Reconstructing burned out faith with Brian Zahnd

We all have questions about faith. Sometimes those questions are so burning that they start a proverbial fire that threatens to burn our whole system of belief down. Brian Zahnd joins the podcast to share about the ways God is revealed through both the fire and the daily workings of life.

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Brian and his wife, Peri, founded the church in 1981. Brian is probably more widely known as the author of several books, including, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Water to Wine, A Farewell To Mars, Beauty Will Save the World, and his most recent work, as of this recording, is When Everything’s on Fire. This book helps our modern, skeptical minds move from deconstructing belief to reconstructing faith.

 

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Brian Zahnd:

If we're talking about going to the dentist, this is a good time to be alive, but I don't know that it's a good time for maintaining the wellbeing of the soul.

Ryan Dunn:

This is the Compass Podcast where we disrupt the every-day with glimpses of the divine. My name is Ryan Dunn, saying "Hello", on behalf of co-host Pierce Drake, who we'll hear from in a bit. We're mainly hearing from Brian Zahnd in this episode. As you've already heard, Brian has some great insights to share with us in relation to the ways God is revealed in the daily workings of life. We're going to use the word revelation a lot in this episode, we're not referring to the final book of the Christian Bible. We're simply talking about things that are divinely revealed or exposed. Brian Zahnd is the Founder and Lead Pastor of Word of Life Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri. Brian and his wife, Peri, founded the church in 1981.

Ryan Dunn:

But, Brian is probably more widely known as the author of several books, including Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God... that's such a good work, Water to Wine, A Farewell to Mars, another neoclassic, Beauty Will Save the World, and his most recent work as of this recording is When Everything's on Fire, which helps our modern skeptical minds move from deconstructing belief to reconstructing faith. Let's settle in for our talk with Brian Zahnd. Well, Brian, thank you so much for joining us on the Compass Podcast. How goes it with your soul today?

Brian Zahnd:

I don't necessarily ask myself that question every day.

Ryan Dunn:

That's why we like to ask.

Brian Zahnd:

But, I think it is well with my soul, I really do. It's not easy being human, is it?

Ryan Dunn:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian Zahnd:

Nobody gets out of this unscathed. It's really a daunting task to go through life, and I've never lived in any other time, I'm not a time traveler so I've only known the late 20th and early 21st centuries. If we're talking about going to the dentist, this is a good time to be alive, but I don't know that it's a good time for maintaining the wellbeing of the soul. There's always maybe the possibility that we just think our time is just so hard, but I think in late modernity there are unique challenges to maintaining the health of the soul. It's why, I don't know, over the last 15, 20 years, I've tried to prioritize that both personally and as a pastor... that I think this is something we really have to tend to. That's an elaborate answer to a simple question, but I think my soul is well.

Ryan Dunn:

It's fascinating that you state it that way though because as far as our human trajectory goes, things are getting better, right? Especially in terms of medical and technology, we can see that. Why do you say it's a little tougher as far as a spiritual aspect or in nurturing with the soul?

Brian Zahnd:

I'm hesitant to say that because, again, how can I compare it to anything? But, I do think there is a general instinct that is correct that there's something about the pace of the life that we live that we are not well suited for. I sometimes give this thought experiment, and most of my thought experiments involve a time machine. Get a time machine... I'm going to have a TARDIS, I like Dr. Who. Maybe you have a DeLorean that you've got to get up to 88 or just an old school Bill and Ted phone booth or whatever. But here's what we do, we get in our time machine, let's go back exactly 1000 years, nice, 1000 years. We'll go to the middle of France, so it's what? It's 1021, we just pop into the middle of France, and we're going to do something quite mean actually, we're going to kidnap the first peasant we find. We jump out of our time machine, we grab Pierre, he's there working in the field, throw him in our time machine, zipping back to... you're in Nashville, we'll go to Nashville, Nashville, 2021.

