Spiritual Bottleneck

Spiritual Bottleneck

Teaching to Learn

A baby practices babbling in order to learn speech; a toddler practices falling in order to learn walking; a child learns to become a grown up by playing pretend at the grown up life; and it has been said that the writer learns to write by writing. If we take this a step further we can say the writer is taught how to write by teaching others how to write. It is one thing for an instructor to say, “Here’s how to overcome this or that difficulty,” and it is another thing for the student-as-instructor to actually struggle through that same difficulty with his or her student. The student instructor has a greater appreciation for the reality and depth of instruction itself. Service Learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”  My Service Learning project is creative writing with the residents of the memory loss unit in a nursing home.  It is different from classroom learning in that the student learns through teaching.


The Reconciled Becomes the Reconciler

This process reminds me very much of how God deals with us.  Take Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, for example.  Paul tells us that he was reconciled by God to God through Christ.  He also tells us that God gave him (Paul and those who believe because of his testimony) the ministry of reconciliation.  God teaches us what it means to be reconciled by giving us the task of reconciling others.  Why does He do this?  I’m sure He has plenty of good reasons, but one reason that stands out to me is so that we become aware of the thoughts and ideas that keep us from fully enjoying our reconciliation with God.  For example, suppose as a minister of reconciliation you must explain to others, according to your traditional religious beliefs, that there comes a time when God throws in the towel and gives up on the sinner who persists in rebellion.  Being taught such an idea is one thing, but teaching it to others is quite another thing.  As the teacher, there is a certain sense of responsibility.

The Spirit of God Corrects the Reconciler

The Spirit of God, in helping us teach others, causes us to see what we are teaching in a whole new light, and we begin to question the validity of certain ideas that have been handed to us.  In becoming the minister of reconciliation, God places the person in His shoes, as His mouthpiece, as His representative – it is a holy calling that ought to be taken very seriously.  Suppose an individual continues teaching others that God gives up on people, despite the fact that the Spirit of God is causing him or her to feel terribly uncomfortable about it.  At this point, God sends people in the reconciler’s path, who ask questions to which the reconciler does not have an answer.  Questions like, “If God gives up on people, then how can it be said that God is Love and Love never fails?” or “My best friend in high school was an atheist.  He died in a car accident during his first semester in college.  From what I understand, he is now, and forever will be in torment in Hell.  How can I trust God, if God couldn’t save my best friend?  How can I trust God who sees him in Hell and is unwilling or unable to rescue Him?” or “I have been told the aborted babies go to Heaven.  I have also been told that unbelievers go to Hell forever.  Why then are Christians opposed to abortion?  Wouldn’t it be better to guarantee those babies a place in Heaven then to risk that they might grow up and die as unbelievers who spend eternity in Hell?”

The Restlessness is There for a Reason

At this point, the reconciler may ignore the Spirit of God and practice what Gary Amirault calls, “mental backfiling,” the purposeful denial of restlessness, the determination to ignore or deflect those hard, seemingly unanswerable, valid questions.  Or perhaps the minister of reconciliation actually becomes convinced of the truth, but continues in silence, to avoid persecution from the institutional church and those in it who call believers who reject the doctrines of eternal torment or annihilation heretics or wolves in sheep’s clothing or false prophets.  Somehow, the “qualifications” for being saved, according to orthodoxy, subtly changed along the way from saved by grace through faith not of ourselves but God’s gift to saved by repenting, believing, and subscribing to all the orthodox traditions.  Must one believe in Hell in order to qualify as fit for the ministry of reconciliation?

My suspicion is that these reconcilers-turned-slaves-of-religion are who Paul is referring to when he says,

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”

Some believers take this to mean that a person can be saved and then end up in Hell anyway, because he or she did not hold fast.   Really, it refers to the idea that Jesus saves once for all, and He invites us to participate with Him in the work of reconciling all things to Himself.  Salvation isn’t just about eternal destiny.  That was settled 2000 years ago.  Holding fast has to do with overcoming, and being rewarded for the persecution we might face for our being identified with Him and His message.  Believing in vain has to do with one’s willful return to slavery after having been set free.  There is so much more to be said about this, but that is another blog for another day.

The Bottleneck

Back to my service learning experience – I want to share a story with you.  You will understand why a little later, in the conclusion of this blog.  Most of the restlessness that I have observed among the creative writing students, the residents of the memory loss unit at the nursing home, takes place in one of two ways. First, the residents with memory loss does not remember that they experienced memory loss. They don’t understand why they don’t understand. If they become consumed with their own inability to reason, they really struggle. But if I, as the instructor, can help engage them in the creative moment, then they relax and the story-writing flows naturally and easily. Second, the residents with memory loss sometimes come to their senses, they realize that they are writing a story and that the story is supposed to make sense, and when the simultaneously discover that the story does not make sense, they become upset by their own internal censor. The internal censor wakes up and asserts itself, audibly, visibly, and emotionally, in a very tangible way through facial expression, body language, and tone.

