Monday, October 03, 2005

TELESCOPE FAITH: Part III



This all probably sounds as if I despised my time at CFNI, which is actually far from the truth. I firmly believe that one can find God in any type of service or environment and I certainly had, what I considered to be, encounters with God—times during which I sensed His presence, leading, and still, small voice. Some of these times were when my life required scouring and cleaning. Other times it was a balm of peace and encouragement. But these times were far and away the exceptions. Still, I echo Dodd's sympathetic and kind tone. Like ORU, CFNI “is not a place of insincere devotion; it is a place of extreme devotion sincerely and frequently expressed.”

I had some phenomenal professors and mentors, especially Mark Marfisi and Richard Hanner, who showed me that passion does not exclude intelligence, research and plain old common sense. Their classes and most of all, their examples, inspire me still.

I met some fantastic friends, the majority of whom I am still very close to. My roommate, Eric Desormeaux, Chris Janda, and the Zint family stand out in my mind. Eric and I used to lie in bed till all hours of the night and early morning, giving voice to the haunting questions, nagging doubts and angry impressions of those days. These churning, frothing discussions, I now know, kept me grounded and vented, able to see a balance and a realistic equilibrium to everything going on around me.

The majority of my friends rebelled after CFNI. Some left Pentecostalism. Others left the Church all together. Still others, disillusioned and despondent, either questioned or forsook God’s call on their lives to be ministers. For me, it led to lethargy and a dull disinterest in the things of God. The questioning and even a hostility to my faith would come just a few years later while I was in the Navy. The road back would be a difficult and prickly one. Sometimes, it still is.

If I had it to do all over again, I really don’t think I would attend CFNI. I certainly wouldn’t at this point in my life. I’m not sure if attending Bible college did anything other than show me what I didn’t want, who I didn't want to become.

Growing up, I felt comfortable as a Charismatic simply because it was all I knew. It was how I was raised. But I was always uncomfortable engaging in its forms of worship. Prophetic utterances always made me uncomfortable. Gave me the heebie-jeebies, really. It was always the same lady in our church. Always the same message: God is doing a new thing or whatever. I spoke in tongues a few times or at least imitated what everyone else sounded like so I looked as if I knew what I was doing. Truth is, I hadn’t a clue. Still don’t. It was gibberish then and it’s gibberish now. How one gift of the Holy Spirit—a minor one at that—became the talisman and even the spiritual litmus test of an entire movement is beyond me.

Christianity--I have been raised in this. I have inherited this. And I do believe it. But I look around me sometimes and I think, “If this is what Christianity is all about; if this is all there is; if this is what a true Christian looks like—then I want nothing to do with it.”

I didn’t leave the Charismatic church right away. It took another decade after CFNI to begin to peel away from my birthright. My grandfather was a Pentecostal missionary and minister. So was my father. It wasn’t an easy transition. There have been many bumps and questions and confusion along the way.

I was raised as a Protestant (Protest-ent) which is to say I was raised to believe that Catholicism is not true Christianity and that anything even remotely smacking of popery is not to be given a second glance. Liturgical churches were declared lifeless, whitewashed tombs holding the dead carcasses of liberals masquerading as Christians.

And now, I’m one of them.

I began attending Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church a little over a year ago. I’d been feeling a deep yearning for a more structured, traditional, historical and dare-I-say-it, liturgical form of worship for some time. Stephanie and I were married in her father’s Lutheran church in a richly liturgical ceremony that we both adored. While she had grown up attending her father’s church a few times a month, I had never before encountered anything remotely liturgical.

The first Sunday I was overwhelmed. I also knew I was home.

One Sunday this past winter, we awoke to a massive snowstorm that shut down the city and made traveling impossible. Luckily Grace & St. Stephens is just across the street and Stephanie and I trudged through the snow to join a dozen or so other brave souls in the morning liturgy. Afterwards, as the congregation emptied out into the freezing mush, my wife and I stayed behind in conversation with Father Theron Walker, St. Stephen’s Vicar. He and I had spent some time together (remember that great U2 concert!?) and I was truly enjoying his insights into the Anglican faith and the way that faith is shaped and shared withh others. But I was not prepared to find that, while they were separated by many years, Father Walker and Patton Dodd were both alumnus’ of Oral Roberts University! I’m sure I sputtered something along the lines of, “You attended where?” as I stared at the priest in front of me, decked out in long, ornamental robes.

“Yeah, I was raised in the Assemblies of God. I discovered the Episcopal Church in my junior year at ORU and went to Episcopal seminary not long after graduating. You two are not unusual here,” he went on, saying, “You might be surprised to learn how many people attend here who came out of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions…or, who still consider themselves Charismatic, but who practice it liturgically.”