Brian Zahnd:

What we do is we have Pierre just live with us for one week. He goes where we go, sees what we see, do what we do. It's like bring a medieval to work week. At the end of one week of Pierre experiencing 21st century life, put him back in the time machine and take him back to where we got him and let him go. Now, here's where the thought experiment comes in. When Pierre shows up at the tavern or wherever, and his friends say, "Hey, what's going on, Pierre?" How does he tell his tale? What does he say? I think that he might say something like, "You're not going to believe this, but I was kidnapped by demons and I was taken to Hell. I spent a week in Hell." "Oh really? You went to Hell?" "Well, I think that's what it was." "There was a lot of fire?" "No, not really fire, but it's never dark, not really. They just go, go, go all the time."

Brian Zahnd:

Now, if I've got to go to a dentist, let it be 2021... don't want a dentist going medieval on me and all of that, I get it. There's a lot... I'm certainly not a Luddite, I embrace technology. Here I am staring at this camera, talking to who knows who, however we do it through technology. I'm all for that. Yet, I just think that the pace of life has outstripped our ability to adapt to it in a healthy way in our soul. Also, if we move back the clock to what is the vast majority of human experience, you were tasked with carrying the burdens, the sorrows, the tragedies of your village. Today, I know so much of suffering all over the world. In one sense, there's this pressure to deeply care or to feel like somehow I need to be alleviating some of this suffering all over the world. That can become a problem to the point where we just say, "I just can't bear it anymore." Then, we find means of escaping that, some of which may be healthy and some of which may be extremely unhealthy.

Brian Zahnd:

Again, I don't think I really want to switch place with a medieval. I think if I was suddenly thrown into that, I would find it very daunting and difficult and long to come back to now. But I also do feel like I'm on solid ground when I say, "We are facing unprecedented newness so fast that it's hard for us to adapt." That's a challenge for the time which we live in. As far as whatever we mean by the wellbeing of the soul, I think we are facing unique challenges. I think for the church to have particular relevance and resonance in coming decades, the church or the part of the church or those churches that can credibly speak to this challenge will find a new resonance and a new audience. I'll give you an example. I was speaking at a seminary out in California a couple of years ago, and during the break, I overheard a conversation with some of the seminarians. This woman said to her friend... and she's working at Starbucks while going through seminary.

Brian Zahnd:

She said, "I was telling my friends at Starbucks that I'm getting ready to go on a three day silent retreat and that we have to turn in our phones. No technology, no phone for three days. My friend said, 'What? No phone for three days? I couldn't do that. I need to do that. I couldn't do that. I want to do that.'" The church, if we can embrace our deep tradition, we actually, I think, have plenty of resources to address this. We actually have a very strong tradition in the contemplative and in formative spiritual exercises. We're actually well suited to being able to address this, but we're going to have to reach back. Again, I'm elaborating quite a long time on the wellbeing of my soul or our soul, but I think it's important. I think instead of trying to find relevance, which is a tricky word, a dangerous word, a word I don't really trust, we're then too much tempted to accommodate the gospel to [inaudible 00:08:54] or as desires.

Brian Zahnd:

But I think that our resonance, that's a better word, with contemporary culture will be, as we actually reach into the deep past... contemporize it, make it so that it's accessible to our time. But, it isn't by just better technology on your big screen and church on Sunday morning that's really going to give resonance to contemporary time.

Pierce Drake:

I don't know anyone that would say, "You know what? I slow down too much." I don't know that person, and I'd love to meet that person. I'd love, in some degree, to become that person. But I don't know anybody that says that, I think everybody would resonate. I was a youth pastor for 12, 13 years, and we did those retreats where it was in the mountains and the kids gave up their cell phones and it was Hell for them. I used that word accordingly, not to be crass. It was Hell for them to give up their phones on the drive up.

Brian Zahnd:

At-least purgatory.

Pierce Drake:

Yes, exactly. But on the way back, I couldn't give it to them.

Brian Zahnd:

I understand. I've led those retreats in recent years.

Pierce Drake:

We've all done that.

Brian Zahnd:

With adults.

