Braiding the Back Story

I am daring to dream (make that, resolving as fact) that this is my final “BSSM backstory post”. Back on August 28, I began a series attempting to provide a somewhat quality reply to the question, “So how did you guys end up at Bethel?” This post will conclude my attempt at summing up the events of nearly 2500 days into nine blog entries. Nice and tidy, just like it happened. Not! If you missed the first eight, those will be helpful. If you’re all caught up, the end is near. 🙂

Thus far, I’ve tried to follow the timeline, providing dates whenever I could. I hoped this would help folks to have a sense of how very slowly much of this journey unfolded. We often joke that we are “miles from spontaneous”, and for chunks of life that has certainly seemed true. However, friends have pointed out to us that perhaps we are more spontaneous than we let on. Either way, our path to this point has involved many one-degree turns and inches-at-a-time, with the occasional earthquake to shift things faster!

braidLet this post be a change-up. Time blurred somewhat in these final steps toward coming to Bethel, with many thoughts and events overlapping. Rather than a chronological flow, let me highlight a three-strand braid. As my daughters can attest, my hair-styling capacity is limited to ponytails and braids. Today you get a braid. And as they sometimes remind one another, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” 🙂

Three strands: Here we go…

FEARING GAPS

In the years 2000-2003, my wife and I lived in Regina. She worked her first RN job, and I completed a seminary degree. During that span, Glen Elm Church of Christ was our faith community. That decision was a no-brainer due to numerous pre-existing friendships and a notable level of familiarity with that congregation. Our time there was positive and special to the extent that it seemed natural to look into a post-seminary future and wonder if an opportunity for employment in that setting might ever arise. It seemed the fit might be suitable, but I don’t recall obsessing over the idea. Life can take a lot of turns, and I didn’t feel a need to fret over what the future may or may not hold. God had led well to that point; I trusted He’d continue.

After three years of teaching English overseas (2003-2006), however, I confess that it made me smile when our return home coincided perfectly with Glen Elm’s search for staff. Ten years of work there has done nothing but increase our love for this church. It is home in so many ways. We have high appreciation for the leadership of this church, both those who hold “official positions” and those who simply and quietly lead because that is who they are. It’s a place of life, great for our girls, and home to some special friends too. There are plenty of ways in which we still need to develop, and we have as many issues and quirks as any church. But I’m consistently pleased to make my home in this setting. That said, I confess to a time of wondering how our growing hunger for more knowledge and experience of the Holy Spirit would be received by those around us. Let me be clear: One of the things I most appreciate about my church is their level of openness. That’s one of the reasons why even as a student, I imagined this place as a potentially suitable place to work. Much of this openness was cultivated by way-before-me leadership, who laboured hard to focus heavily enough on God’s grace that it might cast cracks into the “false narrow way” of legalism that some of us held quite dearly. Thanks to such faithful work, I have always felt quite free to explore any facet of faith and to question any long-held assumption so long as it was done with careful thought and gracious touch. It’s a pleasure of a place to preach!

Yet now I was feeling shy.

Much of what God was doing in my life was so gut-level. It was hard to know how to share. I pressed myself to keep my Shepherds (our name for “Elders”) in the loop, but I struggled to know how to do so with the “average member” of my congregation. In the meantime, nothing was standing still. As the previous eight posts would affirm, both Shannon and I were in a season where we often marvelled to one another: “God is doing more in us and to us in this couple years than in the 35 years before!” And that pace was yanking up some of our roots: Too many questions, too much recalculating, too much shifting in our minds and hearts.

And that raised a fear in me.

