From his youth, Dan Gilliam has been seeking the path to true communion with God. Dan says his new book, God Touches: Finding Faith in the Cracks and Spaces of My Life (recently released by Standard Publishing), “is simply a record of how God has spoken to me in fresh ways through my life experiences.” These stories from Dan’s life illuminate a spiritual journey that causes him to challenge the status quo and seek a simplified expression of church, as found in the New Testament. Dan, a graduate of Cincinnati Christian University, and his wife, Lynn, live in Marion, Virginia, with their three cats.
“God Touches” is available through your favorite bookstore or by visiting www.standardpub.com.
How would you define the church?
One person honestly sharing his or her life and faith with another. This is church in the most simple “book of Acts” kind of terms. True spiritual fellowship is seeking God in authentic ways and getting together with others to talk about it. The church is alive and well all over the world in many ways that the institutional church isn’t aware of, simply because it isn’t being tracked, counted, or overseen. God knows where we are, however, and Christ is in our midst wherever and whenever we gather.
Can the church provide the kind of fellowship people need to thrive?
Of course. Spiritual fellowship is a viable option for many in the church, but much of it is available and occurring outside of the institutional programs of that which we traditionally call “the church.” It is scripturally incorrect to view churches as entities distinct from the people that make up the body of Christ. Depending upon religious institutions and human leaders to provide for us that which we should inherently seek and find as Christ-followers makes our Western view of church sort of codependant. There’s something “in the air” when you step inside a church building that says property, personalities, and preferences are what matter. I’m one of millions who have chosen (recently, again) to do and be church without having aspects such as these to deal with in order to experience spiritual growth and fellowship.
I think your talking about community. How do you define community?
I think spiritual community is any gathering of people who are trying to be honest with each other—showing unconditional love and acceptance for one another and seeking God’s will and way for their lives. Christ has made this possible and people are starting to figure out that the spiritual life can be real and exciting, fun and free when shared with others who aren’t afraid of their humanity This means, of course, that there will be conflict and difficulty. Avoiding certain topics or situations just because they’re uncomfortable isn’t an option like it is in the big church. The institutional church in my opinion is too committed to cleaning things up before they can be part of our gatherings. God is not uncomfortable with messy things or people. Jesus seemed to prefer people who didn’t look all that good on the outside.
Has your experience as a church staff member jaded you?
Probably. But God has knocked many, many chips from my ministerial shoulders. I’m sure I still have a long way to go. Once you are on a church staff and you see behind the “Oz” curtain, it is difficult to go back to seeing things from your previous limited perspective. On the bright side, having been on staff at several large churches helped to drive me deeper into my walk with God and my community with others, even though I had to go outside the institution to get this. Ironically, I have found working for a church to be spiritually hazardous. This is probably why I have not served in a professional capacity for more than a couple years at a time. I find church to be more real when God is allowed to speak through more than a small handful of people, and this can only happen, in my opinion, when you don’t have a mortgage, a weekly programmed event, or a paid staff.
It seems as if your parents’ divorce started a real downward spiral for you as a teen? Would you call that the defining event of your life?
I wouldn’t say the defining event. It certainly was the first major twist away from how life was unfolding for me. I think it was the beginning of my own journey toward finding a relationship with God that was uniquely mine; therefore it was certainly a defining event. My perspective has been shaped to see that God can redeem any event, no matter how tragic, to his purposes. Unfortunately, it is usually hardship or devastation that causes people to step back from their routine, religious and otherwise, and say, “I know what I’ve been told. Now, what do I really believe?” When we have life-threatening circumstances that force us to let go and trust God for help, he is released to work in us in ways we did not know possible. In this respect, I have come to be grateful for every difficulty in my life. They have allowed God to change me in ways I could never have changed myself.
Would you call yourself the prodigal son?
Oh yeah. More than once. I’m the perpetual prodigal son. I’m pretty sure I’m done leaving the fold, though. If the fold is a religious institution, I’m a prodigal son again. If the fold is the kingdom of God, I’m smack dab in the middle of it. I kind of like wearing the robe and ring and have developed a taste for fatted calf, medium well.
How would you be different if your parents hadn’t divorced?
I probably would have just been another version of who I am now, but with not as many colorful stories to tell.
What other struggles have you faced in life?
As an adult I had a defining moment when I left my first youth ministry under duress because of an addiction to prescription drugs. This opened a Pandora’s box of alcoholism for me that had, for the most part, been in remission since my freshman year of Bible college. I was completely stripped of all I had and knew when it appeared—to my surprise—I would survive it. That, I think, led to a kind of a launching point into what I’ve become now—and what I will become. In 1989, with no place left to go, I found myself glued to a chair in an anonymous 12-step fellowship. That’s where my truest transformation and my best experience of New Testament Christianity occurred. I need to write a whole other book about the other hardships and how God has shown up in the darkest places imaginable to redeem me and show me the way home. Staying active in my 12-step fellowship allows me the opportunity to see God do this for others on a regular basis. I don’t think you get to see people change all that much in traditional expressions of church.
So good can come from bad?
I wouldn’t be who I am now without the good and bad. Whoever said, “I’m a sum total of all my experiences,” spoke for me. I hear scriptural truth ring in that quote—it’s like Romans 8:28. I’m grateful for all those potholes in my spiritual road because they’ve allowed me to bottom out, look at where I’m going, and let God alter my course as necessary.
What do you think it means for a person to be broken?
As you ask the question I can still taste the brokenness lingering in my mouth. Just like anyone who has ever had their face smack down on concrete or asphalt, you don’t forget the sensation or the sound. Brokenness, to me, is a relinquishing of control of my life. It’s getting my knuckles wrapped enough times with some kind of cosmic ruler where I finally let go of the reins. For me, I had to lose a marriage and career and be hospitalized a half-dozen times before I was able to let go and let God. I had to lose absolutely everything before I was 30 years old to say, “OK, God, I don’t have any ideas any more of how you should work in my life.” I gave it up to God and daily give it to him to work in my life any way he would choose. Up until then, I would say “God, I give you permission to work in my life in ways that I deem fit for you.” I see many people whose relationship with God is like that. It doesn’t work very well and it keeps God at a distance, though we usually don’t know it.
Is recovery just for alcoholics and drug addicts?
In modern language we use the word recovery most often to refer to alcoholics and drug addicts. Recovery is just another version of the spiritual program God has given mankind through the revealed Word. Recovery, particularly the 12-step variety, is definitely for alcoholics and drug addicts. Redemption is for everyone. From where I sit, it appears the church is really struggling to find ways to help members of the body of Christ experience the process of sanctification that is intended for us. Getting our souls into heaven, while a welcomed prospect, is a worn-out message for those who are saying, “Hey, I need some salvation in the here and now.” Salvation and sanctification are not separate messages; they’re two branches on the same stick of spiritual development.
How would you define sanctification?
Sanctification is coming to terms with who we are and trusting God to change us into the likeness of Christ. For the most part we are dirty, nasty, ugly, mean, and greedy people, but God is not shocked by that. he is fully prepared for us to be who we are and has launched a plan for us to change. Sanctification is God changing us from the inside out. Too much of modern religion focuses on external activity that is not necessarily flowing from an internal transformation. In God’s economy, it’s a package deal. It seems people are trying to change their insides by working harder on the outside. Service to others will never be truly rewarding or lead us to internal and miraculous transformation unless accompanied by the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, confession, restitution, forgiveness, etc. These may sound like external works, but they are simply keys that allow us to open doors to the workings of the Holy Spirit.
You write about “living an authentic life.” What does that mean?
For me it has meant discovering and experiencing multiple layers of being who I really am—“who God is making me.” It’s experiencing self-acceptance in my relationship with God and unconditional love in my community with others. Living authentically is being aware of your “OK-ness” because of what Christ has done. This is a basic symptom of authentic spirituality. I like myself today, in part, because I am truly and uniquely the “me” God intended.
What would you call yourself . . . storyteller, writer, sage, counselor, theologian, artist? Do any of these rise to the top?
I’m flattered by the choices. I would say artist best describes how I view myself, but I prefer the term “contemplative” because I tend to look for God as he reveals himself in all things and all people. I’m more of a Christian mystic, because I don’t think we can get our minds around who God is and all that he is doing. I celebrate the mysteries of life and embrace all that I don’t understand, though this is a process. I consider myself to be more a spiritual person trying to have a human experience rather than a human being trying to have a spiritual experience.
Who should read this book?
God Touches is written primarily for people who are spiritually hungry but religiously tired. I realize it could also be an encouragement to someone who is active in a congregation but seeking fresh expressions of how to do and be the church. There are novel and energizing expressions of church waiting to be discovered by anyone willing to step back and review what they have been taught, look at Scripture with new eyes, and say with an open heart and mind, “God, show me your ways.” From what I have seen, God is waiting for us to seek him in all of life, in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.