I’ve never felt comfortable in my own spiritual skin–until now.

The new face of my faith is humble. It freely admits it doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to pretend that it does when cornered with questions or tragedies beyond its scope. It doesn’t deny that the answers exist, or Who has them, but simply that, as finite human beings, we cannot possibly understand the full mind of God. This is a church that takes religion seriously and itself lightly.

The new face of my faith is historical, building its strength on thousands of years of established and proven history instead of the whims and currents of fads. I can go to any another parish on any another Sunday and hear exactly the same chants and scriptural recitations. The liturgical calendar is one of the glories of the Church.

The new face of my faith is intellectual, realizing that God told us to love Him with all our hearts, souls and minds. Faith without reason is little better than divining God from a caldron full of bat wings and toad legs.

The new face of my faith is contemplative. It seeks after God not in the proverbial fire and wind but in the chattering brook and the breeze created by butterfly wings. God speaks, more often than not, in whispers, not in signs and miracles.

The new face of my faith is social as well as spiritual. God told us that we would be known as his disciples, not by the rules we kept, the politics we changed, or the prosperity we gained, but by our love. And that love is shown in how one cares for one’s less fortunate neighbor. I love this church’s emphasis on justice. I love its emphasis on peace. It’s a religion more interested in action than in mere professions of faith.

The new face of my faith is fluid and dynamic, allowing for a myriad of opposites—even political and, occasionally, theological opposites—in order to remain vital. It realizes that a system without opposition stagnates.

The new face of my faith is ornate. I find myself marveling at how easy it is to worship God and enter into His presence when the very ornamentation has been crafted as an anthem of praise and reverence. There is something about worshiping in a grand building that focuses your attention heavenward, that galvanizes your mind and wayward thoughts and compresses them toward into a single objective, a single entity. In such a setting, things begin to be striped away, namely the grime, the accumulated grit, the repulsive layers of self that act like heavy webs to stifle our reverie and suffocate our veneration.

I love the Eucharistic ritual, the colors and the banners and the music and the processions, communing with Christ in the company of others and uttering prayers that have been said millions of times spanning thousands of years. I love reading the words aloud together, integrating their message into all my senses. I love the bread and the cup, the linens and the vestments—their colors, materials, patterns, the care and honor that is taken with them.

I haven’t totally left my heritage behind. I still divide my time between the old Pentecostal church in which I was raised and St. Stevens. The A of G church is too authentic, too loving, and frankly, too un-Pentecostal, for me to abandon it altogether. If it wasn’t, I would have made a clean break ages ago. The rudder of this church, Pastor Rob Cowles just announced last week that he will be leaving the church to undertake a new vision elseware. It was a tremendous blow, like an atomic bomb had gone off in my face. I am not one for hero worship—I despise it actually—especially when it comes to those in ministerial positions, but Rob’s lucid teaching and gushing heart have done more to keep me from completely leaving my spiritual roots than anything else. His gentleness and wisdom, grounding and perspective, not to mention Charismatic doctrinal insubordination shows me that perhaps the chasm between these two worlds I straddle can someday be bridged.

In the end of his book, but still at the beginning of his spiritual formation, Patton Dodd, like myself, decides to break new ground within his own faith tradition. His faith transforms into something more liturgical. He paints a nuanced and multifaceted picture of an earnest quest for God: the appetite for genuine faith, the dark encounters with doubt, the consuming quandaries that defy the intellect and soul and the profound realization that questioning the Christian message is not the same thing as questioning Christ.

Frank, funny, and often challenging, Dodd’s irreverent and occasionally cheeky commentary offers a tremendously compelling argument for how spiritual and cultural formation actually takes place. He captures the often vulgar messiness of faith and the faithful without implicating the one in whom the faith is placed. “My Faith So Far” is much more than a spiritual biography or memoir, mapping the internal life of a single pilgrim. It is also a cultural commentary, deftly unpeeling the seemingly unending layers of this particular branch of evangelical subculture.

Rich Mullins once said, “You know, a lot of people think that the idea that there’s so many denominations is disillusioning. And I just kind of go, I’m glad the Baptists can go to their own place to worship, because I’m not sure I want to do it the way they do.” I say the same thing about Charismatics (and Baptists!), even while wrestling with a massive distaste and concern for their theology. I am glad that there is the sort of diversity of churches that fits the diversity of its congregants. No doubt, somewhere out there is a man who, suffocated and emaciated by years in a by-the-numbers liturgical congregation is getting his first taste of the freedom and expansiveness of a Pentecostal service. And he loves it. And he's finally found God.

