Spiritual formation over the life stages
by Elroy Miller
When I was growing up, my family attended a conservative Mennonite church near Goshen, Ind. We went to church three times a week and sometimes more. On occasion, in my teen years, I got to stay home to take care of a calving dairy cow, but otherwise church attendance was expected, as was Sunday school and MYF. During this time I also attended a Christian day school, took Bible classes, sang in choirs and attended mandatory chapels.
I don’t recall when I first started to reflect on my faith journey, but between regular family devotions, school and church, I decided to follow Jesus as a 13-year-old. I still recall sitting under a shade tree talking to our pastor about my decision. I also recall my first communion; the confession made me nervous for the sins I had and may have committed.
In spite of my uncertainty about what it might mean to follow Jesus in life, I remember the enormous support I received from parents, our pastor and other adults from our church and school. My life as a child and teen was like living in a cocoon without much interaction with the wider community around me. We had no radio or newspaper until I was 14-15 years old.
All that changed when my older brother decided to join the Army and go to Vietnam. He did not pass his physical, but my growing awareness of the war, protests and riots, civil rights, driving, dating…these realities exponentially expanded my world. But ironically, it wasn’t until I decided to file for conscientious objector status, and left for alternative service in Costa Rica under Conservative Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Central Committee that my faith in God took a big hit.
I soon discovered I was way out of my league spiritually. Simply getting out of my cocoon did not mean that I could fly. I felt alone and spiritually abandoned. After about six months, I remember praying one night and telling God that my faith journey had to become real again…or I did not know what.
Something happened to me with that prayer. That night without realizing, I began internalizing, and with growing awareness over time, Paul’s words in Romans 8:39—“[That nothing] will separate us from the love of God.” This interweaving of my lifestyle, Christian beliefs and conviction of God’s love for me anchored my faith journey until midlife.
Despite church attendance, small group participation and considerable involvement in the life of a Mennonite church, I got burned out in midlife and disillusioned in my faith journey. I was also an exhausted professional social worker and family man. What worked for 20 years or so no longer sustained my heart, soul and relationships.
It was then my pastor encouraged me to read Morton T. Kelsey’s book, The Other Side of Silence, A Guide to Christian Meditation (1976). It was eye opening.
Kelsey made the case that we grow little in God’s love until we realize that “The test is not just whether we feel loving, it is more whether or not the other person feels loved by us” (p 67).
This reframe from “God loves me” to “I experience more of God’s love only as I give God’s love away” helped me find my way forward. It’s been a zigzag of mistakes and spiritual growth that never ends. I have deeply appreciated involvement in our family’s church community, having a loving family, learning from my students and peers at EMU, and talking with my spiritual advisor over the past 20 years.
Having grownups of faith, particularly my dad, my pastors, and my friends in my life who encouraged me to be honest about my spiritual fears, doubts and longing has been very helpful. They gave me permission to struggle and to find my way in the dark until I was found. To all of them I say thank you!