Spiritual Dissonance: a Testimony

In honor of the liturgical new year, I thought I’d post an essay I wrote on God and churches four and a half years ago. I’d like to write an update one of these days, but haven’t quite been able to manage it as yet.

“Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” 

~ Jeremiah. 6:16

  The quote above was my “year-verse” for a Bible study a couple of years ago; I was supposed to meditate on it, consider how these words might be applied to my life, and respond accordingly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  It really is about time I try again, perhaps with a slightly different perspective on some of those “old paths,” as seen in the Church.  A little rest in the Truth would be a pretty good thing to find.

Though I call this a Testimony, at this time I shall neither bore you with the common details of a childhood conversion and baptism, nor try to make such more interesting by considering how marvelous a manifestation of God’s grace and mercy such a tale is.  That is not my current challenge nor intent; what I would really like to do is to present my journey as a Christian from the time I began participating at my present church in Jr. High, up to the present.  Everything involved is a question of what God has been doing, and how I have been responding.  All too often the answer to the second question is “not very well,” but let that be for now.  My theme is spiritual dissonance because that is what all too much of my high school experience has been; the church answering the questions which seem obvious or irrelevant, and never even acknowledging those questions which have bothered me the most.  I’m not even certain that this is saying there is anything wrong with the teachings of my church – certainly on essentials they seem quite sound – but more a feeling of incompleteness, that there must be more out there which I have yet to discover.  A pervading theme of disproportionally.  Lately I have started going out looking for some of those old paths, but have by no means reached a conclusion.  The experience of nearly agreeing, of almost understanding, of missing something important, of being just a little off-kilter, has so permeated my interactions with the church that it would probably be possible to pick anything at random to demonstrate my meaning; the conviction of being out of alignment is not based so much on something, as on everything.  For the purpose of clarity, I shall then explain the most striking examples – a youth conference in Atlanta, Summer camps, Magic Mountain, a couple of Bible studies, another youth conference in Utah, and 40 Days of Purpose, and try to explain what exactly happened.  Child Evangelism Fellowship should probably be included, but it’s almost a whole story in itself, an excellent example of my sinfulness.  Suffice it to say that I am now convinced that kind of evangelism is not something I have any kind of gift for, and that regardless of weather I’m successful or unsuccessful, I should not be a part of it.  As for the rest, I hope explain without placing too much blame upon the Evangelical church, which has taught me much, the leaders of Northwest Bible Church, who seem to truly seek God with all their hearts, or overmuch cynicism, for I have seen God work through all these events in many marvelous ways.

I missed all the intended youth experiences both coming and going, and my best guess for why is that I really ought to have been spending a quiet week meditating in a forest somewhere.  The idea for both this way of thinking about the following events, and the theme herein recorded, came to me the other night as a kind of epiphany.  I was at the Pima County fair reading a book about prayer compiled by a Russian monk in the early Twentieth Century, mostly written by a man named Theophan the Recluse.  That alone is a problem; I might have known better.  Oblivious, I read this book during a Round Robin competition, where all the 4-H champions have to show each other’s animals; after that was over, I wrote about some of Theophan’s advice while sitting next to a performance, featuring exotic animals.  When the blaring microphone became too distracting, I left there, and, still undaunted in my purpose, went and tried to write some more at stage featuring a rather loud Mexican pop band.  Shortly, still of firm resolve to continue my studies, I retreated to my new favorite spot at the Fair – a little grassy courtyard where a small band was performing Christian worship songs. 

Sitting at that first concert, it suddenly hit me: what on earth was I DOING there???  It was a carnival, the place to be loud and excited, a festive, boisterous atmosphere – all very well.  I was reading some passages about closing out external distractions, standing before God with you mind in your heart, and repeating the prayer “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner” – also very well.  Why on earth would anyone who was not a young fool try to combine the two?  Enjoy the music, the noise, the lights: or, meditate in the quite of the heart on the mysteries of God – DO NOT attempt both at the same time!  Of course, I was a young fool, and still am.  There are times and seasons for certain things in peoples lives, and I have tended to misjudge them.  A lot. 

