The Honest Faith Presents: The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

A Youth Minister’s Story of being shattered

Chapter 1

At an early age, I wanted to talk to God. Not just the simple everyday prayers of a child. I wanted God to have an audible conversation with me. Some of my earliest memories were of walking around the large playground area behind my church-school while waiting for my mother to get done with teacher meetings talking to my imaginary friend called “God”. I often still feel like that doe-eyed child trying to balance on the imaginary catwalks made of concrete and playground equipment in an attempt to not fall into the lava that covered the ground all the while just chatting to God about my day.

I grew up hearing stories about these amazing Bible characters that did amazing things and had conversations with the Creator of the Universe. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted my grand adventure to start from a missive given to me from the Almighty. I think my idealistic nature started at that point. Nobody told me that God doesn’t work like that anymore. Maybe God does, but it never happened to me. I never heard a still small voice speak my name in the dark and tell me that I was needed in an audible and tangible way. Instead, I have a lifetime of bumps and bruises that show a lifetime of trying to do what I thought was right. Maybe it was God’s path for me, or maybe I had delusions of grandeur.  

Everything that I am writing may sound cynical to a large extent. I admit there is a part of me that is feeling that way. But in all honesty, I still have a deep longing to hear the voice of the Divine telling me that I am doing the right thing. That despite all my imperfection, and failings I am chosen to be God’s champion. I know deep in my bones that it will never happen, but there is still that childlike part of me that dreams it could. Maybe it still will. I pray it does. Maybe it will finally quiet the cynical realist self that wars against my childlike dreamer self.

I have found that it has a lot to do with the two religious selves at war within me. On one hand, you have the black and white simplistic approach to the Gospel.  The biggest problem with that approach is that it’s close-minded to the very large gray areas of faith. The other self-being that broad vast ocean approach to the gospel. This being that we only know the surface of what there is to know about God, Jesus, and all that took place. The biggest problem with this viewpoint is that it’s hard to find meaning in anything. I really want to think of things as black and white or good and bad. But in this world, there can be no such certainty. One of the biggest truths that I hold to in youth ministry is there is no “right” way to fix things, instead, we just have to find the way that we fail the least “badly”.

I want to think of my time with the church as part of a bigger picture. At more than 7 billion people in this world, mine is only a very very small part of that much bigger picture. There was a wonderful line in a tv show I was watching recently that said that we each come along and add our own color to the painting that is life. I like to think of life like a mosaic. Mosaics are made up of much smaller pieces so often broken, but rejoined in a way that makes the whole much grander than the sum of its parts. This is the story of my mosaic tile. This is my bit of the whole.

In the Big Inning…

I was never any good at sports. I was usually the kid that was picked last in our PE games. Except when it came to our “illegal” games of tackle football, the other kids discovered at the age of 11 I weighed a lot more than everyone else so I couldn’t be taken down that easily. What I was truly good at was using my imagination. I used to dream up entire worlds and situations for my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. My brother and I would build entire cities for them out of cardboard boxes. We even had plans to build a robot out of empty pop cans, much to my mother’s laundry room’s detriment. When things got difficult I would retreat into my imagination, daydreaming about something awesome that could happen.
Though, 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.

My imagination was unusual to a lot of people, and in fact, if I were to show some of the journals that I had drawn and written in back then, many would still say that I was rather messed up. My sister’s big joke about taking abnormal psychology in her first year of college was to try and figure out was wrong with her two little brothers. I never did find out if she discovered something or not. I had written stories about a mad scientist who had invented the machine that would turn people into the opposite sex and then leave them that way to torment them. That’s just one of the many stories that I’m sure would make people wonder what was going on in my head.

This brings me back to my walks with God. I knew at the age of five that I wanted to be a preacher. I knew this because I knew God loved me. I loved God too. I mean we took daily walks after all. I imagined my life in the future. I pictured myself on a stage in front of vast multitudes of people telling them all about the amazing God who took away my sins. I had no idea what it meant to be a sinner at that age, but I knew that I was one because I lied sometimes.  I was going to be the next Billy Graham. I would often talk to God about this. I remember at one point in my childhood that I heard the passage about where every knee would bow and every tongue confess that God was God, I felt like I would be part of the reason for that. As I write those words I feel almost slimy and dirty for even thinking that.

Those visions of the future shaped how I went through life. I knew I was destined for something special. I knew I was going to change the world, so I was going to do everything I could to prepare myself for that. I memorized as much scripture as my attention, and patience at the time could handle. Thinking back, I probably could have done more, but I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s there was a lot of awesome things to distract a young man from a life of preparation toward becoming the next Johnathan Edwards.

My family wasn’t one who many would think much of. There were plenty of times when we were living below the poverty line. I remember there was one summer that all we ate was beans and rice. You wouldn’t believe how many different ways there are to make beans and rice. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with my faith upbringing, and my answer would be a lot. My father was a very proud man. He never wanted to ask for help when he needed it. He also knew the value of hard work. He instilled that in us very early on. Handouts were for other people, not us. We were going to work for what we had. My father worked hard to make sure we had the little we had. When he was between jobs he mowed lawns and did other odd jobs. When he had a job he worked hard at that job and devoted a lot of his time and energy to those jobs. You could say a lot of things about that man, but one thing I admire the most about him is that he is not a quitter. I guess that is why I find it so hard to give up on anything.

When I was in middle school I met a best friend who shared in my delusions of grandeur.  In fact, when we met I was wearing a t-shirt, my favorite at the time, that boldly proclaimed; “Satan is a Poo-poo head”. I wonder what ever happened to that shirt. I remember wearing holes into it and it had a few bleach stains, but I digress. My friend was the first who really believed that I could become those things that I imagined too. In fact, he was going to join with me in changing the world. We came up with this dream of starting a traveling “big tent revival” thing that would go and stay in a place until everyone converted in that area. I still kind of wish things worked that way. I miss those kids, they had so much potential.

My friend and I were forces to be reckoned with.  I started taking guitar lessons, and I would go and teach him everything I learned that week. We joined the praise team at youth group. Eventually, we were the praise team. No really, I’m not kidding. We were so gung-ho about it that the rest of the people who were doing it with us decided that we were so annoying they were just going to let us run it. I remember one night that the pastor, who used to be at youth group every week, came in and heard the “Christian Rock” music we were listening to and attempting to learn to play. He immediately flew into a fury and told us to turn off the devil’s music; It was not to be played in the church. He called us into his office after that. I can remember sitting in his office looking him dead in the face and saying, “God made everything right?”

“Correct.” He said matter-of-factly.

“God saw what he made and said it was good, right?” I said a little too smart-assly.

“That’s right.”

“Well God created music, and this music is good, so It must be created by God.” Flawless logic from a fourteen-year-old jackass.

He got red in the face, and said, “Fine.” We never saw the pastor at youth group after that. That’s how I know that we were only put in charge because we were so annoying nobody wanted to work with us. We formed a band. We decided that our big tent revivals were going to be awesome concerts filled with Christian rock that glorified God. We called ourselves Overflow because our love for God overflowed. We wore matching cross dog tag necklaces. You didn’t mess with Overflow.

My last year in the deep south of Texas was where I began to receive my broken edges in this mosaic of delusion. I’m not saying that everything in life was hunky dory outside of this. No, I’m saying that this was the first time I started to doubt God. There are many reasons why this happened. My parents’ relationship was falling apart at this time. Now, I don’t blame them for me being messed up either. They did their best. They are human beings. They are probably also some of the only people who will ever read this. But I believed, falsely, that if I were to follow God closely and believe hard enough that all things would be good. I believed that “all things worked together for good for those who loved the Lord.” I didn’t know that in that particular passage it means over time, not all at once. My parents going through that time caused the biggest crack in my “holy armor”.

