The Problem With Caring

It’s extremely difficult for me to actually be motivated to help someone if meeting their needs has any impact on me doing what I’d like to be doing. Yeah, it’s selfish and cold, but it’s really honest. I’d even say that you’re probably more selfish than you let on when in polite society. Selfishness is such a taboo character trait socially that we’ve all become pretty adept at hiding it. But I’m pretty sure if I- if we- were really as selfless as I’d like people to think I am, then this world would look a whole lot different than it does.
The first part of the selfless problem is that at this point in my life I feel like I’ve got quite a lot to manage. I think about my career, my retirement, my kids’ future prospects. I think about how to get the best deal on my home internet and whether or not I should switch from an iPhone to a Samsung. I have a lot of important things to consider, so I don’t see a lot of space in my life to become too deeply invested in the problems of others- especially those problems which don’t hinder me. And if those problems are more complex then donating some money or making a referral to a professional, then I’m definitely out.
I’ve also reaching a point in my life where I feel like I’ve got a lot to lose. If I become too invested in the problems of others, will that have a negative impact on my own future prospects? If I’m too interested in or outspoken about the rights of people who are different than me, will the people I depend on for my security be less interested in my security? More to the point, if I make a big deal about finding solutions to the problems of people who are different than me, will I create problems for myself by creating a more competitive environment? I really don’t want the opportunity of others to come at the cost of my own opportunity. Side note, I tried to delete those last two sentences twice, but I’m convinced they’re some of the most transparent statements I’ve ever articulated publicly. For that reason alone, I’m compelled to leave them.
My general solution to all of this is to just not care too much or too personally about the people who face different problems than me, or the people who face problems because they look different than me. But this is getting harder and harder to do. I’m starting to care about too many people. I’m beginning to see the pure humanity in the people who don’t look anything like me. I’m starting to feel the weight of the problems I’ve never faced that are encountered every day by people who look different than me.
In spite of my careful differentiation and distancing from “them” I’m beginning to become infected by a real sense of compassion for people. Part of me continues to try and fight off this feeling of empathy, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult because I see the faces of children that are the same age as my children and I wonder why things should be more difficult for them than for my kids.
I’ve nearly come to the point where I have to admit that the problems “they” face are the problems I face. Even if I could engineer my life in such a way as to avoid those problems, because I’m a human, created in the image of God, I have to face the problems in solidarity with people of all colors, races, languages and religions. Sure, there are some bad eggs out there. But there are some bad eggs already in here.
I’m not advocating a political solution- I’m mostly disillusioned with the whole political arena. I’m advocating a human solution. Who are we investing in? Where are we volunteering at? Are we taking advantage of the power of advocacy? More precisely, I’m advocating a Christian solution. Are we loving our neighbor in ways that honor and reflect the intent of Jesus’ words? Are we practicing hospitality that honors the stranger, or are we just coming up with excuses to decorate and hang out with friends? Are we committing our lives to seeking justice for those who have been trampled on? I guess I’m not even advocating a solution, but I am wondering if this is something for us to think about.

Who Bears the Burden of Race?

