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: A New Family

Two weeks ago, Cathy and I went to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. The main theme question has stuck with me. It asks the question, “What defines family?”. We explored this a bit in our podcast this week, but yet again that is a topic that I want to further explore in the terms of my faith and my transition into “normalcy” in the church world. What constitutes a family, spiritual or otherwise?

I love my biological family. No, we haven’t always been the best of people toward each other, but what family is? My mother tried her hardest to keep a family together and raise three kids under difficult circumstances. My father worked hard to provide for his family even when things seemed bleak. My brother who was and is still my best friend from birth didn’t always enjoy my company. My sister who, I think, still sees me as her nerdy uncool little brother did her best to try to help me be somewhat presentable to society. We had rough times, but there was an abundance of love there. So much that even though we didn’t have much we welcomed others to share it with us. Now, even though my mom doesn’t find it that funny, my favorite joke is that my family dislikes each other so much that’s why we chose to live in so distant of places from each other. That joke is funny to me because it is so far from the truth. There is love there. Despite our differences, we are blood. We fought with each other, but we also fought for each other.

My non-biological grouping of people I consider to be family comes to mind as well. There is my friend who I’ve known since I was 13 years old. He is and will always be my brother. He was the best man at my wedding. There is the priest who believed in me when it seemed nobody else would, it seemed. He and his family are blood to me as well. There is my friend who had secret plans to set up my wife and me way before we started dating. She was a sister to me. I miss her dearly and still converse with her even though she is now having beers with the Divine on the other side. Those youth who I had the immense pleasure of teaching throughout my career, I still view as family and people I would do anything for.

There is an interpretive art that is commonly accepted as a pattern called soul mates or soul families. There are many different interpretations of this idea. Some believe that you were all connected in a previous lifetime and find each other again in this life. Pretty Idea, but I’m not really a believer in past lives hypothesis’. Another interpretation is that a spirit is re-used in different people. Again, not a concept that I can get behind, but I still see some merit in the thought. But my favorite is that some feel that those whom we feel such a close connection with is that our souls are formed with similar pieces.

There is a saying that is still contested on it’s meaning, “Blood is thicker than water.” It’s commonly known to mean that your family bonds are thicker than those other relationships. Another interpretation is that the bonds formed through “Blood”, such as fighting alongside someone in battle, are thicker than the water of the womb. I can see the truth in both interpretations of the saying. But I want to take the second interpretation a step further.

The Christian and Jewish scriptures often refer to the Divine as being a refiner, or refining. They use terms from metallurgy to describe the process. If you have ever been in a Christian church you have probably heard some person refer to a tough situation as a refining process, maybe even in a sermon. The problem with that is you never want to hear that at the time. It certainly doesn’t help. The thing is, though, I can see it as such now. Those times in our lives when we encounter the fires of life they teach us to get rid of the impurities in our lives. Or if you would rather a different construction metaphor, it sands down the rough edges of our souls so that we may better find connections with each other.

I think that our souls are formed through the experiences in our lives. We find people who have been through some of the same refining processes that we have and we are able to fit together easier because of it. It doesn’t mean that we find a lot of things to connect on, but we do connect with those people especially because of the sanding down of those particular rough edges. We will find others in our lives who we don’t connect with particularly because they still have those rough edges in those areas where we’ve been tempered and refined.

Our biological families connect well because we go through the same fires together, we form non-biological connections because those “others” have gone through similar fires and have similar connection points in their souls. The danger we face as human beings are only examining one aspect of another. We tend to focus on only one part of a person and not see the whole. When we can see other human beings as complex beings like ourselves we can begin to find the similar connection points. We all have connection points though some are a lot harder to find than others. Okay, I realize that this metaphor is getting really double entendre-y really quick. Bear with me though.

I think family is everywhere. Family is ready to happen at a moments notice. You just have to look for it sometimes.  As Peter Quill in the new Guardians movie puts it, “Sometimes, the thing you’ve been looking for your whole life is right there beside you all along.” I think you can make connections with anyone. I think family really is in the eye of the beholder. I will always have my biological family, but there are others I still consider to be family to me. I think that is what the Church is meant to be. It is meant to be that community that we consider to be family. Not just those other people we happen to see at a worship gathering. People who will love, support, and fight with us (even if we fight each other sometimes) no matter what. That is what makes a family to me. What do you think?

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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 Center of the Maze

This last week my wife and I finished up watching HBO’s “Westworld”. If you enjoy heady science fiction, westerns, or shows that you can get lost in it’s a wonderful show. There is a lot within the show. In fact, our most recent podcast (found here) is about that show. Of course we only just touched on the immense topics that are found within. But the one question that came up in our conversation, and while watching the show is this question of “What is sentience?”