I started to go through most of the things that normal teens go through. I liked people in a like like way. I got mad at my friend when they ended up like liking him instead of me. I struggled with my self-identity. The only problem being that I knew what I was going to be. I had always known, but how could the next Michael Faraday struggle with things like looking at naughty pictures and really wanting to make babies with any girl who was even the slightest bit nice to me. I finally discovered what it was to be a sinner. How was it that Paul was able to put away those childish things? Was the thorn in his side, girls? It had to be. I wanted people to see that God was forgiving, but if you go too far, God wouldn’t forgive anymore. I kept trying to keep myself and others from going too far. But it was a lot of pressure. The pressure was too much to me at times. I often thought of suicide at the time, or as I worded it, “Just going to my eternal home”. The only problem, that was a sin, and probably was going too far. I was a teen, I did normal teen things just in my Jesus bubble.

I finally cracked one night. I couldn’t believe that my other best friend, God, wouldn’t make my life perfect. I was doing all I could to follow God after all. God must just be a mean bully in the sky. How dare God let me struggle with feelings! How dare God let that girl like like my friend and not me!  That’s it! I guess I wasn’t supposed to be born! I guess I’m just worthless! I’ll show you! You need me! Those knees won’t bow without me! You’ll see! I don’t care if it’s going too far… Needless to say, I didn’t follow through on those thoughts and feelings. Thankfully, though sometimes I do wonder what would have happened to the world if I did.

These are dark thoughts that constantly plague me. Even to this day, I wonder if my family and loved ones would have been better off without me. I look at my son and wonder if he’ll struggle through those same thoughts. I wonder if he’ll be better without me raising him. These are things that I often try to pack away, but they pop up in the worst way sometimes. I just wanted to mention this because I know so many of us in ministry struggle with mental illness. It’s a problem that we all need to face and take care of. If you are facing some of these same dark thoughts, don’t worry it’s normal. Don’t let them tear you down. Get help. It took me a long time to ask for help myself, but I did. It’s not always easy, but you need help. We all need help… Anyway, back to the story.

I went to a Jesus camp the summer after that. No, it wasn’t as bad as the one in that one documentary. But it was one of those, week long come to Jesus camps. To which I barely paid any attention to the preachers, and tried to figure out if I could maybe start a long distance relationship with that cute blond girl across the room. The funny thing is that I ended up marrying a cute blond that really is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. It would have blown poor teenage me’s mind! It was that week that I actually had a come to Jesus moment.  It was at the weepy “testimony” night. You know the ones. The ones where everyone confesses their undying and eternal love for everyone, even though they have only met you like a day or two before. That night I suddenly felt God talking to me again. It was through a friend’s admission of being “not normal”.  I suddenly realized I wasn’t the only one who felt not normal. I mean really, who actually feels normal? It was in that that I heard God saying, “I love you. You are my own. Things will be alright.” So that night I decided that yes I am going to do whatever it takes to follow this vision God gave me…

Doing whatever it takes.

Life moves a little quickly. You don’t realize it as a child because you haven’t experienced enough of it to realize how quickly it moves. I wish that I had listened to the immortal words of Ferris Bueller who so eloquently said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” I look back at all of this, and even now at thirty-three, I feel like I got here way too quickly.  I don’t feel like an adult sometimes. Maybe that’s pretty evident to everyone else, but I know that I am. I don’t feel like acting my age, maybe that’s why I ultimately ended up in Youth Ministry. I couldn’t wait to start my life back then. I think that impatience is what proves to be my undoing time and again.

Midway through high school, my parents’ relationship finally fell apart. My mother wanted to move us with my Grandmother, what seemed like a million miles away. I had made friends, though. I had a band! We actually put on an entire concert, complete with a failed guitar jump attempt on my part. Things were finally starting to look like I could pull off this crazy vision of mine. Oh well, there is always a time to go. It doesn’t always happen when we want it to. It also, most times, happens when you least expect it. I got mad at God again. Like it was really God’s fault that crappy stuff happens sometimes. This was the biggest gray area I’d experienced to this point. I couldn’t find the meaning in this suffering at all. This was in 1999. My grandmother lived in Colorado, and the horrid nightmare that was the Columbine shooting had just taken place. Everyone I knew told me to beware of guys in trench coats. The suffering didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t but now I know that God doesn’t cause the suffering. There is no meaning in it.
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 is 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.

I found a new view of God. It was a different side of God that I haven’t ever been introduced to. It was a side of God that loved unconditionally. This side of God didn’t have a “too far”. Whew, pressure off, well mostly. I found this image of God in people and places that I had been warned were not really Christian. I know you doubt what I just wrote, but it’s true. I was pulled aside about a month before we moved by the same pastor that I had thwarted on the whole Christian rock thing. He told me that, “those Methodists believe you can lose your salvation. They aren’t real Christians. You need to be careful!” The funny thing is that because of those long conversations I had with the pastors in the “non-Christian” Church really taught me what it meant to be a true God follower. It showed me that people were willing to put up with a nerdy teen, who felt like he knew it all. It showed me the tremendous patience and love that God has for all of us, even when we feel like we know it all.

It was because of the patience and love that the pastors, men, and people of that church had for me that I discovered what my vision really was meant for. It was meant to reach out to those who were like me. Those who felt the most vulnerable, and struggled the most with identity; those who needed the most patience and love: Teens.

There I went, set on this path to become a youth minister. I was going to do everything it took. I pushed, I annoyed, I learned, and I got distracted. Like I said I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s lots of awesome stuff to distract you from life. It was mainly video games. There really is only so much Unreal Tournament you can play until you have to get back to what you were doing. Eventually, I finished high school and went off to college. I decided to double major in youth ministries, and something that I thought would be an excellent complementary course of study, Theatre. I mean because aren’t all of us church folk just sort of acting in our own little plays anyway?

College really helped to reinforce my vision. I now was an educated jackass. I really took pleasure in showing people that they were wrong. In fact, I made it a point to stir the pot whenever I possibly could. Partly I did it just to show off how smart I was, but mostly it was to help break people of preconceived notions that I felt were dangerous to faith. I really wish I could smack my younger self and tell him it only helps to make people dig their heels in and think you are more of a jackass. It had taken a lot but I had broken free of a lot of unhealthy and dangerous ideas on God through the course of my schooling. I wanted to do the same for others. So, all my jackassery did come from a good place, it just was not a good way of going about changing people’s minds for the better. We’ll talk more about how this proved to be disastrous for me later.

I learned. I really enjoyed learning. I really enjoyed thinking about God. It was like my entire life I had only seen the surface, hence the birth of the new religious self. I used to liken it to the beach. If you go the beach and stand on the sand you have an appreciation for the beauty of the water, but it is only when you start to wade into it, do you fully begin to grasp the vastness of the ocean. All my life I had been told that only specially trained people could go wade in that water. Don’t worry about that stuff, we think about God so you don’t have to. My invisible friend became so much more real to me, and so much more complex through this process. I realized I would never fully understand God. Nobody ever has, nobody ever will; which is a wonderful thing because it means we will always have something to talk about.

My learning process expanded much beyond the formal education. I guess there are things that people can’t really teach you. You have to stumble through, sometimes very blindly, on your own. I know that it’s not supposed to happen as many times as it has happened to me. Maybe that’s the nature of my calling. Maybe it’s the nature of my idealism. Maybe I’m just as much a failure as all those people said. Whatever it is I hope that whoever happens upon this strange writing will not have to go through what I went through. It’s painful as hell and twists you into a neurotic paranoid mess.

My Informal Education

Learn by doing. It is an important mantra, but there is a huge difference between saying and doing. I had a lot of intern experiences. I was very eager to get at what I had envisioned myself doing for so long. My first forays into church work were rather short lived. Maybe that should have told me something. I worked a summer as an intern at my home church. I worked a few months as an intern at a church near my college. I even spent a summer working as a camp counselor. I even made sure to attend the National Youth Workers Convention every year. Each experience was different. Each experience taught me something new. Life is a learning experience. For what, I’m not sure. I like to think that it’s all meant for something someday. Like one day there will be a problem that all the cumulative knowledge gained from your life’s experience will solve. But that’s the simplistic religious self coming out.

