“Without faith it is impossible to please Him (God)…”. You may have heard this before. I’ve recently been soberly contemplating this verse as it seems my faith has largely vanished. Being brought face to face with the ugliness of this life and seeing the general condition of the world around us, I’ve found myself where many others have been: “How can a good God allow these things?”.
For some perspective, I’ve spent the last 16 years as a worship leader in local churches (the last several of which at what many would refer to as “mega” churches). But this past year I’ve seen the disintegration of my family as I have known it through a divorce. I experienced the loss of my father and caring for a mother whose health is deteriorating. I have mourned the untimely and tragic death of a new found love and witnessed the tidal wave of sorrow and confusion for those left behind. I have seen the resulting poor decisions, loss of career, finances and the broken hearts that I have hurt while trying to pick up the pieces. I don’t say this to garner pity or justify any of my poor decisions but to give some perspective of where this comes from. This is not the story I wanted to write.
My faith has been shaken to the core. I have honestly and intently looked elsewhere for meaning, fulfillment and some sense of purpose in the wake of it all. I have perused, pursued and participated in (too) many “alternatives” and have come up just as empty as I went in. Nothing brought relief and nothing seemed to satisfy. Have you ever stood before a congregation leading them in songs that you aren’t sure you even believed yourself? I have. Have you posted inspirational scriptures to social media hoping to find the faith to one day believe them? I have. Have you ever led “worship” while living completely opposed to the values that you claim to share? I have. Have you ever used others that you claimed to love in an attempt to drown out your own pain? Yep, that too. What I have found, though, is my story is not all that rare. Through my trials and poor decisions, I have found far more people that identify with the story I never intended to write. If there ever was an ivory tower, it has been torn down to its foundation. For too long, all I could see was the rubble, but now I’m beginning to see how those pieces could be used to build something of even greater significance (who actually lives in an ivory tower, anyway?), and someplace I hope to one day call “home”–a place that’s honest, and yes, at times uncomfortable, but always real and relevant to me, my family and to anyone who cares to share in the journey.
So why do I write today? Obviously, my audience (both of you), may have changed. I used to write mostly about issues in the “church world” from the perspective of a pastor engulfed in worship and the arts. While those are still of high interest to me, I doubt my current job in sales gives me much credibility in the “arts” world and my past year has pretty much determined that the word “pastor” not be used as a title in my name at least for some time. So, with that in mind, I write here today as simply someone learning how to be a child of God–a beloved child of God. It’s not easy. It feels like it should be. But it’s not. I don’t write as someone who has the answers and I don’t write from a place of healing and victory (yet). I do write from a changing perspective that though I may not have the answers, there are questions still worth pursuing. It’s these questions that I hope to ask and share with you as I journey on this path of being “beloved” of God and rediscover with my heart some really important things I’ve known in my head for a long time. Some will think less of me (yes, I am a hypocrite and a pretty big one at that), but maybe some may find my story redemptive enough to join me on the journey. I still have doubts. Many. BUT I am also finding that if you’ve never doubted, I doubt that you’ve ever truly believed.
So, what has brought me to this place?
I cannot ignore the rational evidence of God.
When I had no faith, I was forced to look at alternatives. I also realized that all self-conscious creatures have to exercise “faith” in something. If there was truly no God, then where did everything come from? I am familiar with many of the alternatives, but honestly, I don’t have enough faith to believe in those either. I’ve always known this intellectually, but now I know this from experience. You see, either way, daily life is a matter of faith or willing ignorance. I’ve never been a fan of willing ignorance (it’s just the way I’m wired), though I’ve participated in it plenty. So, that left me with either putting my “faith” in some form of chance or in an intelligent designer. Personally, I have to choose design. I cannot “prove” God but I also cannot deny the evidence.
