I ended my last post with the following question: “What are you looking for, as you engage in your various religious practices?” In 2007, when I left the Elder Board, and for several years afterward, I could not answer the question for myself. There were several reasons for this.
First, I was not about to render a stock answer, such as “I want to worship and serve God,” or “I want to be an effective Christian witness.” My modus operandi at the time was all about rejection of pat answers. I needed something solid, something that related to real life. Religious platitudes would not do.
Second, early in the process, my thinking was dominated with reactions (reactions, not responses) to my experiences with church and, particularly, with the Board. Was it leadership I was after? changing the church? engaging a new Christian movement? All of this uncertainty distracted me from being able to truly understand what I wanted.
Third, I am a bottom-line kind of thinker. I look for patterns and principles; the forest, not the trees; the system at a high level, not the low level details. I was looking for an overarching something, a theory of everything. I could name lots of particulars and argue many positions, but struggled to see the big picture.
Fourth, I did not know myself well enough to answer the question. I had been following the herd for so long, listening to the messages emanating from the institution, that I could not discern the deepest longings in my soul. In retrospect, this was the most important impediment to moving forward.
If all of this sounds vague to you, then you can bet that it was even more shadowy for the one who lived through it! I was in a liminal1 place, an uncomfortable place. For one who had just recently been in a position of leadership of a mid-sized congregation, I was in an inexplicable place, a surprising place.
Two years of liminality passed before I wrote this:
I want the kingdom of God to extend its range to include my soul in a way that is real. Simply put, I want to meet God, before I die.
I will leave it to the reader to contemplate what it means that it took two years for a 50-something who had been an active Christian for almost forty years to come up with this. A very good friend told me, upon reading the quote, above, “You will surely meet God, or die trying.” At the time, I would have been gratified with either outcome. But I continued walking the path I was on, because I had a sense that, though I was getting closer, I had not arrived at a satisfying answer to the question of what I wanted.
I have documented elsewhere the fact that I read many books while serving on the Elder Board: books on leadership and eldership, church building and team building. Endeavoring to tap in to the collective wisdom of others seemed a rational approach. I read and read and read, because I wanted to understand what I was doing on the Board. When I left that august body, I continued to read, but my focus shifted significantly.
In the main, I now read dead people, an interest that I share with Skye Jethani, Senior Editor for Christianity Today, who wrote about this same practice on his publication’s blog. My reasoning is similar to that of Mr. Jethani: if an author’s work has persisted for hundreds of years, then that person likely has something important to say. My reading has spanned nearly two millenia and several religious traditions.2 I read Augustine’s Confessions and St. Teresa’s Interior Castle and Malcolm Muggeridge’s A Third Testament. The list goes on; I have lost count of the number of books that I have read in the last couple of years. While there has been no chronological or thematic order, my reading has not been without direction. Each work has its own intrinsic value, but I have observed a very simple thread that ties them all together, a thread that very likely explains my interest in reading these authors in the first place:
They lived out their everyday lives in vital contact with God.
All of these people interacted in a deep, authentic, meaningful, one-on-one way with God. This interaction was not constrained by strict religious boundaries or dictated by religious authority. God held a central place in their interior and public lives, whether in the chapel or the kitchen, the academy or the monastery, Mass or marketplace. They settled for nothing less than a real relationship with a real God who interacted with them in a real way.
Ever so slowly, what I wanted began to crystallize out of the millions of words that I had read… to find God in a way that made sense out of my whole life.
I kept reading. Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis and The Wisdom of the Sadhu by Sadhu Singh. Each of these held out a promise that what I wanted and deeply yearned for was within my grasp, doable and attainable. In fact, it was becoming clear that my desire to find God was greatly exceeded by His passion to be found. He wanted me far more than I wanted Him.3
I kept reading and thinking and writing and praying. And then… I stumbled across a very short book written in the early 1500s that was destined to change my life more than any other.
1 Liminal: at a threshold or transitional stage.
2 “Wow, he must have a sizable budget for book purchases!” Hardly. There are several advantages to reading dead people, the most relevant being that their works are no longer copyrighted, and are generally available for free. While I get my books from many sources, the most common source is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.
3 This is what Jesus meant when He said, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son.” And was it not God Himself, not us, who cleared the pathway to His throne? “For the law made nothing perfect; there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.” (Heb 7:19, my emphasis) To say that Jesus died for our sins is true, but this is not a helpful notion; it is purely transactional, not relational. In the bigger picture, Jesus died to take us to God. Considering how much this access costs, we should be convinced that He is dead serious about our coming to Him and that approaching God is the most important thing a human being can do.