Finding My Way: Constructing a Personal, Authentic Spirituality
While I was still living at home, my parents got divorced. Because they'd been active members of a church and even held Bible studies in our home, my parents' divorce left me with a distrust of the church. I remember a missionary lady who babysat us while my mom worked. She liked to flannel graph Bible stories like Adam and Noah. One day, she chased me around the house trying to spank me after I'd called the girl across the street a really bad name. She stopped chasing me when I prayed aloud for God's forgiveness. I didn't believe it, but she did and it was enough to get out of the spanking. This experience taught me that faking my belief was okay. When I was in seminary some friends formed a “Holy Club” with what turned out to be exclusive membership criteria. I was never invited into the club. They used their exclusivity to make their impression about my spirituality clear. I didn't measure up.
I've never measured up. Not only have I never really felt worthy of God's love, but every success I've had is always tempered by the fact that I still see myself as the stupid kid from the broken home—the kid sitting in the back of the class who almost flunked out of high school and college and seminary. Feeling good about anything has been a near impossibility. This has helped make my spiritual journey a complete and total wreck.
For the past year, no “traditional” way of connecting with God has worked. I can't seem to pray. Worship often feels meaningless. I don't have a devotional life. I often don't feel connected to God. I've prayed and cried and struggled and suffered through a ridiculously long valley, during which much of Scripture reads like a dirge, prayer feels impossible, and connecting with God feels more like being anchored to a sinking ship.
So here I am, trying to be “spiritual,” and feeling like a failure. And I think part of why I feel like a failure is because I'm not quite sure what success looks like. The way it was defined for me growing up doesn't work anymore, but I'm not fully sure of the alternative. I mean, how do we fully define what it means to be spiritual or to “do spirituality?” What does a spiritual person look like?
As I've been trying to understand the concept of spirituality, I've shopped around to see how other people seem to be doing spirituality. Several types of spiritual lives are emerging, and I've tried to see if I could squeeze myself into any of these broadgroup categories. I realize that some of these may seem to be oversimplified, but I think there's truth in the analogies nonetheless. See if any of them resonate with you:
Rubik's Cube Spirituality
Christians have spent a lot of our history articulating all of our propositional truths and fashioning our spirituality around them. We work and work to make all of our squares line up. This is the spirituality that says, “Don't drink alcohol. Don't smoke. Don't cuss.” If you strictly adhere to edicts A through ZZ, then you're set. I'll confess that I've paid homage to this much of my life, hoping to hide my own spiritual inadequacy by rule worship. This spirituality is dependent on a perfect performance and relies on impressing others (from senior pastors to church boards to even our students). Pharisees, both past and present, would be pleased, but a spirituality of rules and requirements wasn't satisfying my spiritual hunger.
There's a huge wave of spirituality today that relies on emotion in worship. If, in a moment of worship, I act emotional, I am therefore spiritual, or at least I'm perceived to be spiritual by those raising their hands and singing along with me. And, maybe, God will see me and get the message about my spirituality, too. Could I fit within this kind of spirituality where emotion rules my walk with God? I'm not very emotional in public, and I often feel awkward in corporate worship. I see people singing and dancing for God, but this one gave me hives.
This is the spirituality youth workers have when they stand in front of kids and proclaim rules to live by. This one is fed by the Rubik's spirituality but from a different angle. This kind of spirituality exists because youth workers know that they need to be spiritual leaders in order to keep their jobs. They espouse spiritual rules and requirements in order to be an example for younger students, regardless of whether or not they've found those rules to be life-giving in their own lives—and often to the detriment of an honest walk with God.
This is the kind of spirituality that admits failure right from the start. It proclaims all of the adherents' mistakes without apology, and reflecting on them looks toward the future with an “I'm probably going to keep failing” kind of an attitude. This slouchy kind of approach to God seems to me a cop out. Yes, we're all imperfect and wholly inadequate. I already know I'm a failure. For me, to make it part of a daily dis-affirmation would feed my feelings of failure without feeding my need for spiritual nourishment. Besides, isn't the “good news” that there's something beyond simply my own failure?
Not to pick too much on popular trends that can help people think about their connectedness to God, but I'm skeptical of current trends in spirituality that ride on the coattails of or seek to fill the pockets of writers, speakers, marketers, companies, and “spiritual giants” seeking to sell their own brands of spirituality. Anything that says it can reduce my walk with God into “three simple steps” stinks of someone's cool idea to help them make their house payments.
