Workshop Chapter 2: Getting Ready for the Journey

Chapter 2 lays out where I was stuck spiritually, how I was nudged towards my Pops’ workshop, and the difficulty I had relating to God as Father.

[I am posting what I had supposed would be a book, one chapter at a time.  As this "publication" continues, you will likely need to read chapters in order, beginning with Chapter 1.]

I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.

John 10:10(b), The Message

Spiritually Stuck

For much of my Christian life, I felt like I was being cheated and short-changed by God. I felt like I wasn’t getting everything that I was owed. I was living up to my end of the bargain, but God was not coming through as I expected. I know that sounds shallow and greedy; it seemed that way to me too. I felt guilty for wanting more, but I was restless and dissatisfied with the reality of my life as a Christian.

This feeling ebbed and flowed, sometimes strong and persistent, sometimes weak and easy to miss, but it was always present. There had to be more to being a Christian than trying very hard to be good and knowing that I was forgiven when I failed. I went to church on Sundays. I served on church committees and assisted in worship services. I gave generously of my time and money. I read and studied the Bible. I even preached sometimes. Yet my life still seemed somehow hollow and incomplete.

Where was the new life, the full life promised in John 10:10? It was supposed to be better than I could dream of. I could certainly dream of a life fuller and richer than the one I had. My life was one of striving yet never quite hitting the mark. It was a Sisyphean existence. I knew I had eternal life. When my body dies, I will spend eternity with God. But I wanted the promised “new life,” the more and better life, here and now!

I knew God was changing me. Slowly and surely, I was becoming a different person, but deep down inside, I felt I was missing something, missing some key that would open the door to this richer life. I felt like I should be happy and satisfied. I had a good job, three grown kids all doing great and a wonderful wife who loved me despite my many, many failings. I was active in my church and well respected. Why did I still feel restless and unsatisfied?

The Wall

 I was banging into what is sometimes called “the Wall.” Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich, in “The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith,” describe six stages of spiritual growth or formation. Embedded in those stages is the Wall. It is what we run into when we run out of ourselves. When our efforts are finally and undeniably exposed as insufficient, we have hit the Wall.

The Wall represents our will meeting God’s will face to face. We decide anew whether we are willing to surrender and let God direct our lives. Once we enter this part of stage 4, either through crisis, spiritual boredom, or a deep longing, we can easily become perplexed. Although we deeply desire to give our will over to God and even believe we are doing so, in truth, we are trying to deal with the Wall in the same way we have gotten through life­ on the strength of our own will or gifts. We try everything we can to scale it, circumvent it, burrow under it, leap over it, or simply ignore it. But the Wall remains! [1]

At this time, I had no idea that there was such a thing as the Wall, let alone its significance in my journey, but that describes exactly where I was:  perplexed, wanting more without understanding what “more” was or how to get it.

Moving Forward

Knowing I wanted something and not knowing how to get it, I reverted to what I did know from my professional life: I sought an expert. I asked my pastor, Graeme, to suggest a mentor for me, someone who could help me find whatever it was I was missing. He suggested that I talk with a spiritual director, Danny. That was a suggestion to be ignored. Not because I didn’t like and respect Danny; he was a pastor at another local church and he had experienced his own profound rebirth.[2]

It was a suggestion to be ignored. I wanted a mentor, not a spiritual director. I didn’t know what a spiritual director was or did, but it was not a mentor. Since I knew that I pretty much knew everything, I ignored Graeme’s suggestion.

It seems the Lord did not want me to ignore it. He orchestrated a series of events that led me to where he knew I needed to be to experience him in a powerful, personal way, a way that would allow him to fill the spiritual void that dogged my days. He was getting ready to lead me through the Wall and position me to receive the call he was placing on me. The first thing he did was bring Danny to my church to deliver the Sunday message.