Pierce Drake:

Yes. My question is, we all understand, Christian and non-Christian alike... have this deep felt need within our soul, spirit, whatever we would call that depending on where we are on a faith journey, that we are running too fast. To use Dallas Willard's quote, "We need to ruthlessly eliminate hurry in our society, but yet we don't have the discipline to actually go through with changing things the way that they are." What's the wall that's around us or that we're hitting that we go, "Hey, we all need this", but we cannot get through to it?

Brian Zahnd:

I can't answer that question necessarily directly. I just say technology... that unless you're going to be a monk, and even they may struggle with this. It's come at us so fast. I'm just back from my first international trip since COVID, and I usually traveled the world internationally 2, 3, 4 times a year or more. I haven't been anywhere in 18 months, but I'm just back from Scotland. I can tell you that right now, you could not travel without a cell phone. At some point, you would've just been sitting on a curb somewhere weeping because you just couldn't have got it done. We have to learn to live with this, but it's so sudden that it's hard to have enough wisdom about how to do it. We're having to be in a hurry about learning how not to be in a hurry in our technology... we're trying to catch up with something that has come upon us so fast. The healthy formation of the soul comes from wisdom traditions that typically develop over centuries, but our digital age has happened in a matter of a few decades.

Brian Zahnd:

It's happened so fast that it's hard to figure out what is the proper negotiation with this? I, just two weeks ago, led a week long retreat in the mountains of Colorado where there was no cell phones. We didn't have to take away people's phones because there wasn't any signal and we weren't giving out the wifi. Everybody knows this, it's almost cliche now but it's not cliche, slow down, find some silence, get outdoors. We're too much indoors. Indoors is... it compresses and it causes you to live in a small world necessarily. Outdoors, and especially some place that has a vista like the mountains where it's very open, that has... I don't know how people hear this, but that has an effect upon the soul. I know because I've done it for decades now... that when I regularly retreat to the mountains that my soul expands. My capacity to love, to understand, be empathetic enlarges with the vista itself. These kinds of exercises, practices, retreats, and disciplines are going to be very important that we develop them over the next, I don't know, whatever 10, 20 years.

Brian Zahnd:

Hopefully, the church... I don't expect all of the church to be on board with this. Some will be too just memorized by technology that they just want to use it all rather than question it and say, "I have to use some of this. I should use some of this, but I don't want to lose my soul in the process." I think there's going to be a lot of learning over the next 10 years, 20 years. I can't even remember what you asked me, but I just remember... I don't know, and I think that's a very honest answer, that we're all trying to learn right now. Not all, but as we try to learn, probably the best we can say is we're trying to learn. Unless you are literally going to go into a monastic life, like you're going to join the Benedictines or something, even then... look, I know enough Benedictines. I'm with Benedictines a lot, and they got their cell phones and they're trying to figure it all out too.

Ryan Dunn:

We're in such a culture that values so much knowledge and empirical evidence, right?

Brian Zahnd:

Right.

Ryan Dunn:

Maybe that's one of our barriers to slowing down is that we need to collect more evidence to see whether it's really beneficial for us to slow down, whereas when we just experience it, we know it's good. In your recent book, when everything's on fire, I may be making a little bit of a jump here, but you line up faith as something that comes about in much the same way. We can't reason our way into faith, but faith is something experience, it's something revealed to us, and we know then that it is right. Can you describe for us, what was your faith revelation? Did it happen in an instant?

Brian Zahnd:

Sort of. I want to answer this question in several ways, so bear with me. Well, to answer the latter part of that question, I grew up in a Christian home where church on Sundays was just what we did. In retrospect, I would call it, basically, a good church. I don't think today I would call it theologically adequate, but they loved one another and it was a real church. But for me growing up into my teen years, it was just on the periphery of my life. I didn't really think about it that much, it's just what we did. I would've viewed Jesus sort of like I would think of George Washington, just some sort of famous historical figure that somehow matters. Then, unbidden, I'm going to sound like a Calvinist now and I'm not at all, Jesus Christ came crashing into my life in a very dramatic, almost mystical... or not almost, I would say a mystical way, I encountered Christ. It was sudden. It was shocking. It changed me overnight. I don't think most conversions are this way, should be this way, need to be this way, or are better if they're this way.

