The Long Swim to Shore: Part One

Following the Path

My husband and I officially entered pastoral ministry in the Wesleyan denomination in 1979. Little did we know when we entered the ministry that we were taking a front-row seat to witness the dissension that can accompany division that had begun to manifest centuries earlier in The Church. The Protestant mentality that spearheaded the schism in the Church was a protesting bent that was in keeping with the culture of the 1500s, authority was being challenged in the culture as well as The Church. At the time it was referred to as reform by the protestors, but what played out was just one rebellion after another against the Authority of The Ancient Universal Church that began with Jesus’ mandate to St. Peter and the other disciples just before His ascension.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:8

Our denominational movement was one of the many spin-offs of rebellion, and it, like much of the Protestant movement, tended to disintegrate through protests that would rise up to the surface across the short history of a denomination. Within The Wesleyan Denomination, there was a spirit of protest: a Wesleyan church in Georgia could hold certain traditions as essential while a Wesleyan church in California could pass them off as non-essential distractions. The absence of unity in our own denominational movement was disenchanting and embarrassing yet it followed suit with the Protestant movement.

The paradigm of legalism that was typical for evangelical denominations until the 1970s would eventually shift to keep up with the culture; the “seeker-friendly” methodology was incorporated into nearly every facet of church life. Over time the denomination would follow the trend of the “Church Growth” movement that was big in evangelical circles in the ’70s and ’80s. Churches that used this formulaic programming promoted relevant preaching and had a preoccupation with worship styles that would meet people’s felt needs. When growing the Sunday worship attendance became the goal for the local churches, a subtle shift took place. Pastors needed larger portfolios: administration and management of local church endeavors required business savvy and a heavy dose of charisma. Churches had to be more “attractive,” worship more relevant. Members expected more interesting “experiences” on Sunday morning for themselves, their teenagers, their children, their toddlers, and their babies. And a mediocre cup of coffee and maybe a donut or two was thought to make the trip to church more satisfying.

“[Worship] has been replaced by the yawn of familiarity. The consuming fire has been domesticated into a candle flame, adding a bit of religious atmosphere, perhaps, but no heat, no blinding light, no power for purification.”
–Donald McCullough

During the 1980s and ’90s as evangelical and fundamental movements gained influence in politics and entertainment, churches seemed to take on more of a Christian country club mentality. Bigger is better! But what seemed to be getting big were egos and an inflated sense of entitlement among the members, pastors, and denominational leaders alike. We both started to question some of the bulimic fascinations with trends and methods for growing a church. The sense of spiritual starvation that was happening around us began to draw our own spirits toward a search for the sacred wisdom and understanding given to anyone who inclined their ears to the words of Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of The Faith.

Our desires to shepherd and care for the members of the churches we served were swallowed up by the pathology of Protestantism–dissension, division, and discord. Over our 34 years in service to the movement, we witnessed church splits over-inflated issues among members. We endured the loss of nearly half of a congregation in a week over the denomination’s stand against petty non-essential lifestyle commitments. We struggled to serve a church swept up in a vortex of political maneuvers that earned it a reputation of being hard on the pastors (and their families) that tried to serve them. And ours was not a unique experience! It was normal in many denominations to hear more about church divisions than anything else. Questions settled into our spirits that we found ourselves trying to answer more frequently the longer we served in ministry. Is there nothing sacred anymore? Where is a firm foundation of authority? What IS worship? What is the purpose of the Church?

The first great fact which emerges from our civilization
is that today everything has become “means.”
There is no longer an “end”; we do not know to wither we are going.
We have forgotten our collective ends, and we possess great means:
we set huge machines in motion to arrive nowhere.
–Jacques Ellul

Conversion, real conversion requires pain and loss for transformation to be effective. And the years of ministry to our last church held many tipping points in our spiritual maturation. It has been said that doubt is the necessary partner to real faith. Though we often did not recognize at the time that the feelings we were having were caused by doubt, they surely served as stepping stones in our conversion through a deepening of our faith. The experiences were leading us away from the Protestant movement and bringing us closer to Catholicism, often without our immediate comprehension.

As I attempt to illustrate our spirit’s departure from the Protestant movement, I am very cognizant that the denomination we served is really no different than any other denomination or organization. It’s the human condition, but it is profoundly sad and disturbing when the same attitudes and pursuits of the world infiltrate the body of Christ where there is supposed to be unity. Churches, as well as organizations, contain posers, players, and bullies who attempt to exert their authority. Churches, as well as organizations, are made up of committed, uncommitted, and indifferent attendees who just want to come to church to worship God or to be a part of an organization to feel good about what they are doing and receiving from the church. Church life can very much operate as, and feel like, club life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Our good experiences are filled with many acquaintances and several significant friends. Positive memories abound. Good people are everywhere. The bad and the ugly resulted from tensions mounting within the congregation, the denomination, and the Protestant movement