Now you could go with the standard definition which is still rather vague and confusing or go with the classic redefinition of theologians into what we call the soul. So then what is the soul? We have heard that we are triune beings in the image of the trinity, comprised of body, spirit, and soul. But does that make it any easier to understand? I don’t think I have ever really found it easy to understand myself. I had someone explain it to me like this once, the body is obviously your physical being, the spirit is your personality, and the soul is the very thing that is you. I think people interchange the three sometimes. I’m still a little unclear on the lines of delineation, but I want to explore the idea of the soul this week.

I was struck by a different interpretation of the genesis creation narrative that I had not heard before when doing research on the philosophy of “Westworld”. This interpretation was to say that eating of the fruit in the garden was the gaining of sentience. This intrigued me because that would mean that the Judeo-Christian tradition has always viewed the soul as a bad thing, subconsciously. That it stems from the idea of original sin, and that everything bad came about from that moment. The Judeo-Christian narrative as a retelling of pandora’s box.  Does that mean we believe everything that has a soul is inherently bad? Is the knowledge of good and evil a bad thing? I struggled with this a bit on the show.

The show plays with the idea of bicameralism, and quite openly I might add. Julian Jaynes presented the idea in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. While it is not generally accepted by modern psychologists, it is an interesting concept to play with. The hypothesis states, if you didn’t already click the link above to find out more, that the human mind assumed a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be “speaking”, and a second part which listens and obeys. Jaynes’ idea was that these auditory hallucinations are what the early human civilizations attributed to the ancient gods and when this started breaking down that is when those civilizations started breaking apart. While I don’t believe in this idea fully, it is an interesting thought to play within the idea of the soul or consciousness.

I wrongly (See, I admit when I am wrong in an idea) wrestled with the idea that some humans may not have consciousness in our show on Sunday. I was still wrestling with the idea of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil being a symbol for consciousness and the depth of that. I started venturing deeper into that idea, as you can see thus far, I started to think about what really separates human beings from other living things. I know this is something that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for millennia and one idealistic writer isn’t going to figure it out in a week sitting on the couch watching tv. But I was struck with a thought. Maybe, just maybe, what separates us from other living things is nothing. That the thing we call the soul is really the spark of the Divine that resides in all living creatures.

Maybe that still small voice in our minds is the Divine speaking through our own conscience. Maybe when we didn’t have so much noise around us demanding our attention we were much more able to listen to what the Divine had to say, auditorily or not. Is it possible that it is still there waiting to have a conversation with us? Somewhere within us?

There is an ancient spiritual tradition of a walking prayer that is seen in many different cultures around the world. You have the Nazca lines in Peru, even in ancient Minoan, Greek, and Egyptian cultures this idea of a maze or labyrinth that one focuses on following in an attempt to quiet the mind and soul (or spirit and soul if you’d like) in an attempt to commune with the Divine. In medieval Christian traditions, the labyrinth was a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth). Or it was also a trap for demons because they can’t figure out mazes for some reason, but I like the God metaphor more. There are also people who believe they were symbols to communicate with aliens, but again let’s stick with the God metaphor.

Maze walking, I like to believe, has been a form of meditation since human beings have been around. Meditation has always been about calming the mind and body to reach a higher level of understanding. I would like to believe that higher level of understanding is a communion with the Divine. I have often mentioned before that I believe the Divine is everywhere, and in everything. I would like to believe that all of Creation communes with the Divine in its own unique way. We can see that each form of meditation works differently for different people. Labyrinths have always been a favorite of mine. It gives me something to focus on to quiet my body and mind. I do believe that the Divine can and does communicate with those who are willing to listen.

This is certainly a very turbulent time for very many people. I know I wrote about some very headache inducing topics this week, but I want to stick with this idea. Maybe the soul is the spark of the Divine that resides in you. Maybe you just need to calm your body and spirit enough in your own unique way to find the center of the maze and commune with it. Maybe it is there sitting, waiting for you to meet with it. Maybe. Maybe I’m just an idealistic writer with an errant thought while watching tv.

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The Honest Faith: What is Hate?

Last week a friend of mine asked me, regarding a meme I posted on my facebook page, “What is hate?” She asked this to get clarification on the context of my position regarding that particular post. She went on to clarify that she doesn’t particularly like the use of the word “hate” when it pertains to a difference of opinion. Particularly for the same reason that I explained I didn’t. I started to think a lot about that question and on another meme that I had posted a few weeks prior to that which was shared by the facebook page “The Celtic Christian Tradition” I posted it as the featured image this week.

This has stuck in my brain this week due to an encounter I had last week. I had a moment where I got very upset with someone. I was trying very hard not to do so, but they just somehow got under my skin. I brought this up in therapy, thinking that you know, it would be a place where the person you are talking to would back you up. Much to my surprise and chagrin in the moment, my therapist kept working to help me see the divinity in the other individual. I know right? How awful that I have to be the bigger human being. This informed my response to my friend a few days later.

