I was listening to a podcast the other day in which I heard Pete Holmes say, "The ethics and good behavior that Christ embodied was because he had undergone a transformation, and a lot of us are trying to imitate that transformation." I had to pause the podcast to catch my breath and reel from the connections that my faith's last deconstruction embodied, but hadn't yet found words to.
Several years ago my faith felt obtuse and I began to ask all of the scary questions that were sedentary inside of me. I rehearsed the times when I tried to believe my way our of brokenness; or the other times when I tried to work my way out of darkness, and how the spiritual protocol that was supposed to yield results completely failed me. Questions like these came up and terrified me: did God fail me? Did I fail myself? Did I not apply the formula correctly? What kind of God even requires me to pass these impossible formulas anyway? And, if this was the system in which he works, was God even good?
I didn't understand the incredibly tight tension between activity and passivity, and this balance affects our discipleship to the bones. Passivity says that there's a right system of beliefs that if followed correctly, will yield fruit of the kingdom. This is the camp that tends to offer "thoughts and prayers" while offering little to no action. It's more about believing the Bible intellectually but without experiential knowledge. I lived in this camp for so long, unknowingly. I was stuck in my own head. I didn't know how to be a Christian, only how to believe I was one. I traded spiritual growth for belief because it's what was being modeled to me in the church. Belief is obviously an integral part of any spiritual framework, but we can't forget the importance of spiritual formation.
Spiritual formation is a progression; it's slow forward movement. In 2 Peter spiritual formation advances this way: "Now since you have become partakers of the divine nature applying all diligence,in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control; and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness; and in your brotherly kindness, love."
There's a starting point and a trajectory that builds slowly and comprehensively, and it leads to love. Divine love. Without the formation of our character through faith and action, we don't know that we are loved, and therefore won't be able to give love. If our salvation is the beginning and the end of our faith journey, we will undoubtedly be doing things to mimic love, without them being from the nature of love.
Then, there's this other way - the way of action. Similar to the fallacy of just believing, we cannot get stuck in a system which says we must earn our righteousness singularly through works. Works without a heart change, feels a lot like earning. It's supposed to engage the beliefs we have in our hearts. James 2:26 says "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." Without the tension of both processes working together, we stand in a religiosity that leaves us empty, disenchanted, questioning God, and probably really burnt out. We aren't supposed to be imitating the change, we are supposed to be transformed by a life of submission.
John 15:5 reminds us that "Without me, you can do nothing." Our relationship with God is symbiotic. It is God who initiates our relationship, he reveals His presence to us, but it is us who answer that call by applying all diligence to meet him. We can't come to God without His initiation, but God cannot infiltrate our hearts without permission. There's a tension. It's belief. It's works. It's participatory.
That time when my faith was being restructured was a grace to me. It wasn't even my transformation that was being shaken, it was all of the ways I was wrongly imitating a bad perception of a good God.
When we find our place in this tension of action and passivity, we will pray and do. We will believe and show up. We will help our neighbor and share our resources with a widow. We will have love for the refugee and orphan, and an understanding of the love Christ has for us, too. Transformation has to work itself through our lives organically, it's not something we have the responsibility to make happen. We can't produce the fruit of new life without tending to the seed and the soil. Thankfully, we are relieved of the burden that says this is ours alone to satisfy. We just have to show up and surrender to the process.
Good Shepherd, give me peace.
I quietly utter my breath prayer through the chaos of moving, through the crippling anxiety and depression, with my own trauma narrative hissing that I’ll never do better, that I’ll never be better.
Good Shepherd, give me peace.
We are all aware that there is so much wrong with the church, but in these fragile moments, she reached out her hands with tenderness and love and breathed life into my heart when she said "you are enough." My anxiety is not gone, my depression is not gone, there are innumerable boxes waiting to be unpacked, but these beautiful people have revived my hope.
Good Shepherd, I welcome your peace.
I read a quote recently that has exposed the very guts of what I believe about grace and forgiveness towards my enemies. A quote that obliterates all of my arrogant justifications and claims to superiority.