One of the great things about going to the National Youth Workers Convention with your professor and classmates is that you get to meet some of the leading people in the field. I got the opportunity to meet a lot of big names in the Youth Ministry field. One of them my mom swears she knew in high school. One of the things I learned from that experience is that even those who have a small amount of fame thrust upon them can let it go to their head. I can tell you even some of the big names of my day are relative nobodies in the grand scheme of things, but they will still treat you like they are hot shit. That’s not all of them, though. There are some truly genuine people who can remain humble throughout. Mike Yaconelli was one of those truly genuine people. I remember meeting him at one of those conventions. He greeted us all with a smile and asked how the travel went. You could tell in his voice that he truly wanted to know, and wasn’t just making pleasantries. This was a man I was going to listen to. I’m sad to say that was one of the only chances I had to meet the man. I wish I had more of an opportunity to get to know what he was about because his teachings and writings are what I base a lot of my methods on. If you haven’t read “Messy Spirituality”, put down this writing go find it and read it. Trust me. My ramblings will still be here when you get back. Unless you are reading this during a Zombie apocalypse, then you are just going to have to put this in your bag for later. If I take nothing else away from those conventions, I want to remember meeting him and hearing him talk.

The summer I interned at my home church was an unusual one. This was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I was interning with the middle school program. I lived down the street from the church so I often would walk or ride my bike over. I didn’t have an office there or anything so I would end up hanging out in the youth room. Often I would just work from home because that was where my computer was at. Can’t say that every day I worked the way I was supposed to as you can well imagine from my previous rants, I get distracted. There were a couple of things that I learned that summer: 1. Don’t try to hit on your fellow interns or volunteers it doesn’t end well. 2. I don’t know how to handle every situation (probably the biggest and most important lesson). 3. Just because I think something is fascinating, does not mean that everyone will think so too.

The church that I interned at near my college was a very short experience. I think it only lasted a month before they decided that they would rather have just the attractive female as the only intern. Oh well, every time I attended the youth programs or the church itself I felt lost. It was one of those mega churches that had a completely separate building for their youth ministries. They had a big stage, sound system, and even professional lighting! I realized pretty quickly that I did not consider that to be a church on any level. Maybe this was when the cynical part of my brain started to take hold of me, but if the whole thing is a production; where is the whole relationship aspect of our spiritual life come in? I mean there are some large youth ministries that do some very good work, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying it’s very hard to manage size and effective personal ministry. I learned very quickly that I can’t allow myself to get lost in the show of it all, even though it’s very tempting. This shattered some of my vision from childhood, but I was still determined. I wanted a large program, but not one large enough where people could easily get lost. I wouldn’t let people get lost.

Sometimes learning isn’t a completely painful process, sometimes it can be relatively painless. My summer as a camp counselor was a very good experience. The camp staff did a very good job of supporting each other. It was nice. Every time one of us ran into a difficult challenge that summer the others would come around them and help them to figure out how to best get through it. This was one of my experiences where I would say that made me want to start a commune up in the mountains somewhere. Of course, though, life isn’t clear cut like that. This is what gave me a vision of what the church is supposed to be like. Even though I had started off that summer as a jackass know-it-all, I was accepted and loved just as I was. If you don’t believe me you can ask the other staff that summer. They will tell you that the entire staff training week I kept trying to start theological arguments with all who were unlucky enough to make my acquaintance. It taught me that God’s love and patience run deep. I think that many left that place thinking poorly of me, but at least while I was there I was supported. I remember that the valley after that mountaintop experience was particularly dark. Luckily, it only lasted a short while before I started my first “real” ministry.
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 Honest Faith Conversations 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. I didn’t want to live with the broken pieces of my life being broken anymore. I wanted to see the mosaic, the stained glass, the big picture for what it was. But, we’ll get there.

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The Honest Faith: The Unspoken Sin

While there are many unspoken sins in the church. There is one in particular that I feel runs unchecked in many religious organizations. Not just in many religious organizations, but in society as a whole. This is something that I have been hurt by very recently, and this post may be a bit self-indulgent and coming from a place of frustration. So maybe this post should be taken with a grain of salt, as almost all blog posts should. Today I’m talking about the unspoken sin of plagiarism.

Now I want to be clear, it’s a little hard to discern original thought on the internet these days. There is an odd phenomenon that similar ideas can pop up around the world at exactly the same time. With the advent of the internet, we are able to communicate ideas at almost light speed to people around the world. I’m not talking in particular about similar thought, I’m talking about the purposeful pulling of someone else’s intellectual property for your own gain sort of plagiarism. It can be knowing and unknowing. There are times when people write something long after they have read or watched something and believe it was an original idea of their own. That’s an easy mistake.

Something that I have noticed for a while now is that it is very rampant in the church. There are many priests, pastors, and lay ministers who take ideas from an internet article, book, movie, or a friend and pass it off as their own. Some may say, “well who does that hurt?” I’ve also noticed this in the outside world as well. There have been numerous accounts of where someone invented something or had an idea only to have someone take that thing and make large amounts of money off of it, and the originator doesn’t see a dime. My case in this point, Fidget Spinners. While the video I just linked to may be satire, the facts it presents are just that facts.

A friend of mine, Adam McLane, wrote a bit about this in an article he titled “The Dark Side of Ministry“. He defines what is done pretty well. So as not to participate in what I’m talking about today, I’m going to let that speak for itself. The thing is when I was new in ministry I was guilty of this too. I knew I was. This wasn’t just using media clips to illustrate a point, or to bring up questions; that’s not plagiarism. This was the blatant pulling of other people’s ideas without attribution. It was using my favorite preachers and author’s words and using them as my own without pointing to them as even inspiration for what they were doing. Now I know this is an easy thing to do. Nobody is going to write down the wording from a youth ministry lesson or a sermon and Google it later. I did this until someone pointed it out to me. Afterward, I worked very hard to make sure that I wrote my own original ideas and at least acknowledged where I got my un-original ideas from.

Again, you may be asking yourself, “Who is it hurting?” Well, that’s what I’m wanting to get at today. It hurts the artist. I never really considered myself an artist, after all, I have only been writing as a hobby and developing my own ministry resources as a career. That was until I started to re-wire the way my brain manufactured feelings. I started to see my writing as an art piece. Something that I pour a bit of myself into. I used to feel that way every time I sat down to write a lesson for youth group. I felt like I was creating. I felt like I was tapping into the Divine. Like the same energy that created the cosmos was filling me and using my fingers to type out some grand truth that it wanted to convey. I mean, yes, my delusions of grandeur did play a part in that thought process and construct. But honestly, I think that is what everyone feels when they begin to create something. That somehow this is bigger than they are. A friend told me after this recent event, “…this definitely sucks because you’ve been putting so much of your time and energy into developing it all.” I started working very hard at developing my writing and my art when I began my transition into “civilian” life. I know I’m still a minister in some ways, but I use the differentiation to show that I’m no longer bound to the traditional moorings of ministry. My art was what I did to occupy my time when I didn’t have a job. My art was a way to express me, to convey my thoughts and ideas to the world. To say that I still matter. I thought about ways to make money from it. I tried and failed. (Maybe. I don’t know does my page show advertisements aside from the one on the podcast page?)

This event was centered around a similar idea in someone else’s writing, and then the use of a ministry idea, that I did cite and reference when it began, that I developed into its own sort of thing. It was the latter that hurt me the most because I poured so much of myself into developing wording and ideas that wouldn’t be exclusive to any one thing but to be inclusive to all. I may have had missteps in not citing correctly or mentioning along the way, but I was learning. It was something that I spent a lot of time in developing. Something that, still to this day, I’m trying to figure out the next stage of evolution for. This hurt because I had spent so much time and energy into working on it. It wouldn’t have been so bad if that person had just said, “Hey, I’m working on something that I know you did before, can you help?” Even if the person was going back to the original concept, yet bringing my ideas to it. It is the ideas that took so much time and energy for me.

