theological essay

on going to (an episcopal) church

When I left the pastorate, I wasted no time finding another place to go to church.

There is no piety in that. I would not have had the time nor energy to think about “setting an example” to the people to whom I had taught the value of community. I would not have had the will to go out of a sense of duty or obligation—anything that ever rested on those pitiful pillars had already crumbled (as those twin terrors always should; they are far too weak to hold up a soul). I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord’s Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve. I was not over Renovatus—I don’t think I ever will be. I had no idea what sort of new life I might have, just that I had to somehow clear space for any kind of life at all. I needed a place where I could learn how tobe again.

I was not aspiring to go to an Episcopal church in particular. But in my own journey, my belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist had long become the center of my faith. I was aching to find a place where I could receive the body and blood of Jesus every single week. So that narrowed the field considerably. As a Pentecostal who has been largely shaped by women in pastoral work, I wanted to find a place where women would not be excluded from serving that holy meal. That narrowed the field even further. I was also craving a place in my town where ideally I could be a regular person for awhile, where most nobody would know who I was. Okay so I’m not sure if this is still even exactly a “field” now, maybe just enough grass or concrete to find a land where I’d be safe enough to land. But thanks be to God, I landed at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

I shuffled into the big red doors of St. Peter’s in uptown Charlotte a little awkwardly, a self-proclaimed hillbilly Pentecostal. The aesthetics of the place were foreign to me. Yet in a way, the simple artistry of the space made room for a sense of wonder, reverence and otherness that made me feel at home in a place I did not precisely know, but had longed for. I don’t remember how long it took for me not to cry all the way through every service. I could close my eyes when the choir was singing behind us, and actually felt like angels were singing over me. For all the ways some people may think of Episcopal churches in North America as rest homes for progressive white people, I can only tell you that St. Peter’s is as ethnically diverse church as I’ve been in. From the African-American male rector and white female associate rector, to the revolving door of beautiful faces on the pews around me, the church seems as integrated socio-economically and culturally as it does ethnically.

Ollie Rencher, our rector, and Joslyn Ogden Schaefer, our associate rector, trade off on preaching duties frequently. The sermons are shorter that I’m used to, but I love the focus, clarity and precision of them. Father Ollie speaks with a gentleness—a wise and weathered soulfulness—that breaks me open, effortlessly. Joslyn has something I would only know how to describe as the presence of God leaking through her eyes; a bright, sharp theological imagination; and an unforced poetry to her speech. The sermons are never overly adorned, not laden with academic or hyper-spiritual jargon—they are both authentic and artful.

I loved the warmth and compassion that seemed to radiate off the walls in there, and I loved being stone-cold anonymous. Off the grid from my Pentecostal and evangelical circles, I felt completely safe to come as I was, to receive, to just be. I loved that it never felt like the church was trying to sell me anything. I loved that really, nobody is fussed over at all—there is just is not that kind of VIP treatment for anybody. The vibe is, “this is the kind of worship we do here, and you are welcome to come and do this with us…or not.” The liturgy there does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience, but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God. I have commented to friends that I have never actually prayed this much in church before.

With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow—sometimes. And that is enough for now.

It’s never felt like a tragedy there to not be up the guy up front speaking—I’ve been preaching since I was 19 years old. That part is only gift. Ironically, as long-winded of a preacher as I am, I love investing in a way of being and doing church where preaching really isn’t all that central to begin with. In the Anglican tradition, preaching is never the main event. Preaching is only foreplay at most. All the weight of the liturgy lands on the Eucharist—preparing for it, receiving it, reflecting on it. I love being part of a worship experience where so much emphasis is placed on the broken body and shed blood of Christ. I love that I get to come and actually kneel at the altar, where someone will look me in the eye (when I hold my head up high enough for them to do so) and give the elements to me. I’ve cried around that altar week after week. When my heart is too overwhelmed, I slip out the side door after I receive the Eucharist, where a sweet older man and woman lay their hands on me and pray for me. After years of being in healing lines down at the front of the church waiting for evangelists to lay hands on me, I surely don’t feel any shame or self-consciousness about just sliding into that back room for prayer. I go as often as I need to, without reservation.