No issue in my life has confounded me more than that of race. More specifically, I’ve been confused by the idea of privilege. I had a clear understanding at a very young age that race does not impact a person’s worth. By contrast, I had no concept until the last 18 months that, in our world, a person’s race does determine one’s level of privilege in American society.
I believed that racism was an issue of the past, defined by the mistreatment of individuals, by individuals, based on the color of a person’s skin. The racism I was taught about in school- the fire hoses, police dogs, segregated schools and lynchings- has been reduced. But the flip side of the race coin has remained unchanged. If there is and has been a people group in America experiencing prejudice, then there is also a people group in America experiencing privilege. I am part of that people group.
My privilege doesn’t mean that things are handed to me. It simply means there are entire categories of concerns and barriers that I don’t need to think about or be aware of. A simple example is that no one has ever said that I’m either doing very well or very badly- for a white person. No one has ever had to wonder if I got a job or was accepted to a school because I was the best they could find to fill their Affirmative Action goals. My successes and failures have been measured on my personal merit, with no affiliation to the color of my skin, the intonation of my voice, or the texture of my hair.
It is easy for me to say this is wrong. It is easy for me to say this should be changed.
It is not easy for me to say that I should give up my privilege in order for this wrong to be righted and the change to be achieved. I am, without question, one of the most privileged people in America- perhaps the world. I’m a white, college educated, middle class male. I don’t know the first thing about being under-privileged. The real problem is that I was either never given the opportunity, or never took the opportunity, to learn the first thing about being privileged. I just thought I was normal.
I wish I didn’t have these convictions. I’d be so much happier if I could just plod along in my blissful ignorance of racial naiveté. I wish I could still believe that race didn’t matter and all people got to experience the equality they were created with. I wish I could accept that I lived in a nation that truly operated according to the principles of justice and fairness I was taught our nation was founded as a child. Truth be told, I realized that injustice and un-earned privilege for some existed long before I was willing to admit its truth, let alone acknowledge the ways I have leaned on that privilege in my own life. At last I surrender. I live in a world in which the game is rigged. I won a lottery that I didn’t even enter, which gave me a huge advantage.
I can’t un-hear the stories of people I care about being expected to prove either their innocence, their ability, or their competency because they look different than those in positions of authority. I have come to accept that it is not enough for me to “feel bad.” I can’t just share some liberal-leaning article on Facebook to con myself into believing that I have compassion for the disenfranchised. I understand that in order for racial (or ethnic, or gender, or religious, etc.) equality to be advanced, I must become purposeful about:
1) acknowledging my privilege
2) exploiting that privilege for the benefit of those without that same privilege.
3) surrendering my privilege on behalf of those who are treated differently than me.
I hate that conviction. Even as I acknowledge these things, I squirm at the cost and consequence.
I’m scared to give up whatever privilege I have because I feel insecure without it. I know that my privilege does not make life easy- even if it does make some things easier. I worry that if I began to act in ways that exploit or surrendered my privilege, I would miss out on opportunities. I want every advantage on my side I can get. I have believed the myth that my advantages come without a cost, but I choose to reject that myth and acknowledge that my willingness to accept advantage is no more than a willingness to accept the disadvantage of others. The single greatest driver of conviction for me is the devastating honesty of Philippians 2:1-11. If you’re not a Bible reading person, this is worth looking into. It may be the most accurate, beautiful, and idealistic picture of the Christian faith you’ll ever find.
I know that I’m making some bold claims. I also know that I’ve only reached the point at which I can acknowledge and own my small part of the problem. I’m beginning to gain a glimpse into what is mine to do, but I can’t honestly say what specific action is mine to take. The first step for me is to acknowledge to my friends who look and live most similar to me that I think we might be part of the problem. The solution doesn’t rest entirely with us- because we’re not the saviors just because we’re white. But the solution doesn’t exist apart from us either. The solution to injustice is only found in the drawing together of those who are different.
So, here I am. More aware than I was yesterday. Less certain of what to do. More convicted that I have a part to play in this story- and so do you.

Stop Settling

I’m a simple guy. I have constructed my life so that my choices will be limited. Wether it’s having a simple shoe collection, being content eating the same thing every day, or learning the practice of sitting in my living room with the TV off. The simpler my life is, the happier I am. I have done this on purpose, but not intentionally. My propensity for simplicity and contentment grows out of my natural bent. I’m not going against the grain of my personality; I’m just fortunate enough to have one facet of my spiritual life that doesn’t feel entirely impossible.
I have known for some time now that my way of looking at life is at odds with how many people look at life. I’ve learned that there are some practices I’ve embraced accidentally that have served me well. And as I see how these accidental practices serve me well, I know that if I could have chosen them purposefully, I would have done so.
Some have seen this bent toward simplicity in my life and have accused me of having low standards, or settling too easily. However, I believe what I’ve done is quite different than settling. As I’ve reflected on the things that I care about and the things that I don’t, I’ve learned that I have accidentally developed a real comfort with what I have and a very peace-giving resignation to what I don’t have. I’m actually very content, which helps me to feel very happy.
As it is with every other thing related to my spiritual being, the things I’m doing well at are all by accident. I didn’t set out to try and be content. I am just fortunate in that I have stumbled into this. Just like some people are naturally pre-disposed to not become easily angered. That one is very much not me. I’m really good at getting angry!
I have a really comfortable life. I’ve got a nice house, nice things. I want for nothing. It’s pretty easy to be content. But I don’t have to look far to see all the things I could have. We’re all surrounded by the invitation to indulge ourselves in the gadgets, the toys, the opportunities, and the luxuries of American life.  What is it about all the shiny things that make it so difficult for so many of us to be content?
My flippantly short answer is that most of us have settled for filling our lives with shiny things and have never bothered with learning the value of the rich things.
The things you can buy on Amazon are not the things that add meaning. They might be cool or unique or versatile. They might meet a felt need. But they all come with a 100% that their ability to add value to your life has an extremely limited shelf-life.
We have grossly mis-appropriated our resources to fill our lives with things that will break or fall out of style. Too many times the cost of this misappropriation has not been the dollar value of the item, but the relational cost incurred by our obsession with having stuff. You probably don’t like my suggestion that there could be a hint of “stuff-obsession” in your life. It’s probably more accurate to say that we’re a stuff-distracted people.
Partially the impulse toward “new” things is because it’s easier to get new stuff than grow personal emotional processes that lead to contentment and happiness. Contentment comes through drilling down into the less comfortable in life. It comes from increases to our understanding the larger human condition. Contentment happens when you practice living with less things that you want and more thins you need. It’s really not all that fun.
The other part of the impulse to buy things is because there’s something about buying a thing that makes us feel good. Maybe my wife’s mad at me, or maybe I have no idea what to do with my kids, or maybe I feel like I’m drifting aimlessly through life, but I just ordered something cool on Amazon and it’ll be here in 2 days.
The real issue is not how much we buy. Buying stuff only has an emotional, even spiritual, impact when it occurs out of a vacuum emotional and relational security. When the stuff we collect interrupts relational space, or when the stuff we get fills in emotional longing, these are the times when “stuff” erodes our ability to be content with the life we have.
I refer to this as “settling” specifically because the accumulation of things is far easier than the building of a contented life. Culturally, we are well conditioned to understand the accumulation of cool things to be the total opposite of settling. I think our culture could be mistaken.
Many will buy, not because of need, but because of the impulse to diminish the presence of that which is unresolved in life. Many of us have settled for shiny things at the expense of the things that will actually make our lives rich.
Again, I do about 1,000 things a day that impede my ability to embrace a truly rich life, so I’m not throwing stones. I guess the real questions for all of us are, how long are we going to be willing to pay the price of lives that are really unfulfilled? How long will we settle for pretty lives that are light on joy? What would it take to motivate any of us to stop settling for that which comes easy and learn that practice of being content?

