Tag Archives: spiritual

In Weakness

I had a short conversation with a friend the other day about giving God credit for stuff, and using that as an explanation for His existence. I’ve heard that argument a lot, where a person is able to forgive someone after years of resentment, and says it wouldn’t be possible without God. They overcome some challenge and point to heaven.

My friend is skeptical, saying that it could just be that someone matures and grows, and that they could just as easily give themselves credit for that change. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because a huge reason why I believe in God is because when something seems impossible, it still happens. I really can’t give myself credit for certain things that I’ve come through. For me, “progress” and “maturity” are not linear. One week I’m doing really well and being productive, and the next, I’m afraid to go to the grocery store again. Old habits die hard, and the brain has a real hold on certain habits. There’s only so much it can change, and in certain situations, it reverts backwards. It’s like emotional time travel. 

Basically, in my experience, growth doesn’t really build up, at least in the darkest moments. When it’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I’m waking up from a nap, a stress dream brought on by an onslaught of recent deaths still burning in my mind, I might as well be 16 again. There isn’t anything in my body to help me, it’s low in protein, low in vitamin D, and there aren’t any reserves.

That place has always been where I feel God the strongest. My own brain and body aren’t a distraction because they’re so drained and shriveled up, like raisins. And this isn’t a dig on my abilities or self-esteem; if will power was enough, I would be a lawyer/best-selling author. I have will power in spades, but when your body is chemically-designed to fight you every step of the way, it just isn’t enough. I wouldn’t trade in that weakness, though, that fragility. Like I said, it’s where I see God the most. When the darkness gets dark enough, it becomes light.

So, that’s how I know God exists. It’s more convincing to me than any amount of apologetics or intelligent design arguments or whatever else someone can dredge up. Proof is carved in my bones and melted into my blood. It’s tied into the messy neurons of my brain. His strength – not mine – what keeps my lungs inhaling and exhaling when even the most primal animal instinct of survival is fading. 

—-

Psalm 139: 12
Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

2 Corinthians 12:9-11

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
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faith is just letting go of the horses

Screenshot 2016-02-03 at 6.35.08 PM.pngSo much of my life has been about control. When I was young, strong emotions scared me. They were like wild horses that had been leashed to a cart that I was riding in. If I wasn’t able to rein the horses in, they would take off, hurdling me towards some other unknown doom.

Trusting God and control do not well together. Jesus wants to take the reins, but I’m white-knuckling it, telling him, “No way, man. You’re going to take me someplace weird, someplace I don’t know, without signs. And these horses. You don’t know them like I do.”

Depression is a wild one. You would think he would be an old mule, slow, but Depression doesn’t work that way. This guy wants to take us all off a cliff. He is bent on destruction and he’s very hard of hearing, so no matter how often I tell him that it’s okay or how loudly, he never quite believes me.

Anger comes next. I’m not even sure she’s a horse. She might be part dragon; that would explain the smoke. She snaps at the other horses and wants to trample everyone in our path, even the people I love. She wasn’t always this hard to control, but as I get older, she’s getting worse.

The third horse is Anxiety. He’s very skittish and gets sick to his stomach a lot. He will slow down whenever we’re heading into a new place, and he’s terrified of strangers.

And then there’s Fear, Anxiety’s mother. Fear is the oldest, and her eyesight isn’t very good anymore, so she’s very paranoid. She looks a lot like Anxiety, but don’t be mistaken, she’s much different. She’s a leader. She’s not as unsure as Anxiety. Fear can pull this thing in any direction she wants.

—————–

There’s been one thing in my life I have had the most troubling thinking about letting go: Yoshi, my dog. It’s been a very real possibility three times in my life. The first was when we were trying to crate-train him, and he barked all night. The second was when we moved to an apartment and he hated it so much that he developed severe separation anxiety, and would bark all day, bothering the neighbors. The third was very recently, when Chris was waiting to hear about a job that would take us out of state, and not necessarily into a position where we could take Yoshi back from Chris’ parents.

Thinking about giving Yoshi to a shelter literally made me feel ill. I couldn’t sleep at night. Whenever someone brought it up, I dug my heels in. I didn’t even want to consider it. It was too much to bear.