It was during our tenure at our last local church that we began to do more spiritual reading. Solace came through authors that appealed to each of our natures. My husband, Jeff, found significant help from authors who were outside our immediate denominational background. Eugene Peterson was especially helpful as his books dealt so much with the theologies of pastoral ministry and worship. Peterson’s writings were so often contrary to what Jeff sensed he was being pushed to believe in our local church as well as our denomination. Denominational leadership bombarded pastors with articles, books, and conferences/seminars on leadership. Pastors increasingly were being compared to a CEO of major corporations. The insinuation or often direct teaching was that pastors were to lead like these business leaders. One particularly unsettling example of that focus took place during what was supposed to be a ministerial retreat. We both attended and were lectured on current marketing techniques that could be adapted in churches to make them more attractive and interesting. A “retreat” did happen in Jeff’s spirit! He began to see that many of the notions focused way too much on man’s abilities and too little on the enabling, equipping, and empowering gifts of the Spirit of God. He couldn’t put his finger on the source of the frustration rising up within him but he did understand that there had to be a firmer foundation to give his loyalty to than the shifting sand we were sinking in, in the Protestant movement. A straw that broke the camel’s back fell shortly before he decided to resign from pastoral ministry. Our denomination’s district leadership was intensely focused on expansion by numbers, so much so that an entire “state of the district” message was devoted to the “one thing” that is most important in the church. What was the “one thing” that should be central to worship? According to the predominant evangelical thinking and to our denominational leadership, it was doing everything we could humanly manage (read control) to get more people into the pews on Sunday morning. Of course, Jeff desired to touch people’s lives with the healing virtues of salvation. However, he knew that if worship of Almighty God was dis-ordered by man’s preoccupation with success, there was no end to what could be conjured up, all in the name of evangelization. The ties of his loyalty to the denomination continued to loosen.

The frustration that was growing in Jeff regarding the attitude toward worship could not be ignored if he was going to maintain his personal and spiritual integrity. Gadgets, gizmos, and technology seemed to be abounding as if they pertained to the worship of Almighty God. The focus of attention was continually heightening on the pastor (as preacher/communicator) and the worship team (singers/musicians). Times of worship had to be slick, relevant, marketable, experiential, pleasing to all generations, and entertaining. In other words, man-centered. We both had come to understand, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that worship is something we give, not experience. Yet leadership believed a pastor was duty-bound to configure a worship service that “moved” attendees to “have some experience” with God. We disagreed. What had we come to? We both knew how we got there, we’d seen it unfold over our years of ministry in the denomination. Jeff began to doubt and question what he was witnessing. And he wasn’t sure that he could continue to standby to see where it was all leading.

The longer we served the denomination the more we found ourselves longing for worship that was saturated with the spoken word of God. We hungered for worship through thanksgiving and adoration of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. The Old and New Testaments are filled with examples of what happened when men “exchanged the image of God” for the convolutions of man. Nothing is new under the sun. The results of false worship were and continue to be catastrophic to the people and to the generations that come after them! Worship must be Christ-centered, not man-centered. What did God think about the tipped-upside-down worship we conjured on Sunday mornings? We starved for authentic worship of the Triune God. Jeff had no idea at the time that we would eventually find biblically-ordered worship in the Catholic Mass. Worshipping in a Catholic Church wasn’t even on his radar screen at that time in our lives.

It was on my mind, though. One of the first books I read during those years of ministry in our last church, was written by a Protestant. The author’s insights helped me discover more about meditation and prayer. But what astounded me were the rich quotes of people I had never heard about! The profound faith of writers such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bonaventure, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. John of the Cross reached into my life and drew me back into the richness of the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church. And how had I never heard of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman?! As I began to read of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s conversion to The Catholic Church I unknowingly stepped onto the long path of reconciliation with the Church. I could not comprehend the distant scene but I was certain of every step. It wasn’t long before I was devouring every book I could get my hands on about the Apostolic Fathers, early Church Fathers, and Saints of the Church.

The more we discovered about the fullness of the faith present in The Catholic Church, the more we searched. The morsels of beauty, goodness, and truth were like crumbs of bread leading us down a path further into history. What we met on that journey was the transcendence of The Catholic Church; a light beckoning us deeper into the ancient Faith of The Catholic Church. Each step on the journey through our last ministry assignment was intensely humbling yet our spiritual reading was astoundingly enlivening.