Several years ago, I could never have dreamed of where I am now. And who can say that years from now I won’t be making the same comment. It’s sort of like those time-lapse pictures I was taking of the space telescope’s construction. Once the crew had finished, I packed up the camera and computer and ran back to the lab where the data was downloaded into an editing suite and played back. There, before my eyes, in stuttering steps, a pile of disorganized and untidy flotsam blossomed into a mechanism of beautiful form and symmetry. If, as I am dying, I am able to look upon the construction of my life much as I had the construction of that telescope, I am sure I would be equally bewildered and amazed by its unpredictable and seemingly erratic compositions. And yet, every piece fits perfectly. Without one particular armature, another could not be added, expanded or even built upon. What looks like a muddle of parts to the untrained eye makes perfect sense to the designer. And in the end, there rests an object of both beauty and utilitarianism, form and function—the product of the mind, creativity and love of a creator that ultimately smiles over his creation and says, “You’re perfect. Now go see what’s out there.”

15 Comments:

Blogger The Laughing Man said...

A really good read. Interesting how two different individuals can go through an identical upbringing (albeit with different personal experiences and choices) and go in different directions with it. That’s not to say that I don't agree with what you say (at least about the Charismatic church), because I do, but I guess that growing up, I recognized it, didn't like it, but never thought on it. I wonder though why you 'stopped' your journey where you did? I can't help but wonder if you haven't just exchanged one superficial experience for another? What makes this new/old church better? The building? The Chants? The structure? Haven't you just taken God out of one box just to place him straight away into another? Personally, I tend to take a rather 'fight clubish' view of the modern church in all it's various forms (were this anybody else I were talking to I would now have to go into a long explanation of what I mean by that). I often fantasize about waking up one morning to discover every and all churches have been demolished and now lay in ruins. No more grand cathedrals, no more Wal-Mart churches, no more small town churches, just ruble. What would we do? I guess I just take you line of thinking to the next level-yes I agree that the Charismatic church is a mess, but is that because the charismatic church is a mess, or is it maybe that there are inherent and structural flaws in all churches that warrant going back to the drawing board altogether? Paul didn't have chants that spanned thousands of years, or grand cathedrals, or robes, etc... He had his sandals and he walked were God told him to. It is interesting to me that the ever lauded church of Antioch (isn't amazing how every church regardless of their denomination all base their church on the church of Antioch? Hmmmm.) never actually had a church at all. At least not one that is ever mentioned. Instead, all references to the church were made about the body of believers, and not some big/small/beautiful/plain/traditional/contemporary building in which they met. Interestingly enough, the original Christians were always out and about living the great commission, rather than musing on the finer points of this or that. They met in their houses if indoors at all (assuming that they hadn't sold their houses and land to help finance their God given vision). I'm not saying that the church serves no purpose, I am saying that 99.9% of the Christians that attend church have made their weekly attendance to one building or another the sum total of their spiritual lives, whether it be a Sistine Chapel or a warehouse. I would love to see what would happen if they were all destroyed over night and instead of trying to find God in this place or that place, after all their comfort zones had been obliterated, they had to finally deal with the fact that God is everywhere, every day of the week, and if we don’t feel that to be so in our own lives, does that reflect poorly on God, or on us? If there were no more churches, where would people go, and what would they do when they got there? How many people-stripped of their crutches of convenience, and no longer having a easy way to show God, the body of Christ, and the world how spiritual they are-would just stay home on Sundays?
I often think, after reading some article or another about Christians in the Sudan, or Iraq, or yes, even in the Palestinian territories how I/we would fair if put in the same circumstances they face? Would we go to church on Sundays if it meant certain imprisonment if discovered as they do in China? Would I/we boldly declare God’s love to all the world if it meant potential death to ourselves and our families as it does in Iraq? Of course not. We don’t even do that now. Not by and large anyway. And we are free to do so here. For now anyway. I guess I feel that the church, in all its forms, has turned into a protection of sorts from the winds that would otherwise separate the wheat from the chaff. I think a lot of people like that fact, because they aren’t sure which category they fit in. Wheat or Chaff? Its so much easer to be chaff that hangs out with the wheat. Being wheat take work and you gotta produce something. Wheat grows and creates new life, chaff doesn’t. The proof is in the pudding as they say, but the chef has been barred from the church. I’ll stop here before my response becomes larger than the posting that spurred it. Besides, I think I feel a storm coming on and I don’t want to get caught out in the wind….might get blown away.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

"Good God, man!," said Brandon with a perfect, upper-class, middle-aged, masculine British accent, "Have you never heard of “The Paragraph?” What, what!?!"