Then the new job became a real possibility, and I had to face it, because I knew if it came through, but we wouldn’t be able to keep Yoshi, I would have to let him go. Chris really wanted the job, and I couldn’t tell him, “Wait for something else, one that lets us keep Yoshi.” Chris loves Yoshi, too, but in the end, we both knew it was ultimately my decision.

I would lie awake at night, my emotions running through my veins like fire ants, like wild horses. This was when I prayed, though it really just seemed like a form of a panic attack. I would focus on the one thing, on my desire to keep Yoshi, and lay it before God.

Lay your burdens before God. 

I’ve heard that phrase my whole life, but I’ve never really known what it meant, exactly. I do know, or at least, I know what it means for me. It meant letting myself feel the stress, the fear, the anxiety, the anger, with the intention to expose it all to God. He sees everything, but there are times when we hide ourselves, like Adam and Eve did in the garden. We don’t want him to see. This time, though, I wanted Him to see it all, in its shredded, blistering wreck. I went over and over my one prayer again and again, from all angles. My wish broke down piece by piece, from, “I want to keep Yoshi” to “I want to not feel sick when I think about letting go of Yoshi,” and finally to, “I want to be able to go of Yoshi.”

And there were still more layers, because I knew that I had faced this twice before, and both times, I had gotten to keep Yoshi. I didn’t want this to be a test, where I faked letting go with the expectation that God would “come through” at the last second. So I prayed for that, too, because pretending to let go and letting go are completely different things.

I don’t know how long it took, or when it even happened. That’s the most important part of the story, though, because it proves that it wasn’t anything that I did. I made a choice, yes, to even try to let go, but I can’t explain the actual thing. Three things happened:

  1. Chris got the job.
  2. It was better than we could have imagined.
  3. We are able to keep Yoshi.

——————-

The horses are calm. I look at Jesus, shocked, and see how he handles the reins. His hands are rough from years of taming these creatures, strong, and supremely more experienced than mine. Where I frighten them, He soothes them. Where I am lax, He is firm, and where I am brutal, He is gentle. We are far from the cliff, from the places where their hooves catch on stones, and where there is no grass or fresh water. Something else is different, too. He has brought His own horse, a breed I don’t recognize, and a color I’ve only seen in that moment between sleep and awake. It is leashed to the front of the cart, leading the others so confidently, it’s like they’ve become one body. When I ask what His horse’s name is, it all makes sense.

“Love.”

 

 

Heartbroken by the Church

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I’ve known for a long time that I’m bitter about the Church. The last church I went to consistently went through a lot of big changes very quickly and left me feeling abandoned and betrayed. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was a bunch of little things. I was disappointed in the direction (or lack of direction) I felt the church had. There was a lot of division about things like worship, prayer, and leadership. People left. People got hurt. In the end, it just became a building.

It isn’t just the one church I’ve been heartbroken by. It’s the Church. I’ve always had trouble with the Christian community and feeling like I fit in. Youth groups and Sunday school were agonizing for me on a social level. I never felt spiritually challenged or like issues that I was facing (like depression and anxiety) were being addressed at all. It seemed like curriculum for teens was based on gender stereotypes and the idea that young people have no attention spans or interest in depth. It didn’t really change as I got older; so many small groups for women met during the day and centered around motherhood or crafting. There’s nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong, but it is limiting. It just serves to confirm my long-held anxieties about not fitting in.

Those anxieties have gotten worse. Politics has been the defining battleground between me and the Church. I’ve discussed this a lot on my blog, about how religion and politics become one and the same, about how I’ve been personally attacked by people I trusted just because I don’t agree with their ideologies. These are fellow Christians. These are fellow Christians who do not see a problem with either directly or indirectly questioning my devotion to the faith based on my political beliefs. I may disagree strongly with conservative Republican ideas and question why people agree with them, but I would never- and have never – judged someone’s Christianity based on those ideas. It is a repulsive attack. I know I’m bitter about it. I know that holding on to bitterness hurts me, but I’m not holding on to it intentionally. It has become sort of this weird shield against getting too close to being disappointed by the Church again. If I expect people in the Church to judge me, I won’t be surprised. I don’t know how to find the balance between not getting hurt and not being bitter.

