Faux Theology, Theatrics and Shenanigans

Lent is in its last week and I’ve been focusing on how the darkness (negativity, evil, hardship) around me impacts my world view and my thoughts. About a month ago I was embarking on a challenge to quiet the exhausting emotional noise in my life. That’s been very hard, when I would have thought it would be easy. You see, I don’t have kids, I live alone, I have 100% control over what is played on TV or radio, or the internet, I didn’t think it would be simple but I surely didn’t think it would be as hard as it is. I was more successful with becoming quiet when things were going “smooth.” I guess that’s normal too. But when things get into an uproar either because of work, or emotional stress or illness, instead of a discovering gentle calm, I felt like I was having to fight to find quiet. So now I see that finding a place of quiet and focus as a discipline. That’s what I think I’m learning. Right now, I’d say I’m averaging about a C or C+ in turning down the emotional noise. Nights are the hardest for me. I think that’s true of many people. When there are no distractions it seems like lots of life-long negative thoughts and insecurities come out to play. I’m moving toward things that make me feel strong and healthy, so sometimes when unpleasant thoughts come to my mind I’m able to shut them down. Those thoughts and insecurities are kind of like a playground bully, the more you stand up to them the more quickly he or she will leave you alone. But like bullies, haunting thoughts are persistent.

One thing that gives me strength is my understanding (although limited) of God’s love. I’m being serious now. I’m not trying to sound like a “holier than thou” amateur prophet. Surprisingly, although I was active in the church pretty much from birth, it took decades for me to mature and get to where I was able to really believe in God’s love for me. I know that sounds crazy- maybe. I knew God was love and had committed to memory many Bible verses and stories about God’s love but arriving to where I really believed in God’s love for me was a long journey. Maybe it’s everyone’s journey? I don’t know. The leap from knowledge to belief wasn’t easy for me.

I’ve come to learn that many people I’ve encountered either don’t believe that a personal God truly does love them just as they are, or they believe that God is this divine aloof being who likes all of us just about the same. (You know like, “I like the french fries at Cracker Barrel but the ones at Longhorn are just about as good.”) I have many theories about this but I’m just going to focus on a couple core beliefs about this right now. I believe that many people can’t really accept the idea that God loves them because they either don’t think they’re worth it (because someone along the way convinced them of that) or because they don’t really believe such a love is real or possible.

The words real, authentic, and sincere are popular concepts now. I think there is a huge revolt against the idea of fake, false or insincere motives, as there should be. There has been so much corruption in the world and so much opportunistic manipulation that we’re sick to death of it. That cynicism carries over to our thoughts about God. That’s not the only factor. Just like in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we so infrequently see true examples of God’s love that we think the bankrupt theology and careless ethics we so often see in self-identified “Christians” is representative of the Lord. (If Plato hasn’t been on your mind lately, here’s a link of a quick video that will remind you about this story. It’s worth watching.) https://youtu.be/1RWOpQXTltA 

You know how kids seem to get in a rut where they deem chicken nuggets to be the only acceptable meal choice? No matter how much marvelous food they are exposed to the only menu item that matters is the humble chicken nugget. I think we go through that spiritually. We get to know enough about the spiritual knowledge that is appropriate and acceptable in our specific part of the universe and we either lack imagination or are discouraged from looking further to see if there’s more. Most anyone who knows me well is aware that I am very frustrated with the obscene lack of love, compassion and humility found in many Christian churches. They are quick to sing and speak about a loving and graceful God, but they behave in a way that will make anyone watching closely wonder if it’s all just an elaborate fairy tale. Weekly church services have devolved into a litany of faux theology, theatrics and shenanigans. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, I’m not trying to launch a “Get sold out to Jesus” campaign or “you need to be sanctified holy” sermon. I don’t want to confuse my message with any fancy doctrinal words. What I’m saying is that I am a follower of Christ, but if people who encounter me don’t start getting a glimpse of God’s love, I’m not following Christ very well.

