Burning Out

“And how blessed all those in whom you live, whose lives become roads you travel; They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks, discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!” –Psalms 84:5-6

Last week I had two very interesting experiences at the churches I attend.  (To play quick catch up, we attend two churches:  Common Ground on Sunday mornings, a place where we can just go and be “anonymous”; and The Crossing on Sunday evenings, where we call our church home.)  The week before, the assistant pastor of The Crossing gave a “sermon” which was basically a confession that neither he nor the head pastor was in a good place, people really irritated them, they had nothing to offer, and that he essentially drew the short straw to have to speak at all.  The community rallied around them to pray for them and figure out ways to better support them.  The following Sunday at Common Ground, the pastor confessed that he had “no word” for the people.  Yeah, he had studied and prepared something, but it felt like empty words and he didn’t want to have to perform for people.

It’s hard for anyone to be transparent.  To fully be who they are, faults and foibles out for public display and consumption.  Party because we don’t want to risk appearing like we don’t have our act together and partly because we know that people aren’t fully comfortable dealing with or accepting people in their rawness.  It’s especially hard for pastors, a path fraught with greater trepidation as that would mean they would have to live against people’s ideas of how pastors are supposed to be.  They are pressed into a place as performer/ear tickler, administrator, care taker, teacher, with all those gifts in  equal measurement.  I’ve known some great teachers who are lousy care takers and great care takers who are lousy administrators, none of whom are given permission to be transparent and admit that they can’t do what people expect them to.

Back to the two pastors, both were able to be who they are—free to be broken, free to be real, free to be honest—because they trusted the communities they were a part of (and helped shape).  They were able to let go of that sense of control and let go of other people’s ideas of how they should be.  As pastors, or simply as people of God, there is a tacit pressure to having to appear fixed and perfect, only admitting to “safe” sins, like pride (or maybe anger or maybe slander/gossip … anything you know that just about everyone struggles with).

Do you know that there is about a two year burnout rate on most ministry workers?  Pastors, volunteers, any full time laborer, they have the heart of wanting to pour themselves into people, but rarely take into account how much ministry drains the “soul’s battery”.  It’s a high wire act with no net, putting ministry above everything else.  I know I’ve been in that place of burnout before, emotionally drained, physically running on fumes, spiritually exhausted, because I didn’t take the time to allow myself to recharge.  Pride plays a part in this, as we think we’re the only ones who can do the work, just as we also feel guilty when we’re not “doing”.  Either way, we get so busy putting out fires that no one’s doing any fire prevention.  We get so down, so wiped out, that we have nothing left for others.  Nor did others come around, surround, support and protect (because we all know the rule that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, yet we seem pretty content to ride those servant leaders til they burnout).  So we end up pushing ourselves beyond our limits, operating out of our own woundedness, until it catches up with you.

Church is supposed to be a safe place, an unusual community of people—In their glory and their ugliness—an expression of the authentic movement of God and love.  When it stops being a safe place, people leave.  So my question becomes how do you love someone through burnout (and in turn, how does someone allow themselves to be loved through burnout)?  I have no answer, because it’s a delicate, interconnected dance.

Being transparent. Back to my two pastors, their authenticity allowed their respective communities to do their job.  After all, we’re called to submit to one another despite our (American) top-down business model we apply to church leadership.  The community ministers to one another:  community to pastor as well as pastor to community, aching for one another during times of hurt.

Being in authentic relationship. It’s easy to do the Christian thing or, for that matter, the pastor thing.  It’s easy to go through the motions and put on the right airs and behaviors and not allow anyone to push in on your life.  It’s easy to fall into the lie/trap that you have to go through this alone.  That we’re meant to be these lone wolf super heroes, individuals who are defined by their ability to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  Yet the reality is that we are relational creatures and sometimes we need the power of relationship to carry us through dark times.   Sometimes this means surrounding yourself with people who can speak into your life and love you enough to push back on you when you are living out of balance.  And we can’t just wait for the invitation to walk alongside someone, but rather be emboldened to “enter into their cave.”  Some relationships are not only worth staying with but become forged by folks walking alongside one another even when you don’t know where you’re going.

Being a good listener. Sometimes we just need to vent.  Sometimes we just need to feel heard.  Sometimes we don’t need people trying to fix us.  Not pulling the “God” thing (aka, throw a verse or a platitude at us).  We just need a good listening ears, people to just sit in silence with us.  Not giving us unasked for advice.  At the same time, we need to have ears that hear, because sometimes our friends DO have words for us and can speak into our lives in special ways because they do both know and love us.

Being people of thanksgiving. Because we are naturally people of short memories and notoriously unappreciative, we tend to dwell in the weeds of life rather than rejoice in the good.  What I’m talking about isn’t simply a matter of painting a happy face on things, but rather living out our gratefulness in a real way.  Creating our own “stones of remembrance” from where we are able to recount the goodness of God and how He has carried us through in the past.

