I was raised a nominal Catholic in Texas, the ultra conservative Bible Belt of the U.S. I thought all I got from Catholicism was guilt and the legalism that I learned from things like needing to go to confession after sinning to avoid hell. Dipping a finger in the holy water and doing the sign of the cross at mass was a ritual that just seemed like simple unconsidered superstition. I learned that God was everywhere, though as a kid that just meant He was watching me from afar and saw when I sinned.
I was always searching, pouring over the lyrics of my favourite music and flipping through novels seeking true meaning and real purpose of life. I hoped the military would send me to Japan where I had a vague curiosity and keenness about spirituality and eastern mysticism. I studied world religions, my favourite university course, but it didn’t connect with my heart or stir anything deep. I met an older colleague who was passionate about his Christian faith and the way he handled conflict with his young children spoke to me deeply and made an impression that I remember to this day. I don’t remember what he said about God or the Bible or salvation, but I wanted what I saw that he had in his family life. Sent to the Gulf with Desert Storm, I remember imagining myself coming to the end of myself and praying to become a Christian. I didn’t, but the stars in the desert night sky were unbelievable. I found a second hand book and thought I noticed a famous name on the cover so I gave it a read. I thought it was T. S. Elliot (poet, I couldn’t remember?) but the title also got my attention: ‘Mere Christianity’. C. S. Lewis’ passion and obvious intelligence gave me hope that giving my life to the Lord didn’t mean I had to turn off my brain. All I needed was a bold evangelistic colleague to challenge me as to why I wasn’t a Christian (and if I died today, was I sure I’d go to heaven?). I prayed the prayer and I knew my life would never be the same.
About then I was reassigned to England so I looked for my first church to really join properly. I found one that was charismatic, evangelistic, Bible based and had a love for the prophetic, equipping leaders, believing in people and planting churches. But what spoke to me the most was the first time I visited on a Sunday I saw some ‘dodgy looking youth’ sitting near the back with piercings and tattoos even though there were many ‘boring’ and ‘old middle class’ folks’ making up most of the congregation. I noticed they did a lot of singing at the start of every meeting so I came late to be in time for the preach but soon learned in the sermons about worship and its importance. I consumed everything that was being taught. I served enthusiastically and learned from as many people as I could. I wasn’t yet thirty and I loved that there were so many answers and so much confidence to be had in the black and white Bible interpretations for so many things in life. We had an evangelistic crusade in our area where a sermon touted the Bible as a handbook for life. It was so comforting to have so many answers but to this day I am glad that I was learning that the most important things were that God loves me (and everyone) and that grace is this mysterious and seemingly illogical and even unfair force of how God relates to us and how we can be with each other. As I participated in leadership training and absorbed as much as I could I tried to grasp forgiveness and servanthood and generosity, the concept of paradoxes appealed to me somewhere in the back of my mind. Verses mentioning that ‘the first shall be last’ and that we have to ‘lose our lives to find it’ appealed to me in ways that I didn’t hear about in sermons or read about in my Christian self help books. These were the seeds of mysticism that were always there but didn’t get cultivated. With hindsight I see the ‘move of the Holy Spirit’ and the ‘Toronto Blessing’ were mystical in their own way. We had leaders who were wise and not naive; they were hungry to meet God. They practised what they preached when it came to being open to meet God and follow and obey even beyond what we can understand. The vocabulary was His Spirit calling out to ours and the ‘Holy Spirit’s leading’ and ‘being still and knowing He is God’. My doubts and suspicion kept me from falling over when prayed for, but now I can see times like this, as well as closing our eyes and raising our hands in worship, as embodied ways of reaching to connect with the Divine in ways that surpassed understanding. These were my foundations and precursors to mysticism. Later practising experiencing God beyond my enlightenment influenced western brain became my practice, though it is still awkward and fumbly.
Helping start a church plant was the centre of my life (although my ever-loving wife kept me from being completely obsessed). We became a student church and I loved the experimentation, challenging the status quo, lack of hierarchy, openness, community and attempt to be authentic. The beginning of my deconstruction was Halloween. Growing up in the U.S.A it was a favourite holiday for kids that involved creativity (my parents made us some awesome costumes!) and community (kids excitedly walked ’round the neighbourhood that one evening of the year) and friendliness (neighbours asking who you are dressed up to be, complimenting you on your costume, sharing treats and enjoying the excitement that kids showed). I didn’t make waves, but I quietly allowed my kids to participate in this ‘evil Satanic ritual’ and I loved carving pumpkins and handing out sweets to neighbour kids and waving to their parents who stood at a distance as their little cuties chose their treats and answered my questions about who they were dressed up as.