I don’t feel any less Pentecostal than I ever have. In fact, in ways I don’t have the space to develop here, I have had some of my most mystical church experiences in the holy silence of that place. I have not disowned or detached from anything in my past that has come before. I love the Pentecostal church of my grandparents. I want to “include and expand” in my experience of God and Church, not replace anything.

The things that oriented my pastoral concerns theologically when I pastored Renovatus are still very much in tact. I still feel that the liturgy and the shout by no means need to be segregated, or for that matter, the head and the heart. I’m still crazy about the experience I had at Renovatus, however clumsy I was as a facilitator, of exploring those intersections—putting all the combustible stuff in the lab out and seeing what could explode. When I’m in churches like Sanctuary Church in Tulsa with Ed Gungor, or Word of Life in St. Joseph, Missouri with Brian Zahnd, I feel something of the same thing we had at Renovatus. For that matter, I know that she is only going deeper in her own experience of that kind of integrated worship under the leadership of Jon Stone, a wise old soul with an enormous pastoral heart, who is taking her all the places she needed to go, but I could not have taken her.

But as much as I loved my life planting and growing a church, that is simply not my life anymore, though it will mark me forever. In the meantime, my own experience of liturgy has been pretty impoverished historically. And in response to my hunger, the deep-rooted, whole-hearted worship at St. Peter’s has been beyond anything I could have hoped for. I love not being the kid with his father’s keys to a big car you don’t yet know how to drive, trying to feel my way around the city. I love being in the hands of compassionate leaders and a rich tradition that make me feel safe. By the way…I get to go to my pastors and openly tell them all of my business without shame or fear of judgment, and let them speak into my life. Who knew?! All this love and beauty, and they give the body and blood of Jesus away for free every week to anybody who wants it. I want everybody in the world to experience it, and yet to bury it as a secret from the world at the same time.

In short, I love going to church—maybe more than ever, even when I feel like I limp in and out the big red doors. I feel like I come up for air every time I walk through them, no matter how I might feel in the hours in between. I feel like I can love and be loved as a human being, without my gifts or my life being commodified in anyway.

I don’t know what any of that means for my future. Getting out of bed takes a surprising amount of discipline and focus sometimes these days. Trying to decide what I will have for lunch today alone sounds intimidating in this moment, much less how to make long-term decisions about ecclesial life. I can tell you that performing the liturgy every week is shaping me, very slowly, in ways that are subtle but deeper than my comprehension, and that there is something about this Anglican way of life that orients me when I have no other orientation.

One week a few months ago, I felt strangely compelled to visit an Episcopal Church closer to my house instead of going to St. Peter’s. It was a nice little brick church with about 60 or 70 people adults in the sanctuary, but didn’t have any of the beauty of St. Peter’s—their extraordinary choir, the architecture that in and of itself tells your soul to bow when you walk in the door. I very much liked that I could go into this very different church and know that I would just as connected to the exact same liturgy that is shaping and growing me every week. But the experience, at least within the first few minutes, frankly felt much more pedestrian by comparison.

But you know, it was funny—just a few minutes into the service, two things happened that made me feel like I understood “why” I was there. One was in the hymn before the Scriptures would be read. There was a middle-aged interracial couple sitting in front of me, and while everyone was singing the hymn with a kind of austerity, the African American woman gently lifted her hands in worship. I am not quite sure even now why that simple gesture, in that particular hymn, in that particular environment, had the effect of breaking me open so much, and making me feel so much more at home. It was just a moment that slid in between my ribs. I was irritated to once again be unable to make it through a service without crying.

The rector got up to preach. I liked the sermon just fine, but found myself wishing I could be listening to Ollie or Joslyn instead. And then he said something toward the end of the short message that just smacked me in the face like some kind of wave. He did not claim this originated with him, and I’m not sure where it came from. But he told us that in other parts of Christian tradition, when people think of worship they think of God as the director, the choir or band as the actors, and the congregation as the audience. “In the Episcopal church,” he said, “we think of the priest as the director, the entire congregation as the actors, and God as the audience.”

