Purpose-Driven Centrist On Hope, Optimism, and Community

I apologize for the unintentional hiatus I took. Eight weeks ago I had my third surgery in two years trying to repair damage from dislocating my knee cap. This is the first week I've been walking, still mostly using one crutch, and almost totally limping and struggling to regain my strength. Despite my own struggles my wife had it worse, for she was the sole provider and caregiver for our two small children and me, who couldn't even carry an empty bowl without breaking it. I am amazed at her endurance.

Through this process (I hesitate to say healing process because I've done this twice before), I came upon a roadblock that I haven't dealt with in some time: a deep valley of sadness. You see part of my journey to becoming a centrist is much more than political. Maintaining balance in my life is key. Balance between highs and lows, between emotion and logic, between faith and science, between spontaneity and pragmatism, etc. Leaning one way or the other often blinds me from the big picture. And on the journey to the center, the big picture is key.

In typical depressing fashion, hope escaped me while lying on the couch feeling helpless to do anything for myself or family. Energy for anything that sustained me day-to-day seemed to drain from my soul. I was limping (on crutches) absently through my life. Turning to scripture seemed academic (i.e. like homework), and being in worship felt like being called on in class while unprepared. Inwardly I felt ashamed; outwardly I put on a smile. I was looking down when everyone else seemed to be looking up. Those Bibles verses like "we have our hope in Christ Jesus" and "all things work together for good" became cliche (again?).

A couple weeks ago, Michael J. Fox produced a TV special about optimism, a documentary based around the ideas of his new book Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. I figured 'what the heck' and watched it, clearly looking for something to pull me out of my funk. Fox has never really spoken of faith in a religious context in speaking about his life and battle with Parkinson's disease, and I wasn't expecting it in this documentary. But I was impressed with the broad and diverse situations, locations, and people through which he investigated what is the foundation for people optimism. Two particular situations stuck out to me: a co-op dairy farming organization in New York state and the people of Bhutan.

The farmers battled for survival, stuck to a life they've known all of their lives, and banded together with others in their economic and business situation. They took a risk to move away from the survival-of-the-fittest method of farming instead choosing to share the burdens, risks, and rewards together. The country of Bhutan chooses to measure Gross National Happiness over gross domestic product. There's not a single traffic light on any roads, yet still no road rage. The ultimate reasons for this national happiness were simply defined by clear commitments to family, community, and tradition.

Both examples stand on community as the foundation of their optimism and hope for the future. Neither particularly display any clear faith component, though Bhutan's traditions have obvious Buddhist roots. And of all things in this life that I have hoped for and desired, community has been on top. Community balances my individualism, both my success and my failures. Community keeps me grounded. Community frees me from the sins of independence. Community gives me the opportunity to depend on others. Community balances life and faith in ourselves and others.

But where is God or Jesus in all of this? I asked myself this very same question as I was working through this. I don't think it is any coincidence that I was also reading Susan Issacs' book, which may have provided me the only laughter I uttered during my funk. I think it helped to read through someone else's journey of finding God in their struggles to realize I had to answer that question, too. The cliches above would not suffice. There has to be a better example of hope.

No matter the true reason, I continued to go back to worship. In fact, last week we made a special effort to go on Saturday night knowing Sunday my wife was traveling for a much deserved rest and rejuvenation. And through the words of our senior pastor Alf Halvorson, another example of hope was revealed. Our church is looking at through a series of conversation Jesus has with people, as recorded in the gospel of John. This week we looked Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. This happens to be the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with anyone in the gospels. Before digging into the text, Alf points out that while Jesus was traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee, he didn't geographically have to go through Samaria. But he interprets that symbolically fulfilling his own decree that "God so loves the world" Jesus has to go into Samaria so that they, an separated, outcast culture to the Jews, would be included in hearing the good news.

The narrative explains that Jesus converses with this woman at the well around noon, the hottest time of the day. This goes to show just how isolated and disengaged from community this woman is. Through their conversation, Jesus offers her living water so that she need no other water. Not truly understanding, she eagerly wants this so she doesn't have to go to the well again - where her isolation is in plain sight. Through the conversation Jesus reveals things to her he should have no knowledge - that she has had 5 husbands and living with another man. This is, yet, another level of the darkness of isolation and disconnection she must feel - even more so shows that men discarded her repeatedly because at that time only men could initiate a divorce.

What Jesus is offering her is respite from the deep yearning in the soul of everyone for the connection to community and the living God. Think about the balance in that offering. To someone who feels so lonely, so isolated, so disengaged, so worthless a chance to be in tangible relationship with another person who represents and shows God's love - who knows you as who you are - and lets you be yourself - can be so healing. Jesus treats her as real person, gives her worth, and connects her to God. The greater balance is that Jesus also tells her the truth about herself, about her life, about her reality. But he provides the spiritual embrace that her soul may never have felt before, a communal connection with the living God.

I used to think this passage was simply about needing to worship God "in spirit and truth." We hear that all the time, don't we? The Jews and Samaritans battled over the truth of where to worship - who was right and who was wrong about which hill to worship on. There are many similar battles going on in America to this day, and with the same bitter tact we infer those two cultures showed each other. And really, this passage is about spirit and truth, but I've always missed that it is lived out by Jesus to this woman. And if I could be so bold to use a synonym, I say it is about balancing spirituality and reality. This woman was living in the darkness of her reality, knowing the truth of her circumstance: that no one wanted her. And then Jesus showed up and touched her spirit. He brought her back to the center - community with God and with himself as another person, and ultimately re-establishing her with her own community.

This is exactly the re-balancing I needed: a spiritual embrace from my own reality in the form of a communal experience with my God in the presence of the community where I worship and in part through this very BWC community we have here. It's not a quick fix, but rather part of the guide lines on the road helping me back to the center of my life journey.


  1. Thank you for your honesty. I think Christians need to be more honest where we are in our walk. Maybe then we'd realize that the person who seems to have it altogether is struggling with the same things we are, and through that we have comfort and can encourage one another.

  2. Thank you for this encouragement, Stephanie. My nature is to keep the struggles of my faith private; my sadness in faith, however, needs to confront the "happy faces" of christian community shown every Sunday morning.

    My hope in wearing my struggles (and victories, however few) on my sleeve is exactly in hopes that others will let their guard down, too, and join me in authentic community. I've been trying to subtly push our small group away from behind the walls of our study books and into the openness of sharing life and faith as we are.

  3. Thank you for sharing. Hearing of others with similar struggles with faith makes me feel like I'm not the only one who constantly wants to raise her hand during church service to ask questions.

    On another note, I too watched the Michael J Fox special, and had just finished his books ~ besides being a Christian with questions, I am also an optimist. I liked that he too admits his struggles with faith, which makes him seem more real than just another guy on television.

    God's Peace,