We may often find ourselves in a spiritual desert. It’s a trap we fall into as we try to do things on our own strength and efforts.  We don’t often enough leave room to draw our strength and energy from Him, to take refuge in His presence and minister from that place.  While we long for the days of refreshment, we need to also be continuing to recharge our “soul batteries”.  We live in hope.

“God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!”  –Psalm 84:7

Stuck

“I’m sick of myself and I’m sick of feeling, so there’s not really anything positive there.”

I have this friend that just can’t see himself the way that I and others in his life see him.  Believing himself to be worthless, unfit for proper relationship, and even a burden for others around him as he struggles with various issues.  Thing is, I bet I could be speaking of a lot of friends in my life.  For that matter, we all can fall into these existential traps of loss of self, purpose, and perspective.  Be it not having the strength to overcome an addiction, tired of fighting and changing the flaws we see within ourselves, or simply resigning ourselves to the lie that this is all we’ll ever be.  It’s hard to escape the shadow of this negative light we often see ourselves and much easier to believe the lies about ourselves.

We become immobilized, locked behind insecurities we have about ourselves.  Stuck.

Being stuck is a good way to not take risks, a good way to not trust God, and a good way to not live life.

Living out of fear, afraid of that chance of rejection, we default to “I’m a failure” or “I’m a screw up” and give up (or worse, live into that).  We can spiral down a slippery slope of believing that we’re just going to keep being a disappointment to believing that we’re a sort of contagious cancer that people should avoid.

The simple truth is that we want to be accepted, we want to be loved, and we want to feel as if we are needed and valued.  Somewhere along the line, we were shamed (and re-shamed) accepting lies about ourselves and choosing failure through inaction by not attempting rather than risk trying.  It’s part of our need for self-protection.  Put simply, we don’t want to hurt or feel pain, a perfectly natural and human response.  Yet sometimes in our need for self-protection, we develop thick emotional armor, walls, or find other ways to numb ourselves from the realities of life in a fallen world.

I’m reminded of a take on Matthew 7:4 (“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”).  What if the point IS to be able to remove the speck from our brother’s eye, but we can’t see it because of the huge plank in our own?  What if self-protection is one type of plank making it so that we     don’t have to feel pain of being rejected but also making it so that we don’t have to get serious about taking speck out of brother’s eye?  Our life revolves around it always being about “what’s wrong with me?” rather than extending ourselves to live for others.

We must be willing to speak truth, starting with the truth about ourselves.

“Just keep swimming.” –Dorrie (Finding Nemo)

Internal journeying is rarely easy or fun, especially if the circumstance isn’t a situation you can just “think” your way out of.  But you’re not as stuck as you think you are.  There is another way.   Moving forward is the key. Some people become stuck and need help to not suffer needlessly for the wrong reasons.  A counterfeit spirit and the Holy Spirit operate in similar ways.  The counterfeit spirit, our enemy, feeds us lies about ourselves, focuses on what’s wrong us, and heaps shame and condemnation on our heads.  We feel we must hide our dark core from everyone either from fear of being rejected or not wanting to drag anyone else down.  And we become mired in our own self-loathing.  Stuck.

The Holy Spirit wants us to dine on truth.  That we’re an image bearer of God, a beautiful creation.  Yes, we’re sinners, but there’s conviction, repentance, and redemption from that.  And freedom.  Freedom from the chains of our addictions, our self-loathing, our self-protection, our “ugliness”.  We’re loved as we are for who we are.  We need to set aside the lies we’ve come to believe about ourselves (or that have been programmed into us by others):  that we’re a villain, a cancer, toxic to those around us; that we’re unworthy of loving or being loved, that others are better off without us.

It’s a matter of getting our identity straight.  We are known by God.  We are loved by God.  Yet we don’t always believe that and don’t always see how it plays out in our lives.  When our faith can’t get traction in our lives, we become stuck.  We misplace our identity, things get shifted, then our priorities change.  We want comfort, personal happiness, and the right relationship with that special someone rather than being a living billboard for God’s glory and love.  We end up not living up to our potential like we should, thus we need to keep being reminded of our true identity:  we’re children of God, known for exactly who we are, and loved anyway!

I know my friend can’t see the blessing that he is to me and those who are privileged to encounter him.  I’m betting the same can be said for many of us.  Times that are the most difficult can be the times that are the most forming for us.  Our identity is not in our situations, but our identity is revealed by how we respond to them.  It’s difficult to keep that sense of desperation, that place of need, of only being able to clutch onto Christ as your hope.  And to be thankful that in our desperation, He is there.  Practically speaking, we must continue to ask ourselves where is our hope and what is it in? What are we being formed into?  What can we be doing better?  What relationships can we be pursuing?  Are we loving those around us to the best of our ability? Live into something positive rather than concentrating on “not doing” something negative.  We need to take stock of all the things were thankful for and carry on.  Thankfulness fans the flames of hope.

