The Journey Away and the Journey Back
In October 2001 I took a train journey from Washington DC to Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of a research trip. The journey was meant to take about ten hours but it was at least twelve hours before I hauled a very numb posterior off the train. Not knowing how the American train system worked and having no map of the route (I relied on town signs flashing by to get some sort of feel of where I was) the journey was in many ways an unknown quantity for me. Images raced past my window that previously had only been film scenes or pictures in the National Geographic - the colours of early autumn, the Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay, Richmond, marines at Quantico, cotton fields, and southern colonnaded houses.
My travelling companions snored, ate, crooned gospel songs, talked - sounding like Forrest Gump - and came and went as the train stopped and started with great frequency. Day turned to night, and as the train plunged into darkness I lost all sense of my bearings. Finally I arrived not knowing who to look for as my pick up.
Two weeks later I boarded the same train for the return trip. How different it was. The system, the scenery, everything was familiar. Whilst the trip was scheduled to be much longer (fifteen hours, because I was going straight through to New York) the time whizzed by.
Still, some things were different about that journey. Sitting on the other side of the train I saw everything from another perspective. Where I was ending up was different from where I had begun. Most importantly of all, I was on the way home again.
Over the last four to five years I have been on a similar two-way journey, although the second stage of the journey is by no means complete. At various points it feels like it has been a journey away from (and back to) belief and faith in God, away from church, and also away from and back to myself.
My journey has not been a neat chronological package. I keep oscillating between 'towards' and 'away from'. Increasingly I experience a growing sense of discomfort with and alienation from the culture of church. At the same time other events and struggles have left their mark on me - most notably a long, unresolved struggle with infertility, the traumatic deaths of four of my wife Anne's family in a car accident three years ago, and the death of my father last year. And of course, some of this struggle has the classic hallmark of mid-life transition, with a dash of the serious blues thrown in.
Things intensified in the last two years, as we moved residence, the pace of life slowed, and I had time to reflect more fully. This has been a painful and often lonely experience, but one that I am glad to be having.
I am not suggesting that there is any particular merit in my story or that it is unique. It is, however, a cautionary tale. We tend to compartmentalise our faith, separating it off from the other elements of our lives - consequently we are surprised when the circumstances of our lives begin to infringe upon and upset our perception and experience of faith. Whilst my details are unique and personal to me, some of the underlying issues and dynamics are common to many of us. I hope, therefore, that my story might be helpful to others.
I grew up in a Presbyterian church-going family in Oamaru. My life was comfortable and stable. That background has probably stood me in good stead in more recent years. I managed to keep any serious notions of being a Christian well at bay until about 1980 when I was at university in Dunedin. Influenced by a Catholic friend, I began to take the Christian faith in which I had grown up more seriously.
Over the following two decades I have experienced growth as a Christian in the broad contexts of evangelical Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist churches, the fringes of the Charismatic movement, the Bible College of New Zealand and interdenominational youth work in particular. All have been good experiences and I don't look back with too many regrets.
During that time I have been particularly energised by notions of the 'here and not yet' Kingdom of God, and of Christian community; also by contact with various missionary personnel and contexts; exposure to the issues and experience of the urban poor in Asia; and, more recently, by writings on the Gospel and culture, on postmodernism, and on feminist, cultural and religious history. Faith, for me, has not been a shallow experience. Further, I have always held the view that there are many grey, uncertain areas with respect to belief in God, and have held such views with little personal tension. And yet, with all of this, I have struggled significantly with my faith and, for the time being, am not attending church. How could this be?
There have been a number of different things that have signposted my journey away - that is, my growing disaffection with faith either as I understood it or as it was being expressed around me. I increasingly felt like I was sitting further and further out on the margins of evangelical/charismatic expressions of Christianity. In a number of situations with young people, for instance, I found myself at odds with how they interpreted the Bible.
Gradually it dawned on me that what I was reacting to was not what they were saying, but how other people were teaching them. I tried to counterbalance this, but often felt like I was pushing water uphill with a rake. One incident in particular served to accentuate this feeling of alienation.
On one of my regional visits as a youth worker I was asked to take part in a lunchtime panel in a high school, where the students got to 'grill a youth worker'. It's not an activity for the faint hearted, but it can be fun. As expected the usual sorts of questions came up, including a question on evolution/creation and one to do with other religions. My answers did not reflect the 'party line', because I wanted the students to think about the issues and to see that not all problems faced in life have black and white answers.
