WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God provides for God’s beloved during sleep. – Psalm 127: 1-2
I had an experience in the mid-1980s that has stuck with me. It served as an initial catalyst for some thinking, reflecting, even soul searching which has continued to the present concerning spirituality.
My wife Kathleen Temple, our son Johan and I were living in Berkeley, California, and I was nearing the end of my grad school program. It was time to begin thinking about our next step. I started a job search process, which included applying for a pastoral position at a church in central California. The church search committee expressed some interest, and asked us to go over for a visit. The visit included an interview that went fairly late into the night. Kathleen and I both enjoyed the conversation, and I was feeling pretty good about our conversation. The committee pressed me on a few issues. All in all, I was pretty sure I was making a positive impression.
Then one of the interviewers, a woman about my age, asked a question that undercut my feelings of self-confidence rather immediately. “You might not want to talk about this now,” she said, “but I’m wondering if you could say something about your personal life with God; you know, your spirituality.”
That was certainly not an illegitimate question to ask of a prospective pastor. However, I immediately felt defensive and knew my response would be inadequate. The conversation had been going so well. However, it was getting late, and even if it weren’t I don’t think on my feet all that well when I’m uncomfortable and feeling defensive. I stuttered around for quite awhile. I felt that I should try to answer, to say I didn’t want to talk about it would make me appear to be a spiritual lightweight. Nonetheless I did finally end up stammering, “Well, yes, spirituality is important to me alright. Um, I, ah, you know, I do try to be spiritual and stuff. Um, but, yeah, I guess I don’t really want to talk about it more now.”
Afterwards, that is what I most remembered about the interview. I felt bad about it. I felt like I let myself down. I felt a kind of shame. I got to the point where I didn’t really feel badly anymore about my response to my job interview and my stammering about my personal life with God. My initial feelings, though, definitely were feelings of shame and inadequacy. Here I am, presenting myself as a prospective pastor and I can’t talk about my spirituality. What kind of integrity do I really have?
It took me time to think through my feelings from that California interview. That is, it took me time to think through my feelings about how I understood my personal life with God, my spirituality. I came to the point of wanting to face the questions head on. That led to some sermons and now this book.
In what follows, I will be taking a personal approach to speaking about spirituality – which I think we all must do. That is, I will speak from my experience, reflecting on my issues. Hopefully, these will connect with yours, but if there is one area where we best avoid speaking with authoritative generalities it is spirituality. At most, we are each pilgrims trying to find our way and finding help from each other and scattered other pilgrims who’ve gone before us.
Why would I have felt defensive and intimidated in hearing my interview question and why I would have felt shame at my feeble response? I am not fully sure. Certainly, in my experience people have often used spirituality in a kind of one-upsmanship. As I have never felt proficient at something held up to be crucial to being a successful Christian (that is, the various quantifiable spiritual disciplines), then I never felt very successful. Especially in the early years of my church involvement, my religious system played strongly on feelings of shame and guilt – and rewarded spiritual “superstars.”
Certainly my earlier years in a fundamentalist context significantly shaped my feelings. However, in my more recent and more liberal contexts, I still have sensed some tendencies toward spiritual oneupsmanship. I have still encountered efforts to prescribe normative spirituality. Spirituality is big. At our seminary bookstore in Berkeley, about the time I had my interview experience, the manager rearranged the books so the most popular books would be near the front. So, books on spirituality replaced books on the New Testament. More recently, we visited the store again and spirituality still is in the front. Many seminaries have recently begun new MA programs specializing in Christian Spirituality. We are speaking of a growth industry.
I personally have mixed feelings about this kind of emphasis. My negative feelings have encouraged a reluctance for me to talk about spirituality. However, rather than simply continuing to avoid explicit references to spirituality, I decided to try to understand my feelings about it. Even more so, I wanted to find a way to speak positively, encouragingly, even helpfully, about spirituality as I have come to understand it.
I have no question but that many people in our time (including myself) are desirous, even needy, of a healthy, life-giving spiritual existence. One way of expressing this is to speak of our need for hope and empowerment in a world which we so often experience as broken and disempowering.
I have come to define spirituality as follows: that which enables us to experience hope and empowerment.
Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, has been helpful for me. He lists emotional complaints which he commonly hears in his practice. These include emptiness, meaninglessness, vague depression, disillusionment about marriage and family, a loss of values, yearning for personal fulfillment. These concerns reflect a desire for a living spirituality. Moore helpfully argues that such a spirituality must find its center in life where we live it. Healthy spirituality is not an escape, not a quest for a total cure and victory over all darkness and pain. Healthy spirituality discovers meaning amidst the brokenness which we all face in real life.
