I attended California Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks, CA my last two years of college. This was before it became California Lutheran University. I would go jogging in the mornings before class and there was a wonderful trail that lead me out of the campus, through the surrounding fields, and up a hill overlooking the valley below. By the time I got to the top of the hill, I was huffing and puffing, barely able to catch my breath. So it seemed a good time to stop and rest for a while and actually do just that, catch my breath. On the top of the hill, someone who I assume was connected to the college, had placed a large cross. It was a beautiful, peaceful place for me to sit and talk with Jesus. When I was ready to make the trek down the hill (so much easier than going up!) Jesus and I would get up and run down together to start another day of classes.
I truly had a sense of another person running beside me, listening to me, helping me sort through thoughts and feelings. I had moved from Colorado to California to attend school, it was a scary thing for me to be so far from my family, but I was never alone. Jesus was always with me. It was there in chapel service one day that I had what I consider my only “mystical” experience. As we were praying, I literally felt myself being lifted off the ground. I was floating a few feet up, suspended in the air by gentle force that I could not describe. My faith seemed so strong and simple then. While I always had questions (I was the kid in Sunday school who never accepted the simple answers about what the Bible said), I had a strong, personal relationship with Jesus that I felt totally secure in my faith.
Then I went off to seminary and discovered that I wasn’t crazy after all with all my questions about the Bible (there are different traditions and threads that tell the story in ways that do indeed contradict each other!). It was incredibly freeing and affirming in one way, but opened up even more questions, like why do we always use a male pronoun for a God in whose image both males and females are created. And things happened in my personal life, big changes that I was not prepared for and never imagined happening to me. And the wrestling not only with the Bible, but with Jesus intensified to the point that I no longer felt his presence in the same way. In fact, there were times when it felt that he (or she, or was it an “it”) wasn’t there at all.
I was grateful for the Lutheran understanding of grace which not only sustained me through the wrestling - the assurance that nothing could separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even my own doubts and questions - but also invited me into that wrestling to discover a more complex and even perplexing, but I believe deeper faith. I have to admit, though, that there were and are times I long for those days when Jesus and I would sit on the hill and look over the valley and talk, when I was much more certain, when my faith felt simpler and easier. All this wrestling, the long nights when I can’t sleep, the growing questions without answers, the struggles not only in my own life, but in the lives of others, trying to make sense of it all when there is no sense to be made can be exhausting at times.
I was in that exhausted place when I went to a three-day conference sponsored by the Center for Contemplation and Social Action. The focus and premise of the conference was that “The path of descent is the path of transformation.” Richard Rohr, the author of several books, was one of the main presenters and he invited us to see the story of Jonah (remember, he was the guy who tried to run away from God, was thrown into the sea, swallowed up by a big fish, and three days later spit out on the shore) as a metaphor for the mystery of transformation. Rohr said, “Only through dying to our false self will we be spit up on a new shore in spite of ourselves. Isn’t this the story of most of our lives? Transformative power is discovered in the dark - in questions and doubts, seldom in answers. . . . We usually try to fix, control, or change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer.”
Transformative power is discovered in the dark . . . . So is there something life giving about the dark? What might happen if Instead of fighting against it, I embraced it? Could the loss of my simpler faith be making room for a faith that was indeed deeper and even more life giving, not simply to me but to the world around me? And if this could be true for me, could it be true for the church as well?
I have now been an ordained minister for 35 years and I have spent my entire adult professional life serving the church. I love the church, even as I struggle mightily with the church. The church and its place and role in our culture is changing. There are times when I so desperately want to fix, control, or change events in order to “save” the church. But then I am reminded that I’m not in charge of the church. Christ is. And that resurrection comes through dying and it is in losing, Jesus tells us in the gospels, that we gain life. So maybe we are being thrown into the sea, as Jonah was, where it is confusing and even chaotic. And maybe we have been swallowed up by a big fish, where it is dark and even seems hopeless. The problems and challenges we face seem pretty overwhelming at times. And maybe we are being spit out to a new shore, where we never imagined we would go, to do what God is calling us to do.
I have to admit - the thought of being “spit” out doesn’t really sound all that appealing? Can’t I just ride on top of the “fish,” direct it to where I want to go, and then get off without getting hurt? Without getting changed? But I just don’t think that is the way it works. And maybe Jesus is with me, with the church, just as strongly as he was with me when I sat on the top of that hill so many years ago, even when it is dark and I can’t see him. And maybe it is enough that he (or she), that God sees me.
Maybe that is enough. Maybe that is faith.