Water to Wine – by Brian Zahnd
Ten years later it’s time to tell some of my story…
I was halfway to ninety, midway through life, and I’d reached a full-blown crisis. Call it a garden variety mid-life crisis if you want, but it was something more than that. 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.” My life was like that U2 song stuck on repeat — I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. I was wrestling with an uneasy feeling that the kind of Christianity I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery and weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the Christianity I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. And I’d always been utterly fascinated by Jesus. Jesus wasn’t in question, but Christianity American style was.
I became a committed Christian during the Jesus Movement. I was the high school “Jesus freak” and by the tender age of twenty-two I had founded a church — as ridiculous as that sounds now! After a prolonged slow start I eventually enjoyed what most would call a “successful ministry.” At one point during the 1990’s our church was dubbed “one of the twenty fastest growing churches in America.” I was a success. Ta-da!
But by 2003, now in my mid-forties, I had become, what shall I say?…bored, restless, discontent. 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 made it to the big time. 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. The politicized faith of the Religious Right was driving me crazy. 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 wasn’t a “crisis of faith” in that sense. I believed in Jesus! What I knew was that Jesus deserved something better than “cotton candy Christianity.” Like Bilbo Baggins I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I’d reached the point where something had to be done. I was no longer satisfied with the “cutting edge” and “successful.” I had lost my appetite for the mass-produced soda-like Christianity of pop-culture America. I wanted vintage wine from old vines. I don’t know exactly how I knew this, but I knew it.
Guided by little more than instinct I began reading the Early Church Fathers. 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 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.
By the end of 2003 something had to give. 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 21st 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 now regard 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!) 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 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 necessary, but ultimately unfulfilling, 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. 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.
I had to move beyond the grape juice of motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box. I couldn’t drink that anymore. I couldn’t serve that anymore. In August I told my church I was packing my bags and moving on from “cotton candy Christianity.” They applauded. Except neither they nor I really knew what would come next. The problem was I was embarrassingly ignorant of “the good stuff.” Yes, I was reading the Early Church Fathers, some philosophy, and classic literature. Saint Augustine, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fyodor Dostoevsky were a big 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.
On an August afternoon in 2004 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 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 was The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. That book changed my life. Hyperbole? No. Stone-cold fact.
Dallas Willard was my gateway to the good stuff. Directly or indirectly reading Willard led 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 a gold miner. I became a self-imposed prisoner in my own late night seminary. Over the next few years I read myself into a completely new and much richer place.
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.” In their frustration they lashed out. Some said I was becoming “emergent.” (I honestly didn’t 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 happened to the real Pastor Brian?” According to him 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. You can’t un-know what you know and be true to yourself. 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. Jesus was turning my water into wine!
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.