Missing Voices

Twice before in my life, someone that I really didn’t know in person passed away and I really, truly grieved.

Nine years ago, Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, passed away. Michael was the first Christian I ever came across (solely on the internet, in this case), who was real about his doubts, his struggles, and his non-canonical evangelical faith. He taught me about a grace deeper than I could have ever imagined, a faith more ecumenical than I thought possible, and a Christ more mystical than could be imagined. His passing left a deep hole in my faith that I am still struggling to fill to this day. He was a great mentor to me, even though I never met him. And I grieved.

The next year, Steve Jobs passed away. Computers, specifically Apple computers, had helped this shy, awkward teenager engage with the world. They had given me my career. And they had brought delight. While Jobs was nowhere near as important to me as Michael Spencer, his impact on my life was such that I truly grieved as well. Even though I had never even seen him in person.

Rachel Held Evans’ passing is proving to be similar. I am truly grieving.

Looking back at my life, I really feel that Michael Spencer’s death cast me adrift. In the four years prior, I had seen the faith that I had received upon becoming a Christian in college radically transformed due to some wonderful teaching by Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Michael Spencer, and others. I began looking for something deeper, more authentic, and more connected to the historic church than what I had been taught.

But then Michael Spencer passed away, and I kind of turned my faith off. I didn’t do it consciously, but I think the unfairness of him passing away in his fifties, just as he was starting to become a voice of great good in the church, unconsciously impacted me and caused me to focus on other things. I still went to church (for the most part), but I really didn’t care. And most of the time I actively tuned it out.

So this year came, and so did God. He reawakened me.

Now, anyone who knows me well would know that when my faith is growing, it means I will have a stack of spiritual books that I am reading and another list of books that I would like to read. So on to the pile was added Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, but I also picked up Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans.

While my faith switch had been turned off all of those years, I would periodically read an article by RHE where she excoriated evangelicalism for this or that. I enjoyed the skewering of conservative selective morality that she did with her A Year of Biblical Womanhood (though I never read it). And I respected her as someone who was authentically serving as a voice for the Nones and Dones who were leaving the church. As I kind of had already done, at least mentally.

But it wasn’t until my “reawakening” this year that I started to actually listen to what she had to say. I was first introduced to her on The Liturgists Podcast. And her openness about her doubts, and her struggles, and the fact that so much of modern Christianity makes so little sense really moved me. And yet she still believed. Which moved me more.

Searching for Sunday was a deep affirmation of where I was with my faith. My faith was flawed, but it was beautiful. Doubt, and darkness, and uncertainty were not a sign of weakness, but in fact the path toward God. And she told everything with such an authentic voice, and such a gentle wit, that I could not help but devour the book. Even at the expense of Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ (and if you know me, you know I LOVE Richard Rohr).

And this is why I grieve even though I never knew her. Never attended a conference featuring her. Only had the most basic contact with what she had to teach. I grieve because there was a prophet in our midst. And I slept through it all. I grieve because her love for all of the people who are absolutely fucking done with the church has become my love. And now our prophet will speak no more.

I will miss you, Rachel Held Evans, even though I only knew you from afar. I will devour your books over the coming weeks and months and I’m sure I will grow because of them in my love for Christ, the church, and all of the people who the church has done such a bad job serving. Thank you for a life well lived, and a love well given.

Post-Post-Evangelical?

So, wow, Rip van Winkle has awoken. Almost five years since I last posted here, not only am I still alive, I’m still grappling with my “does not quite fit in” faith. Especially after the last year of our nation’s history, that faith has a lot more dents in it.

The last time I left off here, I had passed through the waters of the evangelicalism of my post-conversion days and dipped my toes into the roaring rapids of the emerging church, only to find myself landing in the not-quite comfortable eddy of post-evangelicalism. And then life happened (three young-but-now-getting grown-up kids). And then the election of 2016 happened.

I spent most of the first week after the election listening to punk rock.

