Down the Rabbit Hole and Back Again

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I was surprised to read a week ago Thursday that Progressive Christian author, blogger, and speaker Rachel Held Evans had been in a medically induced coma for the past two weeks. And then I was even more shocked last Saturday to hear about her death.

I’ve been down a rabbit hole of thought and research ever since.

Rachel’s second book, Faith Untraveled, was one of three books I read eighteen months ago when I was trying to learn from people that I disagreed with while processing my own recent church hurt. Of the three books I read during that time, Rachel’s was the hardest for me. We were so similar in many ways. There were many paragraphs that I felt like I could have written myself. We saw problems within the mainstream evangelical church through almost parallel eyes. I loved her raw honesty and wit. But just as I would start to agree, we would both take an abrupt right angle turn and end up at polar opposite conclusions.

As I’ve read reviews and excerpts of Rachel’s more recent books over the past few days, I know that there isn’t much we would have agreed on theologically. And yet we both felt the emptiness of religious Christianity, and we both grieved the pain people have caused in the name of Jesus. Rachel was passionate, fierce even, with a strength that I recognize in myself. I think that’s probably why I was so irritated with her while she was alive. Our “truths” definitely did not align. And yet I can’t help but admire the intentional way she lived.

It’s easier to ignore people and ideas that we don’t agree with than to face them. As I’ve journeyed down this rabbit hole of progressive thought the past few days, I’ve just been faced with the overwhelming amount of people who have been terribly hurt by the church, by Christians. Well-meaning or not, people who claim the name of Jesus have left a trail of wounded in their dust. That’s not okay. The rabbit hole is exhausting and I feel overwhelmed and under-qualified to address the issues and lies and pain.

The pull of Progressive Christianity with it’s focus on love and relative truth is attractive. It’s inclusive and comfortable and happy. And if the only other option was Bible Thumpers who want to quote verses and force me to behave while ignoring my questions and doubts, then I’d become a Progressive too. But, as I’ve said so many times before, there aren’t only two options. The world is not black and white.

Despite everything humans have done to prove otherwise over the years, God is Real. He is more real than the chair I’m sitting in or the iced chai latte I’m drinking. I know because I’ve met Him and He has radically changed my life. I’ve met the Living Presence that is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Jesus who came as a human being to show us the Father and the way back home. Not just by living a life we are supposed to emulate, but by being the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We aren’t going to find Him by finding our own truth. The truth is Jesus and we will only find the truth as we discover Him – not the other way around.

In the time between when I started this blog post and today as I finish it, I stumbled across a podcast by Alisa Childers. She is a historical Christian who loves apologetics. I’ve been absolutely devouring her show. The incredibly intelligent people she interviews amaze me.

I would also identify these days as a historical Christian. All that means is that we believe in the historical view of Christianity passed down for the last 2000 years. We agree with the early creeds and views about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and God Himself. This contrasts with the progressive view of Christianity which is more fluid and less literal.

I have no plans of becoming a apologist, and you probably won’t even notice in my blog posts or social media that I am listing to all of this intellectual stuff. But I feel like it’s a solid base for me to have as I work my way towards a podcast of my own.

I’m going to continue questioning ritual, tradition, and Christianese cliches. And I’m going to continue to point people back to the Real Jesus. People mess up the truth when they start putting in their own twists and spins on either side of the spectrum. My story is proof of that!

More than anything else, I long for you to know the Real Jesus. He exists and He wants to be found.

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The Nature of Worship

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But as I peered through the dimness at the crowd surrounding me, singing with closed eyes and raised hands, I felt a question flash through my mind. Are we really worshiping? Or are we simply being emotionally manipulated by well-meaning people?

I don’t mean to come across as cynical. I like singing. I enjoy a good musical worship service. But I also know that if we are going to develop a genuine relationship with the Real God, we must be grounded in truth.

Music is powerful. It has the potential to move us at a deep emotional level whether it’s secular or religious. But does worship automatically equal music? Those two words are often synonymous in the Christian culture. Or is worship something much bigger?

My brother led worship for years both on a traveling revival team and professionally at a church. He is a gifted musician and composer. One day he called me to talk about a book he was reading by Elizabeth Esther called Spiritual Sobriety. The premise of this book is that many of us are religious addicts looking for the next spiritual high rather than people who are actually connected to the real God.

I remember my brother telling me about planning  worship services. He said that looking back, he knows there was emotional manipulation involved. It was done with good intentions of getting people to have a worship experience, but it was manipulation none the less. As a musician, he knew that if they played this succession of songs with that chord and those beats, people would feel something. It was convicting to him.

What if much of our musical worship experiences are just that, emotional manipulation?

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If that is the case, it makes sense why we feel a high at retreats or conferences and then come back down to earth once we get home. Feelings are a beautiful thing created by God and they should not be discounted or ignored. However, we can’t live securely based on feelings alone. They are like shifting sand that moves with the waves under our feet. We need a rock to stand on. We need truth.