It’s one thing to present provocative pulpit pieces. (Overkill on an alliteration: Check.) It’s another to publicly speak of your own evolving theology, one that you have little comfort with even in the moment. Some of this was self-centred and small: I don’t wish to look weird. But now I was claiming that the Lord was touching my life in ways that, not so long before, I’d have stuck the “Weird” label on myself! My childhood faith was impacted by a heritage with strands of skepticism and cynicism toward those who weren’t like us. Of any exploration or curiosity that went “too far”, one might hear:

  • “That sounds a bit Baptist to me.”
  • “We don’t do that because the Catholics do.”
  • “You’re starting to sound like a Calvinist.”
  • “Don’t go getting all Pentecostal on us.”

mind-the-gapHowever, part of this wasn’t entirely self-centred. I don’t have that luxury. None of us do. The things we do and say impact others. In many moments, I was swept up in gratitude that God seemed to be birthing something so new and alive in me. I was being reborn; it felt a lot like John 3. But in other moments, I let fear become quite loud. It was a fear over an imagined scenario. It was a feeling of tension. It wasn’t tension with other people. It was all inside myself. Perhaps it was imagined. Maybe it was real but nobody around me ever stated. Perhaps it was all me. Whatever the case, I recall an image in my mind of two lines running parallel to one another. I imagined these as the steel rails of a train track. One represented the spiritual-journey-trajectory of a church; the other represented the spiritual-journey-trajectory of a pastor. To be wild and crazy, let’s name them “Glen Elm” and “Jason”. 🙂

I imagined that perhaps great harmony must exist within a church where the spiritual trajectory of the congregation runs perfectly parallel to the spiritual trajectory of its pastor. This would seem to result in smooth and friction-free travel, like a railcar cruising down the track. However, what happens if the trajectories aren’t the same, if one of those rails pivots by even one degree? What about greater angles?

angleIn my head, the railway image now morphed. No longer a train track strapped to the ground, it was now a simple angle, with an elastic band wrapped around both arms. Near the vertex, the tension on the stretched band is minimal. It’s not as though I knew the varied spiritual journeys taking place within our church family, but it felt easy-to-imagine that what was happening in our lives might not be par for everybody’s course at the time. This had no tone of superiority or “feeling special”. It was just that those miles of awakening and blessing and growth and confusion and hunger had felt so different from anything we’d ever felt before that it seemed reasonable to imagine that “our beam” might no longer be as parallel to our church family’s as it had been before (if it ever had been). It pleased me that there existed sufficient respect for and rapport with my Shepherds to be able to voice these feelings, but it didn’t stop me from wondering: “Is tension building as this elastic stretches? If so, how are we doing to navigate that, Lord?”

Around this time, we began to discover that a number of others within our circles of friends were also sensing God’s nearness and goodness and power in new ways. People were seeking God with renewed desire, and there was a growing prayer for refreshing and revival. A certain comfort arose as trusted friends pointed out: “To seek Holy Spirit is to seek Jesus and to seek Father. There’s no competition in the Godhead.” This truth addressed a fear that I sense lives in some corners: It’s imagined that greater emphasis on Holy Spirit might somehow draw one astray from “sound teaching”, despite Jesus’ joyful conviction that Holy Spirit would serve as our personalized Guide “into all truth”. My fearful side accepted yet another nudge of encouragement. “More of You please” is a good prayer, and when Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hear it prayed by people, they all respond in perfect partnership. I needed to pray that more boldly. I still do.

But feelings are funny things, and even with those convictions forming in me, my fearful side (it’s persistent, isn’t it?!) fretted. Neither Shannon and I had any desire for our growing-but-hard-to-define hunger for more of Holy Spirit to be troubling or troublesome to others. We don’t enjoy heightening tension. At the same time, we knew full well that “going back” would never be an option. We could not simply re-turn our beam to a previous setting. One cannot un-discover or un-learn or un-experience God’s work in our lives. One way or another, He was beckoning us. Onward, even with blurred eyes, was the only option.

IMMERSION

“Some things are caught, not taught.”

I don’t know where that saying originated or what it was describing. But somewhere along the road of hungering for Holy Spirit, being personally impacted by faithful people exercising His gifts, and having firsthand experiences with healing and dramatically answered prayers, it became impossible to deny: I don’t think books (which I love) can instruct me on all that’s going on.

