Full disclosure: I haven’t written an actual blog in a while, so I’m a little rusty, but I figure that the afterglow of Easter Sunday presents a perfect opportunity to do some in-depth, “out-loud,” on-screen spiritual reflection. I’ve been consumed with parish ministry. Not consumed like a “flesh eating bacteria” consumed (although at times it feels like that), but consumed as in deeply, heavily, and wholly invested. The period of time between Christmastide and Eastertide seems like a mad-dash of Christian Formation offerings, beautiful liturgies, countless meetings, pastoral emergencies, and other accouterments of priestcraft that often leave clergy drained by the time the first “Alleluias” ring out on Easter. This year was a little different for me, however, particularly in terms of “Holy Week.” I was determined, come Hell or high water, that Holy Week was actually going to holy. Imagine that. Clergy actually entering and experiencing Holy Week as an encounter with a revolutionary story and a resurrecting God. I was going to be present. I was going to worship and pray. I was going to spiral more deeply into the bottomless mystery of a God “who makes all things new.” All of the aforementioned writing may or may not have anything to do with what comes next. You’ve been forewarned.
I recently came across a name that has popped up all over my social media platforms for a few weeks now – Rachel Held Evans. Prior to some article where she defended “leaving Evangelicalism for the Episcopal Church,” I had never heard of her. Apparently, I am behind the proverbial 8-ball on this one, as it seems that most other clergy-people my age had. It’s so easy to get caught in the minutia of my own story, that I forget that God is out there writing the stories of countless others as well. (I sometimes suffer from spiritual solipsism. I’m a middle child. Sue me).That’s why it was so refreshing to come across her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding Church. In fact, I was so eager to get this book that I decided to lose of e-Book virginity and join the other soccer moms and Kindle aficionados, after all, according to so many, Millennials are the generation of instant gratification.
Actually, that caricaturization couldn’t be further from the truth, and I think that’s why over the past 48 hours I have absolutely devoured Evans’ book. She’s naming out loud in front of audiences large and small what I’ve known about myself and about many in my generation for a long time – that we’re looking for something even if we don’t know what the something is. Our impatience with religion is less about “instant gratification” and more about impatience for immobility. Too often, all the movement in religion is on the front end, to get people in the doors, butts in the seat, and most importantly, money in the plate. There seems to be a wholesale failure of inertia. From my little corner of world religions called “Christianity,” I often hear people describe faith and spirituality as some static truth, instead of in terms of a relentless movement of a dynamic reality that swirls over “fathomless deeps,” faithful disciples, and curls the clouds of steam ascending from coffee cups. I will now deign from my soapbox (probably only to mount it again shortly).
More full disclosure: I haven’t finished Rachel’s book yet. It could be complete crap from here on out (though I highly doubt it); however, what I’ve appreciated about it so far is that it puts into perfect words what I’ve tried to articulate for years about my spiritual journey – how perfectly imperfect it all is. A few nights ago, after a particularly rough day in the office, I found myself home in bed, unable to sleep and feeling a strong urge to pray. I must admit that in the moment I didn’t feel much like praying. I had an encounter earlier that day that made my incredibly angry with people, but mostly angry with God who patiently bears the brunt of my tantrums (the older I get, the more I live into Jesus’ admonition to enter the Kingdom of Heaven like a child… but maybe from the wrong perspective). Finally, I relented, figuring that God wasn’t going to let me sleep unless I did. I found the “Night Prayers” from the New Zealand Prayer Book and instantly broke into tears. Now, I like drama just as much as the next queer, high-church, Anglo-Catholic priest, but this seemed to be dramatic even for me. I choked through the beginning few words, but found myself stuck on the line that said, “We stumble in the darkness / Light of the world transfigure us.” I just couldn’t move off of those words. We stumble in the darkness. Light of the world transfigure us.
After a few more minutes of drama, sniffling my way through the Lord’s Prayer and wishing I had opted to say that the really cool version that calls God “earth-maker” and “pain bearer” though being too much of a liturgical purist to backtrack in the middle of a liturgy even if I was only praying by myself, and finally settling in the words “let it be,” I finished praying and went to sleep. I woke the next morning feeling only marginally better than the previous night. I’m so glad I soundly destroyed my allegiance to the Prosperity Gospel years before. I had put a lot of spiritual quarters into the prayer vending machine the night before and my Lays Potato Chips were stuck. But, as I began to reflect on those words “We stumble in the darkness / Light of the world transfigure us,” I began to feel my anger and bitterness thaw. I began to see my encounter that previous day in the larger scope of my perfectly imperfect spiritual journey, my stumbling in the darkness, my encounter with a transfiguring Light.
Truth be told, my spiritual journey has been characterized by more stumbling in the darkness than walking in the light. At least it feels that way. That may be true for more than just me. There have been these “flashes” of God’s grace in my life – my baptism at The Cathedral: Second Baptist Church in Perth Amboy, the morning I walked into St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte and was brought back from the brink of religious departure by the sacraments of bread and wine and hospitality, my ordination to the Sacred Order of Deacons and then to the Sacred Order of Priests, the time I told my mom about “this guy that I’ve been dating” and she said she’d love to meet him, a cup of slow-brewed coffee that calls all of my attention to 16-or-so ounces of caffeinated perfection – but more often than not, it’s been darkness, either of my own creation or imposed upon me by others or just a part of life. I’ve just been trying to figure it out and to cobble together a faith made of bits of Evangelical fire, Baptist fervor, Anglican mystery, and grandma’s prayers. I’ve stumbled. Hell, I’ve fallen. And I’ve kept going. That’s why I resonated deeply with Rachel’s words,
Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next deal, and you never exactly arrive. I don’t know if the path’s all drawn out ahead of time, or of it corkscrews with each step like in Alice’s Wonderland, or if, as some like to say, we make the road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze. No step taken in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new.
I stumble, and fall, in the darkness, but no step that I have taken on my perfectly imperfect journey has gone to waste. That’s pretty much all I have to offer as a parish priest, an example to other spiritual passers-by that even the “professionally religious” don’t have it all figured out. That and the Sacraments. Though, in a way, that example is a sacrament of mystery. Spiritual maturity isn’t measured like the rings of an old oak tree or gauged like a collection of merit badges; rather, it’s an increasing awareness of how much we don’t know about God and an insatiable desire to keep on going even when we don’t know where we’re going. That’s unnerving and scary, and yet we are invited into that story that has been told since the beginning, since the first humans became aware of something when they gazed up at the night sky. We make it the best way we can, one foot in front of the other. I’m actually not even sure whether it’s the Light of the world that transfigures us, or whether those intermittent luminous moments only draw our attention to how we have been shaped by our stumbling. Whatever happens between the darkness and light, I do know that the journey is transformative in ways that I can’t fully articulate. Skinned knees have built courage. Stumped toes have deepened faith. Bruised egos have built relationships.
And it has all cost me a fortune in band-aids. Thank God there’s a Balm in Gilead.
Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!