Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Wilderness Deeper In


I remember clearly the day I “met” Michael Spencer. It must have been at least four years ago. I was messing around with my own attempts at blogging. I had tried to create an anonymous post-evangelical place where people (including myself) could discuss thing down on the ground floor . . . with complete candor. I was new at this and my first mistake was not setting my privacy correctly. So I made several heart wrenching confessions. Then one day I was horrified when I did a Google search of my name and the content of my blog was the first thing that came up. (I think the reason I was Goggling my name was to see if any was still reading a book I had written 10 years ago).

Anyway, I took that blog down. But the name of if was something along the lines of Alone in the Evangelical Wilderness. So it didn’t take long before I accidently stumbled upon Mike’s blog with a very similar name. At the time I didn’t realize that he had quite a following and he was more major league than my humble attempts. But he was kind enough to privately correspond with me for a while.

The first thing I said to Mike was how he and I seemed to be on the same page, and that page is this overwhelming feeling of being in a wilderness.

For reasons that aren’t clear, that wilderness has never seemed as dark and daunting as it has of late and I’m speaking just of my personal perspective. You know how it is sometimes. You get in a funk and you don’t know why. In my Nav days I’m confident that my old friend Gary would tell me that the funk was demonic oppression.

I have simpler explanations. Sometimes it can be biochemical, you know things like seasonal affective disorder or (mostly for women) hormonal shifts. But most likely, in my case at least, it is subtle life events, sometimes on a subconscious level.

I’ll get back to that but first I want explain this wilderness.

I had spent 35 years deeply involved in Evangelicalism. I became a Christian through a Navigator ministry when I was just 17 and immediately got involved with them. I became a lay-youth pastor when I was 18. I was involved with the Navs all the way through college and then I went to a Navigator staff training center for another 5 years. Then I moved to Michigan, got married and started a Navigator ministry for four years before becoming a Navigator missionary in the Arab-Moslem world for another 3 years.

During that whole time I was also very involved with the local churches I attended. I was a Sunday school teacher many times, Sunday school director, small groups director, missions director, etc. etc. etc.

Although I suffered a severe disillusionment on the mission field and returned home a competently broken (and abandoned by my old Christian colleagues) man. But I was still very involved with the Evangelical church for the subsequent 15 year.

But gradually, and mostly over the past 10 years, I found my self in the middle of a masquerade ball, brightly lighten with scores of people in their gowns and masks swirling and dancing to the soft Baroque (but godly) music being played on a harpsichord. I knew all the moves, the flat steps and the toe steps, the spins and the bows.

But it was like far back in the darken corner of the ballroom was a door, an alluring door. Then once I looked up and the door briefly opened and closed. I get a glimpse of another world . . . green . . . and with trees. I keep thinking about that door as I dance in my bright, white suit and holding my mask firm to my face.

Then someone leaves the door open and my eyes become fixed on it. The wilderness draws me like it did to three kids with wanderlust and a backless wardrobe.

So eventually I start stepping out the door . . . each visit becoming longer and longer. It is much warmer inside, but something about the fresh air that makes up for the chill. I notice the weight of the gown and the mask that has such tiny eye holes that you can’t see much of the world.

Eventually I find myself completely outside looking back in . . . to the smiling (via the fixed, china faces) and dancing and bright lights.

It was about three years ago when I stepped down from being a church elder. It was a year ago when I stopped going to Sunday school.

But now I feel completely lost between the trees. I can still see the brightly lit doorway and the figures. I can still hear the laughter and the mechanical plucking of the stings.

I’ve tried to step back into that ball room, while keeping one foot outside and holding my mask loosely.

I signed up to be on the board of an Evangelical youth organization three years ago. But that was difficult. I found myself isolated between loose talk of common miracles. “God sent a bright sun beam and it touched the kid on the foot right as I was talking to him. I told Him that was God making the point that He is real and wants Him. The boy started crying and said he wanted to know God.”

The whole board (including my dear wife—who loves these stories) was mesmerized, donning big glowing smiles. Then old negative Mike, with a little fake smile, says, “But if the kid bases his belief in God on a sunbeam . . . what’s going to happen later on when his dad gets cancer? Will his faith crumble?”