First – not necessarily in time, but rather in importance – is the Evangelical Free National Youth Conference held in Atlanta Georgia in 2002.  I was 14, had just finished my freshman year as a homeschooler, and was completely unready for any such thing.  A classic example of wrong time, wrong place, wrong thing, this conference confused where it sought to illumine, angered when it meant to instruct, and numbed when it would excite.  I really don’t know why I wanted to go; probably because some of my friends where, or because it was      something to do; I  certainly had no clue what I was getting into.  I liked everything about the trip except the conference, which consisted of worship and a speaker ever morning and evening, along with a couple of workshops during the day.  During these, I spent most of my time being a classic curmudgeon: While everyone else considered how to apply the speaker’s message, and got excited about serving God, I worried about the speaker’s theology.  As the rock-concert style worship excited and energized the crowd, inspiring them to dance, clap, hug, and hop, I quibbled over grammatical faults such as ‘what DOES it mean,  to sing “and all will say (when they meet Christ), My Glorious, My Glorious, My Glorious, Etc, Etc.?”‘  This quirk didn’t seem to bother anyone else either: I asked.  Neither did the song where we jumped up and down, repeatedly shouting “we’re gonna dance in the river!”  The only times during the services where I actually really felt part of it all, were when the power shut down in the middle of a song (“This is the air I breath, You’re very Presence, living in me.  This is my daily bread….”), and we went on singing anyway, in the dark – and the time the two sides of the room shouted to each other, again and again “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”   Why was all this so?  A lot of reasons all ganging up on me – my hatred for manipulation, the cheesiness of some of the songs, my total inexperience with rock concerts, the things I read, my father, never having been to public school, my temperament, the speakers tendency to assume  in all their talks that my main concerns in life centered around feeling unloved and struggling against the allures of smoking, drinking, drugs, pleasing the cool people, and lusting after young men (probably unfair to said speakers, but that’s sure how it seemed!). the fact that my calling does not involve evangelism they way they mean it (walking up to random people or my nonexistent non-christian friends and asking them if they know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior), and disagreements on theology (yes, it can be both a religion AND a relationship!).  So, generally speaking, I forgot the sermons, and resented the music.  Not such a good start to my Evangelical experience.

Then, there were four church Summer camps; One before Atlanta, and three after, along with two Winter camps.  Summer camp is my perfect example of almost getting it, but not quite.  I love Summer camp, up there in the mountains, with all the happy people, and the trees, and the games, learning to get along with the people, and the services; I would never complain about those camps, but for one thing: by most people’s accounts I was missing something essential.  Something so integral, it was not so much taught, as assumed and expected, were we truly seeking God.  As I understand it, this was the Camp Experience: often in tears, the participant realizes something essential, feels the presence of God, or re-dedicated his life to Christ.  After this life-changing experience, the camper’s concern is with keeping the lessons of his “spiritual high” after camp, when he must return to the daily grind of school, family, and work.  Every year, I would hear touching testimonies of this kind of revival taking place, and every year, while happy for the person, I would mostly be perplexed.  What were they talking about? Had I done something wrong?  Worse, half the time I wasn’t ever sure what valuable spiritual lesson I had learned during the course of the daily sermons and other various discussions of God.  When Mr. Moe (a youth leader) asked me after one such camp what I had learned, I was alarmed to discover I could not tell him.

