Dr. Tony Campolo has been the large open door I’ve needed to call myself both a liberal and theologically orthodox; to somehow unite an Apostle’s Creed faith with progressive sociopolitical ideals. For me, this means an ever-deepening love for the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as Holy Writ, inspired by God and the means by which God’s Spirit brings salvation, reconciliation and enlightenment.
Only a few years ago I had all but given up on contemporary evangelicalism. It no longer provided sufficient nourishment for my soul, framework to my changing ideals or challenge to my prevailing modus operandi. I was desperately thirsty for what I could neither name nor describe. Moreover, a certain underlying fear of “falling from grace” or “straying into error” pervaded my thinking. It made the decision to leave the Willow Creek Association church I was serving and take up a ministry in a liberal American Baptist church easy on one level and horrifying on another.
What I was to discover however was that it wasn’t liberalism I was searching for. My three years as Music and Worship Minister at this church revealed the following things to me. First of all, I had never experienced Christian spirituality practiced to that degree in a local church setting. The relative freedom afforded to me in asking archetypal questions of faith opened some delicious ontological windows into which flowed the warm sunlight of God’s face. But I needed tools to build on my ever-increasing thirst for a more mystical Christianity – a spiritual scaffolding as it were upon which to build my “interior castle.” Secondly, the inadequate Christology and, by default, atonement theology left a gaping hole in my need for a stoutly trinitarian soteriology. Christianity and specifically Christian spirituality made little sense to me otherwise. Finally, it was clear that I needed unifying principles around which to develop a totally new paradigm.
In the years that followed my short tenure at First Baptist Church, I have fully embraced the dual necessities in me of a peace and justice ethic coupled with an historically orthodox Christian faith. I have further devoted myself entirely to the spiritual life through my commitment to Renovaré, spiritual disciplines and expression of these in my home, my church of employ, my community and my hamlet of Yakima, Washington.
The latest and arguably most meaningful piece of the puzzle has come by means of this program. Specifically, the January Residency to which I owe this reflection, left me breathless on the numerous occasions when tears of joy refused composure or the best laughter in recent memory denied sleep. Best of all, seeing the bright and yearning faces to whom only names and letters have been previously affixed, sealed forever in my heart some of the finest individuals I have yet known. Tony’s eloquent and well presented thinking on matters related both to the Scriptures from which springboard his ethics coupled with Shane Claiborne’s radical, albeit non-judgmental, Christian journey, and Mary Darling’s straight forward and well laid out connecting points between mysticism and social justice gave me pause to exhale. I was many steps closer to home!
The events of one single evening bear greater reflection here. Dr. Ken Brewer’s explanations and evident love for the intersection of the Charismatic tradition with social justice was excellent. I must say however that, for one such as I who has swum in these waters before, with not a few bad experiences, his talk was much easier than the prayer and worship time to follow! I was immediately thrust into the uncomfortable reality that, if I was to be fully authentic and represent in my character every facet of God’s work in my life, I needed to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief. Songs were sung. Hands were raised in praise. Bodies swayed rhythmically to the voices of the saints praying together to our one God. My mind was haunted by an old cynicism. I have “worked a room” for many years and know just how to find the most vulnerable people to whom I sing just a little louder. The liturgies of Pentecostalism sneered at me from every corner of the room with voices I didn’t want to hear, let alone entertain. Then, a hand. Val Head, one I profoundly love and respect, had taken it upon herself to pray for me, uninvited (by me at least). It was a beautiful moment. She said nothing but allowed God’s Spirit to guide her silent prayer. In my struggle against cynicism, that action opened a door to God’s inner voice in me, which stated simply, “since when is it about you anyway?”
Dumbfounded that God would speak such simple but delightfully convicting words to me I proceeded to follow Val’s example and prayed individually for each of my cohort members in turn. The more I prayed, the more joy-filled I became. It was then that I “got” it. Even if the entire exercise is a manufactured one (to quote my cynicism), why not participate fully in the dance of the Spirit going on at some level whereby I become a servant and not merely a passive consumer? The release within was magnificent. I cannot say where God will take me regarding my theology in these matters. This much I can say, I do not need to be cynical anymore when faced with such events. I do not need to “hear from God” in the restrictive ways I had imposed upon God. In still one more way I am slowly becoming the man of integrity I so long to be.
A final thought: I have always believed that the more spiritually formed a person is, the greater their freedom from the conventional niceties of a tea ‘n sympathy religion. With the nearly two dozen people who comprise my cohort kindred, I prayed deeper and laughed harder than I ever have in my entire life. And, in God’s economy, since laughter sits next door to tears, I walked away a man utterly filled and transformed.
The integrity I once prayed for is taking shape in painfully slow but tangible ways. The discussions, worship, community, prayers and tears of a week with a few Spring Arbor University saints have painted wholly new and fresh blessings upon the canvas of my life. I am a man most grateful.
I still play the bagpipes.