Huge Grace…Really?

O God, you have taught me from my earliest childhood, and I constantly tell others about the wonderful things you do. (Psalm 71:17)

I have been challenged more than once in the last couple of weeks to define what “my message” is. Why do I write? What drives me to love church ministry work and to fight for social justice? If I had only one message to give to the world, what would it be? The answer is grace. I’m not famous. People don’t create hashtags about things I do, but I have the platform the Lord has given me. I want the people who I encounter to know they are loved and accepted by the Lord, that they are precious in God’s sight and that no one has to do anything to earn that. This isn’t something I’ve always believed for myself, but when I came to accept that, it was the biggest game changer in my life. I know there are people who don’t feel comfortable in church settings. I know there are people who have heard terrible insults and verbal attacks directed at them that no one should ever experience. I know there are people who were raised and perhaps remain in surroundings that reinforced the idea “I’ll never be enough.” I can’t fix any of those things and I can’t erase those memories for people. I can’t repair the damage that the wrecking ball of hate and criticism has caused people. I wish I could. The Lord can, though, that I know. God is rebuilding me and making me into a new creation. I see “mile markers” along the way that remind me that I’m still on a healing journey, but I’m not where I was earlier in my life. So, grace is the message most dear to my heart. I love feeling comfortable in my own skin. I love my healthy relationships. I love that I’m finding my voice, and that I don’t always have to filter my ideas a thousand times before speaking them for fear of not receiving the approval of my listener. Grace is doing a total makeover of my brokenness.

I grew up with a love for the church and I recognize the value added from the pursuit of the spiritual life and the stability that a church family gives to people of all ages. The best thing I gained from being raised in the church was that I was challenged and equipped to develop a personal relationship with God. I understand how to navigate the Bible. I can grasp the richness of hymns and centuries old traditions. While no congregation or denomination is perfect, I felt like I was provided with many opportunities to develop a strong spiritual foundation. I’m thankful for the many people who invested part of their lives into my life. Grace has been at work for me from my first breath.

One of my biggest struggles, which for decades was a silent struggle, was reconciling my homosexuality with my faith. As many people understand, the Christian church culture, in most settings, isn’t friendly to people who are different. Churches often tout that everyone is welcome but people’s different-ness is quickly recognized and verbal and nonverbal messaging begins to assimilate the person to fall in line, and to act and believe like the rest. When it comes to those who don’t fill the typical church mold, the more they adapt to the church setting and begin to act and speak like the crowd, the more they are applauded and praised. They’re told, “I can really see that the Lord is working in you.” What that actually means is, “You’re behaving in a way that keeps me more comfortable. I’m glad God’s fixing you.” It’s easy to see why so many people keep so many of their different feelings or opposing viewpoints silent. Everyone longs for community; God has wired us to be at our best when we are living life with others. I really had planned to keep my “gayness” quiet. If no one knew there was “a problem” with me, then maybe there wasn’t a problem at all. When you’re gay, blending in is the way you “straighten up” and act like people who are accepted as “normal.”

I didn’t admit to being gay until I was in my late 30s. I really thought, based on the messaging I grew up with, that my attraction to females was just “weird feelings” (that’s what I called those feelings since childhood). I thought for some reason my mind was sick and that if I just got healthy and spiritual enough, I would become like everyone else. (It’s odd to think that God designed so much diversity into creation and yet many of us work ridiculously hard to all be the same.) My young journey that I was navigating to be healthier and holier, so I could be like everyone else, had just the opposite effect. I was chronically depressed and growing to like myself less and less. I’ve struggled with depression to the point of being suicidal since I was 13 years old. So, my best attempt to walk the straight and narrow led me into a lonely pit. I didn’t feel like I could risk telling any of my secrets because being accepted gave me the security I longed for. I noticed that many of us church people had an air about us (for a variety of reasons). We were all commitment and no joy. We kept things going, tried to avoid rocking the boat, and we had an exquisite ability to define the indisputable line between right and wrong. In retrospect, it all seems crazy to me now that I feel at home in my own skin, at home in my spiritual life and at home in a church community. Now I see my journey as lots of commitment, peace and joy. (There are occasions of pain, tears and frustrations, but living in community makes those tough things easier to bear.)