And I know it’s easier blogged than done.

Journey of Church Metaphors

Someone recently reminded me that despite my gripes about the church, God didn’t institute a Plan B for how He was going to work our His redemptive plan for the world.  I often get complaints that I’m too hard on the church.  I do often have critiques about many aspects of the church, or specific iterations of it, from the pursuit of mega-church status to the health and wealth gospel to how it does mission trips.  I get frustrated because I do love it (the love part of my love hate relationship with it).

There’s a lot of ways I have looked at my history/relationship with the church.  I once wrote about church shopping in terms of a date.  Lately I’ve been thinking about how my journey with the church can be seen through some of the various metaphors of the church seen in the Bible, both good and bad.

Early on, I saw the church in terms of being an Army, and I was a soldier in the army of the Lord.  As many new converts are, I was “on fire.”  Me and my friends were young, take charge, full of dreams and ideas, and folks had to run to keep up with us.  If the church was an Army, we were the Christian Special Forces.  Ah, the arrogance of youth.  The metaphor of the church cast in terms of military made sense to a culture beset and besieged by the Roman empire.  Soldiers had to train hard, be disciple, gird themselves to battle, and be prepared to give their lives in their cause.

There is a lot of toxicity in the image also.  The idea of conquering language leads to a conquering mindset.  There was also a sense of searching for the proper level, rising through the ranks if you would.  Some people were meant to be privates, some generals, though there were often far more people who thought they were generals than privates.  The other thing about the army mentality, is a problem the Roman empire felt with the Pax Romana.  Soldiers need to fight.  Folks who are trained to wage war always need to be at war with someone.

As an example, I’m reminded of something the Internet Monk recently wrote:  As a result of this evangelical embrace of a culture war approach to their mission in the world, churches, pastors, and individual Christians have been swept up into having to choose sides on many complex issues and to adopt a “Christ against culture” mentality. This has coincided with the development of an entire Christian subculture, which in my view has isolated believers from their neighbors and genuine redemptive interaction with the world.

After a period of disillusionment, the next stage of my relationship with the church could be seen through the metaphor of the Body.  Every person has their gifts, those talents and skillsets that make them uniquely them.  Part of the role of the church and the individual is not only realizing their gifts but finding ways to use their gifts.  This stage was often one of internal searching, for the proper role or part to play.  Thing is, bodies tend to protect themselves first.  Use of those gifts were typically for the benefit of the body.

Currently in my journey, the church is viewed through the metaphor of Family.  There is a strong relational element to how I view the church.  Even as we feel out our sense of place as people in families, large or small, have to do; there is that element of being stuck with each other.  That’s one of the chief benefits.  On the down side, there is the heightened capacity to damage, as there’s nothing worse than being betrayed by family.

My family is full of characters.  I’ve grown up with weirdos and outcasts (and been/am one).  Life with Jesus and people is not primarily about information.  Ultimately it is relational.  Learning how to relate and live with one another is truly the journey of a life time.  It’s never too late to begin that walk.

Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

One of my favorite essays I’ve ever read was Brian Keene’s Bleed With Me. It was about what artists have to do for the sake of their art, which is essentially to bleed for others. Our pain, our hearts, our souls laid bare in order to convey the truth of art. Put another way, it is the vulnerability and transparency of the artist that is the source for the best art experience.

Admittedly, there are varying levels of transparency. Sometimes the emotional truth is easier to get to through the distance of fiction. Even on my blog, it’s still fairly safe, after all, it is my platform with moderated comments (though that doesn’t stop the occasional troll). Encountering people in the real world is an entirely different matter because be it blog or story, once it’s sent off, it’s in the hands of the readers for them to experience as they will.

Transparency is a learned skill. People might be born open, but we learn to protect ourselves, to shut people out, and build walls. Personally, I’ve been blessed to have a half dozen pastors who get in my face, hold me to account, and walk with me (not engage in CYA meetings to say they have checked in). I am also in a recovery program. And let me tell you, I’ve had to confess that I suck at transparency. In fact, I’m convinced that I need an introductory program of steps to make it to the first 12, just to get me to the sharing part.

As much as we may sometimes want to, we can’t live alone. We have blind spots. We’re biased to our own stories, positively and negatively. Live life outside of our paradigm. People who grow up abused may consider that the norm until they develop relationships with people outside their experience. We live from a place of fear, wanting to protect ourselves from pain. For many, that means suppressing emotions or otherwise leading a flat emotional life. We have a distrust emotions, for some it’s a Charismatic paranoia, afraid of letting emotions sweep us away as a part of the faith experience. Step outside of our mindset of how people ought to behave and deal with how they do, meet them where they are.