Brian Zahnd:

I'm just telling my story. Really, overnight... everybody knew me as Fry, that's what everybody called me in school. I'm in high school, and everybody found out within a few days that Fry had gone from being the high school Zeppelin freak to the high school Jesus freak. People were shocked, teachers were shocked, friends. They would come up to me and they'd say, "Fry, I can't believe this happened to you." I'd say, "I know right. I can't believe it, either... didn't see that coming, but it did." That really gave me the trajectory of my life that low... I'm 62 now and I'm talking about something that happened when I was 16 so I can't even do the math, it was a long time ago. But, it's just been this one thing that I've done. I was leading a ministry by the time I was 17. None of this is counsel or advice or a pattern, but I was.

Brian Zahnd:

It was a Jesus movement that then turned into our church when I was 22. People will ask me about planting a church, I say, "I wouldn't know the first thing. I never planted a church, it just sort of accidentally happened. I just realized, I guess I'm a pastor now, funny that." The first Sunday in November, it'll be 40 years that we've been doing that. All right, I want to really open up this much more wide vista here. When we talk about modernity, I think we're talking about the beginning of the enlightenment mostly, some would tie it in with some aspects of the late medieval period, but let's keep it simple. Let's really tie it in with Descartes, Rene Descartes, a 17 century thinker, French Catholic, a believer who though wants to find what he would think is an epistemological bedrock. That means where we can't doubt anything else, we can start here.

Brian Zahnd:

He goes through this process of doubting everything, trying to find what he can't doubt. He's like, "I could doubt this. I could doubt that. I could doubt everything." Then, he realized, "But, I'm thinking in the process of doubting. I'm thinking, therefore I am cogito, ergo sum I think, therefore I am an... he imagines, and I would say imagines is probably the truth, that he has reached epistemological bedrock. This becomes the gateway into the enlightenment, into empiricism, into modernity. It posits a challenge to certain aspects of faith and tradition in church, which is not really what Descartes was trying to do, but it's what happened. Basically what happens though is in modernity, we get kicked up inside of our head and we end up and almost every [inaudible 00:19:26].

Brian Zahnd:

Most people are open to having... I'll use the word mystical, but don't let that scare you. The word, it doesn't mean some sort of new age neo-pagan. By mysticism, we just mean... a mystic would be a person who seeks and to some level attains an experience within the mystery of God, which is what is set forth as normative in the scriptures, that God can be experienced. I'm asking people maybe to climb down out of their head, Descartes threw us up in the attic, up there with a bunch of old musty National Geographic's, and come down into the living room of the heart and maybe pursue... I'm not talking about something sensational. I'm not talking about something that's necessarily strange or weird, but come down into the heart and encounter God in prayer, in meditation, in contemplation and let your faith be rooted there. It was Karl Rahner, a German Catholic theologian in 1971 said this, "The Christian of the future will be a mystic that is someone who has experienced something or nothing at all."

Brian Zahnd:

Now, that was 50 years ago he said that. What Karl Rahner, 50 years ago, called the future we call today. Today, I think we've really just reached that point where the Christian of today will either be a mystic that is someone who's experienced something, or they're going to deconstruct right out of the faith. I'm writing to address that.

Pierce Drake:

I think it's so needed because we do have two... to go on a parallel road a little bit, we have two different thought processes in the modern, at least Western church, I would say the Full Church, of this kind of sensationalism and Continuationism, how the spirit moves, et cetera. I would definitely belong to a Continuationism. I would call myself somewhat of a mystic myself, and yet for a branch of the church that theologically continues to believe in the work and the power and the moving of the holy spirit, that his gifts are still available to all of us, live as the practical sensationalist. There's this dichotomy there that says, "This is the life in which Jesus says..." It's crazy, it's Jesus... "It's better that I go so that the helper can come be with you and be with all of you." Yet we believe that, but yet our church is... in the way that we act in program and supply life and community for each other, practice it in a way that is void of that.