Like I said, there is some hurt that is going into my writing today. It’s almost inevitable that it happens when someone writes. We are human beings, we bring ourselves to whatever it is that we are doing. You cannot separate your humanity from your actions. It’s impossible. Like I made mention two weeks ago about the way we treat those in service. Like I made mention last week about how we develop these concepts and assumptions about people. We bring ourselves into everything we do. Maybe I’m just throwing an online tantrum. Maybe I’m getting all worked up over nothing, but that doesn’t assuage my hurt feelings.

With all that being said, I know that there is an underlying problem there. I know that this happens. I know that it’s easy to do because I did it once and try not to anymore. I know that we tend not to see the artist when we look at a piece of art. We forget that those who created are people too. I’ve been working very hard to try to attribute art, photos, and writing to their sources. Sometimes I don’t do it correctly. If you notice something that I did please let me know, I’ll try my best to remedy it and ask for your help as I probably don’t know. Maybe that’s the point of it all. Maybe we all need constructive feedback. We need others to lovingly remind us of when we hurt other people. We need to acknowledge that hurt and try to remedy the issue in the best way that we can. Maybe I’m just hurt, and I don’t know what to do about it other than write.

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The Honest Faith: Religion is for “Girly Men”

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions recently, obviously. This has been a lot larger than I make it out to be in my writings sometimes. I think about where the emotions come from. What are the root issues that have informed these emotions? Why does my brain react in the way that it does? How do I teach my son to be healthy emotionally? How do I deal with emotions in a way that is constructive and healthy myself? How have my emotions impacted my faith? I had been thinking on these topics when I was working on painting my son’s playroom this week.

I like to work out and do work listening to stories. I started listening to audiobooks, and have since started listening to all sorts of Podcasts, I even started my own. I was listing to NPR’s Invisibilia. They are doing a very interesting “concept album” this season and started with emotions. In it they interviewed Lisa Feldman Barrett, who had a somewhat new and very interesting take on emotions. She also builds upon some of the concepts brought up by David Goleman in his book “Emotional Intelligence” This is a quote from that interview:

Your brain is organized in such a way as to [make] anticipatory guesses about what is going to happen next. And this is happening entirely outside of your awareness. You have past experiences, and those experiences become wired into your brain, and then your brain uses those past experiences to make guesses about the immediate future.

So, emotions aren’t happening to you. Your brain makes them as you need them. You are the architect of your own experience. It’s just that most of this is happening outside of your awareness.

This was paired with a story about a car accident in which a family lost a little girl and the trucker who was on the other side. They explored both sides of the story and the emotions of those involved. It was an accident that nobody was really to blame for. The trucker developed PTSD from the accident due to the “constructs” (The word Dr. Barrett used for emotional responses) that were instilled in him from an early age. One of these constructs resonated with me. This was a construct that basically informed him that “a man is always in control.” This is what caused him to believe that he was a killer and that he murdered the little girl by not being able to move the truck out of the way in time. He couldn’t have. This is something that in our society we teach little boys, and reinforce in them from an early age.

I remember growing up that I watched the men in our church and my life. I noticed and was taught, that men don’t show emotion. I was taught that men are supposed to be strong, silent, and take care of their family. This is a societal and gender specific construct that is reinforced from many different angles. The reason the trucker’s story resonated with me, is because I think that is a very similar, if not same, construct that informed my own PTSD and Anxiety. Now, I realize that many people would not view our experiences as similar. I can’t even imagine being in his shoes at the time. But my experiences with the church were very traumatic to me and my own life. This is particular to my situation especially, because I am a man. I am supposed to be in control. I am supposed to provide for my family. I am supposed to be the “bread winner”.

Have you ever noticed how damaging these gender specific, and western societal constructs can be in the context of the church? Think about it. We tell men they are supposed to be in control, but we also tell them to rely on God as God is in control of all things. We tell women to be nurturing and caring leaders, yet we also tell them that God said through the writings of St. Paul that women shouldn’t lead men. I could go on and on, but there is one, in particular, I want to focus on. Men are supposed to be strong, silent, and in control of their feelings. We tell boys that when they cry or when they feel sad that they are to “suck it up” or “be a man”. Yet we also have a few tenants of our religion that require us to be in touch with our emotion.

Have you ever noticed that in our stories about the God-man Jesus, there are very few emotions being expressed? There are two, in particular, that pop into my mind as I sit here and write. One of my favorite verses, in fact, pops into my mind, “Jesus wept.” There is also another story about anger and rage coming from Jesus. The gospel writers told about turning over tables and killing a fig tree because there were no figs. That’s right, God hates figs. Have you ever noticed that we just assume other people’s emotions? There are so many emotional constructs that we have developed in our lives that to sort through them all is a huge task. We assume the other has had the same experience we have and therefore when they display signs of a construct that was developed in our own experience we assume that is what they are “feeling”. I have a problem with assuming. I find it funny that I’m in a job where I have to rid myself of all assumptions in a moment by moment basis.

The (small c) church reinforces that assumptive construct for men. They label those men who are in touch with their feelings as girly, feminine, or an assumptive sexuality preference label. Which as soon as they do they immediately condemn them for that. I was a very emotional kid. I was quite in touch with my emotions and with trying to figure them out. This led to all kinds of assumptions from the adults of my church. Especially about me and my best friend as a teen. We both were more into music, into figuring out feelings, figuring out religion, and trying to figure out exactly who Jesus was. We spent all of our time together and called each other a lot, back in the day where you had landlines. In fact, I can remember my sister calling him my boyfriend quite often. He was my best friend and still is my oldest and closest friend to this day. But there were assumptions made about us without even talking to us. This, like most gossipy topics, spread through the church more than once. It was a bit detrimental to a teenaged boy who was trying to figure things out.

I think that the more we assume things about other people the more we shape the reality for them. How many times has the church shaped reality for those who have been abused or the abusers? How many times has the church shunned a sinner, a divorcee, a pregnant teen, a teen mom, and so on? We make assumptions about them and in turn create constructs that tell them things like, they are unloved, they will never be forgiven, god doesn’t care, and that they are horrible. This creeps in little by little and becomes the tyranical “truth” that it can take years to rewire that reality. The wierd thing about western culture is that we do not do well with conflicting ideas, yet we constantly create them for ourselves. We tell people with our words that we love them, yet our actions say something completely different.

Maybe the church has spent way too much time, energy, and money trying to prevent “sin” instead of making the world a better place. Maybe if we stopped trying to tell people what is good and moral in our own eyes, and started living the love we preach we’d see our reality is not the only one. The Reverend William Barber in an interview on The New Yorker Radio hour said it this way (Honestly, if you have 23 minutes to spare, go listen to it! It’s incredible.) “If your attention is not on dealing with the issues that hurt the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, the left out, the least of these, the stranger, and all of those that are made to feel unacceptable; you don’t have white right-wing evangelicalism. You have heresy!… You have theological malpractice.” We, as a church, built these constructs that said, “No those people cannot come in.” But the huge contradiction was that they were the exact people we were sent to help. We make these constructs telling little boys to be tough and strong and take care of things, yet that’s not how life works. That’s not how relationships work. We tell little girls to be princesses, humble, quiet, and unassuming, but that’s not how life works. We want people to come into the doors of the church, yet we shut and lock the doors before they can get in.