"So completely was Jesus bent upon saving sinners by sacrifice of Himself, He created the tree upon which he was to die, and nurtured from infancy the men who were to nail him to the accursed wood."
God lovingly tended to the details of his own painful death because of the love he has for us, the very same people who gave him reason to die on that tree. It’s so easy to expect grace and mercy for ourselves when we fail or hurt people. It’s just as easy to unwillingly extend the same grace when we are the victims. It’s very human to ignore the call to forgive, and it’s also very American. Our communities and entire economy is based around the idea that you get what you deserve, and that ideology leaks into our churches as well. It’s dangerous. Jesus dismantles that lie by means of revolutionary subordination; taking up a sinner’s death unto his sinless body. He didn’t get what he deserved, he got what we deserved.
The bible says to love our enemies and it’s acceptable theology until we have to unify our actions with this belief. This quote reminds me that what acquits and pardons me, is the exact same justification that makes it work for my worst enemy too.
Jonah was a great example of how we can all behave when God extends redemption to those we don’t think deserve it. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and cry out to the Ninevites to repent. The Ninevites represented the Assyrian Empire, and Jonah had seen what they were capable of. Jonah saw the pride that developed from their excessive wealth and the brutality of their power over those they conquered. In their pride they built a fortified wall around the city. A wall that hid an advanced water system and was protected with armed guards to safeguard their spoils from being shared with anyone outside of their own personal empire. So Jonah, when asked to go to these very hardened and dangerous people, went the other way. Like so many of us do for fewer and far scarier reasons. He didn’t want God to have mercy on those heartless people. Instead he asked for retribution from a God of love.
I can see myself in Jonah. There are few people I would consider to be my own personal enemies, but there are certainly plenty of powers in this country that are evil and working against the wellbeing and safety of humanity, all for the good of the empire. In my heart, I found a craving for the wrath of God to discredit and devastate instead of bringing healing and restoration to these people. I experience these involuntary feelings, but I also know that I have to reject the impulse to act on those feelings, and instead, to act in love.
This quote by Octavious Winslow, it stopped me in my tracks. It helped me to really see that God pours equal blessings onto my enemies as he does to me, not because he’s unjust, but because he wants to embrace and save and love all of us. The bible says that it rains on the just and unjust alike, and it’s certainly not based on whether we deserve it or not (because none of us do), but more on the simple fact that we all share the same sky. The God who breathed into each one of us is God to all. He’s for me, and he’s also for my enemies.
Jesus had the only real justification for redemptive violence - for punishing his enemies - and he chose love, he chose to save us instead. His life gives us the power to forgive our enemies and to overcome evil without mirroring it. It takes a lot of imagination and grace, but how we treat our enemies says a lot about who we believe God Himself to be.
We are all under the same broad sky, in the arms of the same gracious God, receiving blessings we don't deserve. Let’s all partner more in the cooperative work of the reimagination of loving our enemies. The best way to start, is to realize that we were once an enemy ourselves, yet we are still lovingly invited to the table.
Father Richard Rohr says "We cannot attain the presence of God because we're already totally IN the presence of God. What's absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. As we take another it means that God is choosing us now and now and now."
How lovely to think that with each expansion of the lungs, God is choosing us again and again and again. Isn't His presence so tangible in that context? I feel like I am finally understanding that God is always near to me. What my heart has known, the conditioning of my religion has made me doubt in my mind. There was always a sense of fighting to be near the presence of God. Fighting to do what's right, fighting to be pure so that God could stand my presence. An impossibility of barriers. I was told to contend - which a person must - but was given the wrong definition. Contending isn't a futile fight for purity. It's not a list of prohibitions or bartering or the right sequence of prayers. And it's most definitely not the cleaning up of one's own sin. Contending is simply submitting the mind to Christ so that the truth can be unburied and we can come out from the tomb. We don't contend for God's presence, because he is always with us. We contend with the lies that hold us back from experiencing His nearness. Our world is lit up with burning bushes, we only have to ask for eyes to see them. The rest of the time, we are to believe he is with us simply because we are still breathing.