Sometimes we humans feel better when we reject everything and admit that we're grasping at mysterious stories knitted into the fabric of the universe. For that, the postmodern spirituality gets high praises. However, I'm also very skeptical of it. I think that Christian publishers, looking for a way to boost lagging sales, are perpetuating the idea of “postmodern spirituality” and selling it to us with tags like “Deepening your walk with God” and “Learning to tell your story.” If I'm being postmodern by purchasing the latest postmodern merchandise, I'm just following a trend and not being spiritually genuine. What will I be when this trend changes? How do I think about myself? I can't deconstruct and then rebuild my own beliefs by reading a book about deconstructing beliefs. The only way I'll accomplish that is through introspection and slogging my way through my dark nights and valleys. Which leads me to…
So what do we do when our journeys don't fit into any of the “known” categories? We create our own. This is my spirituality—aware of my own huge mistakes, cognizant of my hunger and my hope. I put together a spirituality that seeks to fill my need to be spiritual. This construction at my own hands is unique. It doesn't look like anything or smell like anything that would work for anyone else. The problem with this spirituality is that it's unaccountable. It's indescribable. It's uncomfortable. Yours will be unique as well—something that doesn't look or sound like anyone else's. There won't be a book you can buy on “your” spirituality; there won't be a three-, five-, or sevenstep plan to help you navigate “your” spiritual valleys. It's your own walk toward the holy, and the only one who can articulate it is you.
I'm reminded of the way Christians walk into conventions or bookstores or food courts and choose from a variety of products to try to fill a void. When I look back on my walk with God, I see that my past has been just a series of spiritual shopping sprees where I, wanting to get closer to God, have bought, consumed, and adopted prepackaged spiritual aids.
On my journey I find comfort in my own imaginings of how the disciples must have felt meeting Jesus. I find joy in knowing that they'd been interrupted with the unfathomable truth of God reaching into the mechanistic history of humanity to do the miraculous. I've loved listening to John the Baptist's doubts in prison, Paul's confusing conversion and subsequent wrestling with his own tradition, and the early church's attempts to understand Jesus, without denying his divinity, humanity, or message.
It helps me to see myself close to where the disciples were. I'm left seeking new forms for my walk with God. This makes my spirituality intensely personal. There are no squares to fill in; no items to cross off on a spiritual “to do” list. This is a journey not of forms and tradition— there's no tradition to obey, and no requirements to meet—it's a journey of discovery.
We're on our own paths with God, not with our best friend, not with our spiritual mentors, not even with our spouses. We're on it, and we're alone with God. While I've been learning to accept my journey and understand that my views don't make me a heretic, I've learned some new things about my spiritual journey. Again, these are not meant to be pithy sayings to offer wisdom concerning your walk with the holy. If they help you to articulate your own journey better, great. But these thoughts are ultimately unique to my experiences.
John Chapter One
The first fourteen verses of this chapter absolutely blow me away, and I'm sad that I've over-thought these verses in the past. When I read this passage (or 1 John 1 or Colossians 1) I feel like I'm not reading the words of someone who has Jesus figured out. Instead, I'm reading the words of someone trying to grasp the mysterious identity of Christ. Through the years, I've taken these passages as factual, finite statements about who Jesus is. Today, I believe it's much more than that.
I see humans, directed by the mysterious, subtle hand of God, searching on paper to understand the identity, power, majesty, and mystery of Jesus. When I read John's words I hear a struggle. How to describe him? What to say about his existence? Should we assume that John felt his description was complete or even adequate? I don't think so. Given the eternal nature and mystery of God, these words amount to one drop in an ocean of hidden truths. John presents us with the mystery, not a trite, closed-ended doctrine upon which we should build a mound of theology. Why do we feel the need to dissect these verses instead of contemplating them?
God created Mars
This may sound silly, but the other day my ADHD mind was hyper-focusing on Mars. What an awesome thought: there are other universes; there are other planets. God formed Saturn's rings, made comets, knit together the fabric of all the heavenly bodies. Too often I've limited my “God is a creative painter” speech to Earth. There is so much not on this planet that screams God's majesty.
I read about the creation in Genesis 1-2 and Paul's words in Romans 1:19-20, and, for some reason, I relied on these to describe God as something that I don't have to think about anymore—I've figured God out and don't have anything else to discover. Imagine thinking it was possible to do that with the all-powerful maker of everything. I'm ashamed that in my journeying to understand the holy I've created such a very tiny place where I expect God to live.
God Is Terrifyingly Wonderful
Psalm 99 speaks about God as the king of everything. My spiritual journey has been based on diminishing God's awesomeness, terrifying-ness, and wonder. I worship, I'd have to be face down. Or balled up in the fetal position trying to protect myself. I don't think it's even possible for humans to imagine God's presence. We can desire it, but we can't even imagine it. What does it say when we shrink-wrap programs and systems for worship that we claim can put us in God's presence?
Jesus' instruction in Luke 9:23-24 and Paul's words in Galatians 2:20 challenge my devotion to God; they set the bar too high. Here, the only analogy I can reference is Mel Gibson's gruesome portrayal of Christ's suffering. Those moving, difficult- to-watch scenes were correct, except for one important detail. That should have been me having his stomach ripped open by the whips. That should have been me with the thorns slammed through my epidermis and into my skull. That should have been me bleeding and falling and broken. That should be me today.
