An Outsiders History of the Emerging Church (part 11)

A lot of people make their way to church, through church, into the life of the Christian community, then find themselves dry, beaten, worn and worried. Faith once bright becomes dull and tarnished. Life interferes, sometimes so does sin and mixed motives. But sometimes a person once bright and light finds their path marked by bogs, mud, brush. Sometimes the path is overrun and lost. Sometimes the path ends. It becomes dark and difficult, maybe even impossible.

The river ends in a shallow sea. The waves crash over the beached hulk. Wearing down, tearing down, that which was once lithe and free.

Battered senseless by trauma, or emaciated by starvation, or weakened by drought, a person can only depend on the Spirit of God to work. Because, in those moments, most of those around have no idea what to say, what to do, or where to go. Especially in the contemporary Evangelical churches, where the emphasis has so long been on bringing new people in, there’s significantly little awareness of the paths towards the depths of God. And because of this little awareness, because of this little understanding, people are allowed, even encouraged, to languish in a middle maturity. Many have no idea there is more. Others know there is more but become frustrated at finding that more. They don’t know how to look.

For a lot of people this process begins in the season they really begin to look deeply at Scripture–seeing a holistic reality in the Gospels, in the letters, in the Law, Prophets, Writings.

For me, it was in the engagement with spiritual disciplines–prayer, fasting, study–all while enmeshed in problems far too broad for me to respond to, all while seeking to serve as I knew how. The more I did, the less there was–less experience of God, less grace and perspective, less existential identity. I became a shadow–though no one knew the extent of my wispy reality. I didn’t understand it either, so tried to walk in the world of men, even as I became increasingly emptied of self and being.

I hit bottom. I had nothing. But… it turns out I still had faith. I believed God existed. More than that. I believed Jesus died and rose again. I was no longer sure why. My theology was in shreds, my religious self was unmade.

All the structure and forms and edifices that made up my religion were burned up, torn down, washed away. But there was still faith.

And that faith I can credit to the examples of my parents, and to the writings of those long dead–who knew God, wrote what they knew, sharing the depths of their faith to one as distant as me, before they went on to know in full what they had only before known about in part.

There was a way forward. But no church I had ever been a part of was able to point me to this way. They didn’t know it. Maybe some involved did, but they didn’t share it.

I was well-trained to search. And search I did.

Turns out there were a lot of people all around the country and all around the world who were lost, then found, who realized that the church they had been a part of also was a wan, emaciated thing–able to speak much to a certain audience, but without the kind of holistic good news which reached broadly and deeply to all those who Jesus called.

In the same movement there was weakening and strengthening. There was hope and there was darkness. Darkness covering what no longer was sufficient. Hope for the reality that brought so much more than ever imagined.

Turns out that some of these people were like me, more contemplative, more mystic. Others were more outward, their angst turning towards new organization and new awareness that something in the church was needing to address the wandering sheep. They didn’t know what to do, but there was something that had to be done–the prophetic demand could not be ignored. It was too potent, and it turns out there were many voices seeking a longer path.

This angst did not know where to turn or where to go, but it demanded to those who felt it that they must go. Go farther and deeper and higher. Some had contexts where this could be worked out within the bounds of an established community. They were blessed. Others had no where to turn, and in their often wordless angst were turned out. These too were blessed. Though, like the Israelites in the wilderness, the blessing was a hard blessing to endure.

The Spirit of Christ calls men and women to the presence of Christ, to the depths of Christ, to the heights of Christ–and as is shown throughout Scripture–when this call is hindered or ignored by the established structures, the Spirit continues to work, outside the bounds of what is established or acceptable, raising up men and women for Christ, and pushing them into the wilderness.

The Wilderness is a difficult place, however. Some thrive. Some don’t. There are complaints. There are expressions of faith. There are expressions of faithlessness. In the wilderness one man might show himself a champion of God in the midst of overwhelming opposition. Another might reveal himself to be weak, distracted, getting more lost as he begins to embrace that which is not God–the promises and appearances of the foreign gods begin to sway.

This is what happened in the mid-90s to a particular group of people all around the world, who by the magic that was the burgeoning internet, were quite surprised to learn they weren’t alone. There were people experiencing the same things, trying out surprisingly similar ideas, taking new risks and pushing through their angst to find what was next.

But what was next? That question took a long time to answer. Especially for me.

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