Awakening: My Journey to Missional Faith (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Robbie Hutchens
September – December, 2005

I have never felt at home in Christian culture. Never quite fit the mold. Despite my high involvement and productivity, I have borne an empty, longing heart most of my adult life.

It’s not that I felt better than or worse than anyone else. Just different than. Much of my life I have felt supported, cherished, and needed. I have been loved by so many in the most excellent way, which has only magnified the guilt and frustration I feel regarding my impoverished state.

There are many ways I fail to fit the template of a mainline Christian. I am not a Republican; I am a Democrat. I grew up in public schools and happily send my children to them as well, and I am not alarmed by the “liberal agenda” that is often associated with sex education, Darwinism, or school prayer. I don’t believe creationism and evolution are totally at odds. I have no desire to wear a WWJD bracelet or hang an Army of the Lord backpack on my kids.

Furthermore, there are many secular realms that my fellow believers admonish me to approach with caution, and yet it is in precisely those places I have found rich spiritual meaning. Halloween is my favorite holiday. And you are more likely to catch me listening to NPR (National Public Radio) to challenge and enrich my faith than a Christian radio station. Of course I balance my appreciation of these things with critical discernment, and filtered through my love for truth. But isn’t such an exercise the call of the believer in this world?

Add to this list that I am a woman with “traditionally male” leadership gifts, who likes to analyze the power tactics of Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek. I do not fit the domestically gifted stay-at-home mother prototype that I admire, although I have purposefully chosen this path. I find that the law of perpetual entropy is the guiding force in my family’s house. (Don’t even ask me about the laundry.)

I will admit to being a Veggie Tales groupie. I sing those Silly Songs more often than I would like to admit. (Just wish there were more girl veggies.)

If your heart has endured the shock of my aberrant psychographic profile and you still have a pulse, you may have come to the same conclusion I have: In terms of the established church culture, I am not traditional in any sense of the word. Good luck in finding a slot to fit this square peg.

And yet, with all of my heart, I love the Lord. I care deeply about the revelation of His Truth in Holy Scripture, and his dreams for this world. I am committed to finding and carrying out my vocation in his kingdom. I genuinely desire to commune with and work alongside other Christians. But for me, this rarely happens in traditional, church-sanctioned ways.

My struggle with Christian culture progressed to a point of no return about five years ago. But I can honestly say that my struggle began my freshman year in college. That makes almost twenty years of perseverance through the grief and incongruity.

I can remember vividly how I was treated in graduate school when other students found out that I was a Democrat. Suddenly, my friends looked at me differently. They dished out insults disguised as jokes, such as, “Don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it.” So many looked at me with righteous indignation, as if I had insulted their integrity with my confession. One fellow was even brave enough to call me an idiot to my face. This kind of abrasive, mean-spirited treatment, I learned, was the modus operandi in many circles of Christian culture. The message seemed clear to me: if you’re not a Republican, there’s no place for you at the Lord’s table. Hatred and prejudice are not luxuries we have as members of the coming kingdom.

And then there is the Christian culture’s mixed-message about my role in ministry. About ten years ago while in private practice as a marriage and family therapist, I was invited to speak at a family ministry conference. A couple of days before my presentation, I received a phone call from the conference director that the elders had received some concerned phone calls from alarmed members of surrounding churches that a woman would be speaking “alone” at the conference and in a “position of authority” over men. As a result the elders had decided that I could still speak, as long as I did not mention God or the Bible in my talk. “Just straight psychology,” he said.

Once again, the message was clear: It is not OK to be who you are. But if I am to maintain my integrity and live authentically, it is impossible to separate my faith and my work. They are forever intertwined.

I was often asked to compartmentalize my faith so as to not offend anyone. I never knew which rules applied on which day. Some days I would be reprimanded for praying and using Scripture openly with clients in a private session; other days, I would be criticized that I was not praying and using Scripture enough. It is terribly difficult to respect or take part in a culture that is still in an identity crisis.

But for some mysterious and holy reason, with all the pain that has come with it, I have never, ever abandoned my passion for the way of Christ. I have never desired to turn my back on God’s mission. I have rarely been able, however, to connect meaningfully with the prevailing Christian culture around me. I was beginning to despair.

In my denial, or stubbornness, I trudged on. For years and years, I kept reading articles and scripture, attending worship, devotionals and small groups, but feeling utterly empty inside. My prayer life, at least in the traditional sense, was anemic. I remember feeling like I had been in a strange, melancholy dream-like state. Reading, praying, attending. Reading, praying, attending. Reading, praying, attending.