Hence, one reason for addressing spirituality head-on is that we need greater “depth and sacredness in everyday life.” Such “depth and sacredness” enable us to continue our lives in the here-and-now with some sense of realistic hope and empowerment.
A second reason is the need many of us have to experience some healing from past problematic experiences of spirituality. I think of a conversation Kathleen and I had with a friend a number of years ago. Like us, this friend had participated in a very intense fundamentalist-type of Christianity. This total-system kind of Christianity dominated her life for awhile before she finally (and barely) summoned up the strength to break free. She emerged more-or-less shattered spiritually. Before, she believed everything, now she believed hardly anything.
Nonetheless, still she found herself drawn to the study of theology, of religion and culture. She was still on some sort of spiritual quest. As we talked, we realized that we knew of several other similar people. These people also studied theology at the very liberal school we attended. These people had few if any clearly defined faith commitments now, but had formerly intensely participated in some sort of fundamentalist Christianity. We expressed puzzlement at this – are we all really sick or what?
We finally concluded though, that no, what we had in common was a deep-seated desire for spiritual truth. For all of us, what we initially encountered was something which promised to give us upper-case “T” Truth, i.e., fundamentalism. We accepted that perspective for awhile, but eventually came to see it as empty. That experience, in many ways, was hurtful. The spirituality we received ended up choking off life, stifling creativity, substituting absolutes for God’s loving kindness. Still, our desire for a spiritual reality survived. The quest continued. Encountering this so-called spirituality which stifles life, which engenders shame, which leaves people fearful and impotent is all to common. Many of us have emerged from such encounters in the need of healing.
We, thus, have at least two good reasons to think openly together about spirituality. One is the need we have for something positive, something that can strengthen and encourage us to get up and live. The second is the need at least some of us have for healing from something negative, healing from destructive approaches to spirituality. Such healing includes finding a way to think constructively, to embrace something positive. We need more than simply rejecting that which hurt us. We need more than simply saying no to what we don’t accept or believe anymore. We also need to be able to say yes. To paraphrase Peter, we need to articulate that hope which is within us (1 Peter 3: 15). We need to say what it is we do believe and why, and how it helps us to live.
My interview experience, and the discomfort it caused me, pushed me. I asked myself, am I really spiritually impotent? Do I genuinely have nothing to say? My gut response to those questions was no – on the contrary, I didn’t feel impotent. I actually felt pretty alive. I didn’t feel as if I had nothing to say. I just was not sure how to say it. I was uncomfortable both with what I had heard in my fundamentalist past and with what I heard of a more “liberal” spirituality beginning in the 1980s in Berkeley.
I asked myself, what is “spirituality?” Early in my Christian life, spirituality had a concrete meaning. Spend significant time each day by oneself reading one’s Bible. Pray specific petitions. Memorize Bible verses. Witness to the “unsaved.” You were spiritual if you could give testimony to some special insight God gave you while in prayer or while reading your Bible. I tried these spiritual practices. I sometimes felt good when I did them, but I couldn’t sustain the practices so I had few testimonies to give. I often felt bad, like a failure, when I heard others’ testimonies that only reminded me of my inadequacy.
Supremely, in that context, a spiritual person was one who led others to the Lord. Again I tried – and here I failed even worse. One time, when I was 18, I accompanied some other teenagers from our church and our youth leader to the county fair. We were to engage in personal evangelism, basically meaning we approached strangers and asked them if they wanted to be saved. I hated this, but felt like I should be doing it if I really wanted to be spiritual. However, I did it poorly. One time, a girl actually told my partner and me that, yes, she did want to be saved. That stunned us. We didn’t know what to say because we never expected that. We said, oh…, good, here’s some Bible verses, and then we ran off. We didn’t know what else to do.
In time, I essentially gave up on trying to make myself spiritual in these ways. I felt positive about my life as a Christian – especially my growing intellectual horizons, my more practical church involvements, friendships, and “good works.” However, I rarely talked about spirituality.
