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Confessions of a Pilgrim

by Winn Collier on July 7, 2006 in Book Excerpts
Holy is our best word to describe [this] life—the human aliveness that comes from dealing with God-Alive. We’re most human when we deal with God. Any other way of life leaves us less human, less ourselves. —Eugene Peterson

Call it depression, a chemical imbalance, or just an everyday case of exhaustion, but I was in the gutter. For three years of grad school, I had kept an insane pace: taking sixteen hours a semester, driving four hundred miles a week between school and two jobs located in two cities, and trying to maintain some semblance of a healthy relationship with a woman who lived six and a half hours away.

It never occurred to me that, at some point, my body might rebel. And rebel it did. Over a few months, I spiraled into heavy despair. I couldn’t eat, and it took all my energy to focus on menial tasks such as slipping on my pants or opening the mail. All I wanted to do was sleep; most days, I dragged myself out of bed and through the rituals of showering and shaving and driving to work just so I could lock the door and collapse on the floor. When lunchtime arrived, I would drive home for an hour to take a nap.

One summer evening, I walked outside with the cordless phone and called a friend who had spoken wise words to me in previous times of chaos. He answered the phone, and my desperate words spilled out. When the flood stopping pouring over the dam, there was silence on the other end.

After a few seconds, he interrupted the awkward quiet and asked, “Winn, are you willing to be wrong?”

The question seemed out of order, as if he had missed the point or hadn’t heard the weight of my words. However, his query couldn’t have been more skillfully lodged, and those seven simple words probed long-forgotten contours of my heart. I was willing to endure many things: difficulty, discipline, hard work, challenges, and numerous other noble-sounding feats of the will. Yet there was one thing I would never accept: being wrong. My life, my pursuits, and my view of God all held a common assumption: It was my responsibility to get it right.

I was a typical firstborn, and I readily embraced the role of the achiever. I was first in my class academically, moderately successful athletically, and a leader in every arena I entered. I possess an entrepreneurial spirit, so I often scoured for the most hopeless situation, marking it as a place where I could gallop in to save the day.

During my freshman year in college, a few buddies and I purposefully joined the most berated and scoffed at fraternity on campus. We wanted to carve out a piece of history for ourselves, and we were convinced we could dig in and turn this fledgling group around. We did. For most of my life, I had the Midas touch, and successes poured in, seemingly a sure thing. Life was to be conquered. Obstacles were simply where I proved my grit. Given enough time and sweat, there was nothing I couldn’t figure out, overcome, or subdue.

Without recognizing it, I had embraced a secular, Westernized worldview in which individual will and acumen are perceived as the primary means to achievement and lack thereof as the only barriers. This abandonment to self-reliance harmonized well with the Enlightenment-influenced vibe in which “the modern knower engages in the knowing process believing that knowledge inevitably leads to progress.”  With enough sweat and scientifically styled precision, I believed nothing could elude my grasp.

Not surprisingly, this thinking spilled over into my view of God. God was wise and perfect, and it was our task, with a slight verbal nod given to the work of the Spirit, to figure him out. Defining God and his ways properly was the aim, and theological precision was the tool that would allow me to get there.

Though I would never have used such language, what I had always attempted to do with life was exactly what I now intended to do with God: conquer. My foray into graduate theological education was, in reality, one more step toward conquering God. And this, I soon found out, was a dicey proposition.

My first years of studying theology were intoxicating, but the further I delved into my studies, the more tenuous my hold became on these elusive attempts. There was always someone smarter, an idea more developed, or a theoretical nuance resisting my grasp. One question answered would lead to five more yet to be explored. It was as if God refused to be manipulated, and my frustration grew into a crisis. God simply wouldn’t cooperate.

