A Hobbit’s Tale of the Soul

Friday, August 3, 2007

A Hobbit's TaleTrying to describe the personal journey that I’ve been on for the last four years is like trying to nail jello to the wall.  I’ve gone through a thorough detox from vocational and institutional Christianity, plunged headlong into the “dark night of the soul,” and am slowly emerging with my head above unchartered waters. Bilbo’s story could well be my own, “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale,” yet the place to which I’ve returned is different and familiar all the same.

For those of you that don’t know I spent roughly 10 years in pastoral ministry, or I could say that I spent 10 years in pastoral ministry roughly. I broke from full-time ministry to become self-employed in healthcare marketing, a job I still have five years later. For 18 months I tried to be bi-vocational while building this new business, but aside from preaching on Sundays, my job didn’t lend itself to be compatible with pastoral ministry.

My departure from full-time ministry was against the grain of the church-growth mentality. I was capable and expected to move on to bigger churches to continue my “ministry.” Not only did I demote myself to a smaller pastorate, but I also went “secular.” There was a lapse of 9 months before I began the bi-vocational pastorate, leaving many to circulate rumors that my last church drove me from the ministry. Beginning with leaving full-time ministry I began to contemplate ways to reinvent the wheel. I had a deep gnawing awareness that something was wrong with the way we did church. I slowly began to peel back the layers of tradition trying to find something of an authentic spirituality worth practicing.

My earliest attempts at deconstruction focused too much on models and methods. I began to see small-group/cell-driven churches as a panacea. I even started a prototype group of potential leaders with the intention of duplicating into a small network of cells that would eventually begin corporate gatherings. One of the families went back into a traditional ministry role, leaving myself and a good friend of mine to discover that the root of our problems went much deeper than having the wrong model.

The reality we came to face was that we who had spent years in the ministry were completed isolated from normal people on the outside of the four walls of the church. You cannot reach people if you’re not with people. As we began to rethink our approach to reaching people, we became acutely aware of our own hidden agendas to “win friends and influence people.” There’s a powerful quote from the movie Big Kahuna with Kevin Spacey and Danny Devito that describes this well:

It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down.’ That doesn’t make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are – just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.

This realization has forever changed the way I interact with people and what I think of evangelism. I want to know people and value them for who they are and what they can teach me through their stories regardless of whether they agree with me or not.

It was about this time that I began trying to focus on being incarnational and became sympathetic to Celtic Christianity, in particular Celtic Daily Prayer of the Northumbria Community. I appreciate their focus on incarnation, prayer, contemplation, and service. It was a different, gentler form of Christianity that touched me deeply and sort of nourished me back to wholeness as a person, leaving one last link in my life to Christianity.

Aside from serving twice as an interim pastor for a few months following my bi-vocational pastorate, my wife and I quit going to church altogether. We felt no guilt whatsoever. We actually felt relieved and much happier. We didn’t disavow church for all time, but we were too well acquainted with the churches, parishoners, and pulpit personalities in our area to want to attend any of them. It was not long before a year had passed without darkening the door of a sanctuary.

In the process of deconstructing tradition and trying to be an honest broker of my motivations and convictions I became obsessed with trying to find answers to questions. Every answer yielded only more questions but better questions. It was not long before every truth I tried to stand on felt like mush beneath my feet. I found the most compelling answers not in theology but in the realm of science and reasoning. In particular my study of astrophysics and eventually quantum mechanics opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing the world and my place in it. The Matrix is a definitive movie of our time for expressing the dynamic shift in worldviews taking place.

When your eyes are opened to see the world in a new way, there is a mixture of emotions ranging from anger for being hoodwinked to wide-eyed wonder in a new way of engaging life. Perhaps mainly for comfort I continued to come back to Celtic Daily Prayer and continually tried to rethink my way through all that I had been taught about God, the world, and who I am. I sort of came to a place where I was prepared to leave behind everything I had professed to believe in and go my own way. I realized that if I was willing to forsake it all, before I did I might as well try to start with a blank slate trying to reconstruct some semblance of a real world, liveable faith that worked for me. Demythologizing became a pathway out of the dark night of the soul for me. I began to find far more power and truth in looking through the lens of metaphor and symbolism than I ever did through literalism.