Was it Frank Sinatra who said, “Then you have to go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like . . . I love you?”

So I step back out into the wilderness to get a breath of fresh air and go back in and try again.

Next something really squirrely happens in the youth organization . . . almost criminal and it was done by someone on the board. I wasn’t sure who did it. It gave the organization a real black eye. There was a real effort to put it under the carpet and pretend that it never happened, that we are all saints and none of us did mischief, but this big mess was either be God doing something or the devil. I kept saying that we can’t let this go without figuring out who did this.

I had to go back outside. I could tell I wasn’t liked. I not only didn’t see God working (in a very personal way) in rainbows but I was trying to imply that we, godly board members, were not pure to the core. Hmmm. I was speaking from personal experience. I know I am capable of anything and scripture seems to support that. I believe that we are all deeply, morally, psychologically fallen (or flawed) and we do do bad things still.

So I go back outside and walk among the trees. This time I venture even further from that glowing doorway.


I had a span in my life (back in college) of about two years when I did solo backpacking. It was mostly out of convenience as I had no backpacking friends at the time. It was interesting at first. But then it got old. I remember waking up on top of Roan Mountain, in North Carolina, and seeing the most surreal sunrise. I was actually above the low clouds and the sun rays were coming up in laser beam red streaks. But I was watching it alone and, as incredible it was, I knew that I could never explain it to anyone (even here) so the experience alone was deeply diminished. I got tired of being in the wilderness alone.

This wilderness is very lonely and that’s what I grabbed on to Michael Spencer when I first found him. By that time, I could hardly see the church . . . woops . . . I mean the ballroom door anymore.


Down south, deep in the Bible belt where I am from, we were mostly emotional ignorant by choice. We had no clue why or how we felt about anything and we never tried to put feelings into words. But this cycling in and out that back door of the church was a common practice. But, due to the lack of insight, it was believed that God was in the ballroom and if you didn’t dance like a mad fool, you didn’t love Him.

So people often get fed up with the dance go out the door. But then they are overwhelmed by guilt. The guilt gets then one way or the other. Ether they say, “Yeah, I am a back-sliding heathen, and give up all pretence of being a Christian and start making meth, or they come back to church and throw themselves face down in front of the alter and bawl like a baby. While they are crying the church, woops, I mean ballroom people start to re-dress then in their costumes. There is nothing in between.


Dateline mystery last had a great commentary on this culture. Featured were two deeply committed Baptist lay-ministers and their families who, beneath the surface were having affairs and one murdered the other. But on the surface, and the videos they showed, them preaching in church, had no signs of the deep trouble beneath the masks.


There are days when I look at that door way (by the way, I do go to the general church service each Sunday, but not involved with anything else) and I am seriously tempted to go back through, to cast myself down and bawl. I want to say, “Forgive me for I have been in deep sin. I’ve been negative. I’ve stopped smiling all the time and I know that was wrong. Forgive me and I want to come back. I want to pretend that we are all saints that none of us have alternative motives for the things we manipulate each other into doing. That person A is not flirting with person B or to not notice that program C, D and E is about someone’s ego and has nothing to do with “Jesus” as advertised. I’m sorry that I believed the scientist with their silly little PhDs and they has mistaken a pig for Lucy and Mount Saint Helens proved the earth is only 6,000 years old. I confess I’ve been a fool and have been brainwashed by the humanist, liberal intellectuals. I confess that I don’t believe that God is constantly working outside the laws of physics just for me and that devils are constantly trying to frustrate me with flat tires and bad colds. Please take me back in. I will never go against the herd again . . . never. I will re-join the Republican party (or the Tea Party). I just need the warmth and the lights."

I will digress more tomorrow. I must go do chores.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

You know how it is sometimes. You get in a funk and you don’t know why. In my Nav days I’m confident that my old friend Gary would tell me that the funk was demonic oppression.

When all you have is a Hammer...

I was involved with the Navs all the way through college and then I went to a Navigator staff training center for another 5 years. Then I moved to Michigan, got married and started a Navigator ministry for four years before becoming a Navigator missionary...