As if seamlessly orchestrated, my other pursuits crumbled the same way. My relationship with Miska, the woman I loved and would thankfully later marry, was in shambles. I was unable to determine if she was “the one,” and she wouldn’t cooperate by acquiescing and morphing into the exact person I had always “known” I was to marry. My leadership abilities, which had always trumped whatever bad cards were dealt me, folded, and the ministry where I served sputtered. My friends, who had always affirmed my gifts and encouraged my dreams, were distant, and I was left alone to sink deeper into self-doubt. The Midas touch had dissipated. God had eluded my grasp. And I was more terrified than I had ever been.

So on this muggy evening in my front yard underneath a vast, starlit Texas sky, I was forced to face my grim reality: I am not God. My attempts toward perfection, toward absolute knowing, toward attempting to control Deity were entirely futile.

It isn’t that endeavoring to explore the vastness of God is an ignoble pursuit; it’s just that I am blinded by my vanity. I find it difficult to comprehend that knowing God is not simply possessing a vast array of facts about him.

Rather than trusting the good Creator, enjoying his gifts when they are offered, and being content in the mysteries of divine ways, I manipulate with painstaking calculation and intellectual dissection. I seek to control, and I strive to subdue. I am determined to know—not an intimate knowing lovers revel in but a manipulative knowing like that of a frantic scientist ripping apart his latest experiment, reducing the mystery to spare parts and junk metal. What I find, however, is that this God I attempt to conquer is much larger than I could ever imagine, and he doesn’t conform to my categories or succumb to my whims.

My obsession with being right and conquering God is a culturally acceptable way to feed my addiction for control and a clumsy mask for my feverish attempt to keep at bay the foreboding possibility that I might not be as well put together as I put on. My friend’s well-placed question was more than an invitation to recognize my limitations and accept a nice dose of humility. It was an invitation to step into a deeper reality of God where I would sit under him rather than over him and any attempts to control him would seem as foolish as trying to bottle the Pacific. It was an invitation to mystery.

The word mystery can have a nostalgic ring to it—it conjures images of delving into the intrigue of Sherlock Holmes before drifting to sleep or of wondering what the tightly wrapped box with the red plaid bow might have hidden inside. But these are mysteries in our domain, ones we control. They are fairy tales we weave and experiences that fit nicely within our reality.

True mystery, God’s mystery, can be hideously terrifying. His mystery asks us to trust when every instinct pulls us in the opposite direction. His mystery demands we loosen our grip when every internal voice screams at us to stay riveted, unmoved. The kind of mystery God offers is one in which we face our fears, our wounds, our deepest doubts, and all the dark corners of our soul that we have spent our life hiding from and ignoring and glossing over. We step into them, and we hope—not demand—that we find God somewhere in the midst.

This mystery feeds our fears because it dismantles the illusion of certainty. Our earliest experiences are of testing the waters, seeing what we can be certain of and what we can’t. Who can I trust to hold me? What can I touch?

When our son Wyatt turned one year old, he was just beginning to explore his world, testing the boundaries and constructing his reality. Like responsible parents, we did our best to childproof the house, covering the electrical sockets and putting away anything pointed and everything potentially toxic. Yet his mischievous wonderings always found that one thing we couldn’t remove or that one cord we had to leave out.

One of his primary fascinations was with the stove. A few unfortunate mishaps helped him grasp the meaning of hot—he learned this is an unpleasant and possibly painful experience. However, his daring nature moved him to venture to the limits. How close could he get to the stove before it hurt? How long could he touch the window of the oven before it became unbearably painful? As Wyatt grows older, he will continue to explore, and then he will set his limits based on what he can be certain of. This is the way it works with kids and stoves—and with dads and dreams.

The older and wiser we get, the more complex the questions become, but at their core, they are the same. Who can I trust that I know won’t let me down? What can I do that I know God will always respond to? How can I be certain to make life work and get out of it what I want?

This is why stepping into mystery causes me such pause. It shifts the foundation. It requires that I no longer start with all I have tried and tested, all I know. It requires faith—faith to abandon my delusion that with enough savvy and dogged determination, I can acquire what I need and capture what I demand.