I do not see the restlessness as a good thing. To me, it is an indication that the creativity is being bottlenecked. The restlessness seems to be a result of too much creative energy and no way to make use of that energy in a meaningful way. If the creative writing students at the nursing home have been silenced, it is only because they silence themselves. This may happen involuntarily, because of physical impairment, or voluntarily, because of an overwhelming moment of sanity and clarity. 

Mrs. Internal Censor

Let me tell you about Barbara, who I refer to in my notes as Mrs. Internal Censor. I will take you step by step through her creative process. First, she experiences frustration over the fact that she is supposed to write an entire story about a picture with not very many details. She shouts, “That’s a bunch of horseshit! That house is not 100 miles away. This is stupid!” But then, as she explains, she uses words in an unusual way. She begins telling a story about herself telling a story, without even realizing it. She says, “You can’t listen to it. You can’t understand what it is saying. This picture is not telling us what we need to know. It is completely uninteresting. There is no way that we can make this interesting.” She reveals her own feelings of inadequacy as a writer, in language that is strong, emotionally raw, and new – she is becoming a brilliant writer before my eyes. Then she becomes immersed in the story that she thinks can’t be written, saying, “There’s nobody watching except who is in front of these two men. Nobody is there with them. No one is interested in them. After all, how can a man be that much bigger than a car?” She imagines that one of the men in the picture is much bigger than he ought to be, which is an interesting premise for a story. Why is he bigger than he ought to be? How did it happen? What is life like, for a giant? This is how I learn from Barbara. By seeing things that are not there, and trying to make sense of what I don’t see. Barbara’s thoughts begin to clear again, and her frustration as a writer is renewed. She says, “That is stupid. Some people like stupid. If they are interested in stupid, then they like this.” Again, even in criticizing herself, she uses strange logic and sentence construction that is likely to appeal to the reader in the same way the strange use of paint or camera angle appeals to the art connoisseur. Barbara becomes lost in the moment again, analyzing her own mind, as if she were outside herself, “She stays up with children all night, that’s why she’s tired. That mind is not normal. Her mind is not normal. Something is setting her off. The young people have a better line of reasoning than this. Maybe we should ask the young people who are interested in this kind of thing. They have problems, but they are making the most of it, trying to help each other because they have quite a mess there. They want to pick it up and put it together again.” She is continuing, pressing through the rough patches, where she is her worst enemy, and she is actually coming up with some really great writing.

I Learn Because I Teach

There is no way that a moment like this can be captured or explained to a student and have as much impact as living in the moment itself. As a writer, I am inspired by this example in several ways. I learn to put aside expectations about myself. And if I can’t do this, then I learn to explore through writing the reasons why I can’t do this, how I feel about my inability, etc. And maybe when I have written all I need to write about the frustrations of writing, or why I can’t communicate effectively, or how stupid the whole damn thing is, then I will be ready to write what I meant to write in the first place. I hope this makes sense to you. It certainly makes sense to me. Service Learning is a teacher like no other.


Most of the restlessness that I have observed among the believers, the ministers of reconciliation who do not yet understand that God reconciles all things to Himself, takes place in one of two ways. First, these believers do not remember that they experienced salvation by grace through faith, not of themselves, but God’s gift to them. They don’t understand reconciliation, and they don’t understand why they don’t have answers to the hard questions. Consumed with the fear of not doing enough to ensure the salvation of their friends or family, they really struggle with their own weaknesses. But if they allow themselves, as ministers of reconciliation, to trust that God loves these others and can be trusted with the eternal destiny of these others more than them, then they can relax.  The Good News flows naturally and easily not only in their words, but in their lives. Ministers of reconciliation, in the process of reconciling others, should come to their senses as they realize that they are taking part in God’s Plan of the ages, a story with the central theme of God’s glory.  And if they find that the Plan of the Ages doesn’t glorify God, then they ought to fully experience their own restlessness. In creative writing, the internal censor can be a bad thing.  But as believers, it can serve as a red flag, an indication that God’s creativity is being bottlenecked in them. The restlessness is a result of the glory of God at work in them, with no way to make use of that energy in a meaningful way.  The internal censor or the spiritual police or a combination of both have effectively bottlenecked the work of God in them.  Their believing isn’t accomplishing anything – they have been paralyzed – they have believed in vain (useless, with nothing to show for it).  God allows His voice in them to be silenced, because they have allowed themselves to be silenced by others, or they silence themselves. This may happen involuntarily, because of ignorance, or voluntarily, because they have taken an overwhelming moment of sanity and clarity given to them by the Spirit of God and their internal censor has treated it like heresy.


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