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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The Dangers of Chocolate or Vanilla

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It’s the middle of the afternoon on a warm, sunny day and you are feeling hungry. Across the street, you see an old-fashioned ice cream shop that advertises thirty-six flavors of homemade ice cream. You begin to dream of fresh waffle cones and your mouth starts watering. Quickly crossing the street, you open the door to the sweet tinkle of a bell. There, in all their homemade glory, thirty-six beautiful containers of ice cream rest in a case behind a glass window.

The shop is quiet. You don’t really notice the tables of silent people hunched over their bowls of ice cream because your eyes are focused on the menu. How in the world are you going to choose? Maybe they will let you have more than one kind on your cone.

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You approach the case and stare dreamily at the swirls of fudge, raspberry, and peanut butter. You pause to gaze at the creamy green circle of mint chip. Then you hear a voice.

“Would you like chocolate or vanilla?”

You look up from the ice cream case to see the attendant staring at you. Puzzled, you wonder if you heard them right. “Excuse me?”

soda-jerk-713089_1920“Do you want chocolate or vanilla ice cream?” They ask again.

You are confused. There are thirty-six different flavors of ice cream. Why do they want you to chose between chocolate and vanilla?

The attendant is still staring at you. “You should pick chocolate. We all eat chocolate ice cream here. In fact, only bad people choose vanilla.”

Now you are really confused. “But, I was hoping for mint chocolate chip.” you stammer.

“Mint chip is basically vanilla. And you can’t have vanilla. Only stupid people eat vanilla. How about chocolate?”

You don’t really like chocolate ice cream, but you are starting to feel intimidated.

“Mackinaw Island Fudge?” You ask slowly. “It’s got chocolate in it.”

“That’s VANILLA ice cream!” The attendant shrieks. “Vanilla ice cream is BAD! Only terrible people eat vanilla ice cream. What’s wrong with you?”

“Butter pecan?” you whisper.

The attendant glares at you. In a cold voice, they slowly say, “If it’s not chocolate, then it’s vanilla. Vanilla is evil.”

Ice cream has lost it’s appeal and you turn to leave.

“Where are you going? You can’t leave without eating some chocolate ice cream.” The attendant has moved from behind the counter and is blocking your path to the door. The tables of customers stare silently at you, hunched over their bowls of chocolate ice cream.

With a yell, you push past the attendant and make a run for the door. Safely outside, you turn to look back. Your appetite for ice cream has been ruined and it’s doubtful you’ll be heading into any ice cream shop in the near future.

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Believing that there are only two acceptable options or opinions is called Black and White Thinking. In reality, situations, people, and beliefs are rarely black and white. Most of the world is actually a misty gray. Black and white thinking is common within religion. This mindset is also evident in the recent, extreme political divide in our country.

Having grown up in an ultra religious sub-culture of Christianity where black and white was just the way we thought, I’d like to share some reasons why I believe this mindset is dangerous.

Black and White Thinking isolates us. We always think our perspective it correct; its OUR perspective after all! But in reality, our perspective is warped because of our biases, experiences, personalities, etc. By only surrounding ourselves with other people who think like us, our biased perspective is confirmed. We are right and they are wrong.

Honestly, if we are going to have a more accurate understanding of life, we need to get to know and listen to people who are different from us. We need to hear the heart of who they are, the experiences they have had, and the reasons they think and feel the way they do. Reality is found within a combination of different perspectives.

Black and White Thinking creates enemies. If there are only two options, then life quickly becomes us versus them. Supposed truth and safety is found within the comfort of our camp. Anyone who doesn’t think like us is viewed with suspicion. We do not see the complexities of others’ humanity and we ignore their stories and experiences. We are quick to bestow motives on them based on our own opinions and not on their actual intentions. In reality, there are very few truly evil people in the world. Most people have legitimate reasons for their perspectives, whether or not we agree with them.

Black and White Thinking is often based in fear. We are naturally afraid of things we do not understand. This fear can easily be exploited by people who are trying to control us. Most differences are not bad, they are just different. When we are controlled by black and white thinking, our fear keeps us from exploring or pursuing people who have differences. That fear traps us within our own narrow perspective. Fear is not from God! We need to evaluate our fear and discover if it is truly rational or not. Is our enemy Satan, a spiritual leader, or even the media exploiting our fear in an effort to control us? This leads me to my next point.