The air was suddenly still. It felt like I was in a sci-fi movie where time freezes for a moment, and every movement in the room was on pause. The analogy started slowly clicking through all my gears on the inside as it went down. I marveled at just how much, on a soul level, this way of thinking about church made sense to me now—how much more resonant it is to understand Christian worship not as much as being for people as it for God. I was surprised that my heart could agree with such a statement so quickly and easily. It was evidence of how sneaky liturgy can be, and how much it had messed with my insides—while I was just going to St. Peter’s ostensibly just trying not to drown outright. Sometimes you don’t know you are on the boat until you wake up already out in the middle of the ocean.

reflecting on the broad story so far

To be clear, I don’t feel like I’m Columbus discovering America over here. I always think it must be funny to friends in the Catholic and Anglican traditions when people like me say are saying things like, “Hey guys — whenever you practice the sacraments, God shows up EVERY SINGLE time! Can you believe it?!” This is just telling about finding a church that means a lot to me. I am just a guy who quite imperfectly loves Jesus and thus loves the Church, and does not know how to not talk about either. I’m an ecclesial mutt with no particular point to prove, and no particular claim to authority or credibility.

But given the context of my own story so far, I can’t help but reflect on my own experience, and how it fits into my broader understanding of Church. For all the ways I’ve lost my naivety and childlikeness, and often misplaced hope altogether, I am just as hopeful about the Church in all her diverse expressions as I’ve ever been. I don’t know how much longer Charlotte will be my city, but as long as I am here I will be happy to cheer on the kingdom wherever it may be found. I love to go to Elevation Church to amen Steven Furtick, one of my best friends. I love to go to my adopted big brother John P. Kee’s church, New Life Fellowship Center, and get down with surely the best gospel music you could find in America on any given Sunday. I see, hear and feel God in all of those places and in all of those people. And yet I am thankful for my particular place in this very particular moment of my life.

People still talk to me a lot about their own experience of trying to find their place within the Church, and it is always a conversation I am interested in. I have always thought that when you can, it’s ideal to find a way to integrate things that you need from other parts of Christian tradition into your own—while staying where you are. But there are other times where you need to go a little bit more directly to a stream that is different from your own in order to get the nourishment you need. This is such a time for me right now, though I still feel very much invested in the life-long project of trying to learn to live at the intersections of the traditions that are shaping me in some way.

Truth be told, I think it is good to stand within most any sort of Christian tradition and be nourished by it. I think it’s not so good to stand outside of any and all forms of Christian tradition, and make yourself a judge over all them. I know there are a lot of people these days coming from evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds who, like me, are looking to connect their experience with the rootedness and ground-beneath-your-feetness of more ancient liturgy. In and of itself, I think that’s a good thing. I am sometimes concerned though about how we can be attracted to the ascetics of liturgical worship, but not allow ourselves to invest in the content and form of it. Liturgy then becomes little more than an exotic fashion statement, when we aren’t really willing to wear the clothes.

Those of us from evangelical traditions often end up going more or less outside of it when it starts to feel too constricting, without exactly going inside another tradition either. We can stubbornly refuse to reflect seriously enough on the Church in her diverse forms to have to contextualize ourselves—which is a tradition in and of itself, but only an American one. We can spend our days being outraged by fundamentalists for being fundamentalists, and feeling very good about ourselves for not being like the people we don’t like. You know—like fundamentalists. Sometimes I think it is far too easy to get used to being the smart ass kids at the back of the class complaining about all the Church is not, without ever taking the initiative to come into a tradition and humbly learn from it. And yet, we may be equally critical then if we don’t find our experience of church to be entertaining enough. “I want the aesthetics of liturgy, without the tedium of all that actual liturgy.” It’s a way of being the guy who doesn’t really want to read the great book, but wants to be able to say they read the great book. But I digress.

Whatever respective traditions we do find ourselves in and however we get there, I become only more convinced that the practice of coming to the Table together in the Eucharist is the only hope we have for any sort of unity, cohesion, and renewal in the Church as a whole. The problem in Protestantism in general, historically but much more profoundly now, is that have we far too much emphasis on getting the beliefs right. No wonder we now have over 40,000 denominations—the search for perfect doctrine is endless, and thus so are the schisms. It is one schism after another, in search of perfect belief. The thing I love about Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal tradition (when it is rightly understood), is that they are based on shared practices rather than shared beliefs. At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer in general, and the shared experience of the Eucharist in particular, is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.

