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Higher Ground

2012 March 12
by Mike

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day.
Still praying as I onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground!”

This post is part movie review and part memoir of a winter Christian.

Higher Ground stars and is directed by Vera Farmiga. It follows the faith journey of Corinne Briggs—first as a child “asking Jesus into her heart” when the pastor tells the children that Jesus is polite, waiting to be invited into their lives; then as a young mother thrust back into belief when she, her husband, and their child are delivered from near drowning; and finally as a woman who lives in the middle of a fundamentalist group of self-proclaimed “Jesus freaks.”

This film avoids the easy road of turning all the Christians into hypocrites and judgmental clowns. They are three-dimensional people of faith, seeking to live in deep community. They are held together by lives of constant Bible study and prayer. They turn to God’s word for “answers” on everything—including the hilarious scene where the men gather in a circle to listen to seven cassette tapes on sex by some well-known Christian sex expert. (Yes, such tapes exist! I was forced to listen to them when I was an engaged student in college.)

Corinne wants desperately to share the easy faith and confidence of her husband, Ethan. She would love to believe that every prayer is answered, that every verse of scripture is literally true. She even begs God for the gift of tongues as a kind of confirmation, though it’s not endorsed by most in their community.

But in trying to survive in this fundamentalism, she keeps finding parts of her life that must be shut out—her love for literature, music, and creation. When her best friend is diagnosed with brain cancer and is left dramatically altered by surgery, she finds herself unable to just jump in and be thankful for God’s answer.

Following the surgery, the pastor leads the congregation in “It Is Well With My Soul.” At that point, you see Corinne joining in lifelessly at the chorus. You realize she can’t remain in this place. Not all is well with her soul.

A fundamentalist therapist tells her that she’s in danger of going to hell where her flesh will be whipped and ripped. He tells her that she must decide whether she’ll be inside with Jesus or outside with the dogs.

Corinne returns to her church building. Inside she sees all the signs of religious confidence; then as she walks outside dogs begin to gather around her. She realizes that her place is on the outside, without hating those on the inside.

As a winter Christian, my life has been dogged by doubts and questions. I tried many times to be a good fundamentalist. Six literal days of creation? Check. Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch? Check. God’s answer to every prayer? Check. I memorized large chunks of scripture and spent (literally) an hour a day in prayer. I listened to the sermons on the eternal, conscious torments of hell (a renewed favorite theme within Christian fundamentalism).

But, alas, there were gaps in the armor of faith. Some were caused by reading outside my protected circle. Some by over-thinking. (I’m always guilty of this.) But some just by life.

During my years as a minister, I constantly felt the disappointment of some who wanted more confidence. They needed miracles; their minister loved mystery. They loved The Prayer of Jabez; I was embarrassed by it. They turned to scripture as an answer book; I found in it life’s greatest questions (along with an “answer” in Jesus). They saw it as the inerrant blueprint for dating, marriage, job, etc.; I trusted it as my spiritual community’s library of faith. They wanted confident prayers expelling Satan and claiming spiritual victories; I turned to the Lord’s Prayer. They spotted God’s healing everywhere they turned; I kept performing funerals. They needed more “already”; I’m “not yet.” They wanted sermons where everyone could shout “Amen!”; I preached anticipating quiet nods, thoughtful expressions, and eyes moist with hope.

It may sound like I think I’m really more spiritual than others. I don’t. I’m a winter Christian. I love and desperately need my fellow summer believers. I’m drawn by their answers, their confidence, their optimism.

But at age 55, I’m thankful for this faith that has survived. Doubt-filled, less-than-confident faith. I’ve given up thinking that if I just try harder I’ll have the assurance others seem to have.

I will groan, long, wait, and hope. For I’m a believer in the resurrection of Jesus.

My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay
Tho’ some may dwell where these abound
My prayer, my aim is higher ground.

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Don Kleppe permalink
    March 12, 2012

    I’m wondering if age is the key factor for the season we find ourselves in. I’ve always leaned toward the winter but now have snow drifts making it difficult to get in and out of the house. I don’t think my faith is weaker — it’s just been redefined by life as I’ve experienced it. If prayer “works”, it is to keep that cable to the anchor strong and viable. I wonder how I would feel about this movie…..would there be any change of season?