From the utter rigidity and conformity and control-freak Holiness shtick you've described as the Nav Zeitgeist, I wonder how you were ever able to find somebody and get married in the first place.

But it was like far back in the darken corner of the ballroom was a door, an alluring door. Then once I looked up and the door briefly opened and closed. I get a glimpse of another world . . . green . . . and with trees. I keep thinking about that door as I dance in my bright, white suit and holding my mask firm to my face.

You know, this sounds like The Truman Show crossed with Mike and the Mechanics' "Silent Running".

But, due to the lack of insight, it was believed that God was in the ballroom and if you didn’t dance like a mad fool, you didn’t love Him.

Like North Koreans Dancing Joyfully With Great Enthusiasm for Comrade Dear Leader. Or Else.

Anonymous said...

There are days when I look at that door way (by the way, I do go to the general church service each Sunday, but not involved with anything else) and I am seriously tempted to go back through, to cast myself down and ball. I want to say, “Forgive me for I have been in deep sin. I’ve been negative. I’ve stopped smiling all the time and I know that was wrong. Forgive me and I want to come back. I want to pretend that we are all saints that none of us have alternative motives for the things we manipulate each other into doing. That person A is not flirting with person B or to not notice that program C, D and E is about someone’s ego and has nothing to do with “Jesus” as advertised. I’m sorry that I believed the scientist with their silly little PhDs and they has mistaken a pig for Lucy and Mount Saint Helens proved the earth is only 6,000 years old. I confess I’ve been a fool and have been brainwashed by the humanist, liberal intellectuals. I confess that I don’t believe that God is constantly working outside the laws of physics just for me and that devils are constantly trying to frustrate me with flat tires and bad colds. Please take me back in. I will never go against the herd again . . . never. I will re-join the Republican party (or the Tea Party). I just need the warmth and the lights."

"I am a Cow Headed Monster,
I have Sinned! I have Sinned!
I have succumbed to Bourgeios Capitalist Thought,
I have Sinned! I have Sinned!
I certainly hope I'm sincere about it,
If I'm not you can tear me to bits!!!"
-- "Enlightened Self-Criticism" song traitors and thought-criminals were forced by the Red Guard Brigades to sing before the People during Chairman Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, mid-1960s

Headless Unicorn Guy (who else?)

Anna A said...

It's rough out here, isn't it.

While I'm in a different part of the forest, I would still give a whole lot of something to be part of the "in" group, or just listened to.

When your view of the Bible, the Church, devotions, evangelatization is somewhere between the Baptist that I was and the Catholic view, you find it hard to even talk to people in their own religious language, and be true to the God that you know, love and argue with

MJ said...

"I wonder how you were ever able to find somebody and get married in the first place."

Well, it did work out. I have to say that Denise and I have been happily married for 20 some years. This isn't the point you were making but I thought I would take this opportunity to make a statement.

I sometimes cringe when I make comments about Denise not supporting my desire to change churches and how she is a "normal" evangelical so she is certainly not in the wilderness. This negative comments, I am sure, concerns some people. Most people don't say anything negative about their marriage unless they are in deep marital do, do. But, I speak very honestly about it. What I say is as bad as it gets. What I mean is that besides us being on a different page on this issue, we get along pretty well.

I do know that many of my Nav training center friends had great difficulties in their marriages. Mostly because they had such high expectations that they had to bury deeply any cracks . . . until the whole thing about fell apart.

MJ said...

That last chant, HUG, sounds familiar. Where do you find all of this information?

MJ said...

Anna,there are certainly days I wish I were Catholic.

MJ said...

I have to apologize for all my typos.

I have such a short time to write anything, I must do it on the fly, one pass, with my tiny pocket computer that I can barely see. I hope to come back and fix things and improve them.

Recovering Alumni said...

Love your blog. Love your honesty. Love your questions. I would like to email you but I don't see your address anywhere...?

Anonymous said...

That last chant, HUG, sounds familiar. Where do you find all of this information?

I think that came from a Reader's Digest article in the mid-Sixties, when Chairman Mao was trying to one-up the First Emperor in control-freak craziness.