It blows my mind that I've diminished the challenge of daily crucifixion into living a mostly comfortable life broken now and then by small moments of slight discomfort. I'm disappointed with my inability to accept my own self-extinction. If my pursuit of self-extinction is to be genuine, I have to come to grips with what Jesus and Paul really say. When I read, “Take up your cross,” I have to ask, “To what extent?” Typically, Christians answer, “to the most extreme end.” And, yet, I see no example of this within living Christians today, nor can I effectively live this truth.
The Sacredness of the Secular
Maybe there was a time when God rode the wave of “Christianity”—maybe in the Great Revivals of the 1800s. Maybe it was in the lives of great leaders like Wesley, Luther, and Calvin. But I wonder if God inhabits “Christianity” anymore or anything with the “Christian” label. I find God more in the places I previously wouldn't have even looked. I hear God teaching me about the meaning of life in Fight Club. I hear a call to climb onto God's lap through Faith Hill's song, “Breathe.” I hear a clarion call to practice love and compassion in the musical Rent. I've felt God's unconditional acceptance in a drug addict. These are divinely-inspired moments where God uses the unexpected to speak truth.
Conversely, I find little help or truth about God in anything with the label “Christian.” Christian media notices my hunger, but only serves Happy Meals. I wonder if God is even interested in the tritely-coined, bumper-sticker phrases found in most Christian media. It makes me wonder if many of these people cling to their media occupations more to fulfill their desires to be superstars than to proclaim God's truth.
Could it be that God is dissatisfied with the easy, shallow interpretations most Christians find in Christian media? Is it possible that God now chooses non- Christian musicians and movies to proclaim truth? This realization has had a scathing effect on my spiritual journey. I've written several “Christian” books. In what way have I furthered the rhetoric of the Christian subculture? Have I served spiritual Happy Meals?
The Christianity of Non-Christians
I once heard a very popular speaker say something to the effect of “I'm constantly aware that there are non-Christians who are more Christian than I am.”
I was recently talking to a close friend who was traveling through a very dark spiritual time. This friend's summation of his journey ended with these words that scared me, “Tim, if you're ever struggling with anything spiritual, don't tell other Christians.”
And then there's the often-heard phrase, “Christians are the only people who shoot their wounded.” God doesn't just show up in the secula,r but I think God is often offended by the conduct of those who claim to follow Christ.
The more I'm open about my spiritual journey, the more afraid I am. And you know, I'm not terrified of demonic powers, nor am I scared “liberals.” I'm scared about the people who are so afraid of scrutinizing their own journeys that they'll pick apart mine. Through my journeying I've found that there are people who are both wonderful and don't know Jesus. This creates a conflict for me: non-Christians who can teach truth about God, which leads to another question: Is there any room in the justice of God for Christians who hate other Christians and for non-Christians who love better than Christians?
Sadly, part of my journey has included the belief that non-Christians and people of other faiths are somehow lesser humans. My attitude and conduct in this area make me ache for their forgiveness.
The Failure of My Spirituality
Revelation 3:14-17 reminds me that my spiritual journey is, in the end, more about my own comfort and ineffectiveness. I look good and sound good, but I'm really just a liar. Ultimately, is all I've done just harangue against people and ideology? In the end, if my search is to be an honest one, I have to accept that what Jesus says to the church in Laodicea is a sermon aimed at me. My spiritual journey is really just a string of connected missed opportunities: times I could've prayed, but didn't; times I could've read the Bible to my children, but didn't; moments where I could've stuck around and listened to a kid, but I checked out.
Here's the irony of my spiritual journey: the more I've “pursued God,” the more I've become like the church in Laeodicea. I've allowed my journey to do the work for me, and my own soul has become corrupted. I'm a spiritual failure. And, if I'm going to be honest before God I have to admit that.
I have to wonder: have the past 22 years of being a Christian just been the opening credits to a long journey of pieced-together moments of hope and despair? Have I been hallucinating in my walk and deceiving myself about who God is and who I am? Can I even ask these questions and still call myself a Christian? Can I feel this and accept this and admit this, and still write and teach and work with students?
The awful aspect of all of this is that there's no quick three-point checklist for me to give you or happy little ending. I can't write “The End” on this article or on my journey. There's no easy-to-swallow Bible verse that answers my questions. (And those who would offer bumper-sticker-theology answers to another's spiritual valleys need to spend some time contemplating the log in their own spiritual journeys.)
There's no salve that makes me feel better. And often God seems so distant and silent. I'm always going to be the stupid kid in the back of the class aching from his parents' divorce. I'm always going to be the one remaining non-member of the Holy Club.
My only resolve is this: This is my journey. These are my questions. This is my own spirituality. But I do believe that somehow in some way along my journey, Jesus shows up. Maybe he's wearing the skin of a drug addict. Maybe he's posing as an atheist grocery store clerk. He doesn't show up with a Bible or a statement or a press release or a best seller or his latest album or movie. He just shows up, holds my hand, and walks with me.
After that…who knows.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.