We know this implicitly about all sorts of things. Want to really learn a language? I’ll bet the word “immersion” gets considered. Our years in China arose largely because we’d been so touched and impacted by short-term international travel that we determined, “More is likely better. Let’s go long enough for an immersion experience.”

immersionEven our imagery of Christian conversion confirms this belief. The baptism act involves being plunged underwater so that every dry surface becomes wet. That’s what immersion does. It touches everything in a way that it moves from state to another. And that phrase we use at baptism, you know the one? “Now I baptize you in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” It’s not merely the proper pronouncement, as if that line of lingo makes the moment acceptable by God’s rigorous liturgical standards. Rather, it accurately describes what is to take place at conversion. To speak of the names of Father, Son, Holy Spirit is to speak of the realities of the Godhead. The ways of the heavenly Kingdom are foreign and nonsensical to fallen folks. That’s why Paul prays (in Ephesians 3) that those believers might come to know the unknowable love of God. How does one go about knowing the reality that it beyond knowing?! It requires being soaked (let’s say “drowned”) in a beyond-us world about which we had only clues beforehand. At baptism, we position ourselves to be soaked by God. We invite Him to, for the rest of our lives, cover us with this stunning new reality found in the fullness of Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

This is an astounding thought, probably wasted on a blog post! But here’s my point: Baptism is so much more than a point of repentant decision that from this moment forward, we will try to do better. God’s Kingdom is so unlike the ones we try to construct that while it can be taught about (Jesus used a lot of parables in this effort), there is no amount of great instructing that can deliver us to a breakthrough point. That requires supernatural involvement, and it most certainly involves more than ideas passing into a brain.

“Some things are caught, not taught.”

And somewhere in the midst of grabbing every chain-link we could reach, that line felt oh-so-true. God was faithfully stretching us and challenging us and touching us, but we recognized a growing desire to be plunged in more aggressively than any smattering of books and podcasts and conferences were going to provide. And we began to quietly wonder, “What would an immersion experience look like for us?” That question alone was sort of fun but fully hypothetical. The fun part led me to a lot of late-night Googling and inquiring of friends outside my usual circle of thoughts. We determined that any such experience — strictly an imaginary thing at this point — would have to meet three requirements:

  1. It would have to be an environment that took both Word and Spirit seriously.
  2. It would have to be a program or experience that both of us could enrol in together.
  3. It would have to work for a family with small children.

The real question — but not real enough to stop my fun and fascinating Googling — Where/When/How would this ever fit into our lives?

SABBATICAL

Several years ago, a one-word item appeared on one of our Shepherds’ Meeting agendas: Sabbatical. One of our Shepherds had visited with church leaders from other settings and had become curious about this concept, quite unfamiliar to our circle of churches. The conversations he had participated in had described instances where pastors had resigned or burned out or taken extended leaves from their churches. So he came to the meeting with a question: Is this something we should consider down the road? As one might expect, I was grateful for the care these thoughts communicated. But I quickly confirmed that I was currently in a season of “good health”. However, I had just participated in a recent class where Sabbatical practices had been discussed, and I agreed that the topic might have value down the road. We tabled the topic as one of those way-down the-road, if-we-ever-get-to-it items. And life went on.

As 2015 moved along, our private imaginings about an “immersion experience” had ramped up enough that I had researched various programs around and beyond North America. This list quickly crystallized into six main options:

  • Catch the Fire (Toronto,ON)
  • Global Awakening (Mechanicsburg, PA)
  • International House of Prayer (Kansas City,MO)
  • Bethel Church (Redding,CA)
  • Iris Ministries (Bases all over the world)
  • Youth With a Mission (Bases all over the world)

There was still no sense of how/when/if we would ever actually change the label on this pot of possibilities from “dream” to “plan”. But we were increasingly convinced that sometime and somewhere, that might happen. And if we didn’t make that so, we felt confident we’d regret it in our grey and wrinkled years.

sabbaticalSince its first mention and tabling, “Sabbatical” was mentioned here and there, but it always seemed easy to table again. I’m not pointing at others when I say that; I found it easy to table. There wasn’t really anything to talk about. I can be a touch slow in a lot of ways, so while you can likely see where this is going and how the dots connect, I wasn’t seeing it in real-time. Church of Christ preachers don’t go to Bethel Church for Sabbaticals. They don’t apply to schools with the word “Supernatural” woven into their names. And if they do, they don’t do so with backing or blessing from those above them and those beside them.