All my well-intentioned solutions produced thornier problems: I involved myself more in church. (Burned out, got angrier.) I bravely attempted to change the church as I experienced it. (Felt rejected and retreated.) Finally, I resorted to attending, albeit with no expectations whatsoever. (Began dying within.)

Then a glimmer of insight came not from Christian culture, but from its archenemy—Hollywood.

AwakeningsI was deeply moved by a movie I saw years ago, entitled Awakenings, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. An inquisitive neurologist, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, discovers that the drug Levodopa can be used to awaken catatonic patients in a mental hospital. Their condition, encephalitis lethargica, has mentally paralyzed these patients in a prolonged state of unconsciousness. This group of patients has been completely immobilized and unable to communicate for decades due to an encephalitis epidemic.

Dr. Sayer frantically works to unravel the mystery of the bizarre condition. He notices that one patient, Leonard, is alert enough to snatch an object mid-air; therefore, he repeats the scenario with his other catatonic patients by throwing them a ball. Oddly, these “sleeping” patients are all able to raise an arm to catch the ball in motion.

His conclusion: The patients were “borrowing the will of the ball.” There was something alive deep within this melancholy colony of patients. Their wills were trapped within, and increasing doses of Levodopa miraculously unlocked the chemical door and awakened them to movement and to life.

My Awakening

Likewise, my faith has been alive deep within me, though I was rarely able to connect with it in Christian culture, leaving me spiritually comatose. I have been unable to feel any pleasure from my faith and convictions, because I had allowed myself to become dependent on the surrounding church culture and its approval of me. I needed its validation.

It had been such a long time since I was internally motivated by the will of God, from the sacred and unique place where God dwells within me. I had been externally motivated, borrowing the apparent will of others around me. Why? Simply because they were in motion and I was not. They were eagerly participating in the activities of the prevailing church culture and gaining much meaning from it, while I was settling for empty religious actions.

Sadly, in the movie, the newly invigorated patients were able to gain the dopamine their bodies depended on only for a short time. Levodopa is not true dopamine; it is a sort of substitute that stimulates its production. Such an “external fix” could keep these patients vibrant and vigorous only temporarily. They needed a permanent, steady stream of dopamine transmitted within their brains in order to maintain fluid movement, learning, and ultimately pleasure.

And so it is with my faith. Most of the time, I had been able hear God’s voice deep within my soul. However, I was too immature, too insecure to act on it in ways because I was paralyzed by my fear of offending the sensibilities of Christian culture. The rejection had been too painful, and the pressure to conform was too great.

Death has been an unwelcome teacher, but has remained at my side during this time in the crucible. Ten years ago, the death of my dear friend and kindred spirit, Susan, marked the beginning of my long, guilt-ridden journey of finding meaning within church.

But a much deeper loss, the recent death of my thirty-two-year-old brother, Scott, has left me with a clear vision and persevering conviction of the mission of God. The unrelenting pain of his absence in my family’s life serves as the ultimate catalyst for my journey.

In his second year of medical school, Scott was diagnosed with pineal blastoma, a rare and vicious brain tumor. After successfully undergoing surgery, and several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, he re-entered medical school and graduated. Within seven months of beginning his internship (and his dream of serving the Kingdom of God as a healer), the tumor returned. He died in June of 2004, never seeing his promised land of medical missions.

However, his unique calling as a medical missionary in the kingdom is not dead. Only his body has disappeared. His vision and work are alive. My brother’s kingdom vision is persevering, is witnessing, is healing the sick. He always knew who he was created to be in his innermost being and was single-minded in living it out. What I now know is that the part of him that communes with God continues to be very much awake.

And thus I find myself at an important milestone in my dopamine-hungry journey.

I remember the chilly evening I was walking with my dog, a Shih Tzu, named Merton. Though the Tennessee evening was humid, the exercise was flooding my thoughts with dopamine as I listened to an audio recording of the gospel of Matthew from The Message. And the word of the Lord came to me on my iPod Shuffle:

“You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.

“Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

Matthew 23: 8-12 The Message

And with that I stopped mid-stride. “Merton, did you hear that?!” He stopped and looked up at me, panting and saying nothing. (That’s what contemplatives do.)