I cannot ignore my past experiences with God
If we’re honest, many of us church folks have had “questionable” religious experiences–you know that time the hair on your arms stood up during the key change of your favorite worship song that “spoke” to you during that horrible time in your life only to find out it happened again at the Journey concert with your girlfriend while listening to the intro of “Faithfully” (which is also, no doubt, goosebump worthy–thank you Jonathan Cain). BUT, also if I’m honest, I cannot deny several times that were undeniably “God moments”. It was those moments (mostly during quiet prayer or passionate private worship) that kept coming back to me. Sure, some may explain them away as internally constructed “promptings” of my own creation, but my experience tells me different. Again, I cannot prove them to you, but I also can’t deny them.
I cannot ignore what I know about the Bible
The Bible is an incredibly complex collection of “books” written by over 40 authors over more than 1,500 years amid varying cultural contexts. Most reasonable people (based on many years of archaeological research) won’t deny that. It’s what you believe following these facts that dictates how you respond. I will also be the first to tell you that anyone who tells you they have ALL the answers to the difficult parts of the Bible–you need to be the first to run like the wind. No one does, no matter what they say. There are difficult parts of the Bible–there is no doubt about that. Some appear at a surface glance as a result of differing cultural and religious contexts (should we really stone disobedient children? should women really be silent in church?), and some from seeing what seems to be competing ideas about who God is (like God’s judgment vs. His love, or how can a loving God allow such evil in the world, or what is the Trinity, really?). There are many who have written much about these difficult topics with varying levels of success, but if most of us are honest, we probably identify more with Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” What I have found about the Bible can probably be summed up in the answers to 2 questions–and herein lies the difficulty:
1) Am I really as bad as the Bible says that I am? Yes.
2) Am I really as loved by God as the Bible says that I am? Yes.
Religion (based on my performance) can’t fix that.
I can’t ignore what I know about Jesus
In John chapter 5 in the New Testament, Jesus sees a crippled man and asks a question we all need to answer: “Do you want to be made well?” If you are a human being and have lived any length of time on this earth and believe that you have absolutely no need of being made well, you can feel free to move along and stop reading now. I can’t help you. You don’t need it. BUT, if we’re truly honest, we know we’re all broken to some degree or another. Most of us deep down inside know we need to be fixed and we all want to be loved unconditionally. But I’ve discovered religion can’t fix me. Turning a new leaf can’t fix me. Living by a set of “theories” about love or anything else can’t fix me either (regardless of what a well-meaning, charming, yet ridiculously moralistic “Christian” movie may say–sorry “Old Fashioned”). But being transformed by a living relationship with God made possible by Jesus can. I need to be reminded of this.
If you want to know what God is like–look at Jesus (John 14:9 – “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…). Study the gospels, look at the life of Jesus and see the passion (and the failures) of His followers and His beloved in the days following his resurrection. We are not all that different. I resonate with C. S. Lewis (once an agnostic) who said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”² It’s the only “filter” that really works for me. Are you free to reject Christ’s claims and go wherever you want? Sure you are. I have. But I had to stumble over a Savior with out-stretched hands on a cross to get there and you will too. At the end of the day, the Bible isn’t about rules, but about revealing a relationship with God. In nearly every belief system and civilization in history, citizens died to make someone king, but in Christianity, a King died so we could be citizens. I’m finding a love like that to be more and more undeniable even despite my many doubts.
I can’t ignore the power of genuine community
When my faith has been at it’s lowest points, it seems that often at just the “right” times, God sends the “right” people into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still struggling with those times where I felt completely isolated and alone and those times still come. Bot too often to deny, my faith has been strengthened by someone or a group of “someones” who were there for me. It takes some brutal honesty to get the greatest benefit (at great vulnerability and risk–they might really judge you despite what they tell you), but when you’ve hit rock bottom, what do you have to lose? Over 15 years of “making church people happy” (the unwritten job description most pastors have of their worship and music leaders but will deny to their grave) can wear on you. BUT with all that said, while many churches don’t “get it”, many Christians do and churches everywhere are full of people who do actually “get it”. You just have to work a little to find them sometimes, but they’re there. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (look it up if you’re under 30). If you’ve been burned by a church before, I challenge you to give it another shot. Just quit looking for the perfect church, because they’re filled with people like me. But if you find the right one, they just might point you to Jesus.
