Hiding From God

Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. — Romans 13:14, NRSV

I have many delightful and powerfully spiritual memories associated with traditional Christianity. The Eucharist, my baptism, preaching from a gorgeous Lutheran pulpit in Kentucky, and many such qualities of what would be called “orthodox” Christian circles are firmly and fondly planted in my mind and heart. Then there are… other memories.

Having come of age “in church,” I was always struck by the obsession with “grace” that seemed to yield very little in practice. God forgives us, yet we frequently stone one another for anything and everything. We also claim to believe that humans (along with all creation) are fundamentally good, having been created with the image and breath of God on and within us (Genesis 1:27 and 2:7). But when passages like the one above from Romans came up, there always seems to be this idea that we need Jesus to act as a spiritual, bullet-proof vest of sorts.

In this passage, Paul is talking about setting aside “the works of darkness” in favor of living honorably “as in the day” (13:12-13). We are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (13:14). In this context, we are encouraged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which many take to mean that we cover up who we are so that God only sees Jesus, thereby granting us mercy. 

I think this is a deeply flawed interpretation.

If this is true, it means that God isn’t interested in a relationship with us so much as with a multitude of Jesus clones. The message this sends is that we must hide from God behind Jesus so that our awful, sinful selves can be overlooked. Unfortunately, this is what I was often taught, either explicitly or implicitly by well-meaning teachers and pastors throughout the years. We see this idea put forth in literature, in the pulpit, in our worship songs, and in our liturgy.

What we don’t realize is this kind of thinking reinforces every negative cycle and belief with regard to ourselves and how we perceive our connection to the Divine.

If the “Good News” is that Jesus allows us to hide ourselves from God, that’s… not good. I also don’t believe this to be what the passage is getting at. It seems that to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is to act in a particular way in this life. It’s to walk in discipleship, following the example of love and Divine connection that we have in Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, to “put on Christ” is to be who we were always meant to be!

God doesn’t intend for us to go around in fearful self-loathing masquerading as faith. To follow Jesus is not to hide behind Him, for God doesn’t want us to hide, but to be who we really are. To lead a life of love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, integrity, and peace is nothing more than to embrace all of the gifts which God has given us.

The Good News is that God sees you for who you really are: a good and blessed creation that bears His image and likeness. He sees past your mistakes and sins, loving all of you in a more complete way than anyone else ever could. What remains is for us to act like this is the case, and that is what it means to “put on Christ.”

In Jesus, we see the ideal human and the ideal relationship with the Divine. Jesus fully embraced the Divine within Him, and He invites you and I to do the same as His disciples. God doesn’t want you to hide behind Jesus, but to join our Lord in openly embracing your true nature, which is fundamentally and irrevocably good. The cool thing is that doing this also means treating everyone and everything else in the same way, as all are beautiful manifestations of God’s creative power. So let’s get to it!

Peace be with you!

 

 

Balance

the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. — Ezra 3:13, NRSV

You’ve probably heard it a million times. “Life is about balance.” Whether it’s off-setting your diet with a cupcake, your exercise with a day of sloth-like relaxation, or your attempts at holiness with the odd swear word, it seems balance is something we appeal to more and more frequently.

When reading Ezra 3 this morning, I was struck by the last paragraph. The Israelites have returned to rebuild Jerusalem, specifically the temple. Having been in exile, you can imagine there are mixed emotions when confronted with the reconstruction of God’s house.

Many of the Israelites raise a shout of praise (3:11), while the older generations, “who had seen the first house on its foundations,” began to weep (3:12). What struck me is that this is all that is said.

No one corrects the mourners.

No one rebukes those who celebrate.

All of the emotion, whether joyous or grief-stricken, is held in a single, glorious tension. The entire mash up of sound rises on the air and simply… is.

To me, that is the balance of life.

It’s not how often you nap or do goat yoga. It’s about fully experiencing the broad range of emotion and beauty and pain that this life has to offer. To live a balanced life is to find peace in the tension between our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, knowing a well-lived life is comprised of both.

We are in a world afraid to feel, and afraid to hurt. Our culture forces down “negative” emotions in favor of the “sunny side up” approach to everything, not realizing that to paint pain as abnormal is to reinforce unhealthy emotional processing and coping mechanisms.

My prayer, then, is that we will instead accept this Scriptural representation of balance. I hope we will be bold enough to feel, to sing, to laugh, and to grieve. I hope we will decide, no matter the experience, to just “be” in it. After all, we only get one chance.

Peace be with you!

