A Reading Life (pt 8): Crisis of Faith and the Dark Night of the Soul

Image result for experiencing god henry blackabyBy Joe LaGuardia

Have you ever read a book because everyone else is reading it?  Harry Potter.  Twilight.  Tuesdays with Morrie.  The Purpose Driven Life. Fifty Shades of Grey.  Well, maybe not that one…  I have never been one to read what everyone else is reading, except this one time when I went through Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby.

Experiencing God is a great study.  It is in-depth and moving; it awakens faith and puts it into action.  But when it comes to putting that powder keg into the hands of a college student who also, by chance, is experiencing a crisis of faith, it can become dangerous.

A crisis of faith erupts when people move (in the words of Walter Brueggemann) from orientation to disorientation.  This is how it works: When a person grows up believing things that she has been taught, those things solidify into a worldview.  When the person confronts things as an adult that conflicts with those beliefs, it threatens the worldview and forces a re-evaluation of those facts.  This creates grief, anger, and crisis.  It can also lead to hurt, confusion, and rebellion (as in a season that includes coming-of-age).  The person moves from orientation to disorientation and, like heroes who must confront monsters from the past or from within, find that she is far from home.  A cross-roads arises, and the choice is to move forward in uncertainty and greater faith, or return to the adolescent mind in which naivety requires ignoring new information.

College is a time of disorientation for many people.  Students are learning new things, learning how to think critically, and questioning truths that they have assumed for years.  For Christians, this movement can result in a crisis of faith, what St. John the Cross called a Dark Night of the Soul.  It can be, if someone finds a coach or spiritual guide, a rite of passage that broadens faith, creates empathy for a hurting world, and opens people up to a God who is much bigger than they first assume God to be.

My second year of college was one long Dark Night.  I was learning new things in my religion classes, while questioning the faith of my youth.  I was confronting the doctrines of my home church–a Presbyterian church–and discovering a new Baptist paradigm.  I was trying to learn the Reformed theology of that tradition (Presbyterian) and coming up short.  Like Martin Luther whose faith waned under hardship of his Catholicism, I was reforming faith and a very different journey.

Enter Experiencing God, which intends to ignite a new way to live by faith.  Blackaby’s premise is that God is calling people to join Him at work in the world, and you cannot stay in the same place you’ve lived for your entire life.  You must, like Moses or Abraham, hear God’s call, respond, and move into a place in which the Holy Spirit guides you.

At the time, I took this a little too literally — again, the adolescent mind cannot always understand deep spiritual truths and differentiate it from metaphor — and I thought God was calling me somewhere else.  I was searching for answers: Is God calling me to the mission field, to leave a life of biblical scholarship behind?  Was Jesus asking me to deny my family and go into the ministry in some far-off land?  How was I to leave my old life behind–toss my CD collection?  Stop watching movies?  “Kiss dating goodbye”?

At the time I was dating the woman who would become my wife, and she received the short end of the stick of this journey of faith.  I waffled in my relationship with her, and my emotions ebbed and flowed about marriage.  One week I knew I couldn’t live without her; the next week, I thought I heard God telling me to leave everything–and everyone–and go to Africa.  It was a crazy time.  Experiencing God was not helpful.  At all.

My best friend and my father had to step in and coach me.  My best friend endured my insecurities and venting, and comforted me in all hours of the night.  He told me that God leaves a lot up to us, that the Christ-follower actually has a great deal of agency in decisions.  If I chose to be with Kristina, then so be it–it wasn’t as if there was that one “perfect girl” out there for me; I had to choose to commit to her, and that choice–rather than some predestined relationship–would be more valuable anyway.

A few months later, sensing my anxiety and Kristina’s frustration, my father sat me down for a serious talk.  He, an armchair theologian who rarely cracked open a Bible, laid it out straight: “Joey,” he said, “This girl ain’t going to stick around too much longer if you keep going back and forth.  She is a great one, and you should marry her.  She is special.”

When I brought up my feelings about God, he persisted: “All I know is that when I watch you two together, there is something special.  Don’t let Satan deceive you, and don’t let go of her.  Ever.”

That conversation sealed the deal.  I did end up going on a short-term mission trip to Africa for a month, to get my foot in the waters of missions, only to come back and clarify that a life of travel was not for me!  Two weeks later, on August 13th–my wife’s birthday–I asked Kristina to marry me.

I tossed Experiencing God, and I learned how to trust in the Holy Spirit, my intuition, and my support system.  I also learned that confusion, disruption and deception are the weapons of Satan, the Father of Lies.  I got through that crisis of faith, and became a whole new person.  I wrestled with God and became a man.

Advertisements

Getting back to basics

By Joe LaGuardia

It is important for Christians — clergy included — to get back to basics sometimes.  You go through the journey of faith, learn new things, meet new people, take on new ministries and adventures.  Life happens, and it seems that life happens too quickly.  You have to slow down.  You may need a season to get back to basics.