I know I’m far from perfect. Even as I’m writing this there are pictures of people going through my mind who I’ve failed miserably when it came to showing love. I’m sharing this to you in humility. I know if people are going to believe in and know God’s perfect love, people who claim to be followers of Christ need to be true examples of it. I’ve got to know it and show it. First, I have to know it, know what it really is. I can’t tell someone that I know that God loves and accepts me so they should accept God’s love for them too, if it’s not true. Like I said when I started this conversation, people are very quick to call out BS when they see it (and I think we’re better for it). So maybe purpose of this whole Lent journey I’m on is to become more purposeful and disciplined in accepting and reflections God’s unconditional love. That means at night when my memories play to the tune of “epic failures, short comings and just flat out looking stupid” like an orchestra in my mind, I’ve got to challenge it with ideas and the truth that I have chosen to believe about God’s love for me. And when it’s time for the orchestra’s second number, “People who hurt others and don’t deserve to have any good thing happen to them because they suck,” I’ve got to challenge that by praying for grace for them and compassion for me. Maybe it’s time to take another leap from knowledge to belief and begin to understand that my reflecting God’s love can’t just be a hobby that I try on special occasions. Maybe I can grow into a person who sees reflecting God’s love for others not as an obligation, but as my joy. Wow- I’ve got my work cut out for me.

As I’ve been reflecting tonight, I’m encouraged by the story of Saul found in Acts 6:8-9:31. He lived out some pretty bad theology. He did terrible things in the name of the Lord. God got his attention and because of love shown to him by people he once considered enemies, he was transformed. Take a closer look at the story.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+6%3A8-9%3A31&version=NIV

Wherever you are- know that the Lord is crazy in love with you and you are precious in his sight. God’s love and acceptance of you is real. Give God the chance to convince you of that.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:0)

At Peace with Quiet?

This is the second Sunday in Lent and I wanted to check in regarding my Lent journey. I recommend you read my previous post (Dancing with Darkness) if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about. As Lent is a season of confession and repentance, I’m challenging everyone to take advantage of the opportunity focus on your soul’s wellbeing. I stated last week that I feel like most of us have “Soul Neuropathy.” We’re become more detached from the people around us and from God. Detachment has become our survival tool of choice in a world that seems to constantly bombard us with stress, pain and negativity. Today I’ve been thinking specifically about what it takes to really do an inventory of our health (soul, emotional, physical, etc).

The one thing that keeps coming to my mind is noise. We live with a lot of mental noise, negative noise, and just “noise” noise. Noise makes me think of chaos, emergency, pain, frantic activity. When we’re surrounded by noise it’s distracting to say the least. Noise is not conducive to introspection. I’ve worked in several settings over the years and many of those places were filled with noise. I’m not talking about needing to turn the radio down or a loud coworker. I’m talking about an environment of frenzy, disorganization, frustration. Looking at my time in these different places it seems like we were always going from one crisis to another. We would no more get one problem settled and other problem would explode. It’s not only work places where I’ve found this. I’ve seen it in churches, families and in other relationships. I’ve also met many people who thrive on the noise. In fact, when things start to get quiet again, these people do things to stir up another crisis.

Being forced to exist in one of those “Code Red” environments for an extended period really disorients me emotionally. I can’t focus on my overall well being when all my energy is being dedicated to putting fires out. So, what am I to do in this Lent season where I’m trying recognize and address the impact that darkness has on my life? Let’s look at Jesus. His life was for sure full of noise. He had the curse of celebrity along with attacks from infamous actors. People flocked to him for teaching and help and there always seemed to be villains who were plotting his demise. Three things I see Jesus do throughout the Bible:

  • He connected to God
  • He connected to his friends and asked them to pray with him
  • He took opportunities to “get away”

To me the natural first step in my Lent strategy is getting away from the noise. I have a really hard time connecting with God or my loved ones when my head is full. Literally getting away is something that is very hard to do very often (although you should try to plan this into your weekly schedule). The idea of Sabbath is a struggle for many Christians. I once heard a minister say that he thought the commandment about observing the Sabbath is probably one of the most often broken commandments. As we move toward having a Sabbath rest day each week, we need to dial back the noise in our lives on the other 6 days. Why? If you’re on noise overload on days 1-6 it’s going to spill over onto your Sabbath. (By the way, your Sabbath doesn’t have to be on Sunday. Job schedules and family events and church activities often make it hard to have a Sabbath on Sunday.)