Black and White Thinking only benefits those in power. This is true in a religious setting, in a political one, and anywhere in between. People in power love to promote black and white thinking because minions who think like this are easier to control. If we went back to the ice cream illustration I started with, who is benefiting in that scenario? The makers of chocolate ice cream! Who benefits in a religious system? The guy in charge of the church, cult, or organization. Who benefits in politics? The media and the people in political power. Black and white thinking is not helpful for the minions. We would be much better off connecting with all sorts of people with various backgrounds and beliefs. Our own opinions might be strengthened or changed as they are challenged, but we will be free to hear from one another.

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And so, I would challenge all of us to take a good look at our own hearts and minds. Do we really think there are only two options? Do we have to be right? Is it possible to live in the tension of misty gray?  Are we willing to see other human beings as valuable whether or not we agree? Can we choose to listen carefully and ask questions as others share their opinions and beliefs? Will we challenge the powers who are encouraging this dangerous mindset?

I’ve experienced the damage that black and white thinking produces first hand. It’s not worth it! The best thing that ever happened to me was learning to listen to people that I didn’t agree with… We don’t all have to be on the same page in order to get along.

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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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The Only Condemnation was in the Commentary

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I’ve reached a pretty important conclusion. God isn’t who we think He is.

I realize that the Old Testament God often has a bad reputation. It might be hard to hate Jesus, unless you’re an uber-religious leader, but Jehovah of the Old Testament does some pretty terrible things. He’s harsh and demanding.

Or is He?

I’ve been puttering around in the Old Testament during my morning devo time for the past four months or so. Basically ever since a well-known preacher told Christians to “unhitch” from it…I know, I’m a total rebel. 🙂

So far I’ve made it through Judges, Ruth, and First Samuel. I’m working my way through Second Samuel right now. What I’ve found has shocked me! Half of the stories are missing. Or rather, the stories are there but certain parts I remembered are gone.

  • Did you know God doesn’t seem to care that Deborah is a woman in leadership? There is no negativity or suggestion that she is only leading because no good men are available. In fact, she is celebrated. That was new to me!
  • Struggling with fear and insecurity, Gideon needs not one but two signs from God before he obeys. God patiently provides miracles for Gideon without comment (along with the strength to win an impossible battle). God does not appear fazed by Gideon’s needs or weaknesses. He never condemns Gideon for a lack of faith.
  • Samson is a narcissistic, womanizing, self-centered jerk who only wants revenge. There is no record of him ever repenting or caring about God at all. Even at the end, when God gave Samson back his strength, Samson only wanted it so that he could kill his enemies. Yet, somehow Samson ends up in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews chapter eleven.

Do you know what has hit me over and over again? The utter lack of condemnation. The Bible records facts in a historical, matter of fact way. God interacts with broken people to accomplish His purposes. Nothing stops Him. And the only condemnation is in the commentary. I actually had to stop reading the commentary in my study Bible because it was so irritating to me. If God’s not condemning these people, we sure don’t have any business adding it.

good-1123013_1920Condemnation is what we often hear in Sunday school, sermons, devotionals, etc. We humans can’t seem to get away from an obsession with behaviors and a desire to moralize and judge. We have to make sure people know that certain actions are bad.

But, is that really important?

The last five chapters of Judges detail some historical events that happened before there was a king and when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” They aren’t pretty stories. It’s a dark time in the nation of Israel.

Judges ends on that note. The tabernacle, the priesthood, and the worship of Jehovah have become twisted and corrupted. Everyone is doing whatever they want.

Next, the book of Ruth jumps back in time and tells the story of two women who lived during Judges. Ruth was a Moabite who came back to Israel with her mother-in-law after her husband’s death. She ends up marrying another Israelite man and goes on to be the great-great-grandmother of King Solomon (David’s son) who built the temple.

Why is this important? Well, in Deuteronomy 23:3, the Law declares that no Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD even to the tenth generation. There are only four generations between Ruth and Solomon! What? What kind of ridiculous mercy and lavish grace is being shown by Jehovah? What happened to the harsh, demanding God who wrote the Law?

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Maybe He isn’t who we assume He is. I mean, who better to disregard the Law than the One who wrote it? Maybe the Law was never meant to be perfectly followed…maybe it was meant to show us the heart of God.

