The Honest Faith: Finding Miguel

This past weekend I was with my family at Toys-R-Us browsing the aisles for what we were going to spend my son’s gift card on for his birthday. I used to love going to Toys-R-Us and I felt the all to familiar joy of walking the aisles again. This time with a purpose. We were going too find something fun for our 1-year-old to spend his birthday money on. As we were in the section with the outdoor toys I spotted an awesome super-soaker. Before I continue I should preface this with a bit of history, if you haven’t read my posts before I was a youth minister for 13 some odd years with 4 years of youth min college classes before that. This moment sent me into an existential crisis. It only lasted a moment, but I suddenly realized I’m not that person anymore. I’m not the dorky well-meaning youth minister who buys silly toys for a future fun event anymore. As the moment passed I was left with the question that I’ve been asking for the last 6 months, “Who am I? How did I get here?” A very Talking Heads moment for sure.

Have you ever had one of those moments? Something happens that doesn’t necessarily phase you at that exact moment. It doesn’t really do anything to set you off kilter or anything, but it sort of just sticks with you? I think because, for me, I’ve had this common thread in the past few weeks of the same message “Just be yourself”. This isn’t meant to be revolutionary advice at all. But when you have been down the rabbit hole of “Who am I?” the statement of “just be yourself” can be world shaking. Especially when a large part of your identity was wrapped up in what you do for a living like mine was.

I’ve told you my brief story earlier, and you know that I’ve always had this picture in my head of what I was going to do with my life. I was going to be someone who led many to the Gospel. That dream was shattered, but as I’m constantly learning it’s just part of the larger mosaic of my life. After recording our podcast yesterday, my wife and I talked about one of the main points, removing the masks. She said, “The church really did a number on you didn’t they?” I replied, “It’s not just the church. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know how to be an adult in this world after being what I was for so long.” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know my preferences and the things I enjoy. The biggest part of this all is that I don’t know how to “adult” outside of the church.

Maybe this is a problem only a few of us in the world face. But I do know that the vast majority of us, if not all of us, struggle with self-identity. I’m so often consumed with this struggle to find who I am and where I am going. In fact, I’ve had Paul Simon’s refrain from “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” stuck in my head for the last week;

Well I’m on my way

I don’t know where I’m going

I’m on my way I’m taking my time

But I don’t know where

The greatest thing about this problem is that it is causing me to slow down. To take a good look at all that is going on around me. Take stock of how I feel, what is my place in what is going on. Just be present in the moment. It was a lot harder to do that before. I always had my head in the future and thinking of what was to come. Those who are, or were in ministry can attest to this. Ministry is about that balance of keeping one foot planted in the present, and one in the future to prepare for what is to come. That balance is easily upset. We find ourselves so often living in the future and worrying about what is to come that we lose sight of the present. The present is where we reside, though. To find oneself you need to be here in the now.

I spent so long in the future, trying to plan for all inevitable catastrophes that being in the present is like being a foreigner in a strange land. You see that life has happened around you. Things didn’t turn out the way you expected. You may be pleasantly surprised that the worst case scenario didn’t actually happen, or that it did but not in the way you thought. One of my new tools to deal with anxiety, thank you therapy, has been this mantra, “I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know what is going to happen.” It has been surprisingly helpful and weirdly a part of me still wants to fight it. Maybe that is what it is to live in the present and connect with other people, giving up our Nostradamus goggles and beginning to see the world for what it is.

There is another song by Paul Simon that talks about being a foreigner in a foreign land and just being struck with that existential moment. The fun and poppy hit “You can call me Al” is surprisingly deep. In it, Simon talks about coming to that point of appreciating what is around you and seeing the good in it all. I think this is where the Divine resides as well. I think the Divine resides in the present, here with us. That’s one of the Divine’s names, isn’t it? Emmanuel, God with us, is meant as an image of protection for the house of David. I also think it means more than that. God is here, with us, in these moments. The Divine is there in the toys at the toy store to bring joy. The Divine is in the movements of a little one trying to take in all the bright colors around him. Maybe that is what it is to worship, to stop and be present in the here and now. To strip away everything else that isn’t us and just be. I am oft reminded of the line from the psalmist’s song speaking of admiration, “Be still and know that I am God.” 