It feels like I’m listing a bunch of impossible exercises, right? First I want you to have a day of rest and then I want you also turn down the noise an chaos in your day to day. Isn’t that impossible? Well, all I can say is there are often many exercises you attempt that are impossible at the beginning. A trainer doesn’t start you out with a 100 pound weight. You usually start with 10 or 20 pounds and begin to work your way up. With practice that exercise becomes less impossible.

On the path to Sabbath you first need to start turning down the noise in your life. You can’t always mute the noise, but you can dial it back. Just like I said last week, you can’t eliminate the darkness in your world, but you certainly can influence how much it impacts your life. You must identify the noise makers in your life. This shouldn’t be completely hard but don’t overlook the more subtle influences. When you’re at home you can turn off the TV, the radio, the computer, you can shut your windows and eventually you’re going to notice that even the refrigerator makes noise. But when the TV is blasting out “Wheel of Fortune” you don’t notice the refrigerator at all. What I’m saying is the more you look the more emotional noise makers you have that take a toll on you. Darkness/pain/negativity seeps into your life from multiple avenues. Begin first looking at the darkness highways. They would be where major influences may attack you. Negative people or Drama Mamas are obvious sources of stress. Music and other types of media can be huge darkness influences. Your mind and the things you dwell on can be a huge highway of negativity. You can’t rid yourself of these things, but you can begin dialing back your exposure. You may need to cut some elements or people out of your life. Toxic people will never make you better and you’re not going to save them from themselves. Toxic people need to take a journey that only they can commit to when they make the conscious decision to. All they do is hurt you. Let them go. If it’s a close family member or friend that you can’t completely cut off, limit your exposure.

I’ve been told by many people throughout my life that they don’t like things being quiet. They don’t like being alone with just their thoughts. They are actually scared of that. I want to share what I’ve learned about that. When everything is quiet it is just you and God. If you’re afraid of that you need to examine your ideas about the Lord. Nothing you do or think will make you more or less lovable to God. He’s crazy in love with you. God’s love isn’t like human love. It’s hard for many to envision because unconditional love isn’t a universally understood concept. God knows all your thoughts and everything you’ve done, and you are still invited to be loved by him. I do completely get your misunderstanding about this and your inability to accept God’s love because you can’t get past yourself. I’ve been there. I’m not there anymore and I don’t want you to be either. If this is too much for you to wrap your head around just pray and ask God to help you. That part of your thinking will begin to get healed. I’m saying this not because I have you figured out, but because I totally know God is able and wants to do this for you. When you start to understand the love God has for you, quiet times of reflection and prayer won’t be scary to you anymore.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;” (1 John 4:18)

God’s love is perfect and there is no need to fear when you connect with Him. Don’t keep yourself busy with the noise in your life or in your mind. Make a place to find peace and rest. Your place for connecting with God may be on the hiking trail, or sitting on a porch reading the Bible, or maybe in a worship service. There are lots of options. We all have different places where we connect best with God.  Over time those moments when you connect with God will go from being filled with fearful uncertainty to feeling like a hug from the divine. You can be at peace with quiet.

Wherever you are please know that God loves and accepts you completely. Don’t miss your next opportunity to connect.

Dancing with Darkness

From the time we take our first breath our dance with darkness begins.

From the time we take our first breath our dance with darkness begins. In utero countless biological processes happen that work together in a systematic way to bring about a beautiful perfect life. Between then and now lots of different things have happened. Our shared human experience is that we all encounter the darkness of this existence. When considering darkness in this context, I’m not content to just label it as “evil” or “sin.” I think we try to frame darkness as an abstract spiritual concept so that we can ignore the real impact it has in our daily lives. We like to reduce things into easily classifiable categories because it gives us an illusion of control. In this circumstance, darkness including all things sinful, evil, negative, things that makes us feel unsafe, unhealthy or less than. I want to us to discuss the things that make us feel damaged, or as if we’re not “whole.”

