“To find God, go back to where you lost him”

October 1, 2015

I was in college, my first time around, back in the olden days of the internet—before the web, before blogs, before social media. The only access I had to the internet was through a mainframe terminal in one particular building on campus. I used to rush there in between classes in order to participate in the latest “flame war” that was happening on a couple of Usenet groups I read religiously at the time. Usenet was an early “bulletin board” system, which consisted of newsgroups sorted into thousands of different categories, allowing users to have online conversations with people around the world who shared their interests.

The group on which I was most active was called “rec.music.christian,” dedicated to contemporary Christian music, or “Christian rock.” For at least a few years, between about 1990 and 1994, rec.music.christian was an important part of my life.

This week I was reminded of my participation in this newsgroup. I saw a blog post by a name I recognized from those days—not to mention recognizing his style and wit. I confirmed he was the same person. He was a frequent ally in the flame wars in which I participated. He shared many of my musical tastes, my political opinions, and my anger. Indeed, his blog post this week was a broadside against conservative evangelicals who are more faithful to a political party than to Jesus.

Second verse, same as the first. I thought: “Wasn’t he”—weren’t we—”writing this same stuff 25 years ago?”

To my horror, there’s actually a way to check. Google has archived at least some of these posts. I couldn’t see any posts earlier than 1993, but still… There’s enough evidence there, not only by my erstwhile flame-war ally, but by yours truly, to remind me of two facts: First: I was a pretty good writer, even back then. Second: I was very angry.

Don’t get me wrong: I still struggle with anger, but I’ve been in “recovery” for several years.

Needless to say, in re-reading these old posts, I didn’t like that aspect of the person I had become, even by 1993—and I’d already been nursing anger for a few years by then.

What happened to me back then that made me like that? 

Two other recent events have got me thinking about this question. The first happened two years ago, when, after binge-watching the first five seasons of Mad Men, I was watching the Season 6 finale “live.” It ended like this:

I blogged about it last year: In the season finale, advertising executive Don Draper gets suspended from his firm after having an embarrassing meltdown in front of a client. Finally, the past that Don had spent 20 years denying had caught up with him. The scene above is the first small step he takes toward healing: going home, confronting the past, repenting, telling the truth. The look he exchanges with his teenage daughter, Sally, who had been hurt more than anyone by his deception, melts my heart—it brings me to tears. Every time!

Why? I’ve talked to other Mad Men fans about my experience: this scene doesn’t resonate with most of them as strongly as with me. There’s something going on here—in me, I mean.

The other recent event happened a couple of weeks ago, while binge-listening to “PZ’s Podcast,” which I mentioned last week. The particular episode that relates to this discussion is entitled “Cosmic Recension.” Paul Zahl talks about a quote from the medieval theologian and Christian mystic Meister Eckhart,

a quote that I had discovered a few years ago, or was given a few years ago, that I think is fantastic, but it’s drawn tremendous response. And it’s really the pain of my own attempt at healing in the light of trying to make something whole of a life that seems very fragmentary and very much in pieces on the ground… Now Meister Eckhart said, “If you want to find God, you have to go back to where you lost him.” Let me repeat that: if you want to find God, you have to go back to where you lost him.” […]

Let’s put it in a more non-specifically religious way: If you want to find out what’s going on, you have to go back to where you stopped understanding what’s going on. If you want to understand what’s happening in your life, you better go back to where you stopped understanding what’s happening in your life, and you sort of became a victim of all sorts of flotsam and jetsam and ideas that you didn’t… that sort of drew you heedlessly forward to a shattering place of finitude.

So therefore what he’s really saying is you have to always go back to where things went wrong.

Zahl goes on to relate this experience of “going back” to Citizen Kane, and Kane’s search for Rosebud.

When I talk about Meister Eckhart and the Rosebud—we’re all needing to find our Rosebud, and if you can just find where the Rosebud was, you can find out where the Rosebud is. If you find out where you lost it—in your 12th year, or your 17th year, or your 22nd year—it’s rarely beyond your 25th year—when you lost your Rosebud or when you lost contact with that love which was in you and ready to come out but was somehow blocked or destroyed or damaged or turned or went wrong somehow, and you were left in the lurch, and this is the moment of crisis in your whole life. If you go back to that, maybe you can turn the faucet—you know, it’s like turning the dish—… the plumbing—if you turn it around maybe the water will go out the right way, and it won’t be blocked and explode in your life all the time! Well, that’s what we’re saying. If you go back and find your Rosebud, chances are the Rosebud in its current expression is right here in front of your face.

