A Blessedly Tense Week

For the last two weeks or so, I had been in the midst of a spiritual beating. If you have ever seriously been a part of a faith for a long time, you know there are moments when you question the validity of what you’re doing with your belief, time, and gifts. For me, this was a hefty instance of that. Years and years of doubt and resentment came boiling to the surface in the form of apathy and denial.

I’ve always struggled with certain aspects of orthodox Christian belief. The Trinity, Church authority, and the idea that a corpse rose from the dead 2,000 years ago all fail to appeal to me at times. In the last two weeks, this sense of resistance was heightened to the point that I thought I was becoming what would essentially be a Unitarian with very little investment in traditional Christianity outside of believing in one God. I felt I was being torn from something I had always loved, defended, and tried (unsuccessfully) to follow.

Fast forward to Maundy Thursday.

I was driving to our church, an Episcopal parish, representing all I was currently detaching from. Frankly, I was dreading sitting through the foot washing and Communion service.

At the end of my rope, I decided to pray. I asked God to lead me and guide me to the truth. I wasn’t strong enough to try to manage the journey I was on, and I was desperate to experience some level of peace.

Welp. God showed up.

I walked in the doors and was greeted by the smile of our wonderful clergy. I took a seat and prepared for what I thought would be a liturgical ass-whooping, only to be pleasantly surprised by a rapidly building spiritual experience that I’ve only had maybe one or two times in my life.

The music and readings aligned perfectly with where I was. My favorite hymn (“What Wondrous Love is This”) preceded the Gospel reading, and when our deacon read John’s foot-washing account, I was undone. I actually felt tears forming in my eyes as I was overwhelmed with God’s simple response to all of the complicated theological and religious pondering I had been losing sleep over.

“It’s not about that stuff.”

Just like that. I settled into worship with a renewed sense of comfort that I’d been trying to reach for all of my Christian life.

So what’s the point of this story?

I can tell you it’s not to dump on Unitarians. It’s also not to tell you that a desperate prayer will fix whatever problem you face. I also should say that I don’t intend to stop questioning and examining the faith to which I have dedicated myself.

I suppose the teaching I want to put forth is the one I received from God in that moment of brokenness.

“It’s not about that stuff.”

It’s not about all of humanity’s formulas concerning the substance and essence of God. It’s not about the historicity of the miraculous claims of the Bible. It’s not about being right.

It’s about actually, honestly, and expectantly seeking God.

The relief for me came not with answers to all of my theological questions, but with God’s presence with me in a moment of deep need. I can say this was the first time I remember actually opening myself up to that possibility, with no exceptions, add-ons, or parameters. It was a moment of actually seeking what God had in mind for me instead of trying to make God work through my own sense of logic and reason.

So what about all of those other details? They are, after all, pretty important.

I know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a story that has changed my life. I have experienced the truth of its teachings firsthand, and I do believe that God’s nature and work are revealed in the Incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. For now, for me, that is enough. I am more than content to sit in that tension, not knowing exactly how it all works or what the “historical reality” might be.

There’s no real “wrap-up” here. I simply hope that this testimony of mine is useful and edifying for you. Life isn’t about having everything figured out and in place. It’s a journey on which we are to learn about God, each other, and ourselves, and sometimes all we can do is sit in the glorious tension of it all.

Peace be with you!

Faith and 3-D Movies

When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs came to pass that day. — 1 Samuel 10:9, RSV

Have you ever gone to a 3-D movie? I’m personally not a huge fan, but I’ve still managed to find myself dragged to Finding Nemo, My Bloody Valentine, and other headache-inducing films that required plastic glasses. What I found was that the movie was actually more annoying without the glasses, all fuzzy and oddly distorted. When I put on the glasses, I may not have liked things flying at me, but at least I got to fully experience the actual movie.

I find that faith works in much the same way.

Living in a consumerist nation like the U.S., it is second nature to want some kind of proof or evidence before committing to anything. If I am going to purchase a product, its quality and function should somehow be vouched for or proven, which makes sense. The problem comes when we apply this kind of thinking to the experience of God.

As I will talk about next week, the Church is not meant to operate like the rest of the world. While we can shop for and “dip our toes” into everything else, the life of faith is one that comes to fruition only after we surrender to it in one way or another. Just like the movie, an immersive experience is the only way to get a full sense of God’s promises and action in the world.

The quote that kicks off this post comes from 1 Samuel 10, in which Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. After Samuel gives Saul a detailed account of all that is to come, God gives Saul “another heart,” and then “all these signs came to pass that day.” Before Saul could experience all the wonders God had in store for him, he needed a new heart, to become a different person.