Finally we arrive at First Samuel, and I love this part. We left off chronologically at the end of Judges (since Ruth happens somewhere in the middle) with terrible and tragic situations in a spiritually dark time. Into that darkness comes the prophet Samuel.

There is so much to unpack that I’m just going to use bullet points.

  • Despite the fact that most of the country is in spiritual darkness, Samuel’s parents Hannah and Elkanah seem to know the LORD personally. God always has been, and always will be, found by those who seek Him! 
  • After being given a miracle baby, Hannah gives her young son back to God and sends him to live with the priest Eli and serve in the tabernacle. Eli’s sons are totally out of control and yet are serving as priests. Worship at the tabernacle has been corrupted by thievery and prostitution. But this doesn’t stop God!
  • The beginning of Chapter Three declares that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” But, in Chapter Two, an unnamed Man of God shows up out of nowhere and gives Eli a prophecy about his sons. Where did this guy come from? What is his story? I don’t know, but God is still moving and working even though corporate worship is a mess!
  • And then directly after the declaration that God is not speaking to people, He audibly calls the child Samuel. Verse seven of Chapter Three specifically says that at this point Samuel does not yet know God and has never had God’s words revealed to him. All that is about to change! Samuel will go on to become a mighty prophet of the LORD.

Into a time of spiritual darkness and depravity, Jehovah shows up. He calls people, speaks to people, and patiently reveals Himself to them. He isn’t harsh, or demanding, or condemning. They haven’t been following the Law, but He doesn’t even mention that.

I don’t think God is Who we think He is…

It’s not that God doesn’t point out sin, because He does. But He points it out mater-of-factly with abundant grace and truth and an utter lack of condemnation. His conviction is meant to draw people to Him, not push them away. There is no shame or judgement. The more I read the Old Testament, the more Jehovah reminds me of Jesus. Crazy, isn’t it?

Part of our brokenness resulting from sin is an inability to relate to God. The Bible calls us enemies. Not that God is our enemy, but we are His. And yet, He is purposefully and passionately pursuing us. He always has been and He always will. (More on that next time.) 🙂

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Choosing Trust

(Re-blogged with some  tweaks from a post I originally wrote a few year ago.)

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Looking at the ultrasound monitor, I didn’t need anyone to tell me. I knew as soon as I saw him. My baby was dead.

Less than an hour later, we sat silently in a small waiting room, surrounded by dim lighting and multiple Kleenex boxes, waiting for the doctor. Four weeks ago our baby was wiggling all over that monitor, waving to us, measuring just right, looking good. And now he was dead. Why would God do this to us again?

We had just lost our first baby seven months ago. By the time I started miscarrying at 18 weeks, he was already absorbing into my uterus so I had to have a D&C. I thought it was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through. We asked so many questions, felt so much grief, and yet God had carried us.

We had been way more careful this time, had many more ultrasounds, and things had been looking good. It seemed like God was answering our prayers. But now my heart was breaking all over again. Why? Why would God let this happen?

The doctor finally came. He told me our baby was bigger this time. He told me it would be better if I delivered him. He wanted to know if tomorrow would work. Tomorrow was Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day will never be the same for me, but I’m okay with that. I spent February 14, 2009 in the hospital laboring with my tiny baby. It was a bit surreal. To be on the maternity floor. To hear babies crying. It lasted all day until finally, at 9:34pm, we got to see our teeny, little, baby boy. He was about 15 weeks along, even though I was at 17 weeks, with tiny fingers and toes, and little ribs. You could even see his fingernails starting to form. The nurses let us spend as much time as we wanted with him. It’s hard to explain the pain I felt, kind of like my chest was ripping in two. I wanted that baby! I wanted him so much! But I wanted him to be alive. And he wasn’t.

I remember them asking if we had a name for him. I didn’t had any names for dead babies, only for living ones! We didn’t know what to do. My husband and I talked about it. We were struggling to trust God and believe in His goodness. It felt impossible to hold on. So, we chose to take a step of faith, and we named our son, Trust. Not because we felt it, but because we didn’t. We chose to trust in a God that we could not see and did not understand. And instantly, I felt peace flood my heart.

I know what it means in Philippians 4:7 “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Because the peace I felt didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t like anything had changed in my circumstances…but I had absolute peace.