Human experience tells us that nothing we most deeply value—friendships, marriage, children—surrenders to the demands for certainty. I am finding that the sturdy sinews of lasting friendship develop only over time and through disappointments, tears, and hopelessly lonely encounters. A marriage that has deep roots and flashes of ecstasy has traveled many winter seasons when passion was a faded memory and the heart lay scorched by hopes run wild. Although my boys are still young, too young to have been disappointed too severely, the day is coming when I will wonder if our nurturing and loving and giving made any difference at all. These relationships can yield great joys, but they are not a science. Heartache and confusion accompany each delight.

Would I think the spiritual journey any different? In matters of the heart, there are few sure things. When it comes to God, we can be certain of two: He will always do what is good, and we will sometimes be disappointed. He will always do what is good because he is good and true and just. We will at times be disappointed because our perception of goodness and truth and justice is often strikingly dissimilar from his.

This is the shadowland of mystery: to embrace God even when we can’t control him. I want to embrace him, all of him—what I see as well as what I will never see, what I hope for as well as what I am disappointed by, what I can envision enough to believe with vigor and what is a dim memory barely offering enough faith to eke out a mumbled prayer.

Perhaps this is why Jonathan Edwards came to define the study of God as “the teaching of living toward God.” True theology is never a dry, intellectual exercise; rather, it is the endeavor to be consumed with the reality of the One who is beyond our categories in such a way that we point in his direction. To live toward God is to move, not to arrive. To live toward God is to taste, not to consume.

But living toward God doesn’t carry quite the ring of certitude I am looking for. It doesn’t promise fail-safe paths or assure comfortable travels. It doesn’t protect me from the sorrow or ravages of the world, the misfortunes I strain to avoid.

Eugene Peterson similarly tags this the path of “going to God” where “Christians travel the same ground that everyone walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.”  There is no shortcut, no way to detour around the deserts or to navigate away from the storms. There is no way other than plodding an uncertain road. It is, as Peterson says, “a long obedience in the same direction.”

But I am frightened to set out on such a journey. Journeys ought to have destinations and well-marked trails. I am accustomed to a precise atlas and mapping programs detailing to the tenth of a mile the entire trip. The notion that journeying, pilgrimage with God, might itself be the end, well, that is just entirely implausible not to mention inefficient.  

It is a commonly held belief, supported by plenty of anecdotal evidence, that men do not ask for directions. We are content to drive seventy miles out of our way as long as our male ego escapes unscathed. Not me. While I’m not eager to admit to a stranger at the gas station, “Yes, I’m from out of town,” and “Yes, I did get turned around and forget which way was south,” there is something else I dislike more: I hate to be lost. To set out on an uncertain journey, one in which I don’t know the destination, can’t say with confidence how I am getting there, and won’t even know when I’ve arrived sounds like pure insanity to me.

The last eighteen months have been the most difficult stretch of our six years of marriage. For almost five years, things sailed along smoothly for us. We enjoyed emotional intimacy and sexual fireworks. I am ashamed to admit it now, but it had become a point of pride for me. I felt I had practically conquered the complexity of marriage, and I was sure I would soon be instructing others on the proper steps to enjoying the bliss Miska and I had created.

Then things changed. We brought a new life into the world. And elated as we were to have Wyatt, it was a new dynamic. We also moved across the country from the wild West of Denver to the deep South of upstate South Carolina. I began a new ministry in a new town with little relational support, and Miska dove headlong into the joy and upheaval of motherhood. Soon we began to see that we had grown apart, quietly living out our lives together and yet alone.

In this place, things that had once happened naturally now required a good deal of effort. At the dinner table we were often silent, and attempts at conversation were often strained. Our spiritual connection felt disjointed and sporadic, and our sexual intimacy sputtered. Miska had always had healthy, robust sexual passions, which made me feel desired and pleasured in. I had always felt confident in my place as a man, wooing her and enjoying her. All these realities suffered severe attrition, and in many respects, I didn’t know who I was anymore.

