Life has taught me that I rarely know how my choices will turn out. Sometimes there are remarkable discoveries and sometimes nothing. Little by little, year after year, and under the thrall of many talented teachers, I began to learn to understand paradox, the language of the spiritual journey. One of the “rules of the road” is, What appears to be a detour may be the most important leg of the journey. [“Paradox Road,” Judy Cannato. WeavingsXVI:6] These are not the rules you follow on a “road trip.” They’re spiritual rules of the road. Paradoxical, because that’s how Spirit works.
As we learn to trust God, our lives change—but the changes don’t always make sense. Change calls for discernment, weighing the dynamics of travel through the deserts, plains or plush gardens of God’s dwelling in our lives.
As a cradle-roll American Baptist in Everett, Washington, I was in community with friends, worship, and my work through my university years, except for the several years that I was an organist for an evangelical Presbyterian church. I needed the money for college tuition and books. I later became the organist at my church as well, but then moved to Seattle. While teaching English at Garfield High I played for Prince of Peace Lutheran Church near where I lived. In church after church I discovered varied worship, but God was as present to me in one place as the other. I didn’t understand that I felt untethered as well as tethered. Not in my community worshiping, but worshiping, nevertheless. Offering my “God-given talent” as I had been urged to do and also because I needed the work.
Was this “okay”? My home church had emphasized church involvement throughout our lives, but when we move, how do we maintain that commitment? Is a different church okay? A new denomination? A Catholic influence for a Protestant? Why not?
The charismatic renewal in the early seventies drew me and a few friends into Pentecostal worship, singing prayers, prayer-group sharing. Compared to the informality of the Baptists, it felt heretical, but I really grew to know myself better than I had before. I joined the Episcopal church then, participating in a number of ecumenical worship gatherings, including the Cursillo, a “little course in Christianity” founded by laymen in Catholic Spain. I reembraced a deeper spiritual inner life—as I had experienced at church summer camps where singing around a bonfire on the beach and sharing prayers in the wild felt holy. It was curious for a Baptist to commune at “mass,” but I was as drawn to the Eucharist as I had been drawn to “give my life to Christ” when, at 8, I went forward to be baptized. Except that now, I could “go forward” every Sunday. I loved the prayers and reading Scripture in the service.
I stuck with this worship style for almost as long as I had been Baptist. But another significant relationship change led to a renewed curiosity with those Baptists. When a friend and I decided to visit Seattle First Baptist Church to see what was going on in the 90s, I was amazed to be as drawn to the extemporaneous prayer as I had been drawn to the liturgy before. Both styles of worship met needs of mine, as music enriched the whole. We stayed. And unexpectedly, I felt a call to ministry as well. You know that story.
People of faith—of any faith or belief system—often talk about looking back to see a thread that connected unrelated parts of their experience through their lives. Few people I know have done the same thing, worshiped the same way, and believed the same principle for years and years. I have been committed both emotionally and spiritually to at least four church communities. Now I am committed to two of them, while devoting most of my time to the fifth: a small Lutheran church close to home.
Eugene Peterson, author of The Message [Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992], writes that when we move to another town, state or country and start looking for a church, we ought to choose the local church most convenient to our new home. Why? Because church is about community more than denomination: creating it, learning from it, improving it, and growing it. This surprised me. Rather than loyalty to only one denomination, Peterson recommended membership close by, the goal being engaging as much as possible in other people’s lives while following the faithful path. A life of faith is lived more in community, conceivably, than only in a faith system.
I’ve experienced over and over a spiritual life spiced by surprise and paradox. It is the foreign country we enter when we become intentional about our walk with God, following where we are led. Another rule of that road is that it is permissible to ask for directions and, often, ‘enemies and aliens’ make good traveling companions. William Stafford says it more poetically in “The Way It Is.”
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
~ William Stafford ~