Have you ever been in a place where you doubted your faith? What brought you to that place? How did you get back or have you? I’d love to hear your story and I think others would too.
“The story we’re telling the world isn’t half as endearing as the one that lives inside us.” – Donald Miller from Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy.
With Thanksgiving approaching, you may find yourself in a place where you are wondering what in the world you’re going to be thankful for this year. For you, this year may look very different from last year–it certainly does for me. Maybe you find yourself on the mountaintop or maybe you are wondering what in the world you’re going to do next. Maybe you’ve lost a marriage, a family member, a love, your job, your sanity or maybe all of the above.
You may have more to be thankful for than you know but it may look very different than you think. Don’t stop. Keep looking. I’m looking too.
Many know the story of the beloved gospel song “It is Well with My Soul”, and have found comfort both in its message and the story behind the song. Horatio Spafford, a friend of the famed evangelist D. L. Moody and prominent attorney in Chicago in the 1860’s, penned the words of this song. In 1870, a series of family tragedies began with the death of he and his wife Anna’s only son at the age of four. About a year later, Spafford’s extensive real estate investments were destroyed in the Great Fire of Chicago.
Two years later in 1873, the Spafford family decided to holiday in England hoping to catch up with D. L. Moody who was preaching a series of meetings there. Delayed on business, Spafford sent his family ahead of him and while crossing the Atlantic their ship sank from colliding with another and 226 people lost their lives including Spafford’s four daughters. Anna, his wife was spared in the tragedy and sent a telegram back that said “Saved alone.” Spafford set sail for England and approaching near the location where his daughter’s lost their lives, he was inspired to write the lyrics of this well beloved song.
It is Well with My Soul
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”
It is well (it is well)
with my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come
Let this blest assurance control
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
Each verse seems to track a very normative response to tragedy as often experienced through the eyes of faith. There is no question of the reference to his great family loss in verse one and then there is the reference to what is often perceived as spiritual warfare as we continue to reel from the effects of life’s tragedies. Much like a predator who can sniff out weakness, Satan often comes in to finish the job, whether he can be credited with starting it or not. Then, Spafford, much like many of us, comes to realize though “life” may have taken turns and experienced loss none would anticipate or desire, we realize how we too, are sinners saved by grace and even in great loss, we realize we have for more than we could ever deserve in this life or the next–mainly our freedom and forgiveness from sin! Then, in that we realize that as difficult as life may be, we have hope and assurance that it will not always be this way. One day, ALL will be restored and we will see our Savior face to face and in complete fulfillment, all will be well with our souls.
Enjoy this rendition from Jeremi Richardson (of Avalon) and the great folks at Northland Church in Orlando, Florida.
What songs have helped you express your faith walk and why? You can leave your comments below. (Click “Read More” to open the comments box).
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. –Rom 15:13
Hope. It’s such a great word, isn’t it? It tells us that though all is not right in the world, things are not always now as they one day will be. You don’t have to look far, though, to notice that hope is something that’s desperately missing in the world we live in. Christ followers aren’t exempt from the hurts of this life either, but we do have a hope that only God can give and a future that only faith can see. It ’s these “intangible” truths that provide the fuel for us to keep going when the going is hard, to keep trusting when the circumstances seem to tell us otherwise, and to keep loving, because in the end, that’s all that matters and love, ultimately, is all that will last (1 Corinthians 13). Since these “intangibles” are the only things that truly last, whether in this life or the next, maybe they’re more tangible than we often think.