  2. Mark Frost permalink
    March 12, 2012

    Thank you, Mike. As I write this, my wife clings to the tiniest sliver of life. Unless God works a miracle, pancreatic cancer will soon finish its horrible work in her. We have been surrounded by a wonderful family of dedicated fellow-believers who have said, in word and action, “We’ll walk this road with you.” God bless them! But we’ve also received notes and emails from several who tell us that God wants to heal her and that he would heal her, but for our lack of faith (I’m never sure whether it’s my faith or hers that’s deemed deficient). As “proof,” we’ve been pointed to the example of Joel Osteen’s mother, who was given three weeks to live by the doctors, and then miraculously healed. (No mention of Joel’s dad, whose death from a sudden heart attack propelled Joel into ministry.) Maybe these are simply “summer Christians,” and I need to appreciate their perspective as a counterbalance to my own. But I’ll tell you that it’s hard not to resent what I often perceive as a case of theological “blame the victim” arising from a sense of spiritual superiority. I’ll take the winter saints who are holding her hands and offering me their shoulders any day.

  3. Bonnie Barnes permalink
    March 12, 2012

    Thank you, Mike.

  4. March 12, 2012

    Very possible, Don—though these questions for me go WAY back! But yes, age (and the life experiences/disappointments that go with it) are no doubt a factor.

    Thank you so much, Bonnie.

  5. March 12, 2012

    Mark – There is without question a “blame the victim” impulse to triumphalistic Christianity. (Just check out 1 and 2 Corinthians, of course!) Though this isn’t true for all summer Christians by any means, there is a constant danger for “already” believers to imply that you’re just not good enough: you don’t believe enough, don’t trust God enough, don’t claim enough, etc.

    I am endlessly thankful for those who will come alongside those who suffer and walk with them into and through that suffering.

    And on a personal note, my friend, may God’s deepest presence surround you and your Beloved in this hour. May you know how wide and deep and long is this love that will not let you go. I give him thanks today for those hands and shoulders of others who surround you.

  6. Lori permalink
    March 12, 2012

    No accusations intended here: but can you explain why you chose to stay in a fundamentalist group? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have migrated to another group where mystery is valued more, where the strength of tradition can walk hand-in-hand with experience? In other words, haven’t you made this harder on yourself that it needed to be? Thank you.

  7. March 12, 2012

    Oh, Lori. Wonderful question.

    The truth is that every group has its fundamentalists. There are just different things the fundamentalism focuses on.

    My tribe, the Churches of Christ, has actually been such a blessing. Because of our commitment to autonomy, we tend to give some space to others. (Ok, this isn’t 100% true, but I’ve been blessed by its general truth.)

    For the most part, I’ve been welcomed as a believer and minister who speaks from doubt, mystery, and “not-yetness.” While it’s puzzled some, people have often been very generous.

    And in every group, there are some who quietly await words of hope. They aren’t wanting rants and raves about Mosaic authorship or biblical inerrancy or literal days of creation; they don’t wait for a crescendoing AMEN!; they are waiting for words to help sustain them for the long haul.

    I receive my brothers and sisters who have greater optimism, confidence, and “already-ness” as a gift (though, admittedly, a “gift” that wore me out at times when I was in full-time ministry).

  8. March 12, 2012

    I don’t remember the name of the little arcade game where you use a hammer to hit one thing and it pops up somewhere else, but that’s the way summer Christians come across to me: I try to suppress their naive triumphalism in one venue, only to see it pop up again IN THE SAME PERSON in some other venue. “Whack-a-mole,” maybe? LOL.

    But seriously…this is right on the mark. And it’s the central reason that qb ended up with Pinnock and Sanders in the “open theist” camp.

    qb

  9. March 12, 2012

    Dear Mike,
    At 74 years of age, and having been through losing a husband, surviving colon cancer and moving 2 times in two years (all on the list of life’s stressors) I am even more a “winter Christian” than you–let’s be competitive and measure our sorrows! I am teaching Ecclesiastes to the ladies’ class this semester and am finding it an unexpectedly helpful book for these days of white hair “I’ve seen it all” times.

