Hi, my name is Mike, and I am a recovering separatist. [Hi, Mike!]
My separatist life started when I had a spiritual awakening at the end of my senior year in high school. That “conversion” was to me like rounding a bend in the highway and driving straight into a blinding sun so bright that it washed out everything else in sight.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.
Before that experience my life consisted of three major interests: (1) Girls, (2) Baseball, and (3) Music (and the accompanying lifestyle).
When I met Jesus, I found I didn’t have to give up girls, because there were lots of pretty, nice Christian girls. I also discovered I could keep enjoying music. Back in those days before the commercialization of CCM, “Jesus Music” was emerging, and it was as important to the vitality of our Christian lives as the Bible. Of course, my old “worldly” LPs had to go, so I threw them in the dumpster (how often have I regretted that!). My heart was filled with fresh new sounds and for awhile, that was enough. I did, however, give up playing baseball (how often have I regretted that!). I had no conception of how sports fit with following Jesus, so out it went.
The world behind me, the cross before me,
No turning back, no turning back.
I had all Christian friends all the time. The oft-quoted statistic, that most new believers have no non-Christian friends within two years of their conversion, proved true of me in a much shorter period of time (how often have I regretted that!). Within a year I had decided to attend Bible College and pursue ministry. My dad wisely tried to convince me to get a broader education and work toward a career in something I could fall back on if church work didn’t pan out, but I was too infatuated and immature to listen to him (how often have I regretted that!).
Three years of total immersion in Bible college — the cut your hair, wear a tie, no holding hands, no dancing, no movies, no rock music, room inspection every morning, mandatory daily chapel kind of Bible school — separated me from every facet of life in the world at large. I might as well have been stranded on a desert island. At the time, I didn’t mind. Looking back, though I’m grateful for the structure it gave my life, I can also see all kinds of ways it may have stunted my growth.
On to my first pastorate. Back into the world? Well…sorta. It was still pretty much all Christians all the time that formed my world. We lived in the mountains. No TV. Listened to a ballgame every now and then. Tentatively dipped my toes in the water and started to attend an occasional movie. A little bit of folk music found its way into the house through the radio. I occasionally had a conversation with neighbors, but still felt like a newborn foal every time I did, stumbling around trying to find something we had in common to talk about.
Then we moved back to Chicago for seminary. After a year of school, we experienced a great disappointment. My funding source dried up. I had to go to work and drop out of school for awhile.
An electronics factory became my daily world. Nary a Christian in sight (at least that I knew about). I made a few friends and was surprised at how much I enjoyed their company. Soon I found my way back to school and, providentially, into pastoral work once more. This wasn’t the mountains where a person could hide out. Serving in the city began to drag me, kicking and screaming, out of my naive isolation from the world. I took my first course in Clinical Pastoral Education and was introduced to life and death in the hospital wards. My professors, to a person, said repeatedly that being in a seminary atmosphere was fine, but if you really want to serve on the front lines of ministry, get out into the church and serve in a community. It resonated. I was starting to see a difference between church work and the work of the church.
So we moved to Indianapolis and I served on the staff of a non-denominational church. All in all, it was a pretty good experience, but I struggled with many aspects of it. For one thing, our family was growing, and our children were starting to get involved in school and sports in the community. I had a conviction about sending our kids to public school, and I started coaching Little League. Through my sons, I got baseball back!
However, we were swimming upstream in the local conservative Christian culture. Where we live is a highly “churched” area, and I watched as Christians changed churches like yesterday’s clothes because of conflicting “convictions.” Many home-schooled their children (despite living in one of the most conservative states in the U.S.) because of the “ungodliness” of public education. Parents forbade their kids from participating in youth group because of an emphasis on reaching the lost and (horrors!) actually including them in activities.
I saw people whose time and energy was totally taken up by church programs and activities. Churches around here began building mega-centers to provide full service, family-friendly activities for people of all ages, creating a world folks need never leave, allowing them to avoid worldly contamination. I started to feel out of place.
Following our kids’ activities, coaching baseball and working with young people and their families in the community was a constant joy. We had a “neighborhood.” We spent a lot of time together. For the first time in my adult life, I started to feel like I had a life outside of “churchianity.”
We moved down the road, and I took a senior pastor position in a sister church. It was a hard experience for a lot of reasons, but my own inward struggles made it even more difficult. As I look back, I must be honest and admit that, in a lot of ways, I was just not getting the church thing anymore and how it was supposed to work simultaneously with a life in the world.
Just before that pastoral ministry came to an end, I got involved with a family we knew from baseball whose son was terminally ill. Along with other members of the community, we spent hours at the hospital and walked with them through the difficult journey. The bonds formed then remain to this day. In the process, I received a taste of life, relationships, and ministry outside the church walls that transformed my life. It was only a couple of months later that I was hired to work with hospice, and now my parish is as wide as central Indiana.
I never have been what one might call a wild-eyed, hard-edged fundamentalist separatist. I was just a kid who was found by Jesus and thought that meant the rest of my life should be different, somehow lived in a separate category from the ordinary course of human life. Now I know that becoming a Christian doesn’t put a person one step above the rest of the human race, or mean that one should separate from sharing common life experiences with one’s neighbors.
I’m still blown away by the grace and mercy of Jesus to one who was so clueless for so long. And who, in so many ways, still is. But I think I’m recovering.
I still think the church is special, the amazing family of God in all times and places.
I just don’t want this whole “Christian thing” to keep me from being human.
By the way, I married a beautiful girl. I’m all about the music. And I got baseball back. Hey, the Cubs even won the World Series!
No longer does “the world grow strangely dim” when I look at Jesus. For some reason, when I’m most focused on him, the world also comes more into focus, taking on a strange, inviting beauty. And I’m ready every day to move more deeply into it with his kindness and love.
This is…about the second turning.
In the first turning, a Christian experiences the transformation from a natural person to a spiritual person. Instead of the “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 & into the World
by Rebecca Manley Pippert