each of us are on our own spiritual journey. There will be times when science will clarify matters of faith just like there will be times when faith can temper our sometimes irrational admiration for the rational. I think we can do more than just make “a” decision and hope that we’re right. We can continue to test what we believe and say we’re about and live out our lives accordingly.

Dark Night of the Soul Part I

Sometimes we’re afraid to show that we’re sad, that we don’t have it all together. We behave like those women from Desperate Housewives. We do the “I’m fine” dance–“how are you?” “I’m fine”–because we don’t want to show any cracks in our walk and we’re not sure that you really want to hear about it if we do. And you know what? Christians are supposed to be happy. At least we’re conditioned to believe that. Why not? We’re supposed to have all the answers. When tragedy pops up, we can have a moment of grief, but we’re supposed to move on fairly quickly. After all, we have the gratitude of salvation and the joy of being forgiven. So somehow prolonged sadness has come to be seen as a lack of faith.

However, some of us find ourselves in places of prolonged sadness. Spiritual ennui. Depression. A dark place where friends, family, and God feel distant. Our Psalm 88 place where darkness is our only friend. Our Job sitting on the mound place, where friends surround you yet you find no consolation in their words. What we aren’t told often enough is that this is a natural step in the critical journey of faith. You see, that conditioning that I was talking about refers to how the main thrust of evangelical thought on getting folks to spiritually progress goes along these phases:

1) to discover and recognize God
2) to start a life of discipleship
3) in order to get to a productive life (which usually translates into find a ministry in the church to get involved with)

For many folks, that’s where the critical journey ends. Well, that’s all fine and good, a “purpose driven life” and all that. I get that, but there comes a point where things just don’t add up anymore. where the answers that we’d come to depend on don’t cut it any more. If those three steps are the end of the journey, then we have to do all manner of intellectual hoop jumping in order to feel that we are still in the faith. Because we’re so uneasy with questioning things, some would say that periods of prolonged doubt would be symptoms of apostasy putting us outside of the faith.

On the other hand, such a phase was part of how the critical journey used to be taught. This stage was what some folks called the perplexity or illumination stage of thought/belief. It marked the beginning of the second half of the critical journey:

4) the journey inward – where your faith hits a wall, what some folks call the dark night of the soul, when God feels especially absent or at least silent.
5) the journey outward – where this time of shattering reflection causes one to turn outward in focus.
6) the life of love – where loving people becomes our (more) natural way of living.

You see the inherent problems, right? some folks get to that wall and don’t realize that’s a natural part of their spiritual progression and then jump off the train. Right when the key is to hold on and thrash your way through your doubts.

You may not have gone through any real hard times, but guaranteed, the longer you live, the more likely it is that at some point, you’re life will feel blown to crap. We’ve tossed around the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross’ phrase “dark night of the soul”. Not every painful experience falls into that specific category. It refers to something more than simple misfortune, but we can learn much about getting through stormy times by learning about getting through those dark nights. Sometimes the dark circumstances are the exact times that God uses to transform us.

Overall, the process looks something like this:
-we feel that God is absent and inactive; He’s gone and we’re alone.
-we’ve come to the end of our ability to be in control.
-the familiar spiritual practices that we had come to depend on, that usually comforted us, instead seem hollow and ineffective
-BOOM! We hit a wall.

It is the feeling that God is not at work, that He has abandoned us, and all of our cries are going unanswered that causes us the greatest pain. All we can truly offer the person struggling through this time is encouragement to endure. However, let’s look at some typical responses we have. We – and by “we” I mean us the church and us as friends – like to talk people out of pain when we can’t offer answers. We get pre-occupied with wanting to provide an answer. Too often, that’s to make us feel better, to justify our theology. Our pat answers have become reflex, like we have to or are supposed to say something … Christian. We repeat the expected vocabulary, the Christian cliches, those over-used verses and phrases that convey little meaning after hearing them so often. To the point where they don’t have any power left, despite their inherent truth.