I hate spiritual and emotional manipulation.  I’m not sure about other places, but at Evangelical youth rallies it is attempted all to often.  In a more cynical mood I might venture to say that the speakers at such places love having large crowds of enthusiastic and naive young people who trust them, so that they can exercise the power to lead these kids however they see fit.  Even On a better day, I definitely believe that there is something wrong with the preacher  I heard at Magic Mountain the first time I ever went there.  He was trying to challenge us I suppose, but it seemed more like he was trying to get us to doubt our faith – saying that we were not really saved.  I have since heard the exact same sermon at the Atlanta conference, probably  told by the same man.  He was saying something about John 3:16 being his least-favorite verse because we modern Americans misunderstand what the word “believe” means, and so we ought to act as though we are bitten by a deadly viper, and jump through some hoops, and be alarmed and emotional, and doubt our own belief, and run over to the basketball court and recommit our lives if we aren’t perfect Christians, and some other stuff along those lines.  He also introduced the logical conclusion of not having infant Baptism: children should not even become Christians and pray in repentance at all if they can not fully understand the true horror of sin.  Perhaps the man did some good; much of the audience got up, perhaps in tears, and rushed in a mob to where he sent them, and prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, and made confessions of faith, and talked to counselors and youth workers.  I went too, to my great shame.  I was not thinking of God.  I could not in any way discern God there, then or afterwards; it was all emotions and hormones and compulsion, and the power of ideas.  I could be wrong.  I don’t believe so though.

Last summer (2004), two years after Atlanta, I once again attempted the Evangelical Free Youth Conference, this time in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I had learned some things in the interim, and this time went much better.  I still didn’t agree with much.  I still found much of what they made us do rather silly.  Nevertheless, I learned things, not least of which being that I can indeed survive Evangelical Freedom at full strength, and was reminded of much which I am too often inclined to forget.  The group of students and teachers were great, and I don’t think a single one of them was as cynical as I had been.  Many of them spontaneously started evangelizing the local Mormons out of love and excitement.  There were also student-led prayer meetings, song times, and encouragement times.  The music was softer, the lasers not so irritating, the jumping and dancing less erratic, there was little pressure to convert to emotionalism, and pretty much everything seemed a little deeper.  I really loved being there, and was actually sad to have to leave.  Besides the better overall tone of the conference, I had greater resources for dealing with it all; last summer I was researching Christian history, what I needed to be reading, what I ought to allow myself to think, who I wished to become. 

The encouragement of all that, is that if Evangelical were to be the only kind of church I could ever be part of, things would improve, God would teach me, answers can be found, and acclimation is possible.  The problem is simply this: Salt Lake City was about as good as things get in my denomination, and I would really just as well be listening to liturgical chants in Latin in some mission somewhere by candlelight.  They still have a view of the Church which I vehemently disagree with.  It is good, but not complete; a correct balance is still lacking.

Evangelical Bible studies, trips, events, and sermons have this in common; they are continually answering the same questions, the ones I never asked, while never addressing the ones I would desperately love to learn the answer to.  That the questions I don’t care about are looked at is to their credit; there is certainly room in the church for more issues that only mine, and in truth there would be something suspicious about any that did not.  The thing I do not understand is how they  could so utterly ignore so many of the issues which do keep following me.  What ought to be doctrines have instead hidden themselves away as assumptions, and will not even be looked at.  That I am not allowed to sleep around or make out, or generally have any kind of sexual relationship until I’m married is not really an issue.  That legalism is wrong is understood.  I ought to be excited about following God cannot be mistaken.  However, I’ve never really come to understand how we are expected to interpret the Bible for ourselves when, if you get together five different people from five churches, who all believe in the inerrancy of Scripture on any difficult verse, you are likely to have six different opinions?   Catholics and Orthodox have been very forthcoming on their reasons against the Protestant view on this matter, yet I have been attending church my entire life, and going to youth groups and Bible studies for years, and have yet to ever hear it defended!  Why has all the acceptable tradition been tossed out along with the perversions of tradition?  Why must the Elders of my church take away even my advent wreath without asking?  Why should they steal the old prayers?  Why need they rid us of fast days?  What was so perilous and unscriptural about Christmas carols that they may no longer be song in December?  Most importantly, why don’t they answer?  Does nobody ask?  Has God abolished all of this?  Why didn’t He bother telling me?

