Twenty-Two Days

Version 2

Fourteen years ago I began a journey of faith that led me beyond paper-thin pop Christianity, cheap certitude, and nationalistic civil religion. That’s when the water became wine! In a few days we’ll be announcing a Water To Wine gathering here at Word of Life in St. Joseph in June. But today I thought I would share the first chapter of Water To Wine — the story of my deep discontent and the 22 day fast that began the pivotal year of 2004. (The photo is me in Beit She’an, Israel in November of 2003, shortly before the fast.) -BZ

Twenty-Two Days

“No one who has ever tasted fine aged wine prefers unaged wine.”

“The only wines that actually speak to our whole lives are authentic wines. Confected wines are not designed for human beings; they are designed for ‘consumers.’ Which do you want to be?”
—Terry Theise

“When we are crushed like grapes, we cannot think of the wine we will become.”
—Henri J.M. Nouwen

I was halfway to ninety — midway through life — and I had reached a full-blown crisis. Call it a garden-variety mid-life crisis if you want, but it was something more. You might say it was a theological crisis, though that makes it sound too cerebral. The unease I felt came from a deeper place than a mental file labeled “theology.” To borrow some King James style language, my soul was disquieted within me. It was like I was singing over and over the U2 song:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for
—U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

I was wrestling with the uneasy feeling that the faith I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery, weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the faith I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. And I had always been utterly fascinated by Jesus. Jesus wasn’t in question but Christianity American style was.

I had become a committed Christian during the Jesus movement of the 1970s when I was still a teenager. I was the high school “Jesus freak” and by the tender age of twenty-two had founded a church — as ridiculous as that sounds now. After a long, slow start, I eventually enjoyed what most would call a “successful ministry.” At one point during the 1990s our church was dubbed “one of the twenty fastest growing churches in America” — by those who like to keep score of such things. Yes, I was a bona fide success. Ta-da! But by 2003, now in my mid-forties, I had become, what shall I say?…bored, restless, discontent. I was increasingly haunted by thoughts I hardly admitted to myself, thoughts like:

“Is this as good as it gets?”
“What if I just start coasting?”
“Hey, Brian, you’ve worked hard. Now you can relax, mail it in and take more vacations.”

I did my best to keep those thoughts at bay. I didn’t want to think that way. I had never conceived of serving Jesus as a career path leading to Easy Street. My motives were pure, but that was not enough to quell the nagging disappointment I felt.

From a certain perspective things couldn’t have been better. I had a large church with a large staff supported by a large budget worshiping in a large complex. I was large and in charge! I had it made. But I had become increasingly dissatisfied. I was weary of the tired clichés of bumper-sticker evangelicalism. I was disenchanted by a paper-thin Christianity propped up by cheap certitude. It was safe, but it failed to enchant. I was yearning for something deeper, richer, fuller. Let me say it this way — I was in Cana and the wine had run out. I needed Jesus to perform a miracle.

Don’t misunderstand me, my faith in Jesus never wavered. This was not a “crisis of faith” in that sense. I believed in Jesus! What I knew was that the Jesus I believed in warranted a better Christianity than what I was familiar with. Neither was I looking for a change in vocation — the hallmark of a “mid-life crisis.” I never considered being anything other than a pastor. My love of Christ and his church was not in question. I was not “backsliding” or “losing my faith.” But I knew there had to be something better than the shallow “success-in-life” charismatic evangelicalism that had been my world for more than twenty years. Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” I had been feeling this way ever since the year 2000 — the beginning of the third Christian millennium and the onset of my discontent. But now I had reached the point where something had to be done. Like the instinct of deer to lick salt or geese to fly south in winter, I had an animal-like instinct that what I needed was something old, something ancient, something refined. I needed something living that came from the oak barrels of a vintner, not something concocted from the aluminum vats of an industrialist. I was no longer satisfied with the “cutting edge” and “successful.” I had lost my appetite for the mass-produced soda-like Christianity of North America. I wanted vintage wine from old vines. I don’t know exactly how I knew this, but I knew it.

So, guided as much by instinct as anything else, I began reading the early Church Fathers — those theologians from the first few centuries of the church who shaped Christian theology. I started with Clement and Polycarp and moved on from there. I found Athanasius more relevant than the Christian bestsellers. I resonated with Gregory of Nyssa. I found a kindred soul in Maximus the Confessor. I read Augustine’s spiritual autobiography Confessions several times in different translations and was deeply moved by it. I was beginning to develop a palate for the aged wine of historic Christianity. As I became acquainted with the beauty of the Great Tradition that had sustained the church for centuries, I realized I had been missing out on something of tremendous value. Eventually I lost my taste for the contemporary, mass-produced grape juice of religious consumerism. It’s true what Jesus said, “No one who has ever tasted fine aged wine prefers unaged wine.”