I Have A Confession

I hate the idea of confession. More accurately, I hate the practice of confession. Mainly because confession forces me to make admissions that I’m not all put together. And when you’re in a spot where you have to confess to someone you love that you’ve done wrong, you can’t just get a way with the cheap little, “oh, I’m not perfect” bit. You actually have to get vulnerable and honest.
I live with a natural bent that is the complete opposite of confession. For me to embrace the Christian practice of being honest and forthcoming with own shortcomings is the single most challenging aspect of the Christian life. I have an obsessive desire to convince people that I have nothing to confess.
The inner monologue that I default to is that to confess is to put on display all the will disqualify me from being worth the little bit that I’ve tried to fake my way into earning. Confession places my self-perception and worth on the line in the most risky way possible. The competing whisper of internal reflection I have, which has been informed by what I believe about God, tells me that the real risk is to try and keep my secrets. That if I live with openness I will find that freedom I keep searching for in my secrecy.
My gut tells me that I might be a little more paranoid about confession than most, but my experience tells me that I don’t practice confession any less frequently than most. Rarely do I encounter anyone who actively and willingly practices the regular opening of themselves to admit their faults, flaws, blemishes, regrets, and hurt.
I name two reasons why the lives of American Christians are so devoid of confession. First, we’re a very image conscious people. I don’t think most folks carry the level of dread that I do, but 9 out of 10 people you encounter do understand that to be honest about their mistakes is risky, Second, I would say that most people don’t feel like they have anyone they’re close to that they could even practice confession with.
Even though I hate everything about the idea of confession, it is something that I have learned to practice. It usually takes me a while to work up to making a confession, and the preparation time includes cold sweats, nightmares, and panic attacks.
BUT, I have found no greater catalyst for growth and peace than the practice of confession. I have spent my adult life working in and around the world of spiritual formation. I have been to conferences, seminars, taking courses, read books, listened to podcasts, seeking out practices and postures that will help a person grow in their spiritual life. In all of my searching, I have never found any single practice as powerful as confession.
I believe the reason confession is so powerful is that nothing else we do in our spiritual lives can be genuine and whole hearted until we have nothing left to hide. The Christian journey can be described as one of wholeness. Through our following of Jesus, we are walking a path toward being put back together. Without the practice of confession, then we are putting the puzzle back together without all the pieces. And we all know there is nothing more maddening than a puzzle that is missing a few pieces.
I will add this caution. Confession is not the same as self-deprecation. Nor is it a public humiliation. Confess to people you trust. Confess to the people you’ve offended. Confess for the purpose of healing wounds, not causing hurt. I’m not a legalist and I don’t believe that you have to confess every little thing you do wrong if you want to feel at peace in your pursuit of Jesus. You know that there’s the general imperfections you’ve got, and then there are the things you’ve done either that have really caused people hurt. Those big ones that stand out in your mind are the ones you need to worry about confession.
My last confession disclaimer is that while this practice is vital to a person being able to grow in faith and trust, it does not come without risk. Confession leads you into dangerous spaces, where you and the people you’ve hurt are very vulnerable. This will likely not be roses and sunshine. It will be painful and it will feel dark. You may realize that the damage you’ve done is far great than you realized. But there’s no moving forward without accepting this risk and facing the danger.