It is tragic that we put God in a box and try as we may not to, I think it is inevitable. Completely unable to comprehend even the idea, let alone the personhood and attributes of God, all we humans can do is build boxes--even though they be the largest we can imagine--and put Him inside. Granted, He has a way of breaking those boxes and stretching their confines. So long as we are willing that the structural integrity of our boxes can and should be manipulated, then we're in the right ballpark to start.

I agree with you--I think Western Christianity is completely stuck in a sort of spiritual toddlerhood. It considers itself blessed because it happens to exist in prosperous nations. Overseas, men and woman are killed for their faith. Here, we consider Sponge Bob Square Pants and the removal of a Ten Commandments display as persecution. We are clueless.

I know that the longer time I spend within the Anglican church, the more I will find that dissatisfies me. Instituted by God is one thing; administrated over by humans is another. I'm even willing to say that if I attended an Episcopal seminary I'd no doubt leave there with other, if completely dissimilar, complaints.

I am not so naive as to believe that I have found God's perfect corporate incarnation on earth. As you so well alluded to, we do a pretty good job of screwing it up daily. Still, it may not be perfect, but it is perfect for me and that, in the end, is perhaps all I was trying to say.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished part III. It's really awesome.

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone here ever read Frank Peretti's book The Visitation? After I read it, I felt it succinctly summed up my "Bapticostal" experience. I think that the best thing that came out of the Charismatic church is the praise and worship. It's easy to look back on the teachings of our youth and see glaring flaws that we were blind to at the time, and want to just swing the total opposite way. I'm still working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

I love that scriptural phrase--"work out your salvation..." It is not something that occurs,
!SMACK!, at one time, so much as it is a progression, a journey. Beautiful.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Gilly said...

Damn buddy, I can't keep up with all your blogs! You are a writing fool!

8:46 AM  
Blogger Reacher said...

If we wake up one morning to find that all our churches have been turned into Russian currency (rubles), we'll know who to come looking for, Laughing Man. Sorry, the English teacher in me couldn't resist.

I actually find myself solidly with Brandon and Laugher. There's no question that our "worship" is more about our edifice complexes than authentic relationship with God. However, I think Brandon is reacting to a tradition that is less centered around powerful personalities, or the current thinking (masquerading as "what the Bible says"). Instead, it is rooted in something that has been around a long time and is more focused on the timelessness of God than the current James Dobson topic.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Eric Desormeaux said...

"Eric and I used to lie in bed till all hours of the night and early morning.."

For the record..Brandon and I slept in seperate beds on opposite
sides of the room.

Yet often in the middle of the night he would slip
on his hot pink liturgical robe, reach for his "ACME Ready-Made Eucharist Kit" and try to crawl into bed with me. He really enjoyed discussing (in one million words or less)his views on the mating habits of africanized honey bee and its affects on missionaries, and he did this into all hours of the night.

I often fooled him by placing a very handsome dummy --in the praying position-- in my bunk while the real me was out somewhere in Dallas making out with a young chick from THE GAP.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brandon,

I love reading your work, and I look forward to reading your work every time it arrives on my e-mail. Your 3-part series touched me very much-so much in fact that I literally cried after reading this last entry.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished reading your three part blog. It really touched me. My computer screen has never been a mirror before. Right now in my life I have been struggling to pull myself out of part II. It's tough when you have have those Benny Hinns and Marylin Hickeys out there to feed your frustration. And don't get me started on Christian music . . .

P

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

Brandon,

Just wanted to say thanks for another wonderful series of posts. I've enjoyed your blog for some time now, and while I don't share all of your passion for film and other interests, I've always loved your writing. This series was particularly touching, even inspirational, and I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Thanks Josh. That means a lot.

I was kinda surprised by the amount of traffic on this series of posts, to tell you the truth. One, they were so long and two, they were so personal. I didn't know if anyone would be able to identify with me or if I was simply writing to vent my own steam.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous BSR said...

Interesting series. I am a former member of Grace.

My upbringing was a mixture (Lutheran, Presby, Church of England) while my wife's was Roman Catholic. Once married, we found the Episcopal Church to be the perfect middle-spot for both of us. I enjoyed the ceremony & liturgy and emphasis on music. She found the service similar enough to Roman Catholicism but socially more progressive with marriage for priests and female priests.

We attended a wonderful church in the Milwaukee area where the rector was one of the most loving, non-judgemental people I have ever met. He had enough energy and love to infuse the whole place with God's love, and we felt very loved and at home there.