As Christians, we are to “be transformed by the renewal” of our minds, in order to “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Before we can fully experience, appreciate, and participate with regard to the Divine Presence, we must change by accepting God’s invitation as offered through Jesus. Even if we aren’t entirely sold on the idea, we must at least be truly willing to try, actively inviting God to give us a new heart with which we might understand the truth.

I used to spend much of my life waiting for signs to show me it was acceptable to submit myself to discipleship. I wanted to know this was true, dammit! The interesting thing is that it was only after I decided to actively try to believe (even in the absence of my required evidence) that I began to see all that God was doing in my life.

If you’ve been sitting around waiting for signs, I can honestly tell you that I understand. We are taught from a young age to look for evidence, to never commit to something without proving it first. However, I can also honestly tell you that the only signs you’re likely to encounter are those that point you to the curtain of faith. For anything more, you’ll have to walk behind that curtain.

What does this look like? Practice. Faith is learned by doing, not by abstract theories and considerations. If you want to see God at work among the poor, go work among the poor. If you want to see prayer work, offer to pray with a hurting stranger. The Christian faith is designed to walk, talk, and breathe. It is earthy, tactile, and real, and it can only be fully experienced when practiced.

I continue to struggle with walking in the life of faith, as I’m sure many of us do. I’m skeptical by nature, and I second guess everything. However, I’ve found that when I stop debating every Divine moment in my head and simply act as Jesus leads me, powerful manifestations of the grace of God follow. I would covet your prayers as I continue on this lifelong journey, and it’s my prayer that you will walk this road with me, that we may together experience all that the Kingdom of God has in store for us.

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!

Where to Put One’s Faith

…That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations. — Psalm 67:2, RSV

People have a habit of looking to our human institutions to solve problems. A good example would be this past week’s General Conference for the United Methodist Church. It should be known that every person had already decided how they were voting with regard to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ members in Christian ministry and marriage. While the circus may have been moving, as various speakers took to sharing their perspectives and beliefs on the matter, no one was going to be swayed away from what they had previously decided.

For myself and others, the results were disappointing, but certainly not surprising. The United Methodist Church serves the god of numbers, and whether it’s money, members, or votes, the biggest number is the clear winner, and obviously symbolizes the approval and work of God. Now, the UMC is not the only denomination or institution to function this way. Most human-based structures operate with the same basic understanding of power, and we look to such places as if this is where God has made His ways known.

The problem is this isn’t true.

As God declares in Isaiah 55, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (verse 8). Indeed, God’s “ways are higher than your ways, and [God’s] thoughts than your thoughts” (verse 9). Just as God’s ways differ from our own, so the way God reveals Himself runs counter to human expectations, and there is no better example than Jesus.

When God made Himself known to us in the One who would be called “Christ” or “King,” He didn’t choose the way of Roman royalty. When He decided to deliver us, He didn’t become a general of legions, or the charismatic leader of an insurrection. When God wanted to teach us His ways, He didn’t spend all His time in the established Jewish synagogues or Roman temples, re-iterating the same old teachings.

No, all of Christian belief and practice began as a response to the God that shouldn’t have been. Our faith is dependent upon the child who shouldn’t have lived from a place that shouldn’t have mattered. We learn from the Teacher who shouldn’t have taught, the Healer who shouldn’t have healed, and the Prophet who shouldn’t have prophesied. Our King washes feet, our Deliverer suffers death, and the condemned Man brings us to new life in God.

Christian institutions have arisen in response to this story, and that is not a bad thing. It’s good to have a community with which we can grow in our journey. What is bad, however, is that for far too many people, the institution has now become synonymous with the God it intends to serve. Christianity has been represented by powerful organizations that look more like those who would try to silence Jesus than the people who initially embraced Him.

We have forgotten that the Spirit of God goes where It wants, and does what It wants. The Spirit cannot be wrangled or possessed, and it is not beholden to the written code of any church or government. Further, God’s Church is not confined to one set of walls. The Church is a people, filled with and guided by the Spirit of God, and it reaches across every boundary we humans try to erect.

If we want to see a change in the way the world seems to work, we must take our place as members of God’s Church and citizens of His Kingdom. Instead of looking to our government or church policies to heal this broken world, the task falls to us to live out our lives and relationships in the life-giving way of Christ. We are called to imitate the Incarnation, allowing the Spirit of God to become “incarnate” in us as we live according to the selfless example of Jesus.