You see, everything that I had learned about Jesus as a young convert and then re-learned as my wineskins were refreshed in the last decade was tossed out the window by my fellow -evangelicals in their zeal to defend the last few pearls of Christendom to which they clutched.

Michael Gerson, in his excellent article in this month’s Atlantic (read it all), sums up the underlying problem better than I could:

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

Gerson goes on to give an excellent history of evangelicalism in this country dating to the period before the civil war, and states that because of his own experiences with the faith, that he is “hesistant to abandon the word evangelical.”

Lets just say I’m not quite so hesitant. Honestly, at this point, I’m not quite sure that evangelicalism is worth saving. But with the crash-and-burn that happened to the emerging church, I’m also not sure what the alternatives are. What I can say at this point is that for the longest time I took up the definition of post-evangelical where the post- doing the work meant “moving beyond and embracing something greater than.” But I suspect that now I should really call myself a post-post-evangelical, with the new post- stating that I sadly have to reject -evangelicalism in all its forms altogether.

Which is funny, because I currently attend an evangelical church that I have no intentions of leaving. But more on that later.

The Prison

Imprisoned.

So much of my life feels like it is on the wrong side of the bars. Perhaps my whole life.

When I was younger, and still “on fire for God,” I was certain that I would make a difference. Lead a church. Plant a ministry among the urban poor. Live a life of radical discipleship. Have joy.

Now, I’m just a failed Christian. Trapped inside the bars. Bars of depression which rob me of joy. Bars of responsibility which limit the choices we can make as a family. Bars related to the choices I have made in my life which have foreclosed avenues that I might have taken at 25. Bars of failed expectations which prevent me from being satisfied with the life I have been given.

What do I do with this? I’m older, and hopefully a bit wiser, and no longer believe that I need to be Mr. Super Radical Christian in order to win God’s favor (something that is unwinnable, since there is no need to win it). But I still have this nagging feeling that I have allowed myself to become imprisoned and it is only myself who forecloses those avenues.

What is worse, I worry that I am building the bars around my wife and my children as well.

Lord Christ, who came to proclaim release to the captives.
Release me.
Grant me vision to know
the things in our life which have become bars
and the things which are gifts from you.
Break down the bars which separate us from the kingdom you are birthing in this world.
Heal my pain, my sorrow, and my apathy.
Bring life to this old, failed Christian.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Amen.

Failure

I have something to confess.

I’m a Christian failure.

I worry about just about everything. I am far from Christian when someone cuts me off on the freeway. I can be hot headed at times. I get depressed relatively easily. I don’t pray very much, and when I do, it’s rarely meaningful. I’m not a very good husband a lot of the time. I’m not very patient with my kids. I think I might be with the rich young ruler in walking away sadly if Jesus called me to sell all my stuff. I don’t give enough to the poor, or my church. Sometimes, the pain in the world makes me just want to shut everything off and play Angry Birds.

I think I’m exactly where God wants me.

Listen, I have absolutely no idea how to follow God. I don’t know how to get close to him, although I know many techniques to try. I don’t know how this whole thing is going to turn out at the end of my life. I don’t even know if things are going to get any better with the whole faith experiment I’ve been a part of for the past two decades.

I really, really suck.

And yet, there’s something liberating about coming to terms with who I am. I can stop trying to keep it all together because the fact is, I’m broken and will continue to be. I can stop believing that if I just do the right things, I will get closer to God and become the follower that I’ve wanted to be since college. I can stop pretending that I have any idea whatsoever about how to stop sinning. I can finally give all of the trying over to God.

I can’t fix myself. I also can’t prevent the world from turning my life into its own personal dumping ground. But what I can do is dive into the ocean of grace. My only trust can be in the One who took on all of my garbage (and that of the entire world) on the cross, knowing that we would keep heaping it upon him even after he did it. Not in myself. Not in my spiritual disciplines. Not in the five points to becoming a better fill in the blank.