Maybe religion is for those who make assumptions, and are assumed about. Maybe true religion, a real honest faith, happens outside the shrines we’ve built to our own false realities. Maybe what Jesus would look like today is not someone sitting in a pew, or preaching from a pulpit. Maybe Jesus would be out on the street, meeting anyone who happens to talk to him. Handing out food to the hungy. Visiting those in prison. Making sure people see and experience justice. Maybe Jesus has left the building. I don’t know, but these are the thoughts that I’ve had.

My life has been spent trying to fix what other people have thought about me. My life has been shaped by tyranical truth that was built on assumptions. It’s time to rewire my brain and realize that my truth, my reality is what I make of it. I want to make it a good one. I want to make it one where I am generous, kind, in touch with my feelings, fall down sometimes, can graciously accept grace, freely give grace to others, lift others up, and find that just because someone calls me “girly” doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

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The Honest Faith: The Loneliness of Caring

Preface: I know this does not apply to everyone. If it does not, that is wonderful! I hope and pray that the reality I lived is not that that common. If this does ring true for you, this post is for you. I invite you to share a comment or a message to show others this point I’m about to make.


I was in ministry a long time. Even before I was in professional ministry I had my mind and heart set on ministry. I’ve talked about this several times before. There was a newspaper article written about me when I was 14 years old about my desire to want to become a professional minister. I wrote a sermon and entered it into a competition. The headline of the article was, “This teen doesn’t need a sermon, He gives his own.” My tunnel vision toward this goal set me apart at an early age. The rest of the world who thought different of me be damned I was going to be a minister. I was going to change the world.

Last week I wrote about feeling abandoned after my ministry was over. I want to talk this week about the reality that I faced as a minister. Ministry is lonely. There is no way around it, it just is. There are ways to combat that for some, but most feel that weight on a very regular and daily basis. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you actually sat down for a real conversation with someone who cares for people professionally? I mean a real conversation, not one where you are conveying your feelings. One where you are listening to their feelings, actually conversing with them. Those moments where you see the real person beneath the thick armor that so many of us wear. This extends to more than just ministers, but to all who care for people.

Have you ever noticed the humanity of the person taking your order at Chipotle? If your Hotel clerk suddenly changed faces in front of you, would you notice? The chances are, no. There is a thing called change blindness which is commonly attributed to a lack of the human attention span. I see it more as a transactional encounter. When we go expecting to get something for ourselves we tend to only focus on what our own needs are. We don’t see the person in front of us, really. We are seeing, in our mind’s eye, what our goal is; getting food, getting a hotel room, or getting our own feelings met. I’m not commenting on the rightness or wrongness of this, I’m just saying this is something we all do. This extends to those who care for you emotionally, spiritually, physically, etc.

I’m not writing this for those are doing this, I’m writing this for the ones it is being done to. When I was in ministry I realized very quickly how lonely ministry was. The only people you ever really meet or talk to are members of the congregation you work for. You can’t really have a relationship with the members of the congregation, for a lot of different reasons. You can’t cross boundaries. You can’t really be open and honest because you don’t know who will be told next. You can’t play favorites. You must remain professional. You are also, by most, seen as their employee. They know as well as you do that their tithes help keep the church doors open and the staff paid. It is a very lonely position being a servant in a world full of bosses. It was worse when I was single.

For those of you who are single and in ministry positions, I’m sorry. It’s almost impossible to have a modern relationship as a single person in ministry. Most of the people you meet go to your church, so they are right out of the realm of possibility for a relationship for the potential fallout that may happen. Not only that, if you are a Millenial, chances are there are very few people your age that attend that church. So many resort to online dating. For those of you who have never experienced it, it is not fun. I’m sure it hasn’t aged well either. Most people in ministry know that you are more likely to live far away from family and friends as that is where the work is. It makes it much harder for a life outside.

We were told many times in college to have a life outside of the church. That is much easier said than done. Most in professional youth ministry have a shelf life of 18 months. If you are like me you have been at several different churches over the course of your career. Those churches aren’t close together either. Like I said before, you go where the work is. It’s hard to make a life or put down roots in a place you aren’t sure if you are going to be for long. You attempt to make friends, but you know full well in the deepest part of you that you may be leaving again. This leads to a deeper isolation. Especially, if you are an introvert like myself.

There are articles everywhere about why the church is a bad place for introverts. (here is a good one). Someone once told me that they didn’t believe introverts were a thing, and I just needed to get over my aversion to being with people. I don’t think they were quite accurate in their assessment. It is not that I was adverse to people, it was that I didn’t feel like I could trust anyone in the church. There have been many instances in my life before, during, and after ministry where I trusted the wrong people and made my feelings known. This very often is taken out of context and used against you in the worst way possible. It is very damaging. This causes many introverts to revert even further into themselves.

I don’t want this post to be a pity party for me. I want to speak truth to a reality that I faced and one, I pray, not many have and are facing as well. So this post is meant to reach out to those in ministry, who care for others, nurses, social workers, teachers, and other service industries. I want to tell you that I see you. I hear you. You are not alone. You can trust me. I mean really, who would I tell that matters? I don’t have any friends, :P. I know how lonely caring can be. I know that you feel empty a lot of the time. I know there isn’t much that fills you, especially after you have been beaten down.

It wasn’t until I was given permission from my therapist, (I know I talk about therapy a lot. But really it’s just so that you know it’s normal and okay to ask for help) that I realized that it is okay to take care of myself. I am a person, too. My thoughts, my feelings, and me myself matter, too. There was a phrase that came to mind recently that encapsulates this rather well for me. Like the airlines say, you must affix your own breathing apparatus before attempting to help others. You can only help someone else so much if you are unable to help yourself. I think I learned this way too late. This is something I’m struggling to find in my transition into the outside world. I still feel so much mistrust and aversion to being myself outside, but it’s okay. I will continue to tell myself that I matter. My thoughts and feelings matter, too.

So to you care-er of people, I say you matter. Your thoughts and feelings matter, too. No matter how out there your thoughts and feelings are, they matter. It is okay to share them with someone else. It is okay to cry sometimes. It is okay to be yourself. It is more than okay for you to take time for yourself. It is okay for you to take care of yourself. Your life does not have to be lived solely in the care of others. Life is meant to be lived. I know how hard it is to do that. I know how hard it is to let go of the mistrust and aversion when you have been damaged so badly. I know, because I’m going through it too. You are not alone. You matter.

You are not alone. You Matter

You are not alone. You matter

Affix your own breathing apparatus, before attempting to help someone else.

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The Honest Faith: Abandonment Issues

My whole life I lived under the impression that I was meant for something. I wholeheartedly believed that I was “destined” or “fated” for a grand purpose or plan that had yet to be revealed to me. For the longest time, I believed that meant the youth ministry that I was called to. I wasn’t bad at it. I was an excellent youth minister, that doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes from time to time. This was my calling. This was my destiny. This was all I was fated to do with my life… Until it wasn’t.

One of the problems I see in the Christian church is it confuses vocation, occupation, and self-worth or self-Identity. There are some of us going in with delusions of grandeur, thinking that through our career we will change the world. Others have issues with power, control, and a need to be right. There were times that I recognized this in myself and took steps to keep those desires separate from my professional life. Didn’t always work. I had a lot to work on in my life, this seemed like such a minor issue most days. That was of course until it wasn’t a minor issue anymore.

The hardest part of this transition out of ministry for me has been this issue. My identity, self-worth, occupation, vocation, and so much more were wrapped up so tightly together in the youth ministry package. This was so bad that I could not see myself as anything other than a minister for such a long time. It took a lot of work to unpack that bundle. I would have said I was fairly successful thus far until I uncovered this issue. Until, as we were working on our podcast for the week, I realized I felt abandoned by the Divine.

I felt that God called me to ministry. I felt extremely confident in that. I knew that I was meant for this purpose. I was good at it. That purpose pushed me to be the best that I could be at it. I gave a large portion of my life to ministry. I gave much more than it gave back, but that didn’t matter to me. To me, it was part of the grand plan. It was something that was meant for me just as I was meant for it. These ideas consumed me. When I encountered walls and the eventual end of this purpose I felt abandoned. If God chose me, why would God allow this to happen to me?