“…I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity. I am the LORD who does all these things” Isaiah 45:6b-7.

I found this verse before my babies died, but afterwards it became my life verse. I had heard well-meaning people tell others who were grieving that God was sorry their pain happened. I didn’t want God to be sorry, because I didn’t want Him to be weak.

I didn’t want Him to be like, “Oops, sorry about that!” I wanted a God who was totally in control. It comforted me to read this verse and hear God tell me, “Christy, I took your babies. I did it on purpose. It was not an accident.”

Because a God who is completely in control and loves me is safe even if I don’t understand Him. I love believing in a Being who is good and loving, but so far above me that He doesn’t owe me an explanation for His actions. It brings me peace.

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Jesus carried me after my babies died. He held me five weeks later when I shared my testimony of loss and trust with a group of juvenile delinquents on a Reservation in South Dakota. He held me up so that I could still reach out to the junior high kids in our youth group. Jesus carried me through my friend’s pregnancies, and baby showers, and seeing young teen mom’s at Walmart. Oh, I cried, often! But they were not tears of hopelessness and despair, just of sorrow and somehow trust. Choosing to trust does not mean that we don’t feel pain. I was a blubbering mess just writing this!

One year after we lost Trust, despite thinking we might never have children, God miraculously provided a diagnoses, a fertility specialist who just happened to be one of the best in the nation, $8000, a surgery, and a brand new baby growing in my tummy.

Our daughter Zoe’s birthday (July 21) and Trust’s due date (July 23) are just two days and one year apart.

Sometimes God gives us the desires of our hearts even when it seems impossible, and other times He doesn’t. I have friends who struggle with infertility, even going through IVF and God has chosen not to give them a baby. Why? I don’t know.

Often we will never know that answer, but we can believe that God never loses control and we can choose to trust.

“…I the LORD, do all these things” Isaiah 45:7.

It gives me confidence knowing that nothing can come to me that hasn’t passed through the hand of my Heavenly Father. His plans and thoughts are so much larger than mine.

We can trust Him.

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This experience has continued to carry me through more heartbreak, disappointment, unanswered prayers, and pain. This broken world hurts and often things don’t make any sense. But I KNOW that God is real, that He is in control, that He loves me, and that He will not leave me alone. The same is true for you too!

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The Value of Losing Our Faith

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I’m not sure what I believe these days.

I think I’m losing faith.

I don’t even like going to church.

I don’t know how to be a Christian any more.

Scarily honest statements. Beautifully raw. Terrifying to admit even to ourselves.

If you said them to the wrong person, they might have freaked out. And you may have gotten an earful of Christianese…those secret phrases and well known statements that only make sense to other Church People. There may have been panic on their faces. They might have interrupted you with Bible verses and prayer chains. I’m sorry!

Perhaps you have kept your doubts and questions to yourself because you don’t want to deal with the drama I just described. Maybe you are quietly drifting away.

If you are asking these kinds of questions and dealing with these types of doubt, I’m glad. I’m more than glad, I’m ecstatic!! I might also be crazy. 😉

I believe there is great value in losing our faith. In realizing that we don’t know everything. In living in the mystery of unanswered questions. It’s not something we should be afraid of…it’s something to welcome. Too often religious Christianity delights in straight answers, cut and dry theology, and blind faith. There isn’t room for doubt or questions. And that’s not okay.

God is definitely big enough to handle our doubt, confusion, and questions. They do not scare Him. I think He loves them!

Struggle isn’t a bad thing. Wrestling is good. Lean into it! Be fully present in this scary place of doubt. It is okay! You are okay. 🙂

Here’s the truth. There is much in modern Christianity that is just tradition and religion. We get so caught up in doing Christianity that we forget it’s about knowing and being. God gets neatly packaged in a pretty box, and we forget that He is not tame or containable. Our god becomes more of a concept than a Real and Powerful Being.

Guess what? We need to lose our faith. I want every one of you to lose your faith!

Because too often our faith is not actually in the real God. Our faith is in the Christian religion we were taught and the fake god we think we understand.

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Becoming disillusioned with our faith, feeling like we are losing it, is the first step to finding the real God for ourselves. Because He is real. He’s just might not be who we thought He was…

The real God will NEVER fit in the tiny box we make for Him. He is way too complex, enormous, and seemingly insane. I love that about Him!! We will never understand Him. There will always be more of Him to experience and explore.

