There is but one journey towards both the authentic God, and the authentic self.
I was born in Central Scotland in 1952, and raised in fairly conservative Christian churches – Brethren (the ‘Open’ variety) and Baptist. As a child and teenager I felt strongly the pressure to be and to become the person my parents and churches seemed to expect of me. I neither knew myself, nor had a sufficiently robust inner confidence to begin the journey of self-discovery.
The expectation was that I would be ‘converted’: an apparent turning-point which, from the ‘testimonies’ I heard, would be both emotional and transformational. This experience repeatedly eluded me, and when I was about 15, asked yet again if I had been converted, I said ‘Yes!’, lying, naming as the occasion the most recent of my secret wrestles with an unresponsive heaven.
This lie led to anguish in my late teens and early 20s, an anguish triggered by my proneness to anxiety and depression, which it in turn nourished. I feared that the Lord would come, and I would be left; I felt comfortable neither among Christians, nor those whom my upbringing had led me to see as being on the ‘outside’; I had no skills in building relationships.
I thought if I confessed my lie, my hypocrisy, someone would help me, and was devastated when, having eventually done this, I was not believed. The devil was unsettling me, I was told. What terrible act, I wondered, did I have to commit to persuade them that I was not a believer?
When I was 22, I was blessed with a conversion experience, which did bring whispers of joy. This new breath of life led to me buying a Revised Standard Version Bible; I immersed myself in the Reformed theology of Martin Lloyd-Jones and entered his theological cosmos; I helped at a Scripture Union summer mission team where, for the very first time, I felt loved and accepted as I was.
I supposed I was now on the ‘inside’, but there were still twinges of sadness, and confusion when books I read – on prayer, for instance – did not resonate with my own experience. What, I wondered, was wrong with me? Why was I not the John God was surely calling to me to be?
Through timidity, I lived with my parents until I was 31. They loved me enormously and generously, but I still felt the burden of their expectations that I would be someone I did not feel I had it in me to be.
My anxiety persisted; the doctor experimented with various drugs; I withdrew from psychotherapy because my mother (who herself struggled with not-truly-acknowledged mental health issues) could not bear the sound of relaxation tapes in the house.
I found the courage to move to a church other than the one I was attending with my parents. The friendship and support I found there empowered me to move into my own flat. But still, God seemed generally absent, though there were ‘Yes!’ moments of insight, joy, givenness. I immersed myself in intense busyness at church, seeking fulfilment in roles, while still feeling ‘on the outside.’
I must seek the Holy Spirit – the Spirit would surely lead me in. I sought this experience, was prayed for, the demons of suicide were rebuked, but the longed-for Paraclete neglected to descend. And then I realised – or God prompted the realisation – that the Holy Spirit I longed for so much had always been with me and in me, and would perpetually accompany my future.
I learned in my 30s relationship lessons which most people acquire as teenagers. Though there was much sadness and rejection, there was also a discerning that nothing would ever be the same again. I read books through which I was reminded in ‘given’ moments of clarity that I was loved by God, accepted.
When I was 38, my doctor tried a medication which significantly moderated the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and I have taken this ever since. This drug, combined with a hope which I believe was God-planted, gave me the courage to go abroad for the first time, and to meet Lorna through a Christian introduction agency. We were married in 1992, and have two adult daughters.
But still, I felt on the outside, still journeying towards a sense of authentic identity. In the 1990s, I began to question the assumptions of evangelicalism. I remember the alien thought, listening to a sermon on Jude’s epistle, that there was a hollowness behind the preacher’s loud, eloquent words.
I puzzled over teaching about gay people; I was unsettled by contradictions in the Bible; I came to think that Systematic Theology was a threadbare thing, an intellectual robe painstakingly woven to conceal our unknowing.
I read books like Dave Tomlinson’s Post-evangelicaland Alan Jamieson’s A Churchless Faith. There were ‘Yes!’ moments in the kitchen. I joined a pre-social-media group called Spirited Exchangesa go-to place for nomads of the early 2000s.
I had been standing in the darkness, looking through the window of the cosy cottage of evangelicalism, watching as they sang worship songs around the blazing fire, wanting desperately to enter, but unable to find a door which would yield to me. Now I looked up, and saw no longer darkness, but the vast dome of a bigger place, home to all of us who call on the name of Jesus.
For years, I called myself a ‘complicated evangelical’, sitting on the fence, forever drawing back after I had taken a few tentative steps on the forbidden side. I envied those who could walk away from evangelicalism seemingly unscathed. Only in 2017 did I realise that I must say ‘I am no longer an evangelical’ (in the sense of holding many of the beliefs of evangelicalism), and so took my stand in a broader, inclusive place.
Throughout my life, there have been friends through whom God’s loved reached me, and I found more friends in Nomad.
I was helped by Richard Rohr’s work, and by Jung’s concept of self-actualisation, and of living with the shadow. I realise that in welcoming God, you are in fact welcoming yourself, and that the more you become the person God has made you to be, the closer you draw to God. I realised that the dark stuff in me is not the enemy; it is part of me, to be acknowledged, though I do not choose to let it live me. And as I learn to welcome, indeed to love the darkness in me, so its power is diminished.
I remain prone to anxiety and to troughs of sadness, but I seek to choose joy, not pretending to be joyful, but recognising the pain, while resolving to act in the light of a joy and love which I do not, for the moment, experience. And yet there are also moments when it is as though God knocks on the front door, and when I open it, says ‘Hey, do you want to come out to play?’
My faith now is pretty minimalistic. I believe in a Great Love which grieves over our brokenness, and summons the whole of humanity into its embrace. I am a follower of the Jesus in whom this Great Love was most evident.
I have many questions, but loved with such a love, I do not need to know the answers. To me, faith is not so much about what you believe, as how open you are to the Love, and how fully (if imperfectly) it is expressed in all your living.
I know now that there is no ‘inside’, no ‘outside’. We are all beloved daughters and sons of the Great Love, who summons us from light to darkness.
– John Dempster