[to be continued]:

Dark Night of the Soul II – Cliches are Not Enough
Dark Night of the Soul III – The Movements
Dark Night of the Soul IV – The Caution

***
I don’t have time to always check the comments all the places where this rant is posted. If you want to make sure that I see it or just want to stop by and say hi, do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

The Journey Thus Far

“Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”

If a person can have a theme prayer for their life, that’s mine. It echoes the prayer of a man whose son had been possessed by demons. Jesus had just told him, promised him, that “everything is possible for him who believes,” and the only thing the man had to offer up was his honest assessment: “Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.” That’s where I am. That’s where I’ve always been with my faith.

Some of you might have heard me tell my story as a part of the first sermon that I ever gave. For those that haven’t heard it, my part in my spiritual journey began when I was a child when my parents insisted that we (the kids) went to church … even if they didn’t. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and I started attending this fundamentalist church because that’s where our neighbors went and my folks sent us with them. My Sunday School teacher took an immediate liking to me. You have to understand, the class was full of a bunch of pastor’s kids (PKs), and they were bad. I, at least, paid attention (plus, I liked comic books and he was a big fan).

So one day while hanging out with him, he gives me the Christian sales pitch by leading me down the “Romans Road.” [For those who don’t know what this is, it is a series of verses in Romans that outlines the condition of man, the consequences of his conditions, and what he can do about getting reconciled back to God. The short version is Romans 3:23, 6:23, 10:9-10]. I prayed the “sinners prayer”, I became “saved”, and lived happily ever after.

One, anyone who has been a Christian longer than five minutes knows the often bumpy journey that you set out on. Two, I will spare you a rant on how we go about evangelizing children. Though I will say, right now I could get my kids to parrot a prayer. They’re my kids, they want to please me. They aren’t stupid and can tell when I want them to do something, even if I’m not explicitly telling them to do so. They also could look around at church and see how much attention other kids get when they profess faith and get baptized. It’s not a big stretch to imagine them thinking “yeah, I want a slice of that.” Just like it shouldn’t take rocket science to tie together our early evangelism of children with why our teens fall from the faith right around high school/college, when they aren’t about pleasing their parents anymore.

Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me state emphatically that I liked the church that I attended. I grew up there and respect the people a lot. I think it was the right place for me to be at that time in my faith. If there’s one thing a fundamentalist church can do, it’s instill discipline about your walk and the importance of Bible memorization. However, I was one of maybe three black people that attended the church. Unfortunately, that was compounded by the fact that when we first moved to our neighborhood, we were the only black family. On top of that, after my fourth grade year, I was yanked out of the mainstream program at school and placed in the “advanced” program.

The powers that be decided that there were only two black students that fit their criteria so for rest of my public school career, our group moved as a cohort through the system. I know I’m not telling anyone anything new, but it’s hard when you’re the only one (of anything), you’re a teenager, and you’re just trying to fit in with everyone else, to maintain a sense of cultural identity. The black kids shun you cause they think you’re trying to “act white.” The white kids, the ones your trying to fit in with since that’s your constant peer group, shun you because you’re not one of them or worse, adopt you as some sort of mascot. Which you happily accept because you convince yourself that at least it was a form of acceptance. It’s not a time I look back on too fondly.

(My wife didn’t fully appreciate this part of my story until I took her to our family reunion in Jamaica. When she was there, especially being new to the family and wanting to just fit in, she ate what we ate, did what we did, listened to what we listened to. When we went out, and you’re talking 200 of us strong, she was the only white person. When she turned on the television, she saw only black faces. When she went shopping or to the bank, it was only black faces there to help her. It was a wake up experience for her, and that was just one week.)

Well, then came 1989. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

By then, I was in college, still at my old church. This was a watershed year for me, probably the second most important year in my life after my salvation – all because of the movie Do the Right Thing. At its most basic level, the movie was about life in a black neighborhood, an injustice occurs, and the people have to make a choice about what the proper course of action should be. I don’t have the words to convey to you just how hard this movie hit me. By the end, I was left stunned, emotionally drained. It was like this voice was woken up in me that started whispering to me: “You’ve been brainwashed into thinking you’re one of them. You ain’t like them. They ain’t ever going to accept you as one of them. You’re always going to be an other. An outsider. You have to stick to your own.”

