What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Courage is persisting in life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.
– Christian Wiman
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
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In the final scenes of the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character stands at a crossroads with new possibilities for his future, and perhaps for love. An unexpected accident which left him stranded on a desert island had forced him from the life he had planned. Upon his return, he discovered that others had moved on with their own lives without him, and that it would be impossible for him to pick up where things had left off. However, when he takes care of one final detail remaining from his shipwreck — delivering a package to a home in the country — he ends up meeting a woman in a pickup truck who, it is hinted, may provide direction for his life in days to come.
And so at times, we too stand on the threshold of a new season of life. We have changed, others around us have changed, situations and circumstances have changed. We may have passed through a time of disorientation or disruption that has altered life by loss. Perhaps our prospects have moved in the other direction and life has been transformed by good fortune. It may be as simple as being at one of those points in the normal course of growing older and facing new roles and dealing with new realities.
The difference is, our lives are not a Hollywood movie. We may not receive a sign foreshadowing the way forward.
The world of evangelical spirituality from which I came, it seems to me, is not adequately suited to provide support for people facing these perplexing transitions in life. Revivalistic piety is essentially one dimensional. Read your Bible. Pray. Attend church and listen to sermons. Be active in the church. Witness to those around you. Pursue personal holiness (i.e. avoid sins and cultivate good habits). This is usually preached as though it were a one-size-fits-all garment that will stretch to fit any person, apply in any situation, and equip one to face any challenge.
On the odd chance that life’s changes are acknowledged, too often spiritual leaders give wandering believers a false notion of perceptible, measurable progress in the Christian life. They communicate the idea that there is a definable pattern of personal development.
Over the years, the spiritual life has been likened to a journey. That suggests a road with recognizable landmarks and destinations. It has also been envisioned in terms of climbing a ladder, though Protestants have usually been suspicious of this as advocating a system of meritorious works. But this is not a leftover relic from medieval theology. Mission statements of many contemporary churches are quite explicit that they expect certain measurable evidences of “growth” to become apparent in the lives of their members. However, I agree with Henry Nouwen, who said, “It is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit.”
I don’t want to be hyper-critical, but I doubt that many so-called spiritual leaders today would cede control over the message and the process long enough to admit “that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all.”
I also wonder how many of us in churches and Christians communities have enough courage to stand up and say, “I feel like I’m out in the middle of the country at a crossroads. North, south, east, west — in every direction a long and winding road stretches out before me, extending to a vague horizon. I don’t see a single sign guiding me toward the way I should take. It’s like I’m in a wilderness, lost, alone, without a compass.”
If we did, would anyone listen?
And where might we find courage and faith to move on?