By the end of 2003 something had to give. I was discovering the substantive faith of an earlier time, but I wasn’t content to merely read about an ancient Christianity. I didn’t want to be a historian and I wasn’t interested in the fool’s errand of trying to recreate the past. I was a twenty-first century pastor and I needed to find out how to live and lead others into a richer Christianity, except I really had no idea of how to go about it. So I did something crazy. In what I regard now as a kind of holy madness I made a desperate bid. I began the first twenty-two days of 2004 in prayer and fasting. I ate nothing during that time. For twenty-two days I did nothing other than pray during the day, sleep at night, and preach at the appointed times. (By the way, I do not recommend this to anyone!) I chose twenty-two days to correspond with the twenty-two chapters in the Book of Revelation. (Did I mention this was crazy?) Each evening for twenty-two days I led a two-hour prayer service with worship musicians in our Upper Room prayer chapel. We would read, sing, chant one chapter from the Book of Revelation and pray prayers inspired from the various visions of the Apocalypse. I know it all sounds very weird, but it’s what I did. The evening prayer services were full of energy, but the long days of solitary prayer were a grind. It didn’t feel glorious. It felt like death. It was death. A long fast is dying. Literally. I wasted away to a paltry 130 pounds. People thought I was sick. I looked sick. I felt so weak. I remember thinking, “I’m dying.” And that was more true than I could have known! The whole first half of my life was dying — a half of life characterized by the quest for certitude and success. As Richard Rohr describes it, I was about to “fall upward” into the second half of life. But it wouldn’t be easy.

In the middle of my twenty-two day push for a spiritual breakthrough all hell broke loose. Years of relative calm in the church suddenly came to an end. Accusations were made, people got mad, staff resigned, and I was deeply upset. Though I would not have said it, I had secretly assumed God would smile upon my desperate fast, sprinkle some angel dust on me, and I would then peacefully glide into beatific bliss. This did not happen. What happened instead was death. The second half of my twenty-two day fast was pure misery. I was distressed and depressed. When the twenty-two days were over, I didn’t feel like I had leaped to a new level, I felt like I had fallen down a flight of stairs. I was bruised and battered. But this much was for sure — things had changed. There would be no going back.

That was a long time ago, but it was a turning point I’ll never forget. Now whenever I see the date “2004” on something, I think, “Oh, I remember that year! That was the year that everything changed for me!” I quite seriously think of my life as pre- and post-2004. First half and second half. Before and after. Then and now. 2004 is the watershed, the continental divide of my life. It wasn’t a pleasant year — it was a painful year — but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not for anything! The beautiful Christianity I have found in the second half of life could not have come into being apart from the pain of 2004. That was the year water began to turn to wine. But wine is not just a symbol of richness, it’s also a symbol of blood — and I was bleeding. Often during 2004 I found comfort in Bob Dylan’s brilliant song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” especially these lines:

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

I once heard an Italian winemaker say that to produce good wine the grapes must struggle, they must suffer. The taste of good wine is the taste of struggle and suffering mellowed into beauty. There’s a deep truth there that applies to far more than winemaking — it also applies to the formation of the soul. All the great biographies of the Bible involve suffering. The great souls grown in the Lord’s vineyard all know what it is to suffer. American Christianity, on the other hand, is conditioned to avoid suffering at all cost. But what a cost it is! Grape juice Christianity is what is produced by the purveyors of the motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-psychology Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box. I don’t want to drink that anymore. I don’t want to serve that anymore. I want the vintage wine. The kind of faith marked by mystery, grace, and authenticity. The kind of Christianity that has the capacity to endlessly fascinate is not produced apart from struggle and suffering. It’s the pain of struggle and suffering that confers character and complexity to our faith.

After the first twenty-two days of 2004 I knew I had to move beyond a watered-down, grape-juice faith — the popular schlock I had begun to refer to in the pulpit as “cotton candy Christianity.” By August of that pivotal year I had told my church I was packing my bags from the Charismatic Movement and moving on. The congregation applauded. Except neither they nor I really knew what would come next. The problem was I was embarrassingly ignorant of “the good stuff.” I had been reading the early Church Fathers, philosophy, and classic literature. Saint Augustine, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fyodor Dostoevsky were all a significant help, but I needed something that spoke more directly to the time in which I was living. I needed a deep well dug in my own time and place. What did Jesus say about seeking and finding? My seeking heart was about to be rewarded.