What is true worship?

Historically, people came to temples to worship their gods. Many also had shrines within their homes. They brought sacrifices to appease the gods and hopefully gain a desired outcome. This still happens around the world today. While music is often involved, it’s just a part of the worship experience. In the Old Testament, even Jehovah was worshiped in a temple with sacrifices. Worshipers came with offerings of animals, grain, and wine to gain forgiveness and blessings.

Jesus changed all of that. Through Jesus, God offered the ultimate sacrifice and appeased Himself. Now the Bible says that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). What does that mean? What does that look like? What do these truths do to the concept of worship?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks this question: What is the chief end of man? It then give this answer: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

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What if real worship is just enjoying God?

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we have full and total access to God. Because God sacrificed Himself and no longer requires appeasement, we don’t have to go to a temple to worship. We are the temple and God lives within us when we trust in Jesus as our Savior. We are able to enjoy God everywhere and doing anything.

Can we worship God through music? Absolutely! But I can also worship Him driving in the car in silence, taking a walk through nature, eating at a favorite restaurant, serving in the church nursery, etc. The possibilities are endless. If worship is just enjoying God, then there is a lot to enjoy!

As Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman in John chapter four He said,

“The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…but the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him” John 4:21, 23.

When you feel tingles and tears as you worship corporately with powerful music and lights and raised hands, please realize that the same God is present with you when you feel numb and dead inside and cannot sing at all!

Strong emotion does not necessarily mean worship. Feeling emotion does not indicate God’s Presence. He is with us always whether we feel Him or not. And you can truly worship without intense feelings. Emotions can be fun, but facts and faith must come first. 

Guys, although the Real God is enormous and powerful, holy and passionate, and although He could come in a hurricane and sweep us off our feet, He is usually quiet and still. He is close, so close. He is a Living Presence that can sneak up and overwhelm you when you least expect it. (Like just now when I typed those words and then had to sit in silence with hands raised in surrender and tears dripping down my cheeks.)

 

 

As you worship corporately in church, or don’t, I hope you take some time to contemplate the nature of true worship. Music is just one way to enjoy the God who created us and loved us enough to be The Way Back. Emotions might come as you worship God, but they are a byproduct of worship and not the experience itself. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well as your favorite places and ways to worship God. 🙂

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Confessions of a Former Pharisee

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I used to be a Pharisee. One of those well-meaning religious people who totally missed God walking in front of them because they were so consumed with rules and spirituality. Yup, that was me.

And it wasn’t just back in my days in a cultic sub-group of Christianity. Honestly, I was a Pharisee up until a few years ago. I can still be a Pharisee right now.

I’ve been that religious person who only cares about people cleaning the outside of their cup and whitewashing their tombs. (Matthew 23:25-28) The one who wants you to fix your behaviors while missing your hurting heart. God used four teenage girls in leggings to remind me again just the other day.

When I’m not writing, or taking care of my family, or having coffee with friends, I’m probably Shipt shopping. That’s right, I’m a professional grocery shopper. LOL! Not exactly what I imagined myself doing for a career, but it’s all good. 🙂

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The other day I delivered to the Life Skills teacher at a local high school. I parked out front and waited for her students to come collect the pizza making supplies I’d just purchased. Four young girls showed up with a cart. They were polite and friendly as we unloaded the groceries. Pretty girls, put-together and made-up, they were typical of the upper class, suburban area where I work.

I shut my trunk, hopped back in my car, and started to drive away. Out of nowhere, tears began to sting my eyes and I felt my heart break. I’ve been learning to pay better attention to emotion and not assume that I know where its coming from. What I discovered this time surprised me. I wasn’t crying for those girls. I was crying for me.  They were tears of brokenness and repentance for the person that I have been.

See, every one of those girls was wearing leggings. A couple of years ago, that’s all I would have noticed. I would have been upset at their lack of decency and I would have missed their precious hearts. But that’s not who I am anymore.

I used to be a pastor’s wife. My husband and I went to Bible college right after we got married. We were in full-time ministry of some sort, either Christian camping or church, for the next seven years. I thought that I was free from all of the legalism and rules that I had grown up with in my teens and early twenties. But I look back and I see someone still trapped in religion, someone still obsessed with behavior.

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I cared more about people’s outward actions and appearances than I did about their hearts. Good Christian kids didn’t date too early or too much, they didn’t wear spaghetti strap tank tops or two piece swim suits, and they came to youth group every week. I pushed good behaviors on people in the hopes that their hearts would change.

But I had it backwards.