I turned a corner on this after I sought out help from other people of faith who saw things differently than what I had always accepted to be rock solid truth. Along with professional counseling there was a small group of people who challenged me and pointed out the inconsistencies in my belief system. I spent a lot of time in prayer and reading the Bible and actually talking about my fears of rejection and my doubts. I feel like I had developed a firm spiritual foundation but there were a few things about God that I had to relearn and accept as truth. I had always known that God loves everyone but accepting God’s love for me was a discipline that required more than just head knowledge. That truth had to take root in my heart. The Lord healed me of thinking I would never be good enough and that accepting myself as gay was a blessing and not a curse. Earlier in my life my personal prayer times were tortured conversations where I would start out the prayer by giving all these huge apologies for how I had screwed things up and how I was so imperfect. It was like my disclaimer before each prayer – “God please don’t hate me even though I am so messed up.”  Finally, one day I felt like God said to me, “Will you please quit trying to talk me out of loving you?” When I quit trying to disqualify myself from God’s unconditional love, healing happened.

Admitting that I was gay to many of my lifelong friends and family was difficult. After all, I know how people talk about gay people when they think no gay people are around. I was confident that I would continue to be loved, but I also knew that things would forever change with some. Some of the conversations went really well, others were not pleasant at all. It was a hard time, but nothing nearly as bad as the days when I hated myself so bad that I wouldn’t even look in a mirror. “Coming out” was a matter of integrity for me and I made a commitment to never hide myself for the comfort of others. I will not sacrifice my peace for any person on this earth, because I remember how bad it was living without peace. I ended up leaving the church denomination that I attended all my life. I felt like I had been abandoned by the church, there wasn’t a place there for me anymore. Like I said, I would have continued to be loved, but I couldn’t be associated with a group that would relegate me to spectator status when I had always enjoyed participating in ministry. I wasn’t kicked out, but I knew full well the church’s views on the LGBTQ community. I wasn’t going to be the person who needed to be fixed. I wasn’t going to be kept from full participation in a community because of who God created me to be. All of those things would have just reinforced the negative unhealthy mindset that the Lord was healing me out of.

As I was making those changes people would ask me, “How do you skirt around what the Bible says about being gay?” Well- I don’t, and I would hope that anyone who has ever known me knows that I would never sacrifice my relationship with God for a phase or a newly adopted philosophy. First of all, I don’t believe that the Bible speaks against being gay. There are lots of good resources that take a close look at those scriptures that are often used to attack members of the LGBTQ community. Second of all, if the Bible did openly condemn being gay, which it doesn’t, I would like to point out that writers of the Bible spoke against many things that were not accepted during the time when those authors wrote the Bible. Jesus himself doesn’t mention anything against being gay although it was widely a part of the culture long before his birth. When I was growing up people who were divorced were spoken about in hushed tones and whispers. It was so scandalous!! While no one is happy about a failed marriage, the church culture doesn’t widely seem to worry about divorce today.  I will link to some resources at the end if you are interested in exploring the Biblical views on homosexuality. I’m not arguing this issue with anyone ever again. This is not a problem between the Lord and I, and frankly that truth takes priority over my need for anyone’s approval.

I really don’t want to come across as being snarky. I simply want to point out what grace has shown me. Here’s the thing- many of us were raised in a church were very well meaning and sincere humans were doing their best to teach the truth as they understood it. That is something to be thankful for. In life however, you also encounter God who is with you every second, the Creator that you pray to, the Lord you see lived out in people you know  have an authentic relationship with God. The latter is the God that you meet on your knees. Whenever the God that I was taught about by a church comes into conflict with the God that I’ve met on my knees, I’m going to go with the God that I’ve met on my knees every time.

Why do I write? What message do I want those around me to know? I know there are a lot of people who don’t quite fit into places because there’s something different about them. I remember feeling like I would never find a community to worship with who would accept me. I remember feeling like I was so screwed up that I wasn’t really capable of being happy or having joy. I figured I just wasn’t wired that way (like one of the “happy people”) and that was my lot in life. Huge grace gave me things I never thought were possible and replaced things I thought I had lost forever. God’s huge grace fuels my wonderful life, all I had to do was accept it. Everyone was created to live in God’s love. That can’t be invalidated by the actions or words of others. It also can’t be invalidated by the things you say and do to yourself.

There are people who have been disenfranchised from the faith community for many reasons. Heck, there are lots of people that have been marginalized by our country and most of the world. Don’t let whatever makes you different to be used as an excuse to keep you from God’s love. You know how now, in the age of Corona, when you go to the doctor’s office you have to answer a bunch of COVID screening questions before you can be admitted into the treatment area? (“Have you traveled out of the country?” “Have you had a fever or any respiratory symptoms?” …….) Guess what- there are no screening questions when you take a step toward God. Calling out to God is going to lead you to a loving Creator who is anxious to catch up with you, just like a best friend. You are just as loved by God on your best day as you are on your worst day. That my friend is all because of Huge Grace. Continue reading “Huge Grace…Really?”

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.