Now, I’m not saying I wasn’t called for a time. Who am I to say that wasn’t true for the time I was a part of that? Maybe I’m just called to be a writer with an insurance habit now. What I am saying is that we place too much importance on those things we assume are God’s will. So much so that when something terrible happens to the contrary that we assume that was God’s will as well. That in some way God allowed the terrible to happen to us. We feel abandoned by a loving and caring God because our image of that God would not have allowed such.

There has been a big argument against the existence of the Divine, asking if there were an all-loving and all-powerful Divine being, why would it allow things like disease, famines, suffering, and all sorts of terrible things to happen. This has spurred on many apologists over the years, as if God needed a defense. There have been theologians who have speculated that the Divine chose to not be all knowing so that we may have free will, in order to work around the problem. There have been many different excuses all made in order that in some way we could blame the divine for the problems that we, a lot of the time, create. Some of the problems are nature. It happens some things just suck. That’s not to say a divine being caused it. That’s how the ancients believed, haven’t we evolved past that? I tend to think that the Divine is all knowing but also all present. That the Divine stands beside or behind us whatever we may need. It’s our decision to do what we will and the Divine either shakes its metaphorical head or cheers us on depending on what we do. The Divine waits to delight in what we do.

Maybe, just maybe, the Divine hasn’t abandoned us. Maybe the Divine never stopped loving us. Maybe the Divine decided to let us figure things out on our own in order that we may learn and grow. Maybe. What if we weren’t meant for anything, but rather everything was meant for us? What if the Divine just wants for us to enjoy the life we were given, and make the most of what we have while we have it?

I am often reminded of the parable of the talents. Most often this is read during the “stewardship” season in many mainline denominations. I feel it is taken way out of context to be used as such. If you read the passages around it, you have a sense of apocalyptic feeling to the teaching. It is telling you to prepare for the end. It goes on to talk about the judgment of the sheep and goats. What does Jesus tell us separates the sheep from the goats? Kindness, He tells us that the sheep cared for the least of these. That is the given context for the talents and bridesmaids. To prepare for the “night” to invest the “talents” we are to be kind to the least of these. There are themes of abandonment in these stories, but they only happen to those who turn a blind eye or hide away from the task given to them.

I think that when I feel such abandonment I need to take a look back and ask myself, not did I do the best that I could at the job. I need to ask myself was I kind? Did I treat the least of these with love and compassion? Did I give all that I could for those in need? If I did, I was never abandoned. I’m not a big fan of that footsteps poem. In fact, I’m more of a fan of Kris Straub’s interpretation. He wrote a little blurb beneath the comic about more teaching a baby to walk than carrying. That resonates so much with me as my son is just learning to walk. I know I need to let him try on his own, but I’m so afraid he will fall and hurt himself. The thing is, if I were to carry him he wouldn’t learn to walk. If I were to help him gain confidence on his feet by supporting him he will eventually be able to do it without the support. I look forward to the day that he can and he will take my hand out of wanting the support, rather than needing it.

I’m starting to see that the Divine didn’t abandon me. I just couldn’t see the Divine because, during this time, the Divine flew behind me and supported me to help me learn to walk on my own. We have not been abandoned. We are being taught to walk. Sometimes we may fall and get a “bonk” but as me and my wife are constantly telling our son, “Bonks happen”. We may feel like the abandoned house that is pictured above, but we are just being renovated from the inside out. We can’t see it, as it is very difficult to see within ourselves, but it’s happening. I feel like the Divine wants so much for us to want support rather than needing it. Isn’t it better that someone loves you and asks for your help out of choice rather than demanding it? I don’t believe the Divine abandoned the world. I believe the Divine is ever present in all that is around us, cheering us on, supporting us, believing in us that one day we may walk on our own.

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The Honest Faith: Theory as Truth

(okay, okay I know I should have titled it hypothesis as truth but it didn’t have the same alliterative ring to it. )

Lately, Cathy (my wife) and I have been watching Bill Nye’s new tv series on Netflix “Bill Nye Saves the World.” A few nights ago was an episode on pseudo-science. On his panel of experts, he had an Astrologist Samuel F. Reynolds. Reynolds, in my opinion, held his own with the scientists on the panel. He made a claim that I felt was very profound. He said, “in order for astrology to be a pseudo-science, I would have to first believe that it’s a science. I don’t believe it’s a science.” He then went on to say it is an interpretive art. This changed the conversation to which Nye and the other scientists kept trying to defend the point of it being a psuedo-science. It was a beautiful clip, not because I believe in astrology, but because I saw the truth in what Reynolds was saying.

Have you ever wondered at how we know things about God, the Christian Bible, the way the trinity works, or any other deep theological thought? I have. As a youth minister I was put to task by teenagers almost every single week with, “Well how do you know?” I remember that there was this almost defensive answer at the ready  every time, “That’s why we have faith.” But I knew even then. All that we know of God, the soul, the spirit, and most of our religion is just best educated guesses. Most of our religious experiences could not be replicated in a lab, or if they are it is by some other means.

Earlier in the episode, Nye talked about the scientific method and how to turn a hypothesis into theory. You set out to disprove yourself, not to prove yourself. I have thought a lot about that in relation to my life over the past 7 months. I have set out to prove my faith and find what is truth and what is so many educated guesses. If you were to read back on my writings since I began doing a weekly post you may see some of my growths and failings. But as Socrates allegedly stated, “The un-examined life is not worth living.”

I was recently talking about this very thing. In this conversation I brought up this idea of theory as truth that I had been thinking about since I watched that episode. She brought up how most things in our lives that are just theories end up presenting themselves as truth whether they are or not. She also said that what is true for someone else may not always be the absolute truth. She had a statement about those of us who ended up believing someone else’s truth about ourselves. She said, “You’ve just been suffering under the tyranny of their truth.” That stuck with me and flipped the light switch that I’ve been trying to flip all week on what to write about.

I enjoyed Reynolds’ take on astrology because I believe it is true for a lot of things that we take for absolute truth. Many things are just an “interpretive art” seeing the cosmos as one way and you may take from it what you will. I mean that is what art is after all right? A piece that is meant to help evoke a feeling. Something meant to bring aesthetic pleasure, a visceral or emotional response, and/or a deeper meaning to a certain topic or idea. In the Kabbalah understanding this relates to the spirit level of our soul.

In his book “God is a Verb” Rabbi David A. Cooper writes about the 5 major categories of consciousness according to Kabbalah. He writes: “Ruach means ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’. It is associated with elementary consciousness and information that moves through the senses… Our ‘spirituality’ is founded upon the ruach level of the soul. It inexpressibly moves us to tears when we are touched by a poem, a glance, a work of art, or a simple moment in nature.” Granted a lot of what he is saying seems to go over my head since I come from a Christian background, but this part makes sense. I think that to me these things are mirrors meant to show us the deeper points of our own soul. (See last week’s conversation on my questioning what the soul is)

Here is a controversial question for you. If your church service isn’t helping you to better yourself or the world around you, why do you go? Isn’t the purpose of religion to really be a mirror to help us connect with the Divine who, as even Rabbi Cooper puts it in his book, resides in some of the deepest places in our own soul? I think if you are going just to be entertained on a Sunday morning, you can find a much more entertaining venue. If you are going just to appear religious, why? to what end? If you go to try and connect with the deeper parts of yourself, in an effort to find a connection to the Divine, I believe, you are going for the right reason.

My therapist, (Surprise! That was who I was conversing with about that above) comes from a Jewish background. We had a great conversation regarding religion, because that made me so much of who I am. In it I had an errant thought about Jesus. She had mentioned about the idea of masters of faith having put their own pieces of the Divine back together within themselves. That is why we can see so much of the Divine in them. So I wondered aloud about Jesus. Maybe Jesus was so in tune with the deepest parts of Himself and the Divine parts that resided within His soul that is what made him the messiah to us Christians. She thought about it a moment and agreed. Saying maybe that is what He meant for us to do, that we are to connect with the Divine in ourselves and each other.

