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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Honest Faith: The Least of These

For a Christian writer, I don’t talk a whole lot about Jesus. I guess I feel like His ideas and teachings should be evident in my life and writing. I often shy away from the conversations now because a few years ago one of the youth I was working with pointed out, “We’re going to talk about Jesus again aren’t we? You talk about Him all the time.” Not that it’s a bad thing, but I wanted to innovate. I wanted them to love the Godman without me having to say His name all the time. I also realized that the more I talked about Jesus, the more I got painted as “One of those Christians”.

I was once, “one of those Christians”. I was a part of a very evangelical movement that felt we even needed to evangelize and convert Catholics. I guess they could be seen as ultra-protestant. I fell out of favor with them when I attended a Methodist church in high school (Oh the humanity [sarcsasm]). I still held on to a lot of those teachings until I was shown the depth of the Bible. I likened it to standing on the shore of an ocean, you can see the surface of the water, and it’s pretty and all, but there is so much more under the surface. This broke me of my black and white thinking of the Bible, the Divine, and all of my religion. I was ashamed of what I once was. I still am. I feel like I may have driven so many people away from the Divine by trying to shove a narrow incomplete picture down their throats.

One of the biggest things that has always troubled me about moving from black and white to my various shades of gray was the odd parable that you find at the end of Matthew 25. In it, Jesus tells of the coming of the Son of Man and the separating of “Sheep and Goats”.  I was taught growing up that the goats were all the Christians who weren’t really Christian, like the Catholics and other denominations. The more I learned about the Bible the more I came to understand sort of what Matthew was getting at here. He has his apocalyptic texts (The Olivet discourse and the sheep and goats)  sandwiching a few other parables with dire warnings attached. He did this to emphasize Jesus’ teaching about what it meant to be a sheep:

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

I could go into the whole book of Matthew and tell you about how he’s trying to set up Jesus as the Messiah, not just to the Jews, but to the Gentiles as well. Honestly, we could do without my commentary at the moment. Needless to say even after learning what I did, I still was very worried about being a goat. I didn’t want to be a goat.

In my nerd den of an office, my attic, there is a shelf just under my painfully understocked shelf of comic books that holds my collection of Bibles that I used throughout my life. I’ve read quite a bit of the Bible. I don’t say this to brag or anything. I used to be the president of the Bible Club in my public high school. I even carried around my Bible in plain sight to all of my classes. It was very noticeable. It was a very big, black, leather-bound Bible.  (Ok fine I lost the election and was elected Vice President, but the president resigned and gave me the position because I was there all the time so yes, I was the president…) I did all of these things in an effort to not be a goat. Even after I studied the Bible in depth at college, I tried to live a pure and blameless life so that I wouldn’t be a goat. My motivations may have been flawed, but I still did what I needed to. That’s not to say I didn’t get into some trouble now and then, but that’s a completely different story.

I missed the point of what it truly meant to be a sheep, in an effort not to be a goat. I thought it was all about me. I lived my life trying to make sure my life was good, that I didn’t sin, that I didn’t do wrong things. My faith was dead.

One of the passages that gave me the most trouble when I was one of those was the book of James. This also gave Martin Luther a headache as well, but again another story. In it, the writer,  James the lesser, talks about the Doctrine of Justification. He says something that made the whole “just believe” thing a bit shaky. He says, “Faith without works is dead.” I never understood that until much later in life. I’ve talked multiple times about Faith and the meaning of the word in my blog here, and also in our podcast. Ultimately what I discovered is that it’s true if we are not acting out what we believe we are just goats. If we say that we are Christian, yet do not treat the least of these like Jesus said in that parable we are like so many goats.

I write all this because there is an image that haunts me, and it will until the day I die. It is a picture that was taken a few years ago of a Syrian Refugee boy’s body washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean. That image has burned a hole in my consciousness. I’m not going to post it here or even link to it because of how horrible it is. It is an image that indicts even me of being a goat. My faith should drive me to help people. To welcome refugees. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, and take care of the sick. It kills me because I think about what if I were the father of that child. How would I feel…

I wrote about our miscarriages before. I wrote about the pain that still to this day is just there. A deep wound that will always remind me of loss. I work so that others may not have to feel that. I share that pain, I’m honest about my life, because 1. I’m trying to heal. 2. I don’t want others to feel alone if they are going through the same 3. I want to bring some healing to others.  I bring this up because throughout this experience I have discovered what true Christian Faith looks like. I have met some amazing sheep, that I want to be like.

Those sheep sat and cried with my wife and me when all we could do was weep. Those sheep cared for us when we were at our lowest. Those sheep, when we were ready, helped us to get back up on our feet emotionally. Those sheep still check in on us from time to time to see how we are. They did it for the least of these.

All this to say, don’t be a goat. Be a sheep. Don’t close your doors to refugees, don’t turn a blind eye to those who do. I said earlier this week that I’m going to try to refrain from being political. It doesn’t help. What I am going to do is to tell you to figure out what is right in this time. If you are doing things only to serve yourself and make yourself feel better, you are being a goat. If you are doing things to help others, even those who you feel don’t deserve it, you are being a sheep. So be a sheep. Do it for the least of these.

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