I believe this is the great hope for the unity of the Church: that though we may hold almost nothing else in common we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, know that somehow Christ is revealed to us around the table, and have burning hearts afterward to prove it. The experience of God in and through this meal gives us the resources to transcend the temporal boundaries that might otherwise divide us.

I know that across church traditions, we can all fall too easily along existing cultural fault lines—skewing too much toward garden variety conservative or liberal politics. But perhaps there is actually far less difference between competing conservative and progressive ideologies within the Church than we once thought. The divisions are not just about how we interpret Scripture and tradition. They may be less about what we believe, than what we have failed to believe about the Eucharist. When we don’t believe that God is revealed to us in the bread and wine, something else will be more determinative for our understanding of church—music, politics, ideology, culture, popular current conversations about sexuality and gender. Yet being the Church can never be about being on the “right” side of these lines, but rather the abolition of these lines through the blood of Jesus. Without an over-arching belief that the love of God expressed around Christ’s table is bigger than any and all such things, we damn ourselves to a temporal tribal identity based on belief, rather than a transformational identity located in the cross of Christ.

I suspect that sounds the worst to those who find such a sentiment to be broad and oversimplified. But I would not know how to nuance it more. I want to be part of a church where the practice of coming to the table is more determinative than anything else. I find St. Peter’s to be blissfully free of bland cultural rhetoric of “tolerance”—but I’m sure it would be too inclusive for many of my evangelical friends. I am okay with that. And if you think I favor a more inclusive church experience because I fear I would not otherwise be myself included—BOOM. YOU GOT ME. That’s absolutely true. Being in great need of grace does in fact radically alter your experience of church.

I can tell you this: I have never heard less talk about passing ideological battles and culture wars in all of my life than I have at St. Peter’s, in one direction or the other. There are no secret litmus tests or cultural shibboleths. There is less of the rhetorical tumult I find in popular culture because there is too much talk of the gospel; and less time for debate because there is too much time devoted to feasting at Christ’s table. There is just the prayer book and the table spread for whosoever will.

Between those Eucharistic meals, some of these days are better than others, and some days worse. But it always does my heart good to remember that I am never more than a week away from no longer bearing the sole responsibility for my own sins. In the corporate confession, my brothers and sisters will share mine, and I will share theirs, and we will hand them over to Christ together—then hear words of absolution. I do not always know how to keep my heart open and my desires known. I feel like a secret even unto myself as often as not. But on Sunday when I walk through the red doors, the clouds will part again when Father Ollie begins:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

run away from me, bunny (runaway)

When we simply ignore all that is in the depths of us, duty and obligation will often be the only things that keep us afloat. But staying afloat is not the same thing as living from our depths. When we are not living from the depths, we are not living from our souls — we aren’t living out of our deepest desires. We develop an entire religion out of a system of “shoulds and oughts.” At our earliest stages of development, this is normal and even necessary. It’s the classic exchange between parents and children — “Why can’t I do that?” “Because I said so!

But we aren’t built to live in this stage forever. If we do not deal with what lives in our depths, we will live as fragmented, repressed, and often secretly angry people. This is why bad religion often turns out to be more toxic for people than no religion. We cannot live our lives with no sense of order. But to replace a life without boundaries with a slavish system of “shoulds and oughts” will actually leave us worse off than we were before. Fear-based religion always leaves us worse off. It is exactly what Jesus describes in Matthew 23.15 when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

It’s heartbreaking when people feel they are forced or coerced into knowing God, or trying to love God — “you must love God…or else!” In the very act of saying “you must,” we virtually ensure that the person will never feel like they actually choose God for themselves. When we are not truly given a choice to know God, then choosing God is not truly possible. And when we cannot live from a place of authentic desire, we cannot live from our depths—thus ultimately, we live cut off from our very selves.

Saving the cable repairman

When I was a kid, I spent my summer days at my Grandmother’s house on the Church of God State Campground. Those were the most magical times of my life. She was a sweet, southern grandmother who made Tang and fried cornbread for me every day. We would sit on the couch and watch the Price is Right and play Scrabble. My grandmother was a woman who deeply loved me, and deeply loved Jesus. I still feel like a lot of the most important things I’ve learned about God I learned from her, though she’s been gone for 18 years now.

