As a prison chaplain, I was interacting with men desperate to know the key to transformation, sick of the carousel they were riding. I was also working with a myriad of volunteers, each bringing in their own message of hope, promises of deliverance. Across the board the message was the same: “Here is the path to freedom, if you will apply yourself to it diligently.”
It wasn’t the various philosophies that challenged me, it was the results.
I watched a former Christian embrace Islam because the disciplined practice made faith real to him, and then saw his relationships with the security officers improve. I grew to respect an Odinist who consistently conducted himself according to the 9 Noble Virtues. I walked beside a Native American who rediscovered himself through the ritual of the Sweat Lodge and then led others down the same path. I shared meals with LDS volunteers who had shaped prosperous, benevolent lives around their faith and calling. I sat through 12 Step meetings with men who had no name for the god of their understanding, but their lives were characterized by serenity and wisdom. And I worked closely with Christian volunteers who gave decades of their lives to serving the men behind bars.
I watched violent men leave peacefully, with a whole new worldview taught to them by the Buddha. I also watched men go home high on God only to return high on meth.
Over and over again, it wasn’t the path someone chose that brought them to life, but the diligence with which they pursued it. Neither was it what they believed to be true that strengthened them, but their willingness to act on it. The story they chose was only their inspiration. Change came through disciplines of rigorous honesty, accountability, humility, and service.
I kept hearing Jesus say, “My Father makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike.” So what parts of my own theology were casting shadows instead of reflecting light?
I was already a wild at heart Ragamuffin, but new questions brought me to new teachers like Dallas Willard, Pete Rollins, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, Henry Nouwen, Greg Boyd, N.T. Wright, and Kent Dobson. I joined the Renovaré book club and devoured podcasts and audiobooks on 2x speed during the hour long drive to and from work. My deconstruction was well under way.
I desperately wanted to understand why my expectations of this Christian life had not been met. Where had I gone wrong? What had I misunderstood? Why were so many of us not experiencing victory over sin? My faith was a warm blanket fast unraveling, and yet, I couldn’t tell if this was dark oblivion or freedom. I felt like I was on the brink of something vast. Either a vast nothingness, or a vast newness. I imagined a campfire going dim in the morning light.
In my journal I wrote:
“My faith has been like a campfire in the night. I have shared this fire with other campers, I have invited others wandering in the night to sit beside me, but most of my vigil has been that magical moment of solitude just before the dawn when everyone else is still asleep.
“But dawn has come. The sun is rising, and it is shining on the just and unjust alike. Those who stood no vigil through the night are waking to its light.
“I watch as the radiance of my campfire grows pale in the morning light. The night is driven back, the shadows burned away, and the world expands all around me. There are those hikers who told me they didn’t need a fire because they had lamps. And there are those other campers who told me about a different way to light the fire. And there, my friends to whom I took a burning brand during the dark night and told them about my fire.
“We all stand now in the light of the risen sun. The world is coming alive all around, but at my feet my fire has become cold ash. And I miss its heat.
“The hikers are turning off their lamps and firing up their stoves to cook breakfast. The other campers are stoking their flame to do the same. We carry about our business of cooking food and camping together, but in the sunlight we no longer need our fires to see.
“The sun is risen. No longer do I need to carry my fire brand through the night to share its warmth with others, for in this expanding light there is no ‘other’. All there is now is to point each other to the risen sun and delight together in all that it reveals.”
This is the Fire in the Sky that brought me into the wilderness. I wanted to experience my fire dying in the light of the risen sun. I had no idea what would happen, but I wanted to be open to whatever Spirit had to teach me.
What does it mean to let my fire die? What will the light of the risen sun reveal to me? Are all things truly mine?