So I’m a failure. But that just means that I need to bring my sorry, failure self back to the cross on a daily basis, knowing that the One who died there waits for me, completely accepts me, and will carry me through my failures to a future that I cannot perceive.

Amen. Christ have mercy.

Creep, Part 2

I’m finally, ever so imperceptibly, making my way through Michael Spencer’s posthumous masterpiece, Mere Churchianity. In chapter 11, he drops this bombshell:

Jesus was not clearing the road so I could ride victoriously through life. He was becoming the road that would carry me through all the garbage, falls, failures, and disasters that were the inevitable results of my existence. In trying to make myself lovable, I had been distancing myself from true love. In pretending to be a leading candidate for the religious life, I was abandoning the life of grace. In seeking to be a good Christian, I was deserting the truth that there is no gospel for “good” Christians, because the Lamb of God was nailed to an altar for those who are not good and who are no good at pretending to be good.

Grace is far too scandalous for this world, even for Christians. It’s much easier for us to construct moral systems which make us feel like we’re getting it all together, rather than to just accept who we are and then let Christ’s grace wash over us.

If I can simply manage to live this truth and impart it to my family and those around me, then what more can I ask of this life?

Creep

But I’m a creep,
I’m a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.

— Radiohead, Creep

I have a confession to make.

I have a spiritual self-esteem problem.

No, it’s not that I think that I’m too much of a loser for God’s grace to reach me. It’s not related to any belief that I’m not doing “enough” to be in God’s kingdom. As my faith nears the end of its second decade, I am more secure in the knowledge of God’s “tidal wave of Grace” (which has washed over even me) than I ever have been in my life.

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.

It’s gotten to the point that I want to stop the sermons. Play some iPhone games in the service. Listen to some music. Watch football. Whatever.

It’s just more stuff that I can’t do, and I can’t stand to hear anymore.

I’m a husband and father of three. I have an incredibly responsible job with a longer commute than I would like. Oh, and the economy is lousy so there’s a lot more pressure to keep the balls in the air.

And it’s left me with a gap. A gap between the journey that I would like to be on and the one I find myself with. A gap between my desires to live into God’s kingdom and the reality of a life with very little space for that.

Oh, and did I mention that there are (at least) four other people who have a vote in what direction my life goes in (and rightly so)?

So I want to turn it off.

Stop listening.

Just be content with being ethical at work, loving to my family, and a stable provider (all important things). But no more.

And yet I still feel like a loser. A spiritual half-empty glass.

The stakes are higher now. My oldest son has begun his journey toward Christ (praise be to God). I desperately want him (and the two younger ones) to walk beside Christ the way I envisioned myself doing when I came out of college. A way which seems so thoroughly buried by life that it seems to have disappeared from view. But what I model to him now will become his faith (or lack thereof) later. And I don’t like the model.

So I continue to go to church. But when I’m there, I can’t help thinking: “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”

There are No Words

Today, the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, passed away after battling cancer. I, for one, will sorely miss his honesty, and his unfailing trust in the grace of God. A grace that goes beyond anything that any of us expects. He gave us all a window into that grace, and for that I am deeply grateful.

May he rejoice in the presence of his Lord, and may that same Lord comfort his family and friends in their time of loss.

I’m Not Dead, I’m Resting… or Perhaps Pining for the Fjords

If you’re a Monty Python fan, you’ll get the reference. If not, there’s always YouTube.

The last six months since I have posted have been quite eventful in meatspace for me. Our family made the decision to attend a new church, a big church (but not quite mega), a church with great teaching, a lot more resources and a more generous orthodoxy than the old one. But without our friends. It was a pretty heart-wrenching decision for us, but in the end I think it was the right one for our growth as a family into Christ.

I’ve also spent much of the last six months struggling with depression, going back and forth between a feeling that it’s all too hard and I should get over it and just live a “normal American Christian life” and a longing to follow Christ with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. In the end, Christ always leads me back. Most recently, he has used the Daily Office to bring me back. One of my goals for the year was to pray the morning and evening office each day, and at least for the last week, I have been back on that track. And it has made all the difference. May Christ have mercy on me to let me continue.