I remember one morning in particular when the cable went out. She called the company, and they sent a repairman. When the friendly cable guy knocked on the door, a thought seized me: I am supposed to witness to this man. I had been hearing so much about how I needed to tell people about Jesus. Surely this was my opportunity. And then the terror came. I was eight years old. How am I going to share my faith with an adult man?

I was suddenly paralyzed. I was terrified to talk to him, but even more terrified to not talk to him — because I did not want to be held responsible for his eternal soul. If I didn’t witness to him, then he would not hear the gospel. And he could get in a car wreck on his way to his next job, and would have to go to hell for eternity. And because he didn’t hear the gospel, he would not become the missionary he was supposed to become. Which would mean some kid in tribal Africa would not hear the gospel because the cable repairman did not hear the gospel, and I would be responsible for an entire village going to hell. After agonizing deliberation, I walked into the living room awkwardly where he was trying to work, and I asked him a handful of questions about his life. But I could not muster up the courage to ask him “if he knew Jesus as his personal Lord and savior.” I just couldn’t do it.

So when he left, I burst into tears. My grandmother came into the living room and asked me what was wrong. I could barely even answer her through my tears. Finally I sputtered out, using words formed from the prophet Ezekiel, “I didn’t share the Lord with the cable repair man — and now I know his blood is going to be on my hands!” It was intense for an eight-year old, but that is how I lived every moment of my life — always afraid of Jesus coming over the horizon at any second to call me into account for my sins. My grandmother was, as always, tender and wise. “Oh, Jonathan. That’s not how God works! The way I see it, when I get an opportunity to tell someone the good things the Lord has done in my life, it’s always a blessing. And when I don’t do it, sometimes I feel like I miss out on the blessing of telling my testimony. But that is all — God is not mad at you for not sharing your testimony with the cable repairman!”

But that was the system I internalized, and that is how I always interpreted anything I thought God might be calling me to do. It wasn’t an invitation, but a threat. I grew up feeling sure that God was holding a gun to my head, saying do this or else. Everything I did for God, even when I grew much older, was still out of a sense of duty and obligation. No wonder I was so stuck in my head. When you are living in constant fear, there is no way you can choose to live out of your depths.

pancakes and epiphanies

One of the beautiful things I picked up in my Pentecostal upbringing was an openness to hear or see the Spirit at work in all times and all places. It made me into a kind of accidental mystic. This has especially played out in my life through my love of reading somehow; it’s made me attentive to the possibility that the Spirit could show up through most any kind of text. There have been key moments where I felt like God somehow led me to just the right words in the right book at the right moment. I know this all might sound kind of tenuous. I’m aware “confirmation bias”, that we tend to go looking for things that will support what we already believe. And I certainly don’t think every coincidence in my life equates to some full conspiracy of the angels. But there is a kind of synchronicity at work sometimes in life I have just decided to trust.

So during the middle of my own descent, I had an especially strange moment in church. It was early during the 10:45am service at St. Peter’s Episcopal. There are four readings every week — one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament, then climaxing with a reading from the Gospels. That morning when the Old Testament text was read, it was about Joseph being thrown into the well by his brothers. This was before I had come to understand that the journey I was now on was a journey of descent. But somehow when the verse about him being thrown into the bottom of the well was read, I felt a kind of electricity in my soul. It was odd. The only way I knew how to recognize the Spirit in the text in a church service was if the preacher read one louder than the others! But this verse was read just as gently as the verses before and after it. Our rector didn’t even mention Joseph in his sermon — he preached from the Gospel text. But the image of Joseph being thrown into the well lingered.

The next morning, I went to the Cracker Barrel for pancakes. That is what I do when I’m depressed (and also when I’m very, very happy, incidentally) — I medicate with pancakes. On my way out the door, I grabbed a book almost arbitrarily off the nightstand by the poet Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book about Men. It is an artful, elegantly written book about masculinity that at that point, I knew next to nothing about. Feeling somehow mysteriously drawn, I opened the book at random, near the middle of the book. I know this not a fool-proof method: hence the old joke about the guy who opens up his Bible and asks God to talk to him, and the first passage he opens to is where it says “Judas hung himself.” Then he flips a few more pages and reads where Jesus says, “Go therefore, and do ye likewise.” I don’t have an imitable formula, just an odd story of grace, in the way that all stories of grace surely are.

