The Gift of the Midlife Crisis

The midlife breakdown happens like clockwork.  A systemic collapse. So they say.  I never thought it would really happen to me.  My faith in Christ was rock solid, could never be shaken.  I knew the Bible inside and out, and felt like I knew God the same way.  I had been face-to-face with grief, suffering, and evil.  I had been disappointed, treated unjustly, and peed on  by people whose acceptance and affirmation I craved.  I thought I understood why God allows suffering and evil and how he transforms us into a Christ-like image of Him. 

And then one day, five months ago, the impossible happened.  My belief left me. I had believed in some invisible world and a God who watched over me – and I went along with all this nonsense that turned out to be a hoax.  The things I learned (and taught) in Sunday school were stupid.  My whole life had been built on lies.  It was like looking in the mirror and seeing a silly costume on me and asking, “who picked this out for me?”

Without Jesus, my faith, and my religion, I had no idea who I was because He had been my everything, or so I thought.  I filed spiritual bankruptcy, and for five long months, I struggled.  The operating system that I had been equipped with from birth malfunctioned with a fatal virus, and I had no idea how to fix it. Or if I needed to replace it. 

Psychologists say our ‘operating systems’ are programmed to reach our peak power, and then to crash.  If this spiritual breakdown happens to ‘everyone’ in mid-life, I’d like to meet them.  Just one person.  Since I know no one personally who has experienced this, I have been reading spiritual memoir books like crazy to understand the experiences of others in hopes to understand myself.  About the fourth month into my spiritual/identity crisis, I picked up David Anderson’s book Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul: The Passage to New Life When Old Beliefs Die, and he helped me to begin to make sense of all this.  It resonated with my current feelings. 

In the early stage of faith, it’s all about our achievement through religious or spiritual performance. In our early adulthood, we spend most of our time attending to the outer shells of our lives, according to Anderson, an Episcopal minister and graduate of Yale Divinity School.  He explains that we are defined by our family, our jobs, our parenthood, our churches and how we serve, our neighborhoods, our inherited political parties. The world tells us how we are doing in both subtle and blatant ways.  We know our status and how we are doing, but it is difficult to get a read on our souls.  After we have played the game for 30-40 years, we come to the point where we decide ‘No more!’.

The gift of the midlife crisis, according to Anderson, is that it dethrones the pretender self and welcomes the ascent of the real self.   As we start to separate from the worn-out system, we discover we can take charge of our own lives, let go of the “you should’s”.   We step out, stand apart, and plant our flag, uncovering what is inside and not creating something externally anymore.

The strangest rule of spiritual growth is that it begins against your will. You undergo the stripping, and when you’ve endured the pain without resorting to your usual escape routes, you find a new kind of joy. It’s the kind that comes from nothing.  It’s a happiness that is not contingent on any thing; it just is.  You didn’t gain it, and you can’t lose it.  This happiness has nothing to do with your circumstances. (page 153)

Anderson explains that as we do the early work of separation, firming up the core of our being, we find we are no longer dependent on other people to change so that we can be free.  We no longer depend on other people to be less depressing or judgmental so that we can be happy.  We no longer depend on them to act like mature adults so we can too.

But where he says we start of find our own authority and our own power – this is where I digress.  Only in my complete nakedness was able to realize what was lacking.  I didn’t want to rely on my own authority and my own power.  I truly wanted to give it to Jesus. While my belief had left me, my faith never did.  While I rambled down roads of atheism and then agnosticism, then universalism, in the end, my faith in Jesus was what I chose, even after I questioned it.  It is because of Jesus that I found my true identity. 

I’m not at the same place I was at the beginning, though.  I’m still in the process of gradual transformation, but it no longer feels like a crisis.  I no longer feel like I have God figured out or that I have the answers, and I am embracing the mystery of it all.  I am letting go of criticism and judgment.  I didn’t even know it was possible because it was part of the ‘old’ me.  In letting them go, my heart opens wider as I simply let life have its say, let God have His say in whatever form He wants, and let people be who they are.