Church: The Least Important Hour of the Week, Part 2

Last week I made a big stink about how unimportant the one hour a week of church is. The Worship Minister at our church thought it was one of the best blogs he’d ever read. Ok, that’s not true. I did leave one glaring question unanswered. Why on earth would I ever encourage someone to be part of something that I call unimportant?
Here’s the short answer. Being part of a church is very different than going to church. People show up at church for 1,000 different reasons. Whether it be force of habit, attempts to appease a spouse, a desire to change a spouse, or the hope that their presence will pay their admission to eternal bliss, lots of folks go to church as part of a strategy to get something out of life.
The person who shows up at church looking for that hour to save them or fix something in their life will always be disappointed. Church doesn’t save. God does. Church is also incapable of giving peace. That is also under the job description of God. Church cannot be the sum total if your spiritual investment. A life without an honest seeking of God will leave one incapable of truly finding God. I know, this is bad news in a lot of ways. I’ve got a couple of decades invested in this Christianity bit, and I still find myself wishing there was an easier way.
The power of going to church in a person’s spiritual growth is found in its power to interpret. Because life is both unpredictable and prone to disappointment, each person will encounter events, or even lengthy blocks of time, in which your experience of life does not jive with 1) what you thought you knew of God and 2) what you expect from life. The ways in which a person makes sense of these troubling times is by folding them into a story that can offer a satisfactory sense of meaning.
We have several powerful tools we use to create these life stories. We draw on our family of origin, our past successes and failures, our fears, our assumption about good and evil, and our theories about God. We also lean on the perspective of close friends, mentors, and acquaintances. We find nuance for our life interpretation based on the cultural air we breath.
The Christian witness- by that I mean the story offered by the Bible and the living history of the Christian community (worship, preaching, prayer)- provide a profound interpretive response to all these narrative threads that we use to make sense of our imperfect lives.
If you have different core beliefs than me, you’ll argue this point, but I believe that the primary role going to church plays in our spiritual growth is that it provides the language, the stories, and the basic truths that will allow us to interpret our lives with an honest understanding of God’s movement. In other words, you don’t know how to talk about what God is doing unless someone teaches you the languages. You don’t really even know what the movement of God looks like without someone showing you the signs.
Growth cannot happen in a vacuum. It must be shaped and refined by the presence of additional voices speaking into our lives. Too many of us go to church each week in a way that leaves our faith in a vacuum. We don’t engage or open up. We walk the halls and fill the seats of church buildings with no space for any relational connection.  To do church in this way leaves you disconnected from these powerful voices and influences that can help you more fully understand the nuances and counters of your life.
The giant but in what I’m proposing, is that by developing honest relational connections with Christian community you make yourself vulnerable to hurt. Churches and the people who make them up are sometimes good at making mistakes. There are churches that try not to do so, but many will just say they believe in grace and they know their not perfect. Also, not every person who sits in pews next to you will be as interested in spiritual growth as you will be if you try to approach your church community in this way. You may have to search for people who can offer the type of relational spirituality that growth demands.
People sometimes say this risk is a bad thing and should prevent us from pursuing spiritual growth through Christian relationship. I call shenanigans on that. People do all sorts of stupid stuff that is filled with risk. Usually this doesn’t really have much of a payoff. Trying to dive more fully into your spiritual development through Christian community is not nearly as risky as jumping out of an airplane, driving a car, or even having a kid.
The real question is not what it might cost you or how you might get hurt. The real questions is what you really want for you life. I do believe that if and when you discover God on the deep levels of the soul, you’ll find a way of living your life that is beyond your expectations. You have to actually search for this life though, you can’t just sit in a pew and wait for it to find you. So go to church. But if you do go, then you need to show up ready to search, to question, to open your heart and your life. You need to show up ready to be part of something bigger than just yourself.

Church: The Least Important Hour of the Week

My life revolves around Sunday. I spend every Monday and Tuesday debriefing and following up with items that came up on the previous Sunday. Then I spend every Wednesday and Thursday preparing for what will be happening the upcoming Sunday. For all of this energy that I pour into the Sunday experience I still wonder if it even matters.
I ask myself again and again, why do I work so hard at Sunday if it never seems to make a difference in people’s faith?
 