Danny spoke about learning to be still in the presence of God, to simply “be with God” without an agenda. He began with the well-known line from Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God!” Over the course of the teaching, he distilled the verse from “Be still and know that I am God,” to “Be still and know,” to “Be still,” and, finally, to simply “Be.” At the end of his message, Danny set aside time for the congregation to practice being still and attentive in the presence of God. He asked us to just sit quietly for five minutes and pay attention to God.

This was a new experience for me. I prayed regularly, but my prayers were very busy. I talked to God; I did not listen to him. I interceded, asking God to act on behalf of others. I prayed for my own needs and wants (mostly wants). I prayed in tongues, an unknown prayer language. God did speak to me in my praying from time to time, especially if I was seeking his direction or revelation. But my prayers were anything but still. I never slowed down enough to just experience the presence of God within. Trying to still my thoughts and emotions and just “be” in the presence of God was difficult but rewarding. I did not capture the experience in my journal nor can I recall the specifics, but I did experience God’s presence and I was moved by the feeling of peace that came with the awareness. That was the first tentative step down the road for me.

The following Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and repentance leading up to Good Friday, then Easter. My church conducts an Ash Wednesday service each year, a time to call to mind our sinfulness, repent, and seek forgiveness. As I asked the Lord to reveal to me what I needed to repent of I became aware of a need to stop putting myself first. While I knew this was true, it was not new. I had a deep-seated sense of entitlement, a belief that, above all, I deserved to have whatever it was I wanted. I repented of my selfishness on that Ash Wednesday, as I had many times before, trying to set aside my many agendas of what I deserved to have.

What Do You Want?

At that time, I was working as a consultant, which meant I was on the road most of the year. On the rare week when I was in town, I tried to connect with friends. I happened to be in town this particular week, so I invited three friends, Danny, Graeme, and Mike to lunch that Friday. I figured I’d have a one-on-one lunch with whoever was available. Lunch ended up including everyone. Not what I intended, to be honest. They had all been friends with each other before I knew any of them. I wanted some quality time with one; I didn’t want it to be a party where I was sure to not be the center of attention. Thankfully, we often get what we need, not what we want. This unintended group lunch ended up being a very good thing.

During lunch, I complained about feeling like I was always “doing” for others and not getting what I wanted. (Looking back, it seems my Ash Wednesday repentance had once again, not “stuck”!)

Graeme asked me “What is it David wants?” The question caught me flat-footed; I had no idea how to respond. I wanted “something,” but I had no idea what. The question stayed with me. It was and still is the most important question I have ever been asked. Elizabeth Leibert points out the importance of knowing our desires, “…desires are the royal road to self-knowledge. And, as John Calvin pointed out clearly, self-knowledge is directly linked to knowledge of God.”[3] If I don’t know what I want I don’t truly know myself and, as I would later learn, if I don’t know myself I can’t really know God. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I didn’t really know myself and didn’t fully know God.  It is no coincidence that in the gospels we find Jesus asking variations of “what do you want?”  See, for example, Mathew 20:32, Mark 10:51, John 5:6, and John 6:67

While I was wondering what did I want, both Danny and Mike suggested I consider training to become a spiritual director. Here was this “spiritual direction” thing again. Two men whom I admire greatly, Danny, a pastor and a spiritual director, and Mike, a pastor and then, the director of a church network, were suggesting not only that I try spiritual direction but that I become a director myself.

It seemed madness. How could they feel so confident that I would be a good spiritual director? My own sense of spiritual directionless was the problem; directing others could not be part of the solution. I wanted to be “fixed”; I didn’t want something else to do. Besides, I still didn’t know anything about spiritual direction. Danny said the best way to understand direction was to try it out and offered the first session for free. I was nothing if not cheap, so a week later, I met with Danny for my first direction session.

Danny and I talked about how I felt stuck and unable to progress in my growth as a Christian. I knew, for example, that I had a gift of prophecy, but I was reluctant to use it. I had preached a few times, and people had told me how my preaching had affected them, challenging them to look at things differently. Still, I was reluctant to preach. As we discussed those patterns, we realized that much of what was holding me back was fear, fear of being arrogant.

