Another Look: The Second Turning — or How JT, a Field of Dreams, a Marble Tomb, and Learning to Do Nothing Saved My Life


Note from CM: Thought I’d revive this post from 2013 for today, since last night we went to see James Taylor in concert once again.

• • •

This is a book about the second turning.

In the first turning, a Christian experiences the transformation from a natural person to a spiritual person. Instead of “self” being the center of life — exploring, cultivating, adoring it — God becomes the center. This miracle is brought forth by the Holy Spirit giving us new life in Christ. It is a necessary, indispensable, basic step.

But it is only a first step. The work of the Holy Spirit should not stop here but lead to a second turning in which the spiritual person again becomes natural.

• Walter Trobisch
Foreword to Out of the Saltshaker and into the World

I first read Walter Trobisch’s words over thirty years ago. They struck me then as extraordinarily wise and needful for my life. I have spent the last three decades making the second turning.

When I had a spiritual awakening in my late teens, I found myself in a new world of fundamentalist Christian faith and practice. Let me talk about one aspect of that world today. One major theme that drove me was the concept of “giving up things for Jesus.” I honestly couldn’t tell you how much of that came from the preaching and teaching I was receiving and how much was my own imperfect understanding of what this new life was all about. All I know is that I had the idea that following Jesus meant leaving the world behind — and that meant giving things up.

So I did. I gave up playing baseball. I gave up listening to “secular” music. I gave up any thought of pursuing a career outside of “ministry.” I gave up “small ambitions” and set myself on a course to change the world by signing up for Bible college and promising to follow Jesus, even to the ends of the earth. I had made the “first turning.”

I spent a year in community college and still remember the conversation when some of my former teammates begged and argued with me to play baseball for the college team, but my mind was made up. That was behind me now. I had given it up for Jesus.

I can still see the view from my dorm room at Bible college. It looked down on the music building next door. A dumpster stood along the walk between our buildings. One day after I had gone home for a weekend I brought back boxes of classic 60’s and 70’s rock albums and with fear and trembling threw them in that dumpster. We couldn’t listen to them at school anyway (one of 10,000 rules there), and I just couldn’t justify keeping them any longer. It was clear to me that they weren’t compatible with a life with Jesus that was defined by hearing his call, climbing out of the boat, and leaving the nets behind.

The fact that I was in Bible college was due to a concession by my father to his headstrong son. He gave me a very good set of arguments as to why I should go to college or university and develop skills and perhaps a career that could stand me in good stead if my enthusiasm for ministry wore off or if it did not work out for some reason. Of course, I knew better because I thought I had heard Jesus call me to give all that up. So I didn’t listen to my father, a choice I’ve often regretted.

That was my understanding of the life of following Jesus. Give up the old. Lose your life. Die to self. Separate from the world.

Of course, there was a positive purpose too, for all this giving up things. But that purpose was narrowly defined: it was the Bible, full time ministry, and that was it. I had no idea that Jesus had any bigger purpose for my life than that. I did not understand that Jesus’ goal for me was that I would flourish in him as a forgiven human being in this age and in the new creation, and that through that grace I would extend love to my neighbors and be fully engaged in this life as a person of faith, hope, and love.

In order for me to get on that path, a second turning was needed. The one who had been awakened to the spiritual life now had to become natural again. Let me tell you briefly about four experiences along the curve of the second turning.

• • •

james-taylor-photo-1It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that I returned with any sustained seriousness to listening to “secular” music. I distinctly remember going into the public library in Waukegan, Illinois and checking out James Taylor’s cassette of Never Die Young. I had always been a fan of his and occasionally listened to his songs, but now I wore that tape out, and — ask my kids — car rides were never the same. This was the beginning of the renewal of my love for singer-songwriters and the kind of music that meets at the intersection of folk, rock, and pop.

Emerging from the ghetto of listening only to “Christian” music (except for the classical music and a few folk singers that had at least kept me connected — barely — to a lifeline to the world outside), I began to listen to the words, thoughts, and emotions of a broader spectrum of the human race. Many of the singers to whom I was listening, like JT, were people of my generation who were singing about my experiences too. I became more reflective about my own life and more connected to the world around me. A bit of humanity returned to my heart, and continues to flow into it through all kinds of music to this day.

And then there was baseball. Though I followed my MLB teams to a degree, baseball had virtually disappeared from my life as an area of major interest. Then I had a little boy. A little blond-haired boy who loved sports and played as hard as hard could be. It wasn’t long before Little League became a major part of our life. The ball fields became our neighborhood, and our friends there became as entwined in our lives as our friends at church were.