In 2014 my husband and I had an opportunity to relocate our family to Nashville, Tennessee, and we accepted with open arms. We were wide-eyed and fully in. We had peace about moving, about the opportunities and relationships that awaited us, at the adventures that would present in a big city. After 3 grueling months we found a house, packed all of our belongings into a Penske and drove just shy of 500 miles to our new life.
From the time our Penske touched the curb of our quaint little neighborhood, things fell apart. That feels like a grave understatement, "things falling apart." If we had any sense, I suppose we would have headed straight back to Ohio, never unloading, never touching the soil of out Tennessee life, never knowing what we were missing. Giving up before starting is not my husband and I's nature, so when our housing immediately fell through, along with a large portion of the 3 months rent and deposit we had paid to secure it, we held our breath and hoped for the best.
My brother and sister-in-law graciously and temporarily absorbed us into their home. We unloaded our belongings into their garage and set to work looking for a new rental home. Months of online searches, applications, walk throughs and credit checks, and we couldn't land a place. My husband was new to his job and was self-employed, which did not offer much security to people when they looked at us on paper, even when we offered to pay 6 months rent to relieve their unease.
Every opportunity that presented, somehow fell through. We even got so far as to find a rental where the landlord was gutting a newly purchased home to our preference and specification, only for it to fall through a week before we were to move in. We lost a lot of expensive items in storage due to water damage. All of our bicycles, our grill and our children's Power Wheel and wagon were stolen. I was rear-ended and the police officer lost the original report from the accident. This was not a year of isolated incidents, this was an entire year of events like these strung together.
The family members we were staying with eventually lost their home because of us. Because we overstayed our welcome with their landlords, and because they vied for us. While they went to stay with family until they found a place, we had nowhere to go. My husband's job crashed, he couldn't make enough money to sustain us living in such an expensive city at any other job than the one he came to do. But every time a horrible thing happened to us, God would make a way. It was so difficult not to have anything tangible to put our trust in. We had nothing to take account of. We had to wait for provisions to present themselves to us, and typically they did so, but always at the last possible moment. So although our needs were met and we had perfect strangers offer us a home and their friendship, it was never comfortable to be in a consistent position of waiting.
This terrible and beautiful year reminded me of the Israelites exodus from Egypt. They were handed their freedom, promised a land flowing with milk and honey, and yet found themselves wandering in the desert questioning everything. They always had what they needed, but not much else. They never knew where the next source of water would be or how much longer they'd be walking.
I used to scoff at the Israelites and how they could ever question God after their freedom was given to them in such a miraculous way. Then I found myself wandering in a Tennessean desert of my own, provided for in mysterious ways, but because they weren't comfortable, I found myself asking God where he was. What I wanted wasn't provision, we were gifted that, what I wanted was assurance. I was like the Israelites, wanting to save enough manna for the next meal instead of trusting it to fall again with the next set of hunger pains. I wanted a stocked pantry when God was inviting me to trust him moment by excruciating moment.
This year felt so much longer than 365 days. While my husband and I didn't handle the stress very graciously, we knew that this move was vital to our lives. Sure, nothing worked as planned, or even well, but it was an invitation to understand out faith. We hadn't like the stagnation and resentment that was settling in our faith back home. We wanted a new understanding of God, of ourselves, and we were absolutely getting it.
People back home often wondered if maybe we had heard wrong or maybe we misinterpreted the peace we had about the move to be about what we wanted instead of some divine permission. But I don't believe that God is a micro-manager. I believe that God is always saying yes unless he specifically says no. Because there's this belief system modern Christianity teaches that only wants to recognize the blessings of God as the things that come easy and pleasant. It says that if we're doing things right, it's from God and we deserve it. When we experience hardship, it must be from sin. This thinking really puts too many conditions on God's love, and it also robs the grace right out of our lives. It really feels more like American entitlement than a Christian truth. The practicalities of life were terrible for us, but we were so rich in the truth and love of God. Isn't the Bible proof that things do in fact unravel, including entire belief systems? And isn't that a blessing to be stripped of misconceptions? Deconstruction isn't just about demolition. The purpose is to rebuild and reconstruct something more solid. Something more lasting.