This is not a call to abandon your denomination. This is not a call to anarchy. Rather, it is a plea for us to seek change from the bottom up, beginning with us and the way we choose to love God and others. As the UMC and other others have learned, human institutions have their limits, even when attempting to express something sacred. They will not always get it right, and they are not always the chosen method by which God reveals His will. Religions and governments may get things wrong, but when the people of God seek diligently after what is right, the Spirit of God still has plenty to work with.

It is my prayer that my brothers and sisters in the UMC will find comfort in the fact that God is God, with or without the votes. I also hope that those who are distressed due to governmental, political, or social issues will remember that no human power or authority has the final say. Instead, we should live intentional lives of service to each other in the name of the One who really is in charge, that His “way may be known upon earth,” and His “saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:2).

Simple, Not Easy

My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee. — Psalm 56:12, RSV

One of the themes I’ve been touching (harping?) on frequently in recent posts, such as the one on Islam, is the idea that we are only responsible for our decisions to love God and our neighbor (or not). This life is short and full of opportunities in which we might witness to the love of God with our lives, but we often make that process more complicated than it needs to be.

Take the conversation about homeless persons, for example. Many of us don’t give money to panhandlers because “they might go buy drugs or booze with it.” I definitely appreciate this concern, as fueling someone’s self-destructive habits is certainly not something I want to be guilty of.

It is, however, important that we ask ourselves a question in this scenario. If, at the judgment, God asks us how we responded to someone’s apparent need, what will we be able to say? Sure, that person may choose to waste our kindness, but that is something for which they will have to answer. For me, the only choice I face is whether or not I meet a perceived need when I am able to do so.

This consideration is true for virtually any risky situation in which we are challenged to give of ourselves, especially when we may not be assured of any discernible positive effects. In Psalm 56, quoted at the beginning of this post, the speaker is being pursued by those “who seek to injure my cause,” and those “whose thoughts are against me for evil” (56:5). These people “band themselves together, they lurk,they watch my steps,” and yet the Psalmist’s decision is not to turn tail and flee (56:6). Instead, the speaker insists, “My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee” (56:12).

The proper response to any situation, even one in which we may be taken advantage of or “pursued without cause,” is faithfulness. Being faithful to God is found in following His commandments (1 John 3:22), and all commandments and prophets may be hung on the Christian calling to love God with all we have, and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). It’s certainly not easy, but it is rather simple.

This is a world in which we want assurance and security regarding the people and place in which we invest our kindness. Some of this comes from a good place, other times it’s mere selfishness. Therefore, it is my prayer that you will join me in practicing the Great Commandment. Jesus leaves us His example, healing and bringing the Good News to all, even those who would eventually crucify Him, and the invitation to follow is extended to us. Just remember, regardless of the uncertainty of the world, God’s faithfulness is something we can certainly depend on.

Peace be with you!

 

 

Why Bother With Prayer?

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. — Matthew 6:7-8, RSV

I am becoming a more and more consistent member of an Episcopalian ministry called The Brotherhood of Saint Andrew, which sounds a bit esoteric, but it’s actually an open men’s ministry that meets several times a month for food, Scripture, and prayer. This past week, we had a wonderful (and lengthy) conversation regarding confidence in prayer. While we began talking about being confident in prayer, we ended with a more general discussion of the purpose of praying at all.

This isn’t a new topic. If all is God’s will, why bother trying to change it? Or what about the ethics of praying for God’s favor to the exclusion of others? What does it mean when we seem to go unanswered or unacknowledged? Does God not love us? Does God not exist?

All of these questions were spoken or implied regarding prayer in our meeting this past Saturday, but we kept coming back to the purpose of prayer. Out of nowhere, I was struck with a response that stems from an experience I had in childhood.

It all begins with a hacky sack. I was a young boy, and hacky sacks were still a common form of entertainment. Texas is hot, however, and I much preferred to work out my new “skills” in the comfort of our air-conditioned living room. I hope you can see where this is going.

I was asked repeatedly not to keep playing in the house, but as a pre-teen, I obviously had it under control, and my parents were overreacting. Naturally, I got a little over-ambitious and broke the glass in a picture frame. After the panic subsided, I thought, “Glass is clear! I’ll just get rid of the glass and put the frame back up like nothing ever happened!” This obviously went off without a hitch, and my parents came home, noticed, walked into my room, and asked me about the frame.

Now, my parents knew the glass was broken and gone. So why did they ask? It was clearly a combination of entrapment and moral examination, but it was also an opportunity. If I had chosen to lie, this would have done damage to our relationship. It would be a sign that I didn’t trust them to handle the truth well, and it would also be a sign that they couldn’t trust me. So I opted for honesty, and our relationship took a step forward.

