(re)union: my journey back

I am back on the blog. I have been (mostly) silent as a blogger for two years now. It’s taken two years (and will take longer) for a kind of inner renewal that I desperately needed. If you’re willing to listen and read, I’ll tell you why.

I found myself at a threshold of my own life about 3 years ago. I had my hands in many good things. I had a dream job in a dream city with extraordinary friends. I was published. My blogging was well-received. I had my hands in some very creative and entrepreneurial things. But I was so utterly externalized that the rich source of inner life animating my work and relationships felt distant. As we’ve all experienced, I felt a disconnect between what I was saying and what I was living. And that breach of integrity (particularly for an Enneagram 1) was excruciating.

These threshold moments provide opportunities for growth that can pass us by if we fail to recognize them. We may double down, work harder, or anesthetize more.

Or… we can listen to that small still voice, that quiet but relentless urging from within, beckoning us to move beyond the safety and comfort of what is sure and certain. T.S. Eliot knew this voice:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

At the time, it seemed for me that a significant vocational shift might be a conduit for this exploration, and it has proved to be just that. But, we never know for sure when we make these big decisions. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with the “knowing God’s will” jargon, as if we could read the tea leaves of vocation with utter clarity. Perhaps, in the first half of life we might talk about “right” and “wrong” decisions around job choices and vocational shifts. But, as we grow older, we realize how uninteresting it is to live by this externalized and self-judging code. Instead, we listen within, we trust gut-urges beckoning us into unexplored territory, we consult wise wilderness guides, and launch. That’s what I did, on multiple levels.

My own vocational journey is only a small piece of a larger personal journey. We remain externalized if we think geographic orFeatured image vocational shifts will tame our restless spirits. The sojourning spirit is deep within each of us, if we’d listen, but it is not fundamentally about finding ‘the job’ or ‘the voice’ or ‘the degree’ or ‘the position’. The journey, at least as I know it, is a journey to union. It is a journey from fragmentation to wholeness, a journey from exile to home, a journey from attachment to union, a journey from hiding to “being hidden” in Christ, a journey from neurosis to theosis.

That final phrase is the title of the last chapter of my first book, Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. I am not even sure I knew all that it implied. I intuited it and experienced it a bit, but it was still very much an idea. It remained externalized. It is safe to remain in the control tower of my head.

In the late 1990’s, a class with theologian Alistair McGrath exposed me to the mystics. Back then, 20-something Chuck felt drawn to a deeper journey offered by contemplatives like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Their gracious invitation into union felt so freeing, particularly as I watched my theological camp duking it out over right views of the courtroom language of St. Paul. While my kin seemed obsessed with the courtoom, the mystics were talking about the bedroom. Perhaps, 20-something Chuck was drawn to the more emotional, even eroticized journey of the mystics, the journey of desire, which is far more fundamental to what it means to be human (see Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). In those early days, I dabbled with contemplative prayer, mostly to quell the incessant anxiety in my being born of my need to be the perfect, put-together, well-liked, smart, helpful pastor. But the contemplative journey came to a jolting stall when I hit a vocational detour in the early 2000’s, prompting me to double down and anesthetize the pain once again. I lost touch with that inner journey – and thus, with with One hidden in me – instead trusting my gifts or my personality or my connections to get me through.

Like you, I am a master of self-sabotage. I long for divine union but like my immediate and temporarily-satisfying union-substitutes. Now, by some combination of ego-drivenness, white privilege, and effective networks (translated by Christians as “God’s blessing”) I managed to forge together a decade of service to the church and to pastoral formation. I got to pastor at City Church San Francisco, I got to start another counseling center, and help create Newbigin House. Those will always be to me five of the most full and rich years of my life. But my drivenness took a toll in health and psychological fragmentation, and sometimes I’d find myself up speaking in front of a group of pastors wondering who and where I really was.

This brings me to today. I can use the word today because I can actually be present today. We’re often everywhere other than where we are right here and right now. This is why I think the question Where are you? is so much more significant than Who are you? I know many people who answer the Who are you? with all of the right theological descriptors, but are far from themselves, far from home. We are often disconnected…lost in our busyness, obsessing on our Fantasy Football team, anxiously monitoring the market, or trolling social media…far from home, far from present. Ask my wife, she’ll tell you.