So how do we begin to access our heart? How do we begin ending that awkward dance of disconnectedness? We long to feel close to another, be it intimacy with God or simply a connection with others, yet live in the shadows of not knowing what to share, or fear over-sharing and chasing people away. It’s funny, some people need conflict to access their hearts while others are so conflict averse, they find it easier to walk away from relationships. We have to come to a place where we learn how to listen and know ourselves. Sometimes we’re so numb we have to begin by praying to have our hearts woken up, to have the fear broken, and be released to be the real you. And that’s risky: people may not like the real you. Start with what you know. The power of confession is admitting our failings. There is a power to putting our feelings to words through prayer, sharing our stories of woundedness, and finding healing as we push one another forward.

Moving forward is the key. Some people become stuck and need help to not suffer needlessly for the wrong reasons. Some days it hurts more than others and people cry out. For some, in the superficial sharing, pain can become romanticized, An openness about woundedness brings with it the danger of exhibitionism—an emotional Munchausen syndrome—as if the superficial sharing is the end of the process. While people don’t need to be categorized as being drama queens seeking attention, open wounds don’t heal, so we can’t stop with just airing problems.

Sometimes a person in pain can’t recognize their hurt and nor diagnose a treatment. All they know is that it hurts. We’re all afraid of the pain, none of us wanting it in our lives. We want it to be fixed, ended, to be made better and while we wish we could go back to the way things were or snap our fingers and make everything better, it is a process. One which requires time. The proper community plays a role in this process. Cries for help are met with care, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, fellowship, and in all things, love; all the things that make and should characterize a community. Shared pain stops being paralyzing. In the sharing and bearing, community is build as they carry one another in shared hope, in their common search for Christ.

Learning to stand and walk (not hide) midst of pain and misunderstandings involves allowing the opportunity for people to speak into your life, to walk beside you, to break through our fears and loneliness. To allow others to know what’s going on and pray for you. For those with similar stories to find you and lead you. It allows community to spring up in a time of need and do its job and in so doing the community acts as witnesses and agents of grace and love and peace.

Wounded stories become opportunities in peoples lives. Moments of confession, to reflect on and live out our faith, and to build community if we’re bold enough to wade into another’s pain and story. To do so means we have to move outside of our own preoccupations and agendas and needs and worries. It means a withdrawal of self to allow room for another. It may mean allowing them room to vent, cry, be angry, be silent, rest; in short, to be a safe place.

While we have to move forward in our pain, wholeness can’t be given from one to another. Not a friend, not a romantic interest, not a well-intended seminarian, but only through the blood of Christ. It means washing our own wounds and past, giving them up and letting go of them. It means finding forgiveness, for ourselves as well as others. In so doing, our wounds become occasions for new visions. In our weakness we have a reminder that we can’t do it alone, that we have to move forward while clinging to God’s promises. We need to let the light of His amazing love work through us, holding us together, holding marriages together, dispelling the lies of isolation and abandonment.

We need to know and own our own pain, our own story. Being authentic, raw, and vulnerable is risky. Being a wounded healer means allowing others to enter our lives, connecting their story with yours … without having any idea where this will lead or what it will look like. We can only hope that life on the other side of the journey to wholeness—the journey our of our dark places—will be a much better place.

***

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers
Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant
Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant

We all carry around hurts with us, pain which, left untreated, has a way of settling in and rotting us from the inside like a festering wound. Sadly, hurts and lies have a way of shaping us as we carry them around inside us like an infection. Be we wounded by parents, having felt the cold indifference of friends, the sting of a careless word from a pastor, a sense of abandonment at a critical time, or just the tragedy of life in a fallen world, our stories of what carves out pieces of us are all too similar. As much as our American culture teaches us to “suck it up”, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, eventually we come to the realization that our own strength will only take us so far.

The walking wounded run a risk when we choose to encounter another’s pain. Our instinct may be to flee, find a way to distance ourselves from them, even ostracize them. After all, it’s an emotional risk to put ourselves out there in order to be arms of comfort, ears of compassion. Ultimately, we’re also faced with a two-pronged tension: we can’t find healing in one another, yet who can alleviate suffering without entering into it?

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:3-5

Christ identifies with us in our pain and woundedness. Our stories are His stories from a life He experienced alongside us. Leading us by example, making our story His, knowing our hurts and fears. He lived with eye to hope, no matter how dark it got. Hope provides a glimpse of the destination we wish to reach. Home.

We don’t take away one another’s pain. There’s no way for us to. What we can do is share one another’s pain, bear one another up. It’s messy, there are no universal steps because life, like the people in it, is creatively individual. So we also have to give each other room to move. It’s also from this place of brokenness that is a starting place for a profound journey.

Entering the complexities of our inner lives, our inner journey, involves sifting through and dealing with the muck of transformation. We all want to lead safe and protected lives, yet we aren’t called to safety (another tension we have to live within). Still, we search out a safe place to confess, repent, and heal. Seek those who are safe, possibly those who can relate to our pain, our woundedness. Those who are willing to be raw and failing yet be at one other’s disposal. Muddling through the faith and doubt, light and dark, hope and despair, that often comes with the real inner work of transformation.