Drowning

Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbor,
where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict.
Show me the course I should take.
Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can
always see the right direction in which I should go.
And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course,
even when the sea is rough and the waves are high,
knowing that through enduring hardship and
danger we shall find comfort and peace.
–St. Basil of Caesarea

One summer in our last few years of ministry we traveled to Maine to visit our son and his family. While on that vacation we rented a home on the beach. One afternoon Jeff and I decided to walk out during low tide to an island about a half-mile from the bay’s shore where we were staying. We began the walk feeling the weight of the condition of our lives like we had never felt it before. The heaviness in our spirits was nearly suffocating, but the walk soon turned into a refreshing and peaceful stroll through the low tide of water. We lingered at the island walking the circumference of its shoreline and collecting shells as keepsakes to carry back in our bucket. After a while, we looked up at the sun’s place in the sky and decided that we best turn toward shore and begin the 1/2 mile hike back. We had misjudged the time and the distance that we needed to return to shore. Soon we knew we were in trouble as the tide had already begun its return to the shoreline.

I am a lifelong swimmer and have often joked that in my past life I was a mermaid since I feel most at ease in the water. I was a certified lifeguard, long-distance swimmer, and water exercise instructor for much of my working life, so the reality of the situation we were in was startling because I understood exactly what was going to be required of us if we were going to make it to shore. Jeff is not a swimmer; the gravity of the situation gripped him with fear as soon as his feet could no longer touch the ocean floor. Panic began to set in. As I judged the distance we had yet to go, about 1/4 mile, I quickly considered our alternatives. As a lifeguard, I knew that if I came into physical contact with him his own natural fight-or-flight reaction could drive him to take hold of me. I had been trained to speak calmly to a drowning victim and if possible to extend a flotation device toward the victim. My presence and my calm voice were all I had to help him and so I began to call to him to turn over on his back and stop looking at the shore, relax his body into the water and allow the current of the waves to aid his arm movements, to look at the sky and follow my voice. He followed the instructions all the while calling out, “Help us, Jesus.”

I let loose of the bucket filled with our ocean treasures and began to swim toward shore, every few strokes looking back at him and repeating the instructions, but each time I looked back there was more distance between us, and his head was sinking further and further into the surf. My mind shifted between the knowledge that if I swam to shore for help he would probably drown, if I swam back toward him and attempted to take hold of him in the lifesaving grip, chances were strong that we would both drown. During those interminable minutes, I decided that I would swim back to him and we would either survive or drown together. I would not leave him alone. Through God’s providence, I decided to allow my feet to drop below me before I swam to him, my toes barely brushed the ocean floor and I felt as all of heaven was surrounding us at that moment. I called to him, “I can touch, I feel the earth, relax, keep looking at the sky, reach toward my voice as you stroke your arms.” Someone on shore (we later learned her name was Angel) had heard my calls for help, saw we were struggling, and had been swimming toward us, she made it to us just as my husband had reached toward me and allowed his feet to drop. His adrenaline was doing all it could to move him toward life, but as soon as he touched me, he collapsed into our arms and we dragged him into shore. That experience seemed to be the reality of our ministerial lives, drowning in tides that were against us, all attempts to keep our head above the waters were sapping joy and hope from our lives, and we had no solid ground to stand on.

We returned from that vacation still very much unsettled, walking back into a current of “full catastrophe living” because our lives during the last twelve years of ministry seemed to be an unyielding tide of soul-shattering, life-altering circumstances in our private and vocational life. There’s an old German proverb that goes something like this, “Sooner or later, a hush comes to every family.” We were living through extreme circumstances that brought a hush to our family and we were grieving a deep and private loss that was profoundly life-altering. The loneliness, helplessness, and searing grief we felt tore at me like nothing I had ever experienced. The gravity of what Christ suffered as the sacrificial Lamb for humanity’s sin embedded in my heart as we bore the weight of what sin had unfurled in our family’s life, we would never be the same. We often felt like we were drowning.

The church we served was mired in dissension My husband’s spirit–loyal and pastoral–began to diminish through a litany of demeaning circumstances in our service to the church. It was slowly pressing him toward the deconstruction of everything he believed about himself, his abilities and gifts, and his call. His devout faith in God and his commitment to daily immersion in prayer and Scripture reading along with spiritual reading served as his only source of spiritual refreshment and renewal. The evidence of the Authority of the Faith is still present in the Catholic Church and the writings of Early Church Fathers began to draw his spirit, so much so that he quietly began considering his perspective on the Catholic Church. He was finding answers to the questions we both had about the purpose of worship in the Authority and Sacred Tradition of the Church.

Near the end of that season of our life, Jeff went away to a friend’s farm for a time of concentrated prayer and reading of the Scriptures to discern what God desired of him. He came home from that time away with the clear message from God that he was to resign from the church where we were serving. He also came home convinced that we needed some counsel on what to do because although he was certain he should resign, he was not certain how and when he should resign or whether he should take up another assignment.

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The Maiden Warrior

Greetings, friend. "In silence and rest is your salvation" are words from the prophet Isaiah that echo the desire of my life. I've been following that desire my entire life as I seek to live and move and have my being in what the LORD desires for me. I'm still learning the beauty of silence and rest as my salvation, it's a long obedience in the right direction. This is my journey.

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