The page I flipped to was in a chapter called “The Road of Ashes, Descent and Grief.” And these were the first words I read on that page: “We remember that Joseph’s brothers put him down into a gravel pit — the Arab version says into a ‘deep, dry well.’” That is one of Bly’s images for the necessary path of descent men must go through. Remembering what I felt in my soul when that text was read the day before, the way the image of Joseph’s descent had haunted me—I freaked out in the middle of the Cracker Barrel. Every hair on my body stood up. It was not a place I would choose for a spiritual experience.

I still had no idea just how profoundly the book was going to affect me. The premise is roughly as follows: Bly draws from a Grimm fairy tale about a prince who finds a wild man in a cage. Inside the cage with the hairy man is a golden ball the prince wants, but he is afraid to unlock the cage and thus let the wild man out. The only way he could unlock the cage would be to steal the key hidden beneath his mother’s pillow. For Bly, it is crucial that the key has to be stolen. If the boy never passes through this part of the journey, he grows into a man who represses his zest for living under layers of shame, anger, and unfelt grief. He emphasizes:

The key has to be stolen. I recall talking to an audience of men and women once about this problem of stealing the key. A young man said…’Robert, I’m disturbed by this idea of stealing the key. Stealing isn’t right. Couldn’t a group of us just go to the other mother and say, ‘Mom, could I have the key back?’…No mother worth her salt would give the key anyway. If a son can’t steal it, he doesn’t deserve it. Mothers are intuitively aware of what would happen if he got the key: they would lose their boys. The possessiveness that mothers typically exercise on sons — not to mention the possessiveness that fathers typically exercise on daughters — can never be underestimated.

Bly brilliantly exegetes this myth as a way of understanding the plight of many contemporary men. There is a natural rite of passage that takes place when a boy differentiates from his parents, when the key is stolen. The boy has to become in touch with the wild man if he is going to grow and develop. In other words, he is going to have to integrate the wildness — and that is not going to happen without making some choices of his own, and having to deal with his own consequences.

The deeper I got into the book, the bigger my eyes got. I’m reading this as a 36-year old man with my life in crisis, feeling like I’m finally dealing with the deepest issues of identity for the first time. And sure enough, Bly says that if a man does not have this kind of process when he’s young—if he tries too hard to mind his manners and keep all the rules and not disappoint any of his authority figures— then he has to go through this stage later in life. By the time he is 35, Bly contends, there is already a deep fracture in his true self that is going to come to the surface in a dramatic way. But the split just now happening on the top layer has already been years in the making. Dear God, I thought. I am reading about my life. It made me think of the moment inThe Neverending Story when the young boy, Bastian, realizes that he himself is a character in the magic book he’s been reading, and he hurls the book across the room. It was both holy and frightening, as I suppose most holy moments are.

But there was also great comfort in coming to understand something of what was going on within me. I had been the boy who lived his whole life out of fear of failure or rejection, the boy who always kept the rules. I had kept the wild man in the cage at all costs. I had lost touch with myself. There were rites of passage I had neglected that I was having to undergo now, at great cost. It was my moment of illumination.

Understanding something of the journey I was on did not precisely make itfeel any easier, then or now. That path of “ashes, grief and descent” is a long and often lonely one, however necessary it might be. So I was feeling especially low again a few months later, when the pain of the journey was landing heavy on me. Once again, I was in a restaurant eating alone. Once again, I had picked up a book on the way out the door I had been meaning to start but had not got around to. This time, it was Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. Once again, I casually flipped the book open.

This time, I opened immediately to a chapter where Lesser is talking about her own experience with Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book,The Runaway Bunny. She tells how different it was to read it to her two sons. The sweet little tale begins like this: “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’” So from there, the little bunny keeps coming up with wild schemes to get away from his mother. But no matter where he chooses to go or what he chooses to become, his mother changes into whatever she needs to be to get back to him.

One of her sons loved the book, and was comforted by the image of the mother who would not let her little bunny get away, no matter what. But her son Daniel didn’t like it. He was frustrated that the little bunny could not make his escape, and would cheer for him to actually get away from the mother, shouting “Run away, bunny!” He would even come up with new schemes of his own for the little bunny to use that might actually enable him to get away.