For a while our church held together a community of people with vastly different beliefs, but we eventually were pulled apart by our differences, not quite able to find purpose that we could agree on or our identity in anything greater than how we expressed our beliefs. Another thing that bothered me when I wasn’t too busy to think about it was the concept of hell and the violence in the old testament. How could a God of all creation prefer the Israelites over other people who She created and loved equally?
The turning point of my spiritual evolution was through a dear friend of mine embracing her homosexuality. She was a gifted leader and I’ve always loved her humour and authentic vulnerable heart. This issue became personal. Our wise church family leader encouraged us to pray and study and reflect on where we stood on this challenging issue of sexuality in our culture and how our church would choose to respond and take a stand. One leader said he had to put aside his feelings to make the decision he thought was right, but another said he thinks his feelings are a part of how God speaks and leads. I agree and although I don’t have an airtight theology about sexuality and the church, I firmly believe that my role is to love and I will aim to welcome and challenge barriers that I believed were Biblical not that many years ago. I started seeing for the first time how simplistic and narrow some Bible verses had been applied without question to justify what didn’t seem loving to me at all.
The Catholicism I thought I had rejected completely was where I’d find some helpful meditation and my first mystical hero: Father Richard Rohr! Now the same omnipresent God who has been with me all my life, counted the hairs on my head, is near and cares so deeply, is even present in every person I meet, (even the cute cheeky robin in my garden and to some degree the blades of grass and weeds growing through the cracks in the path in our neighbourhood and the beautiful pattern of wood grain seen in our table where we eat). I feel inadequate in taking action, but I am convinced God has a special passion for the poor and our planet.
I now can again jog listening to my worship playlists from a few years ago without wincing when I hear lyrics about perfection, narrow views of the cross and salvation, and what seems a shallow tribalism that I embraced wholeheartedly a few decades ago. I am now a member of a church that has some similarities to the one I joined right after becoming a Christian. It’s impossible to compete with ‘the good old days’ but I am proud that we are a fellowship that isn’t just white and somehow we aren’t all middle class. I’m learning (slowly) to emphasise what I agree with in people and smile and not obsess about our differences. My passion that used to be for church has shifted away and into addiction recovery where I’ve learned from atheists and buddhist and gay members of my recovery community more about love and not ‘othering’. The evangelical church, still my family in a way, seems to be more focused on striving: the earnest and faithful becoming better Christians, serving God more, learning more about God, always working so others can join the hard work than I want to do. I sure did strive for more than 25 years but now I’m older and I am drawn more to try to abide in peace and enjoy rather than strive for unquestioned love. My faith grew in a great family of churches but I had no idea that Christianity was so diverse and contained so many traditions, practises and beliefs (even beyond substitutionary atonement!). Buddhism and addiction recovery has taught me to practice acceptance but I still find myself joining others praying when I am moved with compassion in our church small group or old friends from my first family of churches. So much of what I learned in church helps me with what feels like a calling in my recovery community. I am grateful that my experiences of God through the church help me to keep practising loving others (difficult) as I keep trying to love myself (even harder).
Being part of a nomad group that we started during lockdown is a very important community for me. I know I can believe anything, doubt anything, be honest and air my musings with a dear group of friends who have different but similar experiences of passionately loving God from the edges of the established church. It seems we share an experience of finding church not what it used to be and not quite what we need these days. I feel a less strong sense of belonging to the Christian community, but I feel a much larger sense of belonging to the human race. I’m not expecting mountaintop experiences with God like I used to but I’m finding Her in quiet moments in maybe a richer way: the swaying of branches in a tree viewed outside my window, the ever changing masterpiece which is a blue sky of clouds scrolling in front of me when I stop to notice, the lovely, goofy and magical lens through which children see the world. Almost thirty years after becoming a Christian I embrace what I still believe, and I love hearing anyone share about spirituality, the eternal, the mystical. But I have no desire to change anyone’s mind. I hope my map of the universe keeps changing for the better. If my sons (and other people I mentor) find that they can embrace a little bit more love, then I feel I am participating in the great commission.