On a summer afternoon I was at home browsing my bookshelves. I was deliberately looking for a book that would “give me a breakthrough.” I couldn’t settle on anything. So I prayed, “God, show me what to read.” And I sensed…nothing. I went downstairs feeling a bit agitated and slumped into a chair. Within a minute or two my wife, Peri, walked into the room, handed me a book and said, “I think you should read this.” She knew nothing of my moments ago prayer, but she had just handed me a book, and told me to read it. This was my Augustine-like “take and read” moment. It sent chills down my spine. Somehow I knew it was the answer to my prayer. The book was Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. The strange thing was Peri had not read this book and had no more idea who Dallas Willard was than I did. (As I said, I was embarrassingly ignorant of the good stuff.) Neither of us were sure how the book had even made its way into our house. But, oh my, was it ever an answer to prayer! The next day I was flying somewhere and I took out the book providentially given to me by an angel. I began to read. And my life changed forever. Hyperbole? No. Stone cold fact. Reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy was like having a door kicked open in my mind. It opened my eyes to the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God is, well, everything! In his foreword to The Divine Conspiracy, Richard Foster writes:

“The Divine Conspiracy is the book I have been searching for all my life. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, it is a masterpiece and a wonder… I would place The Divine Conspiracy in rare company indeed: along-side the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Wesley, John Calvin and Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen, and perhaps even Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. If the parousia tarries, this is a book for the next millennium.”

That’s exactly what I needed! Augustine and Aquinas for the twenty-first century! Dallas Willard was my gateway to the good stuff. Directly or indirectly reading Willard led me to others: N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, René Girard, Miroslav Volf, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, David Bentley Hart, Wendell Berry, Scot McKnight, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and so many more. I couldn’t read fast enough. Night after night I was up past midnight reading, reading, reading. I was making up for lost time. I kept thinking, “Where have you been all my life?!” I had struck gold and I couldn’t pull it out of the ground fast enough. I was now a gold miner. I became a self-imposed prisoner in my own late night seminary. Over the next couple of years I read myself into a completely new and much richer place. How did it begin? With a crazy twenty-two day fast and a whispered prayer — “God, show me what to read.”

When I reflect upon the seminal year of 2004, I think of it as a strange mixture of pain and discovery. I was thrilled with what I was finding, but not everyone in my church shared my enthusiasm. The gold I was discovering was changing my preaching — significantly. But not everyone liked the change. People I had known, loved, and led for many years were beginning to dig their heels in or bail out. Some didn’t like my “new direction.” They couldn’t see what I saw with what I called my “new eyes.” In their frustration they lashed out. Some said I was becoming “emergent.” (I honestly didn’t even know what that was — and I don’t think they did either.) Others said I was becoming “liberal” or “too intellectual.” Some of my less articulate critics simply opted for “backslidden.” One Sunday morning a longtime church member cornered me with a harangue about what had happened to “the real Pastor Brian.” According to his assessment I had ceased to be myself and had become an imposter. These comments hurt. People leaving hurt. It hurt more than I let on. But there was no going back. I couldn’t un-know what I knew and be true to myself. The pain of being misunderstood and misrepresented was part of the price for obtaining the vintage wine of substantive Christianity. No matter what others thought, I knew what was happening. I was saving my soul. I was discovering Jesus afresh. I was encountering an unvarnished Jesus, a Jesus free from the lacquer of cheap religious certitude, tawdry motivational jargon, and partisan political agenda. I was being born again…again. I was gaining new eyes. I was seeing the kingdom of God, really for the first time. I was transitioning from water to wine, from grape soda to Brunello di Montalcino.

During our years of transition there were times when the pressure was almost unbearable. It’s one thing to make a major theological course correction in midlife, it’s another thing to do so publically while leading a large church and trying to hold it all together. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m the only pastor to have hosted both Jesse Duplantis and Walter Brueggemann as guest speakers. That may give you some idea of what I mean by “transition.” We had journeyed from hosting prosperity gospel televangelists to conducting conferences with respected theologians. But trying to hold everything together during such a radical transition created a lot of pressure.

