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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The Balancing Act of Being and Doing (Anxiety and Prayer, part 2)

By Joe LaGuardia

In her memoir Leaving Church, spiritual author Barbara Brown Taylor talks about churches walking the fine line between putting people to work and encouraging people to take Sabbath rest, promoting spiritual growth and affirming that God loves us as we are, and attracting people to come to worship while being passionate about sending people out to join Christ at work in the world.

If churches get off balance on one side — say on the Sabbath, the affirmation, and the sending — then we make Christianity come off too easily, discipleship without a cost as the German ethicist Bonhoeffer might say.  Teeter to the other side — the works, the growth, and the gathering — then we threaten to forget that our faith is just as much about being as it is doing.

Taylor writes, “I thought that being faithful was about becoming someone other than who I was . . . and it was not until this project failed that I began to wonder if my human wholeness might be more useful to God than my exhausting goodness.”

In other words, what good are we to be ministers and missionaries of the gospel if we are exhausted all of the time—how do we, as a church, find that balance?

I found this question pertaining to balance lingering under the biblical words that span from Isaiah 62 to Isaiah 63.  In Isaiah 62, God encourages Israel to put restlessness to good use (I address this more fully in part 1 of this series) .  When we are restless or working hard, anxious or unable to focus, Isaiah says to use that energy to pray.  “Take no rest,” Isaiah says to Israel, “all you who pray to the Lord, and give the Lord no rest until he completes his work” (v. 6).

In Isaiah 63, the prophet invokes a different strategy—those who focus on the Lord and righteousness by turning restless minds and busy hands towards the Lord in prayer, will in fact find Sabbath rest in the Lord just as God’s people did centuries before:

“As with cattle going down into a peaceful valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest” (v. 14).

As leaders in the church, we are stewards of a complex and growing congregation—the more programming and people we attract, the more we are called on to serve or to delegate that service.  My prayer, however, is that church—and the things that you do individually—is life-giving.  I hope that it is a source of joy and, when restlessness does come your way, it motivates you to pray, seek Sabbath rest, and seek the Lord’s face.

Ministry is about who we are, not only about what we do.  Fourteenth-century Mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote that what we do should not form who we are; rather, who we are ought to embolden what we do.   We have to put the horse before the cart, and get our spiritual ducks in a row before releasing the ducks to take flight.  Let’s not neglect the balance that the Lord calls us all to  have as we live—together as a church—in Christ.

Turn Anxiety, Restlessness into Prayer (part 1)

By Joe LaGuardia

Because I love Zion, I will not keep still.  Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem, I cannot remain silent.  I will not stop praying for her until her righteousness shines like the dawn…O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually.  Take no rest, all you who pray to the Lord” (Isaiah 62:1, 6 NLT).

I have grown up in the church assuming that restlessness was not a good thing.  I have struggled with anxiety, and it comes out in various restless ways: fidgeting, pacing, reading everything in sight, moving about.  I have also resisted this anxiety in various ways: prayer, contemplation, meditation, Bible Study, relaxation techniques, vacations, and television.

But it has been a long journey and, after a dissertation on spiritual formation and many silent retreats, that restlessness is still difficult to ignore and remains just under the surface of my life.

Perhaps this restlessness is not something that is all that bad, however.  Maybe it is just as much a part of me as is God’s image in which I was created.  People say that God doesn’t make junk, so maybe that restlessness is a part of God’s design for me.

Recently, I was reading my Bible during my devotions and stumbled on some verses in Isaiah that caught my attention (62:1-6; see above).  This portion of Isaiah records a time when Israel was all but lost in exile.  There was judgment, but hope was on the way.  Destruction and diaspora were imminent, but God promised a new age when Israel would return to Jerusalem and live in peace among all nations.

Isaiah 62 speaks of restoration not by way of war, but by prayer.  God promises to set up watchmen who will pray “continually”.  It invites others to pray without rest, and stresses prayer as a way to keep God from resting too (v. 7).  Restlessness was not something to avoid, but to use on behalf of interceding for God’s people and the nation, for the culmination of God’s promises to come.

This I read in the New Spirit-Filled Life Study Bible.  The inspirational devotion related to this text states that Isaiah was “alert to the character and ways of God” as he takes “stock with a spirit of urgent restlessness, refusing to keep silent before God” (p. 883).  Restlessness, in short, encourages a “true Spirit of prayer.”

I never imagined that my restlessness–this unyielding demon with whom I’ve wrestled my whole life–may in fact be an angel urging me to pray for others, for God to act, and for revival in my own community and church.  Rather than rustling in the bed at night, perhaps I need to pray.  Instead of fidgeting, I should clasp my hands and bow my head to talk to God.  Rather than pacing, I should praise God for “delighting” in us and calling us his beloved (Isaiah 62:4).

It is a novel thought, and perhaps I’ll try it.  Are you restless?  If so, use it as fuel to pray.  You too may be the watchman or watchwoman that God has called to intercede on behalf of loved ones, neighbors, and the lost in your midst.