I had a moment of not one, but three flashes of insight. One: I have triangled the church into an unwelcome intermediary role between God and myself. Phooey. Two: God seeks my authenticity, and not my skill at playing a false role. Whew. Three: An iPod + short, furry companion = great learning.

Clarity is both a good and painful thing. Since I am a therapist, the concept of triangulation is all too familiar territory. When someone is locked in a conflictual relationship with another, it can be great dysfunctional fun to pull someone else into the conflict as well. It’s … sharing. Now everyone gets a piece of the overwhelming anxiety that you choose not to handle. It is a wonderful, temporary avoidance tactic that I am humbled to admit I have used.

This passage, and some other well-placed stomach punches from the Sermon on the Mount, forced me to see my own role in my spiritual lethargy. I was frightened and used the church to hide from God’s unique calling. Somewhere in the process, I had fired my Father and hired the church to become my boss. What a fine mess I have gotten myself into this time!

Oh, yes – authenticity. Whereas, the former lesson was a stinging kick in the pants, being reminded that God cherishes and dwells in authenticity was a hug around my neck. I have always known that God desires honesty from my innermost self. But trying to live out that truth had become quite terrifying and taxing. Letting my false self create all this havoc was incredibly foolish of me. Congruence, mobility, and pleasure would come only when I authentically live out God’s will for me—no matter how scary and difficult that might become.

I must tell you that awakenings have been coming my way – little by little, day by day. And yes, some come from church-sanctioned sources such as scripture or moments in worship. But once again, truth has just as often come to me from non-traditional sources.

I have been stirred from my slumber by the contemplative writers, such as Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton (my Shih Tzu’s namesake), St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. Alive in their writing, they are my mentors. No one else up to this point has been able to show me how to commune more deeply with God. And I have connected with their experiences in such a way that my faith has been truly revived.

I have been vigorously shaken by an impassioned call to social justice by Jim Wallis, the beauty and candor of the Reverend Martin Luther King, and the majesty and simplicity of Mother Teresa. They force me to see my role in bringing about social justice as a major initiative in God’s inbreaking kingdom.

Recently, the voices from the missional church movement have put a cold cloth on my soul. Spiritual scales fell from my eyes as I read Stormfront and Missional Church. The good news has come to me, again, for the first time. I have despaired that such things, such beautiful, terrifying things would never be declared on behalf of Our Father and Lord Jesus Christ.

I can now look back into my youth and understand my spiritual attraction to the steadfast, independent voices of Mark Twain and Helen Keller. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would have to be my all-time favorite piece of literature. I remember watching Les Miserables, the Broadway musical, for the first time and feeling utterly swept up in worship and very near to the heart of God. And I could always count on Charles and Carolyn Ingalls from the television series Little House on the Prairie to do the right thing, especially when it came to matters of faith. I can see clearly now that I was drawn to their unwavering loyalty to living in God’s kingdom despite the cultural cost.

Hearing so many people of faith proclaim that Christian culture is in desperate need of healthy critique was a healing balm. All this time, I just needed someone to name and acknowledge the problem. Although I cherish the church’s role in my life, I do not serve the church. I am a servant of Jesus Christ alone.

Back to Awakenings. My favorite character was Leonard Lowe, played by Robert De Niro. Leonard was the first to come out of his cognitive stupor. After all of these years, what did he want to do first? He wanted to leave the hospital. He wanted to breathe fresh air, make his own decisions. To decide where to walk. To decide when to talk. To decide what to wear.

He wanted to live. He had merely existed for most of his adult life. And now he was completely awakened and eager to venture out into the world.

I remember ecstasy on the faces of each patient as he or she awakened and, yes, ran outside the hospital. To the park. To the zoo. Anywhere but back to white walls and full dependence.

And I must tell you I am awakening, and I want to go outside, too.New Wineskins

Robbie HutchensRobbie Robinson-Hutchens is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and received her masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Abilene Christian University in 1994, where she also completed graduate work in ministry and biblical studies. After the birth of her first child in 1998, she left her vibrant private practice in Christian counseling to become a full-time mother. Robbie actively leverages her leadership skills in her advocacy work for public schools, Healing Hands International, Wilson County Suzuki Association, and in developing ministry-related children’s programming. She is married to David Hutchens, a business writer and consultant. They live in Smyrna, Tennessee with their two children, Emory (7) and Oliver (4) and worship in Nashville with the Family of God at Woodmont Hills. E-mail her at [rhutchens@mindspring.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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