I spent so much time sitting outside and contemplating all of the questions about God that were surfacing inside of my heart. It was fascinating to see all of the curiosities I'd always had, but was told not to ask, only to resurface now that our life was in crisis. This wasn't time to recite a prayer from a book or to stand from some platform and throw scriptures. This was a time to purge and empty myself of all that I had become disenfranchised about. Before we moved, I was at an impasse with God. I didn't like the culture of Christianity and I surely didn't like that my beliefs didn't incite change, within me or anyone else. I wanted to live like Jesus. I wanted peace and love. I wanted something that my beliefs couldn't provide.
That year in Tennessee was a call from Christ Himself. I had been beckoned to ask all of the questions that were stored in my heart from the time I was a little girl. I had some surprising questions that I did not see coming, like "God, are you good?" At first, I felt like I was losing my faith. I felt like a spoiled brat who was questioning God because circumstances were falling apart, but that wasn't what was happening. I thought I had known that God was good, but I didn't really understand that. When life fell apart, I was able to see myself so clearly. I was able to see what I truly believed, and what I honestly didn't know. Those surprising truths knocked the wind out of me. I was taking the indoctrination of my youth as the evidence for Christ, and that was just gross. The chaos of our circumstances made me brave enough to ignore the lies that accused my questions to be faithlessness, and I asked them all.
God answered me. He answered through a series of ways: he led me through scripture that was timely for my heart, he showed His goodness through the kindness of strangers to take us into their hearts and homes, he answered me with love and rebuke, and so much mercy. I think so many times we don't ask questions because we feel like they're not an act of faith. That's what was pressed into me. If you couldn't believe, you emptily recanted scripture or asked for forgiveness and were urged to move on.
I don't believe that faith is blindly following something we don't understand. I think that's conformity. I think faith is trusting the heart of God even when you have no idea where he's taking you or what he's going to ask of you. You can't have faith without trust, and you can't trust something that you don't know. The very reason I can trust God now isn't because I have all of the answers, but because he revealed himself to me through my questions and wrestling that very tender year in Tennessee. I began to see that all of the questions and uncertainties I was suppressing was actually the door for me to know God more fully. My questions weren't a lack of faith, but the very way to find it.
The greatest commandment that Jesus gave was to love God with all of our being, and then to love and consider our neighbor as we do ourselves. It doesn't get any simpler than that. I don't understand then, how Christians can be so cautious with their love. Jesus' life was exemplary in the kind of love we were to behold. He demonstrated his love and power to people who had been exclusively marginalized and rejected: women, lepers, the possessed, tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, the unclean and sinners alike.
There have always been people who use the holy text to exclude and divide (Pharisees and Sadducees), but Jesus' very life challenged the philosophy of the Pharisaical Judaism of His culture. He healed on the Sabbath and encouraged the disciples to pick grain on this holy day of rest. Furthermore, Jesus included everyone that fit under the scrutiny of the purity laws that governed His society. He went to the untouchables and he touched them. He healed them, he included them into the kingdom that he came to establish. Jesus' love was all-encompassing and deliberate in setting a new system to operate within. A system that was only exclusionary if one chose so, never because they weren't welcome.
Can we agree that what we see playing out before us is dramatically different than what the life of Jesus modeled? Nadia Bolz-Weber said that "the more fear and shame we have about something, the more prone we are to manipulation - by the culture, by advertising, and especially the church." I think we have so much fear of people who are different, that we readily listen to those in influence when they give not only permission - but more dangerously - justifications to subvert unity and inclusivity. The church can paint a picture of saint and sinner, our government has its own stake to good and bad when they say American versus everyone else. Then there are those with political prestige who also claim (and warp) the gospel (just like the Sadducees and Pharisees) for the advancement of their nation-state, ahem Nationalism. We have to be able to examine our faith and ask if what we believe has helped bolster our allegiance to the U.S., or the actual kingdom of God. There is a very radical difference between the two.