This past Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent which is a season observed by Christian churches each year in the weeks immediately preceding Easter. It’s a time where Christians are to reflect, repent, and confess. It’s a “Get real with God” time. Most people are familiar with what has become a watered-down tradition of giving something up for Lent. That’s when you deny yourself some pleasure (chocolate, social media, TV) so that you can use that time reflecting on your spiritual life. Whether you’re a Christian or not, and even if you don’t consider yourself a person of faith, I think it’s good to routinely have a season where you are dedicated to examining your inner life, your behaviors, habits and the direction you’re moving toward. During this season of Lent I’m focusing on my battle with darkness. For the next 6 and a half weeks I’m committed to recognizing, owning and doing what I can to transform the negative influences in my life. I’m choosing to deliberately lean into these levels of unpleasantness because I’ve become preoccupied. I’ve grown numb, and aloof. I’ve developed a “tolerance” for pain, evil, and suffering, in myself and other people. I remember a patient I once cared for. He had a terrible wound on the bottom his foot that wasn’t showing any signs of healing, (which is the reason he became my patient). The wound was big and gross. Guess what? He couldn’t even feel it. He had nerve damage and no longer had a sensation of pain in his foot anymore. I could have done anything short of amputating his foot and he would have never known. In a similar fashion, I think many of us have “soul neuropathy.” We get things done, pay our bills, meet our social obligations, and we don’t really feel a thing. We hardly have time to care, and certainly have no room for passion in our crowded minds.

Many of us have accepted, “This is my life, it’s not going to get any better than this.” After all, we can’t destroy the immense darkness. Many of us have embraced a learned helplessness and are taking a passive role in our mental and spiritual well being. Our souls are dying way before our body’s expiration date. We may not be able to completely escape darkness but we can certainly limit the amount of darkness we’re exposed to. We surely have a say in how much it influences our behavior.

Real life example: Most of us, to some degree, are trying to be healthy or healthier, right? When I visit the gym a few times a week and walk across the floor, do I start having negative thoughts creep into my mind that are very similar to the thoughts I’ve had all my life since middle school? Yup. Those feelings that make me wish I had stayed home hit me every time. They play over and over again until I actually turn my music on and get to work. Is that darkness? Yes, that’s part of my darkness. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, where it comes from, or the scores of memories I have that reinforce those feelings, it’s darkness. It pours negativity into my mind, makes me feel discouraged and diminished. I’ve got to own that. I can’t make it disappear or erase all the bad memories, but I can choose to fight past it and stay on track. You can’t transform things until you recognize that they exist. I need to be honest and point out that a lot of times I do give in and don’t push through. This is a very common type of struggle that I know many of you understand. We are attacked constantly by negativity, insecurity, and just bad stuff. It spirals to where life is reduced to acting out assigned roles where darkness is the director of the play. Darkness dictates what we wear, where we go, who we associate with, whether we take risks, and it has a profound influence on our relationships.

Does this really matter?

Yes it does. The darkness we’re taking about here isn’t just a condition that makes it hard to see what’s on the top shelf of a closet. Darkness in the form of evil, negativity, and pain doesn’t play well with others. It crowds out all the good things in our lives. It slowly infiltrates all parts of our soul and we end up living an existence instead of a life. We were created for more than that. We’re capable for more than that. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1. 4-5) Like I said earlier, we are dancing with darkness from our first moments of life. Pain and struggle are universal. We will confront them every day. Another truth is that the Lord is not afraid of the darkness. (Hang in here with me evangelicals! Don’t switch over to autopilot.) If you were raised in the evangelical Christian church, you mind is getting ready to flash back and quote the Roman Road to Salvation or verses about calling on the name of the Lord so that you’ll be saved. That has a place in the story but I’m reaching beyond it. My insecurities in the gym, or at work, or my tendency to feel anxiety, jealousy and anger doesn’t mean that I’m not a Christian. It doesn’t mean I don’t have faith. It means that I’m human just like you. God is cool with that. The Lord longs to be in a real relationship with us where we’re honest and not afraid to confess our struggles. God is crazy in love with us and we’re precious in his sight. God’s not waiting to see a flawless performance, but instead is yearning for a real conversation. Darkness has limited our understanding of our belovedness to God and has distorted the perspective of our place in of creation. We must recognize it, own it, confess it, and ask for help.

“These addictions, compulsions, and obsessions reveal our entrapments. They show our sinfulness because they take away our freedom as children of God and thus enslave us in a cramped and shrunken world.” (Henri Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? pg 98)

My friends, we are already at the dance with darkness. Why don’t you join me out on the floor and we’ll make this a shindig? We can work past the callouses, bruises and scars and unleash the child of God who was created to soar, not shudder. Wherever you are, remember you were created in God’s image and the Lord loves and accepts you right now.