This happens to me about once a year.  I read books, write sermons, have conversations, go on retreats, pray and do Bible studies–personally and in groups–but then I hit a personal spiritual wall, and I long for simpler times.  I usually devote a few months to read something that is basic, a beginners-type of book.  Sometimes it is on the Bible, other times it is on spiritual formation–usually something tied to fields related to my doctoral work.

A couple years ago, I read Spiritual Theology by Diogenes Allen.  I picked it up from a Catholic bookstore in Georgia, and regretted that I did not know the book existed before then.  It would have been mighty useful for my dissertation (on spiritual formation and caregivers) back in 2008-2009.  It was a great, basic book on spirituality.  It brought be back to the basics, a good refresher in more familiar waters.

This past season I’ve been reading An Introduction to the Old Testament by James King West.  Published in 1980, some of the scholarship is dated and it is from an ecumenical school of thought, but the writing is good and I am enjoying West’s archeological and anthropological insights.

I am editing and publishing a book of essays on the Old Testament, so I am also reading the introduction to make sure I have all of my facts straight.  Thanks to this basic book, which I picked up at my local used-book store for a dollar, I already found one error in my own book– it was Amnon, not Absalom, who raped Tamar.  If I remember correctly, I think Absalom might have killed Amnon for it.

Getting back to basics helps us remember information that can get lost in translation over time.  It can also correct falsehoods that entangle us or befuddle us–not because we intend to believe things that are false, but because when we juggle too much information, it tends to meld together.  It helps us re-align our priorities and put first-things first.  For a preacher who has a head full of stuff, I find that getting back to basics helps me de-clutter in my brain.

This is not just for preachers.  A seasons-cleaning can help us in our relationship with Jesus too.  Sometimes we study about Jesus so much, we forget to spend time with Jesus in a personal way.  We talk about God or study God’s Word often, but forget to make time for God in prayer and worship.  Getting back to the basics strips us of all the chaff that clogs our spiritual arteries in this information, hyper-technological age.

What do you need to do to get back to basics?  What does Jesus want you to jettison in your knowledge about him because it gets in the way of getting closer to him?

An Independence Day Prayer

By Matt Sapp

As we pause to celebrate our country this week, I am grateful for the unique promise of liberty granted to Americans and for those who have dedicated their lives to upholding it over the centuries.

But I’m also struck this year by the work required of each generation to nurture and protect the Christian values and common bonds that give meaning to our freedom. One of the ways we do that is through the language that we use.

The way we talk about and to one another can either strengthen our common bonds or fray them, and I’m worried that the tenor of our national discourse is too often doing the latter right now as political differences and partisanship bury the fruits of the spirit under a mountain of divisive rhetoric.

So I want to suggest a prayer that asks Christians to lead the way in bringing Christian values—things like love, gentleness and self-control—back into our public discourse as we celebrate 242 years of liberty.

I hope you’ll join me in this prayer:

AS A CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

God of our common faith and ruler of the nations,

As we pause for the Fourth of July, we are grateful for our country, for the place you’ve given us in it, and for your presence among us. We pray that you would guide us as Christians to seek the best interests of our nation with the benefit of your blessing—and to engage our work as citizens in a way that acknowledges that you are God and Father of us all.

As Christians in America, we pray hopefully for a future of peace and shared prosperity consistent with the dawning reality of your kingdom here on earth.

As Christians in America, we pray collectively that we would use our words in ways that promote your values, and we repent of the words that we have used in error.

As Christians in America, we pray that you will guide us to act collectively in ways that inspire unity as we make intentional efforts to heal the divisions among us.

As Christians in America, we pray that you will use us to take the lead in building good will and common purpose among Americans of all political stripes; among rich and poor, male and female, young and old, rural and urban, immigrants and native-born; and among people of every race and from every nation.

All of this can be summed up very simply: God, Bless America, and use the shared efforts of Christians to do it.

AS INDIVIDUAL FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST

God who reigns in me,

As a dutiful citizen of my country and a faithful disciple in your kingdom, I pray that you will lead me to be generous and forgiving as you are generous and forgiving—especially toward those with whom I disagree.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray each day that my words and actions will serve to calm rather than inflame the fears of those around me.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray that you will help me to be the kind of person who inspires the best in others rather than someone who seeks to exploit the worst in them.

As a dutiful citizen and faithful disciple, I pray that you will bless me with the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it; with the humility to admit wrongs and the dignity to seek forgiveness; and with compassion for those who struggle and a genuine concern for the least among us.

All of this can be summed up very simply: God, Bless America, and use me as your instrument to do it,

AMEN.

As we pause to honor our country next week, I’m praying that God’s love would be reflected in the way that Christians engage their work as citizens—and that Christians would take the lead in welcoming charity back into our common discourse.

God is alive and present in our world and in our nation, and we have the privilege of nurturing and protecting the values that God has entrusted to our care for this generation.

With humble gratitude for the blessings of liberty and the means through which to preserve it, we remember that the future ultimately isn’t ours to fight over. The future, like the present, belongs to God. And it’s already been decided.

Happy Fourth of July.