Recently I was in a counseling situation with a senior elder who has many years of experience in counseling people in general and in peer counseling and mentoring other pastors and counselors. He is a generous and well equipped spiritual traveler with a lot to offer one like myself who seeks to be a responsible counselor to others who are journeying in faith. He has a doctorate in counseling but continues to grow and learn and offers wise insights, I have discovered. He has been helpful in discerning some things in my life that have helped me understand better the reasons for some things that I have experienced. And even so, when I referenced his name among those in places of political influence or power, they cautioned me …..”You know, he’s not necessarily the one you need to be getting your guidance from in your pursuit of ministry goals.” And who would be the right one, pray tell?
He has provided understanding and safety for me to go deeper in my journey with Christ as I grow as a Christian counselor, equipping me to be better able to help others in their journeys, because as I have deeper spiritual questions and insights, he has been available for me to talk about them. He doesn’t always have experience or knowledge about the specific things I bring to him, but he is honest and transparent in saying so and very willing to pray about, ponder, and research them with me. Together, as we talk about such things, what the Word has to say about them and how our experiences, education, and the church’s historic position on things relate to them, we both come to new insights. Iron sharpening iron…………
One of the things that has become apparent to me is that I have often felt alone in my journey. Not that Christ hasn’t been with me….he has. But I have come to understand that, while the Scripture says, “God places the lonely in families,” (Psalm 68:6), for some of us with a longing to understand life or to be heard and understood by those in our families, that goal is elusive. And so, we journey……looking for others who, like ourselves, have questions, but often have few obvious or easy answers.
Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9-10 assure us that as we ask, seek, and knock on doors in our journeying, we will find the answers we desire.
What I am discovering is that those who set out on the spiritual quest camp out along the way. At the point that one’s own personal thirst and hunger for understanding – of themselves, of life, of others- is slaked, the campsite becomes a homestead or even a fortified stronghold and remains so, perhaps for the rest of life. There are times, however, when the enemy attacks and burns down the homestead and one is forced to set out on the journey again. Or the enemy’s assaults on the stronghold begin to wear away at the fortification and one struggles to shore up the walls and protect his position. Others simply invite the enemy in and begin to dine at the table with him, seeking to live in a fragile peace with him.
In recent years, after talking to people, observing the ages at which lives begin to go off track, and observing some parents struggle to understand and meet the emotional needs of their children, I have begun to suspect that there are some general observations that I, as a trained observer and process-and solution-focused practitioner of the spiritual counseling mode can offer. While these observations are rooted largely in my self-examination, I have now been able to observe similar experiences and stages in the spiritual journey in others sufficiently to offer them for discussion, at least, not wishing to say that I have found the answer to all things, but merely that I continue on the journey, asking questions and seeking answers that are ever closer to the heart and mind of God. I would like to offer a few of those general observations
Observation #1: God has, indeed, placed within our hearts a desire to know him. The prophet Jeremiah not only reveals God’s creative intent in putting a desire to know God within our hearts (verse 24:7), but he tells us that we are defined as belonging to God by the presence of that desire. Furthermore, God reveals through his prophet Jeremiah what “to know me (God)” results in – defending the cause of the poor and needy and that such conduct, arising out of knowing God, will result in “all going well”. (verse 22:16) And finally, God reveals through Jeremiah that our pride is misplaced if it is in anything other than in our understanding that we have the capacity to know God – that He is our Lord, what his character is like, where he exercises his kindness, justice, and righteousness, and that God delights in these attributes (my sense is that he delights in exercising them and he delights in our observation of that and in our following him in that, as well.)
but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.
I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
This observation, first discovered in 1997 as we expected our first grandchild and as I sought God’s guidance for how I was to pray for that child, He led me to this – that the only thing required, the only important thing for each of us to have is the ability to know Him. And that ability is guaranteed. He has already placed it in the heart of His people. My sense is that He has, in fact, placed that ability within the heart of all people, inviting all humanity to discover first, the ability, and then to enter into the journey of discovery that He also invites us to undertake. And the best way to engage in that journey is through serving others, especially the poor and needy. Some of us understand that call to defend the cause of the poor and needy in physical terms and others understand it in spiritual terms, as the Matthew beatitudes and the Luke “blessings and woes” reveal. Either is acceptable. Both are present in our midst and defending both is necessary.