There were some women who came to our church that I didn’t think were actually Christians. I remember overhearing a conversation they were having about taking one of those big pedal bikes around to the local breweries. I didn’t say anything out loud, but my face said everything anyway. Good people definitely didn’t do that kind of thing. Those women eventually stopped coming to my church and at the time I supposed they just weren’t actually serious about God. But honestly, I think they probably felt judged and condemned. I think I probably helped to push them away.

I’ve held a lot of stones over the years, and I’ve thrown a lot of them too. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until one day when the stones were pointed at me. I was the one who had messed up and made a mistake. I was the one who fell into sin. And I was the one who felt the judgement and condemnation from the other religious people holding stones.

That was when everything changed.

As I sat in the dust of condemnation and rejection, I found that Jesus was sitting there with me. Brokenness brought me face to face with my Savior, and in Him I found forgiveness and unconditional love, even in the middle of my mess.

I used to think that sin was avoidable…that we could work hard enough to be good people. Of course perfection was impossible, but somehow goodness was attainable. I thought that God wanted us to be good. I thought goodness held value.

I don’t believe that anymore.

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Sin is more than just the things we do or say that are wrong. Sin is the deep self-centeredness that colors everything. It reaches into the very motives of my heart. I have been completely broken and corrupted by sin. There is no getting it together or being good. It’s never going to happen. And it doesn’t need to.

Because Jesus.

The more I sense the depth of my sin, the more I know I need rescue. I’m lost, helpless and without hope. But Jesus loves me. He has forgiven ALL of my sins. He is with me always and He wants me. I’ve known these truths since I was a child, but somehow the more broken I become, the more precious they are.

I don’t think that God values goodness as much as He values brokenness. All of my attempts at goodness are just dirty rags anyway. But when I am willing to just be broken, to repent, and to let go, then I am swept up in the beauty of His glorious grace. God has gifted me His incomprehensible goodness because of Jesus, and that has nothing to do with my pathetic attempts at fixing myself.

“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven–for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little… And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace'” Luke 7:47, 50.

The more I recognize my need of a Savior, the more I love Jesus. It’s not a passive love either; its a gut-wrenching LOVE. I would do anything for Him, give up anything, whatever He asks. I just want Jesus whatever that means.

Jesus wants my heart. He is after your heart too. It’s not about being good or looking like we have it together. It’s about being broken people who need a Savior.

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How Two Gay Christians Changed My Life

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It all started late last spring when a good friend of mine gave me a book. She told me that it had transformed her entire view of homosexuality. It was a little, unassuming looking book by a man named Wesley Hill. I had never heard of that author before, but I was excited to read it.

Homosexuality and the LGBTQ+ Community as a whole is such a hot topic among Evangelical Christianity. People hold pretty fiery opinions which have often left me feeling like I was splashing around in the middle of two opposing camps. I couldn’t agree with the more conservative views, but didn’t fit into a liberal way of thinking either.

I knew that the Bible is pretty clear that a homosexual lifestyle is part of the brokenness caused by sin, but I also knew that the LGBTQ+ Community belongs to the world that God loves and sent His Son to save in John 3:16. I wanted to love and accept people the way Jesus did, but I also wanted to stay true to Scripture. Wesley Hill was about to show me that both were possible.

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I read Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness & Homosexuality with my heart in my throat. I didn’t know that it was possible to feel so close to an author. As Wes poured out his heart and struggles and was honest about his loneliness and fear, I felt my own heart break.

It wasn’t the kind of book that I could read in one sitting because I needed to process and think. I took Wes camping with me over the summer. I read him sitting around the campfire with a Kleenex in my lap so I could catch my tears. I read him in the laundry mat while waiting for clothes to dry in the middle of a thunderstorm and posted these thoughts on my Facebook page.

A friend gave me this book earlier this summer and it is opening and expanding my mind in amazing ways. Written by a Christian man who struggles with same-sex attraction but who is choosing to live a celibate life…it’s just powerful, and gut wrenching, and eye opening.

I don’t know if I have ever felt such love, and admiration, and respect for an author before.

You need to read it. Need to!!

We CANNOT live in a bubble.

And the best way to intentionally pop it is to expose ourselves to people and thoughts and perspectives that don’t exactly meet up with our own.

Washed and Waiting allowed me to stretch my mind. It’s easy to have staunch opinions about issues when we have no personal experience. But those lofty opinions are formed at a distance. It’s a completely different thing to have opinions that are formed by interaction with a person living the experience themselves. Even if that interaction is just reading a book.

I had never loved an author the way I found myself loving Wesley Hill. I even became a groupie and followed him on Instagram. 🙂

That is until I found David Bennett.

I have a good friend who works in Christian Marketing. We originally connected over a shared love of Jesus and disgust with religion. That connection morphed into breakfasts at our favorite coffee and bagel shop. I was telling her about Wesley Hill’s book and how incredibly life changing it had been for me. She got all excited and started talking about a book she was working with by a former gay activist who discovered Jesus. My friend was so enthusiastic that she gave me a copy of the book the next time I saw her.