 Because everyone is always going around saying that Christianity is a “relationship, not a religion,” I am hesitant to admit this, but I tend to relate to God first through His Church.  If I didn’t, none of these experiences I’ve been relating would have bothered me nearly so much as they have; I would have simply picked up a Bible, prayed some more, and ignored my disagreements.  I have seen several people do that, and rather envy them.  Of course, there is a definite need to know God beyond the Church; to pray daily, to read the Bible, to serve Him as best I am able.  None of that automatically discounts the meaning or importance of Christ’s Church.  We were asked to pick some of the most striking promises of the Gospels at Bible study a couple of months ago;  I chose: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”  In light of these things I have mentioned, I desperately both want and need a church which I can trust.  This I have known since around the time I read Orthodoxy, about the writer’s discovery of the Catholic church.  In finding Northwest Bible I have not done too badly – many of the people really do love and have a dynamic relationship with God, but as I have outlined above, it strikes me as good but not finished; as though the Church was broken at some time, and only pieces of it’s original birthright of Truth and power remained; that nothing was quite balanced after.  Nevertheless, nothing was so far fetched as to make me want to leave.  Well, not until last Fall.

To me, the 40 Days of Purpose campaign of Fall 2004 was a fatal breach of trust.  Was it not enough for the local iconoclasts that we have no pictures on our sanctuary walls, no pretty windows, no candles, no incense, no chants, no recitations of prayers or creeds, no liturgy, that we have only two holidays, that carols no longer lift our hearts come December; that even the wreath and Scripture readings of Nativity has been forgotten?  At least that is only a loss; Much of it may be considered in the tradition of the ascetics who gave up worldly beauty for a better remembrance of the more perfect beauty of God Himself.  Such things I can appreciate, but what does it mean to start something, without the advice or consent of the congregation, which adds, and possibly adds very wrongly.  What I speak of is simply this: last Fall, Northwest Bible instituted a forty day long intensive study of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.  Not only was this book preached on in services, but, in order that there might be no escape, every Bible study and youth group were also compelled to the study of the book.  We were faced with prepackaged, pre-digested opinions of some pastor somewhere, to whose church I would never go, for about an month and a half.

In the days of the early Church, various heresies were reviewed by ecumenical council and pronounced wrong and dangerous; as being beliefs which contradicted the teachings of most Christians at most times in most places. I have very little doubt that Rick Warren would be considered heterodox at the least (that we are held accountable for the souls of those who never heard about Christ, even if evangelism is not our calling?)  by any standard save the ever-evolving contemporary Protestant church, and certainly not to be taught in thirty thousand churches, which is apparently the extent of the influence of this “40 Days of Purpose.”  However, without any consideration of the highly questionable theology involved, without discussing or explaining why we should accept such things, but rather assuming we will all be excited and inspired, this text was introduced into my church.  What am I to make of all this?  Well, first I tried hiding from it; I left my Bible study, stopped attending College group, and read as little of the Purpose Driven Life as I could possibly get away with.  I also started looking at other churches that could not just change like that. 

To be honest, I wasn’t exactly looking very hard  For four months or so I pondered, read, prayed (though not so much as I would like to say I had), talked, especially with my father, complained,  and then pondered some more.  One day, completely by accident, I stumbled upon Orthodoxy.  I really have no idea what inspired me to look into it – I am almost compelled to say it was God.  This is what happened, so far as I remember:  I hadn’t visited any online message boards for several years, when one day it struck my fancy to go looking for one, particularly one about Christianity, and so searching I went.  After finding a likely looking suspect, I immediately started looking around, reading, and posting.  This board was for all denominations, and had separate areas where particular denominations could discuss among themselves and answer inquirer’s questions; among them was one entitled “the Ancient Way: Eastern Orthodoxy.”   Somehow or other I ended up there, and then, equally mysteriously, found myself looking up books on Orthodoxy, and found five, one of which was written for beginners: At the Corner of East and Now.   I read it cover to cover, and started the next, which was about on prayer remember Theophan the Recluse?).  What immediately struck me in all this was that every issue that had bothered me throughout my search for the truth of Christ’s Church was addressed and answered.  The more I read, the more Christianity made sense; all the essentials were the same, but suddenly they fitted into reality like a key in a lock.  Even issues which had only peripherally troubled me from time to time seemed to find their intended place, in harmony with everything else, and supporting the central mystery of the Incarnation.  Even beliefs which are held by all Christians are explained, and suddenly shine forth as fitting and right more than ever before.  In Orthodoxy (see above), G K Chesterton, spoke of how everything so perfectly confirmed, clarified, and supported everything which he had suspected all along, that he felt as though had he not re-discovered the Church, he would have surely have invented it for himself.  So too did  I feel upon encountering Eastern Orthodoxy; I still feel so.  In fact, everything falls into place so ideally, it seems almost that I need to be on guard more so than in my current church, lest I jump into this thing before determining it’s validity, and simply accept everything without first learning what it is I’m dealing with.  Amusingly enough, they seem to have foreseen that as well, and require a year-long catchumate, a kind of apprenticeship, before actually allowing membership.