Those were days of pressure and pain. The pressure came from living on the fault line between two shifting tectonic plates. One plate was moving me away from a compromised Christianity co-opted by consumerism. The other plate moved stubbornly in the direction of the pragmatic need to maintain a viable congregation. I wanted to be faithful to lead my church in a new and better direction, but I didn’t want to go about it in a reckless manner. Inevitably I would feel guilty about whatever decision I made. I would feel guilty about making changes too slowly and I would feel guilty about making changes too quickly…at the same time! It was the pressure of what felt like an impossible situation. The pain came from being misunderstood, vilified, and rejected by people I had considered friends. Rarely did these people actually talk with me. More often they would just leave the church, send a hateful email, and begin a campaign to persuade others that I was more or less apostate. Some of these were people to whom I had been a good friend and faithful pastor. I had baptized them, baptized their children, counseled them, encouraged them, taught them, supported them, prayed for and with them. To have them leave without a face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversation and act like an enemy was the infliction of a painful wound.

When the pressure would become too great, Peri and I would try to sneak away for a few days to our beloved Rocky Mountain National Park. It was healing for our souls to hike in the mountains, be in the quiet wilderness, and have long talks about Jesus and how wonderful it is to be on the journey of discovery together, even if there was pain involved. It was therapy of the best kind. On one of our mountain escapes I was reading Eugene Peterson’s dazzling Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places. During a bumpy flight home from Denver to Kansas City I read this passage:

“A huge religious marketplace has been set up in North America to meet the needs and fantasies of people just like us. There are conferences and gatherings custom-designed to give us what we need. Books and videos and seminars promise to let us in on the Christian ‘secret’ of whatever we feel is lacking in our life: financial security, well-behaved children, weight-loss, exotic sex, travel to holy sites, exciting worship, celebrity teachers. The people who promote these goods and services all smile a lot and are good-looking… We have become consumers of packaged spiritualities. This is idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective ‘Christian.’ But idolatry it is nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk or lucrative.”

Reading those words seven miles above the Midwestern plains somewhere between Denver and Kansas City, I recognized my former self in that paragraph. I had been both a purchaser and purveyor of Christian idols (yet always with sincere intentions). My specialty had been the idol of certitude. An ever-popular idol. I knew how to give easy answers, claim the promises, and cast everything in black and white. I was sure of everything. But all of that had changed. Among the things that died during my twenty-two day “death vigil” was certitude. Arrogant certitude was giving way to the ambiguity of authentic faith. I stopped reading at Peterson’s paragraph on Christian idols — “God packaged as product” — and as our plane shuddered in the turbulence, I scribbled these words in the back of Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places:


I was once so sure
So sure of myself
So sure that what I wanted
Was one in the same with what God wanted
How could it be otherwise?
Child of God that I am

I was once so sure
I was taught to assert my will
In the name of the LORD, to be sure
For the name of the LORD is a talisman
To endorse and empower my will to be done
For what else could my god have to do
But to make all my wishes and dreams come true?

I was once so sure
That I knew what was good for me
And what was good for me
Was good things for me
Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
Oh, I knew better than to say it just so
I knew how to dress it up in altruistic robes
And how to crown it with chapter and verse
Nothing like a plucked verse to make you so sure
(Yet it and I weren’t all bad, oh no, far from it)

But the point of this confession is
I was once so sure
That I knew good and evil, right and wrong
In me, in thee, in theology, in policy
But there’s a snake that lives in that tree
Is original sin a sin of epistemology?
To be so sure
Certitude in doctrine and politics
And just where the dividing line runs
Safe in the certain knowledge
That I’m on the right side
Of the right-and-wrong line

I was once so sure
And it’s fun being so sure
People like it when you’re so sure
(If they share your certainty)
And isn’t that what faith is?
Being so sure?
I’m not so sure
Cock-sure, can’t-miss certainty
Is not the faith that I see
When I look at the patriarchs, prophets, and poets
And Jesus
(“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”)
At the cross faith and hope find their finest hour
But arrogant certitude is proved to be an impostor
(Did I hear the cock crow?)

Instead of brashness and bravado
The poet of hope said
“In quietness and trust”
So now when I’m not so sure
I try to be quiet and trust
Not myself, my mind, my kind
But in the mercy of God
In his severe salvation
A salvation that is sweet as honey
And severe as the cross
Though he slay me
Yet will I trust him
Goodness and Mercy

Later, when I shared my composed-in-the-clouds autobiographical poem (or whatever it was), I was surprised by how many people were angered upset by it. In retrospect I was too naïve and should not have been surprised. I had hoped everyone would share my enthusiasm for embracing a more honest faith, but this was not the case. Some misunderstood my honesty as a tacit compromise with unbelief. That’s not what it is. It’s a repudiation of certitude masquerading as faith. Certitude is a poor substitute for authentic faith. But certitude is popular; it’s popular because it’s easy. If all you want is cheap certitude, just land on some opinion one way or the other, tell yourself you’re certain, and that’s that. No wrestling with doubt, no dark night of the soul, no costly agonizing over the matter, no testing yourself with hard questions. Just accept a secondhand assumption or a majority opinion or a popular sentiment as the final word and settle into certainty. You don’t have to think about it ever again. Ignorance is bliss, but so is certitude — they’re first cousins. Yet none of this is to be confused with faith. George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whose works had such a profound influence on C.S. Lewis, said this:

“Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth.”