In the few posts I’ve shared, I’ve made it rather clear that despite my professional proclivity, church is an extremely difficult prospect for me. Singing makes me uncomfortable. Sitting passively in a seat is the epitome of boring. My anxiety level ratchets up at the prospect of small talk after the worship service is concluded. I frequently find solace on Sunday morning in having an excuse to be busy. I know, I’m the world’s worst minister and I’m in the top 10 for world’s worst Christians.
The great contradiction of my life is my feeling toward the Sunday experience and my inner desire for the place my beliefs have in my life. When I consider the trajectory of my spiritual journey, the Sunday morning experience has always played an odd role. As an adolescent, I was always at church. So much of my understanding of God and the Bible and the Christian life has been formed by the Sunday experience. But I never actually liked Sunday. The hymns, the sermons, the rote repetition of religious practice. The great miracle of my faith is that these experiences didn’t leave me disillusioned with the entire God concept.
My actual spiritual formation took place outside the walls of my church. I first discovered God through an effort to cope with my insecurity and fear. I began exploring the idea of relationship with God to try and calm my feelings of loneliness. I found God not in the unyielding pews of a church building, but in the dim light of my bedroom as I wrote about my inner struggles, immense self-doubt, and the unanswerable questions I carried like a weight around my neck.
Ultimately, the most profoundly life altering spiritual experiences have come in my efforts to cope with grief, pain, and regret. I have a track record of proving myself incapable of doing what I know to be right. My frequent experience with coming up short and being both confronted with and confounded by the consequences of my own sin have been the most poignant times of spiritual awareness and growth. I’ve hurt people because of my inability to do what is right. I’ve broken trust and damaged relationships because of my struggle to actually love people. I’ve seen in these times that when I muster the courage to take the advice God grants that I can discover a path toward healing. I
The first truth of spiritual formation is that until the concepts of the Christian faith are practiced in our lives, we cannot appreciate grace. Without a deeply personal appreciation of grace, Sunday has no power to transform.
To see a change in the nature of one’s spirituality, there must be a collision of our belief system and the manner in which our lives are lived. In most cases, this will be a painful event. We rarely find that life’s circumstances reveal to us and those we love most just how charming we are. It’s much more likely that life will lay bear that which we are most ashamed of. It is in these moments that faith either flourishes or shrivels up and dies.
All but the most spiritually mature have something that is being forcibly restrained and covered up in the recesses of our private lives. Whether it be anger, addiction, lust, dishonesty, greed, or self-righteousness, or some other paralyzing disposition, we are guilty of duplicity. Going to church once a week won’t change this. You can sing all the songs you want, eat all the stale crackers and cheap grape juice you can stomach, and listen to all the sermons you can find and you still won’t see any change in your spiritual capacity. This change is only ushered in by the raw and reckless pursuit of coming to grips with your inner chaos and brokenness.
No one likes this. It often does not go well in the sense that it leads us through seasons of pain. But to arrive at the place of abundant life requires a stark parting of ways with the life that is replete with fear and regret. As a good friend often reminds me, we are guilty of choosing to live with the chronic pain of our bad decisions rather than facing the acute pain of confronting our demons.
I will continue to go to church on Sunday, but I do not go with the hope that it will save me. I go with the hope that in that I might find the strength the face that within myself I am most afraid of. I will go to church, not to be saved, but to seek the courage to live as though I have a life worth being saved.

Scary God

What’s more terrifying than an invisible force,  possessing unlimited power, that is completely invincible, and fancies itself the judge of all? Well, not much really. I think this is generally a reason why many people find themselves slightly afraid of God.

I know I’ve felt that fear. I remember being a little kid in Sunday school, singing a song that goes something like this:

“Be careful little eyes what you see,
For the Father up above,
is looking down with love,
so be careful little eyes what you see.”

Yes, the lyrics mention God being loving, but I had never met anyone that was so set on finding my mistakes who gave me the impression of love. Instead, I mostly felt terror. As I entered my early adolescent years, I was pretty confident that I had pretty much given up any chance of avoiding hell.

Over the following decade I learned many lessons and made many bad decisions. My fear of God was biblical in its intensity. But it had grown into something that wasn’t actually described in the Bible. I was a big fan of Jesus, though. He was fun and cool. He’d hang out with me even when I made bone headed decisions. Jesus didn’t expect me to be perfect and he didn’t hold punishment over my head. I did what I could to avoid God and stick close to Jesus.

Here’s what I didn’t know. Jesus was actually on God’s side the whole time. In time, my spiritual pursuit of Jesus taught me lessons about God that I didn’t want to learn. As I entered my mid 20’s my perception of God began to change radically. This is when my fear of God reached a fever pitch.

