Many of you know the story of my spiritual journey:
- How I grew up in a home where church was not a part of family life;
- How I placed a lot of stock in my family;
- How this stock was entirely upended when my parents divorced;
- How through this divorce I began to question what things really mattered;
- How I began to find answers first through Bible study and later through church;
- How I sensed a call to ordained ministry during college;
- And how more than twenty years passed before this call materialized.
Many of you know this. But do you know the story of my spiritual pendulum swings?
When I was a little boy and life was good—when I was growing up in semi-rural southern California on an avocado orchard, with chickens and a donkey and a dog and three cats and a swimming pool with a rope swing and large lawns and hillsides nearby for hiking and bicycling and racing homemade go-karts and neighbor kids my own age and grapevines and citrus trees and afternoon Pacific breezes and delightfully cool summer evenings—when I was a boy experiencing all these things, let me tell you, life largely fell into two clearly defined categories: good and bad.
I have a vivid, lucid memory, in fact, of lying on my lawn on a lazy summer afternoon, mesmerized by the several hues of green the sunlight was making as it danced upon the avocado leaves playing in the breeze. “This is what life is all about,” I told myself. “This is where I will grow old. I’ll grow up, get married, have a family, and my kids will grow up and have their families, and this is right where I’ll be, a grandpa, still living in this house, still lazing away my summer afternoons right here on this lawn.”
Here was absolute truth without even the faintest breath of falsehood. Here was everything beautiful without any discernible scent of ugliness. Here was all good and nothing bad.
My spiritual pendulum, in other words, had not yet swung; it was entirely over here, on this side, as far up the arc of clarity as it possibly could be.
But then, abruptly, with the divorce, it dropped. And it swung.
Now all those avocado trees and lazy summer afternoon swims and philosophical musings in the breeze suddenly didn’t seem so important. Now, instead, Mom and Dad, who’d so recently seemed so certain and sure of themselves, were unstable, emotional, and confused.
The truth, beauty, and goodness of my life—now there was something rancid in the smell. Now discerning the good from the bad was—well, now I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other began. Now life was all mixed up.
And it all had happened overnight!
Just like that, my spiritual pendulum had swung from its highest point of clarity to its opposite extreme. All that had seemed so constant and stable was now uncertain and confused, just like my parents.
But there’s something about pendulums: they swing back.
The backswing came, very noticeably, a few years later, when I was in high school, when I’d gone away on a youth retreat and—in the words of the youth leaders—given my life to Christ.
“Have you ever felt uncertain and confused?” the speaker asked. “Jesus knows how you feel. And, in fact, Jesus has all the answers. Do you want to stop feeling uncertain and confused? Then just give your life to Him: give your life to Christ.”
Well, yeah! I wanted the answers. I wanted clarity and stability in my uncertain and confused life. I wanted my spiritual pendulum to swing back to the high point of clarity again.
So I did what the speaker said. I stayed behind, after the emotional meeting was over. I met with a so-called spiritual counselor. And I prayed a formulaic prayer to receive Christ, repeating the prompts given to me by this spiritual counselor. And thus I “gave my life to Christ.”
Now all would be clear again, I told myself. Now all would be black and white. Now I would be able with certainty to discern truth from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, and good from evil.
So I changed my ways. I stopped swearing. I started doing my homework. I said no whenever my friends invited me to parties. And I tried to sort everything—and I mean everything—into two neatly defined, binary categories of right and wrong.
And you know what happened? I lost a lot of friends.
Oh, sure, that’s not the only thing that happened! A lot of good came out of this newly repentant life, sure. Clarity in a season of uncertainty and confusion is always a good thing. So, for instance, I developed serious spiritual disciplines during these years. I also learned to value very highly a life characterized by integrity—a life I strive to live to this day.
But I also became intolerant of anyone who thought differently than I did. What worked for me was good enough—I’d developed my system, my formula for life. And whenever I met another person who tried to practice a similar system, well, we’d become fast friends. But whenever I met a person who did not, which was more often the case, well, I’d tell myself, my time and energies would be better spent elsewhere.
So, yeah, I lost a lot of friends. And I made very few new ones. My spiritual counselor at that youth retreat never told me that would happen.
So, one thing about pendulums is they swing back. Which, in time, I’m happy to say, mine did again. But then, yes, I’m not so happy to say, after a while it swung forth again. And then it swung back again. And forth again. And back. And forth. And so on. And so forth.
But there’s something else: swinging isn’t the only thing pendulums do. After time—and for some of us this may mean a long time, like the pendulum in the Griffith Park Observatory in L. A.—after time the swinging motion starts to slow down. The large, violent swings that once went up so high from one side to the other now don’t go up so high anymore. Now they become softer, gentler, more manageable. Now we begin to see details and colors we never knew were there before.
For me, these softening swings were the twenty-some years of watching my call to the ordained ministry materialize, as I navigated the waters of life together with Holly and our growing family, through various churches and denominations, gaining vocational experience as a teacher and school administrator, learning, learning, always learning, that life isn’t so clear, certain, and stable as I’d like it to be; that Jesus isn’t so much a god with all the answers as he is a God to guide.
He never promised his disciples clarity on that Day of Pentecost. Instead, he promised an Advocate, Comforter, and Guide: the Holy Spirit.
So, somewhere in there, after several years of swinging back and forth, of vacillating between clarity and muddle, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit my spiritual pendulum swings began to soften, to become gentler, more colorful, and more manageable.
Somewhere in there I learned that life isn’t just about discipline, rationality, and the head overcoming the heart. Life is also human. It’s full of emotion. It’s unstable. It’s confusing. It’s messy.
Somewhere in there I learned that Jesus is not just some lofty ideal, out there somewhere, fully God but not quite fully human—or maybe more than fully human, maybe superhuman—who decided to wear humanity for a while, as if dressing up for a dinner party; and all I have to do is go find him and learn from him.
Rather, somewhere in there I learned that in Christ Jesus God actually became like me! God met me where I already was. God became human—and all that that means: all its emotion, instability, confusion, and mess!
Anyway, that’s the story of my spiritual pendulum swings.
What’s your story? I’m sure you’ve been guided in this way too, vacillating back and forth throughout your Christian life; but that over time experiencing a sort of settling too—a softening that has produced a more colorful and manageable life.
So: in light of today’s Gospel, what is this settling? Is it not prayer?
“Lord,” that disciple said to Jesus, “teach us to pray.”
Is this not our constant question? Is this not what we ask again and again, over and over as we swing from one side of our human perspectives to the next?
Back and forth we go on our spiritual pendulums, setting personal standards that are humanly impossible and then failing to live up to them, vacillating between clarity and muddle.
But what softens our swinging? What aligns us? What draws us in?
Is it not prayer? Is not prayer the gravity that orients and grounds us?
Lord Jesus, indeed, teach us to pray.