George MacDonald wrote that in his novel The Curate’s Awakening. Now I was an awakening curate — or pastor, anyway. I was awakening to the cost of real faith. Real faith will cost you. Real faith is forged in the fiery theodicy of Job’s bitter trial where every assumption of the goodness of God is put to the test. Real faith is found during the forty-day wilderness temptation where the first question from the tempter is, “Are you sure?” Real faith reaches the apex of “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” only after the agonizing cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We have to wrestle with doubt to arrive at real faith. Certitude can’t be bothered with all that. Real faith has room for doubt — understanding that the effort to believe is the very thing that makes doubt possible. Real faith is not afraid of doubt, but the faux faith of certitude is afraid of its own shadow. I have no idea how to arrive at real faith without a journey involving doubt. The mistake of pop apologetics — the silly kind that looks for an ancient boat on a Turkish mountaintop or Egyptian chariots on the bottom of the Red Sea — is that it is an attempt to do away with the need for faith altogether! The Noah’s Ark hunters want to “prove” God so that faith will be unnecessary. But God does not traffic in the empirically verifiable. God refuses to prove himself and perform circus tricks at our behest in order to obliterate doubt. Frederick Buechner says it this way:

“Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

In the days of my certitude there was no room for me. I learned how to parrot the party line. To say what was expected. What was expected was a mixture of fundamentalist biblicism, word of faith success, and religious right triumphalism. None of that was me. The real me had always been more complex than that. But in the world of religious certitude there is no room to think, no room for nuance and complexity, no room to nurture the soul of a mystic. In my search for success in the world of Americanized Christianity, the real me was being erased. After the transformative year of 2004 I wanted to become myself again…while there was still time. I deeply resonated with Søren Kierkegaard’s resolution, “Now with the help of God I shall become myself.” I had already lost too much time, I didn’t want to lose my soul to an enforced conformity. These thoughts occupied my mind with a sense of impending crisis. I felt an urgency that something had to be done, but what?

Jason Upton, a Christian recording artist and a good friend, was ministering in our church. Following the concert, Jason and his band were hanging out in my study. There were several conversations going on, mostly about music. At some point during the evening Jason wrote these two words on a note pad he found on my desk, “Kierkegaard. Provocations.” I discovered the note the next morning. I wasn’t sure what it meant. A few days later I was in a bookstore and saw Provocations by Søren Kierkegaard on the shelf among the new releases. It was a new collection of Kierkegaard’s spiritual writings that had just been published. I started reading it right there in the bookstore. The first chapter in Provocations is entitled “Dare to Decide” and it opens with these words:

“Can there be something in life that has power over us which little by little causes us to forget all that is good? And can this ever happen to anyone who has heard the call of eternity quite clearly and strongly? If this can ever be, then one must look for a cure against it. Praise be to God that such a cure exists — to quietly make a decision. A decision joins us to the eternal. It brings what is eternal into time. A decision raises us with a shock from the slumber of monotony. A decision breaks the long row of weary thoughts. A decision pronounces its blessing upon even the weakest beginning, as long as it is a real beginning. Decision is the awakening to the eternal.”

A long time ago I had heard what Kierkegaard describes as “the call of eternity” and I had heard it “quite clearly and strongly.” When I was fifteen years old I launched into the thrilling adventure of following Jesus. But thirty years had gone by. Was I now doomed to succumb to the slumber of monotony in midlife? I didn’t want that. But I also knew that to move away from the kind of Christianity that had given me “success” was a daring thing to do. It would entail risk. To be true to the call of Christ and to save my true self I had to be willing to sacrifice success and risk failure. Would I dare?

A few weeks later I was walking through the Detroit airport on one of those moving walkways thinking about these things when I suddenly crossed a threshold in my mind. I made a decision. A daring decision. A risky decision. I knew I had reached the point of no return — there would be no going back. I wanted to be my true self. Suddenly I channeled my inner-Kierkegaard and spoke out out loud, “Now with the help of God I shall become myself!” The curious glances I drew from strangers in the Detroit airport bothered me not in the least. I had made a decision. I was on the road to recovery. I was recovering my soul. Water was turning to wine.