Spiritual Spelunking

For the LORD God is a sun…  Psalms 84:11

There are some caves in Colorado called Marble Caves.  My father took us there when my brother and I were in junior high.  They are the largest caverns for their altitude in the world.  The local legend has it that the conquistadors found gold in one valley and rather than take the long way around the mountains they transported the gold thought these caves from one valley to another.

To get deep into the caverns you have to crawl on your belly for about 400 feet.  It is so tight in some places that I have to push all of the air out of my lungs and snake that part of my body through and then suck my belly in and snake the rest of me through.  Always put the fat guy first.  That way if he gets stuck only one is stuck.  The other way around it is like a cork in the bottle…trapping everyone inside.  That is an important lesson.

If you turn off your headlamps it is blacker than the darkest midnight.  You can’t see your hand in front of your face.  You can’t tell directions.  Getting lost in the darkness of the caves for more than a day or two can drive a sane person mad.

You can’t see forward, so you don’t know where you are going.  You have no direction.  You can’t even see yourself; you don’t know what you look like.  You may as well have no identity.  And you can’t tell whether there is anyone around you, friend or foe.  You are isolated.

Physical darkness brings disorientation, but according to the Bible, so does spiritual darkness.  Spiritual darkness comes when we turn away from God as our true light and make something else the center of our life.

The sun is a source of visual truth, because by it we see everything.  And the sun is a source of biological life, because without it nothing could live.  And God, the Bible says, is the source of all truth and all life.

If you orbit around God, then your life has truth and vitality.  You are in the light.  But if you turn away from God and orbit around anything else—your career, a relationship, your family—as the source of your warmth and your hope, the result is spiritual darkness.

You are turning away from the truth, away from life, toward darkness.

When you are in spiritual darkness, although you may feel your life is headed in the right direction, you are actually profoundly disoriented.

If you center on anything but God, you suffer a loss of identity.  Your identity will be fragile and insecure, because it’s based on things you center your life on.  It’s based on human approval.  It’s based on how well you perform.  You don’t really know who you are.  In the darkness you can’t see yourself.  As a result, you become isolated from other people and you feel unloved.

I was asked to deliver the key note sermon at a denominational meeting twenty-five years ago this spring.  At that time it was quite an honor for a preacher to be invited to address other preachers and denominational workers.  Often, if you did well, some of the other pastors would invite you to come to their church and preach a week-long revival.  It was a good way to log some hours behind a pulpit, slap the experience on your resume, and make a little extra money from the “love offering” that would be given at the end of the week.

I grabbed one of my “sugar-stick” sermons, put on my best dark blue suite and yellow paisley power tie and was set to blow everyone away.  I pushed my voice deeper down in my chest so that I sounded more authoritative.  I stood tall.  I never looked at my notes.  I spoke clearly, careful to keep my pacing and dynamic tuned to the right pitch.  I thundered the word of God.  I was so good I could have taken notes on myself.

Outside a spring storm had been gathering force matching the power of the preacher on the inside of that church house.  We both peaked at the same time.   In my best baritone vibrato I bellowed a prophetic word and at the same time a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder shook the building and the electricity went out, darkening the lights and silencing the sound system.  A collective gasp from the silhouetted faces in the crowd and in a moment of theatrical brilliance, I shouted, “That clap of thunder is God saying “AMEN!”

Laughter all around.

The power came on in five seconds and I finished my sermon.  People joined in a round of “Amens.”  The moderator closed out the meeting and I stepped off the stage to a gaggle of well-wishers and back-slappers.  But one man came up to me, shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said words that pierced my heart and made my knees grow weak and my eyes swim with tears.  He said, “Joe, your parents must be so proud.” I was not expecting that surge of emotion.  The words came from my favorite professor in college and carried much weight in my world at that time.

I am addicted to approval.  I was then and, sadly, I am today.   What AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is to the body, approval is to my soul.  It keeps me from flourishing.  It keeps me susceptible to other infections.  Like the infection of fear.  Fear of disappointing.  Fear of coming up short.  Fear of becoming a zero.  Fear of being forgotten.  Fear of failing.  All of these fears are oozing under the surface of my soul in a putrid pocket of puss and I feel unloved.

Any preacher who tells you he doesn’t care about how big the crowd is on Sunday’s when he preaches lies about other things.  I hate that it troubles me low these many years.  I take it personally when the crowd is small on Sunday’s.  It can only mean that I am not performing in such a way in the pulpit that would make them want to come.  That is what my idol says to me.  But God has a different word.

Author and speaker Brennan Manning has an amazing story about how he got the name “Brennan.” While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, went to school together and so forth. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared.

When Brennan became a priest he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So he took on the name Brennan. Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?”

Mrs. Brennan got up off of the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “Jesus Christ—what more could he have done for you?!”

Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? and Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “Jesus Christ—what more could he have done for you?”

The cross of Jesus is God’s way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder, Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me?

And Jesus’ mother responds, “What more could he have done for you?”

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