Pierce Drake:

It lives all in the head, which to be fair, to be honest, it was... my journey back to faith. I was a pastor's kid who... I kind of have the typical pastor's kid model, became an atheist for seven years, got to college, somebody said, "Why don't you believe in Jesus?" I said, "Here, let me disprove, et cetera", came back to faith, to a point because I could not disprove God, but it took a mystical experience myself to put my hands back in the hands that were offered to me in Christ. I think it's so true. I think what the culture is longing for today, what the church is longing for today is a move of God. A move of God that is experiential, but not crazy, not weird, not strange, not beating him, knocking you on the forehead, but a gentle move of the spirit because our God is a loving God who is tender with us.

Brian Zahnd:

Here's what I have found pastorally and just being a believer in the time in which we live, as long as people don't feel like they're being manipulated, as long as people don't feel like you are trying to manufacture something for them, especially if there are ulterior motives regarding money or whatever or you're just trying to be a sensationalist, as long as people have a certain measure of trust and they're relaxed, almost everybody is very interested in someone else's honest testimony to the experience of God. In fact, most, but not everyone... there are the angry, formed by Hitchens and Dawkins and Dennett and Harris, that bunch. There are angry atheists who are actually protest atheists, they're not really disbelievers because they think about God as much as I do. But setting aside that group, most people actually even hope that there is a God that does love and that can be experienced and they are open. But, because we've been schooled in the wrong kind of apologetics and we are by default secularists and empiricists, we become embarrassed about gently, honestly, truthfully talking like that.

Brian Zahnd:

But, I think that all needs to be recovered. I think we need to get over that. We need to not let the Benny Hinn's of the world embarrass us and prevent us from honestly telling our own story of how we experience God in Christ. I really think that is... if you want to use the word revival, I probably wouldn't because of its history, but I think that is the way forward.

Ryan Dunn:

As you speak to that, can we cultivate revelation?

Brian Zahnd:

Can we cultivate revelation? I think so. I think we can be open. Now, you understand that I do everything I do within the context of Christian tradition, and I do it unapologetically? I'm not a religious triumphalist. My thing isn't my religious founder can beat up your religious founder, but I do believe in Jesus Christ. Because my hope is universal, that is that the entire cosmos can be assumed into Christ and healed, I also, though, believe that happens through the scandal of particularity, that there is the uniqueness of the Logos made flesh, who is Jesus, we call the Christ. I just unapologetically speak as a Christian. But yes, I trust the long history. We have a canonical text given to us and I think we should sit with it. I think we have a long history of witness about how we should understand the nature of God. It begins very early. It begins immediately with these first Jewish believers, an arisen Jesus that they now begin to worship.

Brian Zahnd:

They have this tension of, how do I worship Jesus, fully human, fully God, but I worship him and yet I'm still monotheistic? It takes centuries for them to actually work it all out, but they do. I think we should listen to that. That gives us the safeguards, that gives us a tradition to keep us tethered to something that won't... it's a safety line. It's in mountain area and it's a fixed rope that we clip into so we don't fall off the mountain. Having done that, then I think you, if you want to use Latin terms, practice things like Lectio Divina, that is sit with the scripture. I don't know who all views or listens to this podcast, we all, at some point, if we're serious about scripture... we read it at one level for a long time, very kind of innocently, simply. Then, we get our JEDP and our higher criticism and textual criticism. I went through all that, and I'm going to be honest, I loved it. I think it's fascinating. I love all of that sort of stuff, to this day I do, but I don't want to stay there forever.

Brian Zahnd:

I then want to return to, in one sense, a simpler [inaudible 00:27:38], we call it a second naive a day. I still have all that stuff that I keep with me, it lurks there in the background, it runs in the background. I can... this is Duero Isaiah, this is Second Isaiah, written 150... Isaiah of the Exile. But, sometimes I just want to sit with Isaiah Chapter 60 and see how the spirit might quicken it to me and what the spirit might seem to want to call my attention to. After you've gone through... sometimes people just need to get away from some sort of base literalism that just is no longer tenable. You wake up one day and you go, "I don't think all those animals would fit on that boat." You work with some of these things and you get beyond that, then you learn about mythical literature and what it's trying to do.