Today, through some dying, I am back. Back in my being, back in my body, back to (at least) a momentary wholeheartedness which allows me to say, with some integrity, that I am actually writing these words.

I call this re-union. With God. With myself. As Merton says, to be born again is to become most deeply oneself.

The last two years, in particular, have required a deep dive into contemplative practice (not just contemplative theologizing). It has come in fits and starts. Sara and I were hit with a big tax bill a year and a half ago which led me to double down yet again, taking every available speaking gig to help pay down the debt, talking “wholeheartedness” while feeling at times like I was coming apart at the seams. Last Fall, I hit a wall and knew it couldn’t continue. But I was a slave to the calendar I didn’t manage. I completed my next book Wholeheartedness in that season, my life a kind of experiment in being present amidst the busyness.

In the Spring, I did a silent retreat with James Finley that kickstarted the most intentional interior journey I’ve ever been on. My primary spiritual director has been St. Teresa of Avila. With astounding accuracy, she describes the perils and delights of this inner sojourn. It is my journey with her which has prompted my desire to blog again. I want to invite you into this journey.

The problem with blogging, as I’ve experienced it, is that it can be so externalized, so reactive, so geared to likes and shares and influence and klout and…the agenda of the false self. The online writers I admire are attuned to this reality, and even share their battles with remarkable humility. I continue with social media knowing its draw on my own narcissism because to stop speaking and sharing (whether as a writer or teacher or blogger or poster) based of a fear of my own narcissism would require me to shut it down altogether and perhaps join a monastic order (which doesn’t sound like a bad idea, sometimes). At the same time, I do think that in this particular time we need to be very wise stewards of our words. Words matter, and they grow in significance when there is silence in-between. The practice of solitude gives soul and depth to our unique voices.

And so, my movement back into blogging will come with great intentionality. What I will be sharing with you is a journey I am taking (along with a class of 20 brave women and men) into Teresa’s Interior Castle. With permission from my students, I may even share some of their musings. The focus is on experiencing union with God. In my tradition, we often talk in broad strokes about the “Gospel” changing us or “repentance” renewing us or “adoption” comforting us. But, I have no small accumulation of qualitative data from dozens of pastors and laypeople that there is much talk of union and little experience of it. Our love affairs with smaller union-substitutes tell the story. We live in a radically addicted culture. It is not enough to believe the Gospel. It is not enough to claim our courtoom verdict. Our desire must grow. Our love must be kindled. “We must fly to our beloved Homeland,” as St. Augustine says. St. Teresa helps give us wings.

And so, I invite you to join me (and my students) on this journey, participating through this blog and perhaps even using the resources my class is using (see below). I also invite you to share this blog with others who may want to tag along. Regardless, thank you for reading.

Resources for the Journey 

Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila translated by Mirabai Starr (I love Starr’s translation of Teresa, John, Lady Julian, etc. She is a fresh new translator of these classic works. Her introduction alone is worth the price of the book.)

Entering the Castle, Caroline Myss (this book is the cheapest investment in your own therapy you’ll ever experience, though the emotional and spiritual investment may be costly!)

Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird (this is best accessible introduction to the purpose and practice of contemplative prayer I know. Laird is an Augustinian priest teaching early Christian studies at Villanova U.)

4 comments

  1. It would seem that we have been walking a few of the same circuitous paths over the last year or two. My friend Micha shared this post with me and a few other friends, and I’m glad to have read it. I hope you find the new balance you’re looking for.

  2. I recently read Chuck’s book “Toughest People to Love,” and found it spiritually comforting in that it helped me relate to my tough person to love and that is what drew me to this blog. However, as I peruse the writings and the interest in mystic saints I find myself put off a little. It seems that there is a whole other definition of being close to God that I have rarely been exposed to in my evangelical tradition and I’m not sure I like it. What’s worse is that it sounds like no matter how mystical, people don’t ever find answers or satisfaction. It also sounds like I’m never going to find the time to endeavor to such a thing. I’m willing to keep reading though because God, no matter my inadequacies, is my central interest.

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