And God wants to be found. He doesn’t make it hard for us. Even in the darkest seasons of history, He has always been available to those who sought. The Real God does not change.

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Will you come with me? Let’s struggle and wrestle, question and doubt. Let’s hunt for the Real God. And as we search, let’s remember one thing. There aren’t just two options…this complicated world isn’t just black and white. There are many answers in the middle ground. Truth is often found in tension…within two seemingly opposing realities. It’s not less of a truth just because we can’t totally wrap our minds around it. We are dealing with the God of the Universe after all.

So, go ahead. Lose your faith! It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. 🙂

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“Unhitching” from a Misused Old Testament

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On Wednesday, The Christian Post ran an article about Pastor Andy Stanley’s recent sermon where he stated that, “Christians need to unhitch the Old Testament from their faith.” The Internet went crazy.

I’ve taken three days to think and process before I respond. Because, while I disagree with Pastor Stanley, I also agree. I believe that we do need to abandon the Old Testament in a way…just not the way he suggests.

Stanley expressed concern that the Old Testament has caused people to leave their faith, and he wanted people to reconsider a Jesus without all the baggage of the the “Jewish Scriptures.” Unfortunately, while that’s really sweet, it doesn’t exactly line up with 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Paul is talking to his young disciple, Timothy.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Since Timothy grew up while the New Testament was being written, all he had were the Old Testament Scriptures. He learned them from childhood and they gave him wisdom to understand salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Wait! Aren’t these the same Scriptures Andy Stanley is worried will push people away from faith?

Paul very clearly tells us that all Scripture has been breathed out by God. Peter confirms this in 2 Peter 1:20-21.

“Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Again, since the New Testament was still being written, both Peter and Paul are referring to the “Hebrew Bible” as Pastor Stanley called it.

Can I make a bold statement?

The problem isn’t with the Old Testament itself. The problem is what Evangelical Christianity has been doing with it, often with the very best of intentions.

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Well meaning pastors, Sunday school teachers, and college professors teach the historical stories and add opinion and explanation that just isn’t in Scripture. It’s not always wrong, but that doesn’t make it right.

I’m reading Judges right now in my morning Coffee & Jesus time and I’m in shock. Half of what I assumed was in there just isn’t. There are no cute morals, or mysterious formulas, or detailed exposes. It’s just history. Stories of God and people. The thing that is hitting me the most is the utter lack of condemnation. The people are messed up, and God patiently uses them anyway with abundant grace. Maybe He’s always been like that.

Why do we feel the need to add a moral or a formula to every Bible story? Why do I have to find a way to apply them to my life? I don’t apply George Washington to my life! Can’t I just read these stories of real people, observe their successes and failures and be awestruck by God’s absolute faithfulness?

The Old Testament has also been horribly misused across Christianity. It gets distorted in an attempt to control people all the time. Where did my old cult leader get most of his ideas? By using the Old Testament out of context. In fact, just about every strange group or slightly-theologically-off person I’ve ever come in contact with was was basing their beliefs on the Old Testament.

We need to acknowledge a fact. The number of people who have been spiritually abused by a misapplication of the Old Testament is devastating. Which is why I agree with Andy Stanley that we need to unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament…just not from the real one.

Instead of unhitching from the Old Testament, let’s ditch the one we think we know and start over. Let’s read it correctly and in context.

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  • If it’s a history book, then enjoy the stories of God interacting with His precious creation. Watch for the hints that a Savior is coming, and marvel at the appearances of the pre-incarnate Jesus.
  • If it’s a law book, then stand in awe of the fact that it was never actually about those laws. It was always pointing us to Christ and our need for a Savior. Remember that Jesus came and fulfilled every bit of that law for us.
  • If it’s a book of prophecy,  then be struck by awe and slight terror as God describes Himself. Rejoice at the fact that Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies when he came to earth. (Side note: we have GOT to stop trying to apply those prophecies personally. Most prophecies are specific to Israel and have already been fulfilled.)
  • If it is a book of songs, then experience the beautiful, raw emotion of an intimate relationship between a human being and their Creator.

And if we are confused or have a problem with something as we read the Old Testament, let’s wrestle with it. Dive into Biblical culture and the customs of the day. Dig, seek, and ask questions. But please don’t read someone else’s blog (even this one) and just believe their opinion.