Brian Zahnd:

But then once you've worked through that, then you can return and say, "Yet, I still believe this text as God breathed, and that the winds and the breath of God sort of blow around this text. If I'll sit with it in some quietness that ever so often, some of those wins and some of that spirit will blow upon me and open me up to something new." I don't have a rehearsed little presentation I'm giving you, I'm just speaking from my heart. I think this is where the future of Christian faith lies is in this kind of thing. Do I think we can cultivate revelation? Yes. But, understanding that one of the things, one of the unintended consequences of the enlightenment was the hyper-individualization of everything. I think therefore I am. We're all alone inside our head, upstairs inside our head, as the sole arbiter of truth. Yes, cultivating revelation, but we do it in community, we do it together. That's one of the real safeguards is we do it together.

Brian Zahnd:

That's why every morning on this recent retreat in the Rockies, we would practice some Lectio Divina in a group. You can do it by yourself, and I do, but with a group of people it's better. I just think it's better done. I'd like to say the scriptures aren't given to me or to you, they're given to us. Biblical interpretation is a community exercise, it's a church-wide exercise.

Ryan Dunn:

Are there other ways within your own church community that you foster an atmosphere of revelation?

Brian Zahnd:

Yes and no. I think, though, that once you begin to open to these things, I don't think revelation... that is a somewhat direct communication of the spirit of God to our heart. I don't think it's that hard to come by. I think what's maybe a little more difficult is to discern, incorporate, understand how to respond. I think that's done mostly through life together, as Bonhoeffer would say, through the church. I think the thing I do best as a pastor is teach people how to pray well. It took me a long time, it took me way too long, but finally I learned how to pray well, and it involved praying a morning liturgy. It's a long story. But, that's probably the best thing I do is I teach people how to pray well, and it's a very structured way of praying, but it's that structure that then opens up.

Brian Zahnd:

People think that structure is necessarily constricted. I say, "No, it's actually the opposite." It's like, if you're talking about music, once you learn the structure of basic scales, if you're talking about guitar... I want to be able to solo and play like Jeff Beck, well, learn some scales. It's the structure and discipline of the scales that actually open you up for improvisation. Those people aren't just producing this out of nowhere. It's like early on, we had Romanesque architecture that is... it's a little bit... you have necessarily low ceilings, thick walls, small windows. At times, Romanesque can feel small, dark, and cramped. Then, you have the architectural breakthrough in the 12th century with Gothic, with these soaring arches, enormous windows, and vaulted ceilings. It goes from small, dark, and cramped to spacious, open, and flooded with light. But, part of what makes Gothic possible is the external structures called flying buttresses.

Brian Zahnd:

You see those at Notre-Dame and other places. That's a structure, but it's actually a structure that's opening up the inside, not constricting it. A structure of liturgical, formative prayer... it may be counterintuitive to the modern mind, but a structure of prayer does not constrict the experience of God, it does the opposite. It opens us up, well, in our soul to become more open, flooded with light, soaring toward the heavens. We need more wisdom, structured wisdom. One of the great, and this is very modern, very American... you ask a pastor, especially in Protestant, especially in the evangelical tradition, how do you pray? They'll say, "Just talk to God." That's not enough. When the disciples said to Jesus, "Teach us to pray." Jesus did not say, "When you pray, just talk to God." Rather, he said, "When you pray, say..." He gave them a prayer, which is by the way, what they expected anyway. That's how rabbis taught their disciples how to pray, by giving them prayers to pray.

Brian Zahnd:

We need to reach back to some of these more ancient prayers that have been tested by time, vetted by the church, and begin to incorporate them so that we can form our soul in such a way that revelation can come. I think maybe I could bring this home and answer this question. If you're interested in cultivating revelation, give your attention not to revelation, but to spiritual formation. For example, there's radio waves here right now, I don't see them, but they're here. If I got out, and think of an analog radio, especially one with the dial, you've got to tune it in. It could be a little fuzzy, and you turn it a little bit. There it is, I got the signal. I think spiritual formation, one of the things that happens is we tune in to the divine frequency, and that, which we weren't hearing at all or that, which we were hearing a kind of fuzzy static-y way. Now, I'm picking it up. But, it isn't just one... I want to hear from God.