When I started to think of religion as an interpretive art a lot of things started making a bit more sense to me. It began clarifying how we tend to see other’s theories (read hypothesis’) as truth. Including about our own selves. If someone sees us as imperfect and horrible there is a part of us that tends to believe that truth for ourselves isn’t there? As I’ve written several times about seeing the Divine in each other and the world around us, when we don’t recognize that God lives within the other we are hurting that part of them as well. We are hurting the Divine, instead of putting those pieces back together. When we believe the theories as truth we diminish the power of the Divine in our own souls. We let go of that part of ourselves and it becomes that much harder to connect with.

I love art. I love art of all kinds. I especially like renaissance and medieval religious pieces. The reason I do is because I think the artist put so much of themselves in their depiction of the Divine. I even love the creepy man baby things that are supposed to be baby Jesus? I have stated before about why I love mosaics and stained glass pieces. I love art because I feel it is a mirror to show us the deeper parts of ourselves. Those parts that are yearning to be put back together again. The parts that are waiting at the center of the maze for us to come and spend time with us.

So with all that being said, my big takeaway from my writing this week is for you to find something that holds a mirror up to yourself this week. Even in church! Find what the Divine is trying to tell you in that piece. Take that message. Examine it. Try to prove it wrong. Maybe that message is that you don’t have to suffer under the tyranny of somebody else’s truth any longer.

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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.

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Honest Faith: Hate the Sin

Growing up I heard a phrase over and over. It was repeated ad-nauseum when I was in college as well. This phrase, I believe, has lead a lot of Christians and converts to think the wrong things about our morality system. I bet even before I write it here you know what it is, probably because half of it is in the title, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” There is so much wrong in that little phrase that I think it, along with a few other things, have allowed us to justify hate as commonplace and a “good” thing.

My mind on my sin, and my sin on my mind

There was a song that I was taught in Sunday School growing up. It goes like this:

O be careful little eyes what you see

O be careful little eyes what you see

There’s a Father up above

And He’s looking down in love

So, be careful little eyes what you see

The song continues with other body parts that may do things that cause you to sin. Thinking back on this, why don’t I have a larger anxiety and paranoia complex than I already do? Anyway, this is something they taught children. That God, like Santa, was always watching to make sure that you were a good little child. I grew up being very, very careful to make sure I didn’t do anything (I really wanted to end the sentence here) that would be even remotely considered a sin. I’ve talked about the whole Goats and Sheep thing before.

Why have we become so consumed with stopping ourselves from sinning? There is this story about Martin Luther talking to his student Melancthon. The story goes that Melancthon had come to Luther asking about sin and expressing his anxieties about doing anything. Martin Luther says to him, “Be a sinner, and sin strongly.” He went on to tell him that Christ is stronger than that. Jesus himself even said that he didn’t care that much about the laws and people keeping them. He cared if people “Love[d] the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul even reiterates that in Romans. We aren’t to be concerned with sin. I’ve talked about this manufactured guilt before.

No, Jesus came that we might have life, and have it to the fullest. That means that we aren’t to be concerning ourselves with whether or not someone sins. NO! It means that we are to live our lives fully joyous and triumphant in the grace that has been bestowed on us. Jesus even said that we should be more concerned about the planks in our own eyes rather than the speck in someone elses. So we should be much less concerned if someone else is sinning… I’m starting to see a whole breakdown in the logic of that phrase already. If we aren’t supposed to be concerned about sin why should we hate it?

Haters gonna Hate

Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater. –George Washington Carver

I found something today. I suspected it, but until I did a search to confirm it, I didn’t fully know. I did some fact checking, a habit all of you should commit yourselves to. Jesus never once told us to hate something. Did you know that? Jesus mentions hate a few times, and even says something about hating your family, but never tells people to directly hate something. You know the only times that I see Jesus hating things is when something isn’t doing what it claims to do. Especially a certain fig tree. God hates figs…

I had a friend in college, he’s still my friend (kinda) as much as you can count facebook friends that you kind of just keep tabs on their lives through social media posts, who got the word HATE tattooed on his arm, in french. He said that it was because it was the only hate he wanted in his life. I thought a lot about that. I thought about how a little bit of hate tends to spiral out of control very quickly. I don’t think his tattoo grew, but I think that any hate in our lives can begin to catch other things on fire with the flames of that original piece of hate. As the phrase goes, “Haters gonna hate”. I used to tell my students about how I didn’t want to use that word anymore. I feel like the fact that we overuse it leads us to minimize how powerful a word and thing hate really is. If we hate something small and leave it unchecked it can turn to a raging forest fire of hate.

No, you see Jesus saying over, and over, and over, and over, and over for us to LOVE. And by golly do we go and put the opposite word in His mouth. There were so many things that Jesus told us to love, and to do that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the opposite. Hate has no place in the mind and heart of a Christ follower. Hate can destroy people. So why would you wreck yourself over something that someone else is doing? You’ve got your own problems to deal with! That small hate of the sin ends up becoming a hate for the person. So why be so concerned with it? Is it because you want everyone to follow your own morality system?

Do you believe that someone has to believe in God to have morals or good conscience?

I had a former student contact me because I posted something about having writer’s block on Facebook. If you enjoyed my post on Mass Effect let me know, I’m not super confident in it, but as you know I gave up doubting myself for lent. So he gave me a prompt. The prompt is something that he’s constantly confronted with in his Poli-Sci courses in college. The thing is I think that is what this phrase boils down to, the western church’s obsession with being the morality police.

I don’t believe that Christianity has the market cornered on morality either.Really, almost every major religion has a “golden rule”. They all tend to be very similar. What is truly interesting though is how those religions have all taken their turn to be a “morality authority” and have ended up committing some horrible things in the name of their religion. The crusades, the Spanish inquisition (didn’t expect that one did you?), and the holocaust are all examples of when Christianity in the morality police position has failed to an extent that should make us never want to be in that position again. I could name a few that other religions have committed, but we are talking about the Christian church at the time being.

Humans are flawed that is a major point in almost any morality code and religion. We fall short of perfection. Many of us don’t come close. One of the weirdest things I’ve discovered in my few short years of being a human, some of the best people I know don’t follow a religion. They aren’t concerned about their sins, or their failings. They live their lives the best way they know how. Some of their stories are inspirational and uplifting. Some are just “everyday” people. One thing is common in each of them, though. They have a genuine love for their fellow human being. That is what they concern themselves with.

My answer to that question above is this, nope. It’s not my concern whether or not someone believes in God. My concern is with myself, and how I can show love the best way that I can to my fellow human being. I don’t think that any religion has the whole morality story either. If you believe in a God or don’t doesn’t say whether or not you have a moral code. It also doesn’t preclude you to having a good moral code either. Some of the meanest people I know claim to be religious.

Love the sinner- The End

That phrase needs an update sorely. It is rather sad that this is something that we need to be reminded of. I think we just have to drop everything after the first word. Love. That’s it. Love. There are scriptures, not just of Christian origin, that speak ofthe power of love. In fact, the Christian scriptures even say that “God is LOVE” The great philosopher and poet Heuy Lewis once sang a whole song about the power of love. As he says in the song you don’t need money, you don’t need fame, You don’t need no credit card to ride this train. I think we as Christ followers need to be more concerned about spreading the message of love rather than hating anything. But that’s just me.