And we continue to let Christ in as we pursue an emotional intimacy with Him. Continuously learning to give ourselves over to him. Continuing to wash our past and brokenness in the blood of Christ.

***

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers
Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant
Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers

“…I have found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is the most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others. This has helped me to understand artists and poets who have dared to express the unique in themselves.” –Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person

We are called to be wounded healers taking care of our own wounds, while prepared to treat the wounds of others. The idea of wounded healers led me to Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer which I’ve been meditating on for the last few weeks.

A lot of folks don’t know what to do with folks who are truly hurting. They are quick to label them crazy or drama queens, accuse them of self-aggrandizing behavior. To be fair, condition not always easily recognized, hidden behind walls, retreated to caves to lick wounds (ironic that our instinct is to withdraw from those who would help us). On the flip side, people who are hurting aren’t always the most cooperative of “patients”, often scared or indifferent and stubborn, or whatever else their posture of woundedness, unable to give voice or words to their state of despair or hopelessness. Burdened with the weight of guilt and shame, and self-contempt, they might pull away from people, not wanting to let others see our wounds believing them to be too ugly.

They have a sense of being lost, believing themselves without family or friends or anyone to understand or relate to their plight. As they bottom out, not knowing whether they want to live or die, unable to give any direction (or even perspective) to their story, they become prisoners of their own existence. People feel alone when no one seems to be around to walk through your pain with you, to simply be there to pray with, talk to, comfort. That’s part of the healing power of being present.

A desperate cry demands a response from their brother. Not indifference or isolation, not intellectual platitudes of a well-intentioned seminarian. These are easy emotionally, safe responses, sometimes betraying a hubris and insensitivity, an aloofness to the pain and suffering of others. As Larry Crabb said, “the solution to the problem of disconnection is connection.” To become present to one another means that we have to encounter each other in a very real and very human way. The comfort of presence allows us to smell, feel, hear, and see another. It’s a connection through each other’s story that puts a lie to no one being there, the lie that no one cares. It lets the wounded know that there are people waiting on the other side of the dark time.

We are human and we will fail one another. We can’t and won’t be there perfectly for one another, despite the well-meaning promises between parent and child, spouses, boy/girlfriends, friends. It’s all a part of the mystery of people. They’re so individually … peoplely. It’s easy to point out the failures to draw near to others. We forget, they’re people too, wounded in their own ways, and like the rest of us, have to work through their own fears, hesitations, self-preoccupation, and self-protections in order to reach out to others. It’s why the idea of dealing with people who are deeply wounded and hurting leaves them befuddled, not knowing what to do.

We’re all called to be wounded healers, but it’s hard to lead another out of pain if you’ve never allowed yourself to deal with your own pain. Sometimes you have to head straight into the pain to come out of the other side

Our own emotions—anger, fear, disappointment, resentments, distrust—may keep us from drawing near to our “neighbor” when they are wounded (by themselves or by life). Healing can begin with a simple forgiving embrace, a confession of failure, not justifications and rationalizations. Few people want to keep screaming in the face of their pain. They want someone to listen, to truly listen. Few people don’t hope for recovery, don’t want to be restored or find wholeness, who’d rather find temporary shelter in the attention of their stories. We’re not called to camp out in our woundedness or brokenness, but it is the hope of that promised wholeness keeps us pursuing the way of Jesus.

The gospel story isn’t that we sin and God forgives, or that we’re just sinners. We’re children, heirs, called to a life of joy. We are to make his life our own and be transformed. He is the source of healing, the Balm in Gilead. We are to grow to look like him, not just as the suffering servant, but becoming fully human. And making the journey to become fully human and return home.

***

Wounded Stories I: Wounded Story Tellers
Wounded Stories II: Suffering Servant
Wounded Stories III: Wounds As a Source of Healing

Finding Our Way Home

Thinking about my relationship with my wife has—running it through the filter of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son—has made me realize a lot about my relationship with God. And vice versa. When you wander down a dark tunnel, the longer you walk in that darkness, the longer it will take you to find your way out/back again, pure and simple. It’s a long, self-exposing journey.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re all looking for a home where we could feel safe. A place of belonging and rest. Home. God has made His home, a place for us to return to, a place He calls us to. But God is also a jealous love, wanting every part of us all the time.

I know that I struggle with the idea that someone wants to know me, sees me, and still accepts, loves, and pursues me. So the words to that familiar hymn, “prone to wander”, ring true as over and over I have left home. Thoughts, feelings, passions, busyness all take me away from home, from God. Trying to stave off the travails of the human soul, the loneliness and sorrow; fill a hole, desire, and thirst only God could satisfy. Looking for affirmation, validation, appreciation, affection from friends, family, or fans. Not realizing that I can’t look for my true self, my true home, there, I have gone off to find somewhere else what I believed what I couldn’t find at home.

