trading stale spiritual obligation for a life-altering, energizing, experience-it-everyday relationship with God
By CHRIS HODGES
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2012 Chris Hodges
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE DOLDRUMS
We were almost lost in the middle of the Pacific. We almost capsized in those doldrums. ROBERT ANDERSON
Most mornings I wake up happy and optimistic, looking forward to another day. I've never been a depressed kind of guy. But in 1999 I had the worst year of my life. On paper everything looked perfect, and there were no external clues pointing to my interior struggle. My wife loved me and our children were healthy. The church where I was an associate pastor was a thriving, growing community of passionate believers. I had even been doing some consulting for other churches that were interested in using our church as a model for their growth plans. There was money in the bank and the bills were paid. I had friends, both old ones I'd known since high school and new ones in our neighborhood, who genuinely liked me and seemed to care about me.
But I had never felt more miserable.
Despite all the good things in my life, I had been experiencing some new challenges: difficult relationships that grew more complicated because of miscommunication and distrust, worries about the future and meeting the financial needs of our expanding family, a stale spiritual life with little desire to spend time in prayer or Scripture, uncertainty about whether I was where God wanted me to be. Was I really cut out to be a pastor? Somehow I just couldn't envision myself doing the same thing for the rest of my life, but when I thought about it, I wasn't sure what I envisioned for the rest of my life.
In the deepest part of me I wondered, Is this all there is?
As the weeks dragged on, I became mired in a swamp of unpleasant emotions that I wasn't used to feeling—at least not all at once and not with such increasing intensity. I was deeply sad, but I wasn't sure why. I sensed anger and frustration, but that was probably because I felt so stuck in my sadness. And then there was the fear. I had never experienced anything like this and didn't know what to make of it.
So I hid it as long as I could and tried to pretend there wasn't a storm cloud constantly roiling around inside me. It seemed to grow darker, with more thunder rumblings and lightning strikes of acute emotion, yet the storm never broke and continued to gather itself over and over again inside my mind and heart.
I knew I was depressed but hated to admit that even to myself. I had never been depressed before and had even been quietly critical of those who seemed to fight an ongoing battle with it. I had always thought, Just choose to be happy and get on with your life, buddy! But now those thoughts mocked me because I wasn't sure how to change what I felt inside. I couldn't pinpoint exactly what my feelings were, but I knew I couldn't change them simply by telling myself, Don't worry, be happy.
Similarly, I didn't know how to fix the problem. I wasn't sure if it was spiritual or physical, mental or emotional, or all the above. So I did what so many of us do: I forced myself to go through the motions. At church staff meetings, I acted like I couldn't be happier, nodding and smiling, detached from the storm inside me. I'd go home and try to act normal, dismissing any signs of discouragement my wife, Tammy, or our kids noticed with, "I'm okay—just tired."
This went on for months. Then in January of 2000, our church focused on a prayer effort called "21 Days of Prayer," a time of personal fasting, prayer, and listening for God in our lives. Everyone was asked to participate at whatever level they felt led. This was the fourth time our church had started the year this way, and I had always been involved, although not very seriously.
But this time I was so desperate to hear from God that I went to extremes. Figuring the new year might be my opportunity for a fresh start, I went on a complete fast: no food, no media, no distractions. I would only pray and read my Bible. I was determined to give this a shot and had committed to going to the doctor afterward if this time alone with God didn't reveal what was going on. (I probably should have gone for a checkup already, but my stubborn ego kept thinking I could handle it.)
And then on day 17 of my fast, God visited me during one of the morning prayer services at our church as I was worshiping and seeking him in prayer. I'll never forget that moment, and it remains one of the seminal events of my entire life. His presence was so real, his voice so clear, that the storm inside me broke. Like the sensation of a cool, refreshing rain falling after the heat and humidity of a summer thunderstorm, his presence revived me. I also received a picture in my heart, an image of me leading a congregation of people. Up until that point, I had never even considered being a senior or lead pastor. In my seventeen years of ministry, I had never wanted anything more than to be the best number two guy on the planet. God spoke to my heart and said that he would lead me to something that year and it would be my assignment for the rest of my life.
Now this may not sound like much, but it gave me tremendous hope. Shortly after the fast was over, I met with my pastor, Larry Stockstill, and learned that God had spoken to him, too. It was time for me to launch out and lead a church of my own, Larry said, and he wanted to help me. From then on, one door opened after another, and God made it clear what path he wanted me to follow. I quickly became more passionate, more excited, and more alive than I'd ever been before. And I know I would never have gotten there if not for experiencing that year in the doldrums.