Afterwards I was taken to task by one of the other panel members, who had given answers at the other end of the scale. His view was that young people needed clear answers to help them make sense of the world. Further, he based his responses on a particular interpretation of the Bible that, for him, was non-negotiable. We had to agree to disagree.
On reflection, such moments were occurring with increasing frequency. I felt like I was straddling an ever-widening chasm, and at times feared that I was being forced to choose which side to stay on and, consequently, which Christian label to choose. The sad thing is that such a chasm should never have existed in the first place.
Other aspects of my journey related to our personal circumstances. Thankfully, in our struggle with infertility, we had the companionship of friends and work colleagues who loved and supported us. Yet for me the result was the fracturing of things previously taken for granted. Over a period of time my expectations of God gradually seeped away. God was supposed to intervene, but all I felt and heard was an empty silence.
Prayer and praying became increasingly problematic. Parts of the Bible seemed to become redundant. (I see now that what I was really questioning were biblical interpretations that assumed the normalcy of God's miraculous intervention in everyday affairs.) Aspects of church worship (certain songs and words used to describe God) became meaningless. I was left with an increasingly shrunken view of God and how I was meant to relate to God in everyday life.
Just as big a challenge came through the circumstances of the family deaths in 1999. The issue that emerged was not 'Why did it happen?' (the clichéd question that people never seem to get beyond) but 'Was God relevant?' Some people assumed that our faith must have made a difference in how we coped. Maybe it did, but that was not the overriding impression I was left with.
Over a period of two weeks I watched the wider family come together in grief and support and love, in a way that I had never experienced before. The love and support given was exactly what I would have expected to issue forth from Christian faith, and yet such a faith was not part of the equation for any of them. As I reflected on this it seemed that belief in God was potentially irrelevant and redundant.
Down track I have had to face for the first time the fact that perhaps God is simply a human construction, a useful and necessary figment of our imaginations. That left me with further questions too hard to contemplate.
One of the questions I couldn't find an answer to, as a result of all this, was 'Why would I want to introduce anyone else to Jesus?' I mentioned this to someone once and all he could say was that, given my most immediate background in youth work, the answer should be most obvious. Unfortunately he was reacting to my words, rather than to the deeper issues I was struggling with.
Intellectually I knew all the answers to the question "Why should I evangelise?" but at heart I couldn't work out my own response. It remains an unresolved question for me at the moment.
The notion that evangelism is the most important of Christian activities is just one of a wider set of assumptions about Christian faith that are often conveyed unwittingly in church and other settings. These include the call for zealousness and enthusiasm in being a Christian; the idea of 'first class' and 'second-class' Christianity; and a denigration of the world and culture around us.
Perhaps it is a measure of how fragile I have been feeling that these things have most aggravated me over the last couple of years in particular. These, plus my overall struggles with belief, have meant that church worship on a Sunday has become more and more painful and deeply unsatisfying.
At the same time my historical research has served to emphasise, for me, that much of what I am struggling with is a deeply ingrained evangelical culture dating back at least to the late nineteenth century. As I have read the material I have found myself inwardly shaking my fist and feeling quite angry and resentful.
Often such things as quiet times, ways of praying, the call to surrender, the exhortation to 'do our utmost for his highest', are taken to be biblical imperatives. I now tend to think that, rather, they reflect how faith was expressed by a group of people at a certain moment in history, and are not necessarily dogma for us to follow.
Finally, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, I have had moments when I have simply wanted to recklessly throw it all away and to live life entirely on my own terms. And yet I haven't.
This year I have felt something begin to change within me. It is intangible and unfinished and non-engineered. I feel like I am on a return journey, the destination of which is as yet unknown. It is a journey marked by some new road-signs.
Possibly I have turned a corner for a range of reasons. One has been the help I have received through spiritual direction. I have had a listening ear, which has been non-judgemental and which has given me some tools for assessing both the past and the present. This, along with more than the usual dollop of discretionary time, has helped me to gain some perspective on my disaffection, on the phenomenon of mid-life, and on my entire journey with God and others thus far. At the same time I am coming to terms with my questions about the reality and existence of God.
