1. Attributing anything to the Holy Spirit 2. Denying something is from the Holy Spirit
To be more precise, I have a latent fear that by doing or saying or writing something “wrong” about the Holy Spirit, I will get a non-refundable, one-way ticket to eternal conscious torment.
The Bible verse which causes this fear is Mark 3:29:
“But if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can never be forgiven. That sin will be held against you forever.” (CEV)In the last year or so, I’ve experienced an unexpected spiritual re-awakening. But how can I know if this experience is actually a work of the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible? It could be a phenomenon of what Jung calls the collective unconscious. Or maybe it has something to do with quantum physics--a completely natural occurrence that hasn't been fully decoded.
I don’t think it’s necessarily important to nail this down right now. What’s more important is to share the story of my re-awakening.
Quick note: I'm sharing my own personal experience here. It doesn't mean your experience is incorrect, invalid, or irrelevant if it doesn't "match up" with my own.
How did I "fall asleep" spiritually?
Looking back, I see the following: Christian elementary school, Christian junior high school, Christian high school, church youth groups, church singles groups, Christian college, daily chapel, Christian ministries, Christian bookstores, employment at a Christian bookstore, Christian music, Christian Living books, devotionals, Christian psychologists, accountability partners, constant prayers of praise/thanksgiving/supplication…
The question really should be: how could I not fall asleep? Keeping up with the behavior- and appearance-driven subculture of Christianity was so exhausting. Fighting against my sexual identity in this environment contributed much to my emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
Granted, if that were all there was to it—if I believed everything taught in evangelical culture except the view on homosexuality—I might have been able to move on after the encouragement I received from Peggy Campolo. At the time it was very helpful, but I still had questions about Christianity that went even deeper. How could an omnipotent and loving God allow such unspeakable horror in the world? How could He send billions of people to eternal Hell when He is “willing that none should perish”? How is it that I was born into the “correct” religion when there were billions of others whose religion were shaped by their own culture and who held the same level of belief in the exclusivity of their own religion? These questions are what ultimately brought me to a place where I rejected Christianity.
No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that there were satisfactory answers to these questions, I couldn’t do it. The gay thing, the problem of evil, the problem of Hell, the problem of multiple religions: I couldn’t defeat them. So I stopped fighting. And SISTER did it feel GOOOOOOD. I just laid my head down and drifted into blissful, spiritual sleep.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely blissful. I had relationships to consider; especially with my family.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain an honest and open relationship with someone while not being “out” to them. I wasn’t out to them as either a gay person or as an agnostic person. Telephone conversations became more strained and stilted. Visits with the family (alone) during the holidays were tortuous. My partner, who was so loving, patient, and understanding throughout, also felt the strain. As year after year went by, I felt more and more distant from my family back in the Midwest.
You really need to know something about my family. Although some identify as neo-Reformed and others as simply conservative evangelical, they don’t fit many of the associated stereotypes. They are kind-hearted, intelligent, fun, and complex human beings. I am fortunate that although the environment we all grew up in tended to be legalistic and definitely homophobic, I never experienced them as hateful toward anyone. (OK, maybe Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but I’m sure they would be respectful to them in person!) My hesitation to come out to them wasn’t a fear of being unloved; it was a fear of disappointing them, making them feel that they failed as parents, and making them afraid for my immortal soul.
Because I had (have) such love and respect for the people in my family, I missed them terribly. The pre-rejection I was doing was causing me emotional, and sometimes physical, distress. The spiritual slumber wasn’t blissful anymore—it was fitful.
I wanted to come out to them because I wanted to heal the relationships. I wanted them to know me for who I really was. I also felt that it was unfair to them, to not give them a chance to wrestle with the issue themselves. I was robbing them of this experience by not coming out. Finally, I wanted to come out because I knew, deep down, that coming out (however over-dramatic it may sound now) was the only way to change the world.
The desire to come out to my family and communicate with them in the context of Christianity prompted me to try, once again, to navigate the labyrinth of Christendom.