The next goal on my list that I hope to tackle is to serve the poor at least once per month as a family. My new church has a weekly ministry to the homeless, and I hope to start by attending that with my oldest son one per month and then go from there. Our hearts were made to serve the lost, the least, and the wounded, and we need to take this small step to start acting like the citizens of the Kingdom of God that we are.

It’s not easy to follow Christ with three children and a job that when combined with commute takes up 50-60 hours per week (my prayer is that God would lead me in time to a new job which no longer requires the long commute, but with the economy as it is, I will need an extra portion of his grace to find it!). But I’m back on the wagon, trying. May Christ have mercy.

A Vision for the Future

What’s that scripture about “without vision the people perish?”

That’s pretty much how I have felt the past several months – like I am perishing. There’s been a war going on inside myself between the easy path – just go with the evangelical flow and live the typical American Christian lifestyle, which with three young kids is – trust me – very tempting, and the deeper path I believe God has revealed to me over the course of the past couple of years through any number of his servants who are already walking down that path.

But instead of choosing one vision or the other, I have been basically adrift – unwilling to “settle” for the easier path, but afraid that the deeper path is too difficult for a family to pursue. So I’ve been stuck in neutral, and in-and-out of depression because of it.

This is, of course, compounded by the fact that no-one – not my wife, not my church, not my pastor – no-one – is really thinking about the same kinds of things I am right now. It makes no sense to them. Why would I want to go to an Episcopal church on occasion? Why do I find the communion administered at my church lacking? Why would I choose to recite rote prayers at regular intervals? What’s with all of the candles and the sign of the cross? And am I crazy to suggest that perhaps we should be trying to find a way to live in community with other followers of Christ?

Perhaps I am crazy, but it doesn’t help that I’m the only one with this particular brand of craziness in my church.

And yet online I’ve found so many other fellow travelers. Through teachers such as Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren I’ve learned a great deal about the wealth that exists in the broader church, outside of the parochial confines of evangelicalism which largely rejected tradition in the 20th century. Which, of course, helps me feel a little more sane.

So rather than just perish, I figured it might be a good idea to try to construct a vision for what this “deeper path” might look like in my and my family’s life. To start, I wanted to lay out what it might look like in the 5-10 year time horizon. So here are my dreams:

In five to ten years, I would like to be living in the same neighborhood with a number of other families and others who are committed to a common rule of life – centered around a spiritual rhythm, engagement in the missio Dei in our neighborhood, and the pro-active embrace of Christian community for both those inside and outside of our community.

I would like to together start non-profit businesses which could act as “third spaces” for our community and the neighborhood in which we live. Instead of making people come to church, we would have the church come to them – both through these businesses and of course through our interactions with our neighbors.

I strongly desire to have my children see a faith that is active in the world – loving the poor, caring for the hurting, passionately coming to God in prayer, contemplation, and worship. A faith that welcomes all to the table, and that while seeking actively to understand the truth, is humble enough to accept those who may have different understandings without judgement, condemnation, or a need to be “right.”

Now, I can’t see a path to there at this point. I don’t know anyone else who shares this vision. I can’t imagine myself having the time to pursue this and still have any semblance of a family life. And, to be honest, I’ve had Christian community blow up in my face so many times in the past that I have a hard time believing something like this is even possible.

But for the coming year, I would like to start small.

Try to find a way for my family to serve the poor at least once a month.

Consistently pray at least the morning and evening office every day.

Find time at least once a week to sit in silence before God.

Have an extended time with God at least once a month.

Find a way to start sharing the spiritual disciplines I am learning with my wife and kids, and anyone who will listen, to be perfectly honest.

Perhaps if I just start small, then next year God will give me some more steps to take. And maybe that 5-10 year vision will have a chance of coming true after all?