I’m still looking for that big picture of the mosaic that is my life. I’m still writing a new story and script for me. I know it’s going to take time. I know it isn’t going to look like it did before, and I’m excited to see what that mosaic will be. I can see myself retiring at 65, despite what the economy says right now, with maybe a book or two or several published a good career accomplished in my new field and hopefully having made the world a better place for being in it. But that is the future, that doesn’t matter so much for the now. I can work backward and figure out how to get there from here, but as my mantra says I don’t know how this will turn out. So for now, I write, I work, and I enjoy what Is here and now.

I may not be a youth minister anymore, but I can still take joy in the fun toys at the store. I can see the bright flashy colors and feel okay with the world again. I can look at my son trying to stuff the toy that we just placed in the cart into his mouth and smile. I can admire the beauty of the trees bursting back to life here in the spring. I can be here, now. I may not know where I’m going yet, but I can see the angels in the architecture spinning in infinity and I’ll say Amen, Hallelujah!

Please follow and like us:

The Honest Faith: The Slow Death of Modern Christianity

:: Warning :: this might possibly be the most controversial thing I have ever or may ever post. I don’t want to be the normal everyday “Christian” writer who writes bi-partisan political posts comparing the state of our country to Christianity. It’s been done. I don’t think I add anything to that conversation. This is one I’m going to present with as much objective fact as I can. That being said, yes, this is a blog post so a lot of it will be opinion. If it offends, I apologize. Be in conversation with me as to why it offends you rather than writing me off as “one of those writers”. :: Warning over ::

Very many years ago, I was preaching my first official sermon of my first official ministry position. In it, I said that the christian (small c on purpose) church was sick. I said there are very many symptoms that point to such, and we were in need of a new reformation. I felt I gave a pretty good sermon in 2005. This sermon was on Reformation Sunday by the request of the pastor who had retired at the beginning of the summer previous. He wanted the youth to do a whole service dedicated to Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis. He wanted them to write a new 95 thesis from the youth to the church. It was capped off by my reformation message. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well.

I discovered that people don’t like hearing what is wrong with them, even if it may be the truth. I preface this blog post with the warning above and this little note to say I write this in love. I know the truth hurts sometimes, but we need to be in a constant examination of ourselves or we risk not growing or bearing fruit. Don’t believe me? I know a tree in a children’s book I read to my son that learned that lesson. I also know a particular fig tree that Jesus had some choice words for.

This was something I believed in 2005 and something that in 2017 I’m beginning to see the actual impacts from. The Christian church is in decline. Christianity will soon no longer be the most populous religion in the world, being quickly replaced by Islam ( Pew Research Study ). In fact, in our own country, we’ve seen a steep rise in “post-Christian” viewpoints ( Barna Research study and Pew Research Study ). We are trending toward a society where people no longer go to church on Sunday morning. The thing is though it’s not that people have stopped believing in the Divine.

As I’ve stated many times before, my generation, the millennials, are discovering a very different image of the Divine than our parent or even Grandparent generations. We are even dragging our older siblings the Gen-x’ers along with us. The US has only slightly dipped in our belief in the Divine. We’ve gone from 92% to 89% who believe in the possibility of the Divine. Although, the strongly believe in the existence of a God dropped from “71% in 2007 to 63% in 2014” (all numbers from the pew research study linked above). I’d say that has to do with Millennials being tired. We have been worn out by the church.

There has been this old concept that you had to be perfect to come to church. Some may say I’m wrong in that, but I’ve experienced this first hand more than once. That is what we were taught growing up. That’s what makes it so hard for us to want to go to a place where we will be judged because of whatever reason on an early Sunday morning. I mean I find it extremely difficult to get up and get my family ready to go on Sunday mornings albeit that church is at 10 am, it’s still tough to get out the door at 9:40 something. There has been so much that the church has done to injure not just my generation but the ones who came before us. It’s no wonder we decided to give up on going.

Don’t believe me? Take a moment. Search it out. When I began my transition into being a writer with an insurance habit, I started to seek out other writers who had similar stories to me. There are a lot. In fact, I found so many who were published, publishing, or writing blogs about the very same issues and topics I found myself writing about. I could list all of them here, but that would take up way too much space.