    It is a book of accepting (as Stepehn Curtis Chapman so famously sang) that God is God and I am not. AND as Quohayleth says over and over in the book, this is a time to enjoy life, enjoy labor, and accept God’s gifts with an open heart. That is just what I am doing. Thanks for the movie–when will it be released to the general public?

  10. March 12, 2012

    qb – The whack-a-mole description fits perfectly. I’m guessing Paul thought he was playing Whack-a-Mole with the believers in Corinth during his visits and (at least) four letters!

    Judy – My dear friend, winter Christians migrate to Qoheleth. Sooner or later. While summer Christians are memorizing Proverbs, we winter believers are drawing together around Qoheleth’s bald wisdom.

  11. Gary H permalink
    March 12, 2012

    I’m just absolutely amazed at how similar our faith journeys have been!! I can’t help but wonder how much of that similarity come from sitting together at the feet of Jim Woodroof and Terry Smith.

  12. Bonnie Barnes permalink
    March 12, 2012

    Lori and Mike, after a lot of lumps and bumps in life and trying to figure out just what I really believe (branching out from deep roots in the Churches of Christ), I’ve landed in an Episcopal church, where I get to sing in the choir and sometimes read scripture and lead prayers. What Mike says is true–there are fundamentalists in every church, and there are thinking people in every church too, pretty much. I still appreciate the biblical training I received and also appreciate the more contemplative style of worship I get to experience now. I’ve been blessed by writers and so many others who have helped me through the sometimes wintry weather and those difficult questions that are always there.

  13. March 13, 2012

    Hi Mike – I’m wondering if there aren’t one to two more layers of Christians to define?

    How about the happy-go-lucky Christian that sees God all around him, particularly on the deer stand, really enjoys the 55 minute church service, and just doesn’t need all those Christian books and other stuff. And, the ultra-political-fundamentalist that treats every issue from communion cups to the national debt to membership cards as believe me or the hit the road Jack issues?

    Hate to turn to labeling, but as Dr. Beck points out, it makes things so much more understandable when leaders/ministers are simply trying to understand someone’s perspective. Thanks!

  14. erin permalink
    March 14, 2012

    After reading this review, I searched for other reviews and am wondering: why didn’t this movie received broader release? How does a movie this good not make it in the theaters? (This question is asked especially after looking at what is out right now in our local theaters.)

  15. Kathy permalink
    March 15, 2012

    Mike, dear Mike – I often wonder what your spiritual walk would have been ha you not suffered such deep losses, which by the way is a question I never ask of myself…what if…./???? Please, don’t ask me why, I do not know why, I just never have. Maybe my losses have made me NOT ask, rather to just continue along the road knowing the bumps are sure to come, then taking the bumps as they come….accepting they’re there, never questioning why? As a result, I mourn and grieve deeply the losses, asking God to help me through them then stepping aside to let Him work. More than summer or winter, maybe I’m an autumn believer, Who knows, I don’t, that’s for sure.
    King David is my mentor; grieving, mourning, begging God’s miracles while my loved one still lives, then washing my face, changing garments and celebrating when the center of my grief is gone on ahead of me.
    Very poorly expressed, just an attempt to give a possible second answer to yours and others. Not disputing nor doubting those, just acknowledging the possibility that there IS another ‘season of Christian’ other than winter and summer.
    One thing for sure, it breaks my heart to see those I love and respect slogging through the deep, icy snow drifts of questioning grief. All I have been able to do is give loving hugs and many prayers offered for their relief. Love you dear pastor/teacher, preacher and friend!!! Please accept my deep wishes for answers to your ‘why’ questioning.

  16. kathy s permalink
    March 15, 2012

    Thank you so much for highlighting this movie. It’s now high on my to-see list.