The beauty and gift of pain in this life is that it reminds us that this is not all there is. C. S. Lewis said that one of the plights of humanity is that we are far too easily pleased. He says we’re like the child content with making mud pies in the slums because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. When life is “good” we tend to settle. When life is painful, we tend to hope and long for what is better. Paul gives us this encouragement so that the miracle of hope would overflow and be visible to those around us. Hope implies something better is coming. The good news is that we don’t always have to wait for heaven to experience the “betterness” of God. He longs to give us so much of Himself even now. A favorite passage that is often quoted in reference to heaven actually speaks of the life that we can even now begin to experience through the Spirit of God. “However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’– the things God has prepared for those who love him– these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” [1Co 2:9-10] What could possibly be more “deep” in this life than a peace that passes all understanding (can’t be explained–only experienced), and a hope that is secure? (Heb 6:19)
So let’s join together with expectation of an outpouring of His Spirit that we may all experience the Kingdom that is “now but not yet” in all of the fullness available to us today. We hope, we long, we yearn for that overflow.
I grew up in a church tradition that did not recognize much of the Christian calendar with the exception of Christmas and Easter. However, I did spend my childhood in the Northeast where Catholicism dominated the religious landscape. Coming from the “free church” tradition, most of the church calendar seasons were explained away as “empty rituals”, void of any real spiritual vitality, and for many, they were. I have discovered in recent years, however, that this does not necessarily have to be the case. Incredible spiritual vitality can be found in many aspects of the liturgical church calendar.
I grew up Baptist, went to Baptist theological schools, did my graduate education at a Pentecostal school, and now serve in a Methodist church (and I continue to have many friends in all of those “camps”). You may look at this and think that I have no real theological convictions, or you may conclude that I will just be very happy in Heaven! Either way, having broadened my theological understanding and my denominational exposure, I have come to appreciate much of what has traditionally been referred to as the “Christian Calendar”. Here’s why:
It helps me realize that my generation is not the only one to name the name of Christ. In an age of 24-hour news cycles, instant information and the realization that just about everything I use in my life begins with “i” and is nearly disposable (iPhone, iPad, iMac, etc.), it is healthy to realize that I am not the only one who has attempted to live this Christian life but that I am connected to a much greater “we” that has lived, died and often been martyred for Christ—those whom I will spend eternity with! The Church Calendar is a great reminder that there have been generations of faithful Christians who have gone before me.
It helps me identify and bring myself in unity with others who name Christ. Unity is vitally important both in our local congregations but also even throughout Christendom. Often we speak of unity, but yet dismiss any notion that we could or should join with other Christ followers in celebrating or honoring a holiday or period of time together that would actually both unify us and help us set our attention on Christ. Observing the Church Calendar is one way for us to have a shared experience with others who also identify with the Gospel and is a fulfillment (even if only partially) of Christ’s prayer that we would be “one” (John 17:21-22).
It helps reinforce the story of Christ into my daily life. Throughout much of Christian history we must remember that most believers did not have ready access to the printed Scriptures and illiteracy was the norm for much of the world up until relatively recent times when compared to over 2,000 years of Christian history. The Church Calendar was developed over time to help reinforce the story of Christ into the rhythms of everyday living. When looked at fully, we realize that the calendar outlines the Gospel into specified times throughout the year. It begins with anticipating His arrival in Advent, celebrating His birth at Christmas, His revealing during Epiphany, humbling ourselves in repentance as we join His fasting in the wilderness during Lent, reflecting on His love and sacrifice during Holy Week, remembering our sin and the atonement that He provided on the cross on Good Friday, celebrating the resurrection of life at Easter, marveling at His giving of the Spirit during Pentecost, and trusting that the presence and power of that same Spirit is with us still during the rest of the year as well (Ordinary Time). While none of these aspects become more or less true during other times of the year, each season provides us an opportunity to revel in and be reminded of the vast privilege and responsibility we have in also being invited into God’s story of redemption.
So this brings us to Lent. What are the opportunities for worship during this season? First of all, in the church that I serve, we have crafted a guided time of prayer and service that will help us prepare our hearts and minds for the ultimate celebration of Christ’s triumph at Easter (you can find this by “liking” our Facebook page www.facebook.com/mountpisgahumc). Many will also join in a time of fasting. This may range from a complete fast of food to simply giving up a comfort, convenience, or repenting and seeking forgiveness of even what might have become a “weight” or besetting sin (Heb. 12:1). There is also something very powerful in substituting something that may be harmless, harmful or destructive for something that is hopeful, heart-felt or constructive and developing new habits that will help us to more faithfully live out Christ’s story in our daily lives. This does not negate being yielded to the constant work of the Spirit in our lives, but allows us to form better habits that help shape us while being more conscious of His working within us at increasingly greater and deeper ways as we grow in Him.