I started to think about this topic because I heard about another friend who was let go from a youth ministry position. This has become an all too common story across the country. I believe we are standing on the precipice of the death of the professional youth minister. I know some of my friends would beg to disagree, especially those who are still working with professional youth workers. I was thinking about what was causing this and I was reminded of my all too often worry when I worked for the church. If the church wasn’t making enough money, what are the first things they cut? Children and youth programming and staff…

Increasingly, boomers are retiring. That retirement may be on sure or unsure footing depending on how the economy looks on any given day. But the large majority of the workforce is now being comprised of Gen-X’ers and Millennials. We have become parents ourselves and we are finding it hard to give money to churches or to organizations we don’t necessarily believe in anymore. This is money we can’t easily part with either. I can cite source after source as to why it’s much harder to make a living nowadays than it was even 20 years ago. I’m not going to do that because that’s not what this blog post is about. This is about the death of our status quo Sunday Morning church offerings (Not the tithe, what the church offers to its congregation on Sunday mornings is what I’m getting at).

We are looking for non-traditional churches and offerings. Increasingly it’s become about service for millennials and gen-x’ers. Not the Sunday morning kind of service, but actual getting off your bum and getting your hands dirty doing the work kind of service. There is article after article pointing to this as well ( Here’s one I found particularly readable ). In fact, the Gallup poll that was posted in that article seems to reaffirm that point as well. Millennials are looking for something different. We’ve been beaten down by the world that tells us we aren’t worth much and then shown the same from the churches we decide to try. We grew up in different programs. The vast majority of us went to youth programming at a local church. We grew up with this idea that church didn’t always have to be the stuffy pews on a Sunday morning. No, most of us experienced the Divine on short-term mission trips, in a youth group, at a lock-in (God help me), at a service project, using our talents for a youth Sunday service, or even hanging out with our dorky well-meaning youth workers. This is why so often in my career as a dorky well-meaning youth worker I tried so hard to emphasize the importance of Sunday morning. I didn’t want the trend to continue. I tried to help. But it was bigger than me.

The trend started way before I became a youth worker. It started before I even went to youth programs myself. I’m not condemning youth programming. I think that it has done an amazing thing, it changed the church. The problem is it changed it in a way that we didn’t understand and the church couldn’t keep up. Youth ministries created generations that expected more of their worship communities. In turn, the status quo failed. I may be completely off on this, but I think this is the reason why youth ministry is dying. It’s being killed off to save the “status quo” church. But the problem has already taken hold. It’s much larger than the small c church can deal with.

So now we have this problem. We have two generations of adults (gen-x and millennials) who expect more from worship communities. They don’t know if there is a Divine, but they want to believe in one. They want action and depth from their communities. They want something different from the status quo. They want to experience the Divine like they did when they were teens themselves. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

I think it’s time for the church to change. I think it’s time we abandon our Sunday mornings. Maybe not all at once, since there are those who still get something from those services, maybe a slow transition is needed. How about something more akin to what youth groups used to be? An evening service focused on group building, discussion, and diving deeper into discipleship? What about a place where we can share our gifts and talents with each other, and help grow the talents of others? A place where we are welcomed without judgment or fear of the questions that we bring. A place where all are welcome regardless of how we look, who we love, what we do, or what we believe? A community that we can serve with together. A community we can drop our masks with and come as we are, warts and all. A community that can embrace all images of the Divine and struggle together to find the truth in those that confuse us. This is my image of what large C Church is supposed to look like. A community that loves, regardless.

Please follow and like us:

The Honest Faith: Live and Let Die

I am notorious for not letting things go that easily. Especially when they have to do with the stupid things that I have done. It is like I have a little gremlin living inside my mind who enjoys replaying these moments over and over again. Even the seemingly innocuous ones that nobody actually cares about anymore, except me. Moments like when I accidentally called a student in my small group by the wrong gender for more than half an hour. It was back in 2010. I doubt that student still thinks about that or resents me for it, but I still feel bad about it. I think we as human beings have a tough time letting things go. Maybe it is fear of change, maybe it is our fear of death, maybe through an odd and twisted sense of nostalgia (and maybe a bit of hoarding), we need to hold on to every memory.