From Within

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defileMark 7:15, NRSV

I’ve always looked at this teaching with an emphasis on the “all foods are clean” thing (Mark 7:19). After all, it means I can enjoy bacon guilt-free and it represents a shift from religious box-checking to a more transformative spirituality. But the last part… the “defilement from within” part… that didn’t truly sink in until recently.

We as humans always look to external causes for our inappropriate actions. It’s never our fault. It’s the unclean “stuff” out there that got us.

We see this when the media crucifies an assault survivor for what they were wearing; we hear it about the victim of a careless police officer for what they may or may not have been doing out so late in that neighborhood OR we see the same logic used to justify the assault on a police officer. After all, there’s this back story…

It’s never our fault.

I’ve done this in my own life. Old habits die hard, and all the more so when changing seems too scary or painful. There was always a reason, whether it be my childhood, my losses, or my depression.

We always look for external sources of trouble and salvation. We don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes because then we might be responsible for fixing them. Jesus rightly criticizes this attitude.

Agreeing with James (4:1-3), Jesus asserts that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly(Mark 7:21-22). Our desires and our fears produce the evil we enact in the world. Other people or situations may stimulate or add specificity to these things, but our response is ours alone.

Now this is not a guilt trip or a statement about my own perfection. I am simply indicating that this passage has taken on new life for me because I now understand that I must heal what is within rather than waiting for something from without.

When many of us entered into faith, we are taught that God is a Savior, which is true. But what often follows is the expectation that God will do it all, which is actually a blatant denial of free will. God gives us the means and awareness, and He is with us always, but to change and grow and leave behind our harmful practices is our work. We must desire it, initiate it, and see it through while relying on God’s grace to keep us moving with compassion for ourselves and each other as we all embark on our roads to healing.

For me to change, I have to want it. If any of us have habits in need of changing, it must be us that seek to enter into that process with God. God’s already where He needs to be, He’s just waiting on us to meet Him at the station.

Whatever is plaguing your life, and whatever negative habits or behaviors are manifesting in you, I pray that you will know that it is never hopeless or too late. All that you need to make the change is already with you, waiting for you to find that motivation and get started. Is it your relationship with your family, friends, or kids? Your relationship with God or yourself? Are you simply sick and tired? Whatever it is, may the grace of God light a fire within, and may we all choose to take a step into that transforming Light.

Peace be with you!

Change! *Hiss*

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. — Romans 7:21, NRSV

Some of Paul’s most “real” comments come from this section of his letter to the Romans. For those of us who have had to make major changes in their lives, we know exactly what the apostle means when he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). For those who have tried to change anything for the better, whether internally or externally, they know that evil is close by when we start to try for righteousness.

Our world is theoretically supportive of redemption, but in practice, I have found that many people would rather write you off as whatever they perceive you to be. When you try to have a positive effect on your surroundings, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the naysayers are quick to protect the negative environment from which they draw energy. For every harmful system, hierarchy, habit, or practice we might try to extricate ourselves and others from, there will be forces of major resistance.

So what is the appropriate response?

Often, we hit this resistance and despair. Even Paul heaves a dramatic sigh in Romans 7:24, exclaiming, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” When we are faced with a world that is too comfortable, and that benefits too much from all the hurt that surrounds us, it can be difficult to stay the course, and many of us don’t. We fall back into our comfy, negative patterns of behavior, uttering inane phrases like, “That’s just how I am,” or “I’m just set in my ways.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work.

Luckily, Paul doesn’t end with his despair. He goes on to say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25). In Christ, we have the premier example of how we ought to respond when met with resistance in our quest for positive change. With every negative comment or attempt to undermine His ministry, Jesus reached out all the more, healing, teaching, and loving people, even up to His “final” moments.

Our first response to resistance, whether internal or external, should be compassion. Change is scary. When we are resistant to ourselves, we should understand the fact that altering our patterns of thought and behavior is not an easy task. It takes undoing years of programming, and change means uncertainty, which is something humans fear.

By the same token, resistance from others comes from the exact same fear. When a person looks at me and sees a screw up, it gives them an outlet that allows them to feel better about (or even avoid) their own unhealthiness. If I start trying to change, if I start to make note of those darker aspects of the world that connect to my own pain, and if I start to try to change those things, those who would rather use me as a distraction, projection, or scapegoat start to lose their foothold. Their negative response is fear. After all if others can change…

The next step beyond compassion, however, is to simply continue. Now, to be clear, “simple” does not mean “easy.” After all, Holy Week is coming, and we will see the level of resistance Jesus had to overcome. It can be costly. However, we know that Good Friday is not the end of the story, and God will see us through as we seek to grow closer to Him in a world that grows increasingly hostile to the idea.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of all of this being put into practice is my dear friend, Jonathan Allen. Over the course of his life, he has face powerful resistance as a result of his race, his beginnings, his relationships, and his seemingly radical dreams for what this world could look like. However, despite it all, he remains one of the most positive, determined, and beautiful people I have had the privilege to know.