I’ve also been heartbroken by all the people in the Church who don’t say anything about the attacks against people who have different political beliefs. These are the people who don’t stand up against ostracization and subtle segregation. These are the people who think that ignoring someone’s beliefs is the same as accepting them. For me, my political beliefs are directly influenced by my faith, and I want people to know why and still respect me and see the value of our differences. I’m practically desperate for that acceptance. I think it’s why I’m so insistent on still dealing with people who have shown they aren’t going to open themselves to new ideas, who see my beliefs as dangerous or ungodly. I still want a church family, after everything that’s happened, but I’m terrified. I can’t tell who is going to be responsive to my beliefs or who will shut me out, either because they think I’ve strayed from the faith or because they just don’t want to deal with the conflicts of iron sharpening iron. There is no defining characteristic of that sort of thing. And in my experience, churches are more likely to be filled with the kind of people who would attack me, so is it any wonder I’m really cautious?

But I’m also really lonely. I thought it was possible to stay strong spiritually without any help from other Christians, but I was wrong. God help me.

Going Back to Church

So I went to a church this past Sunday. 

Whaaat?

I know, I know. I haven’t been in an actual church since Christmas and I’ve been fighting against Chris’ hints for a long time. To be honest, most of my reasons to not go to church seem better than his reasons to go, but I’m biased towards myself. And most of my reasons are fear-based, and when has fear ever led to an ultimately good decision in spiritual matters? 

The first thing I did was research. Going into a church blind is like going into a social group without any knowledge of who is going to be there, at least for me. I want to know something about the church before I go. Is it geared towards a particular denomination? Is it going to be huge? Heading towards a big change? What is the staff like? In doing research, I discovered one church that described itself as “progressive” and politically-liberal, which got my ears perked up, but something seemed off, so I did more research and found that this was less of a church and more of a group of “spiritually-minded” people who used the life of Jesus as a “guide.” I may be pretty liberal, but my spiritual life is defined by my belief that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that the Bible is God-breathed. All of my big problems with Jesus and the Bible are related to how people interpret these two things. 

It seems shallow, but how a church’s website looks is pretty important to me. If it looks really outdated, odds are the church is very traditional and doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to get new people into the building. While there is a place for churches like that, they aren’t for me. I want a church that is in the world, (though not of it), and committed to reaching out to the unchurched and burned-out through the language of my generation. At the same time, I want a church that is also committed to caring for their flock; a lot of churches are so focused on outreach and growing that they don’t have the resources necessary to deal with the problems their current members might have. 

That is what made me interested in the church we went to. They have ministries for both outreach and “inreach.” Their website was clean and attractive, and they have four campuses. The one we went to was small, but not so small that it felt awkward. The speaker was a stand-in because the head pastor is on vacation, but there was enough there to get me interested in coming back. I just want a church that doesn’t make me angry with its message, or really bored. There are the churches that drive a hard right political line, and then those that just mask any opinion at all and are so concerned with not creating controversy that they don’t talk about much of anything. I don’t need a church that’s liberal. I just need a church that doesn’t try to judge me or shut me up because I’m a liberal. 

That’s a hard thing to figure out. It takes a lot of time. My fear is putting a lot of energy and time into a church and then find out they expect everyone to picket Planned Parenthood with them or something. My usual strategy has been to avoid all churches altogether, but I can’t do that forever. I want to have friends that share my spiritual beliefs. A church is pretty much the only place to find that. So I’m taking a risk. Erg. 

 

Image source: 

http://htlutheran.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/feet-walking.jpg 

This One Time At Camp…

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I was not a camp kid. All I wanted to do in the summer was rollerblade, eat off the grill, and sleep in. However, because my parents wanted us kids to have the normal number of childhood experiences, we did go to a few campy (ha ha) things.