We need the whole Bible to get a accurate picture of God, ourselves, and our Savior, Jesus Christ. We can’t trash parts because they are confusing or uncomfortable. But we can take the time to wrestle through them for ourselves. That wrestling will bring us face to face with an unexpected God who is patiently waiting to reveal Himself to those who seek.

The real Jesus is worth it! But don’t take my word for it. 🙂

“It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” John 4:42.

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Who was the Real Deborah?

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I struggle with the idea that we small, “wise” humans can decide which parts of the Bible are no longer true. But I have discovered something that irks me even more. “Truths” that get added to the Bible at some point and then keep getting taught for generations even when they aren’t actually there.

I recently read the story of Deborah the prophetess and judge in Judges 4. Initially thinking I knew the story, I quickly became puzzled. Some of it was missing!

While raised in ultra-conservative patriarchy I’d been taught that Deborah was wrong to be a woman in leadership. She was only leading because there were no men available, and that her leadership was actually a curse. I thought that Barak was supposed to be the judge, but because he was too wimpy, Deborah took over. None of that was in the passage.

I did a search to see where else Deborah is mentioned in Scripture. It’s only Judges 4-5.

Not only is Deborah not condemned for being a judge, she is called a prophetess. Last I checked there were only two kinds of prophets in Scripture – false prophets and true ones. She is obviously not a false prophet, so that must make her a true one. Becoming a prophet is not something you get to choose. God picks you, gifts you, and fills you with His words. Things were starting to feel sketchy to me.

I looked further into her interactions with Barak. He was the military leader not Deborah. She called him and gave him a word from the LORD. He was nervous and asked her to come with him to battle. Deborah agreed to come, but it never mentions that she fought. She didn’t take over. Deborah lived as the strong woman God created her to be and inspired greatness in those around her.

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The truth about Deborah filled me with delight! I finished my coffee and chalked the whole thing up to one more crazy lie I’d been taught back in the day. But then something else happened.

My husband and I had a date night, and over our craft beer and fried pickles I asked him what he thought about Deborah the judge. You need to understand that my husband is my total opposite. He wasn’t raised in church and didn’t start a relationship with Jesus until he was sixteen. After graduating from public high school, he spent four years at two different Bible schools. They were conservative in theology, but incredibly tame compared to what I experienced in my legalistic Christian cult.

Do you know what my husband told me? That Deborah was only the judge because there were no available men to lead. What? In shock, I explained what I’d found that morning and we ended up having a friendly debate (that was finally solved on Google).

We found ultra-conservative blogs denouncing Deborah. But we also discovered many other articles, such as this excellent one from Bible.org “Deborah: The Woman God Uses” that celebrated the things God did through her. It didn’t take much convincing.

Horrified, my husband exclaimed, “Gothard’s ideas are everywhere!” As much as I’d love to blame him, I know my old cult leader (Bill Gothard) isn’t the mastermind behind every oppressively conservative view of life. But if not, then what?

I’ll be honest, this discovery about the real Deborah has rocked my husband and I. It makes us upset and skeptical. Why are so many things taught in conservative, evangelical Christianity that aren’t actually from Scripture? How do we know what to believe? And where are these lies coming from? No wonder people get disgusted and just chuck the whole thing out the window!

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I’m not willing to leave the cores of Christianity. But I want my beliefs to be based on Scripture, and I want to stick with the real Jesus. I really believe that Evangelical Christianity needs an overhaul. We need passionate, discerning, truth-loving people to look into tradition and opinion and figure out which beliefs are solid and which need to get trashed. The lies about Deborah need to go in the garbage.

Deborah was a wonderful, gifted, wise, discerning woman who heard from God. She wasn’t a curse, and she didn’t lead just because some man failed. Deborah used her skills and abilities to guide people into the truth. God designed her on purpose, gifted her for “such a time as this,” and never, NOT ONCE, condemned her for being female.

As a strong, passionate woman who has spent most of my life trying to push down and contain my personality and abilities, this gives me immense joy. 🙂

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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P.S. I was in the middle of writing this blog post when I came across the post Beth Moore wrote yesterday: A Letter to My Brothers. Wow! Take the time to read it. It’s powerful and confirming. I feel the Spirit moving!