Saturday, August 08, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong, Part 17

A Spiritual Experience

I decided to move to Las Vegas at the beginning of 1999. But the decision really dated back to October of 1998. I had traveled from my home in New York to a conference in New Mexico. I met up with a few of my college friends who had already moved to Vegas. They were there with some others they had met since moving to Vegas. We hung out and renewed our friendship, which had become long-distance. I met for the first time some others from Vegas who would later become good friends. The conference was all about reaching Generation X and postmodern culture. Some of it was great. Some of it was so-so. But our time together was meaningful.

One evening, just before a main session started, the group from Las Vegas passed by where I was sitting and invited me to join them. They were ditching the session to go find a quiet corner to pray and process the conference. On a whim, I left with them and we searched out some quiet corner of the retreat center. What we found surprised us. The room we had been in for our main sessions was not the largest room at the complex. We stumbled across a larger room, which was really a formal sanctuary with ornate windows, an elaborate stage, and seating for hundreds. It had been closed off during our conference. We turned on some lights and ventured in. We made our way to the dimly light stage and began talking about various subjects. One person began playing the piano as the rest of us listened. After an hour or so of causal catching up and reflection, someone suggested we gather in a circle in pray. So we did. We ended up forming a circle in a different way that what I was used to. I’m not sure why. We all ended up laying down on our backs on the stage. Our heads were all centered into the circle, with our feet facing away from the circle. If you were looking down on us from the ceilend, then our heads would have formed circle. Again, there was no real reason or premeditation behind this, it is just what we did for some reasons. We began praying together, as we stared up at the ceiling in that beautiful dimly light New Mexico sanctuary, miles away from civilization. I can’t remember all of the details of the prayer time that followed. I don’t even remember how long it lasted, though I suspect it was much longer than I then realized. Probably at least a couple of hours. Something powerful happened. Something mysterious. We all had a very similar experience of the presence of God. Words on on a blog cannot describe it with any degree of accuracy. But it was powerful. It was real. It was a spiritual experience. God met us that night in that room. After the powerful prayer time ended, we all sat in quiet awe for another long period of time. Two or three would huddle together and talk about what had just happened. After an hour or so, we went out for a late night snack at a local restaurant and continued to process together what we had experienced. It was vibrant and life-giving and refreshing and real.

Trying to Capture the Experience on Paper

The next day I boarded an airplane to fly back to New York. Everyone else in the group boarded a van to drive back to Las Vegas. As the plane took off, I pulled out a spiral bound notebook and began writing, in detail, my memory of exactly what happened in that room that night. I wrote and wrote and wrote. The plane landed in Chicago. I made my connection to another flight onto New York. Again, I pulled out my notebook and continued writing everything I could remember about that experience. I did not want to lose any of it. I wanted to have it to share with my wife when I got back to New York. I wanted to have it to share years later with anyone who asked about it. I wanted to have it to read over and over and reflect on what happened, and try to figure out what it was and what it meant and how I might possibly experience something like it again someday. I filled page after page in that notebook as I recounted each detail of the experience.

Eventually, I was exhausted. I placed the spiral bound notebook in the pocket in the seat in front of me on the plane, and drifted off to sleep for the final portion of my flight. I awoke as we made our final descent into Laguardia Airport. I was excited as I thought about my wife, who I hadan’t seen in several days, greeting me at the airport. I couldn’t wait to go out to dinner with her and recount my experience and unpack what it meant together with her.

Left Behind

She greeted me at the end of the jetway. We walked together to the car as I began to explain what had happened. When we got to a restaurant, I reached into my carry on bag to pull out my notebook and share my experience with her. But it wasn’t there. I couldn’t believe it. I had left the notebook in the seat pocket on the airplane.

For those who don’t know me, this is very out of character for me. I have my faults, but this isn’t one of them. I don’t lose things very often at all. I don’t even consider taking out that insurance on a cell phone when I buy it, because I’ve never lost one. I can only think of once or twice in my life that I have lost my car keys, and they turned up pretty quickly both times. I just don’t normally lose things or leave things behind. I’m too detail oriented most of the time. But this time, in my excitement and exuberance over my spiritual experience, I had done just that. I left my notebook behind. And it contained my precious memories of a most profound experience.

I called the airline in a panic and explained what had happened. I told them the notebook was unreplaceable and must be found. I gave them my flight number and seat number and asked them to help. They said they would check with the plane cleaners and see if they found any such notebook. You probably can figure out what happened. I never heard back from the airline. And when I called back to check, nobody had turned in any spiral bound notebooks from that flight. It was never found.

Losing the Notebook Was Part of the Experience

Sure, I could have tried to rewrite it all. But it would have been hard to have reproduced the detail that I had while sitting uninterrupted on those flights. It would have taken some amazing concentration. Somehow I knew that losing the notebook was really part of the experience. I sensed that I really wasn’t supposed to have that notebook. I wasn’t really supposed to capture the details of that evening on paper and then read it over and over again and share it with everyone I knew and dissect it and examine it and work to figure it out. That is, of course, what I wanted to do. But I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t supposed to put this experience under a microscope and figure it out. It was what it was. It was an amazing gift. But it happened and it was over. It wasn’t to be figured out.

A few days later, I shared the experience with someone else I respected. He sat and listened attentively and respectfully, which I appreciated. I even threw in the part about losing the notebook, which he immediately understood as being totally out of character for me. His reaction was interesting. He just said he was very happy for me, because I had had a spiritual experience . . . I had met God through an experience, not through my intellect, for one of the few times in my life. He expressed how fortunate I was, because some people are never able to experience such a thing. I wasn’t so sure that was the reaction I was looking for, but looking back, it was a keen observation.