Brian Zahnd:

Well, that's not where you start. The want to is nice, but I think it's the spiritual formation that then gives us the capacity to receive the revelation that's... God is the word. The word is there, the signal is being broadcast. It's not a matter of convincing God to say something, God is the word, the eternal Logos. It's being broadcast. It's, through the practices of spiritual formation, forming our soul or tuning our soul, whatever metaphor you want to use, to the degree that we can pick that up.

Pierce Drake:

For me, I'm 100% on board. I think myself five or six years ago would've pushed back pretty hard probably, not on a podcast, but maybe off a podcast, on the beauty of liturgical prayer. That's because I came back to faith in a very evangelical, seeker-sensitive kind of context. Then, two, I think I saw liturgical prayer as dry and cold. Just pray to God, just talk to God sounded very personal and very... I think there's some truth to that. But, for me, over the last five or six years, and just becoming more human and living into more of just me understanding who I am and having life happen and just getting older, obviously, there have been times where I've sat down and I have had nothing to say, or had everything to say, but had no words to say. It is liturgical prayer, or just prayers of saints that have come before us that have brought life. Part of my daily rhythm has been to pray liturgical prayers at some point throughout the day.

Pierce Drake:

What I'm doing now is, actually, I'm praying the Prayers From Prison from Bonhoeffer. The Prayers From Prison... it's a little book, I think it's like 60, 70 pages. It's just his prayers that he wrote in his journal in prison. Through a COVID year as a pastor myself of... everything turned upside down. All that to say, I want to say, "Thank you" because you just presented liturgical prayer in a way that brought beauty and life and open space where I think so many of those that had been hurt by the church or in and out of the church has seen liturgical things as cold and dead and rudimentary.

Brian Zahnd:

Sometimes we just make a... especially among certain kinds of evangelicals, charismatic, Pentecostal, whatever, there's a category error that's made. People will say, "I don't like liturgy. It's dead." That's actually a nonsensical statement. You don't ask of liturgy whether it's dead or alive, you ask whether it's true or not. What we ask of liturgy is to be true and beautiful, not alive or dead. What's alive or dead is the person praying.

Pierce Drake:

Yes, come on.

Brian Zahnd:

If you can get a live person, alive to God, wanting to be alive, praying a true and well crafted liturgy, that's where the possibility of formation is present. Liturgy is a structure... I'm looking out into, well, the remnants of a garden that's now fading in the autumn, but I see this garden out here in my backyard. I see, let's say, a lattice that some tomato vines are growing on, plants. Now, imagine we're in a garden and you look at a lattice, a wooden structure, a trellis... let's say, call it a trellis, which is a wooden lattice structure. You say, "Trellis's, they're dead." I'm going to say, "Well, yes, but that doesn't make sense. They're not what's alive. The plants are what is alive. They are providing the structure for that which is alive to ascend." I'll say it this way, after decades of my living prayer life of kind of just sprawling around on the ground and not going anywhere, I was glad to find some structures that my prayer life could climb on. Of course, I can tell you're already convert, I don't have to try to convert you.

Brian Zahnd:

But, once you understand what liturgy is and isn't, it isn't bringing the life, you're bringing the life, but you're finding words that you didn't have. If we're left to do all of our own praying, it's just too much of a burden and we're left to our own self. What happens is if I have... for it to be authentic, because that's a big word. For it to be authentic, it always has to be improvisational, in the moment, from my own heart. Well, the problem is you're left to your own resources and too often, greedy people pray greedy prayers, angry people pray angry prayers, and fearful people pray fearful prayers, and we don't get anywhere. That's when we need a structure that we can hold onto and we take these words and make them ours. You see in certain evangelical churches, they are so allergic to anything that is liturgical because they're reacting to Catholicism or whatever, that they won't even pray the Lord's prayer together. Even though Jesus says, "When you pray, say, 'Our father who art in heaven.'" I think we just need to get over that.

