26. How Jesus Can Remain Delightful Even as Your Faith Evolves
Hi there! Welcome to Journey On. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
Over the years, it seems like I’ve picked up--for lack of a better term!--a “brand” as someone who helps churchgoers who find themselves leaving their church--or just their way of thinking about what faith means to them--nonetheless continue on with a warm and growing experience of Jesus.
My first book, called Not the Religious Type, had me leading a large church but talking about things like a stage theory of spiritual and emotional development that helped some people understand why some spiritual expressions worked for them earlier in their lives, but no longer were offering them much. But, again, the book also offered a cheerful look at connection to Jesus, regardless of the stage one might find oneself in.
My second book, Blue Ocean Faith, looked at how churches themselves might make a transition, particularly from the second stage I’d talked about into the third stage, while also keeping open a peek into what a foray into the fourth and last stage might look like. And it again had very enthusiastic things to say about Jesus in such transitions.
As over the last many months I’ve been enjoying our Journey On online groups that have very much focused on this fourth stage of spirituality--which we’ve called “Journeying” here--I’ve gotten occasional requests, usually from happy participants, to connect a few more of the dots between their earlier experience of faith and what we’re all enjoying together in the groups.
And so I’ve--among other things--revisited this popular course called Seek that I and others helped create, using the model of a British course called Alpha that looks to help inquirers consider faith in Jesus. Seek, you might say, was a post-modern version of Alpha that worked great in settings like university-central Cambridge, Massachusetts, where my church was. But it also was set up to do just great in a church setting like mine that included congregants from all of the stages. But what might those topics look like along the lines of what we’re talking about on Journey On?
So I took a look! The first two sessions of Seek focus, unsurprisingly, on Jesus in ways I’ll briefly detail in today’s podcast. And one model we talk about in Seek seems to me to be quite powerful as a way to think about Jesus from this Journeying space, while other points of interest in those sessions might be less needed here.
So, all to say, today we’re going to schmooze about Jesus--a very happy subject for me--but we’ll do it from the point of view of people looking for a fresh way to embrace what Jesus might offer them. If you are, say, a happy churchgoer, this episode might give you a window into what some of your friends--who are like I’ve just described--might be experiencing. Or this might be one to skip! But, for the rest of us, we’ll consider things like:
- Why some former churchgoers are skittish about talking about Jesus while others are not at all.
- Why some friends have enjoyed things like meditation, but have found it empty without somehow directly including Jesus in it
- And what might be different options for pulling that off.
- How my journey with Jesus got started and how, despite my taking a journey through pretty different types of churches, the things that drew me from Day 1 remain true and only richer in this Journeying world.
- How a prominent British ministry that teaches the history of Christian contemplation regards Jesus as--who could have guessed?--most fundamentally a teacher of contemplation.
- And then--most profoundly to me of all--how my subjective experience of Jesus offers me a kind of flexibility and power that not only remains delightful and central, but that, it seems to me, can track with us through a lifetime of changing and growing spirituality.
So I’m excited for today! It really is one of my happiest things to think about.
Speaking of our online groups, before we roll, I’ll mention that, if you like the sort of journeying spirituality we talk about here, you might really enjoy trying out a weekly online group I host around these things with folks from around the country and beyond.
We now have three delightful groups. On Wednesdays at 9pm Eastern time, on Sundays at 6:30pm Eastern time. And a new group on Mondays during the day--at 2pm Eastern time, or, put another way, at 6pm Greenwich Mean Time, which opens it up from friends from South Africa and elsewhere. Give one a try! Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
As with all podcasts, if you like Journey On, one way you can play your part is by giving it a good rating and a brief review on iTunes so others can more easily find and connect to what’s here. Thanks!
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Okay! Kick us off, Ryanhood, with How Jesus Can Remain Delightful Even as Your Faith Evolves.
Many of the people joining in with our online groups have a church and Jesus background, as do I, despite having been an atheist debater in my youth, as I’ll touch on in a moment.
For some, that church and Jesus background is an important part of what they take into the spirituality we talk about here. For others, they have more of a flinch response, often not to Jesus per se, but certainly to how Jesus was discussed in former churches. Many people have had meditation experiences before our group, and some tell me those proved helpful up front but unsatisfying in the long run, because they didn’t seem to lead anywhere. So perhaps a Jesus-based contemplative approach seems promising.
And, clearly, there’s a long tradition of that that we’re drawing on here, along with some other sources we’ve found helpful.
With that said, if perhaps you have a flinch response to considering or talking about Jesus--which I’m not suggesting that you do, but if you do--
I wonder if it comes from implications about looking to Jesus that perhaps don’t hit you as positively now.
So just to name a few--and most likely some of these will cause you to flinch while perhaps others won’t, but, for instance: ways Jesus would tie into ideas of heaven and hell and sin and the need for worldwide evangelization and inserting him into culture wars.
So you, under those circumstances, might find yourself on the horns of a dilemma: Spirituality that doesn’t significantly include Jesus might seem ultimately empty, more like a tactic, while being too, to use a word from Anne Lamott, Jesus-y, might run you into religious ditches you’d hoped to leave.
So today I thought it might be helpful to at least kick around some possibly renewed ways to think about and maybe experience Jesus along the lines we’ve been talking about here.
[Dave tells his experience of experiencing Jesus here and what that’s meant since.]
I don’t feel really at risk of the meditation sides of my spirituality feeling empty, because I continue to live in a relational, communicating universe that’s pretty Jesus-y, and that’s felt comforting and encouraging as--as all spiritualities would ideally do--my spirituality has, at least from inside my skin, continued growing with me as I age.
