Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Trust and The Thorn

Okay, time to take some deeper steps toward authenticity.

Recently, I’ve had the gnawing, sobering impression that my spiritual life is tasting rather lukewarm. It didn’t just show up like that one morning, but has been a process that I have observed, have tried at times to reverse, but mostly have promulgated through my own distractions.

Reaching such a place of spiritual inertia resonates with the opening chapter of a book I’m reading this week, Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust. Manning, author of numerous other books such as the well-known Ragamuffin Gospel, recalls how a comment from his spiritual director ignited the spark for Ruthless Trust:

“Brennan, you don’t need any more insights into the faith. You’ve got enough insights to last you three hundred years. The most urgent need in your life is to trust what you have received.”

Man. That slammed me good and hard this morning as I read it on the exercise bicycle at the YMCA.

I might not have enough nuggets of insight to span three centuries, but probably enough to at least wield some above-average religious “credentials.” A Master of Divinity from one of the more respected seminaries in the country. Three and a half years of full-time pastoral work in the United Methodist Church. A sizable library of books and research tools concerning God and God’s people. Lots of devout friends among the clergy and the laity alike.

The head knowledge is there. The network is there.

What has grown colder is the heart.

Several months ago I was making a rare appearance in a church worship service when I felt compelled to grab the tiny pew pencil and jot something down on the bulletin: John, you’ve allowed your heart to become petrified into stone. Let me give you a heart of flesh, soft and malleable, a heart for me.

I thought that might have been the long-awakened breakthrough that would “return me” to the spiritual hunger and depth I once experienced. But this moment lingered into a few days before again being enveloped by the distractions and the apathy.

Let me provide some more perspective by backing up in time a bit. I grew up as a nominal Catholic, becoming slightly more active during college when I dated a somewhat legalistic Catholic girl. After college ended and the girl and I ended, I found myself being swallowed by an emptiness I instinctively felt had to be countered by a deeper touch of God. I went on my own search for spiritual community, and, after meeting my wife, found it in a growing and vibrant United Methodist community in East Central Florida.

There I began devouring those book loads of insights. There I embraced new kinds of relationships, of the Christian friend or mentor type. Hadn’t really known those before. There I found positive outlets for my creativity, getting involved in drama ministry and teaching.

I couldn’t read enough. I couldn’t talk with people enough about matters of faith.

Finally, I began to catch a deeper vision of wedding spirituality to vocation, and gradually surrendered to a sense of calling to attend seminary. Three years at Asbury was a crucible of equipping, probing, surrendering, relating. I emerged with a vision for the church, built around communities of small groups and a deep emphasis on spiritual formation and servant evangelism. A part of the United Methodist appointment system, I was sent down to South Florida as an associate pastor, and early on helped get some new, exciting things going at a fairly healthy congregation of about 500 persons in worship.

But slowly a disconnect emerged in my walk with God. I had a hard time adjusting to life in the densely populated, urban streets of South Florida compared with the pacific horse farms that surrounded the seminary. I hard a hard time finding a close knit community of other men where I could be real, compared with the omni-availabilty of friends I had while a grad student. I had a hard time adjusting to having to always be “on” in terms of serving people’s emotional, spiritual and physical needs, not always feeling I had something to give. I had a hard time with the realization that the church was not necessarily a safe place to be transparent if you were a clergy type.

After not very long, I’d wondered if I’d made a mistake and confused God’s call for deeper growth, equipping and service with a specific calling to pastoral ministry. I had some of the key gifts for ministry, and thrived in some important areas…but a nagging unsettledness, a pervasive darkness, robbed most of the joy and satisfaction I found in focusing on my areas of giftedness. I kept trying to recapture the God-hunger I felt during a big chunk of the 1990s, observing that my faith and trust were slowly withering away, that my heart was indeed starting to petrify. I would have pockets of spiritual injection, but they would not last.

Until finally, one day in late 2003, I asked for a voluntary leave of absence and left the pastorate to embrace a life in the business community that has opened exciting doors. It was the right move to make, and I feel a much deeper sense of peace about what I do every day-aside from longing for more time to write. I celebrate how I can apply the things I learned as a seminarian and a pastor. And I have felt a sense of relief from not having to be a spiritual “professional” and to just try to be, as Manning would put it, a “ragamuffin.”

But the heart of stone remains. Moving further away from institutionalized religion was no magic panacea.

I can point to a sense of allowing the institution to rob me of the simple joys of pursuing God; but I have to give equal, if not more, credit to what I’ll simply call The Thorn.

The Thorn has been with me for quite some time, long before the intentional spiritual journey and subsequent hunger of the 1990s kicked into high gear. The Thorn is my constant companion.

The name is inspired by the Apostle Paul’s discussion in 2. Cor. 12 of how he suffered a “thorn in his flesh” that he begged God three times to remove, only to be told that God’s grace was sufficient and God’s power perfected in Paul’s human weakness.

Scholars have debated what Paul was referring to, whether a physical ailment, an emotional distress, or some mode of being or doing that stood in the way of his relationship with God.

My guess is no better than theirs, but I lean toward the third suspect—at least in terms of how I relate to the sense of begging God to remove my thorn, and yet continuing to struggle (wondering, the whole time, what should be God’s responsibly in light of The Thorn and what should be mine).

I’m amazed at how much of heaven can reside within my heart. I’m equally amazed at how much darkness can park itself there as well.

I mentioned in an earlier entry that some fellow writer friends have published books, a passion and interest that I share with them. The last couple of days I’ve wondered if I have anything worthwhile to say about God that deserves publication in a book for others to read in an attempt to extract some value.

After beating myself up a bit about this, I began to wonder if the story I have to tell has value in and of itself because its my story.

Authencity. It’s a word in the title of this blog. To me, it refers to a state of being where the heart and mind are united, where the sense of identity is clear and transparent to others. It’s a place of ruthless trust, because there’s no longer a need to offers guises to everyone else based on all the insights one has accumulated.

It’s where I want to be. It’s a place where one is most available to God, tasting the blessings that come from such availability.

Today I’m sensing that The Thorn is significantly fueled by a vacuum of consistent trust. Lack of trust—in God, in yourself, in others—necessitates a need to find distractions, to harden the heart, to move away from authenticity.

I’m just starting Manning’s second chapter of Ruthless Trust. It’s about gratitude. I don’t think I can separate trust from thankfulness. In fact, the more I focus on my gratitude the more I tend to trust.

And so, not having the full set of answers for how to choke The Thorn, soften the heart and “recapture” my walk with God, I’ll take the simple step today of focusing on my blessings. And we’ll see where the journey goes from there.


At 12:19 PM , Blogger Margaret Feinberg said...

Great post! A tender heart in the "institutionalized" context of faith is so hard at times. Sometimes, I just have to step back (through retreat, staying home et) just to beg God not to become the very thing we all fear becoming.


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