See, I don’t do relationships well. I’m fine with acquaintances. I don’t particularly get energized by small talk, but you can be sure I’d rather talk about the weather than my inner thoughts and feelings. To let a person enter into my life with any sort of depth requires deliberate and focused action on my part. The lesson I eventually learned about God from my pursuit of Jesus is that God is not actually who I had given him credit for being. It began to dawn on me that he didn’t want to destroy me. He liked me. He wanted to know me and wanted me to know him.

I read a book once that was helpful in wrapping my mind around this. The book regularly made my skin crawl because it kept referring to God’s desire for “intimacy.” I may be a full grown adult, but this word transports me back to how I felt in Middle School Human Reproduction classes. In the end, the most terrifying truth about God is that he wanted me to be near him. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is far more fear inducing for me than a God that is just angry all the time.

I wasn’t prepared for this at the time. I really don’t think I’m any more prepared for it now. For me, the angry God myth offered a valuable cover. It allowed me to embrace my buddy Jesus, to limp along the path of spiritual growth, and to avoid any real pursuit of God himself. If I’m honest, I knew all along that if God would sign off on the whole Jesus’ death on the cross thing, then he couldn’t actually be as vindictive as I made him out to be. But as long as my view of him was one of wrath and fury, then I could avoid getting too close.

I’m at a point now where I know, intellectually, that God is not bothered by me. He doesn’t hate me. He doesn’t want my downfall. He doesn’t want to hold a grudge. This thought is planted firmly in my head and I refer to it often. However, this truth has not made the journey from my head to my heart. I don’t feel fear at the thought of God’s judgement. I feel fear at the thought of God’s love. I can’t, for the life of me, get a grasp on how that could be his response.

I don’t think I’ve walked far enough to know what it takes to change how I feel about God’s view of me. I think the only way to start is to claim where I am. That would be the case for you, too. I’m also practicing re-reading the two greatest commands on a regular basis. This is actually what ultimately convinced me of the truthfulness of my conclusion. See, the second command is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. It eventually dawned on me that if I had that last bit out of wack, it might just throw the whole thing off balance. I know that’s not new information, but it was one of those things that I had selectively ignored for years.

I hope I’m able to feel the truth of what I know sooner rather than later. I also hope you are able to grasp it for yourself. That’s not altruistic. If you figure it out, I’d really like to steal your answer and see if it works for me, too!

Church People can be Bad at Faith

I am a minister. For the past 9 years I’ve not gone to church as someone attending service, but as someone hosting service. I’ve spent these 9 years serving in “behind the scenes” roles. My real passion is not the production of worship experiences. I’m all about seeing people who don’t intuitively find the connection between what they believe and the life they live being granted permission to make that connection.

Most days I wish that my passion was not this. I’ve basically made my life’s work about helping people gain something that is impossible for me to actually help them gain. I guess if we’re really laying our cards on the table, I hope if I see faith blossom in other people’s live often enough, I’ll figure out how to make it do the same in my own. Most days I just want to make it to my couch, forget about having the energy to engage in a deep and personal relationship with God. My most common prayer for myself is something along the lines of “God, I hope you’re enough because I’m sure not.”

In my heart I desire a spiritual experience and connection with the divine that changes the way I live out every aspect of my life. But it seems like the best I can muster is a mildly enthusiastic religious experience. It hasn’t always been like this. I’ve had seasons of my life where the spiritual felt very near and intertwined with my day to day experience.

This is not the first time I’ve found myself in a season in which my spiritual energy and connection waned. What is new about this experience is my self-understanding. In times past I wondered what was wrong with me, or I tried to pretend that everything was fine. I thought that if I just worked harder at some discipline or spiritual practice then I’d get back to where I once was.

If I’ve gained any wisdom in my spiritual awareness, it is that going back to where things felt “good” or “right” in one’s faith is the equivalent of wishing to re-live the glory days. Sure, re-living college would be fun, but that would require going backwards and life doesn’t go backwards.

Usually, faith feels underwhelming when our souls have need of new expressions of spirituality. Just like when my 8 year old gets bored playing with toys he loved when he was 6, our souls don’t continue to grow when we exercise them with that which strengthened them in seasons past.

What I’m learning, and I think many need to learn, is that faith will not often feel “good.” 

Faith lives at the juncture of hope and desolation. The spiritual journey of every person, specifically the Jesus follower, requires an ongoing journey through desolation toward the hope our faith speaks of. No, I’m not going to spout off a list of trendy new spiritual disciplines you can add to your repertoire- I’ve tried that and it doesn’t help. The technique of your spiritual expression is not as significant as the transparency of your spiritual expression.

When faith grows difficult, frustrating, or stale you don’t need a new product. You need to be honest before God and man. You need to ask hard questions of yourself. Things like, how much of your perception of God is your own construction? It’s also worth exploring how realistic your expectations of God are. You may find that much of your spiritual frustration and disappointment lies with perception and expectation- not with your behavior or God’s responsiveness.