One day at Powell’s Bookstore, I was browsing through the Christianity section. A book caught my eye called A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. As I was skimming, some guy who was browsing nearby exclaimed, “Oh, Brian McLaren! I love that guy! That’s a great book!” I did an internal eye roll, but smiled politely and said, “Oh cool. Yes, it looks good.” Thankfully that put an end to the conversation, because I was NOT in a place to talk about Christian-y things with anyone.
I bought the book. I read about a fourth of it. It was interesting and a little different than what I had been taught, but I still cringed at some of the Christian-ese. I lost interest after a few days. It stayed on my bookshelf for about a year until I leant it to my friend Marguerite.
My partner and I have some wonderful friends, Bart and Marguerite, who are both retired college professors. We met them through their daughter, Annie, with whom we are also very close. They are kind-hearted, incredibly smart and well-read, and what I would consider (for lack of a better label) post-evangelical Christians. Throughout our friendship, which started shortly after we moved to Portland (2004), they have been a surrogate family for us.
Bart is passionate about music and about social justice. We’ve had many dinner conversations talking and agonizing together over politics and the general state of the world. Marguerite is an avid reader of fiction, history, philosophy, psychology, and a host of other topics. She has made many wonderful recommendations throughout the years, and we’ve had some lovely and profound discussions about books and authors.
Another topic we discussed often: the churches in which we were taught about God, and our thoughts about Jesus and spirituality today. They never discussed these topics in a proselytizing manner; the conversations were always companionable and never condescending. Although I was interested in discussing these things on an intellectual level, I thought that my days of being a Christian were over. I had too many doubts, too many emotional scars, and too much resentment.
Since our friendship began, Bart and Marguerite have given my partner and me unconditional love and care. They’ve modeled wisdom and experience for me, as well as a way of thinking and a way of life. Because of this relationship and the trust built over the years, I took seriously any thoughts or recommendations they had.
About 2 years ago I loaned Marguerite the Brian McLaren book. I told her about the book, about how it seemed promising at the time, but I just couldn’t get through it. She asked if she could read it herself. She read it, and gave it back to me about a week later. She said, “Kevin, I think this is worth reading.”
About 3 years ago, before my “re-awakening” occurred, I came out to my family as a gay man. My family had various reactions, but as I expected no one disowned me or told me I was no longer welcome or loved. In this post, I am not going to write about the circumstances and logistics of the coming out event. Instead, I want to reveal something that I haven’t mentioned yet in all the blogging I’ve done over the past few months. I find it very difficult to admit and write about.
As I mentioned earlier, in addition to being in the closet as a gay person, I was also in the closet as someone who no longer believed in Christianity or, possibly, God. And when I came out as a gay person, I remained a closet agnostic.
But it goes further than that. I carefully used words in order to stay a closet agnostic while making it easy for my family to assume that I still believed everything they did. Here are the words I used:
If God requires absolute holiness, then Jesus is my only hope.Phrasing it as an IF-THEN statement, I could honestly say these words and mean them. In fact, this statement still holds true for me today. If everything that the fundamentalists say are true about God, Jesus, heaven, hell, and the Bible, then (by God) my only hope IS Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that he has chosen me to be a Christian (neo-reformed) and/or the prayer I prayed as a child is enough to count as belief in Jesus (conservative evangelical).
Are you lost yet? There are a lot of pieces to this story. Let me recap the timeline so far:
- 2000 – Peggy Campolo Called
- 2001-2004 – Continued Struggling with Spiritual Questions
- 2004 – Moved to Portland
- 2006 – Spiritual Slumber Begins
- 2009 – Bought Brian McLaren Book
- 2010 – Came out to Family
- 2011 –Marguerite recommends Brian McLaren Book
So…after Marguerite’s recommendation, I tried again to read the book. I got a little bit farther than last time, but still…I couldn’t quite make it through.
I have a couple more threads to weave into this complicated story…
I’ve blogged before about my history of depression. Because it began at a relatively early age, I’ve been seeing therapists for years. At first the therapists were exclusively Christian and/or pastors. As the questions became too unanswerable, I turned to counselors who were increasingly progressive and decreasingly “religious.” I began seeing a Jungian therapist in 2006, and worked with him off and on for 6 years. (For full context, read more here.) Early in 2012, I felt that I had reached a place in my therapy where I was ready to move on. I stopped formal therapy sessions in May of that year.