“So,” you’re probably wondering, “what is it exactly that has you so convinced so quickly?”  In all truth I would have to answer “everything,” and everything is a hard thing to explain.  Of course, there are always the externals; the candles, the incense, the icons forming a picture of the “great cloud of witnesses,” the chanting, the liturgy, and everything else which celebrates the beauty of God and Creation – I am so excited that all that needn’t be “dead” if kept in it’s proper place and context.  There’s also the testimony of the Church through time, never nullifying what had been revealed before, never forgetting Holy Tradition or being forced to start over again – “Oh!”  Said I, “so I needn’t be alone in my passion for Church history, and perhaps it is not superfluous after all!”  The focus of the Liturgy is on God, not my feelings toward God, that too is excellent news.  The list could continue for a long time, and, judging by what I know so far, can only grow.  The biggest single thing that influenced me, though, was the wonderful sense of proportion and order: every truth has it’s place and time, we CAN reconcile seemingly opposing commands, virtues, and truths, and we can keep all good things, while still denouncing every evil.  God is not so narrow that we must choose between a religion and a relationship, or between the absolute and the subjective.  How wonderful! 

            So here I stand at an important crossroad of my like, on the point of leaving the house of my youth, and look out at what is before me; the oldest, truest, path in sight is that of Christian Orthodoxy, and I firmly intend to follow.  Therefore I continue to read, have started attending Liturgy, ask others, pray, think, talk, and look forward with eager anticipation to learning to know and love my God more and better under the instruction of His Church.

12 thoughts on “Spiritual Dissonance: a Testimony

  1. A good essay. Have there been any essential changes since then? Or a deepening of fidelity and understanding? Maybe you could do an addendum if anything significant has happened. I just re-read a couple of very short stories I did last year and thought they were good, or at least interesting. I think I will put some of my better stuff on my blog and try to add some new things. I don’t know if fatigue makes cowards of us all, but it makes some of us dim bulbs indeed. I hope you’re enjoying your classes this term.

  2. Excellent! I really enjoyed your essay, often responding to what I was reading with a “Yeah!”

    I’ve never liked that church saying, “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion”, because, well, it’s false. It would be closer to the truth, I guess, to say “Christianity is a religion about a relationship.”

  3. I have to admit you orthodox do have better theology when it comes to original sin…I can’t say I’ve had the same experiences as you but that’s because I grew up catholic.

    Just as a friendly response, this is my corollary to your post (my blog entry in response to your blog entry):

    My own personal opinion is that churches like NWBC are very good in and of themselves, but they lack the structure and/or means to successfully mature people who use religion as a crutch for other life problems, and often times these people end up in church leadership. I don’t think the answer is to try to fix people, but to have good leaders in the church to set a healthy alternative example of living healthy lives. (and not meddling is very important in this).

    The best source I’ve found is “Toxic Faith” by Steve Arterburn. The inside cover says,
    “When religion becomes a means to avoid or control life, it becomes toxic. Those who possess a toxic faith have stepped across the line from a balanced perspective of God to an unbalanced faith in a weak, powerless or uncaring God. They seek a God to fix every mess, prevent every hurt, and mend every conflict.”

    • Hmm… I find the terms you’re using interesting. But I don’t think I understand what you’re saying: what do you mean, about “religion as a crutch?”

  4. I’m thinking I’d better write the sequel – but am not sure I can. So… I’ll give it a bit of a try and see if the result makes any sense.