Here’s the hard part for me. You have to acknowledge before other people that you’re not feeling too sure about the whole spiritual business. This is hard for me precisely because I’ve decided to set myself up as a professional Christian. How am I supposed to do this whole minister thing right if the songs we sing, lessons I teach, and programs I support just feel static and dull?

What I’ve learned is that the people who have an interest in me and not what I can do for them don’t mind that I’m not Jesus incarnate. Granted, I’ve met a few folks that really don’t give a rip about how my faith is doing- they just want their customer service experience to be world class. But on the whole, the people you meet at church will be interested in supporting you in your spiritual journey. The most likely challenge you’re likely to run into when becoming honest about your faith is that not everyone feels personally equipped to offer the necessary support.

I’m guessing that if folks don’t lose their mind at the thought of a minister not always killing the discipleship game, they’ll be understanding if you don’t have it all sorted. So talk about it. Admit it. Own it. Then start doing the things that disciples do.

Pray. Forgive. Serve. Love. Smile.

And while you do the things that disciples do, keep talking about what is happening in your faith- both the good, the bad, and the seemingly insignificant. Search for words to articulate what is happening between what you believe, what you do and how you feel.

It’s not false to act like a disciple when you don’t feel like one. It’s part of the journey. You won’t find resolution for a struggling faith by going backwards to where things felt ok. You only find resolution by moving forward, through the frustration, toward the hope that you believe lies with God.

 

I’m the World’s Worst Friend

Friendship has been a hard thing for me to nail down since I finished college. That’s not true. Friendship has always been a hard thing for me to nail down. I moved every couple years through most of my childhood and early adolescent years. This made me really good at saying goodbye. I learned early on that it’s really easy to say goodbye if you just don’t put down roots. That way you really don’t need to mess with saying goodbye, you can just kind of disappear.

This helped me grow the skill of having relationships where I am, not where I used to be. My M.O. is that I’ll build relationships where I live, and then when I move I’ll let those relationships flounder and create a whole new set of relationships. This served me well as a child, but it has been costly as an adult.

I first learned how to articulate this pattern while I was going through a season of counseling. I realized that I started doing this because I was just a sad little kid and I needed a way to cope. It served me well at the time. Then I did what all people do. I turned my coping skill into a way of life. This is when it became a problem. I started moving from place to place, leaving people behind, but I didn’t need to leave them behind. I just thought that’s what a person did because it’s what I had always done.

Probably the most costly set of relationships I left behind were those I cultivated in college. I had some of the best friends a person could ask for. Then I moved. I packed up my little Honda Accord with all my stuff, and I packed the suitcase of my heart and drove on down to Abilene, TX. I left nothing behind in York, NE.

Over the course of the last 10 years, a lot has happened. The people I was closest to while in college have gone through the wringer. These friends missed my presence in their times of trouble because I was busy with the business of self-protection. I wasn’t willing to do the work to learn how to grow roots that crossed state lines.

I never overtly left these friends behind, but if you ignore enough text messages, people quit reaching out.

I don’t like to face my demons. Neither do you. For me, I leave behind friendship so that I don’t have to face them. How do you avoid the pain of personal growth and maturity? My life’s work is to help people grow as people. I believe the best way to do this is through learning that God actually likes you and that Jesus is happy for you to tag along with him. This demands an ongoing exercise in honesty about what we do and why we do it. Christians call this confession. Like so many teachers, I’d rather give the test than take them. To grow is hard. To be in relationship is hard. To learn new ways of behaving is hard. I’d rather scroll through my newsfeed…again.

I present myself as honestly as possible as a case study for how people turn coping mechanisms into walls of isolation. We create secret compartments of our lives. We rarely share each of these compartments with everyone in our lives. We may gain the feeling of security in this, but we give up true strength. For the past year I have been working as hard as I can to grow through these things. I’ve taken several painful steps, but none of them have hurt as badly as the fear that once kept me paralyzed. I’m learning to let people back in. More specifically, I’m learning to be honest about my demons and to slowly let down my guard.

I know your path is different than mine. But our common ground is that we want to get to the end of our lives and feel good about the experience we had. You’re probably thinking about these sorts of things as we wrap up the Christmas season and plunge into the new year- although these aren’t the things we like to talk about at this time of year. Let me invite you to take the first step toward anything new- begin finding the words to talk about the dysfunction that shapes your life. Once you begin talking about it, the fear begins to shrink. It’ll shrink slowly at first, but with time you’ll find it retreating to its proper place. Then you’ll be able to really start living.