Even as I write these words, I wonder if my computer will soon crash and take away this rehashing of that night! I doubt it, though, because the details of the night have long faded from my memory and were not well described here.

I moved to Las Vegas in early 1999, partially as a result of that experience in New Mexico. I was already thinking about making such a move, but that experience seemed to confirm in some ways my contemplation of such a move.

Contrast to the Usual Days of the Journey

There have been no other nights in my life quite like that night in New Mexico. I can think of a few other experiences that were profound enough that I might put them in the category of spiritual experiences. But they can easily be counted on my fingers. There haven’t been many. In my next post, I'll contrast that experience with the "normal" and routine days of my spiritual journey to date.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong, Part 16

Recognizing the Problem

Always in a Hurry, Until . . .

Over eight years ago, I turned thirty years old. Turning thirty years old kind of freaked me out. I guess I still thought of myself as just barely being twenty. Then I was thirty. A few seconds after turning thirty, I was closer to being forty than being twenty. I am sure those who are much older than me are disgusted by me thinking this way about being thirty. But for me, this was the first time in my life that I found myself not being in a hurry to get to the next stage. When I was a kid in elementary school, I wanted to be older. I couldn’t wait to get to middle school. Then I couldn’t to get to high school. Then I couldn’t wait to drive a car. Then, once I could drive, I couln’t wait to go off to college and enjoy freedom. Then I got to college and thought how great it would be to have my own place and my own income. I couldn’t wait to get out. Then I couldn’t wait to get married. I was ready for that next stage. I couldn’t wait to move up to higher responsibility once I started working. I was always just dying to get to the next phase, from the time I was a little kid to the time I was, suddenly, turning thirty.

Now I wasn’t in a hurry any more. I wasn’t looking forward to being forty or fifty or sixty or seventy. And for some reason, once I didn’t care to get on to what was next, time finally started flying. How ironic.

Reflecting on My Need to Change

But I also had other anxieties attached to my thirtieth birthday. My life was in a place where I needed to change some things. Even though I had worked as a pastor and done many outward “good deeds” throughout my life, I was beginning to realize just how selfish I really was. My marriage could have been better if I wasn't so focused on receiving instead of giving. My friendships were good, but could have been much deeper if I were focused on giving instead of getting. Parenting made me aware of how little energy and attention I really could give away to someone else before I needed my own space and time to recharge. It was really a bit startling. Of course, ministry, was another such thing. To really succeed at it, I needed to be able to give lots and live quite selflessly. And I really believed that this was the Christ-like way to live: giving to my wife, my kids, my friends, my church. Giving my time, my energy, my attention, generously and without expecting to always get something back in return. I realized the selfish intentions behind even my “good acts” for the first thirty years of my life, and I decided with noblest intentions that the next thirty plus years of my life needed to be focused more on giving than taking. I was ready to embrace being an adult and start focusing every minute of every day on giving instead of taking.

But it didn’t work. Every year or so I would revisit those thoughts (usually right around my birthday) and re-commit to the same thing. As I write this, I’m thrity-eight. Although I am a more giving person than I was at age thrity, I am nowhere close to what I set out to do. I’m still selfish and can only give a very small percentage of my time, attention, and energy to those around me before I feel the need to do something to re-charge myself --- to get something!

The experiences I have just described are what led me to realize that the real problem with the church is me. Or, should I say, the problem with the church is us. I am not healthy. We are not healthy. I really cannot give myself away to others, at least not for long. I can preach and teach about taking up my cross, about laying down my life, about loving others at all costs. But in the end, its more rhetoric than it is reality.

Words of Wisdom

I shared this frustration of mine with a trusted mentor at one point in my early thirties. His answer surprised me. He already knew my dilemma. He told me that there is no way I can do it. I can’t give myself away like I wanted to with my second set of thirty years. He told me to focus on getting instead! But to focus on receiving from God, not from any other source. And that only then would I have the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to ever become a more giving person. He shared with me in depth about this. It helped me relax and receive. Over time, relaxing and receiving made me a little more generous and giving. That was an interesting lesson to learn.

But I’m still humbled that I must admit that the road of my journey to find out what is wrong with the church has led to a mirror. I am what is wrong with the church. Sure, the church has generational problems. Sure it has cultural issues to sift through. Sure it has a huge theological problem in that it doesn’t even know who it is. But more central to its troubles is my own brokenness. And yours. And all of theirs. The problem with the church is me.

I have shared those thoughts on occasion when teaching or preaching. I always follow up my confession by inviting the audience to share in my blame. I tell them that if they are considering taking me out behind the building, hiring a hit man, and doing away with me in order to rid the earth of the church’s problems once and for all, that they should realize that I’m speaking on behalf of us all. I’m being a little bit falsely humble when I say the problem with the church is me. The problem is really us. My brokenness corrupts her. And yours. And all of ours, through space and time. We aren’t giving enough. We don’t give away our energy, our attention, our ability, our money, our love. And we can’t do it. We just are not that healthy.

As my trusted mentor instructed me, the same goes for us. We cannot do it. We cannot just force ourselves to be more giving, more generous, more loving. We have to focus on receiving, but on receiving from one source, the love of God. Only then will we relax and be healthy enough to gradually become more loving, more giving, more generous. Then maybe it won’t be quite so dramatically obvious that something is wrong with the church. Then maybe the world will notice more that something is right with the church. Maybe something -- something beyond my ability to conjure up -- will shine through and those who are really watching will notice.

Maybe then you and I -- and all the others who are the church, and then even some who are not just yet -- maybe then we will all find our way home.