Monday, June 20, 2016

The simplistic title of Martin's "Shipwreck" belies its mysterious depths

I gotta start off by admitting I'm not in the kind of sudden shipwreck situation this book addresses. I was drawn to Jonathan Martin's How to Survive a Shipwreck for a couple of reasons. First off, the stack of impressive and diverse endorsements, including Rachel Held Evans, Steven Furtick, Sarah Bessey, Lynne Hybels, Michael Gungor, Rob Bell and Greg Boyd, was enough to pique my curiosity about Martin, founder and ex-pastor of Renovatus church in North Carolina.

But I think on a deeper level, I wanted to read the book because I've been pondering how or whether a church community can safely hold the vulnerabilities of those in leadership positions. Many churches have unspoken rules that cause pastors and lay leaders to bury their weaknesses and put on an appearance of imperviousness to their personal demons. When they fall, they fall hard, and the church often cuts them loose.

The back cover of Shipwreck promises a "deeply personal" book. I envisioned a memoir from a pastor whose suppressed vulnerabilities eventually led to a shipwreck of his ministry and marriage that would help shed some light on how to avoid shipwrecks.

I was wrong. The book alludes to, but never divulges specific details of Martin's personal implosion. Likewise it does not offer hindsight tips for plugging holes in the boat or steering toward calmer shores. Martin's thesis firmly plants one foot into the murky depths of the sea and the other bedraggled and seaweed strewn on a distant shore. There's sand between the teeth, and splinters of ship forming a kind of holy, humble halo around the survivor.
A shipwreck has a way of stripping you bare, of exposing your own finite smallness against the infinite horizon of a dark sea. Slowly but surely, I was being delivered from my own sense of importance. (84)
Martin seems to elevate the shipwreck of his own making to the necessary rite of passage to fully participate in the death of Christ.
Deciding to leave the church I founded was one of the hardest, worst things I have ever done, and I still bear the marks of it now. But it was a dive I knew I had to take. As much as I wanted to continue on the journey of helping others become human in all the ways Jesus was and said they could be, I was going to have to embrace my own humanity—and admit I did not have the strength or grace to experience this kind of transformation while in the context of pastoral work. (57)
The personal narrative woven through How to Survive a Shipwreck is a sparsely told account of how Martin picked up his broken pieces after stepping down as pastor. I gather the point I was supposed to take away from his account is that it's good to accept help from others. But I have to confess some of the story didn't quite sit right with me because I imagined that most shipwreck readers lack the resources Martin had for his recovery season, which included time on a Californian mountainside with a spiritual director, being taken in by a spiritually mature couple in New Orleans, a trip to Sweden, time at a festival and with a spiritual yoga instructor, and an unexpected rag-tag Thanksgiving with other misfits that had an aura of community unmatched by any of the traditional holidays he'd spent before.

Whether you decide Martin's post-shipwreck experiences borrowed their beauty and mystery from the sea-weathered tenderness of the author's heart or from his unusual wealth of resources and friends in beautiful places or from nothing but the mercy of God's loving kindness, these moments are told with weightiness that makes even the smooth sailor long for another country.

Someone at a breaking point in life (and with the freedom to go on retreats into deep self-care) would probably find a quiet balm in Martin's poetic prose. I'm not at that point in life in any respect. But I still found many gems in Martin's musing on his own life. For example, I totally chuckled at his spot-on description of the Episcopal Church where he took the Eucharist shortly after leaving Renovatus:
Off the grid from my evangelical circles, I felt completely safe to come as I was—to receive, to just be. I loved that it never felt like the church was trying to sell me anything. I loved that, really, nobody is fussed over at all—there just is not that kind of VIP treatment for anybody. The vibe is, "This is the kind of worship we do here, and you are welcome to come and do this with us... or not." The liturgy there does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience, but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God. I have commented to friends that I have never actually prayed this much in church before.
For those whose shipwreck involves leaving church, the above story might give them permission to try out a new community of faith without fear. He also explores the ideas of living more intentionally, slowing down and making basic physical self-care a priority in his chapter "Eating, Breathing, Sleeping." In the yoga story, Martin's emphasis on being present because the Spirit as breath is applicable to anyone:
Do not let anyone ever convince you that only people with a certain spiritual pedigree have access to the Spirit. You know the Spirit is available to you, because of your constant access to the holy breath she gives you.  (102) 
My favorite part of the book is Martin's discussion on God's view of Leviathan and the book of Job. Martin warns at the opening of the chapter that survivors of shipwreck should be aware that they aren't alone as they bob out in the wide expanse of the sea. The following quote gave me chills as it captured how so many earnest Christians experience an inner Leviathan:
Early in my life, I established a pattern—anything in me that I was afraid of, any desire that overwhelmed me, any passion that scared me, I pushed in the darkness. I was nearly incapable of looking at anything in me that seemed unpleasant. I pushed down any part of me that was sexual, competitive, proud, or otherwise unseemly. I did not fight the dragons; I ignored them—which is another way of saying that I fed them. I lived as if I was without a shadow side. But when the life you knew crashes against the rocks, everything in you comes crawling out. That's when you discover the things about yourself you've long ignored or repressed. And you are able to truly behold them face-to-face instead of through the murky veil of self-delusion and positive spin. You can see now, without the filter of you own inner PR firm. The monsters you heard rumors of are firm with reality now; they objectively exist not just within you but now somehow objectively outside of you. In the moonlight on the night you broke open, the evidence is staring back at you with fierce, black eyes. Hello, terrible, beautiful, wild true self... it's nice to meet you. (113-14)
From here, Martin deconstructs the notion that God is as appalled and awed as we are upon meeting our beautiful-ugly interior. Martin shares that if he had any biblical revelations at all during his time of shipwreck, it's that God loves monsters, and Leviathan is his "rubber ducky." He is not scandalized by anything that lurks in our watery depths. And we also, need to realize our fear of our monsters is more isolating than the monsters themselves.
The monsters are not nearly as dangerous to us as our fear of them—a fear that pushes us into hiding from the safety of God and community. (131)
Armed with these revelations, and willing to receive help from others, Martin encourages readers, likely facing a new host of weighty choices, to cast off the lie that their shipwreck has forever flung them off course from God's plan and will. These frank words are helpful to anyone caught in analysis paralysis:
God does not have a highly detailed, overly scripted individual plan for your life. A life lived in constant anxiety about whether or not you've found the perfect path or the one and only unique script is not life at all—because such a thing does not exist.
There is a kind of comfort in thinking you've been handed a tight script, but there's a terrible monotony to it too. You're not a pawn on a chessboard, mindlessly being moved by a higher power. You are called to be "God's fellow workers." You get a say in the kind of life you want to live, the kind of person you want to become, the kind of work you want to do. (155)
As the book ends, we're encouraged to embrace the winds of the Spirit, even when they bring seeming chaos and confusion, to embrace a watery baptism of death, to be confident in God's love and to hold onto hope. I see the book as a lifeboat of creative thoughts to keep afloat the downtrodden, but I also feel that pre- or distant-past shipwreck survivors can mine a lot of really good insight into living a more connected, authentic life.

I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

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