At an indefinable point in time I have somehow been able to make the simple decision again that God is real (don't ask me how), and that if the journey thus far has been legitimate, then it makes sense to see where it will now lead. This is not necessarily a rational decision, but simply a right one - a bit like Frodo's decision to venture into the dark lands of Mordor with the ring in a certain book/film that we are so familiar with at present.
I still waver at times between belief and disbelief, but at the same time I have a deep-seated impression that I am simply and fundamentally in need of God. What is reassuring is that this return journey is one that I am working out with God. It is not the result of methods prescribed for me by the latest Christian self-help manual.
To start with, we have made the difficult but necessary decision not to attend church. How long for we don't know. It has been a liberating decision: Sunday mornings are no longer dreaded and we feel rested at the end of the day. Our alternative to church at present is a no-strings-attached house group. Very occasionally I attend an Anglican communion service.
I have altered how I approach God devotionally. Maybe two or three times a week I read an appropriate daily service, psalm or prayer from the Anglican Prayer Book. Sometimes ten minutes of silence, and the noises that infiltrate that silence from outside the house, are all that I need.
At other times I have simply gone for a walk, and enjoyed the very spiritual act of striding out amongst trees, leaves, traffic fumes and noise into crisp air, sunshine or rain. At the moment I very rarely pick up the Bible in its own right, but I know that someday that will change.
Praying comes more slowly. I am content to read a prayer in the Prayer Book, or a pre-written prayer from somewhere else. More recently my prayer for the day has often been a simple "Thank you God for the gift of today". Interestingly, international events have helped me to begin praying again - particularly the Middle East crisis, and events in Pakistan. Over the last two years I have also taken a long time to read slowly through one or two good books which have helped to give me perspective.
I find myself deeply moved and fortified by very simple and mundane things. I was recently walking in Rotorua's Redwood Forest, and found myself crying in delight at the magnificence of it all. I had to quickly compose myself before the next group of Japanese tourists came walking past.
At other times I catch myself smiling as I watch our cat Albert stretched out in simple enjoyment or in cute mode in front of the fire. Our nephews and nieces are good to be with. Day by day I cook the meals, cut the firewood and potter around the house (as well as write my thesis!) It won't be forever, but right now the simplicity of it all is satisfying.
Within all this I find myself celebrating the materiality of life - things like the physicality of the environment, autumn colours, flowers, plants and growing vegetables, smells and sounds, the impact of beautiful things, art and architecture, good coffee, chocolate and a glass of wine, animals and their companionship, and books. I call these sacramental experiences. They convey to me a sense of God's goodness and creativity, and remind me of the responsibilities given to us for their use and care.
I am more firmly convinced than ever that God wants us to celebrate our humanity as something that is God-given. I now understand that what we experienced together as a family, through the traumatic events of 1999, was an expression of what should be in all of us because we are made in God's image. I value now, more than ever, the simple act of being together with friends and family, with no other agenda than to enjoy and support one another.
I find myself keenly alert to the fingerprints of God in a whole range of media. Last year I stumbled across an exhibition of 14th and 15th century Italian art whilst at Yale University, and was quite blown away by it. The paintings were richly textured and deeply coloured, and I left feeling profoundly enriched both aesthetically and spiritually. Listening to music, whether it is John Rutter's "Requiem" and "Magnificat" or Van Morrison's "A Sense of Wonder", means more to me than the singing of hymns.
In the same way films and television programmes have said more to me about God and myself than any sermon. Last year, for example, we watched the Italian film Il Postino. One of its main themes is the power of metaphors. It led me to think about the metaphors I have held about God, and I realised that I often approached God as a high-school headmaster - always reporting to his office to say sorry for some misdemeanour.
As I thought about this further, I wondered how such a metaphor might be re-constructed more positively. The result was quite interesting. Those of you who have read the Harry Potter stories will be familiar with Albus Dumbledore, the seemingly ageless headmaster of Hogwarts School. Well, there was my metaphor turned right way up - Albus Dumbledore as a God-figure helps me to relate to God as the headmaster who, with a twinkle in his eye, forbears, encourages, sets boundaries, stands back sometimes, but is ever present and ever wise, and forever mysterious. I'm sure the metaphor has its shortcomings, but it has been helpful for me. I may be in trouble, though, if J K Rowling decides to kill Dumbledore off at some future point!