Observation #2. We come to sense the presence of this ability to know Him within us. It occurs at various ages and opportunities in life and, after sensing it, one may or may not begin the journey to discover how we are to exercise our intellect in coming to know God and how we have been uniquely created and called to exercise our own role in the purpose of defending the cause of the poor and needy. The age at which that awakening to the sense of the ability to experience God occurs varies greatly from as young as 5-8 years old or much later, in one’s youth, young adulthood, or sometimes even later.
It’s not a matter of the ability not being present. It is more a matter of how many distractions we have around us and how eager we are to follow them instead of listening to the inner call to journey into knowing God and entering into our roles, duties, and blessings as His children.
Observation #3: If families and churches and other social structures have abandoned their responsibility or been poorly equipped to know this, nurture it in the children, and train them for the spiritual journey, individuals will be handicapped in life. But God is good and has provided for this, too. God will bring others alongside them- either other travelers or the testimony of travelers in the past. God himself will draw close to us in our own journey- watching over us through the dangerous passages where thieves hide or rocky overhangs hover threatening to slide or fall, where muddy pits entrap or narrow ledges drop off into cavernous pits, where wide rivers rush or gentle streams invite us to take refreshment. He will orchestrate circumstances that will reveal His purpose and presence in the midst of them. He will even whisper in the traveler’s ears the guidance needed to overcome them. He will not leave those who, having sensed the ability to know Him intimately and more fully, to seek Him in hopelessness and without resources. His Holy Spirit becomes the resource we need for any tight squeeze between the rocks and the hard places of the journey.
Observation #4: Some will opt out of the journey. They will stake claims along the way and settle permanently, content to have found a place where they feel at home, no longer willing to “fight the good fight”, but instead retiring with whatever booty they have appropriated in the battle. For some, it will be the case that they have discovered and “own” about as much of God as they desire or believe they can handle. They settle into a tentative peace with God for the time being. Some may be required to uproot and journey further later, but for now, they are content. To go further will require more than they are willing to give of time, resources, loss of fellowship with others who drop out of the journey, the pain that exists in the school of the Holy Spirit, etc.
Observation #5: Others are created to be perpetual adventurers, packing lightly and journeying all the days of their lives, seldom doing more than pitch a tent for a fortnight. They may delight in the discoveries of the adventure, or they simply feel restless when life gets too commonplace and routine. They know that no matter how much of God’s mind and heart they are privileged to see and know, there are deeper things and they want to go to that place with God.
Observation #6: Some will experience their journey as homelessness. Some of us who travel seem destined to go from place to place, not so much aware of the rootlessness to which we have been called but simply with a vague sense of “not yet home” and keep on breaking camp and moving to the next place when it becomes clear that God must have prepared another place beyond this one that better meets our sense of need and the search begins again. There may be times when someone “takes us in” for a while and gives us a comfortable respite from the sense of homelessness for a night or for a season.
Observation #7: There can be a crisis of faith for those who are “not yet home” in this realm, in which they may cry out “Is there even a place for me here?” Or am I to simply wander, aware of my homelessness in this realm, forever aware that I am an alien in a strange land, a sojourner? And am I to remain alone in this or is there a tribe for me? Does this homelessness mean purposeless, too, as many view the homeless? Or am I more in the model of the itinerant rabbi- homeless, taking a rest whenever necessary and laying one’s head on a stone, without a den or hole, retreating regularly into “lonely places” to commune with the only one who seems to understand, Abba, the one who created us this way? Even those whom Jesus loved and who journeyed with him could not find the strength to watch through the night and often didn’t understand what he did and said. Surely, that journey, the journey of Jesus here on earth, was one of a kind and none of us can withstand the rigors of what Jesus experienced nor do we possess the fullness of the Holy Spirit that enabled him to do for us what we could not do for ourselves………….And if there is no tribe for us, how do we find the strength to continue in the midst of people and yet with the knowledge that we will find no rest, no welcome, until we put down our backpack at the gate of Heaven and are welcomed home in the embrace of the Father.
Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
Observation #8: Even Jesus was misunderstood at times. He talked about those who lacked the ability to see, hear, or understand the spiritual things and said that was why he talked to them in parables, in an attempt to draw them pictures. He chastised Nicodemus, the teacher, in chapter three of John’s gospel, saying how could he , a teacher, not understand such spiritual things as being born again. Jesus’ own family thought He was crazy. But even with those closest to Him, who sought to learn and understand, He sometimes appears to have been frustrated and expressed incredulity that they could not understand.
Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Observation #9: Steadfastness of faith and knowledge that there is a purpose even in the growing awareness of a permanent homelessness does not mean that there will not still be pain at times in the loneliness. When God has made himself so intimately known that there is no more “crisis of faith” but a steadfast knowing that God Is, that He is Good, and that He is Sovereign in all things and even when our understanding cannot grasp His reasons and believe that such issues are no longer involved in the loneliness of the spiritual journey, the pain of the loneliness may still remain with each new realization that it is time to “move on”.
Observation #10: Even though Jesus undoubtedly felt lonely at times…..people flocked to him, except at the end, when all abandoned him. For those of us who feel lonely in our own journeys in this realm, we often find people pull away or out and out reject us. Why? Discomfort with the homeless whom we are asking them to join in conversation around the table or for whom they are at least asked to provide shelter from time to time? Are we too passionate and pleading in conveying the things we are seeking and discovering along the way? Too strange and out of the norm for others to feel comfortable with us in the room or even at the picnic? Or is it that our voicing of the things we seek and those things we find puts too much pressure on others to feel that they must do so, too? Does our pursuit make them feel that we are pressing them to do something others do not want or feel the desire to have or lack the willingness to sacrifice in order to pursue? Do they express a “Not in my back yard” attitude when our presence and pronouncements about spiritual matters point to the fact that some homesteads or even some fortified citadels are still vulnerable to attack? For others, could it be that there is simply jealousy that some of us seem to have the freedom to adventure into dangerous places and survive and bring back discoveries that others do not wish to hear or that they wish they had found themselves?
Observation #11: Life can still be good and happy in the midst of the pain of feeling alone as one seeks to journey closer and closer to the heart and mind of God and finds fewer and fewer companions with whom to share the journey. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Hebrews 13: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Deut 31:6)
Observation #12: God has a purpose for allowing pain in our lives…even the pain of loneliness that one must examine and learn to embrace and transform into solitude, where only God resides. The desert Fathers and Mothers were such sojourners into solitude, to dwell near to the heart and mind of God. Their solitary or monastic existences have been called a perversion of the Christian life, in which we are called to live in communion with Christ and with one another, living out the “one anothers” of the horizontal dimension of faith. It was in extended solitude and in asking hard, deep questions, that I believe Mohammad was deceived and perverted the nature of God and faith. In solitude that feels forced upon us by the pain of the loneliness that sometimes accompanies the journey there, I believe that we are vulnerable to similar attacks and perversions, to despair and disassociation from life, and even for some, into suicide. Thankfully, my own feelings of loneliness have never led me that far into despair because of the steadfastness of the faith and the strong sense of the presence of God and His having established a purpose for my life that is not yet complete.
Observation #13: We cannot rightly understand Scripture, God, the Christian journey, or even ourselves and one another without the fellowship and priesthood of believers, the Body of Christ, the church. When our quirkiness, our passion, or exuberance, or even our insights are not welcome, when we do not find hearing or voice within the Body, we are at the point when the church itself, or the part of it with which we are affiliated, has to be examined, too. Is it simply that this little band within the larger church finds our beliefs or even merely our questions uncomfortable, based on its interpretation of something non-essential in the faith or even something essential in the faith about which they perceive we are at odds? And in finding another little band within the larger church universal, can we continue the journey with our questions and discoveries voiced freely with fewer obstacles?
Or do those among whom we seek fellowship speak for the entire church and, in doing so have now struck at the heart of one’s very personhood? If there are bands of followers who are more comfortable with the homeless among us, who are less sensitive when a word is spoken in a way that “offends the senses” of someone, then perhaps that is the place for the perpetually “not at home” traveler. When sensibilities of those in leadership cannot withstand probing questions or demand that all things be articulated so as to offend no one, there is no place there for the homeless, spiritually sojourning traveler, for whom probing and challenging questions that easily offend sensibilities of some is a way of life.
Observation #14: The church itself can be every bit as much an idol as anything else. For some of us, we have looked at it as a refuge, a place of belonging, a place for training in how to do Christian life, where the pursuit of knowledge of God can be safely pursued, discussed, and discovered, even when it leads to conflict and having to agree to disagree on certain non-essentials and attempt to find common ground or renegotiate one another’s respective views of the essentials. And surely the essentials can be agreed upon and understood in such a way that all who believe in Jesus Christ can find shelter in some or another of its local bodies. When one understands it that way, idealized and as described in the Scripture, and as she herself has experienced it, to discover that it can be considerably less accommodating of deeper questions and spiritual traveling, of experiences outside the narrow range of usual experience, and reasoning from an intellectually elitist posture by a few set apart to evaluate the acceptability of sojourners seeking a longer resting place, it is at first a shock.