Then, in the mid-1980s, I encountered some new emphases. These emphases took a more mystical bent. Spirituality had a great deal to do with inner peace, solitude, somehow letting go of the cares of life and “centering” on God. One image was that a spiritual experience is like climbing a mountain. Then one loses one’s footing, falls, and finds oneself in the secure hands of a loving God. These tender hands keep one from crashing on the rocks below. One finds one’s identity ultimately only when one finds oneself alone with God – and thriving on this solitude.
I heard talk about spiritual disciplines. Journaling, meditating, retreats, spiritual directors all played a major part in this approach. Certainly many people I respect find meaning in such an approach. One of my best pastoring friends, who lives on the East Coast, meets regularly with a spiritual director to talk about his spiritual life. He goes on retreats, sometimes silent retreats to get centered, to cultivate spiritual strength to help in his work-a-day life. I’m glad for the encouragement he finds. I don’t mean to imply that such activities aren’t positive for those who find them meaningful. I expect that this was what my interviewer had in mind when she asked me about my personal life with God.
However, this approach doesn’t really strike a chord with me. When I hear and read about it, I don’t find it particularly attractive. Partly, I’m sure I have some residue guilt and shame that still come to the surface from past attempts at spirituality. Even more, though, I don’t find modern mysticism fitting my disposition. Hence, I strongly resist accepting a definition of spirituality that limits it to this kind of understanding.
I’ve begun to think of spirituality in different terms. Rather than focusing on certain spiritual disciplines (even such as prayer or devotional reading), I want more to focus on practical life. That is, not so much: am I praying, meditating, journalling, finding a spiritual director? Rather: how is my life going? Do I feel a sense of encouragement, of empowerment? Am I living creatively? Am I able to be honest with others and myself? How am I responding to my limitations, to pain and frustration? Can I feel joy? grief? anger? Am I alive both to ups and to downs? Am I learning ever more who I am? who others are? who God is? In the end, then, what is it that helps us to live with openness and creativity? Where do I get my strength? What hinders me?
These kinds of questions might encourage us toward traditional spiritual disciplines. However, in my experience, the disciplines have not really been significant sources of life for me, with only a few (somewhat short-lived) exceptions. Where do I gain strength? Where do I find spirituality? Where do we gain our strength to live creatively, openly, lovingly.
As some of my sources of encouragement, I will discuss the Bible and tradition, worship and community, music and other art, prayer and solitude, being in nature, and friendship. These are some of my sources. I hope discussing them will help you to reflect on your sources of encouragement, similar and different from mine. I also want to reflect on general attitudes and emotions such as trust, grief, and joy. To begin, though, I will focus on who we understand ourselves to be and who we understand God to be.
In essence, so much of our spirituality stems from how we see ourselves, and how we see ourselves in relation to God. My view of human nature is positive. I believe that our journey toward God and our journey toward self-acceptance and self-awareness both go pretty much along the same path. The better we know ourselves, the deeper we look inside – the better we will know others, and the more clearly we will be seeing God.
So, spirituality has very little to do, in my understanding, with dramatic transformations. It has little to do with finding the correct spiritual director, the correct rituals, or with finding the correct myth. These might help, but I find them to be secondary. Spirituality has much more to do with understanding who we are – people created and loved by God, with potential for good, with creativity. Of course, we also have our troubles. We take actions of which to be ashamed. We need healing. However, the healing process is gradual. It doesn’t look for big changes, but is one of small steps.
One of the great “spiritual classics” for me has been J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy. In these novels, Tolkein presents a down-to-earth picture of empowerment and hopefulness amidst brokenness and fragility. I find an analogy in Tolkein to how I think of our spiritual project.
Gimli the dwarf, a cave-dweller, miner, and stone-worker, has just discovered a wondrous cave during a major battle. After the battle, he speaks of it to his friend Legolas the elf. He speaks passionately of the cave’s beauty. “Caves! The Caverns of Helms Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes we weep to leave them.”
“Then I will wish you this fortune for your comfort Gimli,” said the elf. “May you come safe from war and return to see them again. But do not tell all your kindred! There seems little left for them to do, from your account. Maybe the people of this land are wise to say little. One family of busy dwarves with hammer and chisel might mare more than they made.”
“No, you do not understand,” Gimli said. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap – a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day – so we could work. As the years went by, we should open up new ways. We would display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.”
A spirituality for who we are, one which engenders life, does not focus on tearing down what is and building something new and different. It does not focus on hammering and chiseling away with abandon. No, a spirituality for who we are sees human beings already as creations of beauty. “With cautious skill, tap by tap” we do the work of spirituality, making what is beautiful increasingly more so.