A few months ago I was talking to a priest about my then predicament. He said to me, “As Christians, we are meant to be a resurrection people. But the funny thing is, we have a very tough time with letting things die so that they may be resurrected.” Again this was a few months ago so I may be quoting wrong. But that stuck with me. It has been on my mind a lot recently especially as we are now in the Christian Holy Week and the Jewish Passover time. The imagery of life out of death isn’t just in the Judeo-Christian arena either. If you listen to creation stories from across the world there is this image of life out of death. There are even stories of mythical creatures that death does not bind them but make them better.

Greek mythology the Phoenix is reborn or regenerated from the ashes of its predecessor. In Hindu mythology, the Garuda, which is the mount of lord Vishnu, is also a bird of resurrection. The Slavic Firebird, the Iranian Simurgh, and even the Chinese Fenghuang are all resurrection birds. Even the Aztec had a story and mythos of a god creature that was a symbol for resurrection, it just so happens to be my “birth diety”, Quetzalcoatl. This isn’t to say that since we all have an idea of resurrection we should be fine with death. No, it’s to say that, as Semisonic put it, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

So why then do we not want things to end? Are we afraid of the pain? There was a sermon point that I remember from when I was just starting in ministry. A pastor was preaching on Jesus healing a lame beggar. He focused on Jesus asking the man, “Do you want to be healed?”. He put it to the congregation. He said that so many of us prefer not to be healed because on some level we enjoy the pity, attention, and righteous anger that wounds afford us. That is something that has stuck with me for a long time. In fact, I think I’ve written about it before, but even I’m tired of me posting links to my former blog posts. Do we not want to let things die because we prefer the pain? Do we feel as though we deserve the pain?

Being a resurrection people means that we know that life comes from death. We know that when some other beginning ends we can look forward to a new beginning. I’ve had many such transitions personally in the past year. I’ve gone from being a man to being a father, a much better title in my opinion. I’ve gone from being a youth worker to being a writer with an insurance habit. I went from being a renter to a homeowner, which granted was not good timing, but I’m still enjoying it. This past year I’ve watched parts of me die.

I’ve watched dreams die. I’ve seen the death of legends. I’ve watched beautiful ideas go up in flames before they had a chance to live. I’ve had my fair share of death. I know that I’m not done with it either. Though I’m not afraid of death. I’m not afraid of the pain I know I will encounter because I am a resurrection person. I know that from every beginnings end, a new beginning is waiting for me. I know that death leads to life. Death is not the end. Instead, it is a chance for rebirth.

From all of my experiences, I have discovered that when something is reborn, most of the time it’s better than the original (unless you are counting movie reboots or tv show reboots, but I’m not.). We, all of us, no matter your religion or background, are a resurrection people. So when “if this ever changin’ world In which we live in Makes you give in and cry say live and let die”. We feel the pain, we endure, we move on. As I said last week, together we can make it through anything.

One of my favorite sayings is, “You can’t paint a masterpiece without using some dark colors.” One of the things that has always annoyed me about christians (small c on purpose) especially this time of year, is the glossing over the darkness leading up to Easter morning. Holy week is all about the darkness. We move from this rebellious celebration in the streets to one dark day after another. Leading up to the darkest of days that we call “Good”. We mourn a death every year, but we then celebrate new life a few days after. Death calls to life. I would even argue that the darkness the death makes you so much more appreciative of the light and life.

In all of this, I think we need to take a moment to embrace the darkness. We need to mourn the loss of what has passed but know that a new beginning is on the horizon. My wife said it best in one of our podcasts as a shout out to another podcast (synergy in action!) that the loss of our previous pregnancies made us appreciate our son all the more. Knowing the pain that we went through made the joy so much better. Maybe that is what it means to be a resurrection person. It means that we are called to enjoy all that comes our way: the life, the pain, the joy, the sorrow, whatever it may be because we know that death is a part of life. The bad makes the good so much brighter. Death calls to life.