It boils down to we don’t trust in love. It’s hard to. It’s difficult to believe in a love that doesn’t compare, that doesn’t reward, that meets you where you are, as you as, because that’s not what we do and isn’t how our world operates. The world teaches us that love is conditional. That striving for success, popularity, power, denying that love is free, is all part of buying into the belief that you have to earn it. It feeds our doubts about our self-worth.

A lot of people live their lives never fully convinced they are loved as they are. Never be able to love or unable to receive love, or allow ourselves to feel and accept love without strings attached or pre-requisites. Their stories have an eerie similarity to them: their parents may not have given them what they needed, their teachers may not have believed in them or otherwise tore them down, they were abandoned at a critical moment (by parents, peers, or even a church). Whatever was their bedrock for stability was shaken or removed and they learned not to trust.

In God we have an invitation to intimacy, to a safe place to call home. We have a nearly instinctual resistance to him. Our independence, our need to control, prevents us from coming to our senses and falling to our knees. Unwilling to dare to let myself kneel down and be held by a loving God. To believe in the promise of forgiveness. Healing. Wholeness. As the Good Shepherd, God goes out and looks for His lost sheep. With God not content to let us stew in our sin and brokenness, we have to confront the question: if God is trying to find, know, and love me, how am I to let myself be found, be known, and be loved?

Ignoring the place of true love, combined with our need to fill our inner hole, causes us to look elsewhere. The deepest cravings of our hearts demands to be filled, enabling addictions. Our lostness makes us cling to different things to find (self) fulfillment. Chasing after lust confused with love, admiration, food, drugs, sometimes even a friendship can call you away from home, all are deceptive ways of finding self-worth. If we’re running around asking “do you love me? Do you really love me?” of those around us, we’re defined by the world and the loud voices who want us to buy into the lie about ourselves. If we’re hurting and chase a high to numb ourselves from the pain or feel a sense of peace, we’re unable to full experience life. And these have inner consequences as we end up running further and further away from home and the less we’re able to hear the voice of the one who loves and speaks love to us.

Stepping into the kingdom of God means giving up a sense of control. As our lives spiral out of control, as we come to, but haven’t quite arrived at, our end of self moment, we want a sense of control over the burgeoning mess of our lives. The difficult path begins when we let the situation inform and teach us, a process of letting go, dying to fear of not knowing where things will all lead. When we begin to hear a voice that could only be heard when you are willing to feel. When we’re willing to do the hard work of staying in the pain of this world, while in pain, and dealing with the pain.

Accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often harder than giving it because giving it means we’re in control. Anything else means that we are entering into a scary place, like much of faith, and becomes about surrender and trust. We enter into a place beyond earning and deserving. A place of grace. Home.

Coming home is a long, self-exposing journey, part of the spiritual adventure.

And I’m praying for the strength to live out that journey.

God Doesn’t Have Writer’s Block

I’ve written about the church’s uneasy relationship with art and spoken before of how story impacts my Christianity, but I’ve been thinking lately about how the many in the church have an uneasy relationship with story. Which is ironic considering that a good chunk of the basis of our faith is rooted in lessons provided by a collection of stories.

Our imagination is an amazing gift. Our ability to conceive ideas and construct stories is beautiful. It joins us to our Creator and is part of what makes us human. Its dark side, however, is that it can be used as a destructive device that can distort reality and is why so many inherently trust any sort of metanarrative. Story is a powerful thing, rife with potential, and because we were created in God’s image, we want to write our own stories.

I write by outline. When I’m plotting out a novel, there’s a story I know I want to tell. So I can spend pages creating characters, laying out plot points, describing different scenes, jotting down snippets of dialogue to capture each character’s voice, and generally plotting out the overall story. But I leave the end of the outline, the climax of the story, open. If my characters are real, they aren’t always going to cooperate with the story I have in mind. If they were created as living, breathing, fully fleshed out characters, they have freedoms and will make choices. They have their own story to tell and I need to give them room to allow them to write it themselves. If I impose my plot at the expense of their character arcs, the story I’m writing will ring hollow. I am not being true to them or the narrative.

I wonder if this is how God operates?

Stories can sometimes be painful and take dark and unexpected turns. When situations, crisis moments, rise up, we want to impose out plots on them. As a church, we can get tempted into wanting to write our own stories, trying to create “look what God did” tales—wrapping things up in time for our Thanksgiving service or next sermon series—that we overlook the people involved and the story HE’s writing. Stories proceed at their own pace, moving along their own timeline. Sometimes when faced with a painful or overwhelming story, we want to get to the end quickly (sometimes any ending), not allowing time or any sort of narrative process to unfold, simply to get over it and feel better. Trying to manage the story rather than being true to the story and characters.