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I’ll be honest, I devoured David’s book called A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. I could not put it down. He challenged me, stretched me, made me reconsider how big God is, and spoke truth to my heart. I read with tears, and laughter, longing and hope. Then I followed David on Facebook and Instagram. 😀 I really wanted to be his best friend, but since he’s living in England going to Oxford for his PhD, I decided I’d have to settle for being an active follower. Here’s a sneak peek of the main idea of A War of Loves.

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Don’t you just want to go grab it and read it for yourselves?! Seriously, go order it on Amazon. I’ll even give you the link.

Guys, he met Jesus!!! And that changed everything. David has a message for the LGBTQ+ Community, but he also has an incredibly vital message for the church as a whole.

I love that God is calling and using gay Christians to share His message of truth. If that isn’t just like Jesus, I don’t know what is. 🙂 He has always pursued and used people the religious elite called outcasts. (The only thing is, that makes us Evangelicals the Pharisees…convicted much?)

So, what have I learned from my new favorite people? And how have they changed my life? Here’s a few thoughts.

  • We, the Evangelical Church, have royally screwed up and it’s time to acknowledge our failure and repent. I don’t know if it was out of fear or a religious focus on behaviors, but we have alienated an entire group of people from the gospel. Many people in the LGBTQ+ Community have felt nothing but hatred from Christians. That’s a serious problem! Especially since Jesus said people would know His disciples by their love…
  • Popular thought in our culture says that if you don’t agree with me, you must hate me. That’s not true. We don’t have to agree to love. And disagreement doesn’t have to mean that we hate. We can disagree in healthy ways while still loving each other. We can believe that same-sex attraction is a result of the Fall and that the Bible is clear that a homosexual lifestyle is sin, and we can still unconditionally love and accept people who identify as LGBTQ+ without focusing on their behaviors.
  • We don’t have to actively announce our personal beliefs. If you look at Jesus’ example, He was always seeking out the religious outcasts. He loved and accepted them without expectation FIRST. Then He called them to repentance.
  • It’s not our job to lecture people about their behaviors. It’s our job to introduce them to Jesus. If we teach people how to know Jesus, the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to do His job of conviction. God cares SO MUCH more about our hearts than our outward actions anyways!
  • The Evangelical Church needs to get educated! There are so many lies and false concepts circulating about homosexuality, gender identity, and such. It’s easy to be afraid of what we don’t know, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We need to get out of our Christian bubble and down from our ivory tower of spirituality and meet people in the LGBTQ+ Community. Let’s read authors like Wesley Hill and David Bennett. Let’s engage in training from places like The Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender. (They have awesome, Biblical teaching with a beautiful balance of truth and love.) Let’s talk to actual people who are different from us.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you will know that I am passionate about two things. I am passionate about everyone knowing the Real Jesus. And I am equally passionate about rejecting behavior-driven Christianese religion. When it comes to the LGBTQ+ Community, it’s time that we left behind our traditions, and fears, and stereotypes. It’s time we embraced the Whole World with the truth of God’s love. 

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More great organizations to further discussion and learning:

Revoice – Fostering Peace, Honoring Dignity, Preserving Faith

Hole In My Heart Ministries

The Christianese Religion and the Real Jesus

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I’m working on getting back to regular blogging on this site. Lately I’ve been doing more “mini-blogs” over on my writer Facebook page. I’d love it have you join me there as well. I typically post some simple thoughts about once a day. This blog post is an expansion of one of those mini posts.

The scariest thing about the Christianese Religion is that you don’t even notice you are following it until it stops working for you. The formulas, phrases, and culture seem good and real while you are in the bubble. The things you do and believe appear to be genuine. You are part of a community that is like-minded.

What do I mean by the Christianese Religion? In his book Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, Mike Cosper says this, “Religion is the business of appeasing gods.” For the past year, I have not been able to get that sentence out of my mind. It finally connected the dots between the ten years I spent in a cultic sub-culture of Christianity and the disillusionment people experience within “normal” church.

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When we are religious (which we naturally are), we are focused on behaviors. We are trying to do things in order to please God. But often the god in our head is more of a concept that a Being. We make him in our own image and shove him into a box. And in our obsession with performing correctly we completely miss the Real Jesus.

Christianese works great until it doesn’t. If that has happened to you, then you know. Maybe you got on the wrong side of the spiritual authority or you asked the wrong questions and felt the sharp sting of rejection. Maybe life fell apart and suddenly you realized that the pat answers no longer satisfied the deep brokenness of your heart. Empty religion may appear to work for a while, but it will always leave you searching for more. Because your soul wants Jesus.

There was a reason Jesus spent all of His time with the social outcasts and religious rejects. They knew they needed Him. They were broken and ready to hear His words of life.