Social Retreatism

My primary developmental years took place in that weird time between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. I looked with childlike eyes on the revelry of the 80’s. I cut my adolescent teeth wallowing the angst of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins. I became a legal adult just 6 days before 9/11. I grew up in the calm between storms.

I didn’t know about racism or injustice. I had no idea that the United States ran internment camps for Japanese Americans. I hadn’t heard of human trafficking and was pretty confident that slavery ended with the Civil War. I didn’t realize that Indians were actually Native Americans.

I was the picture of naive. I was a middle class white kid, growing up in middle class white towns, learning middle class white lessons. I saw the world through the lens of privilege and innocence. I never thought that people who looked at believed different than me were bad. I just didn’t know that they really existed because I never really saw them.

A vivid memory for me is learning about the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement. I was fascinated by the stories of sit-ins and marches. I wondered why the people in those pictures decided to protest. I thought there had to be a better way. I had been in situations where I felt powerless, and those situations have left deep scars that shape my life. I had no idea what it meant to be born into a situation in life that assigned you to the permanent position of powerless.

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These photos are painfully recognizable to anyone who paid the least bit of attention over the last year. They have each made me sad. They have each led me to ask difficult questions. Probably the most difficult question I’ve asked is whether or not I really even care.

I know I’m not alone in this questioning. We wonder who we can trust and how we can become informed without being misinformed. The complexity of the struggle we’ve witnessed coupled with the information saturation that surrounds us has led to something that I would call “social retreatism”.

Nope, it’s not scientific, and neither is my evidence to support it.

This act of social retreatism looks like well-educated, well-resourced, well-informed people becoming aware of human suffering and brokenness by consuming copious doses of social and big media, then retreating into conversations with people who look, think, and behave similarly.

When I read about the Dakota Access Pipeline, I feel bad for what’s going on. I wonder what would have happened if they proposed a route that took the pipeline within 500 feet of a youth soccer complex, let alone a cemetery. I talk to my white, middle-class, well-educated friends about it, profess the silliness of it all, tell some politically incorrect joke to break the tension, then go back to staring at my screen.

I watch the Black Lives Matter protests. I think, “Yeah, that’s really heartbreaking that an entire race of people who call America home feel like (and have historical evidence to support) the idea that within American history, their lives haven’t mattered.” Then I scroll on to the video of the dogs trying to catch tennis balls and landing on their heads.

I don’t even have words for the little Syrian boy found lifeless on the beach.

I know about a lot of “issues,” but I don’t know a lot of the people that live behind these issues. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my Christian community (a.k.a. church) then I’d be completely disengaged from anything other than my own personal happiness…and maybe the PTA fundraisers for my kid’s school.

I, like so many of my peers, live my life disconnected from the vast array of human suffering. I have the freedom of choice. I can choose to live in a good neighborhood, send my kids to a great school, and complain about how expensive my health insurance is.

I live above the fray, retreating behind my screen to observe the carnage of the human experience. My professional life affords me the opportunity to sit and have conversations with refugees, ex-cons, incarcerated individuals, and a variety of people of color and means. My professional life also affords me the burden of knowing that the way we’ve lived is socially acceptable wrong-doing. I believe it’s wrong precisely because of what I believe about God.

Because I believe in Jesus, I believe that all people are born with an inherent worth that cannot be quantified (no, I don’t believe this because of the Constitution, but props to the Founding Fathers for getting that bit in there). Because I believe in Jesus, I know that it’s not my problem to fix – it’s God’s. Because I believe in Jesus, I know that God’s plan for fixing the problem is for the people who believe in him to challenge, confront, confound, and reject both the practices and the systems that perpetuate human suffering.

Call your congressperson, go to a protest, sponsor a hungry kid, volunteer at a refugee center, volunteer at an underprivileged school, wear a dress to raise awareness, go to your City Council meetings, partner with a non-profit organizations or missionary efforts to go visit a developing location, do something, do anything! Helping people is the most equal opportunity scenario in our world. The great irony of contemporary America is that we are better equipped to help people than so many generations that have come before us, but we have to cultivate the basic human value of loving our neighbor.

The hard part will not be finding a way to help. The hard part is finding the mental, emotional, and relational courage to engage with our world in a genuine way.

I live in a glass house of self-interest, so I’m not gonna throw stones. I’m not an altruistic person, and I’m really not even a very good person. But I found that when I started meeting the people behind the screen, I felt a rawness of emotion and demand for action that I had never known before. I don’t expect any of us to actually be responsible for fixing anything. I’m hopeful that we’ll do something better than that. I’m hopeful that we’ll get better at loving real people so they can see the world is bigger and more beautiful than whatever injustice, discrimination, heartache, or devastation they’ve experienced.