I don’t have children, so I don’t know children’s books—it was the first time I had heard of The Runaway Bunny. It was meaningful for me in a way I find hard to explain now, because (and I’m swallowing anxiously here—this is not a very masculine admission), I have always had a thing about bunnies. I love them. I think bunnies are somehow kind of superfluously beautiful. They always make me think of grace. They have kind of been my totem. At different times and places in my life, I will see a bunny, and be reminded in just the right moment of God’s beauty and faithfulness to me. (There. I said it.)

I was moved that night because I felt like a runaway bunny who could not find his way back home. I loved the image of God pursuing me at all costs, going wherever He had to go and becoming whatever He had to become in order to get to me. It made me think of David saying in the Psalms, “even if I take up the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, you are there.” And indeed I do think there is a beautiful picture of God inThe Runaway Bunny. I do believe that there is a way that the love of God pursues us no matter where we go, a love that will not leave us alone. I am humbled by that love, and ever grateful for that love.

But that was not the central message Broken Open had for me. Feeling the open wound of my own heart, I kept reading. And as Lesser goes on, she goes in a direction I could not have expected — she writes about her later experience with…Iron John!? She came to know Bly through her work, and fell in love with the book. But she said she choked on the part about the boy having to steal the key from underneath his mother’s pillow. That is until her own sons grew up, and their process of individuation meant they too had to have seasons of distance from their mother. Today she is extremely close to both of her sons. But she does not believe this would be possible now if she had not been willing to grant them the necessary space to make their own choices. She ends the section this way:

If you find yourself holding tight to your children long past appropriateness or helpfulness, perhaps it would help if you took down an old copy of The Runaway Bunny. Sit on the couch next to your stunned son or daughter, and read the book aloud. Only this time, change the words. Read it like this: Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will let you go. For you are grown now. I trust you to find your way in the world. Run away, bunny!’

I was stunned. I just assumed that the message I needed to hear—as it is one I have always struggled to internalize—was the message of God’s relentless, unconditional love. And in way it was, but not in the way that I presumed. God loved me enough to not hold the gun to my head, to not tell me what I should or must do from here. God loved me enough not to say, do this or else. God loved me enough to say, now you are at a place in your life where you are going to have to make some choices of your own. God did not want me to live in the shallows of duty and obligation anymore. It was time to learn to live from my true self, it was time to learn to live from my depths. And there was going to be no way to do that without the love that grants us terrible freedom.

Choosing one’s self

On the other side of that moment, I understand many things I had read in Scriptures much differently than I once did. In the Genesis story, when God tells Adam and Eve they can eat from any tree of the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit glistens with inevitability. How could they choose anything else? In order for them to live awake, for them to become fully human, they would have to make their own choice — even the wrong choice. Strangely enough, it is only in making the wrong choice that they will be able to return to their native state of dependence again—the only place from which we can know God. Partaking of the fruit is a necessary part of the universal human journey.

Rollo May articulated this brilliantly in Man’s Search for Himself. For May, the goal of human development is that we all, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, come to ultimately “choose one’s self.” There is no way this can happen unless we are given a real choice:

It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact that he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live. The mass patterns of routine are broken: he no longer exists as an accidental result of his parents having conceived him, of his growing up and living as an infinitesimal item on the treadmill of cause-and-effect, marrying, begetting new children, growing old and dying. Since he could have chosen to die but chose not to, every act thereafter has to some extent been made possible because of that choice. Every act then has its own special element of freedom.

This is why moralistic religion actually becomes dangerous for us, how it makes “double sons of hell.” As May demonstrates, those who have been taught that happiness and success would follow their ‘being good,’ and understand being good merely as a kind of external obedience, are not able to develop their own ethical awareness and strength: “By being obedient over a long period of time, he loses his real powers of ethical, responsible choice. Strange as it sounds, then, the powers of these people to achieve goodness and the joy which goes with it are diminished.”

Like Bly in Iron John, May understands many social problems as the end result of a culture where people do not have necessary rites of passage that enable them to really take responsibility for their own lives. When people continue to live out of duty and obligation, keeping the rules only so that others will tell them they are good, they end up with contempt for themselves. Living contingent on the approval of others means we never develop our own sense of self:

The compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s own courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own…when one acts to gain someone else’s praise, furthermore, the act itself is a living reminder of the feeling of weakness and worthlessness; otherwise there would be no need to prostitute one’s attitudes. This often leads to the cowardly feeling of having co-operated knowingly in one’s own vanquishment.