The Pharisees had their religious system down and they missed God walking in front of them. I’m afraid the same thing is happening in churches all across the country. We are substituting religious experiences for the Real Jesus. But well-meaning people don’t even notice…because right now the system and the culture are working for them.

Maybe brokenness and disillusionment is actually a blessing because it opens our eyes to the emptiness of religion. Maybe not fitting in or feeling rejected is actually a good thing because it causes us to seek for more. I pray that our seeking bring us to the feet of the Real Jesus!!

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(This story is paraphrased from John chapter eight.)

She stood there silently, her head bowed in shame. They wanted to stone her. And according to the law, those religious leaders had every right. She’d been caught in the very act of adultery. But they were using her as a test, and now they waited to see what the young rabbi would say.

He didn’t say anything, just knelt down next to her, and began to write with his finger in the dirt. She saw his hand out of the corner of her eye, felt his presence next to her. He ignored the clamoring crowd and was silent as he drew. Finally, he stood. “Any of you who are without sin can be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he knelt next to her and quietly wrote in the dirt with his finger. That was it. There was an awkward silence.

After a moment, she noticed that the crowd seemed smaller. Peering through her hair, she realized that the religious men were slowly leaving. Eventually, it was just her and Jesus alone on that dusty patch of earth. He looked at her. She lifted her head. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” His voice was kind. She looked around; they were all gone.

“No one, sir.”

“I don’t condemn you either.” He smiled. “Go, and from now on sin no more.”

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Words for the Year

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Last year I posted this on my writer Facebook page:

“I’m gonna be honest…I was feeling kind of snarky about all these “words for the year” on social media right now. Kind of cynical and cranky.

Like seriously, people do not need to get a word from God for the year. How do we know it’s really from God? How do we know we aren’t just pulling something out of our own mind? Stop pressuring people with strange, Christianese junk!

It reminded me of the emotionally charged relationship I had with Jesus back in the day…back in my crazy fundamental days.

Then, I was sitting with my hot coffee and journal on January 1st. I wrote out the date for the first time, 2018…and I got a word. 😆 The Holy Spirit’s sense of humor is something else sometimes!

The word filling my heart and mind was HOPE. I look into 2018 with hope…hope for continued healing in my own life and in the lives of those I love…hope because God is good, and huge, and more than we can imagine.

Hope is what I want to give away through my blog, and Facebook page…hope that the real God is full of love and grace…hope that we don’t have to perform to earn anything from Him…hope that we can indeed find our way back to Him.”

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As I look back on 2018, it was indeed a year of hope. Hope restored and hope given. It was a year of healing and growth and possibility.

I’m still not a crazy fan of “words for the year.” I still think they can be overdone. I still think that people can feel pressured to get one from God. But ironically, as I was thinking back over 2018 and wondering about 2019, a word popped into my mind. It’s not a word I would have thought of myself. In fact, I’ve sat on this word for a couple of weeks now without sharing it. But as I’ve prayed and thought about it, I think it really is from the Holy Spirit and I’m excited to see how it plays out.

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When I first heard the word, VICTORY, I also wanted a verse to go with it. 1 John 5:4 just jumped from my phone as I scrolled by. It’s not about circumstances that seem victorious or about getting everything we want out of life. It’s about an inner victory that happens no matter what is going on in this world: our faith in the real Jesus…getting to know Him for ourselves in an experiential way.

That is my prayer for this year. I want to know Jesus and I want you to know Him too! I want our faith to be in something more than religious beliefs. I want our faith to be in Someone Real…that is the victory that will overcome!

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Finding Hope this Christmas

 

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The lights seemed to twinkle. I sat in the quiet morning the only one awake, staring at my Christmas tree. My Bible was in my lap and a cup of coffee in my hand. I should have been feeling peace and contentment, been delighting in this special season, right? Yeah, not so much. Instead, I was very aware of the wrongness in the world, and I felt depressed, dissatisfied, and hopeless.

“Why, God? Why don’t you stop it? Why don’t you fix it? The world is so screwed up! When are you going to do something?”

“Two thousand years ago”

It always surprises me when the Holy Spirit actually answers me, not audibly but in my heart. (Although, out loud would definitely be surprising too!)

I was out of time at the moment, kids to wake up and get out the door. So I couldn’t keep contemplating God’s answer. A couple hours later though I was alone driving in the car and my thoughts went something like this…

“Yup, the world is a mess; it’s broken. Christmastime can make us even more aware of that brokenness. This deceptive holiday – pretending it should be full of warmth, smiles, and tingly feelings… But often filled with stress, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and frustration. Humph! But, what am I supposed to be celebrating? Jesus. The hope of the world. Baby Jesus. This story is too familiar. God, let me see it new!