If your faith has failed you at some point in life, if you used to believe, or if you are pretending to believe and going through the motions, if you feel like your faith has been snuffed out by evil or suffering after a life surrendered to God, then I would recommend David Anderson’s book.  He will not lead you to evangelical or even Christian conclusions.  Like me, you may not agree with everything he says.  But he will help you articulate the journey, make sense of it, and lead you through the stages of doubt and re-discovery, pointing you toward where you are headed.  He will help you change your crisis into a journey.  (Thank you Blogging for Books and Convergent Publishing for providing me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

Streams in the Desert Devotional Bible - Book Review

When I picked up Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman at a library book sale a few years ago, I had never heard of it.  After after I fell in love with what I thought was an obscure little devotional book, I discovered it was actually a best seller.  L.B. Cowman was a missionary with her husband overseas until his health declined. Then they returned to the United States where she took care of him for six years until he died.  She collected the writings that satisfied her thirst in those dry, desolate days.  Those writings were compiled into a book and first published in 1925.

Zondervan has just released the Streams in the Desert devotional Bible in the NIV translation.  The daily devotional readings are placed within the Bible, each near the Scripture verse or passage that is key to the subject of the day.  The editor, Jim Reimann, added some features such as references to every Scripture quote, which enable the reader to easily look it up in this Bible within its context.  At the bottom of the page of each reading, he provides the page number to find the next devotional reading.  In the back of the book, he provides a subject index for finding a daily devotion in the topic of interest.

At first I thought it was easier just to have the devotional book separate from the Bible, but the further along I traveled through the Bible, the more I appreciated having it compiled in one book.  I could use the devotional readings to pace my way through the Bible, incorporating Bible reading with it.  This is not a study Bible, just a devotional Bible, so no historical or exegetical explanations are provided.  However, I did enjoy being able to see the devotional’s Scripture references within its biblical context.  

I was provided a complimentary copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for my honest review. 

Challenging Your Assumptions: Advice for a College Freshman and the Life-Long Learner

Historical geology, evolutionary biology, ancient history with its Mesopotamian and Babylonian creation and flood stories, sociology of religion….my children are both hearing and learning things they have never been exposed to before. What will they do with the apparent contradictions to their faith? Have they learned how to analyze and evaluate?  How will they integrate the new information with their beliefs?

It may sound dangerous, but my first advice is to challenge our assumptions, including our assumptions about what we believe the Bible says before automatically dismissing  new ideas as contradictory or dismissing the Bible as myth without fully examining both sides.  Clinging to our assumptions prevents growth, stunts loving God with all our minds, and inhibits insights.

We get stuck when we fixate on false assumptions.  For example, consider the mind puzzle with the 9 dots.  Can you connect all the dots with no more than four straight lines without lifting your pencil from the paper? 

In preschool, we learned about connecting dots and coloring within the lines.  Based on these experiences, we might assume that 1) we have to stay within the borders, and 2) each turn is supposed to pivot on a dot.  Sticking to these assumptions prevents us from solving the puzzle.

Another way we get stuck in our assumptions is the lack of challenge to our assumptions as illustrated by ‘the internet bubble’.  Search engines like Google and Bing learn our preferences and show matches that are likely to satisfy us based on our previous selections.  They will eventually screen out contrary information or information from other parts of the spectrum. Because we never see what gets filtered out, we wrap ourselves in a cocoon of our own beliefs. Similarly, when we tend to read books, blogs, and news media that agree with our points of view and we hang out with people who think like us, we may fail to see assumptions that need to be challenged.

For those of us raised in the church, and even those of us who were not, we need to recognize our assumptions about how we interpret the Bible as we attempt to reconcile its apparent contradictions to history/science and our experiences.

Here is my advice in challenging assumptions to my college freshman, who is quick to see the world as black and white:

  1. Listen and understand before you automatically judge something to be wrong. Put yourself in their shoes and understand why they believe that way.
  2.  Remember that all truth is God’s truth.  Know what your Bible says and the various ways of interpretation, both literal, non-literal, and figurative. You may have always assumed it said something it did not, or you may have always interpreted a passage in a way that it was never meant to be interpreted.
  3.  Engage others in conversation about challenges to assumptions.  Examine all avenues and different perspectives.
  4. Know that it is not all diabolical – not all black and white, good or evil.  It’s more than various shades of gray – think of it more like a rainbow of glorious colors to discover in a lifetime of learning, new ways of seeing, perceiving, understanding that enrich your life. God, the world, and you do not fit in a neatly defined box.
  5. Avoid the ‘internet bubble’, but don’t try so hard to avoid it that you build a bubble at the other end of the spectrum.  Keep surrounded by Jesus followers, all kinds, and look for things you have in common.  Be willing to challenge each other’s assumptions while remaining united in your core beliefs.  Grow spiritually by continuing to worship with a group of believers and hanging with them.