Faith: hitting the wall and gaining focus
I am 40. I turn 41 next week. I am now old enough to have been through more than one “critical journey” in life and in faith. I know there are more to come.
In the meantime, increasing numbers of adults in my life share their own struggles with vocation and faith. Does their work matter? What are they supposed to be doing with their life? Do they really believe? What do they believe? Do they believe in God?
If these are questions in your life, I hope this short post is helpful. Sometimes, I think adults are caught by surprise by these kinds of questions. We regularly ask young people,
What do you want to do with your life?
With adults, especially parents and professionals and older adults, we assume,
They are already doing what they want with their life. But are they?
First, there is the wall
From my admittedly limited perspective, I think there are two parts of the vocation and faith journey with which adults especially struggle. The first one Janet Hagberg calls “the wall.” I’ll come back to this concept shortly, but if you look at the table of contents (to the right) from her wonderful little book “The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith” you’ll notice that adults are most likely to hit a wall precisely in their middle life, after some early stages of discipleship and the beginning of a productive life, but before the really deep stages of faith grounded in love and rich spiritual formation.
Many adult faithfuls, having spent some years raising children, developing a marriage, establishing a career, are at the inward journey point, and they start asking, What am I called to do? What does all this mean? Who is God in all of this?
And all of these questions are, surprisingly, intertwined. What we want to do with our life is tied in to what we believe about God, and how to make meaning out of our daily lives and existence.
As a pastor, this is the faith journey that always catches me by surprise, even though it shouldn’t. These are the people who were deeply involved in church leadership, serving on council, teaching Bible studies, and more, and suddenly they drop out, fade away. They do so because they are on a different journey, a journey inward. They have questions. They feel stuck.
As congregations, we are not always as equipped as we could be to minister to and with adults in this stage of the life of faith. And it is such a critical stage!
Then, precisely at this point, they/we hit the wall. Hagberg, in naming the wall, intends it just like the wall you hear marathoners talk about (I hit my first true wall at mile 22 of the Košice Marathon of Peace in Slovakia in the fall of 1999 — I will never forget it. I had to run with leg cramps the last four miles, but I did it).
Having run along just fine for 20 miles, suddenly mile 21 seems impossible. Yet there are still five miles to go.
This wall is the dark night of the soul. One of the most interesting (and scary) parts of this stage is that it is actually quite a bit like the first stage of the journey of faith, discovering God in the first place. The 22nd mile feels like the first mile all over again.
It is interesting, but people experiencing a wall moment sometimes seem to be precisely in the stage of those adults who are discovering faith for the first time. These two stages share a lot in common.
Those new to the faith, especially adult converts, those who are baptized and come into a new faith community as adults, experience the very beginning of their faith journey kind of like the wall. Their feelings of being new, neophytes, make them feel much like they are in the place adults in midlife feel when they suddenly don’t know why they are doing what they are doing.
In this sense, those new to the faith and those in a kind of midlife faith crisis have much to offer each other, or at least their comparable inward journeys can be reassuring to each other. Part of being in the midlife crisis has to do with feeling young all over again, even when you are not. So the time feels shorter, but the urgency of the journey is renewed and heightened.
And it is reassuring, if not necessarily helpful, to know that most congregations are much better equipped to deal with the needs of people at many other stages in the critical journey of faith than this stage.
So second, there is the question of focus
Adults in midlife are ready to focus their living. They have tried out many different journeys. They have interned, studied, been mentored, gained a wide variety of experiences. They are now ready to discern more clearly God’s unique and focused call on their lives. In midlife, we start evaluating our past, looking to it, then evaluating our present resources, in order to clarify our future.
We think there may be clues to what God is calling us into, the new journeys ahead of us, but we don’t always feel equipped to read the clues from the past or evaluate present resources. We are also afraid of the change focus might bring, because by midlife, many of us are stuck in a moment that seems difficult to get out of.
Periodically, I use a retreat resource for adults who desire to focus their living called, not unsurprisingly, “Focused Living.” I probably will invite a group of adults in our congregation to attend a two-weekend retreat on focused living in the spring of 2014. It’s a spectacular time, charting past significant God-moments in our lives with Post-It notes and posters, seeking to outline and develop a personal mission statement, values, mentoring structure and more. In fact, it’s not unlike what Bruce Feiler describes in his “The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More ,” when he describes developing a family mission statement.
A lot of adults have been through strategic planning processes at their church or at work, but have not done this difficult and rewarding work in relation to their own life. Yet it may be one of the best ways to get the focus we need to help us journey through the wall and into the peak experiences of the later stages of faith. God’s great hope for us is to take us in and through this journey to outward movement in mission and significance.
None of these are silver bullets. If anything, I am simply describing the truth of the adult journey of faith and vocation, in the hopes that maybe, just hearing that this is a shared journey and struggle by so many, you as a reader might be reassured and have hope. You are not alone. And there are likely tools and people to go with you on this journey.
Originally posted July 3, 2013, at Lutheran Confessions. Republished with permission of the author. Find a link to Clint Schnekloth’s blog Lutheran Confessions at Lutheran Blogs.
You might also want to read:
Why a crisis of faith can be a good thing
Managing the realities of midlife
It’s not a once in a lifetime experience