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“Jesus coming to earth. This is where everything really changed. Before Jesus: laws, and rules, and animal sacrifices, reminding us that we couldn’t be perfect, that we were separated from God. There were promises of hope, vague prophecies yet to be fulfilled, stories that pointed to something coming, but it wasn’t clear. And then, something crazy happened, something hinted at, but never guessed. The Creator became one of His creations. God quietly slipped into the world. Coming as a baby. The Savior was here. Hope was born.”

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I found myself crying and smiling at the same time.

The world hasn’t changed. It’s still a broken mess. But, Jesus… Jesus brings hope.

This season can be so stressful and full of stuff. But it’s not about the cookies, or the presents, or the decorations, or the parties. It’s not about the perfect experience. At it’s core, Christmas is about a God who slipped quietly into the world because He loved us.

I would encourage you these next few weeks to find a quiet chunk of time where you can really contemplate what it meant for Jesus to come to Earth. Let it sink in and be reminded of the hope we have because of Him!

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When I Can’t Feel God…

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I listened as he shared his story with us. It was a privilege to be part of this sacred moment. God had redeemed so much in his life. His story was a beautiful example of grace and growth.

Then he stopped and looked down. “I’ve never admitted this before in a group.” Tears filled his eyes as he looked back up at us. “When people talk about feeling the love of God or experiencing His Presence, I don’t get it. I’ve never felt that.”

We leaned forward encouragingly as he finished his story. Afterwards, the group leader opened it up for questions and response. A well-meaning listener asked if he really wanted to feel God’s Presence and if he’d ever asked to feel it. They had suggestions for how to make it happen. The man was completely broken. He’d asked, prayed, and begged so many times and it had never “worked.”

A few years ago I would have been that well-meaning listener, and my answer would have been horrifyingly similar. But it’s not anymore. If you are someone who feels like they are missing God’s Presence, or if He seems distant, quiet, or nonexistent, please keep reading. I am not going to give you any Christianese answers or formulas, but I am going to remind you of some truth. 🙂

Paul prays an amazing prayer for the church in Ephesus in Ephesians chapter three.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” Ephesians 3:14-19.

I am obsessed with this prayer, absolutely in love! There is so much that could be unpacked. But I want you to look at the bold words “know” and “knowledge.” In the Greek they are forms of ginosko — an intimate, experiential knowledge. It’s more than just information we know in our head; it’s personal.

Jesus uses this same word in John 10 when He talks about knowing His sheep and His sheep knowing Him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” John 10:14-15.

 

And He uses it again in John 17 when He tells us what eternal life actually is.

“And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” John 17:3.

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Jesus obviously thinks it’s possible for us to know Him in a personal, intimate way. But I don’t think that our understanding of that knowledge is the same as His. And that’s where we get tripped up…that’s where we end up feeling like it doesn’t work for us and that God is far away.

Maybe you have been to a service or conference where the worship was amazing and people (including yourself) were swept up in an experience. The lights were dim, the music swelled, hands were raised, and people cried. We declare that “the Spirit was moving tonight!” We ask people if they “felt God’s Presence?”

Was it really God? Or was it just our own emotion?

I want you to watch something amazing. This is Huge Jackman practicing for the Greatest Showman. They definitely have an emotional experience together and it’s quite moving! It even looks a bit like worship… But while beautiful and inspiring, it’s completely secular. It has nothing to do with God. Guys, if they can do it, so can we.

We can create emotional worship experiences with lights, music, and energy that have nothing to do with the actual God. We can feel things emotionally and physically that are amazing, and yet are not really the Spirit. Emotional experiences do not automatically equate to God’s Presence. How’s that for truth?

Those spiritual highs we get during a retreat or a worship set feel incredible, but they are hard to hold on to in real life. And it’s very possible that they have little to nothing to do with a connection to the Real Jesus. 

The Old Testament includes stories about a prophet named Elijah. He led a wild life and got to experience some amazing God moments. If you remember, Elijah was part of a crazy contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. (1 Kings 18) After the prophets of Baal spend the entire day begging their god for fire, the Real God shows up, sends fire from heaven, and burns up a sacrifice completely soaked in water. It was pretty spectacular.

However, not long after Elijah is in the wilderness asking God to take his life. He’s exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and he just wants to die. God sustains Elijah and eventually sends him to a cave to wait for Him. While Elijah waits in the cave a terrific wind passes by, but God is not in the wind. Next there is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. Then comes a fire, but God is not in the fire. Finally Elijah hears a low whisper…and immediately he knows it is God.

I think too often we look for wind, and fire, and earthquakes as an experience of God’s Presence and we forget that He is actually the quiet whisper.

Let me remind you of some truth.

  • Didn’t God say He would never leave us? (Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5-6)
  • Didn’t Jesus promise to be with us always? (Matthew  28:20)
  • Didn’t Jesus say that He would send us a Helper? (John 14:25-26; 15:26)
  • Isn’t the Holy Spirit our guarantee of salvation? (1 Corinthians 1:22)

Here is the simple truth.