At present I primarily relate to God in two ways - as Creator and as Incarnation. Creative intent lies at the heart of God's character. What God has created is good and awe inspiring - both the physical universe that we are a part of and the people, warts and all. I am discovering afresh the imprint of that creativity and wonder in my own life and catching glimpses of the mysteriousness of God.
In God as Incarnation (rather than God as spectacular interventionist) I find acceptance of my own sense of brokenness and human frailty. By my desk I have two postcard-sized pictures that mediate this sense of the vulnerable, present God of the broken-hearted. One is a 15th century painting by the Italian artist Piero della Francesca, of Christ's baptism. In it Jesus is standing near naked, open, vulnerable and accessible. The other is a photo from the Brian Brake photo exhibition "Monsoon" that featured at Te Papa three years ago. It shows a Hindu Indian woman waist deep in the Ganges River, bowed in prayer and brokenness, and open to the divine. Through these two pictures I sense a need of God, a presence that takes me as I am, and the courage to open myself again to God.
I am becoming more relaxed in myself and in relation to God as I catch glimpses of the fact that perhaps God is a lot more relaxed about life than I have sometimes thought. Last year I fell in love with the writings of the American author Garrison Keillor, of Lake Wobegon fame.
In the Lake Wobegon stories the fictitious narrator often tells us about the idiosyncrasies of his old town as a way of exorcising, in a heart-warming way, the ghosts of his narrow Christian upbringing. At one point he reflects on some of the other people in the town who, although Christians, were criticised by his own church because they didn't come up to spiritual scratch. In adult hindsight he realises that they probably were 'legitimate' Christians, but that they didn't need to make a loud noise about it.
That is how I am feeling at present. I don't feel overly enthusiastic or zealous. I don't feel like making a 'loud noise' about my faith. These things are not my measure of faith. I have fewer expectations (or maybe different expectations) of God. I am not interested in Christian labels. I don't really care if someone thinks of me as an 'evangelical' Christian or whatever else the label might be. What matters to me is to work out what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus, here and now, as well as in the years to come.
To return to my train trip back to New York last year: about a third of the way into the journey, at Raleigh in North Carolina, my blissful occupation of two seats was ended when a woman got on and took the next seat. In her early sixties she was going to New York to visit her daughter, and then on to a memorial service for a friend in upstate New York.
We eventually got talking and spent a good deal of the next twelve hours, off and on, yacking about all sorts of things. She was interested in New Zealand, and seemed to know more about us than the average person from that part of the world. As an Episcopalian she had seen and used the New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book, and was full of praise for it.
We talked about the (then recent) events of September 11th and about the bombing of Afghanistan. I was amazed at the depth of conversation so quickly reached. She was in a terrible dilemma - both condemning the bombing and yet angry over the events in New York and elsewhere. She had with her a book entitled something like "Who is God for You?" which she wanted to give to her daughter. It was full of biographical sketches of people as diverse as Matthew Fox, Bishop John Spong, Phillip Yancey, Mother Teresa and Henri Nouwen. As a result much of our talk was faith related. I remarked to her that such a conversation would be a rare thing on a New Zealand train, plane or bus.
Just before Washington DC she went off to buy some food and a young man in front of me turned around to talk. He remarked that he had overheard our talk about things 'religious' and 'spiritual', and that he was also a Christian. Then all he could effectively add to the conversation was to ask me "How is your relationship with the Lord?"
I can't remember how I replied. I was a bit gob-smacked and I remember feeling really sad. I felt as if something healthy, profound, even spiritual, had taken place on that train - I would even venture to say that God had been present with us. Yet this guy's own Christian frame of reference did not allow him to understand or acknowledge that, or to participate in it.
As I think about that day I wonder. Perhaps it was the encouragement I needed to continue the journey with God. Perhaps it gave me the courage to move from one Christian frame of reference to another. Perhaps that was when the journey back really started. Perhaps . . . . Ask me again in a few years time, when I've had a chance to take a few more train rides.
Anglican Church, A New Zealand Prayer Book, He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa, San Francisco: Harper, 1997.
Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
James Houston, The Hungry Soul, Oxford: Lion, 1992.
Charles Ringma, Dare to Journey with Henri Nouwen, Albatross, 1992.
Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.