I started to write a follow-up to the “Am I the ‘Not the Religious Type’ Type” post in an attempt to share, as promised, my experience at the first (first annual?) Center City Summit: Where Faith and Secular Culture Meet in Cambridge, MA. In high journalistic style, I sat at my laptop and laid out the details:

  • More than 150 people from more than a dozen states
  • Compelling speakers sharing a heart-felt desire to connect with and communicate with secular culture
  • Interesting uses of models and psychological theories to help understand the variety of ways people approach (and retreat from) God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit
  • Passionate times of prayer and conversation.

This observe-and-comment format is easy for me. I get to play the role of subject matter expert. “Here’s what I saw. This is what I liked. This is what I didn’t like. This is what they should keep doing. This is what they should do differently. This is why.”

And, there were a number of things I liked. I enjoyed learning more about Dave Schmelzer’s centered-set verses bounded-set model of faith, Carl Medearis’ stories about two-decades of communicating with Muslims in the Middle East, Charles Park‘s amazing story of making and losing $43 million and his wife Caroline’s loving attention to prayer and obedience.

There were also a couple of things that gave me pause. Like how easy it might be for people to misuse M. Scott Peck’s stage theory to perceive themselves as spiritually superior to people at ‘lower stages’ or what I perceive to be some potentially confusing uses of the word ‘mystic’. But, when push came to shove, it was clear to me that even if I reread the books and reviewed my notes, I was no subject matter expert. In fact, as I considered this post, I realized that I came away from the Center City Summit with more questions than I did answers.

And that’s a good thing.

This conference made me think. It made me wonder what questions my new, thoughtful friends at deconversion.com would have asked if they had been there. It made me wonder how other Christian “factions”, particularly those who are less familiar/comfortable with the notion of having a direct “experience” with the Holy Spirit would react. (This was my first time rolling with people who I would describe as mildly ‘charismatic’ or ‘pentecostal’.) It made me wonder about the notion of Christian “factions” in general, the wide variety of ways that people experience God and how that frequently leads to in-fighting among Christians and confusion for people who are on the outside looking in.

And that made me think about my friend.

This is a real friend not one of those metaphors. She has a name and a home and a family that is crumbling under the heavy weight of untreated addiction. She and I spoke by phone several times while I was away. She is hurting. She feels very alone. She says she has no hope. She tells me that she has always needed “a rock” upon which to anchor herself. She has relied on her parents, her husband, and–more recently–friendship. She says that friendship has been “a shining light” in her life, that it has provided the “strength, the truth and the love” that she has needed to see through deception and see her circumstances “as they really are.” Without that, she says, there is “only darkness.” This woman is one of those people out in “secular culture” that they were talking about in Cambridge. She grew up without God. She had many successes in her life without God. And now, in her darkest hour, she needs “something” that she describes by unknowingly and unintentionally speaking the language of faith–without God.

And that made me remember.

I recalled that God was working in my life long before I knew he was. Back in the early 1990s when I was the one whose family was falling apart. Back when I was the one who was hurting and alone and needed a shining light and an anchor. Back when I thought I had no hope. Back when I found hope in a recovery program through a relationship with a “power greater than myself” that turned out (after 7 years of Christ-bashing agnosticism) to be the same God (with the Son and the Spirit) I pray to now.

And, ultimately, it reconfirms my belief that God is real. That, while I believe that there is one way to the Father, there are millions upon millions of ways to the Son. Unorthodox ways. Irreverant ways. Unpredictable ways. Doubt-filled, messy, leave-it-to -the-last-breath ways that I don’t always understand or even agree with. Ways that don’t fit into 45-minute Sunday school sessions, line-by-line intellectual assessments of Bible passages or high-tech “culturally relevant” A/V productions. Ways that paradoxically challenge my notion of love and mercy in the face of discipline and hardship.

And so, despite the uncertainty, I choose to continue to pursue this God. This Jesus. This unexplainable Holy Spirit of God. I seek Him/It/Them in solitude and in the community that is created in church, online, and at wonderful conferences like the Center City Summit. I try to understand him in the face of my friend’s pain–and in the memory of my own.