A Hard Look in the Mirror

I’m afraid that at this point, I must be clearer about what kind of person I was. I must face up to the unpleasant task of recalling and recounting the “old me.” I find it painful and embarrassing to recall and memorialize how I used to be, but I also think it is necessary. For you to understand my journey, you must understand where I started. Saying I am a “new man” may sound like a Christian cliché, but I am. Now, after my re-formation, every once in a while, I will realize how I would have reacted in some situation or another, and I ask myself, “why would you do that?” or “why would you have thought or reacted like that?’ It is like looking at an old picture of yourself and thinking, “I know that was me, but really? Why was I like that? Why would I ever have looked like that?”

I was not a very nice person. I’d rather have you think of me as a nice, decent sort and not bring up the unpleasant fellow I used to be. However, this book is not about me – it is about what God did to and for me. It is a story of transformation. I am the thing transformed, but not the one doing the transforming. If this story of God’s work is going to have any power, you need to understand the stuff he had to work with. I must tell you what I’d rather forget about.

I became a Christian almost 35 years earlier. Unfortunately, recognizing and accepting Jesus does not automatically mend the brokenness that so often drives our bad behavior. Being saved is not the same as being made whole.  I was saved, but my behavior was still awful. I hope I am not bursting any bubbles here, but if you think that all Christians are nice people, you probably haven’t been around that many of them, or you don’t see them outside of church when their guard is down.

Looking back, the underlying pattern that drove my bad behavior was a toxic cocktail of selfishness and arrogance. I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it. I should have gotten my way simply because it was what I wanted. When I did not get my way, I would employ various tactics to “win.” I could debate, explaining all the reasons I was right and why what I wanted was best. I would simultaneously devalue opposing ideas and often devalue the person holding those opposing views. I was very quick to speak, offering the “right” answer. “Right” was always defined as what I wanted, what I thought would make me happy. While I was quick to speak, I was slow to listen, and I would often talk over someone else, using the strength of my personality to aggressively shut them down. I have a good mind and a strong personality. If I couldn’t win with logic, I could usually wear the other person down.

When logic, reason, and force of personality weren’t enough, there was always Plan B: become angry and withdraw, forcing the other person to come to me seeking peace (on my terms). When I could get away with it, usually at home, I would slam doors, storm out rooms, sulk, become sullen, and limit my answers to grunted monosyllables when I could be persuaded to answer at all. I was a master of self-righteous indignation. Of course, I didn’t think of this as Plan B at the time. It was just what I did. It was a pattern of behavior I had learned and fine-tuned over time. Like so many others, I lacked the self-awareness to recognize, let alone question, how I was behaving. Sadly, those that loved me the most, my wife and children, were the recipients of the worst of my behavior. We act out the most badly where we feel the safest.

Damage Control

As I slowly matured in my walk with Jesus, I began to realize the emotional and relational damage I had done and was doing. How bad was I? I am certain that if my wife could have mustered the necessary finances, she would have left and taken our three children with her. It would have been a wise thing for her to do. Seeing the damage I was leaving in my wake, I began to withdraw – this time, not to get my way, but to stop hurting people. I could see my bad behavior but seemed to be powerless to change it. Since chasing my needs, wants, and desires ended up with me hurting people, I simply stopped expressing my feelings at all, lest I lapse into the hurtful behaviors that I believed I couldn’t avoid.

I was not any healthier, but I was stemming the flow of damage. Deciding that I was the proverbial bull in the china shop, my strategy to not cause more damage was simply to not move at all.[4] That caused a new problem. God had a plan for me. He knew how he wanted to use my logical and insightful mind in tandem with the spiritual gifts he had already given me.[5] He wanted to bring my verbal gifts in line with his strategies as well. Me shutting myself down was not part of his plan. He was calling me to move in new ways and for new purposes, yet I was steadfastly determined to not keep hurting people, and the only way I could see to that was to not move at all. I wanted to be bold in my Christian walk, but my fear of being arrogant and again hurting people was holding me back. As I talked with my Spiritual Director for that first time, I concluded that perhaps arrogance is boldness that is not tempered by love.