I suppose I’ve become theologically liberal. Although I never thought that was possible, I’m completely comfortable in my own skin for the first time in a long time. In no way do I consider to have to come to the end of my journey. I’m not dead yet. I find myself in a familiar place again. We’ve been visiting a few churches and found a church and a pastor with whom I can identify. I don’t have to agree with everything to find value in something. So I find myself retracing old steps but going in a new direction with a new way of seeing the road ahead. So I say with humility that I’ve been “there,” and I’ve come “back again.” There’s nothing to say I won’t end up “there” again before the journey’s over, but I’m sure it would not be the same as last I found it. I’ve discovered that I haven’t been wandering aimlessly in circles after all. I’m winding up A Spiral Staircase and though each turn around feels familiar I hope I’m gaining ground.

6 Comments

  1. beinghumanandallthat says:

    Good morning, I hope that you enjoyed your sleep 😉
    It appears to me as a passerby of your blog that you have been fortunate enough to have had life stop by and happen for you. Good luck to you.

  2. Jon says:

    Wow – what an amazing post. There are such a variety of responses to Christians leaving “vocational and institutional Christianity” as you call it. Some choose athiesm, some choose other “versions” of Christianity, and others move into completely other religious views. If we could really see clearly into ourselves, I wonder how many people that are leaving are actually leaving churches, Christians, doctrines, and the like rather than … ? What? A personal relationship with God …. er , no, tried that fad. What are we all searching/yearning for? Above ideas and doctrines are we looking for a resting place we are at ease and have found our place? I certainly don’t know.
    Like you, I have found advances in quantun physics are opening up a whole new field of vision, and that as they look deeper and deeper into the heart of matter, they are finding that there is nothing hard down there at all! Energy? Thoughts? Mind? It leads me to believe (or at least very seriously consider) that maybe we really are living in the dawning of a “new age”, and that Christianity has served its purpose as a religion for mankind (along with the many others) but now we are moving onto the next step. Who knows?
    Jon

  3. barryweber says:

    Lyndon..a stunningly good piece. We need a long conversation one day (a real one! but I think that would be easy for both of us!).

    Two books, seemingly unrelated, but both of which have given real expression to my own wanderings/ wonderings:

    Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor- my favorite preacher, about her move from ecclesia to academia.

    The Universe is a Green Dragon, by Brian Swimme- a mathematician/poet who writes eloquently of the need for a new story in the face of overwhelming new truths.

    Advice- Screw labels and the doctrine-diseased horses they rode in on. I feel more today like the Christian I was meant to always be becoming, than I ever have before. The essence of everything I believe about Jesus is found in his two words, “follow me.” I’m not building forts anymore around any of my beliefs; in a paraphrase of Ken Wilber, we’re all a little bit right. And in a paraphrase of you, we’ve all got something to learn about God from each other if we can listen without agenda..

    Blessings..

  4. Lyndon says:

    beinghuman, I am truly fortunate. Life is good, if only for having been loved and the opportunity to love two little boys into this world.

    jon, I recognize that there are different stages we go through on the journey. I know that we all don’t end up in the same place nor should we. I looked into a deep hole of cynicism and nothingness and opted for hope and for love. I am convinced that there is value yet in “Christianity,” though it has been marred by personalities, agendas, and time. I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water just yet, but I approach everything with a new set of lens with which to view life. The pursuit for me is to know truth. To know and be known. To be available. To make the world a better place for having been here.

    barry, your comment was so timely, I’m tempted to think it orchestrated. I had to preach at a church I formerly pastored today. I agonized over it long enough but the day finally came. I talked about the simplicity of being a Christian as found in Jesus call to “follow me” and talked about being part of authentic Biblical community to work out our salvation and engage the culture with sincerity. I love Barbara Brown Taylor’s book. I’ll definately check out the other. I like your vow not to “build forts around any of your beliefts.” I am convinced above all things that at the end of the day that I may be the one who is wrong and “it is me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” Put on a pot of coffee. I’ll bring dessert.

  5. David says:

    Just caught up on your last week or so of posts. I was glad to read above that the Lord gave you the message of simplicity about being a Christian. I need community and at the same time I often feel like shunning it. Keep moving on the journey brother and don’t let others distract you and rob you of joy! For example, your post about the ark generated lots of reaction. Remember, you are not responsible to convince others. Psalm 16:1-2

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