So I embarked on this new journey, where I’m trying to figure out who I am. And let me tell you, it was black. EVERY THING. And if you were white, it wasn’t easy to hang out with me. Even the music I listened to wasn’t just black, it was militant. My two favorite albums were It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. The classes I took? Black history. Black literature. Black music. The sociological process that I was undergoing was what some people call the Negro-to-Black Conversion experience.

All of this happened while I was having trouble in my walk with Christ. I was experiencing this kind of disconnect. I had all this head knowledge, but no heart action. The nagging question that haunted me was “what does saving faith look like?” I was worried about whether or not an intellectual assent to a set of facts was all there was to faith. And I was having issues with my church. Like I said, it was the right church for the right time in my walk, but you know when you are starting to outgrow a place. The church was no longer speaking to me with their seemingly narrow minds and meaningless rules. I thought that there had to be more to being spiritual than a lot of theological head knowledge mixed with a bunch of rules to live by. What was worse was that the church had become irrelevant in my life because I wasn’t seeing the love they talked about being lived out. They would always talk about being a neighborhood church, but would only reach out to the neighborhoods north, south and west of it. Two blocks east of it was a budding black neighborhood. So I was left wondering “Is this what God had in mind?” When a person is subjected to folks who confuse religion with God, it can cause that person to walk away from them both. So I left.

I did brief tours of other religions, staying long enough to ask “what would a saving faith look like?” not getting any sort of answer that made sense or felt right to me. Eventually, I fell in with the Nation of Islam. I wanted a religion that spoke to me, both culturally a
nd spiritually, but you have to know that the Nation of Islam is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. Of course, this also gives you an indication of where my head was at around this time. Even I didn’t know how much built up resentment I had in me. The Nation truly spoke to me.

“Black man” (yeah?) “You come from a proud race and you need to reclaim your pride.”
“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to learn your culture, your history.”
“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to pursue education and become self-sufficient.”

So how did I end up where I am now, on a path that led to me helping lead at The Dwelling Place? I’d like to say I had this great spiritual revelation, a rekindling of my love of the Gospel truth. And I did, it just took a different form than one you might expect. You see, the Nation of Islam kept talking.

“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to take care of your body, to become strong. And how do you start?

Don’t eat pork.”

Again, allow me to quote from one of my other favorite movies, Pulp Fiction. “Pork tastes good.” That was when I had one of the single greatest spiritual epiphanies of my life: “You know what, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep me from eating bacon.” That was the beginning of me re-thinking the spiritual path that I was on. I ended up at yet another crossroads in my journey.

I wanted to focus on my walk. I knew I couldn’t go back to my old church. Fair or not, I had equated their brand of Christianity with a pursuit of appearances. How much of what we do is about appearances, looking good–spiritually and otherwise–to those around us? It’s no wonder that the Bible ends up saying of religious Pharisees “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Faith doesn’t look like duty. No one wants duty. If I give a gift to my wife, I can’t tell her it’s “ because I’m supposed to. I’m your husband and it’s my duty.” My wife wants my heart, my love freely given; so my words and actions don’t mean a thing unless I’m doing it for the right reason. Faith has to mean something or else I’m just going through the spiritual motions.

Religious activity without heart is empty rituals.

What I needed, and continue to need, is a safe place to work out my answers. A place that would allow me and my faith to have these sort of questions and, more importantly, my doubts. You see the point of my faith isn’t Christianity; it’s knowing, following, and becoming more like Christ. Nor is the point to have unwavering faith. More often than not, our belief is mixed with our unbelief and not the perfect, unquestioning thing some people have made it out to be. That’s why that prayer sums up the story of my journey of faith in a nutshell.

“Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”