God used that time of desperation and depression to get my attention in the most dramatic way possible. Apparently, it often takes something painful, sometimes even tragic, to get us to listen to God. But that time of prayer and fasting was like a breath of fresh air. The fast disconnected me from the world, and my prayer time connected me to God. Looking back, I suspect God was talking all along and I just couldn't hear him. Somehow I had sensed this and become very sad that I was missing out on the huge heart message he wanted to give me. My depression forced me to stop and listen.
Today, I pastor one of the fastest growing congregations in the country, a dynamic, life-giving church that I love. I've often thought that I wouldn't even be a pastor here in Birmingham, Alabama, if I had not gone through that difficult time of feeling stuck. I had to find a way to move through it and allow God's breath to fill my sails.
Maybe you struggle with depression or have gone through a season like the one I described. You might even feel like you're going through the motions right now, unsure what's wrong but definitely sure that something's not right. Perhaps the hardest part is that your faith feels thin and flimsy, unable to bear whatever it is that's rumbling deep inside you.
Maybe you grew up in the church and know all the right things to say and do. Or maybe religion was not a part of your upbringing— you or your parents didn't see any real joy in the lives of those people who claimed to be filled with the love of Jesus. Or maybe you've experienced this kind of going-through-the-motions numbness in other areas of your life. At work. In your marriage. With your kids. In your friendships. You're waiting for something to happen, for the storm inside you to break, for a fresh breeze to breathe new life into you. You're not sure how to make it happen. But you know there has to be more.
THERE HAS TO BE MORE
There's something amazing about feeling a warm ocean breeze across your face from the deck of a ship. And watching the wind fill a giant piece of canvas, tilting that large sail in a way that both powers and directs the vessel, is even more incredible. Before the age of motorized boats, merchants, explorers, and sailors relied on these trade winds to carry them to certain places, especially across the ocean to another country or continent. You've probably seen enough Pirates of the Caribbean movies to know this, if you haven't been out on a sailboat yourself.
Prior to the twentieth century, however, all mariners knew about one area that was to be avoided at all costs: the Doldrums. Taken from the root word meaning "dull" or "lifeless," the expression "in the doldrums" was used to describe the state of being bored and restless, in a slump. Sailors then gave this name to a specific region along the equator where the weather always seemed to illustrate this lifeless condition.
Because of the way the earth rotates, the currents and clouds of the Northern Hemisphere literally collide with the winds and weather of the Southern Hemisphere, creating an area of unpredictable weather. Usually extending between five degrees latitude north and five degrees latitude south of the equator, the Doldrums are also known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).
Normal trade winds converge in this band along the equator and basically cancel each other out, creating a still, windless dead zone. Their collision also produces convectional storms that result in some of the world's heaviest precipitation. Since there's no wind to move them along, just an air mass hovering overhead, these storms keep sailing ships stuck in place.
It's not surprising, then, that the Doldrums were once feared more than the Bermuda Triangle. Many ships became trapped in the dead zone, forced to endure grueling storms until they wrecked. Sailors would try everything they knew to do to get the ship sailing again, but nothing worked. They were stuck, sometimes permanently.
While our GPS systems and hydraulic engine technology now protect ships from the dangers of the equatorial Doldrums, its emotional equivalent seems more prevalent than ever. We still use this figure of speech to describe someone who's in a slump, listless, despondent, stagnant, and going through the motions. I can't think of a better word to describe what I experienced in my church growing up, and then later as a young adult when I found myself back in a spiritual performance trap.
I think most of us can relate to being in the doldrums. You may know what you're supposed to do in life, you may even know where you want to go, but you are stuck in this zone where there's no wind, no breath, no life, nothing to help motivate you and move you along. Maybe you're going through a storm and doing all you can just to stay afloat. Maybe it's been a long time since you've been fired up about anything. Maybe you're in a rut and don't know how to move forward.
There's usually no single reason for you to feel immobilized like this. Like cool air colliding with tropical winds over the ocean, your doldrums may be the result of a number of factors converging. Nonetheless, it's usually helpful to think about what has contributed to your present location in life. Let's quickly look at some reasons you may find yourself stuck in the doldrums.
Have you ever spent a lazy day at the beach, riding the waves and bodysurfing? I love doing this with our kids, but it's always amazing where we find ourselves after we've been out in the water for an hour or two. We look back at the shore and suddenly nothing looks familiar. We can't see our umbrella or beach chairs—sometimes we can't even see our hotel! Without realizing it, we have drifted with the current and lost our bearings.