    I have never been able to decide where I am in the summer-winter categories. I’ve wondered if I’m one of those who don’t seem to fit just right in either category, but after reading the following section from you today I’m thinking that I might be a winter without really knowing it, for these words of yours resonated deeply with me:

    They needed miracles; their minister loved mystery.
    They loved The Prayer of Jabez; I was embarrassed by it.
    Exactly.

    They turned to scripture as an answer book; I found in it life’s greatest questions (along with an “answer” in Jesus).
    Ah, yes, this is it.

    They saw it as the inerrant blueprint for dating, marriage, job, etc.; I trusted it as my spiritual community’s library of faith.
    I like the way you put this. I know I’m odd, but inerrancy somehow seems to diminish my faith rather than strengthening it.

    They wanted confident prayers expelling Satan and claiming spiritual victories; I turned to the Lord’s Prayer.
    Mike, you were the one who first introduced me to the Lord’s Prayer as a life prayer and it has nourished me, transformed me, and focused me for many years now.

    They spotted God’s healing everywhere they turned; I kept performing funerals. They needed more “already”; I’m “not yet.” They wanted sermons where everyone could shout “Amen!”; I preached anticipating quiet nods, thoughtful expressions, and eyes moist with hope.
    “Hope”—such a comforting word in an uncertain world.

  17. Val permalink
    March 17, 2012

    I’m not sure it’s an age thing. When I was young I went to church camps and youth rallies where we were encouraged to read the Bible as a proof text and memorize verses supporting whatever lesson of the day all the while missing the underlying theme of Love. I had an awareness that more questions were being avoided than truly answered. While it’s interesting to know there is apparently a term for it, I don’t know if it is encouraging. There may be comfort in knowing there are others who find Jabez irksome or throw up in their mouth a little bit when singing “Blue Skies and Rainbows,” but I am glad people can readily achieve joy if they can share it with those it seems to have eluded. In a recent circumstance from which it was at times doubtful I would be delivered it seemed odd to some that I never prayed for that delivery. Instead, I realized that if I never saw family and friends again, the promise of the “not yet” was ultimately enough. That may not sound joyful or look good in needlepoint on a throw pillow, but being a “Winter Christian” seems to have given me more of a cornerstone than a pillow anyway.

  18. March 20, 2012

    My husband and I just watched this movie. My heart was troubled by it and I’m trying to figure out why. One thing that comes to mind is the question, why can’t a believer in Christ have a “life” in”worldly” interests and still be a believer in Christ? I was struck by the lack of friends outside of their circle. Who were they reaching out to? Thanks Mike, God Bless. VS

  19. Jason permalink
    March 21, 2012

    Mike, thank you for your transparency. I, too, tend to live inside my own head perhaps a bit much, and I certainly would label myself a winter Christian (late autumn at best). I’m younger than you and have not suffered the sort of personal losses you’ve endured (your series on losing a child managed to both bring me to tears and be filled with comfort), yet I think my experiences in recent years, beginning with the death of a college friend who was a young husband and new father, were the catalyst for much of my now routine questioning and doubting. As Richard noted in a recent post on the idea of “dumbfounding,” drastic reshaping of our tightly held views comes primarily through a jarring experience that forces us to reconsider them.

    I appreciate the counter balance summer Christians provide, but I often feel as if we’re speaking different languages. A few years ago, a summer Christian in our small group recounted a story of a preacher who daily visited a young woman dying of cancer. The preacher at one point asked her if she believed God could heal her. She said she supposed so. The preacher responded, “Yes, he can. But if for some reason he doesn’t, just imagine how wonderful heaven will be.” The man who shared the story saw it as a beautiful story. After a few moments of silence, I responded, “If I had been in that woman’s place, I would’ve mustered whatever strength I had and punched the preacher in the face.” Needless to say, that wasn’t the sort of response he expected the story to elicit.

  20. Cathy Moore permalink
    April 1, 2012

    Mike,
    Thanks for giving of yourself so fully while you were our pastor. Winter Christians rock, you know. You were one of the first people who gave me some peace about being in the winter category. I’m truly grateful for that, as I suspect are many others. Bless you.

  21. December 28, 2014

    I every time spent my halof an hour to read this web site’s posts every day along with a cup of coffee.

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