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.

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And the Church went away, grieved


By Joe LaGuardia

In Mark 10, a rich young man asked Jesus how to possess eternal life.  Jesus told him to follow through on the Ten Commandments.   The man was religious and had a routine.  He served God and made charitable contributions to society.  “But there is one thing you lack,” Jesus told him, “Sell all you have…”

The lesson is filled with irony.  A rich man had lack, and the lack was the willingness to part with all of the things that got in God’s way.  Being religious was not enough.  Doing good works was not enough.  The man was so busy consuming things that he thought eternal life was just another commodity to own.  But eternal life is not a product; it is a gift to receive with an open and expectant heart.

The man did not understand Jesus’ command.  How did he lack something?  He owned everything–and the Bible says that he walked away from Jesus “grieved.”  He failed to understand something St. Augustine learned long ago, that sometimes, “Our hands are so full of things, there is nowhere for God to put new blessings.”

I studied this portion of scripture at the same time that I have been reflecting on the role of grief in the lives of churches.  This idea of church grief came out of a pastor’s retreat I attended in late September.  Bill Wilson, director of the Center for Healthy Churches and facilitator of said retreat, mentioned that there was a consultant working with churches that emphasized grief in the lives of congregations.  Pastors new to a congregation or pastors exiting one need to know how grief shapes community.

The notion is very simple: Churches grieve during transitions (both clergy transitions as well as ministerial ones), and churches do not instinctively know how to handle grief.  There is little conversation about what hurts, and grief comes in the form of lament: Why do we not have the same amount of people in the pews as when the church was in the “Golden Age”?  Why has the church lost so much cultural influence in society?  Why are we losing entire generations–“Where are all of the young people?”  These are questions born out of grief, not out of intentional strategic outreach.

They are symptomatic; but as all grief turns out to be, they can lead to greater opportunities rather than hindrances.  Grief can be life-giving or a burden; it is all based on how we respond to it–and most churches do not respond appropriately.

Ministers who miss these emotional cues are ill-prepared to help churches transition into new, life-giving seasons of ministry and missions.  Churches that get stuck on the past forget what God calls them to be in the future.  Congregations turn insular, power struggles erupt, and conflict damages outreach.

“There is one thing you lack…” is not only a call for individuals, it is a challenge for churches to let go of the things that no longer work or sustain growth.  Our congregations are so filled with baggage and programs of yesteryear there is no room–and no vision–for God to give the new blessings that propel churches into a new era of ministry.

Ministry is not going to look the same as it did decades ago.  The church must now work from the margins of society, not the center of it; and it must advocate for an outward-focused mission that joins others on the margins rather than cozying up with people and politicians who wield power from the center.  Centralized power exploits, discriminates, and sustains status quos at the expense of justice and liberation.  The church stumbles when it forgets its place; it is not rich, and it lacks that posture of open hands and hearts in which we look to God for our strength.

We have become the church of Laodicea, not Philadelphia.  We think we are rich, and we have pushed Jesus out of our churches because we are too full of our own pride.  But Jesus stands at the door and knocks.  Hope is not lost yet.

Pastors have to play two roles in the church these days: one is the role of visionary prophet who dreams new dreams and casts new visions.  The other is to be a grief counselor that helps put old ways of doing things to rest, to purge us of baggage that takes too much attention or that fills time and hands.  It is as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Pastors must facilitate life and death.  The only other alternative is to remain stagnate, to walk in perpetual grief.

 

A Pastor appreciates the hymns: “Be Still, My Soul”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

When my father passed away tragically four years ago and we were planning his service with ministers at his home church in Staten Island, New York.  I had only one request.  I did not want to speak, preach, or pray.  I did not want to give a eulogy or read scripture.

All I wanted was one congregational hymn to be played since I knew that the rest of the service incorporated contemporary music.  I chose Be Still, My Soul, set to the tune of Finlandia.

Be Still, My Soul certainly seemed out of place at the time.  The rest of my family did not know it.  Its slow–(and, I would argue, haunting)–cadence threatened to slow down an otherwise long funeral.  Why sing something nobody heard of, and why sing a song that was set to Irish, nineteenth-century music?  We even had doubts that the minister of music would be able to play it, let alone fit it into the Order of Worship.  But, as I mentioned, it was my one and only request.

During the funeral, people spoke.  The pastor preached for a good while.  We did have praise and worship, and rightly so, for all funerals for believers are worship services to the God who is giver and author of our lives.  But it was Be Still, My Soul that made me feel right at home, right where I belonged.  It was my way of bringing my tradition–my church family (nearly 800 miles away)–into our worship of God that day.

When we sang the song it was lovely.  It was indeed haunting, and it did invoke a theological voice that otherwise would have been lacking.  I barely sang it, and most of the time I held my nephew who wept in my arms.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change God faithful will remain.

Here I was, stricken into speechlessness at my father’s death, nearly drowning under a deluge of thoughts that things will never be the same, and the hymn communicated what I did not have the words or strength to say: That although my family and I were facing the worst situation we had ever faced–in the midst of change and grief and pain–God is faithful and God would provide.  We worshiped God together that day, but only this song, this hymn, reminded us about who God is and who we are to God.

The second verse goes on to declare that life is full of mystery, that in darkness we can still stand solidly on Christ who upholds our confidence and hope, to whom waves and wind–the chaos of life–still obey.  The song nurtured me as I nurtured my nephew.  My father died in a dangerous world, but in the embrace of God and each other, we were “safe and blessed.”

I have heard it said that the songs shared at funerals touch the lives of so many people who sing those same songs on random Sunday mornings in worship services and churches across America.  People still cry, for example, when we sing I Come to the Garden Alone because it reminds them of Grandma’s funeral or Father’s celebration of life.

For me, Be Still, My Soul will forever have that peculiar hypnotic hold upon my life.  It is more than captivating, it holds me captive to the Spirit–for it is within this song that I find myself as beloved, as hopeful, or rather hope-filled: “Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”  Until that day, we have a song to sing, and that’s good enough for now, especially when words fail us.