Brian Zahnd:

They're treasures. These are gifts that have been given to us. Do you want to hear a story?

Ryan Dunn:

Yes.

Brian Zahnd:

Do we have time for me to tell a story?

Ryan Dunn:

We do.

Brian Zahnd:

This is an example of a mystical experience. I don't know what you'll make of it. I had a dream, I had it maybe 15 years ago. I dreamed that I was in New York City, looking for the faith of Abraham. There I was in Manhattan, and people on the streets, tourists, passersby, policemen, whoever. I was just asking everybody, "Pardon me? Do you know where I can find the faith of Abraham?" In the dream, no one thought it was an odd question. Everybody seemed to understand the nature of the question, they just didn't know. They would go, "Oh man, I don't know." But, they seemed to understand the nature of the question, but didn't know the answer. Then, I saw a large crowd, all moving in one direction... well, maybe they know. I fell in with the crowd, and the crowd led me to a big arena, maybe it was like Madison Square Gardens since we're in New York. I went in, and there was a big Christian event going on., The kind I was quite familiar with.

Brian Zahnd:

It was fine, except I knew I wasn't going to find what I was looking for there. I was looking for the faith of Abraham. I left and I continued my search, but now in quieter streets, and I came upon this used bookstore. I went in, it was one of those little musty bookstores with a little bell at the top that rings when you go in. It seemed like there wasn't anybody there, so I'm browsing around. Finally, I get to the back of the bookstore and there, seated in a leather arm chair, surrounded by tattered, old neglected prayer books sat Abraham himself in my dream. Now in my dream, he had the appearance of the Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel. But in my dream, he was Abraham the patriarch. He said to me, "I understand you're looking for my faith." I said, "Yes." He said, "Sit down." He had a tear in his eye. Abraham, in my dream said, "Brian, you can't depend on yourself to do all of your own praying. You're not wise enough. You need prayers that are older and wiser than you are."

Brian Zahnd:

He talked to me in my dream about using prayer books, then gave me a kiss, and I woke up. I really had that dream. If somebody says, "Well, was that dream from God?" I'd say, "Well, I wouldn't put that kind of fine point on it." I would say, "I was at a crossroads. There was some frustration in my life. I was looking for something deeper and richer. This vision came to me in the night seasons that maybe the holy spirit had a little bit to do with." That's all I would say. It did mark the point that I began to explore prayer books of all kinds. You have to just think of me as a word of faith, charismatic, 18 years ago. I started using prayer books. Then, my pastor friends in my same flow hear me doing this, and of course, they don't do that. They said, "Well, you're using prayer books. How come you're using prayer books?" I said, "Because Abraham appeared to me in a vision and told me to use prayer books." That kind of shut them up.

Brian Zahnd:

But, that's rather, I don't want to say sensational, but it's a rather remarkable tale, but it really happened, of a dream. As strange as that sounds, if you actually read the Bible very often... I could see that happening in the Bible, I could see that happening. I think part of what has happened in modernity is mystical experiences have been pushed off to the side or something to be embarrassed about when actually they're quite normative in scripture. Part of my journey toward praying as I do today involved a very mystical experience, involved a dream about Abraham, prayer books, and all of that sort of thing.

Ryan Dunn:

Brian, thank you for sharing that story with us, for sharing your experience with us so candidly. We appreciate it. To go on to note that the stories and the thoughts that you share within your writings have been incredibly informative and formative for a lot of us, appreciate you doing what you do.

Brian Zahnd:

Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Ryan Dunn:

There's a lot there. I didn't even get to talk Bob Dylan with Brian, I guess that will be another episode altogether. That would be so fun for me. If you had fun and appreciate this podcast, I hope you'll listen to another episode. A good one would be Living With Doubt where we talked with Brian McLaren, or our episode with Tyler Smith, where we talked about everyday spirituality. But honestly, it's all good stuff. Thanks to United Methodist Communications for sponsoring this podcast, and Ree Gaines for doing the heavy lifting on editing this episode. Compass Podcast episodes come out every other Wednesday, so we'll talk to you again in a couple weeks. Peace.