If we have trusted in Jesus as our Savior, then He has given us His Spirit to dwell with us forever. It doesn’t matter if we can “feel” Him or not. He is with us. He doesn’t go away. 🙂

If the Spirit dwells within us, and He is just as much God as Jesus and the Father, then we have God with us always…in all His glory and power and majesty.

I think we often look too far away, and for too much of an experience. The Real Spirit is as close as our next breath. He is here with us, quiet, gentle, whispering to our hearts, giving us strength for the day, telling us truth, and pointing us heavenward. We might not be able to feel the Spirit in the moment, but looking back we can see His shadow and we can hear His footsteps.

I’m not against experiences, they just need to go in their place. When I stop to consider Jesus, and remember the Spirit, my body often has a physical response. Tears come to my eyes, or I feel tingles. But that physical response is not the Spirit…that’s just my body responding to truth. Jesus and His Spirit is just as real and just as close even if I don’t get tears or feel tingles.

One final thought. Everyone is different. We experience human relationships differently. Why shouldn’t we also experience our relationship with God differently? It’s okay if you don’t “feel” God like some people do. You are probably experiencing Him in your own way…look for that. This is about you and the Real God. He’s pursuing you in the way He knows you will respond to best. Let go of guilt and shame. It’s not from God! Let Him be who He really is and not who we think He should be.


OUR EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL RESPONSES DO NOT MAKE GOD ANY MORE OR LESS REAL THAN HE ALREADY IS.


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Mental Illness, Possessed Baby Dolls, and the Church

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I’m going to tell you an embarrassing story. When I was a teenager, in the middle of religious cultic craziness, I thought I’d been given the gift of spiritual discernment. I truly believed that I could discern whether or not people’s toys, specifically baby dolls, were possessed. Parents in my church brought me their children’s dolls so that I could stare into their eyes and tell them if there was a demon inside or not. Yes, I now recognize that this is absolutely nuts. Yikes!! But at the time, it seemed very real.

We had all heard anecdotal stories of people’s experiences with possessed toys. We had heard stories about demons coming out of synthesizers and electronic keyboards.(Because rock music, you know, was from the devil.) The amount of fear involved was ridiculous. No one wanted demons in their houses. People do strange things when they are afraid.

Mental illness often gets put in the same Christianese category as possessed toys. While not on the same level, it’s something that we fear, don’t understand, and want to control. Christians feel like there should be a formula to change it. It feels safer to tell people that it’s the result of sin. It feels more comfortable to categorize it as “spiritual warfare.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there isn’t such a thing as spiritual warfare. I just don’t think it usually looks like we think it does.

I think we give way more credit to fear, anecdotal stories, and just brokenness in the world, and not enough credit to the subtle lies the enemy whispers to us about ourselves, other people, and God. Satan isn’t necessarily behind the cold you caught, the fact that your car broke down, or even your anxiety. But, he definitely loves that you feel hopeless and doubt God’s love for you.

As humans, we are naturally afraid of things we don’t understand.  But when you combine fear with religion, the idea that I have to do something to get results, brokenness and destruction happens.

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Do you know how many people are silently struggling with things like depression and anxiety within our churches but are afraid to say anything? Do you know how many people are told that their mental illness is a result of a “lack of faith” or “bitterness” or some other problem on their part? They aren’t doing enough and that’s why they are broken. People are afraid to speak up and ashamed to seek help or admit they need medication. That’s not okay. No one should have to struggle in secret. No one should be isolated in their pain and afraid of the body of Christ. It’s wrong that the church has made them feel this way.

How did we get here? I believe three things have played a huge part.

  • Religious Christianity

“Religion is the business of appeasing gods.” This sentence from Mike Cosper’s book Recapturing the Wonder has been challenging my thinking for almost a year now. We do that within Christianity. We put our ideas about God in a tiny box. Then we work our hardest to appease our god-in-a-box because we want his approval and blessings. That’s religious Christianity. Formulaic thinking abounds within religious Christianity. We search for a magical guarantee to make our god do what we want.

We can be conservative, religious Christians, or we can be liberal, religious Christians. It’s all about the box. We might have different ideas about God in our box, but if we are focused on doing things to make our god-in-a-box happy, then we are religious.

The real Jesus doesn’t fit in a box. He will always be bigger than our understanding. He will never make sense. And He doesn’t need to be appeased, because He already appeased Himself on the cross. 🙂

  • Lack of Education

The church has been suspicious of psychology for far too long. There is nothing wrong with learning how the human brain tends to work. Just because some of the scientists that made breakthroughs in psychology weren’t Christians doesn’t make their work invalid. Psychology is a beautiful thing. It’s exciting and freeing to understand potential whys behind thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Somehow, Christians often separate the spiritual part of people from the rest of them. I just don’t think that’s an accurate way of doing things. We are complex beings. And our spirituality, that is our ability to connect with God, is interwoven deeply with our story, our beliefs about our self, the way we interact with people, etc.