I'm an ex-kid genius and natural-talent speedreader. Learned to read at four, and speedread everything I could ever since. By the time I was ten, I'd read more than most people do in a lifetime and it all got stashed somewhere in my brain. Back when my bingo-balls were still floating around in the draw-tank and I had NO way to evaluate or fit them together into anything coherent.

Result: I have these totally random cascades of trivia and information that come out when THEY want to, not when I need them to. Your Enlightened Self Criticism "confession" to your Baptist Betters triggered that scene from the long-ago Reader's Digest, written by a survivor of Chairman Mao's purge. (And 50/50 chance it could have cascaded further, free-associating into other random scenes and memories of something I read once 40+ years ago.)

Headless Unicorn Guy

The Curvy Catholic said...

Great post, and not wanting to be nit-picky but ... when you do get this published in a book, there are a couple of places where you'll want to change the spelling of "ball" to "bawl" (i.e. "bawl like a baby"). I'm just sayin. ;-)

MJ said...

Curvy, of course you are right about the spelling and I do know better about bawl. I think it is one of my many defects that as long as I've been writing anything and especially when I write fast on my little pocket computer, I make those mistakes. I've come to the resolution that I will never over-come that problem.

However, the reason that the book manuscript isn't being publish has nothing to do with these typos. I know my short-comings in this area. I can't even proof read my own work. Every time I've submitted anything for publication (and including my pitch letters to agents) I have others, those with a keen eye (or should I say a keen "I")go over it with a fine tooth comb.

I've had the chance to publish about 30 articles in journals and I always rely on better eyes than mine before I submit.

Anonymous said...

I am out of the church. It is lonely and difficult. I recognized this posting very well. I lost quite bit when I left the faith. With some of my friends I discovered that the "deep" Christian friendships I thought I had were incredibly "shallow." With others I have had a difficulty of how to relate? I've also had to deal with anger..the anger of huge disappointments and shattered expectations that was still ongoing. I was having difficulty and yet in my church experiences everyone was "blessed" while I was in the forest.

Oh well we know the answer for this one though. It must be either sin in your life or lack of faith.

MJ said...

Anonymous,I wouldn't put God in the "church" car and drive it off a cliff. You can take God out of your church experience (before the car goes over) and still relate to Him for who He is.

My favorite (in my dreams) is a church described in the book, The Post Evangelical. It is called "Holy Joes" (corny name) but it is a group of friends you meet in a pub (in the UK) and talk very deeply and honestly, and pray sincerely for each other.

I agree with what you said in your other post about praying for people taking any job.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Monist- I just wanted to say that this is a truly beautiful post. I've bookmarked it to read the next time I'm feeling similarly stuck. You must be really courageous to put your struggles out in the open like this.

I haven't had the kind of experience you describe in a church context, but your last big paragraph is amazingly well-written. I can definitely identify with the experience of being an analytical person who just wants to be intellectually honest about a topic you care about deeply, only to feel like most of the people around you would prefer you just shut up, kept smiling and got with the programme.

For what it's worth, I do think that many of the specific trials you've faced stem from a mindset that's endemic to the American evangelical community specifically. I'm from the UK, where the word 'evangelical' seems like it has quite a distinct historical context (for example, it doesn't seem to imply 'probably votes for right-wing candidates' to nearly the same extent).

While I'm no longer a Christian, I've spent quite a bit of time in English church services (mostly Methodist and Anglican), and the impression I get is that the kind of questions you're asking about faith would not be considered at all out of place in those churches. If anything, it seems like the questions you're asking would be considered a sign of spiritual maturity, not apostasy.

I'm not saying this because I'm trying to push your towards another denomination (or towards secular agnosticism, which is where I am right now). And obviously all groups of people, both Christian and non, will tend towards dysfunctional behaviour at least to some extent. It just sounds like you've suffered through a lot of experiences where you've been made to feel isolated, even crazy. And that's heartbreaking, since I from my perspective you're very much not alone, in terms of where you are with your faith journey, and there are plenty of people who feel that your opinions make perfect sense.

I really hope that your new church works out for you- from what you've said in recent posts, it sounds a lot more welcoming than some of the environments you've been forced to suffer through in the past.

Peace,
Carrie