I had a story once where the words were coming easy, the characters fully imagined in my head, and then I tried to force a story onto them. Instead of dealing with the characters in front of me, as they were, I moved the story at the expense of them and their needs. Shocker of all shocks, the characters quit cooperating with me. It was like they opted out of the story. So I had to scrap the story I was trying to do and start over.

We also have a way of trapping people in stories, not just as a people, or as a church, but also as individuals. We are quick to label people—“that’s the crazy one”, “that’s the drama queen”, “that’s the villain”—defining them into roles that they aren’t free to grow out of. Similarly, we can sometimes do the same damage to ourselves when we believe lies about ourselves.

Similarly to losing focus of the characters, we can lose focus of the story and end up forcing stories, locked into the endings we want. We end up trying to salvage a story:

-if we can just get this person saved
-if we can just get these people to reconcile
-if we can just change this person’s thinking or way of life

All good ends, but mixed in with an inherent hubris: as if we’re the author’s of those stories. What it reveals is that we don’t trust narrative. or the Ultimate Author. Our need to control locks us into creating “an opportunity for a miracle” (you know how we like to give God a helping hand with the situations we encounter), wanting to have a good “look what God did” story to tell, as if we need to provide Him crib notes to help the story along.

But God doesn’t have writer’s block.

As much as we would wish or act like it is, life isn’t a choose your own adventure story. Stories happen on God’s script and on His time table. As such, narratives are uncertain and should be prayerfully written. Narratives aren’t safe and require faith in an ultimate Author and asks us to surrender our narrative to Him and the story He wants to write. Our stories are ones of continued surrender.

We need to encounter each other as stories, bumping up against and connecting to others as fellow participants and co-authors of a story of reconciliation and healing. Pain and suffering is our universal language, our great uniter. Our collective sin, our response to that sin, requires that we walk through the pain of a fallen world with a willingness to enter into one another’s paralyzing situations.

The story isn’t that we sin and God forgives, but that we’re children of God’s, co-heirs with Jesus, called to a life of joy. We are to make His life our own, transforming us, sometimes through the refining fire of pain, to look like Him, as children come to resemble their parents. That’s the story we find ourselves in.

God’s Failed Ambassadors

Or Don’t Trip … He Ain’t Through With You Yet

While I was thinking through what I was going to say about “The Story of (My) Christianity”, I was left with a bunch of issues that I struggled with. It’s the whole idea of God sending us to be His ambassadors and then seemingly not being able to equip us adequately for the job. I see it in my church. I see it in my life. I see it in my heart. Shouldn’t there be a more demonstrable difference between “us” and “them”? Why are we still so broken?

A friend of mine put it this way: “If God is to be the all powerful diety he is, why does he not do more to change us when we confess his Lordship over our lives? Yeah, yeah, free will and all that, but still what are we saying when we are calling him “Lord”? Isn’t part of that an invitation for Him to change us? Sure, it takes work on our part, but I could use some help and, if you believe the surveys, so does everyone else. When I look at the Christian community, I see epic fail and it’s really hard for me to just say that it’s all our fault. If we are to be representing Him, and if we are calling Him the Lord of our lives, then I would think we would get more help…and if He isn’t then how can we say the blame is all on us?

We were created in the image of God and declared “good”. Good. We forget that part of things, that as image-bearers, we have inherent worth. We don’t always live up to that potential, what we were created to be. We could look at our place in the greater scheme of things as a matter of us not being able to save ourselves, but that’s not the whole story. We’re invited into a way of life, a life of transformation. We don’t have to remain as we are, mired in the mess of our lives. We can seek a path of wholeness, become humans to be restored in all the dimensions of humanity.

Probably points more to our misunderstanding of God and our relationship with him. We don’t have to be perfect to be dispensers of God’s grace. Martin Luther spoke of Christians as being simultaneously saints and sinners. It has taken me quite a while to understand that God’s not interested in fixed vessels. We have it in our heads that we need to be perfect, have our act together, be the “best” representatives that we can be because how else can we be used by God.

This idea of perfection has crippled my spiritual walk. The Bible seems to not only demand perfection, but it seems to imply that perfection is attainable now. Then someone pointed out to me that I had a screwed up view of “perfection.” When we read the word “perfection” through our modern mindset, we see the Greek ideal of perfection. We can’t attain that. Yet for most of my spiritual life, I was tormented by the guilt of failure because I couldn’t reach this goal of perfection. My life was littered with seemingly endless failures. But when you read perfection more through the eyes of the original audience, you find the Hebrew idea of wholeness. Being complete is something that we can attain.

We are no more immune to sin and temptation than our neighbor, as much as I (and many in the churches) would like to believe otherwise. We’re sick and we need resurrection, divine healing. He calls us to join with Him, to be set free of the lives we’re imprisoned in into a new world, a new way of living. In our imperfection, in our brokenness, we know each other’s pain and weakness—without room for judgment—and can best be there for one another. We can be the consoling arms of God for one another.