The most “camp” experience we probably had was doing one of Concordia’s Language Camps. It was an overnight, lakeside, week-long excursion where we would learn German. I think they found out about it because two of our friends were doing it and my parents decided it would be less traumatic if we knew people. Evan and I were not pleased. The camp was for beginners, but the staff only spoke to us in German and if we stared at them long enough, obviously not understanding, they would dramatically act out whatever they were trying to tell us. We had to sing loudly (in German, of course) before they would let us into the cafeteria. Every day was full of small group activities, singing, crafts, etc. We woke up every day at the crack of dawn (or so it felt like). It was, to this day, the longest week of my life. All I wanted to do was go home. I actually attempted to dehydrate myself so I would get sick and be sent home, but that didn’t work out. Being at camp may suck, but being sick at camp is worse.

It wasn’t all bad. The high school girls who served as “counselors” were really nice. One of them would sing us to sleep with Jewel songs she played on her guitar and they would talk to us in English at the end of the day so we didn’t feel completely disconnected from everything. The other girls in the cabin were friendly, I just didn’t have any of them in my small group I spent all day with, so that was a bummer. At the end of the week, they set up a dance for us with German techno music, and it was not as awkward as one might expect. Still, there was nothing quite like the euphoric joy of driving away and heading back home to cats and homemade hamburgers and reading.

My other two camp-like experiences were not actually in the summer (one was in the fall, and I think one was like right at the beginning of summer, maybe) and were both church-related. The first was with a big church and was a weekend with a zombie theme, because Christians are supposed to die to the old self, and live in the new. Pretty clever, I know, and that’s not totally sarcastic. The stage where all the sermons were was set up with tombstones and cut-outs of people in the various stages of life and death. The talks were all pretty interesting and I wished I could have just done the worship and message part of the weekend. The parts where we were supposed to “fellowship” were what spiked my anxiety to its peak. I felt so awkward that it physically hurt. I knew most of the girls in my group decently well (one of whom actually just married my cousin, I hadn’t seen her since that weekend probably so when I met her, we kind of stared at each other with that, “I know you, but I don’t know how…” look) but not well enough to actually feel comfortable with anyone. I knew their names, but literally nothing else about them. I felt like they were all best friends and I was just on the outside. When everyone who came to the event had this huge game that involved running around and catching people (I literally have no idea what it was, this is what I assume it was based on the war paint boys were painting on themselves), I wandered around the woods until I found another girl sitting in a swing so we just swung in silence until order was restored. Spiritually, it was a good experience. The last night the main speaker did an exercise where we would walk through a coffin that was set up vertically, representing coming back to life in Christ, and I started weeping, something that had never happened before during a church event. Socially, it was horrendous.

The next church event was part of a much smaller church and with a youth group I felt more comfortable with. I don’t remember much except that my group leader who I adored had to have emergency dental surgery because she got dry socket, and that I was almost always covered with ticks. We were in the woods. There was canoeing and some hiking and such. Socially, there was a huge outbreak of late middle-school hormones and most of the kids were obsessed with each other. There was one girl in particular who was the object of desire, probably because she was tall and blonde and was the only girl who was wearing makeup (during camping, really?), and one boy who basked in the attention of the girls from other churches. At night for one of my cabin’s bonding sessions, we had to go around and say who we liked, which I was thought was immensely stupid. Me and a couple of the other girls who I knew better literally had to say, “We don’t like anyone, but I guess if we had to say who we thought was the cutest…” It was awkward. I remember one of the girls said she chose my brother, which was a proud moment for me. On the ride back, we went through these boxes we had set up during the weekend where people could put letters or whatever, and that was an exercise in humiliation. I got like three letters, one of which was from my leader so that doesn’t count, and had to sit and listen to Tall Blonde Makeup Girl brag about all the letters she got from BfOCs (Boys From Other Churches) saying how hot she was. I was totally judging her. This weekend was supposed to be about GOD. Judge judge judge.

I’ve always thought I didn’t have anxiety until that halfway point my junior year of college where I started having panic attacks, but looking back, it’s pretty clear I’ve always had social anxiety. People called it “being shy,” but there’s a line between “being shy” and “wanting to die and feeling like you’re going to throw up when you’re around people.” I don’t feel like that anymore, so that’s a huge step. I’m able to manage my anxiety and have made a lot of good friends, something I was never able to do easily as a kid. That’s progress.