A job change necessitated a move to Jacksonville, FL. We found an Episcopal church nearby, but it wasn't the same. It was a bit more towards the charismatic side of things, and (while the liturgy was the same) they had revamped the music to include a "praise band" which just didn't work for us. We attended but less frequently than before, and never really felt part of things.

Fortunately, we managed to escape from FL after just 18 months, and ended up in Santa Rosa, CA. We found a GREAT church there. The main rector had been sick for some time, and his assistant, Pat was a wonderful woman. Her gift was taking something from scripture and touching a personal spot deep in everyone -- don't know how she pulled it off sometimes, but I always left her sermons with new hope and stronger faith.

And then the jobs dried up and we had to leave. We found Colorado Springs, and quickly found Grace (being only a few blocks away). This was the largest and most beautiful EC we had ever attended, and I very much enjoyed the beautiful services -- I was reminded of some of the English churches I had attended as a child.

We quickly found that we enjoyed some of the sermons much less than others. My wife found portions of Armstrong's sermons very condescending to women, and almost got up and left one time. Theron & Sally didn't make us feel that way -- we quite enjoyed them. Once I began attending the Sunday classes, I also found Armstrong's lectures rather dogmatic. I discovered that his interpretation of scripture is far different than mine -- much more conservative.

This in itself wasn't a big problem -- every church has people you can relate to, and some you can't. I also realized that (this being Colorado Springs) the local climate was more conservative, and his views might reflect that.

The kicker came when (during one of his Sunday school lectures) Armstrong revealed that he supported the invasion of Iraq, and actually used St. Augustine's "Just War Theory" to illustrate why Bush was such a great president and was doing the right thing.

This triggered a crisis of faith in me that I'm not sure I have completely worked through yet (and it's been 2 years). The very idea that someone in Armstrong's line of work could condone pre-emptive war and the killing of thousands of innocents just shook me to my core. It couldn't be possible -- not in THIS church -- THIS faith.

I can see someone like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson advocating war on TV, but I don't really think of them as true men of God. In my mind, they serve some other deity -- green with dollar signs. Armstrong (however flawed I found his sermons) never fit into that category of "false priest" for me.

I had found my happy spiritual place, and now it was lying in ruins. I felt betrayed, confused, and very angry.

I haven't been back since. This is heartbreaking to part of me, as I miss the service, and place that I found so lovely. There are also many fine people that I don't see any longer.

I have occasionally kept up with what's going on at Grace. I could never figure out if Theron was just going along with Armstrong because that was his place, or if he agreed with him on most issues. I'm curious if the new associate rector has similar beliefs.

When the ordination of a gay bishop by the EC set off a firestorm of controversy, I wasn't surprised to see Armstrong at the forefront of what might be a group to break away from the ECUSA and form something else. In my opinion, he is someone who has stopped learning, and feels he knows everything he needs to. The contrast to most of the other rectors I have known is stark. This is something I would expect from a Roman Catholic mindset -- not the loving, inclusive, progressive Episcopal Church.

I won't go back, as long as he remains there (which will probably be many more years). There are only two other EC congregations in the Springs -- the one at the Broadmoor is a bit far for every Sunday, and I've heard it would be a similar experience. There is one over on Union, but friends have told me it's very charismatic. Rumor has it there may be one starting up in Briargate. For now, I'm going to the Lutheran Church on Cascade. It's more in line with my politics and social thinking, but I still can't get used to the plainsong service -- I miss the rich tradition of the EC service and Book of Common Prayer.

I'm glad you feel at home at Grace, and wish you happiness there. To me, it might as well be New Life Church -- filled with a sort of toxic Christianity that I don't understand.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Indiyana said...

As a former CNiFer, I can relate your story uniquely, I think. There's a wonderful "bubble effect" while you're in a place like that but once you leave you realize just how overwhelming it all is.

It's been 10 years since I left CFNI and Dallas (took 3 to stop having nightly dreams about it). I'm still trying to find my way back from the whole experience. Finally I feel like I can accept God's (presence? direction? I don't know) again. I'm not sure where my path is yet, but at least I'm looking for it.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous JM said...

Hey Brandon,

I spent 30 minutes last night reading your story. That is incredible. Quite incredible. I grew up in a Christian culture that was absolutely clear about how stupid the Benny Hinns of the world are. It was bread and butter for me to believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, and reject Corinthian-style heretics. We would watch TV on Sunday mornings for entertainment, not growth. It was so tragic, yet I could not look away.

And I have always wondered who actually goes to these things. And it appears – you are! Or rather, you in a former life and uncomfortable about that life!

I have noticed in America how many people are running away from abusive forms of faith. And running away is usually not the easiest template to form a new faith. So many people just walk away from Christ for good.

J

11:17 AM  

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