Please follow and like us:

A Life of Worry

This is the post I set out to write two weeks ago. This is a short chronicling of my life with anxiety as it pertains to the church. For a more in-depth examination and telling of my story, I’m currently trying to get a book published that I finished at the end of 2016. There are bits and pieces in there from the blog, but it is the long form of this story. So when and if it gets published, I’ll make sure to let everyone know. For now here is the short form:

Footsteps in the Hall

I was always a very worried person. I never knew there was anything other than that. I worried all the time. I worried that my family was safe, that people would be happy, that I would get good grades, that I would be “normal”, that people wouldn’t make fun of me today, or that I wouldn’t get it together. There is nobody to blame for that at all. It’s just how I was. I know my mother would try to blame herself for that, but she can’t. It isn’t her fault. Biology just works in odd ways. I would say that my life of worry helped me to be a much more empathetic person.

There were a lot of things in my life that I think would cause “normal” people to be worried as well. I’m a firm believer in the paranormal. I know that may throw a lot of you off considering that I tend to be rather skeptical too. The funny thing is Jesus believed in the paranormal as well, but that’s just saying. I bring this up because as a child I would hear things and see things that would probably land me in some serious psychotherapy if I still did. There were only a few times when it bothered me. I remember that there were a few times when I was a child that I heard footsteps in the hallway outside my room when I was home alone. That freaked me out. It leads to me needing to have something playing in the background for me to get to sleep for a good majority of my life from then on. I’m sure things like that would cause anyone to have a break, but honestly, I dealt with it. My mom was amazing and giving us kids serious coping skills and emotional strength without even realizing it. When I told her about these things there were only a few times she looked at me like I was strange, although maybe she still thinks I am. I remember that when I told people at church they would immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion; demons, evil spirits, and someone having done something to deserve this spiritual oppression. It wasn’t. Maybe it was my overactive imagination, me actually being able to hear spirits on the other side, an imbalance of my neurotransmission chemicals, or any other number of things. One thing I can say for sure, though, it wasn’t demons. I didn’t encounter those until I was older, but that is a different story for a different blog post. (let me know if you want to hear that story)

The point is that I’ve run into mistreatment from the church from a very early age. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I know they did what they thought was best, it’s not their fault. Sometimes people need better training before they try to handle a situation.

No Longer Under God’s Protection

Trying to condense this all into a readable blog post is rather difficult. It’s like trying to describe the outside to someone who has been trapped in a cave their whole life. A little Plato reference for you there. I can sum up my childhood and adolescent years with a statement that was told to me about my mom leaving my father and moving to a different state, “You will no longer be under God’s protection if you move.” Needless to say, I’ve worried about the validity of that statement for longer than I’d like to admit. Who says that to a 15-year-old? I’m not pointing fingers, I’m not going to tell you who said that to me. But I want you to examine the impact of that statement on an impressionable mind.

We spend tons of money trying to tell teenagers to worry. We do it in the church as well. Worry about your spiritual life as well as all the worries of modern society. We are churning out anxious adults at an alarming rate. As was done with me, we are very much guilty of pushing children to be worried about “sin” and “falling short of the Glory of God”. These are very adult concepts. There is a ton of abstract in those concepts. Children are remarkably smart but the way their brain is structured up until they are of puberty age is set up to really only handle concrete information. We manufacture this worry as a demand for the supply of Grace that God has. The problem being that we know we are in need of love and acceptance from the time we are born. We know we need love and grace, it is embedded in our DNA. So learning this inspired me. It inspired my message from that point on. My message was going to be simple. There is nothing  you can do to earn the Divine’s favor; there also is nothing you can do to lose it either. This was something that I had a hard time believing for myself as if I was the only one who was exempt from this rule, I have a weird relationship with pride

There was another statement that was made in that conversation I mentioned earlier that stuck with me for most of my life. I was told to beware of the people who claimed to be Christian in the new church we were to be attending because they believed that you could lose your salvation and therefore were not true Christians.

Losing My Salvation

After 13 some odd years of working for the church and approximately 30 years of deep church living, I was finally released into the wild. There are a lot of bumps and bruises I would love to cover here, but that would take way too much space in an already long blog post. I discovered something looking back on my time as a deep church Christian. I found that the simple message of the Divine’s incredible love was a very unpopular one. I don’t want this to be finger pointing or indicating of any of the churches I’ve attended over the past 30 years. Some of them were better than others at being the gospel, others not so much. But the one thing that was constant was the priority of those places, numbers.