Too often, we view prayer as an exchange of goods rather than a moment of vulnerability and an enhancement of our relationship with God. Sure, we should pour out our petitions before God, but we also need to know that God knows what we need and will give it to us, regardless of whether or not it’s what we are requesting. But the reason we ought to pray and pour our hearts out to God is because that show of trust and reliance with regard to our Creator is something that will cause powerful transformation in life with God and life with others.

Opening up to God is about relationship maintenance, not receiving whatever we want. Too many people twist passages of Scripture out of context, and Matthew’s “Ask, Search, and Knock” passage is often viewed outside of the discussions of prayer and worrying in chapter 6. Remembering that the Bible was written without chapters and verses, we should note that Jesus lays out parameters within which we are to “Ask, Search, and Knock,” and the only way we can meet those is if we meet God with honesty, simplicity, and trust. We need relationship before “results,” and too often we switch those.

If you struggle with prayer and its purpose, you’re not alone. We live in a capitalist world where every relationship and act is a means of gaining something. God, however, doesn’t operate that way. God desires our honesty and trust in prayer because He wants a relationship with us because He loves us. Period. Likewise, we should also seek relationship with Him without expecting prayer to function like a vending machine.

I hope this post has let you know that struggle with prayer is not uncommon. Your doubts are not strange, nor do they have to be an impediment to your relationship with the living God. If we honestly lift our faults, fears, doubts, and concerns to God (with praise and thanksgiving for all the blessings of our lives), we are vulnerable in a way that opens our lives up to a transformative relationship with the One who loved us first and loves us still.

Peace be with you!

Mercy Not About Us, Justice Not About Others

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… — Matthew 5:44, NRSV

We love mercy and we love justice… As long as they benefit us. Don’t get me wrong, we like people who are merciful and just. We admire them and appeal to their example in certain situations. But when it comes to imitating such people (Jesus, for example), that’s when things get a lot more interesting.

As humans, we don’t like being held accountable for our actions. We value forgiveness most when we would prefer to be receiving it. On the other side of the coin, justice is our friend when it comes to those people getting what they deserve.

Jesus has every reason to leave us in the dust and move on. Throughout His entire ministry of healing, teaching, and releasing us from the powers of darkness, He met resistance. He was crucified by those who He came to guide into the way of peace. His followers were persecuted to a frightening degree, and then, once they gained power, the institution that became known as “the Church” embarked on thousands of years filled with good and holy things that were also marred by endless scandal, violence, and abuse.

Even before the Church was established, humans proved to be greedy, violent, and cruel. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is grace, and it is this merciful grace that is offered to us all still by the One who loved us first.

But it is offered to us all, and we don’t like that. We like when mercy is offered to us, but we deny mercy and forgiveness to those we feel do not deserve it. For example, many of the Christian faith harbor and express hatred for those who follow other faiths (Islam, for example). We feel this way about those who hold different political views or who lead a lifestyle we consider to be inappropriate. Our mercy runs out when it comes to convicted felons, accused persons, and the “lazy” poor who beg for money on street corners. I mean, they’ll just buy drugs with it, right?

All of this judgment is going on in and among people who claim to have experienced the transformative grace and mercy of Jesus Christ… See the disconnect?

If Jesus is our master, and if the God who raised Him from the dead is the One we worship, shouldn’t we embrace their way in our daily lives? Instead of reserving judgment for others, shouldn’t we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, judging ourselves first that we may not come under condemnation?

That’s the way Scripture tells it.

Jesus let’s us know that God is merciful to all, and that is how we ought to be. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” and so we should “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45, 48). This doesn’t mean we will not mess up, but it does mean that, in the end, we choose to act and speak with love, even to those we feel don’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean liking them or condoning their behavior with which we disagree, but it does mean we are opting to show love and forgiveness rather than condemnation.

Paul and Peter carry this teaching forward in their epistles. Paul encourages us to “not repay anyone evil for evil” and to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17,21). Further, Paul asks us a haunting question later in 14:4. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Judgment is the work of God, for only He can do so justly.

Peter also exhorts his listeners to “not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). This is in line with Jesus’ teaching that mercy and forgiveness not be restricted to the “chosen few,” but it is even for our worst enemies. After all, if we, who so often act as enemies of God, are eligible for mercy, who are we to deny that for others?

It is my prayer that we who are the people of God (yes, I include myself in this) will find our way onto the path of Christ. This is a path that is uncomfortable by nature, and it takes practice. We will be growing into our new, eternal life until we depart this life, but the journey itself will be a source of powerful transformation. If we can learn to choose something different, we will experience something different, and I think we can all agree that “different” is something we could use.

Peace be with you!