Good heavens, yes! When I was around 20, lost contact with “that love which was in [me] and ready to come out but was somehow blocked or destroyed or damaged or turned or went wrong somehow, and [I was] left in the lurch.” This was, indeed, the moment of crisis in my whole life.

I see this now. My life stopped making sense at that point, the point at which I lost touch with that gawky, uncynical, intellectual, idealistic kid I used to be—not to mention the sincere Christian who read his NIV Study Bible every day, who was active in the Baptist Student Union, who wanted to turn the world upside down with the gospel!

I let myself believe that I couldn’t find my place in the world if I remained this person. And I resented it!

As I see now, there was nothing wrong with that kid! In fact, there were many, many things right about him. He just needed a few more years to mature.

I wish I had talked to someone—a pastor, a therapist—someone. I wish someone would have intervened. Because that’s where I lost my Rosebud.

There were reasons that this happened. I’m tempted to say I became disillusioned, except disillusionment—ridding oneself of false beliefs—would be a painful but necessary event. In my case, I shed beliefs about myself that weren’t false. I was on the right path! “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?”

Regardless, since what I believed was “wrong” with me was bound up with my Christian identity, it was also around this time—as I see now—that I “lost” God. I lost the “love I had at first,” as Revelation 2:4 puts it. And I only “got it back” in the past five years or so when I went back to reunite with that kid I left behind—like the prodigal son went back to reunite with his father; like Jacob went back to reunite with Esau. In all three cases, the reality that awaited us—back there—was different and far better than we remembered or expected.

I’ll leave you with this lovely, but deeply pessimistic, song about alienation by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. This song meant a lot to me during my wilderness years. While I no longer relate to it the way I used to, I felt for years as if the “you” of the song was me! I still love him, but mostly as an object of pity and compassion.

Meanwhile back in the year One
When you belonged to no one
You didn’t stand a chance, son
If your pants were undone
‘Cause you were bred for humanity and sold to society
One day you’ll wake up in the present day
A million generations removed from expectations
Of being who you really want to be

The money lines in the song—all of us Tull fans love these—are the following:

Well, do you ever get the feeling
That the story’s too damn real
And in the present tense?
Or that everybody’s on the stage
And it seems like you’re the only person
Sitting in the audience?

Well, yes, I do get that feeling, Mr. Anderson. But you can’t live your life sitting alone in the audience. You have to participate. You have to get onstage. You have to go back and figure out why you got stuck there in the first place!

Who knows? You might even find God there when you do!

[Please note: the first 40 seconds are of the singer humming and pouring tea. 🙂 )

3 Responses to ““To find God, go back to where you lost him””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, I’m not sure I am relating to the exact point you are making, but for me there was a “departure point” and a “returning point” to my Christian faith which “went back to where I left off.” Specifically, my intro to the Christian faith textbook, at a nominally Baptist institution, pointed out gleefully what it touted as a plain error in an account, and I thought, “You know, that’s correct. So, I can’t believe this anymore.” (A pretty ridiculous response, as I now see it, and undoubtedly there were “other things going on,” but in any event that’s “how it happened.) Fast forward 10 years. After several “baby steps” in the right direction, followed by recessions, I came to the point of saying, to my believing family, “You are so happy, and I am so miserable, that even though I can’t see how it can be true, I am going to try to believe it anyway.” Presto-magico! A virtually immediate confidence in the truth. But the point is, to “come back,” I had to “sacrifice my intellect,” as it were, for one brief instant, whereas when I “left” I was “putting my intellect first.” So, probably nothing like what you are talking about here, but your general topic brought back that remembrance.

    • brentwhite Says:

      No, you get it! It was somewhere in the past, when you put intellect, or at least “intellectual respectability,” ahead of your faith, that Christianity stopped making sense for you. Today you can look back on that moment and see what was happening.

      My experience of “losing my first love” (if not outright faith) also happened in college (albeit a secular one). Devastating!

  2. veritasvincit Says:

    There are places in the story of our life where we lose the plot line — where we lose the Rosebud. For me, the process of coming out of denial began when I tried to eat a hotdog while driving furiously (literally) from one courthouse to another. My jaws were locked shut from stress, anger, frustration, and I could not open my mouth to take in nourishment.

    Two movies: “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and “Shine” contained stories that helped me go back and heal some of the places that needed healing.

    My story is one not so much of a return to faith as one of a process (and a turbulent one at that) of maturing in faith as I finally agreed to become the person God wanted me to be: to make my way (or rather, to be dragged kicking and screaming by the Father) back to the points where I missed the plot.

    Thanks, Brent, for your insight and willingness to share same.

    By the way, I’m still many times clueless. I had no idea that Mad Men was about mad men.

    JIm Lung


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