Without a strong direction toward a place where God is moving, without a secure anchor to keep you grounded, it's easy to drift into a dead zone. You may be doing all the right things—at home, at work, at church—but you don't know where your life is headed. You feel lost and disoriented from where you thought you'd be and how you thought you'd get there. But it's almost too terrifying to acknowledge, so you just keep going with the flow day after day.
When I was reading about the Doldrums that sailors face, I was struck by the fact that this dangerous dead zone happens along the equator. When ships got trapped there, it meant they weren't really in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere; they were stuck where the two meet. I think we often get stuck in a similar manner. If we're honest, we know we don't want to go to hell, but yet we don't really want to serve God, either. We want to have one foot in the world and the other in the Kingdom of God. We want to straddle the spiritual equator, so to speak.
A lot of us have drifted to this place. We're not on fire for God, but of course we're not living for the devil either. We're not abandoning God and leaving the church, but we're not fully alive and enjoying the abundant life Jesus said he came to bring. We're in this middle zone, a spiritual no-man's-land.
We have gotten off course, and now there's no wind to sustain us. This isn't a new phenomenon. Jesus tells the church at Laodicea, A lot of us have drifted to a spiritual no-man's-land. "Some of you are not hot [not in the Northern Hemisphere], you are not even cold [not in the Southern Hemisphere], you are lukewarm." And the result is just as disastrous: "There is no life there. I will spit you out of my mouth [if I find you in that lukewarm zone]" (see Revelation 3:15-16).
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul conveyed a similar message: he told them that he could not consider them spiritual, but he could not call them worldly either. They were a mixture of the two. They were carnal (see 1 Corinthians 3:1, KJV). The word carnal means that they were stuck in the flesh. The word's root comes through in a usage you may be more familiar with: chili con carne— chili with meat. Paul basically said these Corinthian Christians were serving up a big dish of faith con carne. They were Christians but still had some flesh-based living in them.
Many of us today follow the same recipe. We want enough Jesus to get us to heaven, but we've got a little bit of the world in us too. We're lukewarm, tepid, not hot or cold, not heavenly and not earthly, not sold out to God and not entirely through renting from the devil. So we drift away and get stuck in the doldrums.
EYE OF THE STORM
Sometimes we don't drift into the spiritual doldrums but are pushed there by life's disturbances. In fact, the doldrums are a magnet for life's storms. The storms will either get us there and keep us there, or else they will happen while we're there. A huge part of the problem is that most of us don't respond to storms correctly. Instead of running to God for shelter and protection, we run from him, usually right into the eye of the storm.
When the storm winds are blowing and life gets hard, many people feel like they've done something wrong—perhaps even something to deserve their present crisis—and therefore they stay away from God. After all, he'll only punish them more, right? Or when times get hard, they seem to think that God hasn't kept his end of the bargain. They went to church, prayed, read their Bibles, served those around them—and now this is how God repays them? They feel like they did everything they were supposed to do and had the right to expect God to prevent trials from happening in their lives.
So we get stuck in the doldrums and may even come to view ourselves as victims. No matter what happens, we always seem to be heading into another storm. Maybe it's losing our job or watching our retirement fund shrink to less than where it started. Maybe it's an ongoing illness or injury, if not our own then that of our kids or someone else we love. It could be that our marriage has lost its passion and now we feel stuck in a lifeless relationship. How are we supposed to cope with any one of these crises, let alone the perfect storm that occurs when they collide?
For some people, the answer becomes a secret addiction, a way of numbing the pain by finding a few fleeting moments of pleasure. It could be alcohol or prescription drugs, shopping and then shopping some more, watching porn and withdrawing from our spouses, chatting with a sympathetic stranger online, or staying busy with work 24-7.
We try anything to keep ourselves from thinking about the storms in which we find ourselves—anything to ease the pain. And yet these attempts to gain relief only create more storms as we come to rely on our addictions. Once again, we discover that we are unable to move.
LOSING OUR BALANCE
So often doldrums are the result of weariness and spiritual fatigue. Like a sailor with no compass and no sense of direction, we find ourselves aimlessly following others' wishes, having lost the ability to say no. We don't want to disappoint anyone, right? So we try to do it all—to be the supermom or the perfect dad; to climb the corporate ladder; to lead the Bible study; to head up the kids' fund-raising drive; to stay on top of the household chores.
Excerpted from FRESH AIR by CHRIS HODGES Copyright © 2012 by Chris Hodges. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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