One of the best things about a spiritual director is they will ask you questions, even stunningly obvious questions, that you don’t think to ask yourself. Yet those questions are often pivotal. Danny asked me, “Why don’t you temper boldness with love, instead of fear?”

That was a great question. It was a stunningly obvious question that I would never have asked myself. It led us to discuss how I experienced the Father’s love. I knew that the Father loved me. He had to; he loves everyone. I knew of his love academically, but I did not have an experiential understanding of his love for me. Without an experience of the Father’s love, I didn’t trust love as a check on boldness, something to keep me from slipping back into arrogance.

Like most people, my early life had its difficulties. Alcoholism and co-dependence were dominant features in my childhood. Growing up, I learned a skewed version of parental love. It was something to be earned, and it was fragile and temporary. It had to be earned over and over again, and it could be withdrawn, seemingly without reason. I lacked a grid to perceive and experience God the Father’s steadfast and unchanging love.

Danny encouraged me to seek experiences of the Father’s love, by experiencing his presence without an agenda. He asked simply that I sit quietly, expecting to experience God’s love. If all I could manage was “small sips,” then take small sips.

You might think I got right on that. You would be wrong. I was nervous about spending time in the presence of the Father. I knew how bad I was, and I had heard how good he is.  Would a good, good father really welcome a “bad” son?  The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) likely wasn’t meant to apply to one like me.

Missing Pieces

Perhaps I was simply stalling, but before going to the Father, I sought the right name for me to call him. “The Father” was, for me, freighted with authority and judgment. It rang like an imposed title that one is required to use; a commanded honorific a million miles from a term associated with a love relationship. I asked the Holy Spirit to guide me in knowing how I might address the Father. I settled on “Pops” or “My Pops,” as in “I think I’ll ask my Pops about that!” That was a term I had not heard until a few months previous, but whenever I would hear it, my ears would perk up, and I’d be caught by what seemed a playful, affectionate, and yet personal address. I’d find myself wishing I had someone I thought of as “my Pops.”

The next Sunday, Pastor Graeme’s message was on “Coming Back to Abiding in God’s Presence.” He talked about how when we are not in God’s presence, we are out of place, not where we belong. When we are not where we belong, we cannot be who we are supposed to be.

A key point of the message was that the devil’s main objective is to have us out of place—not where we belong. His goal is not to have us sin. He is only interested in our sin because when we sin, we go into hiding, removing ourselves from the presence of God, as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8). We separate ourselves from God. The devil doesn’t really care whether we sin; it is just the most expedient tool to put a wedge between God and us. God doesn’t move away from us, but when we sin our guilt and shame motivate us to move away from him. We grab our fig leaves and head for the bushes.

Being out of place is a pretty good description of how I felt: out of alignment, out of balance, and out of place. I was beginning to realize that my feeling like “there has to be more” was being driven by being out of place, by not being in the Father’s presence. My soul was hearing the distant voice of my Pops, calling to me as he did to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). All these events led me up to the point of sitting in God’s presence, seeking an experience of the Father’s love. I don’t think anyone could have predicted what that simple exercise would lead to.

[1] Hagberg, Janet O.; Guelich, Robert A.. The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith (Page 114). Sheffield Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Danny Mullins’s book, From Darkness to Light (At His Feet Ministries, Inc., 2013), is his chronicle of how he came to know the deep, intimate, healing love of Christ.

[3] Liebert, Elizabeth. The Way of Discernment (Kindle Locations 694-695). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] To be clear: that was my intention, yet often I found myself still causing hurt and emotional damage.

[5] Yes, God gives spiritual gifts to the broken and the “works in progress.”  It has been my experience that gifts are given based on our desires for them, not our sanctity.

4 thoughts on “Workshop Chapter 2: Getting Ready for the Journey”

  1. David,

    This is excellent. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sending it along.



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