Why Christmas Matters

Christmas was technically yesterday, but I tend to keep thinking about it as long as it’s winter. My depression is affected by the lack of sunlight, the cold, and not being outside very much for the previous reasons listed, and so my thoughts often turn to the source of my hope: Jesus Christ.

He was most likely born in September, but December 24 and 25th is the day chosen for remembrance. This holiday has always been very spiritual for me; I love the music, the stillness, the sense of peace, the wonder. For several nights before Christmas, I lay awake at night, thinking about what the heavily-pregnant Mary was feeling, what her fears might have been as she traveled during a time she probably should have been taking it easy. I thought about Joseph and if he still had a seed of doubt in his mind about what was going on, and if he crushed that doubt as he remembered seeing and hearing an angel telling him to accept Mary and believe what she had said about the child. The shepherds were going about their usual, rough lives, completely unaware that soon they would blinded by the light of heaven and a fleet of angels telling them the Messiah had been born and that they would be the first to see him with their own eyes. I wondered if the wise men had set out on their journey yet, a journey that could have taken them up to two years (since they did not see Jesus until he was around that age), or if they were still in their mansions studying the skies.

Easter is the most important Christian event because if one believes in it, it confirms that Jesus Christ is God and that He defeated sin and death by resurrecting from the dead. It isn’t enough that He was born and existed; if He is truly who He said He was, He had to fulfill the prophecies and die on a cross, lie in a tomb for three days, and then rise again. I know this. However, Christmas has always been more emotional for me. Easter proves that Jesus is God, and Christmas proves that Jesus was a man. He was human. He came into the world the same way we all do. He understood the pain of the flesh, the limits of our strength. If Jesus was only God, it would honestly be difficult for me to see Him the same way I do knowing that He was also a human. How could an all-powerful, all-knowing God truly understand my irrational and rational fears, my weaknesses, my craziness, my lowest lows? But no, He does, because He stood where I stood.

That’s why Christmas matters so much to me.

Gratitude

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thank God for jealousy

for yearning love

 —-

for loving silences, sharp knives

for nights of fire and punished crimes

 —-

thank God for sleeplessness

for the daily grind

 —-

for rat races, repetitive blame

for wide-ruled lines and waiting for rain

—-

thank God for open wounds

for unhealed scars

 —-

for pink-rimmed eyes, pinched nerves

for lessons hard learned and prayers that went unheard

Take A Look At What I’m Reading: “Evolving in Monkey Town”

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Rachel Held Evans is my spiritual soul mate. I first heard of her when “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” was released and she was on the morning talk shows trying to explain to confused journalists how and why she spent a full 12 months living every biblical instruction for women as literally as possible. Some called her a fundamental nut. Others said she was making a mockery of the Bible. It’s pretty rare for a person to be accused of being two polar opposites. It was clear that she was courting controversy and I love that.

My mom gave me Rachel’s first book “Evolving in Monkey Town after she read “Womanhood” upon my recommendation. “Monkey Town” is resonating with me on a frighteningly deep level. Rachel went to William Jenning Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes trial. As befits a college named after the man who tried to defend creationism in the Scopes courtroom and fought secularism his whole life, Bryan College taught Rachel a “biblical worldview.” Everything – from economics to literature – can be learned with a Biblical base and she was taught to question every non-Christian belief before she even personally encountered them. She is essentially describing my high school. She even mentions my textbooks and talks about performing skits mocking the New Age movement. It is EERIE. Most significant to me however, is that she describes a crisis of faith that I have begun to experience in the past few years. Why does a “Biblical worldview” bear such strange parallel to a “Republican worldview?” When having a conversation with an actual human person, does saying “So you are saying there is absolute right and wrong? Where do you think that comes from?” when they bring up the injustice of a rape/murder case ever not stop a conversation dead in its tracks? When looking at the world in terms of black and white absolutes, where does that leave mercy, grace, or compassion of any kind?

One section in this book especially struck me. After watching the execution of a Muslim woman, Rachel finds herself wrestling with the question of salvation. Zarmina was accused of murdering her abusive husband and despite the lack of evidence, was shot in the head by the Taliban. According to everything Rachel (and I) have been taught, this woman should be burning in hell right now. After a lifetime of punishment by a cruel world, she now faces the wrath of God.