Unless they do.

By 2015, discussion of Sabbatical possibilities had gained slight traction. I confessed that we had some ideas quietly brewing, and the Shepherds were interested to hear more. By this point, we’d narrowed the list above to two, and we determined to do a scouting trip to BSSM. We’d sit in on classes, visit with some current students (particularly with those who had families here), and get a better feel for this possibility. By August, we were submitting a proposal requested by the Shepherds, outlining how we might wish to use a Sabbatical opportunity and what value we imagined it would have for both us and the church. The following months involved multiple layers of discussion and disclosure, looks at logistics, and conversations followed by concerns followed by more conversations. This may come as a shock to you: Googling Bethel Church gets you a lot of hits! And their tones and takes on this place are all over the board. Some are certain this is some version of “heaven on earth”; others are sure it’s a creepy cult. I knew enough to call it “a well that pretty consistently serves good water”. We were encouraged to seek input from other leaders inside and outside of our fellowship of churches, to invite input. This process was mostly affirming and positive, and that helped up the level of comfort that others around us felt about this once-unthinkable plan. The go-ahead to make plans was given, and the year ahead was spent discussing logistics and making plans on many fronts, by many folks.

And so in August 2016 (now two months ago), our church very lovingly and very graciously sent us on our way south to this place that adequately fits the criteria we’d set out long before:

  1. Both Word and Spirit are taken seriously.
  2. Both Shannon and I are in the one-year program, as classmates. 🙂
  3. This setting is providing a special and formative experience for our three daughters too.

I’ve got to go back a few sentences.

We were actually astounded at the level of care we felt from our church, ahead of our departure. I have no doubt that there are likely some who sent us with reservation. Some perhaps begrudgingly. Some perhaps downright disapprovingly. But if such feelings existed, they were entirely overshadowed by generous expressions of kindness. It’s a real testament to the gracious spirit that lives in this group, and I have a strong conviction that God will pour that back upon them in more ways than they might venture to guess. I don’t even mean: A better version of Jason & Shannon will return home next summer, and the church will benefit from that. I hope that happens too. What I mean is more invisible and harder to flow-chart. I think God is honourable. And He loves to bestow honour on those who sow into others with generosity, and on those who seek Him even when fear or reservation exist, and on those who love deeply and determinedly. And the folks of Glen Elm are doing all those; our family certainly feels it.

And that is where this “back story” is ending.

Has my blog left gaps in this six-plus year journey? Oh yes.

Am I going to keep rolling these posts? Not about the past. There’s new stuff to write about… almost every day some weeks!

Am I open to questions? Sure.

More than anything, I hope these posts have provided some background for those who’ve curiously wondered, “How did they end up there?” Perhaps far beyond two little people named Jason and Shannon, these posts might also have highlighted how amazing it is to be loved and led by God! He has plans for everyone, and they are life-filled and love-filled plans, often quite different from the ones we’d sketch if He gave us the whiteboard.

So He doesn’t.

He just beckons.

He pays for us and prays for us and stays with us. He seeks to heal us so that we might better steward everything He shares with us. And then He just treats us with goodness and kindness and graciousness so pronounced at times that we may feel embarrassed that anyone — let alone Anyone with a capital “A” — might love such a ridiculous someone so ridiculously!

And He loves you that way.

And lo and behold, I’m learning to believe that He loves me that way too.

Much grace and peace to you, friends and guests alike.

2 thoughts on “Braiding the Back Story

  1. These posts have blessed me Jason. Thanks for your transparent and authentic spirit. May you and Shannon find yourselves exactly where He wants you to be.

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