I was reminded of what it was like to grow up in a small Midwest town and be part of a community. I learned more of what it meant to be a Christian (and a pastor!) relating to people outside the walls and programs of a church. I learned how to ask my neighbors to forgive me when I was short-tempered or inconsiderate, or when my words were out of line. I learned how to listen to my neighbors when they wanted to talk about life with someone they assumed might care. I learned that games are not a waste of time or an idle amusement but a context for life and love.

My life and thinking was so narrow and small, so constricted in that world of evangelical churchianity! My refusal to study at a college or university that offered a broad range of subjects and experiences had limited my perspective on the world and had stunted my education. When Gail and I were asked to be members on a mission team to India in 1996, little did we know how much our minds and hearts would be expanded. Not only did our view of God grow greatly, but our appreciation for the world’s wonders, the diversity of its peoples, the intricacies of its history, and the extent of its brokenness and needs grew exponentially as well.

I also learned that word “neighbors” includes the man who goes with his wife for a picnic each week on the manicured lawn of the Taj Mahal, a monument to undying love. There they sit, sharing love and conversation and experiencing romance and wonder just like people all over the world do.

taj-mahalI have never seen the world the same since standing in front of that marble tomb, since arriving on our first flight into New Delhi and seeing a crowd of thousands milling outside the terminal of the airport, smelling the ever-present and indescribable pungent aromas that awaken all of one’s senses, attending a Hindu wedding, sharing tea with simple brothers and sisters in Christ, seeing a river rise to incredible heights in monsoon season, marveling at the breathtaking green hues of the rice fields, visiting Dickensian style orphanages, meeting and talking and praying with lepers and the nuns who serve them, and dealing with the discomforts and epiphanies of world travel.

On these and several other mission trips I was privileged and helped by many to take, I received much of that education, much of that understanding and perspective that I had foolishly declined pursuing before.

Perhaps the most gracious gift of God in helping me around the second turn was the privilege of being with a family in a time of loss. A gifted high school player in our baseball community was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This was before I served as a hospice chaplain, when my time at the church was coming to an end, and when I would soon move into another career of learning to be a friend and pastor to the dying and their families. This was, to this point, the most profound experience of my life, and I could write for days detailing its importance for me and my family.

The funny thing to me about the whole experience, looking back, is that I really didn’t do a damn thing. I just went to the hospital, sat with the family, engaged in conversation and occasionally said a prayer. Over a year and a half we became good friends with a deep bond. Life has obviously never been the same for this family and they bear an indelible grief. But the experience changed me too. It is no exaggeration to say that I learned more sitting with them and watching the community rise up to support them through their ordeal than I learned in Bible college, seminary, and years of ministry in various churches.

Funny it was, because by that time, you see, I had been in pastoral ministry for about 25 years. But it was only then, I think now, that I really became a pastor, that is, a pastor who was successfully negotiating (by God’s grace) the second turning. Before that experience, I think I saw “pastor” as what I did. I came to see that a “pastor” is what I am. It is not merely my career path, my occupational title, my position or function. I am a pastoral person. It is my identity, not a role. It’s what it means for me to be fully human. And whether or not I ever serve in a church, or if I were to lose my chaplain job tomorrow, or if I were never to mount a pulpit or serve the Lord’s Supper again, I would still be “Pastor Mike.”

This “Pastor Mike” wasn’t formed by what I gave up. Some of that was a necessary part of the “first turning.” New converts need a period of separation from the past, a “boot camp” experience of sorts to help us realize we’re in a new world. That’s fine. But boot camp is designed to end in short order. What really forms us comes after that: when we learn to embrace life from a new perspective.

For me, it took a little music, a few games, a bit of education, and a lot of doing nothing. And I’m still making my way around that second turn.

16 thoughts on “Another Look: The Second Turning — or How JT, a Field of Dreams, a Marble Tomb, and Learning to Do Nothing Saved My Life

  1. Of course, there was a positive purpose too, for all this giving up things. But that purpose was narrowly defined: it was the Bible, full time ministry, and that was it.

    i.e. Holy Orders and nothing else.
    Just like in the pre-Reformation Wars Catholic Church, where the ONLY lives pleasing to God was as a Priest, Monk, or Nun and NOTHING else.
    Didn’t you Protestants break away and start a war to get away from that?


  2. Something I read every now and again…

    Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
    We are quite naturally impatient in everything
    to reach the end without delay.
    We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
    We are impatient of being on the way
    to something unknown,
    something new.

    Yet it is the law of all progress, that it is made
    by passing through some stages of instability,
    and that may take a very long time.
    And so I think it is with you.

    Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
    Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
    Do not try to force them on
    as though you could be today what time
    — that is to say, grace —
    and circumstances
    acting on your own good will
    will make you tomorrow.

    Only God could say what this new Spirit
    gradually forming in you will be.
    Give our Lord the benefit of believing
    that his hand is leading you,
    and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
    in suspense and incomplete.

    Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
    our loving vine-dresser.
    By Teilhard de Chardin

    Thank you Pastor Mike.


  3. This vision of universal compassion, and a universal end of suffering, has always touched me deeply, even after I became disillusioned with my experience of Zen practice and re-entered the world of Christian faith. I love the Ten Ox-herding Pictures; I find them compelling in a way almost equal to that of a crucifix. I at one time considered getting Ten Ox-herding Pictures tattoos. I still think they’re beautiful.


  4. In the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, this return to the world to help others came to be understood as in fact the way to Nirvana, since Nirvana and Samsara (illusion, manifestation) came to be understood as identical. For Zen and other Mahayana traditions (like Tibetan Buddhism), Nirvana is understood to be in the heart of the everyday, ordinary world, and it is found there by the practice of prana (wisdom) and karuna (compassion). The ordinary world, when seen with wise and loving eyes, is known to be the domain of the Great (or Universal) Compassion.


  5. The Ten Ox-herding Pictures are also part of traditional Zen teaching. They trace from beginning to end the stages of seeking and coming to enlightenment. The last picture shows the return to the world of the seeker who has achieved enlightenment. This picture is sometimes titled “The Return to the Marketplace” in commentaries, and the one returning is said to come with “Bliss bestowing hands”. He is usually understood to be a Bodhisattva, one who chooses not to pass over the threshold to Nirvana, but rather returns to the world vowing to help all sentient beings enter Nirvana before he himself (or herself) passes over.


  6. You have put into words the profound truth of being in the world but not of it.

    In our first turning we left the world and in some strange way can end up neither heavenly or earthly good but insulated and off on our own. For me it was a necessary parting of ways to leave my old world.

    The second turning is our going back into the world and caring as Jesus did.

    That one is every bit as hard as the first.


  7. Well said Chap Mike. Really resonates with my own experience.

    My “first turn” was great in some ways…..and painful in other ways. I didn’t realize how much the Christian culture that I became a part of, with its most dominant narrative being that of escape from this world and from wrath (even if it isn’t explicitly presented that way very often), naturally led to the kind of pervasive withdrawal that you’re speaking to here. It makes me mad now.

    I long to be a person fully engaged in the ordinary moments of life as a person of faith. I desperately want that “2nd turn”. Honestly though, the dominant narrative of the faith that has been given to me just doesn’t give me a foundation to authentically do so. The Culture Wars/”Benedict Option” are the natural manifestation of it’s narrative and it’s cultural ethos. You can engage with “the world” a little bit……but not REALLY.

    And so goes the process of deconstruction. Baby steps.


  8. “The funny thing to me about the whole experience, looking back, is that I really didn’t do a damn thing. I just went to the hospital, sat with the family, engaged in conversation and occasionally said a prayer.”

    Chaplain MIKE, you didn’t do a ‘damn’ thing, no
    . . . you did a ‘blessed’ thing:
    to ‘be present with’ people in their suffering is ‘a kindness, like that of our God’

    beautiful post, Chaplain MIKE . . . thank you


  9. I’ve been sitting here comparing my experience to yours, CM, and find a lot of similarities. There is, however, one big difference.

    I was born and raised in the “giving it up for Jesus” mode…only when that’s all you know from the beginning of your life I guess you haven’t really given anything up – there’s just a lot of things that are off limits. A lot of things that are bad for you, granted – but also a lot of interesting, worthwhile and growth-producing things. Things that connect you to people.

    I’m still in that second turn and probably will be for the rest of my life. The company is great, though, and I have no illusions of finally arriving.


  10. There is a Zen saying (the bracketed text is my commentary):

    First there is a mountain (the illusion of self is the center of action and experience).
    Then the mountain disappears (the illusion of self is seen through, and the true nature behind the illusion of self is known in the personal transformation of enlightenment).
    Then there is a mountain again (the experience of self returns, no longer as the controlling center, but as an integrated process of dynamic interbeing with all people and things).

    I’d swept it away,
    but the web on the mailbox
    is there again today.


  11. Wow, Mike! What an interesting journey you’ve had! Your second turning towards a relaxed Christian walk reminds me of one of my favorite chunks of scripture, enriched via The Message:

    “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

    I especially like the line, “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” Amen!


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