As much as they would like to deny that fact, it rang true across the boards. It’s not just Christian churches either, it’s everyone. They are so incredibly worried about butts in the seats and money in the coffers that they will do whatever it takes to stay afloat. As much as they preach about relying on the Divine to provide, they tend to do a pretty poor job of actually relying on the Divine rather than their own ingenuity. It doesn’t make business sense to do any of the things most of the Divine messengers throughout history taught us to do. So I can’t blame them. I don’t know how a true not-for-profit church would keep its doors open.

Maybe I’m cynical. I did get to experience first hand the dark underbelly of church politics. I experienced the financial stress all too often of those places because often the first thing to go when a church is in financial trouble are the children and youth staff and programming. This added more to my already fragile psyche. It’s a wonder I lasted as long as I did in ministry. It wasn’t just money either it was the little things that we did to carefully position and play political games that stressed me out. Like I said, it’s not pointing fingers, not all of the churches I attended or worked at are guilty of this. Some, possibly, may be. But they are doing the best that they can.

After I was set free, during this whole transition time, it made me really question what it was my faith meant. I have been trying to strip away all the worry, all the manufactured guilt, all the things that came packaged with my belief and homesickness ( a reference to a Fredrick Buechner quote I love and use often I talk about it a lot in the podcast which is why we devoted the first episode to explaining it.) . I lost that idea of salvation I had before. I didn’t want it anymore. I didn’t want to be “saved”. I wanted a Divine being to love me in spite of me. I wanted to break free from the self-created prison and be me.

Breaking Free

Two weeks ago in my post on pride (linked above), I posted about the beautiful artwork that Federico Babina created. I used his artwork as my featured image this time. I’ve talked a bit in a letter to my son about what it feels like to live with anxiety. Though I don’t think I really did it justice. I know it made some feel uncomfortable about me and urged me to seek help. I did. I am getting help. But it doesn’t go away just because you get help. It’s still a part of you. It is something you struggle with every day. Maybe it is deep seated. Maybe you know how silly it is to be worried about nothing, but the worry is still there. It is a monster that traps you within yourself.

I love this piece in particular because it is very true to me how it feels like. I feel alone. I feel stranded within myself because I have been taught to bottle it up. A pastor I worked with once told me that nobody likes a depressed spiritual leader. He meant well, and I understood what he meant, but it didn’t help. I was taught that those of us in ministry are only allowed to be robots, holy robots at that. Portraying no emotion, no feeling, no struggle, nothing. I saw that when we did, bad things happened. They happened to me. More than 8 times. Some of those times were my own making, others not so much.

So here I was at the beginning of this transition, bottled up. Trapped inside of myself. Too alone and afraid to do anything. The only people I really let in were those I trusted, and I had been betrayed too often to trust many people. So I closed myself off even more. Some of you may have noticed that in the last 6 months I hid. I hid away from the world because I was too afraid to face it. I was bottling up more and more. I was adding more and more chains to my house. My barbed wire roof would rival any super-max prison. I did what I was taught to do my entire life, lock up. I kept building my defenses as if I were preparing for the worst zombie onslaught possible, emotionally speaking. I would wonder why I was so alone. I knew why. I would lie to myself constantly telling myself that I’m the only one to blame for it all. I couldn’t see the mosaic for the broken tile that was my life in this moment. The biggest irony of this all is my deepest and most deep-seated fear of all is being alone for too long.

Luckily, I’m starting to break free. I have begun to see the light outside of me. I’ve had help from amazing people digging from the outside: my wife, my family, my therapist, and even some of you readers. I wanted to share how this felt. I want to share how I got here with the world at large in hopes that I can get messages out to those who are building defenses and walls to shelter them from the pain might see some light. Might begin to break free. It won’t ever go away, but the amazing and beautiful truth is that you are not alone. We are not alone. We fight, we struggle, we win together. We can break free from our own personal prisons and let the light in.

Maybe the bigger part of this all is allowing ourselves to be human. Allowing our spiritual leaders to be human. I’m human, you are human, we are all human and that’s okay. We were made to be humans, not robots. Humans were made to live in community. To share our inner selves. To let other people in and see the amazing people we are deep inside. We were created by a Divine that believes us to be awesome. There is nothing we can do to earn that awesomeness, besides being ourselves. There is nothing we can do to lose that awesomeness either, besides building walls and not letting others see it.

Please follow and like us: