While my world was imploding, I went by myself one Wednesday afternoon to see the film All is Lost. I didn’t go into a movie theater; I went into a metaphor.
Everywhere I turned, there was language and images of sea — symbolic in Hebrew mythology of chaos, of the abyss. I knew no other way to describe the way I felt except lost at sea, adrift and alone. Which is of course precisely what the film is about. In it, 77-year old Robert Redford plays a man whose boat is torn open at sea. His communications system is beyond repair.
The weathered Redford is by himself against the elements, a speck of a human against the unending mystery of the sea. There were two shots in that film that sliced through me. In one, the camera pans up slowly from the tiny raft he now occupied, and just keeps going up, until the perspective crawls over you of just how small he is against the expanse of ocean. But there is a second shot I loved even more — essentially the same shot, but from the bottom of the raft. The camera descends lower and lower, slowly, until not only do you see the tiny raft from the opposite depth, but you see a school of sharks swimming beneath him, undetected by the protagonist.
Months later, I was sitting downstairs in a tiny little makeshift chapel on the bottom floor of a simple condo in San Diego, California. Across from me in the unadorned sanctuary was Sister Anne, a nun in her late 60’s. There were no vestments, no ceremonial attire, just a simple black track jacket. She had a dark, natural tan in the easy way people do in Southern California, her face framed by short, soft white hair and gold-rimmed glasses. Her voice soothed the storm in me. Her eyes, bright and blue and young and curious, peered into the abyss that had swallowed me whole, unflinching. I knew little except there was no judgment in this tiny woman, that love seemed to follow her in like a song. For three days she had been taking me apart, touching all my pressure points gently — I called her the Ignatian ninja.
Sister Anne was also the extremely cultured nun who apparently sees all the credible new art films. She said to me, “Jonathan, I don’t know if you have seen the film All is Lost with Robert Redford? But it makes me think of you. It is about a man who had read all these books about the sea, and had all these wonderful instruments. But it was not until he was an old man caught in a terrible storm that he finally had to learn how to use them for himself.” I could not help but laugh. Sister Anne was apparently an extremely charismatic nun too, because she prophesied over my dry bones better than a thousand faith healers.
Even before Sister Anne used the film to speak into my life, I had just enough sense even in my shattered self to know I was watching my life unfold on the screen of that little theater several months before. I was in fact a man well educated in the realm of books and instruments, but I had not yet survived my own storms. My knowledge was more theoretical than experiential. This was the season of on-the-job, in-the-storm training of the life-or-death variety. This was the divinity school with no roof, no bottom, no boundaries, and no end in sight.
I was a man out of his depth, dealing with the sea that had always been within me. But I never had the scale and perspective to see either my smallness, nor the infinite varieties of creatures that dwelled within my own depths. Of course I did not want to look at them.
When a storm breaks in the sea of your life, whether it blows in from the world outside you or cycles up from the world within you — the first response is to grasp desperately for something, or someone to hold you. It is not calculated, but instinctive — a mad, almost flailing attempt to find something to grip. There may be little left to hold onto, but there has to be at least some kind of holding on — even if it is just a tacit agreement within yourself to simply survive. In this case, it is not a holding on is not a metaphor or an abstraction. It is a way of finding a reason, however strong or flimsy it might be, to survive.
Looking for something to hold onto, I remembered the first time I could recall being told to “hold on.” It wasn’t in the context of a storm at sea, but the storm that is God and within God, the whirlwind that talks in the book of Job. It was in the beautiful but choppy waters of the Pentecostal altar call, full of hope and violence. In the kinds of churches I grew up in, the invitation for prayer down front was the main event, even more so than the sermon. There was room to dance, room to shout, room for the men in their nicest suits and the women in their finest dresses to be set free into the liturgy of burying your nose into the carpet. Many of those altar calls were in order to receive the Holy Ghost. How desperately I wanted to be haunted by love’s apparition. But I was mostly a little too cerebral for it, too bound up by own fears of God and of freedom and of my true self.
Sometimes when I came down to seek the Holy Ghost, the old saints would be yelling in my ear. The event they were waiting for was for me to speak in tongues — we placed a lot of stock in that experience in particular. But this isn’t about any of the doctrine, this isn’t even about my experience or in some cases lack thereof, but of the instructions I was given. I’d be down front with my eyes slammed shut and my hands stretched up like awkward lightning rods. And some dear sweet old sister would be in one ear shouting, “HOLD ON, BROTHER!” And there would be some dear old sister in the other ear that would shout, “LET GO, BROTHER!”
That, friends, is the Pentecostal version of paradox. I wasn’t ready to explore many others, but that was one I got baptized into early. How is it possible to simultaneously hold on…and let go at the same time? I don’t know that I can even answer that question now, but I do know that life with God exists somewhere at that intersection. That somewhere between holding on and letting go is where you are liable to stumble or perhaps even collide into resurrection. The old-time Pentecostals may have been even more right than they knew.
During my own season, there were many moments where I thought I could not hold on any longer. Somewhere between my aching and hurting and deep shame, I could not envision a life worth living. It felt like desire was dead, that hope was dead. I would check my pockets over and over again to find I was all out of reasons. Once all of the things that propped up your ego are removed, and you begin the long fall, what is there left to hold on to? And who? Even if you could hold on to God, why would you even want to? Whether or not I held on, I’m not sure — I think somehow it may be more apt to say I was held, even if kicking and screaming, by life itself, and therefore by God. I’m sure I’m still holding onto things I shouldn’t be holding onto, and maybe letting go of things I don’t need to let go of too—it is hard to say.
Survival, according to the old version of me, the prodigy preacher, would not be good enough! Our goal in life should not be to just SURVIVE, but to THRIVE. It is the fodder of a thousand sermons. But of course once the ship has run aground, survival is a pretty big deal. There is no more rhetoric about thriving, being your best you, refusing to settle for mediocrity. It takes every ounce of energy and focus you have just to do the small things you have to do in order to simply stay alive. In that kind of fog of disorientation, you easily fall of out step with your body’s most basic needs. You can forget to eat; you can forget to sleep; you certainly forget how to breathe. You forget how to be. There is so much that can change in your life so quickly, or at least there was in mine, that you actually forget how to function. My own body was in such revolt against me, those words brought me back to the most primal realities of being alive in it: of eating and drinking and resting and being. I had to remember on a gut level the things that I normally would never bother to think about consciously — what do I have to do right now to take care of my body enough just to keep it moving without full-on collapse?
If there is any of hope of getting to the shore, there will have to be a kind of holding on. But in my own experience, many of the boards you try to grasp for initially that you think may not hold you up. There are few things I think are safe to universalize here, to say this is what everyone should hold onto. As a Christian, it is tempting to say “well at least you can hold on to Jesus.” But I don’t even know how to say that without qualification.
Holding on to Jesus sounds like it would always be the right thing to do…unless you are Mary Magdalene, when Jesus appears to her first just after rising from the dead. Her world has been eclipsed by the storm. Days before, she watched the man her heart burned for be tortured and killed. Now, the dead man is standing before her. Which is more disorienting? What is for certain is that her world is upside down. Desperately, instinctively, she lunges for what is familiar — the body of Jesus, impossibly standing in front of her now, only a few feet away. “Don’t embrace me, Mary. I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus says. It is not that Jesus was no longer there for her. It is that Jesus cannot be there for her in the ways that he was there for her before; she would have to come to know him in a different way.
Resurrection had not yet finished working out its terrible implications yet. There would be no time to cling to a form of Jesus, an idea of Jesus, a vision of Jesus that she used to have. She would have to know him now on the other side of the trauma that is resurrection, so that even “clinging to Jesus” was not going to work in the ways it had worked already.
You can’t even cling on to the God you knew, only the God you can know now.
So for Mary, as it is for most of us, the hardest part is not the holding on, but the letting go. That was the part I really didn’t know how to do. Because I never let go. I kept such a tight grasp on anything or anyone I claimed to love, and the more I hurt, dug my talons into anything that would seem to keep me alive. I was so afraid of letting go.
One of the main reasons I could not let go was because I knew I was propping other people up. If I let go, what would happen to the people leaning on to me? My heart was in tatters, but I stood there quivering, still clinging on to the twin pillars of duty and obligation. I was not standing strong, but I was not laying down. Besides, this was a church I had helped bring into the world. What would the church do? I was trying to stay even though everything in me said my time was over, that the only hope for me was to pull the plug and, like Herman’s family did, put real weight down on the hope of resurrection. But I had convinced myself I could not, because too many people and too many things were dependent on me.
It is fascinating to me now to see how there was something that felt pious and noble about that sentiment—it sounds like God and gospel to me, to stay in at all costs because it for someone else’s sake. It is hard to hear the whisper of the ego underneath all of that, the soft chant of demons saying, “You are TOO IMPORTANT,” their eyes full of blood-but wearing the white robes of a priest.
seeing my smallness
I was not going to be able to let go so long as I thought the world was going to collapse if I did so. What I did know was that I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown if I stayed where I was. As bad as I was at listening to my body or integrating it into my spirituality, I could not ignore it this time. So I gathered the pieces of myself that were left to be gathered and headed to that little Catholic retreat center in San Diego on just a few days notice.
That is where I met Sister Anne, the Ignatian ninja. Each day, she sent me out into the place I most tended to avoid in the indoor sport that was my life — into the wild. Sometimes to the cliffs, sometimes to the pier, sometimes up a mountain. She said I needed to clear space for myself, that I needed to get to places where I could see and feel myself from God’s point of view.
She told me to feel the energy of the waves and water and wind — to let the Spirit blow through me and enter me through them. All week, I kept thinking about the verse in Acts where Paul says, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” I would walk the cliffs, and could not shake my consciousness that the Spirit was actually in the wind. Never before in my life had I been so aware that when I did look at the rocks or at the waves or at the sky, that God was in all of that, was holding all of it. Sometimes I would stop and lay down on the rocks, and I just couldn’t escape the truth of it — “The Spirit is in the wind, the Spirit is in the wind, the Spirit is in the wind.” The inescapability of God’s love stalked me. Whether I made my bed in the hell, whether I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea — there is no escape from love. It fills all things. The Spirit of God — she fills all things. And I could feel her filling me, fractured and leaking vessel that I was.
I grew up thinking written liturgy was the enemy of the Spirit. I was wrong-it was actually air conditioning. No religion could help me now that insulated me from the essential wildness of things. Cut off from creation, I no longer knew how to be creature. Climate-controlled rooms delude us into thinking we can control God and the world. In reality, the thermostat is about all we can change. I needed to be away from the technology that says “you are really BIG!” Nature says, “you are really, really small.”
I was getting away from my delusions of control. I was getting back in touch with my own breath again. Sister Anne directed me to slow down my breathing, to breathe deeply, to let God set my breathing right again. In the evenings, I would go down to the little library at the center and wrap myself up in a blanket, and imagine that the blanket was the love of God itself. Sitting in the little rocker, I would let myself be held. I would tell God how afraid I was.
“The conversion moment in us is when we see from a new perspective,” Sister Anne said. “Sometimes all we can see is that this is not working for us anymore. That is all you can see, until you are ready to see from that new perspective.” Everything she asked me to do that week was about perspective. To walk along the shore and pick up small rocks, allowing them to become stand-ins for all my troubles — then fling them into the expanse of the ocean. As I did, I grasped their smallness, I heard the small plunk against the backdrop of the roar of the waves.
God looks at us and sees us the way we see ants,” Sister Anne told me one day. “We see them working so hard to build their little structures, and we think it is cute or even admirable. We enjoy their beauty for a moment. But we know the next day, someone will come along and step on their little ant colony, and all that they worked so hard to build will be gone.”
“God sees us as parents would see a two-year old child,” she continued. “They are sorry when they make a mess, but they are not surprised by it. They hate to see them hurt themselves in some way, but they are not angry at them for it. It is also true that our grandest successes, our biggest accomplishments, are like the drawings of a two-year old. He delights in them only because He delights in us, but they are no more impressive. He just likes that we drew it. But they are still very small and simple to such a great God,” she said. “That’s how God sees the book you wrote,” she added, smiling.
Slowly but surely, I was being delivered from my own sense of importance. As I now know, it is possible to devote yourself to a life of piety, keep all the rules, and even engage in the spiritual disciplines — but leave the ego largely untouched. We have developed ways that we can “be a good Christian” without ever embracing the descent into death and resurrection that would actually turn us into good human beings. I think a lot of this has to do with the project that the Church often sanctions every bit as much as the rest of the world — the life of working hard to be a “success.” In the words of Thomas Merton, “If I had a message to my contemporaries, it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, be drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but all costs avoid one thing: success…if you are too obsessed with success, you will forget how to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
The years prior to all of this had been my most “successful” in ministry. And not just successful in the sense of climbing some ladder of temporal gain — it was the most effective preaching and teaching I had ever done. My own inner angst had driven me deeper into God in many ways, and I had never been more capable of finding insights into others or for others when needed. But there was so much of myself I had kept at bay. Sister Anne helped me to see that I was like the young surgeon she heard lecturing about suffering when she was in medical school (she was a very smart nun) — I knew all about the tools and instruments, but had not known about grief and pain before now, had not had to really wrestle with the mysteries for myself.
I don’t think I had deeply come to know love yet either. In recent years, I had repeated revelation of the love of God, whether through Scripture or books or things I would see in other people. But I had yet to really allow the love of God to settle over me in all my broken places, to come to really know divine love in the parts of me that seemed the most unlovable. My theory is that all of us elder sons of the church, the ones who spend all our lives trying to keep the rules, have a deep suspicion that if we do feel loved and accepted, it is because we are working so hard to get it right. Sister Anne said it takes some people their whole lives to come to really believe that God loves them. But that it had to be learned in a deep, experiential way — as it is the key to existence. She said that no matter how long it took, God was relentlessly determined for me to really KNOW this for myself. Sister Anne said the whole trauma I was experiencing — of going through hell, of falling apart, of death and resurrection, was for my good — so I could really know.
I went on that retreat with very particular questions, looking for very particular answers. They were all about ministry and relationships, trying to figure out what to do next. Per usual, God did not answer any of the questions I went to San Diego asking. But I did feel like God spoke to me, again in that way when you feel things in inside of you shift, and it is as if some new word has been planted in the topsoil of you — small and green and hopeful. I tried to pray a lot that week, often in its most primal forms of letting my very breath become prayer. Mindful, attentive, at peace for the first time in months, I would stand on the pier at night and watch the waves roll in and out, knowing that they were coming in and out long before I got there, and would continue to long after I was gone. Walking through a graveyard on a mountain, I tasted my smallness in a world where so many people are being born and dying, and do so with or without me. Looking out over the ocean, I saw my smallness against the horizon.
I was starting to see more. I was finally seeing the bigness of the world again, and the smallness of myself. The search for “meaning” was a quest for power I was not designed to bear, an obstacle to the grace of insignificance. What could prepare me for the breath of God (Spirit) that hums all life into being, except I be emptied of our pretensions of significance? Divine perspective most of all relativizes our importance. We are each very small creatures. Very little is contingent on us. Knowing our smallness puts us in touch with the essential lightness of created things-transitory, ephemeral creatures. Splendid irrelevance. All lives are small lives, all epic struggles are skirmishes, because we are weightless creations-deceived by an illusory sense of gravity. Inside the movie inside our head, we all feel like we are stars. It’s an illusion. We’re all extras.
The gospel doesn’t fulfill our quest for significance, but exposes its essential folly. It gives us something better than meaning: love. The love of God gives us unfathomable value despite our objective smallness. But still leaves us blissfully unimportant.
As the week unfolded, the two central exchanges in my own time with God, as best as I could discern them, went something like this:
“God, I can’t take this. I honestly think I’m falling apart.
“What would be so wrong with you falling apart?”
“Well…I mean, I’ve got this thing you gave me to do. And I don’t think I can do it anymore. I think I’m going to have to go sell french fries at McDonald’s?’
“Who told you that you couldn’t work at McDonald’s?”
I was starting to see: I am a creature: made, dependent, small. I know less than I think I do. I think more rides on my existence than it ever does. I was coming to see that wisdom is not having the right answers, but having a proper sense of scale and perspective. Wisdom is embracing our blissful smallness. If we think the world needs us too much, we can’t receive life as gift. And if we can’t receive life as gift, we can’t receive it at all. The tides keep coming in and out; the flowers keep growing, people keep being born and dying. It all keeps running, not contingent on us.
Destinies do not rest on our shoulders. We are given choices, but the cosmos runs with or without us. And it’s all grace.
Ask not for whom the Bell tolls…
I didn’t tell almost anyone about the last part of this story at the time. But looking back, there was one more moment at the end of that week that was actually really pivotal for me. The day before I flew home, at the end of my retreat, I spent a couple of hours with Rob Bell. That is not an attempt to name drop. I do not know Rob well. We have a mutual friend who, when she found out I was going to be in Southern California, offered to connect us simply because she thought the two of us would have a lot in common and would hit it off. I know she felt like somehow the Spirit prompted her to put us together at the time—but I don’t think she could have had any idea just how much that time would really mean to me.
So I drove from San Diego to Laguna Beach, where Rob lives, for a long lunch. I know Rob has been polarizing to a lot of evangelicals (the details of any of that are too tedious to me to even summarize here-I get bored just thinking about those conversations). I’m going to tell you this: I have met a lot of well known Christians writers and thinkers, in the Church and in the academy, and very few have made the kind of impression on me Rob did in that afternoon we spent together. I found him to be gentle, authentic, very much at home in his own skin. He deeply believes in his work and his art. He struck me as a guy who really has learned to live deeply from his soul, and the time with him did so much for my heart. There is no way he could have known what that time would mean for me—for that matter, I don’t guess I could have discerned what it meant for me either.
Through the afternoon, I felt very safe to talk openly about the storm of my life in candid terms, and he could not have been more caring or generous. But the electrifying moment for me came early in our time together. I was asking him about his journey out of the pastorate into the life he is leading now—writing, speaking, doing tv, all kinds of creative projects. I asked him if he missed being a pastor. He said he missed the people of his church, but not pastoring itself, per se—that there were so many ways that the role has come to be defined in corporate terms in North American culture that he never felt at home with. He always had a lot ambiguity about all of that. He talked about how difficult it was to leave the church he had started, and yet how much he believed it was ultimately best both in terms of him fulfilling his own calling, and the church fulfilling her own.
And then came the part that hit me between the eyes: he was talking about how difficult it was to navigate the tension of doing what he genuinely felt most built to do—in terms of shaping culture and speaking into broader culture creatively, artistically, and theologically—while wanting the church he led to be an authentic Christian community that was not overly contingent on him. I had always struggled violently with those issues, wanting to fulfill this broader call I felt on my life that seemed, in a way, prophetic (in that it involved movement building and speaking to larger matters), and yet feeling that was at odds with what I believed ideologically about pastoral work for myself.