The church that we currently attend loves psychology. And honestly, the more I have come to understand myself, the healthier I have become spiritually.

  • Fear

Ironically fear is often the motivator behind our religious Christianity and our lack of education. We are afraid of the god we have imagined, so we create a list of religious behaviors to follow. We are afraid of a lack of control, so we try to earn God’s blessings by our actions. People are afraid of psychology, so they don’t get better educated. We are afraid of God and people’s condemnation, so we keep our depression and anxiety to ourselves.

Fear is not from the real Jesus, friends! Do you know what the most repeated command in the Bible is? “Do not be afraid.”  Wow! While fear is a legitimate emotion, it does not need to control us. Fear is not a helpful motivator. And the real Jesus is bigger than our fears.

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Let me just close with some thoughts.

  • Spirituality is very abstract. Sometimes we need concrete help before we can deal with abstract spiritual things. I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. If I’m in the middle of a panic attack, frantically praying or trying to quote the Bible is not nearly as helpful as taking deep breaths, using some grounding techniques, and speaking truth to myself. Once I’m in a better place, I can take a look at what triggered me and go from there.
  • Because we are complicated, spiritual beings, many parts of us are intertwined and affected by other parts. Are there lies that we are believing about ourselves, God, and others that might be adding to our depression or anxiety? It’s very possible. However, we need to help our brains get to a place where we can logically deal with those lies.
  • If you are struggling with a mental illness, it’s not your fault. We live in a world broken by sin, and one of the things that is affected is our brains. They are complex organs, and sometimes they get sick. The best thing you can do for yourself is to reach out and look for help. You are not less spiritual because you go to therapy or are on medication. It’s okay! Those are good things. God is not disappointed and He doesn’t condemn you.

I know that the church’s attitude towards mental illness has often been more hurtful than helpful. But the church is made up of individuals. The church culture towards mental illness can change as more and more of us develop a healthy attitude and understanding. I have hope! 🙂

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Enemies of God

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enemy: a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something.

Is God our enemy? It’s a question that I have been pondering for the past few weeks. Sometimes He feels like our enemy, and I’ve heard Bible verses that make Him sound like our enemy, but is He really? This is an important question! Because, I am much less likely to want to get to know Someone who is actively opposed to me…

There are plenty of verses that talk about God opposing the proud, or sending judgement on the wicked, or hating certain sins. Can He do those things and still not be our enemy? I think it depends on His motives, His heart behind the actions. Is God “actively opposed or hostile” in those situations? Or is He working out of love to get someone’s attention? Is He standing back and allowing cause and effect to happen? Is He feeling hatred because of the pain sin brings to the people it affects? It’s important to read these types of verses in context. As I’ve studied, I’ve found nothing that contextually makes God our enemy.

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And ultimately, I keep coming back to Jesus. If God were really our enemy, then Jesus would have been completely different. An enemy does not pursue peace. They do not treat us with ridiculous love and scandalous grace. They are not humble and gentle. An enemy does not seek out the broken and needy and give them value. They are not willing to be tortured and murdered for our sake. If Jesus is God, and I absolutely believe that He is, then God is not our enemy. He can’t be!

But, we are His.

Did you know that you can have an enemy without being one? Someone can be hostile and opposed to you without you returning the favor. They might even think and feel that you are mutual enemies without it being accurate.

The truth is, people are absolutely God’s enemies. Look at the definition of enemy…there is no denying it. We are actively opposed and hostile towards God. Every day.

The unbelieving world twists His character, argues against His natural law, and denies His existence. People in the church, who call themselves Christians misunderstand, misrepresent, and ignore Him at the same time. We are in a constant fight against God. It’s one of the results of sin.

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The creation surrounding us proclaims God’s eternal nature and divine character, but we claim it happened by accident. God created us in His own image with emotions, intellect, and the ability to connect in relationship, and we use our intelligence to decide He doesn’t exist. Jesus came as the exact image of God, and we proclaim Him to be “just a good man.” God breathed out the Bible, speaking to multiple people over thousands of years, and we either ignore it, twist it, or use it to our own advantage.

Yes, we are definitely God’s enemies. But God refuses to be ours.

Even as we fight, struggle, and insist on believing lies about Him, the Spirit of Jesus is calling us and drawing us to Himself. He never stops loving us, even when we hate Him. He is always ready to be found by people who seek Him. He never gives up on us. He always wants us. Isn’t that crazy?

Let’s throw away the lies, and shame, and discouragement. God is not our enemy! And even though we are His, He has already taken the first steps in reconciliation! We are loved, redeemed, and wanted. 🙂

“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” Romans 5:10.

“For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” Colossians 1:1.9-20

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