It was by no means a happy discovery at 36 to see just how much I had operated largely from those “compulsive needs to be admired and praised,” and thus how much I often felt like I had “vanquished myself.” I had not, in some very fundamental ways, really grown up yet. I was being plunged into the depths of my own soul and my own life, and the sea was raging. I would have given anything to make the churning stop. And yet the more I came to see the necessity of this phase of the journey—even though it seemed to mean my unraveling—the more I started to experience fleeting moments of peace. I was starting to understand that being thrown into the ocean is not God’s way of abandoning us, but of saving us.

Love leaves the cage door open

I am not nearly far enough in any of these soul discoveries to claim to understand them well or clearly. But here is what I do know:

Love does not lock us in.

Love always leaves the cage door open.

If we don’t feel like we have a choice, then we don’t truly choose.

I lived so much of my life afraid God would punish me for doing the wrong thing. But what I’ve come to believe is that the consequences of our actions are intrinsic — thus “the wages of sin are death.” In that sense no one ever gets off easy, because we all live out the natural course of our choices, our own consequences. We do, in fact, reap what we sow. But God is not the cosmic enforcer of karma, making sure we get what we deserve. God is the One who interrupts this cycle with grace.

Sin does not keep God away from us — we cannot outrun His everlasting love. But what our own choices can do is blind us so that our vision of God becomes a distortion. The God we see through the lens of duty and obligation, through the lens of bad religion, is not the God we are actually given in Jesus of Nazareth. So many of the teachings of Jesus gesture toward this — that God is not who we have always presumed him to be from our place of guilt. In the story of the prodigal son, the wayward boy squanders his father’s inheritance, and thus has to live out the consequences of his actions — thus he finds himself working in a hog pen. Significantly, it is only when he “comes to himself” that he starts to remember his father for who he really is, and has in fact always been.

Even then, he sees through a glass darkly. He thinks the only way his father would allow him to come home is as a hired hand. He does not know yet that his father only wants to tackle him with his ferocious love, embrace him, and celebrate his return. But as much as the father wants his son home, the one thing he will not do is force him to stay there. Even though he knows his son will have to learn some hard lessons through his choices, they are yet very much his own choices to make. So the father did give his son the inheritance willingly, knowing it would be squandered.

The truth of this parable, and of the love that will not coerce us, is most clearly demonstrated to us in the cross of Jesus. The cross says to us there is nothing God won’t do to bring us home — except force us into choose Him. The cross is God laying down His great power, so that we might be compelled by the beauty of His heart. He will not coerce us, only woo us. But so long as we see Jesus through the distorted lens of bad religion, every invitation is perceived as a threat.

That night sitting in the restaurant after I read that section in Broken Open, I had a revelation that I don’t think I’ll ever get over: up until that point in my life, I had never really chosen God. I was still in so many ways the boy who thought the cable repair man’s blood was going to be on my hands if I didn’t share my testimony. I was still living a life motivated by fear rather than love. It was not God that was coercing me, but my own terror of God — which ironically enough, kept me from being able to truly love God. Because again when we feel like we do not have a choice — choosing God is not yet possible. I heard the whisper of the Holy Spirit, a scandal to my own ears: “You don’t have to choose me — but I would sure love for you to.

By that point, I had preached countless sermons about the love, grace and beauty of God that is revealed in Jesus. And yet in my own deepest self, I still saw him as a punitive ogre. I still had not yet learned that my own choices did not change God’s heart for me, but my perception of God. Hell would be to remain forever caught in such a delusion, unable to see God for who and how He really is.

“When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things,” the apostle Paul writes. As long as we are caught in childish, infantile delusions of God, we remain trapped in the most primitive level of consciousness — that of law and fear: “Don’t do that, because I told you not to.” That is a life lived in the shallows, if it can be called a life at all—certainly not the kind of life where “deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls,” in the words of Psalm 42.7. This is why it’s often only when we are at the end of ourselves that knowing God is truly made possible. Only there is the prospect of a relationship that is born out of desire—and thus out of the depths of us.