During my sabbatical, one of the things that kept filtering back to me was this sentiment of, “we don’t want the church to be a one-man show anymore.” I took any and every personal criticism in that season without resistance (and had worse things to say about myself than anyone else would have, anyway)—except for that one. After all, I did believe in community. I was the last person who wanted our church to feel like a one-man show. I tried to always be forward about my own humanity, deflect any attempts to put me on a pedestal, and leverage any influence to point people to Jesus and others. Without judgment any other direction, we just didn’t have a bright lights, big production kinds of approach to church to begin with, because it didn’t suit the kind of community we wanted to build. I had been as accessible as I knew how to be for the size church we were (I would even go so far as to say that trying to “be there” for too many people, too much of the time, was a lot of my trouble). A lot of that sounds naive and childish to me now—there are plenty of ways to order church life liturgically in a way that would address all of these concerns constructively, but I didn’t actually know how to do any of that then. I did church in the only ways I knew how.
So then comes the line. Rob said, casually, “I got tired of having to get up and make the disclaimer every week that ‘this is not the Rob Bell show.’ Finally I had to own up to the fact that, if this many people are coming because of podcasts or Nooma videos or whatever, and there is this much is built on my teaching, maybe this actually has become Rob Bell show.” Ultimately, he came to believe that for him to do what he was most called to do, and for the church yet to become what it needed to become as a particular community, he would have to disentangle all of those ways that his platform as a leader became inextricably bound up in the platform of the church. He was humble enough to see and internalize the truth in those kinds of critiques, and not resist them.
Of course all of this was on an exponentially larger scale for him than it was for me—I had no delusions of grandeur. I was by no means on my way to “bigger and better things.”I was also well aware that his perspective on these things did not have to come for him with all of the complexities of my personal life at the time. But I knew the whisper of the Spirit was in those words for me. It was like a rope in me snapped. For all the things I had come to own about myself, that was the last untouched area of resistance.
I know that when there is an inner click like that, something in me has changed, but rarely in the moment do I know exactly what it means. I certainly didn’t walk away from that week or that conversation knowing I was going to leave the church, and to some extent, ministry for a time. But looking back, the progression is so clear. All week long, the Holy Spirit had been giving me a sense of scale and perspective to my life again, a slow, steady clarity where I could see my smallness, without resentment. Now things were starting to come full circle. Now in matters larger than my immediate crisis, I was able to accept the truth about other things too—i.e., “just because you don’t want to be this guy, doesn’t mean you are not this guy.” During so much of this season, I am only able to see what the little swath of the path just under my feet, if I’m able to see anything. I see things right when I come upon them, and sometimes while I’m actually half-past them. But I am grateful to be able to see anything at all.
It would still be a while before I came to terms with the necessity of me leaving. I knew that when a church has been built that much around teaching, around a particular leader, my leaving would be as violent for them as it would be for me. I did not want them to have to figure out their journey without me anymore than I wanted to figure out my journey without them. But I had always believed that the Church (any church, but this one in particular) was a work of God’s Spirit and not my own, that it was part of something bigger, stronger, more ancient and more eternal than anyone of us. No matter how much self-loathing I had, I had come to know enough about God that I had to believe He still had good work for all of us, somewhere, somehow—no matter how much I messed up the script. And if God in His generosity was yet going to complete His work in me—surely that had to be true of these beautiful people that I loved. I had to trust both that God was going to somehow provide for me in this terrible task of actually learning how to be a human being all over again, and that he would provide for the Church in learning how to reinvent themselves without their founder.
It was only the fear in me, for my security and for the security of the church, that was screaming, “HOLD ON! HOLD ON!” The still, small voice was much softer, but no less clear: “let go…you have to let go.”
I feel ridiculous writing this even now, because there is so much I have not figured out how to let go of. I still have a death grip on the steering wheel in some ways—things, matters, people—I can’t bear to let go of. It feels like one finger is being pried off at a time, and each time I think it’s going to break from all my built-in resistance. I’m still hanging on in more ways than I would like. But I’m glad for the wind of the Spirit that keeps blowing in my life, even when it feels like a hurricane, until I’m finally grasping on to nothing.