My response was this, “Hate is dehumanization or not seeing the worth of the other.” To which I wish to edit now to say, Hate is refusing to see the Divinity in everything. I know that this country is a rough place to live psychologically speaking. I know that a lot of our problems are very first world problems. I know that we have so many differences with other people that we want to refuse the image of the divine in them or other things so that in some way we can be right. So why is it so easy to do?

I wish I had the answer to this. I know I’ve written many times before about our addiction to pride, our love affair with violence, and even our quest to see the Divine in everything. These are just bits of the problem I feel. I don’t have the answer to the question of why it’s easy to refuse the divine, or why we insist on continuing to do it. I know that I’m guilty of this. I know that a very wide swath of us writers are guilty of this too. I discovered this a few weeks ago with my controversial post about the status quo and the modern church. Anger gets readers. Controversy sells. We are sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for the next thing to push us off so that we can take action.

I’m not going to lie, I mean I am the writer of the honest faith blog after all, I’m guilty of this all the time. There is a man that I would love to refuse to see the divine in. In fact, there isn’t a day that passes that he does something to make me dislike him more. If I were to write his name I’d have about 60 to 70 percent of you agreeing with me on this. The problem is that the divine loves him too. I’m sure the divine isn’t happy with some of the things this man is doing or saying, but this man is a beloved creation of the divine. But I can’t pretend to even imagine what the spiritual life of that person is like. Nor should I, it’s not my job. Though I have written about wearing a God Badge before…

I think our goal of putting the Divine back together again means that we have to see the world as the Divine does. We need to see the Divine in everything, everyone, and in every situation. We have used this word hate so much that it has lost its meaning. I used to teach teenagers that they shouldn’t use this word unless they really literally meant that they wanted whatever it was erased from existence. It was tough but a lot of them really started just saying that they just really disliked whatever it was. It put the ownership of that feeling back upon the speaker.

Have you ever noticed when you say you hate something that you not only strip that thing of its goodness or divinity, but you also put the ownership of that quality upon the object itself? But when you say you dislike something you take ownership of that feeling. You are the reason that feeling comes up. It’s your own preference. It has nothing to do with the object in question. Hate is a powerful word that we often don’t use correctly. We use it to strip the goodness and love that the Divine has given to something. That’s not to say there aren’t bad things in the world that do deserve to be erased from all existence, but that’s a different conversation for another day.

What would a little kindness cost us? Even if we did dislike something or someone? Our risk is minimal, at worst, for kindness. A little bit of kindness goes a long way. I heard an interview this last weekend with Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg regarding the passing of her husband and the book she wrote about that transition. She talked a lot about grief and resilience. One little bit stuck out to me though. The Co-Author of the book was talking about how people, especially grieving people, are afraid of imposing on someone else’s life by calling them. To which he stated don’t be afraid to ask for help, and admonished those who were thinking about someone going through a rough time to just call. I thought a lot about that and my own times of grief. I thought about how the small kindnesses like that could combat the hate and anger that would threaten to take root in my own soul. That small kindness didn’t cost very much to those people. A few moments, a few minutes of cell phone usage (do they still charge by the minute?), a few breaths that in the long run don’t amount to much really. But for that other, could mean the world.

What would the world look like if we started to see everything like the Divine? What if we stopped using the word “hate” and started taking ownership of our dislike? Would those few small moments of kindness start to illuminate the dark corners of our world? Maybe I’m just a hopeful idealist, but I would like to believe so. I’d like to believe that if we took a moment to own our dislike put it aside and begin to see the Divine in the other we can make the world a better and brighter place.

Hate takes too much from us. I think it not only strips the Divine from the other in our own eyes, but it takes a bit of our souls as well. It twists us and turns us inward and away from the Divine. I know there are passages about God hating this and that, but I really think that should be given a different word. Translated differently. That is a different thing altogether I believe. Maybe a righteous indignation? But I digress. We are all stocked up on hate at the moment. There is enough to go around and then some. I believe it’s time we clear the shelves and clean out the massive warehouses that we have of this product. It’s time to start stocking our shelves with kindness.

You don’t have to agree with me on everything. You don’t have to agree with anyone or everyone in your life. You don’t have to see eye to eye to be kind. You just have to take a moment, give a call to someone who has been on your mind, smile at someone, give hugs freely to those who will accept them (DON’T BE A HUG ACCOSTER!!!), give compliments instead of criticisms, include the good feedback with the bad, leave a funny meme on someone’s social media profile, send a direct message, be a friend. Start small, the big things will come in time.

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The Honest Faith: Finding Miguel

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

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

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

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

Well I’m on my way

I don’t know where I’m going

I’m on my way I’m taking my time

But I don’t know where

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

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

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

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

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

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