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Honest Faith: A God that Suffers

Back in November, I was having a conversation with a priest. I was telling him about how I was angry and upset. I was angry and upset about several things; the state of the world, my personal situation, and the political climate. We got on to talking about images of God. He said that the traditional image of God had become increasingly outdated and inefficient for the modern world. He, even though he didn’t like putting it this way, said we need a “God for Millenials”. He went on to explain that we need a new image that is more accessible and available for people in the digital age. He said he was really playing with the idea and becoming more comfortable with the image of a God that experienced things with each of us and was with each of us in a much more real way than we could fathom. I think he was onto something.

I think I’ve mentioned before that God was my imaginary friend as a child. I often would picture God with me taking walks, having chats, and just sit with me in a very real way. Or as real as a child’s imagination can make something. I began to slowly break from that image of God growing up due to different circumstances. I began to imagine God much bigger than me. Which is the normal default image of God. A being that is bigger and much more powerful than we can imagine. The problem with this image is that a big God is impersonal, unfeeling, and uncaring. This became my default for God. A being that was out there, but didn’t care about me and my little problems. There was a certain phrase that I heard repeatedly that reinforced that image in my mind.

I was a pretty annoying kid. I’m probably still a pretty annoying adult as well. But I went through a pretty rough patch when I was a teenager. I turned to the people I knew at church for help and I heard a phrase that I would continue to hear throughout my adult life as well. “I’ll pray about it.” I used to tell the teenagers that I worked with that if anyone at church, or even if I, said that to them they had my permission to slap them. It reinforces the part of the Big God image that is distant and uncaring. I understand it was a way for people to distance themselves from me and my problems. I even understand why they would do that, but I think that in doing so to the least and most annoying of us we moved the church. The church became distant, individualist, and impersonal.

We are in a defining moment for the western Church. Do we continue with this image of being distant, individualist, and impersonal; slowly becoming a cult of the uncaring god? OR Do we change our image of God to broaden what we once thought to be true, becoming more inclusive, including, and caring? I realize that nothing is every as black and white as that, but I see that there are a lot of issues that seem to be pulling the church in both directions. Just the other day a prominent “Christian” (sorry, I can’t judge this person, but what he says and his actions speak in a different voice to me) leader said that if we don’t fall in line and support the country’s leader we were going against god. To me, that seems very cult like and a product of an impersonal image of God. I see some other prominent church leaders who are pushing us to think bigger and stretch our thinking of God during this time to be more inclusive. Those voices I appreciate.

Right now in this country, we are being called to help those who are suffering or asked to ignore it. We are asked to believe lies as fact or to stand up to falsehoods. We are called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; or ignore, be selfish and distance ourselves.

The image that the priest and I talked about a few months ago has stayed with me. For the first time since I was a child, I was able to picture God with me in a very real way. I broke down emotionally on my drive out to meet with the priest. I cried about all that I was upset and angry about. I yelled at God. After we talked about that image, I could picture God sitting next to me in the car. God was crying with me. God was upset like I was upset. This God was both my God and everyone’s God at the same time. It was as if God divided Godself to be with each of us. To be alongside all of creation at the same time. This was a beautiful picture to me. It was the picture that informed my ideas about Putting God Back together. 

This is not an image of God that excludes the “Big God” but clarifies it. This God is both everywhere and outside this reality at the same time. This is a God that suffers when we suffer, who is alongside the protester at the march, who is building a habitat for humanity house alongside former President Jimmy Carter, who is helping refugees in foreign lands weeping with them over their losses, who is celebrating alongside those who celebrate. This is a God that is both your God and My God, but much bigger than that too. A God that tasked us with Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. A God that knows you can do it because that God is right there beside you doing the work with you as you do it.

I know this a stretching idea. I know that this is a little bit of a different image, because it asks you to think outside yourself. It’s uncomfortable to think about other people. It’s dangerous to go against the norm. But I invite you to get to know the God who has been beside you all along. The God who suffers with you.

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Honest Faith: Get up, Stand up

There is an older Christian Rock song (I know not my preferred genre of music anymore) that went like this:

This is a revolution…
It starts with me and ends at the back of the church…
This is a common solution for you and me…

This is a revolution…
Let us change the world ’til all nations see..
There is no confusion for you and me…

There was a trend in the nineteen nineties for “Christian” music groups to write or produce songs about a revolution of Christianity. Moving from a church that just talked about religion and never did anything to a movement of actually doing something. If you don’t believe me just check out some of them: Revolution by Kirk Franklin, Shine by The Newsboys, Boy on a String by Jars of Clay, Song and Dance by The Normals, What have we become by DC Talk, Unite by The O.C. Supertones, Hands and Feet by Audio Adrenaline, and I could go on and on…

When I was younger this was all I listened to. I listened to these Christian artists who talked a lot about Christianity being about action and service. I know that there were many of us Christian Millenials who grew up with this stuff, as awful as that was. We got the message that faith without works was dead. Which so often went very contrary to the other message the church (small c) was feeding us. We were so often told to lead moral and “good” lives before helping people.

The “Moral” Christianity became the norm for so long that not many questioned it as being the thing that Jesus intended for the church. We became a faith of the inwardly focused that cared more about how we looked in front of other people rather than how much we were doing for those people. It was a religion that certainly was transformative in its own way but it was not Christian. It was a religion that limited life instead of giving it.

I knew there was something wrong with this message. I knew it way back in high school when I was the president of the Bible Club. I knew that there was something that we needed to be doing, but I didn’t know what it was. So many of those songs I listened to talked about a Love that transformed and pushed Jesus people to help those who were hurting and dying. I knew that is what I wanted to do with my life, but I didn’t know what that looked like. I knew I wanted to be a part of a Love Revolution. (ps. I was using that phrase way before Ron Paul)

When I was in college I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Jay Bakker talk to a convention for youth workers. He was as surprised as many of the youth workers were that he was asked to be a keynote speaker. He is the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In 1994 Bakker helped to start a church that was a different kind of church. It was/is called Revolution Church. Anyway, he was asked to come and talk to this room full of youth workers. He used his time, and then some, to talk about how the church was not a museum. He said the Church was a hospital. A place where hurting people could help other hurting people. Not caring about appearance, sexuality, morality, or any of that other stuff. It was a place where unconditional love happened. A place where anyone can come and God would show up. It was that moment that I knew what the Revolution was. Love was the revolution.

It was so much more than just the fire insurance, morality than I was taught growing up. Love God, Love others, and love yourself. So simple yet we wanted to complicate it with all these other rules and regulations. Jesus often talked about how the gospel was that the kingdom is here and now. Jesus talked about coming that we may have life and have it to the fullest. He talked about a love that would lay its own life down for its fellow man. A love that accepted all and couldn’t help but to meet others where they were at. A love that didn’t boast. A love that St. Paul went on to talk about:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

That is what the Gospel is about. The Gospel is a God that loved humanity so damn much that God could not help but to come down and be among God’s creation. A God that loved so damn much that God couldn’t help but to die for those created beings. A God that commanded us to do the same.

God never told us to be selective. God never said only love those who fit into a certain mold. God never told us to change people to fit that mold. God never said that we should take care of our own. God never said that the love was conditional. God never told us to stay still and silent about that love. God told us to share that love by being sheep.

We’ve come to a pivotal moment in our faith where we need a revolution. It’s time to stand up for what we know to be right. St. Francis has a phrase that is often attributed to him which goes, “Preach the Gospel to all the world, if necessary use words.” I felt like I needed to share what the Gospel was in words again because for some reason it appears we forgot. We got so afraid of other people, we got so consumed with what was “ours” that we forgot that it was about each other. It was about love. It was about stepping out of our pews getting up and showing that love to our fellow man. We got comfortable with our self-centered approach to faith that we forgot that faith was an action verb. We turned it into a noun. I write all this because it’s time, as Bob Marley put it, we Get up, stand up. We need to get up, and stand up for the rights of our fellow man. We cannot give in to fear, hate, and despair. It’s a revolution that starts with you and ends at the back of the church. It will change the world, because love can and does change the world. Love is the revolution! intro 10-12-11

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