As is the case at any time, worship is ALWAYS a matter of the heart. Just as anything else, any ritual can become trite or be done out of selfish motivation. However, there are seasons of the year that lend themselves well to denying ourselves and forming new habits that can help form us more into the image of Christ. I have found that Lent can be such a season and I look forward to seeing Christ formed in me and others as we make a more concerted effort to focus ourselves on Him.
Do you plan to observe Lent this year? Is it something you will do on your own or will you be joining a local community of faith in a shared experience? What ways could churches from both the “free church” and liturgical traditions better enable their people to have more meaningful shared experiences outside of gathered worship? Click “Read More” to leave your comments below.
For more information about the church calendar or the Lenten season:
The United Methodist Book of Worship (link to Abingdon Press)
Discover the Mystery of Faith by Glenn Packiam (link to Amazon.com)
Worship: Old and New by Robert Webber (link to Amazon.com)
Eph 3:16-21 – I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
“Why me?” — We’ve all asked the question. It’s a naturally human response to suffering, and even blessings, at times when we feel so underserving of either. It is not the most constructive question, but God in His grace allows us to grieve and this is a completely natural response. David did in most of his Psalms of Lament. It’s ok to ask the question and sometimes the best thing we can do is to feel the pain. However, I believe that Paul can teach us a better question from our Scripture passage above—one that eventually will help us to move on from the pains of life and to better see God’s purpose in times of both grief and blessings.
Reading the text of Ephesians chapter 3, you may forget that Paul is actually in prison as he writes this. Many scholars believe that this was most likely written during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. Take a moment and read the passage again. Does that sound like someone who is in prison? Paul, while well acquainted with suffering and inconvenience, knew a greater reality. Both Ephesus and Laodicea (which some scholars speculate may have been the target audience) were cities of great wealth. Paul is writing them here in a spirit of encouragement. You would think it would be the other way around—that Paul would seek or need encouragement from them—he IS in prison, after all!
See, this is where Paul knew of a greater glory—one that “surpasses knowledge”. It can only be experienced. Reading the context of this passage, I believe that his suffering led him to a different question—“What’s possible?”. If you find yourself in a difficult circumstance today, first of all, don’t be afraid to be human. Remember that God knows pain too. David experienced great tragedy and was not afraid to “let it out”. Grief is both necessary and healthy. No matter life’s circumstances, however, (whether mountain tops or valleys) there is still a greater joy. It can’t be known through knowledge or explained—only experienced in the context of a relationship with a loving, all-powerful God that wants to “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Will you let Him? Worry puts your worship on a tight leash (thanks Regi for this quote!), but experiencing a loving, omnipotent God in worship will eventually lead us all to a better question– “What’s possible?” Only God knows the answer to that, but we can be sure the answer is beyond anything we could ask or imagine. As you surrender to Him, who knows what your worship could make possible in your own life and the lives of those around you! Lean in—He’s waiting for you.
I consider myself a fairly logical person. I enjoy seeing things that make sense come together and find harmony and unity even in the midst of diversity. I like to take an idea or concept and present it logically and see lightbulbs turn on in people’s lives. Sometimes, for fun, I even enjoy playing the “devil’s advocate” with friends in matters of theology, politics and life just to get a reaction and see if they can see the hole in their logic (at least in my view—evil, I know).
All of that is fun and all, but then there’s life. Life is messy. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. It is messy probably far more often than it’s neat and tidy. What do you do when life is messy and when it doesn’t make sense? Unfortunately the answer is not cookie-cutter, neat or easy—but there is an answer. Sometimes the answer is what you don’t do.
“Be still and know that I am God” – Psalm 46:10