For some of us, I’ve heard how important it is that your silent spirituality is fundamentally--as Grace talks about--about “delighting in the beauty of the Lord and beholding him in his temple,” as Psalm 27 says.
You tell me how helpful the Trappist idea of “the sacred word” is for you in that. That hasn’t been as meaningful to me, perhaps because that intuitive exercise doesn’t come as naturally to me, but also because the communicative universe that does come naturally to me is so present that I haven’t felt a void that that would need to fill.
As I mentioned, our Seek Course began with two sessions on Jesus, the first of which looks at reasons people taking a course like Seek might have to be suspicious about such a thing, but then at other reasons for why, nonetheless, hundreds of people over the years pushed past those objections to explore it. We talk about this fascinating idea of how types of faith are more the issue than Jesus per se: so we swipe a discussion from this author Brian McLaren about what he calls “good faith” and “bad faith,” something that remains helpful to me.
And, in the second talk, we talk about Jesus in journeying terms not far from what we talk about here, where we bring in yet another theoretical model--I love those things--this one about two sets, a bounded and a centered set. And we talk about seeing Jesus in light of this relational view of the universe that’s been so important to me.
It was really fun to look back at those sessions, while also realizing that the perspective we’ve been spending time on here has really enjoyed pushing into lived spiritual experience and wisdom from great teachers throughout the centuries along those lines, rather than looking as a first instinct to build a theological case for something and then to think about how lived experience might fit into the theological case that’s been made.
[Dave mentions how some scholars look at Jesus as a contemplative. He mentions Journey to the Heart, edited by Kim Nataraja.]
One thing that’s been valuable to me in my long journey of faith and spirituality has been coming to terms with what Jesus means to me personally, if anything. Not what he should mean, but in point of fact what sticks with me. And--this will sound like a weak statement, I’m sure, but it’s been helpful and meaningful to me--what I realized is that I’m just much happier in a world with Jesus in in than I am in a world both without Jesus, but also a world where Jesus is fine but not at the heart of things.
I’m just happier living in a universe where Jesus is pretty central.
And it turns out that this sentiment is at the heart of centered-set faith, which is all about a living, two-way experience of Jesus.
My “I’m happier living in a world with Jesus in it” perspective has been comforting for a lot of reasons, of course, but one is that that’s actually taken pressure off of me, for what it’s worth, to feel like I have to prove anything about Jesus. Clearly as a Christian pastor, I did feel some pressure, even in Seek, to do some arguing on Jesus’s behalf from logic and scripture and history.
And I suspect the reasons that I’m happier to live in this Jesus-y world do go back to those early ways Jesus was meaningful to me--that relational universe and so on. But there’s a warmth and friendliness to life with Jesus for me that is meaningful to me.
I was talking with one of my sons recently. In the pandemic, he’s been in lots of movie conversations with friends over Zoom where they watch some classic that’s on Netflix and then talk about it. And he’s excited to see and talk about lots of great but really bleak movies like No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood.
And I realize that, while I can occasionally appreciate movies like those and others, in the end I don’t want to live in their bleak worlds. Warmth helps me. I have experienced Jesus--and of course God as a whole, but certainly God with Jesus front and center--as extraordinarily warm. The central idea in the New Testament that, as John writes, God is love, I really don’t believe could or would have said without Jesus having been so central to John. But that, for me at least, has entirely been the truth and remains really, really important to me and very much at the heart of what we’re up to here.
And one real benefit to me in my “I dunno; I’m just happier living in a world with Jesus in it” point of view is that it’s a big part of what’s been so fun about exploring contemplative spirituality from masters from all over the world, as we talk about on Journey On. Back in the days when I might have been a little headier and more argumentative about Jesus, I might have been more reactive to learning from Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama or others from other parts of the world. I might have regarded them as on a different team or something like that, I dunno. But now I find myself eagerly learning whatever they have to offer that hits me as helpful, and I do it in a world where Jesus is alive in all of that and chatting with me in the ways we talk about.
An important truism for me throughout my life with God now takes on even more power: All truth is God’s truth. If it’s true, then God--the most fundamental truth there is--is there. And that’s made all this broad-based exploration with Jesus so pleasurable.
Now having done all this Jesus talk today, that might beg the question of are we just back in our old, bounded-set boat of needing to defend being Jesus-y against friends or family members who aren’t in that place. As I look back at the Seek talks, I could imagine being motivated to take a pass at one of the sessions called “I’d love to talk about this stuff, but how?” Which talks at some depth about that question.
But for today, just to say that I’ve found my starting point for any conversation about things like this with folks in a different place than me to be one of delight not one of arguing.
I’ve been so helped by my I’m-sure-limited understanding of a Yiddish word: mitzvah. I take it to mean something like “a good turn”--doing a mitzvah for someone is doing a good turn for them.
I’ve always seen whatever I pass on in a Jesus-y way to someone else in terms of a mitzvah rather than as, I dunno, doing my Christian duty to, like, try to keep someone out of hell. And of course I can receive mitzvahs from anyone offering them to me as well. Over the years, between just being a person in relationship with other people and then being a pastor, I’ve had certainly hundreds and maybe more than that of people take me up on the Jesus-as-mitzvah thing. And I think nothing along those lines has changed for me in however my journey of faith has continued on.
This has been a central way that Jesus has remained, to use the New Testament terms, robustly “good news” for me.
That’s it for this Journey On! God bless you and yours! See you soon!