  5. after sleeping on it I’m even that correct anyways. I temporarily retract my comment until later. I’ll try to be more specific in a future post.

  6. I thought a bit more about why I didn’t like the terms you were using above, and I think it’s because it’s the language of psychology, rather than Christianity. So, even if it may be true to say a person is “using religion as a crutch,” it seems both more precise and more in line with Christianity to say that they have particular vices or sins or whatnot that are interferring with their ability to live as Christians. Like, say I was a music leader, and I got my sense of validation from putting on impressive shows in the church, but in the process was steamrolling over others who wanted some non-showey hymns. On the one hand you could say I was using my minestry as a crutch – I needed to feel important, and that’s how I was doing it. On the other hand, you could say that I was beset with the sin of vainglory, and that was leading me to hinder others’ worship of GOd.

    The reason I would prefer to say that I was being vainglorious, rather than that I was immature and seaking validation, is that in the case of the former, I have a specific thing to repent of: a kind of pride. I don’t know how I could repent of being immature; I suppose I’d just hope to grow out of it eventually. Then, if I recognize that I have a sin, and it has a certain effect, I could realize that it’s not really the music that’s at issue, but rather my ego, and perhaps I could learn a bit of humility, and be kind to those who are finding my work to be a distraction.

  7. Good points. Although I definitely disagree with what I posted a few days ago, having had time to think about it, I still feel there are some issues that can be dealt with in the language of psychology. Note that I also have no problem with calling your example “sin” or “vainglory” but I am also interested in how to change this. (you may argue that to change is a choice, I would respond yes, a choice you have once Christ sets you free from the bondage of sin AND you follow his example.)

    I refer to David Bentley Hart who says “the Eastern tendency has typically been to read certain New Testament metaphors for sin and salvation almost strictly in terms of civil law concerning slavery – the “debt” of the bondsman who is enslaved in the house of death, but who is “redeemed” from slavery by the “ransom” required for manumission – the Western tendency has been to read those same metaphors in terms of criminal law as well, with its concern for forensic culpability and retribution.”

    The way I read him, to be enslaved in sin is to have certain patterns of being, habits, so to speak, which inevitably contribute to sin. We are not guilty for having these patterns, just like a bondsman is not guilty in the court of law. So I do see room for the language of psychology as being just as important as spirituality or reason in maturing away from sin.

    • Hart’s take is interesting – EO folks in my experience usually like the metaphor of doctors and hospitals and healing illnesses a good deal. As to how to get out of a sin – well, that’s always difficult. It’s rather less so when you include Confession a strong community, and obedience. Perhaps my aversion to psychological language is just personal – it seems easy enough to look at the composition of my psyche and explain why I behave as I do, and then just shrug and figure it’s not so bad, really, and is kind of interesting, so I have no reason to work on it. But if I have to show up at confession every month, and figure out what all my sins have been, and realize that they’re the same sins I confessed last time, and then I’m given an assignment (penance) – I’m rather more likely to do something about it. But having a system with spiritual fathers is important to that as well. In the example from earlier, I could go up to Fr. John and tell him “I’m being vainglorious – I’m not letting anyone else sing, and everything becomes about how nice I sound.” And he might ask me to stop singing in church for a week, or to sing more simply, or something else. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I become good all at once. Large churches make things more difficult as well, I think. Is this on the right track with your comment?

      • yes I think that is on track. I think the difference lies in the fact that you are not talking about anything harmful. You were accepted in both places but did not feel at home in the former. And there are many reasons why the EO church (and especially penance) is a good fit for you. But I wanted to bring up an additional point about what you name “spiritual and emotional manipulation” in evangelical circles. To me, “spiritual and emotional manipulation” is like alcohol. It is very good in moderation (quite good), and for most people it is not harmful in excess, but for a small minority, it can be dangerous in excess because they can use it to avoid life (or in the case of cults use it to gain power) That’s all.🙂

  8. p.s. I am by no means asking you to use psychological language yourself, just like I am not asking you to convert to Protestantism.

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