Observation #15: Idols are to be torn down, not left to corrupt who God really is. And that, I believe, is what some have set out to do. Having found no space for a hearing of where they are in their journey, they are convinced that the church is corrupted. It can no longer be a safe place for travelers with questions. Essentials have been defined in ways that leave them outside the walls. And if we do not know and trust God’s character and plan, the church itself will set itself as the judge instead of God and, in excluding the travelers, the homeless, those who question, it sets itself up, as a fortified citadel whose foundation is being worn away by the digging of desperate people seeking a place to belong, who cannot bear the pain of homelessness and the loneliness of being on the journey endlessly in pursuit of God’s heart and mind.
Observation #16: Some travelers, recognizing the idolatry, have a decision to make in relation to the church. For the sake of those who are sheltered in its walls, even herself at times, the traveler will not tear it down or sully its reputation as a lodge, a school, a hospital, a respite or a hospice- whatever those who come wish it to be and find there. Instead, the traveler will learn to dwell within its shelter and keep silence, working inside among those whom the Lord brings to her for whatever need they have that she can help. Or taking her questions and discoveries elsewhere for voicing and testing, her discoveries proclaimed beyond the church to protect both the church and herself, or simply learn to be alone with them unless and until God brings another “zebra in the herd of horses” with whom we can laugh and compare notes and find a moment of feeling “at home” by the wayside on the journey. Or seeing the existing options offered by the church for fellowship, they decide to go elsewhere.
Observation #17: Our ecclesiology needs to be examined. And if the church comes to understand its role differently and can make space – and maintain its view of the essentials – and articulate them in a way that allows homeless travelers toward the heart and mind of God in, but keeps the enemy out, then the travelers will be welcome and they will have a place at the table. But to be fed scraps outside the wall because of concern by the church that anyone allowed a voice who does not look, believe, or act like its own installed leadership will let the enemy in is not what God has called the church to do. And for travelers, even those of us who regularly dwell within the church, find themselves treated that way, who are told we can stay the night in the shelter, but may not participate in the life of the community as anything more than guests and may not prepare food and serve others or teach as one who knows God, then God will feed us manna from His own hand in the wilderness rather than have us feel that we are anything other than the cherished bearers of His light and life in a world where too many are unwittingly dispensing death, even in His name.
Observation #18: Therefore, some travelers, unwilling or unable to expose the idolatry of an established church, generally described as “mainline” or tear down an idol that others hold and desiring to homestead but feeling outside the walls of the church build their own tents by the wayside and call them “church”. There they can proclaim the things they have learned, and hopefully, will continue to learn. And where they can be available to others who need to be given direction. Whether they are simply a charismatic assembly following a man or an ideology, or truly are part of the Body of Christ will come to be seen in these few things:
-Are the things their leadership proclaim out of their own journey faithful to the Word of God? Can they teach it competently and fully or is it perverted so that only part of the Word of God is taught, excluding other parts?
-Can they discipline and hold firm to what they themselves have defined for their congregation and denomination as the essentials of faith, while expressing charity toward others who believe differently and choose to worship elsewhere and differently, but still Scripturally, defined by the essentials? Or have they “fortified the citadel”, excluding Scriptural truths that they themselves have not discovered and proclaimed? If they cannot or will not define and defend their own “essentials” rooted in Scripture, but instead waffle and wave, they are a politically expedient power-based entity, not an expression of the Body of Christ, Scripturally faithful, it seems to me.
-Are they able to help others in the journey? Do they welcome the spiritually and materially homeless while those travelers ask, seek, and knock? Or do they simply seek to enlarge and extend their personal sphere of influence and gain more power, while closing out the rest of the Christian community?
-Do they defend the cause of the poor and needy, physically and spiritually?
-Do they fortify their citadel and begin to set criteria for participation in leadership that closes doors to questions that challenge their proclamations? Are they willing to engage in open dialogue or hunker down behind closed doors where only those of power can speak and people can be “voted off the island” for daring to be different, even if not Scripturally unsound but because their square edges will not slide easily down into the round hole that is required for leadership? (CBB 7/2/14)