Our actions define our eternity. The strongest, most impactful message you can have about your faith is the one we speak with our lives. If we aren’t living it out, it invalidates anything we have to say on the subject. If what we say and how we live don’t match, we’ve probably already lost the battle. There’s the heart of my struggle. I’ve tried to follow Jesus and it’s hard. There’s nothing simple about it. It’s paradoxical. It’s counter-intuitive. Often I feel as if I know the truth, but have no experience of its reality or fail to fully live it out.

God is engaged in a gentle dance with us, wooing us to Him not wanting to force Himself on us, but rather wanting us to freely choose to love Him; to join with His redemptive mission for each other and for creation. He chooses to work through a failed people for reasons we may never understand. We are cracked vessels, works in progress. God doesn’t give up on us … we give up on ourselves. We aren’t defined by our failings and stumbling. We’re defined by how we get back up, bruised knees and all, dust ourselves off, and keep on our journey.

The Faithful Wrath

I don’t know why Wrath James White can’t simply say “Hey Maurice, I miss you. Why don’t you give me a call sometime?” Noooooo, instead he has to go all passive-aggressive on me and write a blog specifically designed to pick an argument with me. (Right, because we all know Wrath’s passive-aggressive … when he’s not being, you know, aggressive-aggressive.)

In the foreward of Orgy of Souls, I wrote that “faith is that sometimes tenuous, sometimes stronger than we think thing that keeps our world in order. [Wrath and I are] both men of faith in our own way, be it faith in ourselves or faith in God. We each are on our own spiritual journey. My faith follows a story, something that especially resonates with me as a writer. However, Wrath’s faith is every bit as rich and varied as my own.”

Why have I described both Wrath and I as men of faith? Because of one of the definitions of faith he cites: complete trust; something that is believed especially with strong conviction. Faith is an intuitive leap to what you choose to believe and how you choose to process the world around you. Any choice of a worldview requires a leap of faith, to believe that your worldview is the “right” one. I believe quest/knowledge journeys begin with a leap of faith, that is, what we choose to put our trust in. For some, it is ourselves (the individual or humanity). For some, it is science (the determination of our senses). For some, it is the spiritual (under the assumption that there is more to this life than presented, both in terms of the spiritual and in terms of after this life). To quote from the blog of my friend, Rich Vincent:

“Christianity does not consist in a series of verifiable and interlocking hypotheses. Nor is it a philosophical system consisting in satisfactory, mutually consistent propositions… the way that truth is sought and engaged with is not through detachment but through a living relationship of faith and love with the object we seek”. The Christian seeks more than “objective truth,” facts, or information. “The goal is not to find information, or even to discern fact, but to bring ourselves, as living subjects, into engagement with reality, culminating ultimately in a participation in the ground of what is real”.

Also, Christians don’t have a monopoly on truth. As Christ himself says, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18.37). In my faith worldview, Christ is the universal truth and all truth leads to him. Faith doesn’t always make sense to me, I think that’s one reason why we’re told to work out our faith in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I can only work out my faith in the doing. I have always seen myself as a soldier, someone who dives in to do the work. Your faith should drive you to action. It has its own dangers as I’m prone to working hard FOR Him, or doing good works for their own sake, rather than working hard to KNOW Him. And it’s the knowing of God that’s at the heart of my faith. Again, to quote from Rich’s blog:

An authentic encounter with the living and eternal God touches both our hearts and our hands. God calls us to nothing less than complete spiritual transformation. Those who desire to simply dabble in religion will get nowhere. Only thoses willing to submit to the rigors of regular acts of self-examination, confession of sin, and deeds of repentance can know deep and lasting change.

An authentic encounter with the living God will never leave us as we are – it will challenge our lifestyles, attitudes, actions, and motivations. The reason is simple: God regularly calls us to change – to repentance. If we are unwilling to change, we harden ourselves to spiritual transformation. Only a humble heart, open to God, ready to admit mistakes, willing to start again can know the fullness of what God desires.

Religion needs to be more than a get out of hell free card and church needs to be more than a collection of folks who huddle together to debate theology and revel in their rightness. The point of Christianity isn’t to make it into heaven, but rather the story we find ourselves in: we’re lost, dying, and in need of new life. Through Christ we’re found, saved, and given a model for a new way of living.

I believe that we’re all people of faith in our own way, it’s just a matter of what we choose to put that faith in, be it in ourselves, science, humanity, or in God. As such, each of us are on our own spiritual journey. There will be times when science will clarify matters of faith just like there will be times when faith can temper our sometimes irrational admiration for the rational. I think we can do more than just make “a” decision and hope that we’re right. We can continue to test what we believe and say we’re about and live out our lives accordingly.