That summer was fairly uneventful, but I found myself becoming more and more...how can I explain it? What are the most accurate words to use? I’ll try these: irritable, volatile, and hungry. These words still don’t fully capture it. It was a different feeling than the same old depression. It was dissatisfaction without hopelessness. It was anger without nihilism. Rather than deadening me, it energized me. It compelled me to resume searching for…something.
These feelings began to really take hold by the Fall of 2012. With the background I had had with the therapy (especially Jung), I recognized it as my own awakening life. I HAD to pay attention. One thing I did in response to these new feelings was (*gulp*) give church another try.
Dan, the pastor of the progressive Episcopal Church I now attend, was raised in NE Oklahoma like me. He had the same kind of conservative evangelical background, but had somehow found his way to another type of Christian faith.
My partner has been a musician at this church since we moved in 2004, yet I had never attended. Dan became the pastor in early 2012. I met Dan and his wife Teresa one evening when they came to our place for dinner.
I never felt any sort of pressure to attend the church. Neither of them asked me if I wanted to attend, or if I attended church, or what I thought about God. We simply had a really fun time talking about our “case histories,” playing with the dog, and enjoying some good local beer. Because they didn't have an agenda that night, I felt comfortable a few months later trying their church on for size—when the time was right.
Even though I was ready to try, the thought of going to church still gave me an unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew that if I DID go back to church, it would have to be on MY terms. That meant I was not going to go based on anything related to shame, guilt, or obligation. I was going with my critical thinking skills intact. My heart was open, but my defenses were ready.
Since then, I’ve come to learn that Dan views church, and more specifically the communion table, as welcome to anyone no matter where they are on their journey of faith. There are no pre-requisites to attend or participate.
In the 7-8 months that I’ve attended this church, I’ve can’t help but think of the title of that McClaren book that I never fully read. What I’ve been experiencing is indeed a new kind of Christianity. One that takes seriously the words of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. One that elevates love and connection over hatred and judgment. One that sees many power structures of today’s American Christian church as oppressive and even hostile to those Jesus loved.
So, what can I say about where I am today? I feel awake and energized. I feel hopeful. I don’t, however, think I have all the answers. What I believe now is that my beliefs aren’t all that relevant. It’s about following the Jesus way. It’s about loving well.
Currently, I do not love well. I look at the culture of American Christianity, and I want nothing to do with it. It astounds me how arrogant and unloving some popular Christian preachers, teachers, writers, and other celebrities can be. And not just “conservative” Christians either. I’ve seen it in so-called “progressive” Christians as well. It’s very strange to share a descriptor (Christian) with people you find to be vile and deluded. I do not love these people, and I do not aspire to love these people. I simply do not know how to love these people. Perhaps someday I will catch a glimpse of what it means to do that.
I think my challenge these days is to love the people who follow these types of leaders, and who believe in most or all in what they have to say. I know many people like this, including family members. I know many of them to be sincere, loving, kind, and human. I have hope that love and connection is attainable with them. I do love them. At this point in my journey, however, I don’t love them well. I aspire to love them well.
My other primary challenge is to move beyond my own liberal guilt about the plight of the oppressed and to take action. As a Christian, what can I do to alleviate suffering, speak truth to oppressors, and be a force for justice? (Besides be a superhero.) Jesus’ heart was with the oppressed. He got angry on their behalf against the religious leaders of his day. He was among them and identified with them. He connected with them on a personal level. He loved them well. I don’t, yet, but I aspire to do so.
Looking back, I see how different circumstances have brought me to the place I am today. Something tangible did happen inside of me in 2012. Like I said at the beginning of this long story, I don’t know exactly what that something is. I’m more comfortable calling it a re-awakening rather than ascribing it specifically to the Holy Spirit. As long as it’s there, compelling and moving and energizing me toward a better and more meaningful way of living, I’m content to leave it unnamed for now.