The latest instance of his perseverance comes in the form of the non-profit he and his partner have started, called The Leadership Brainery. This non-profit is designed to identify, support, and train first-generation scholars from all fifty states and Puerto Rico. It’s a powerful testament to Jonathan’s desire to follow Christ, and I pray you’ll check them out and offer your support here.

Now, I’m not saying you need to start a major non-profit in order to affect change. What I am saying is that your perseverance through the resistance of the world can result in powerful differences being made. If even one person a day is positively affected by your growing relationship with God, you’ve done something incredible.

Further, resistance means you’re on the right track. When you find yourself desperately wanting to crawl back to your place of comfortable darkness, when others try to remind you of “your place” or of “what you are,” or when the world itself seems to be against you, you know you’re on a path to powerful transformation, and I encourage you to keep moving forward toward the cross of Christ.

I pray for you and all that you hope to heal and change, dear reader. I hope you will do the same for me.

Peace be with you!

“Not of This World,” But We Do Try

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. — John 17:16, NRSV

I hear the phrase “In the world, but not of it” quite frequently when it comes to the Christian faith and its adherents. This idea comes from John 17, in which Jesus is praying for His disciples before entering into His Passion. It’s true that the image of the Cross depicts a King and a Kingdom unlike any we have ever experienced on this earth, but how do we, His people, match up with this vision?

Not long ago, a senior official representing the United States implied that God sent President Trump to save the nation that calls itself Israel, and this merely echoes what many voices in the president’s base have been saying since he initially ran for office.

Churches often base success on “the numbers.” If there are a lot of people buying in, tithing, and attending, we must be onto something.

We individuals, when life is going well, use words phrases like, “I’m blessed,” and “God is good.” When things take a turn for the tragic, such phrases tend to fall to the background and we begin to question the goodness of God. We avoid images and descriptions of Christ that “fall short” of His triumphant resurrection and ascension, believing the crucifixion was just a moment of temporary embarrassment before His intended glory.

So what’s the problem?

All of these circumstances align prosperity, ease of life, and power with the Gospel’s main character. As humans, we naturally find these things desirable and positive, yet that’s not exactly the message of the One who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted” and those who are reviled  and persecuted because they believe in Christ (Matthew 5:1-12).

It’s perfectly natural for us to crave security and pleasure in life, but too much of this can lead us to portray God as a character in our own story rather than understanding that we are a part of His. When that happens, we are able to justify a lot… even if it actually takes us away from the Good News Jesus imparts to us. The Gospel urges us to look at our darkest and most painful moments with the knowledge that God is there.

This is why the cross is the primary symbol of the faith. It has nothing to do with guilt, shame, or depression. Rather, it is a reminder that we don’t need to “look high” for the presence of God. He is here, with us when it hurts and when following in the footsteps of Christ ends up costing us all the power, prestige, security, and comfort we seek so desperately.

Because it will.

Yet this is not something to resent or fear. It’s a joyful connection to our King, who Himself gave all that He had that we might know what it is to love and to fully, intimately know God. We will not always act in accordance with this truth, but the power of transformation is revealed in our efforts and our openness to regular reminders, often the most accessible of which being communal worship and the Eucharist.

When the disciples were concerned about power and greatness as the world sees it, with the “great ones” who “are tyrants over them,” to which Jesus responds “But it is not so among you” (Mark 10:42-43). The Church, the people of God, are not meant to live as though Jesus were just another king with just another kingdom, with all of the power-hungry politics of this world. Rather, we are meant to realize that all of these things, the institutions, the powers that be, will all eventually fall away and be no more. The Kingdom we are a part of, the One we serve, is something… other.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t written to lay a burden. It’s written as a reminder, first of all to myself. We are not required to live perfectly, only to consistently make efforts toward following the path Jesus sets before us. He will walk with us and though we stumble, He will not let us fall headlong (Psalm 37:24). God is not our tyrant, nor is He the sanctifying force by which we may do whatever want. God is the One who walks with us, guides us, corrects us, redeems us, and forgives us. Above all, He is the One who loves us instructs us to imitate and share that love. If we follow His lead, we will truly be a part of something “not of this world.”

Peace be with you!

 

 

For Good

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28, RSV

The challenge coin in the image above is a small(ish) thing that I carry with me every single day. A lot of people get these tokens for far more important reasons, and, if we’re being honest, you can even purchase them. So why is it so important to me?

This coin is a daily reminder for me that I may never know the full scope of my life. Further, it’s a testament to God’s ability to take our worst moments and turn them into something beautiful and edifying. This isn’t some cheesy “lemons and lemonade” theology. I am actually arguing that no moment, good or bad, determines our future indefinitely. What’s more, no moment in our lives should be taken for granted, for it could become a means by which we become characters that advance the story of God’s salvation.

If you read my post about my attempted suicide at age 11, you know that such a moment produces lasting effects. I still deal with depression and suicidal ideation, albeit in far healthier ways than when I was a child. It’s still “there” in my relationships with loved ones, and long ago, I accepted that would be the case.

What I did not foresee, however, was how such a dark experience would enrich my life.

My post on suicide found its way to a Lieutenant Colonel at Goodfellow Air Force Base. For those of you that don’t know, our armed services have a horrific suicide rate. The pressures of training and the things these people have to see take a hefty toll that we still don’t properly acknowledge as a nation. As it turns out, the Lt. Col.’s squadron was going to take part in suicide prevention training two weeks after I posted the article.

A few emails and a phone call later, I was set to travel to Goodfellow AFB and share my experience out loud, in full detail, for the first time ever, in front of 40 or so Airmen. No pressure. I drove down feeling relatively calm, but once I arrived, it became a different story. I realized Dad and I had never talked about this. We never discussed this topic after it happened. I was glad he was there to support me, and to hear that it wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t know how that was going to impact him. On top of that, right before I was to speak, I went to the restroom, where I saw a handicap rail.

Normally, I ignore handicap rails. I am glad restrooms have them. But not this day. This day, I wanted to tear off the wall the very thing I had tried to hang myself from as a boy. Somehow, though, after a lot of shaking and praying, I found myself talking and baring my darker side to a lobby full of total strangers. And Dad.

When it was over, there was applause I couldn’t really hear from people I couldn’t really see regarding an experience I couldn’t really process. I took some questions, bowed out gracefully, and then the Lt. Col. shook my hand. It was in this handshake that he passed me the challenge coin as a token of gratitude. In the moment, I was unable to truly appreciate such a gift from a service member, but now my heart is humbled by it. I am also grateful for the physical reminder that an experience that was so ugly for me had become a means by which I could bless others.

The Scripture verse at the start of this post is used to justify all kinds of theology regarding the will of God and the problem of evil, but I am honestly not interested in that today. Rather, I want to affirm the truth that God honors our trust in Him by taking our moments of pain or weakness and making them into a blessing by which His will may be accomplished.

If had not been the one to attempt suicide at age 11, this particular talk and this particular service to this particular group of service men and women would not have happened. Several in this group had been touched by the problems of mental health and suicide in the armed services. My connection to this base and my experience as a boy led to a moment in which those feelings could be validated and addressed.

Further, if I had not gone through the painful process of being fired from a ministry job, and if I had not chosen to leave my long-beloved denomination, I would not have started this blog. I would have remained in a job that actually discouraged me from sharing this very story of my life. While my life would have been smoother and more comfortable, my purpose would have actually been cut short. My firing led to my leaving. My leaving led to this blog. This blog led to that post, and that post led to a moment of service to those who serve.

In John 6, Jesus ducks a crowd for fear of being placed in a position of power. In verse 15, we see that, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” If Jesus had allowed himself to be made king, he would have been powerful in a way to which we humans could relate. He would have been like every other person exacting judgment and promoting power from the top down. Instead, he withdrew, in order that he would become the Christ we all needed to see.

Likewise, moments of humiliation or pain in life seem to be causes for shame and disgrace. For God, however, they are fertile ground for our humble participation in His kingdom. If we remain open to His love and Spirit, even in the darkest moments of life, we can rest assured that opportunities will arise in which we can draw on that experience in order to heal and edify others. In doing so, we are also edified and healed.

All of this is why I carry this coin every day. It’s not a trophy or statement of how awesome or brave I am. Instead, it serves as a humbling reminder of God’s undeserved activity in my life. Even when I stumble or fall, God is always working for good, and the same can also be true for you. .

Peace be with you!

What Waterfowl Taught Me About Suicide

For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. — Wisdom 11:24, NRSV

When I was eleven years old, I tried to hang myself in the bathroom of my elementary school gym before basketball practice. Luckily, it didn’t work, and as I lay there, cursing myself, jacket sleeve still tied around my neck, my Dad came in looking for me. I will never get the quiver of his voice out of my head, as he cried my name and moved like lightning to my side.

I am not sharing this for shock value or pity, though I am sure some of my readers are surprised. The reason I tell this story in detail is because suicide is a major issue that many speak of and experience, yet the loudest voices seem to come from those who have never felt that depth of darkness. I am telling my story because I want you to know, dear reader, that I have looked this monster in the eye. It left its mark on me, and if there is one person out there who sees that it doesn’t have to be the end for them, then this post will have done its work.

I mentioned in my previous post that I went for a walk in a local park this past Saturday. Besides the super happy dog and lovely dandelions that I got to see, I saw some ducks and other assorted waterfowl in the pond that the park is centered upon. Watching them churn their feet and “swim for their lives” as I approached the shore, I noticed something I had never given much thought to before.

As the ducks swam, they cut through the water, leaving behind a triangular trail that expanded as they went, leaving an enduring mark that was much larger than the duck herself. I had considered writing this post for a long time, but it had retreated to the back of my mind until I noticed this seemingly minor detail. As it turns out, nature has much to say on the topic.

You see, we all leave trails behind us. Like the duck, we cannot see the trail, as we are continuing to move on through life, but it is still there, always expanding until it becomes a part of the greater body of water. In the same way, our lives (all of them) leave a trail that moves from our immediate vicinity into the greater narrative of human history. We cannot always see it, but it is there.

I often hear that “life can’t be that bad” for the suicidal person, and I get what those people are trying to say. Keep things “sunny side up” and such. But in that place of deepest darkness, there is no sun. There is no “bright side.” We cannot see the positives of our existence.

I had no idea of my parents’ love for me at that time when I was 11 years old, and many years after. There was no seeing the friends I had made and the lives I had touched in my short time. But now that I have the chance to look back and reflect, I am so glad that my plan failed that night.

I would never have met my little brother, who I now can’t imagine life without. I would not have the amazing wife I have now, nor would my relationship with my parents have had the chance to heal so that I could enjoy the closeness and mutual love we now share. Mission trips to Costa Rica, Mexico, and all across the U.S. would not have happened for me, and that would be one less positive relationship for me and for many people. I never would have preached the Gospel and worked with an amazing group of youth for over four years, never would have had the chance to be there for my dearest friends, and never would have come to the understanding of God’s transformative grace that I have now.

I also wouldn’t be writing this message that I feel many of us need to hear.

If you are reading this and struggling with suicidal thoughts, whether they are ideational or actually being planned, please talk to someone. Say it to somebody, because right now you do not know the impact your life (and death) has had and will have on the world around you. You are not broken. You are not worthless. There is a point and a purpose for you.

I have often quoted the verse that started this post, that God loves “all things that exist,” and He detests “none of the things” He has made. But the passage continues to say that God’s “immortal spirit is in all things” (12:1). God’s immortal Spirit rests in you. It rests in all of us, and that means that none of us are here on accident. We are here because God desired us to exist. God wanted you here because He loves and believes in you and your ability to make a difference.

Now I am not promising you that everything will always be good. This is not an appeal to “keep on the sunny side of life.” I still struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. These things are a part of me. However, they are now tools with which I can empathize and love others as I feel I have been called to do. No matter what darkness you face in your life, the power of God can turn it into a blessing that will ultimately serve Him and help to heal you and others.

But that cannot happen if you are not here. If your life ends, your story ends at its darkest moment, and nothing can ever be made better. That is something worth remembering.

My prayer for you is that you remember that we all leave trails behind us. Our stories are a part of the greater “pond” that is human history, whether we know it or not. There are people who are a part of our story we have yet to meet. There are people (and a God) who love and care for us, who would notice our empty seat or cold side of the bed.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts or ideations, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are planning to go through with it, call 911. Your story does not have to end. You matter to us all, and this world would not be the same without you.

Even if you do not struggle in this way, remember your trail. What are we leaving behind? Are we leaving examples of love, compassion, and just action in our wake, or are we leaving… something else? Let us go forward remembering that God’s purposes for us are to live life fully and for the glory of His name, and let us leave our mark on this world, following in the example of Christ, who has won the victory over death and darkness, and who passes that victory on to us.

Peace be with you!