“That’s not fair. How was she supposed to know any different? All her life she was taught that Islam is the one true religion, just like we were taught all our lives that Christianity is the only true religion? God didn’t really give her a chance.”

“Isn’t that why missionaries are so important,” Sarah (Rachel’s roommate) asked.

“Yes, but missionaries can’t get to everyone in time. There are millions of people, past and present, who have had no exposure to Christianity at all. Are we supposed to believe that five seconds after Jesus rose from the dead, everyone on earth was responsible for that information? How is a guy living in, I don’t know, Outer Mongolia in 15 AD supposed to figure out that Jesus died on the cross for his sins, was buried, and rose again on the first day. It’s impossible.”

It is impossible. I’ve asked this question and people always point to that line that Paul wrote that says that people are without excuse because of how beautiful the world is, or something like that. But that isn’t really talking about Jesus, specifically. It’s more about the existence of a God who created the universe. Well, other religions are kind of all about that. There isn’t a culture that is founded on atheism. So then are we saying that it isn’t the right God, so it doesn’t count? Native Americans who worshiped a Great Spirit while Paul preached in Greece are all just doomed because they weren’t born in the right place? Or the right time?

I think about another incident with Paul, where he saw a monument made “To A God Unknown.” He looks at his audience and says, “This is the same God I worship. You’ve been worshiping Him all along, you just didn’t know His name.”

Jesus never said we were supposed to have all the answers. That isn’t how Christians are supposed to be defined. Let them know us by our love. In my experience, the people who always have an answer, who feel the need to “fight the culture,” and “spread the truth,” are some of the least loving people around.

The Shepherd

ImageLately, I’ve been questioning my faith. Do I really believe what I say I believe? Or, more frighteningly, what if what I believe really doesn’t fit with being a Christian?

I feel the latter more often than the former. I’m constantly getting fed the message that one cannot be a Christian if one believes A, B, and/or C. People, as close as friends and as distant as major religious leaders, love deciding what convictions do and do not fall under the Christian umbrella. Since politics has apparently joined theology as a key factor in determining one’s stance with God, there seems to be a never-ending stream of do’s and do not’s.

I’ve always fought back against the stream. In high school, I remember being asked why God would create humans and after a little thought, replied, “Maybe He was lonely.” The teacher looked at the class and said, “Can God be lonely?” More than one voice said, “No,” and the teacher moved on as if that single word was the end of the matter. In my opinion, if God can’t be lonely, I don’t know how we could relate to Him at all, since at least for me, that feeling has dominated most of my life. High school continued to offer spaces in which I could argue and I’ve gotten used to disagreeing with the majority of the Christian representation in America.

However, my grounded fervor has begun to shake. I’ve felt distant from God for a while, partially because I’ve been too afraid to find a church to plug into, and also because I’ve been a bit miffed with how my life is going. I see the confidence with which people declare their beliefs as the one true way and I begin to tremble. What if I’m wrong and they’re right? What if believing X and Z really does mean I’m ignoring God’s truth?

Last night, I was thinking about this as I tried to sleep. I imagined being a ewe in a flock of sheep. The sheep around me were all huddled in a circle and when I went over to them, they stared at me.

“What are you?” they asked.

“I’m a sheep.”

“No, you’re not. You look funny. Your ears are shaped differently than ours. Your hooves are weird.”

I was troubled and a little hurt. I go and try to find the shepherd. After calling, I heard his voice and went over to where he’s standing.

“What am I?” I asked him.

“You’re a sheep,” he answered.

“But the others say I’m not.”

“That doesn’t matter. You’re a sheep.”

“How can I be sure?”

“You recognized my voice when I called you.”

So after all my doubting and anxiety, the answer is simple. I still hear Jesus’ voice. I am not so far off the path that I’ve lost my sense of Him, of His compassion and mercy, His patience, His humility. When I’m overwhelmed by all the descriptions of Jesus people are throwing before me, I shut my ears to every voice but His and His voice is full of grace. Even if I am wrong about some specific issue, it doesn’t change who I am.

More importantly and most importantly, it doesn’t change who Jesus is.