As we began to work through this morass, I became aware of fears I had never owned up to, terrors I had never confessed. I was afraid that Miska would eventually grow disinterested in me and that at some point she would move on to someone better, more attractive, more manly. This radically influenced how I interacted with her. There were times when I lay in bed next to my soul mate with whom I have shared joys and sorrows and was terrified to reach out for her. My heart would pound, and my mind would race. Often, I would lie there and do nothing but sheepishly wonder what had happened to my courage.

One night, Miska remarked that I seemed apprehensive with her. She pried into my heart, and as we talked and explored, I was forced to face my fear of rejection, the fear that I would extend an offer that was refused. I was more afraid of being rejected than I was of shutting down my desires, more committed to protecting my heart than I was to pursuing hers.

I have lived much of my life in this way. I am fearful of the possibility that my hopes might be dashed. It has seemed better not to hope and ensure minimal disappointment than to hope and live with wrecked dreams. I am petrified of mystery.

Mystery means we plunge into questions, and we embrace uncertainty. It insists we hold on to hope, and we hold . . . and we hold . . . and we hold. It is frightening and unsettling, and all our senses tell us we have made a wrong turn and encourage us to sprint back to certainty and safety.

Yet embracing mystery allows us to embrace God, to see more of who he is rather than who we have insisted he be. Mystery allows us to bring all of who we are—our humanness and our brokenness—honestly before God because it rips away the veil of perfection and opens the door to embracing our brokenness. It allows us to bare our souls and trust that there is One who hears even when he doesn’t answer.

When I eschew mystery, I shut off my hopes and my heart, and I hide much of who I am from God. Over time, I forget these realities, and then slowly I find I have become someone I in truth am not. But I’m safe—at least for the moment.

I am weary of safety, of tirelessly trying to harness God. I am tired of manipulation and denial. I crave to experience God’s reality, even if that means I must die to my own. I am disillusioned by the way I have seen my demands refused and my assumptions dismantled, and I am coming to see this painful process as a grace.

I am far less self-assured than I once was, and I hold tightly to far fewer things than I once did. I might actually be able to listen now, and I might find that God has much to say, even if the words are quieter and never arrive on demand.

In recent days, many guides have aided me along my journey into mystery. Moments of encounter, meaningful experiences, conversations in unexpected times, and a quiet listening to a number of spiritual voices have offered encouragement. Insightful wisdom and kind rebuke, each a grace, have been offered me.

In addition to these, a particular ancient guide has offered his own dose of help and good judgment. This guide is a prophet we know little of other than a short message he spoke to a people living in tattered times. Some were drunk on arrogance, beguiled into believing they had God figured out. Some were struggling to hope, disillusioned by a God whose actions were more peculiar and unsettling than they had ever imagined. This prophet Malachi saw the confusion and the despair, the haughtiness and the belligerent pride. He had words from God, words of hope and life as well as fury and strength. Malachi had heard from God, and he knew that this is what the people—all of them—needed as well. He was a messenger in the right place at the wrong time, and he was tapped to deliver a tome that was astringent and strangely inviting all at once.

Malachi has encouraged me to explore more of God—less of what I have demanded, less of what I have assumed, but always more of God.

In its own way, each of these guides has aided me much in grappling with mystery, but there is much, much more grappling to do. I suspect that if we follow the cues and listen to the voices, we might find our own fears unveiled, and we might find our well-manicured categories imploding. But we will also find God, rich in mercy, who offers us the gift of refusing to be as small as we have made him.

Winn Collier has been in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is a regular contributor for Relevant magazine and the author of Restless Faith. Excerpt taken from Restless Faith and used by permission of NavPress.  To purchase a copy of the book go to www.navpress.com.

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