This is an excellent article on why so many people like me are leaving evangelicalism.
Since this whole spiritual re-awakening thing started a few weeks back, I’ve been slowly adding back the spiritual practices that were so meaningful to me in my “post new wineskins” period around 2006/2007. One of those is what I will call a contemplative walk, although I honestly can’t remember the real name for this practice. I took one today.
My goal on this walk through the woods by our house was simply to be present. I focused on my breathing. The steps I took along the trail. The sound of the stream as it flowed. And, for part of the walk, the music I was listening to. My mind wandered, certainly, and I wasn’t overly concerned with that. But when it did wander, I would redirect it back to being present.
Toward the end of the walk, I really started to notice that it was winter. The trees were barren, there was no one else on the trails, and I could feel the cold against my skin. And then something mystical happened.
Richard Rohr talks about the “cruciform shape to reality”. The fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the model for all of life. And while intellectually, I could kind of follow the logic, I never really understood it.
I thought of the patterns of the seasons. New life in the spring yields to maturity during the summer, then a decline in the fall before nature goes to sleep for the winter. And then, the next spring, resurrection!
And then, I thought about our human lives, defined by a spring of birth and youth, a summer of striving and establishing, a fall of physical decline before winter comes and we go to sleep. But Christ’s promise is that we, too, will follow the cruciform pattern and be resurrected.
And then I thought to the very universe itself. The Big Bang and the hyperinflation of its spring. The stable universe we know today with galaxies and stars and solar systems. Its eventual decline either in a big crush, or based on what is now reasonably widely accepted due to the measurements of dark matter in the universe, more likely a big freeze as everything flies apart at faster and faster speeds. Now, science can’t tell us much about what comes before, nor about what comes after, but the cruciform pattern can still be seen (and, pro tip – there are some stories in the Bible which hint at the non-scientifically observable parts of the story).
And so it is with life. To quote Richard Rohr, “Loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form.’ This is the big fly in the cosmic ointment!”
There is mystery in the fact that the way of the cross appears to be baked into the entire fabric of the universe. We are constantly seeing new incarnations which ultimately die and are resurrected. The only question is will we still ourselves long enough so that we can see it and be transformed by it?
Faith has never been easy for me.
I was raised in a home without any religion whatsoever, and basically considered myself agnostic through High School, although for some reason I never considered myself an atheist. Even though I was never taught much about religion, I would still from time to time pray to God/whatever. And I LOVED Christmas. I remember being little and looking for the Star in the sky on Christmas Eve, being too ignorant of the Bible and of science to know that it was a one time event two thousand years ago. But perhaps I was a budding mystic even then. That was basically the extent of it for me. And to counter any religious stirrings I might have had, we had the original Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right, people telling me I was going to hell, and all those “wonderful” things about conservative American Christianity in the 1980s.
So in college I met some Christians who didn’t seem like that. They didn’t judge me, they all seemed to like being around each other, and so I went to their Bible Studies. And I fell in love with the real, historical Jesus. The Jesus who was nothing like the Religious Right. The Jesus who would not condemn those that society was quick to condemn. The Jesus who was on the side of the poor and the oppressed. The Jesus who exposed the hypocrisy of the Religious Right of his day. And so I decided to follow him.
But, still, faith didn’t come easy to me. I remember struggling with the idea that my High School friend who had probably kept me from committing suicide during a really dark period in my life and had later committed suicide himself could possibly be in hell for it. I struggled when the evangelical prayer toolbox left me feeling like my prayers were bouncing off of the ceiling. For a time, I had to excuse myself from a house church I was a part of because of the pastor’s interpretation of the Revelation of John (eschatology is hard). I had weird thoughts that God would punish me physically if I sinned.
As I continued in the evangelical world, the tensions increased. The concept of the Bible being inerrant made no sense to me since there were obvious contractions between accounts of the same story. The need to make the Bible literal, especially with regard to the Creation narratives, made me come to the conclusion that either the literalists were wrong about the earth being six thousand years old, or God was evil to make the universe look billions of years old.
And then there was homosexuality. I could never reconcile the idea that the same Bible that told of a God of infinite compassion, love, and forgiveness could condemn people to hell because of who they are or who they love. It came to a head when I was serving as the “Social Concern representative” for my church and that denomination decided that it needed to come out publicly in favor of a political initiative to officially outlaw gay marriage, and it fell to me to stand in front of the church in support of this so-called “Social Concern.” By the grace of God, I was able to express my opposition to the pastors, even though they went ahead without my involvement. I resigned my position shortly thereafter, and while I would like to say that I heroically left that church because of that moment, I did stay around for awhile before leaving because of this and other issues. Always a work in progress, sadly.
But about this same time, God gave me new wineskins. In the gospels (Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5), Jesus talks about not being able to put new wine in old wineskins because the old wineskins had become rigid and would burst as the new wine continued its fermentation process and expanded. I went to a conference in Pasadena, CA called Politics and Spirituality with Jim Wallis, Anne Lamott, and Richard Rohr as its keynote speakers. And suddenly, it clicked.
It was wonderful learning in a community of believers who saw Christianity as primarily an expression of the love of God for all people and not an exclusive clique providing fire insurance for the “elect” few. It all felt very subversive coming from a reasonably conservative evangelical environment (although this being California, not nearly as conservative as in other parts of the country). No offense to Jim Wallis, but Anne Lamott and Richard Rohr stole the show for me. I loved the way Anne Lamott told stories about kindness and the love of God. One of her stories that stays with me to this day was about how she would call out to kids in her Sunday School class who were wearing certain shirts and then hug them and tell them that they were so loved and so chosen. Being a father of really small kids at the time, it spoke to me about the love of Christ for all people.
And then there was Richard Rohr.
I had never heard anyone speak the way he spoke. The concept of “how you see determines what you see” was transformative. The introduction to the ideas that the dualistic mind of the Western church is not the way the early church and the great mystics saw reality and the fact that we needed to have a “non-dual” mindset in order to truly grasp the nature of God reoriented my prayer life forever. And learning contemplative practices at the feet of probably the greatest contemplative of my lifetime was truly an honor. It absolutely transformed my faith.
I left that conference and devoured everything off of the evangelical “safe and approved” list. Brian McLaren. Rob Bell. More Richard Rohr. Anne Lamott. The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, who sadly passed well before his time several years back. Robert Farrar Capon. And many others.
I finally had an intellectual construct for what I had intuitively felt my entire Christian life. I didn’t have to subscribe to the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture because the scripture itself doesn’t claim to be inerrant, and in fact is a conversation among the people of God that God uses to point us to Christ. I didn’t have to believe that everyone not in my tribe was going to hell, because the arc of the scriptures points to a God who has generated a “tidal wave of grace” that will eventually “soak everyone,” to paraphrase Michael Spencer. And I didn’t have to believe that my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters were not a part of this story because the dissonant voices in scripture used to justify their exclusion were outside of the narrative arc of what God is trying to communicate to us through word and tradition.
And I learned to love the historic church, contemplation, and mystery.
But I was still evangelical, despite my non-evangelical beliefs. Or at least attending evangelical churches.
After a few years of tremendous spiritual growth, I think I just kind of settled into life. I wasn’t happy in evangelical churches and generally felt like an “other” who couldn’t speak up about what I really believed. If they only knew, they would kick me out for sure. But I also didn’t really want to rock the boat and so I just kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, and tuned out the things I didn’t agree with.
But that’s changing. God has awakened me again. The funny thing about contemplative prayer is sometimes God shows up. And when he shows up, things change. It’s changing again.