Have you ever heard the saying "The gospel isn't offensive because of who it keeps out, but who it lets in?" It's really easy to love people who fit into our neat little definition of "lovable," but what about all of the people we're supposed to love, like our neighbors? All of them. Don't we need the grace and love of Christ to enable us to love unconditionally and without discrimination? We need Jesus to embrace the unclean (the woman with the bleeding issue, prostitute at the well) or a sexual anomaly (eunuchs). We need Jesus to help us get past our warped philosophies and to embrace the politicians who put the empire above the people (tax collectors), to love those who persecute us (Romans/Pontius Pilate/humanity itself). It goes against social norms to love people on "the outside" of the empire: the immigrant, the refugee, Muslims, Palestinians. We have plenty of problems inside the empire too, particularly with those whose backs this country was built upon: BIPOC.
Jesus was the living, breathing gospel in perfect human form. I'd say that instead of cherry-picking verses to justify our own personal beliefs, that we set theology and interpretation aside and look to the life of this man who is the word-made-flesh. We can misinterpret a lot of historical and contextual meaning, but we cannot misunderstand His life of inclusivity. So I challenge us all to look in our hearts and to find who we see as the outsiders, and to ask Jesus to challenge and examine the ways our faith has made an idol out of keeping them on the outside. Is it nationalism, fear and caution, self-preservation? Ask for forgiveness, get closer to those you are challenged to love, and see how different the gospel looks then.
• Often, light and dark are in the same frame, we just have to choose which side we’d like to agree with.
• How strong we are, when we know we are loved.
• While driving somewhere I frequent weekly, I saw a beautiful home that I'd never noticed before and it made me wonder what else I've been overlooking.
• The robins are swollen with eggs and nesting in the siding by our front window. I love the scratch scratch scratch as they squeeze through to begin new life.
I have had awareness. The light bulb over the head.
Standing on the edge, the verge, and nothing.
I wanted to jump, but not necessarily to the other side.
I saw my wounds, bled an awful lot,
but what was it that wasn't dying?
I felt and suffered and didn't surrender.
I manufactured emotions, sold the right version of "me."
I had to feed what I created,
but the hunger never subsided.
I dug my own wells,
they were empty,
they were supposed to have no sound.
Done suffering, I submitted to death.
I realized the dying itself was much worse.
My well began to fill.
The voices of others began to fade.
No one's voice can send me crashing,
or any pleasant words fill my soul.
My worth is from an endless God,
who fills, with the infinite me.
He took the sacrifice.
The noise is gone.
Do we believe what we see or do we see what we believe? Jason Petty
This is such a packed question isn’t it? I heard this said a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to put it out of my mind since. What a powerful and necessary dynamic to explore - to question whether we explain things away with our certainties, or if we can stay open enough to see the truth as it opens before us.
While challenged by this question, I began to see the start of how we can end up in a place of certainty, and I think it often begins with our speech, and particularly, the way we name things.
When we’re children, we learn simple words by association. We see a circle, we’re told it’s called “circle,” we begin referring to all round bodies as circles. As we get older, we learn to name more abstract concepts and feelings and can reason deeper and more intelligently. Whether we’re children assigning the word “cat” to a quadruped with a long tail and whiskers or conceptualizing human emotions or philosophy, we are perceiving, processing, and assigning worth to create an interpretation of the external world. We assign meaning to everything we encounter, and when we name something - when we give language to an experience - we reduce the thing to a concrete definition, an expectation, a constant.
Words are supposed to frame our world with concepts, but what tends to happen when we name things, is that we define them instead. One cannot generically say “tree” and a mass of people create the same mental image. “Tree” is a concept that is universal to our cultural understanding, but not something concrete and exact to then stick in concrete and put on a shelf. The tree changes in size, shape, color, texture, and in various ways that we cannot totally predict. We’re meant to live our lives through experience, wonder and intuition, using language as a way to connect us to our surroundings but not to reduce our way of life to scraps.
I think of what Jiddu Krishnamurti meant when he said “the day you teach the child the name of a bird, the child will never see the bird again.” It’s much more interesting to watch a bird gather materials for it’s nest or to preen it’s feathers, than to just say “bird.” “Bird” means wings and feathers and can create a construct of the subject being spoken of, but it doesn’t even touch hearing it’s call or seeing it’s pattern of flight or the coloration of it’s feathers. So the trick is to be able to name things, yet also to hold that name loosely enough to let the magic breathe through them still.
I love how in Jewish culture the name of God isn’t written in its entirety. It is written YHWH or G-d and is not spoken at all. Sometimes God is called HaShem which means “the name.” Sometimes the name of God is replaced with pause and breathing. The essence of God is so revered and honored that they allow God to remain fluid and uncontainable. They don’t give him the concreteness of a name because they understand that they are actually incapable of knowing him and understanding him fully. So they let the name breathe and evolve.
The way God is conceptualized in this culture is horrifying. My own definitions have been from opinions formed from my finite mind: by speculation and poor translating. The collective conscience of the faith behind proselytization created and upheld a slave economy after all. God is rarely what we say or think he is because we are too busy trying to prove our interpretations right. Again, are we blindly affirming what we already believe, or are we open to the experience of God Himself? So while challenging my view of God, I had to start at the very basic question: who is God? Wanting to bypass my own interpretation, I went to the book of Exodus where God named himself to Moses.
Moses was having confidence issues about approaching the slaves and declaring that God was going to free them. He asked God, “Well...if they ask, who do I even say that you are?” And God replied, “I am that I am.” “I am that I am” is more accurately translated as “I will be what I will be” or “I will become whatever I may become.” It was not a very helpful definition in terms of specificity, but it was a big and bold promise that God was going to be everything they needed: water from a rock, clothing that never wore out, a parted sea, a softened heart, a pillar of fire, manna, freedom that looked like a desert. He is fluid, uncontainable, and ever-present. He’s everything and nothing specific. He didn’t define himself with an overload of adjectives, but told us who he was in relation to us: a very real promise of provision and presence. This is what we needed to know - a definition that created context and familiarity, while avoiding anything concrete that could box God into something less than. The rest, was to be left to the experience of knowing him and seeing his promise play through.
All through the desert, the Israelites grappled with this definition to the point of longing for Egypt - the very heart of what held them captive. Our certainty does that to us. It removes the mystery and the call to trust and replaces it with platitudes. Even when our platitudes are dull and lifeless, we still cling to them. Often times it’s easier to believe the pat answer than to remain in a state of vulnerability and just trust. The Israelites would rather have been predictably and routinely fed by their masters than to trust God to miraculously feed them in freedom. That’s what our certainty does to us, it tames us. It robs us of life and only lets us see the things that uphold what we already believe. They believed God had forgotten them because they didn’t have a kingdom of their own. All they had to do was believe what God had promised them, to let the miracles of their very emancipation and sustenance carry them through and they would have been able to see the miracle of their desert-life for what it was.
So what does my understanding evoke and how can I escape the finality of such a large and unruly definition? I think this quote opened more questions in me then it did offer answers, but isn’t that the point? God will do the unexpected, he’ll lead me through deserts while making bold promises for my barren life. All he asks is that I follow and trust. So I follow and I try to hold loosely to the ideas I have of God while trying to let the experience rope me in and shake my beliefs down to the breath. The very place where God is closest to me. The experience and act of living itself.
”Are you willing to begin again today?”
This prompt really reveals the heart, doesn’t it? Because each moment is new and can be creatively reimagined, but the will must be given permission. I often need persuaded to let go of the broken things from yesterday. So, when asked what habits I will create today to become a better me, I’d say releasing is the priority.