When It Seems Like God Lied (From the Midweek Encounter Blog)

Every few weeks, I write a post for my church’s Midweek Encounter blog reflecting on that week’s sermon. We just started this year’s Christmas series, and I suspect I will be taking away a lot from it. The first message was on God’s promises and how they often don’t look like we expect them to.

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Francis

When It Seems Like God Lied

There are many promises throughout the Bible.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:8)

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

In our best moments, these verses likely come as a source of deep comfort. When we’re in the middle of difficult times though, having these verses offered as solutions to our problems can be frustrating or even annoying. Does losing a job seem like a plan to prosper us? Do illnesses, failed classes, divorces, cruel bosses, or financial ruin seem like giving us a hope and a future? There are times when God’s promises feel more like lies than truth.

Keep reading at the Midweek Encounter blog.

Looking Back for Thankfulness

Last year at this time, I was not feeling overly thankful. A variety of situations, most of them entirely out of my control, had spiraled me into a place of frustration and discontent. Looking back at my journal from that time, the resounding theme was, “I don’t know what to do.” Getting out of that place required difficult and what proved to be wise yet un-fun decisions, combined with the simple but irritating solution of time.

 

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Photo Credit: Andy Chilton

Comparing our past with our present can be a dangerous game, because things don’t always turn out to be greener on the other side, and while memory lane is a nice place to visit, it’s an impossible place to live. This year though, looking back is giving me a fresh perspective on my reasons to be thankful. It’s both a general and specific thankfulness–I’m thankful life is going better than it was last fall, though much of that isn’t my own doing so much as the circumstances around me happen to different. And specifically, I am so thankful to have a place of my own to call home, a place I chose, I bought, and that I will get to decide when and if I move out of it. After the past few years of moving frequently, it feels like an immense gift to know next fall, unless something really goes haywire, I will still be living in the same place. It’s beginning to feel like real home, and to know I get to continue to build that sense there is deeply, profoundly comforting.

While much of my thankfulness stems from an upturn in life circumstances, there is a spiritual component to it as well. For an undetermined amount of time, I’ve felt an uneasy distance and strangeness in my faith. Though I’ve come to see it as a natural part of being in any sort of long-term relationship, I’ve never welcomed it or been particularly at peace with it. Maybe the season is beginning to change in my relationship with God, or maybe I’ve grown used to this place enough that it doesn’t bother me anymore, but it doesn’t concern me like it used to. It’s not a giving up, walking-away-from-faith kind of change. Instead it’s a peace, however still unsettled, with not fully understanding how the ebb and flow of a relationship with an unseen God works.

None of this is permanent, none of it is guaranteed to be the same (or even better) next year, and there are still plans and hopes I have for life that haven’t shown as much of a glimmer of turning out like I thought they would. Those things don’t go away, but I can choose to not let them detract from this, here, this place and time where I am thankful for what is instead of so caught up in what could be. 

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. What has looking back made you thankful for?

My Accidental Blogging Break

At the beginning of 2016, I told myself I’d post a new blog post every week. Looking at my 2016 posting calendar, that’s absolutely laughable now. First I missed a week here and there, but I vowed to cut myself some slack–every ten days or so still kinda counted, right? Plus, I bought a condo, making my spring and early summer very busy.

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Photo Credit: Florian Klauer

Then fall hit, and “busy” took on a new meaning. Over the course of ten days, I went on three separate trips and slept in six different states. Throw in a couple more trips, a load of other work and life busyness, and I felt like I could barely breathe for it all. For some people it would be completely normal, but for me, it was much, much more than I’m used to. As I’ve come to understand myself better, I know I need space, room for simply breathing and calmly experiencing my life, instead of a frenetic pace. I’ve become more comfortable with saying no to give myself the space I need, and generally my current phase of life allows me a nice balance, but this fall it felt like I completely lost it. Even a calendar full of wonderful, fun things can get wearisome at some point.

All the while, I had this simmering guilt in the back of my head over not writing new blogs posts. I was still writing in other places and I was still thinking of ideas to write about, but when I thought about actually writing a new post in the snatches of spare time I had, it stressed me out so much that I ignored it. I thought back to my post in April, “When Your Goals Are Stupid,” and realized I needed to take my own advice: When our goals become a source of stress instead of a source of motivation, it’s time to reevaluate.

So I let it go. This blog wasn’t going anywhere, and I needed space much more than I needed to continue spewing words onto these pages. As much as I enjoy writing here, it was humbling to realize my decision to pause for a while likely had no effect on anyone else’s life. It’s a delicate balance, to hold that reality while also believing it’s not pointless to write because, occasionally, my words do bump into someone else’s life in what I hope are helpful, good ways–and also, I simply like writing here, which has a value of its own. Life has calmed down a teensy bit now, and it is nice to share here again. But objectively speaking, the world does not need this little blog.

 
I have no intention of shutting down this space. The beauty of this accidental break from blogging, though, is how it helped me put this back into perspective. Writing and sharing those words is something I think I’ll always enjoy, but it too can go through different seasons, and that is okay. I’m hopeful I’ll begin writing here more regularly again, but if not, I’ve remembered the world spins madly on all the same.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. Has an accidental break from something you enjoy ever taught you anything?

Good Christian Guilt

Following Jesus is, in theory, quite simple. Except for all the times that it’s not.

Growing up in a Christian environment has been both a deep gift and a multilayered complexity. When kids are taught about what it means to follow Jesus, it’s essentially boiled down to the good characteristics people who call themselves Christians should have. None of this is, at its core, a bad thing–nuance has to be introduced at some point, but most kids wouldn’t have the capacity for it at young ages. At some point though, all the “shoulds” of following Jesus start to get complicated.

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Photo Credit: Flickr User Volker Stetter, Creative Commons

Recently, a new group was starting up at my church. They were going to read and discuss a book I own and have been meaning to read for quite some time. As I thought about my fall though, I realized adding one more activity, even one as good as reading a book that would likely challenge and inspire me, would not be wise for me right now. And as I realized that, I had a twinge of guilt over not being able to participate.

Fortunately, I later came to my senses about how absurd it is to feel guilty about not being able to join another group at church.

But there are other areas of the Christian life where I have, and do, feel guilt, and it is these complicated spaces that I struggle with. For example, I believe there’s nothing humans can do to earn God’s grace in all its various forms–whether it’s the grace that saves us, the grace that loves us, the grace that holds us–all of it is, and must be, completely free. Otherwise it wouldn’t be grace at all.

However, I also believe that if I say I follow Jesus, that should manifest itself in my life in daily, tangible ways. The way I treat people, the way I do (or don’t) use my resources of time and money, the way I make decisions, and all the other pieces that make up a life–all of those should be absolutely saturated with and informed by my faith. All over the place in the Bible there are mentions of serving others, of gathering in community with fellow believers, of praying, and so many other good actions that demonstrate thankfulness for what God has done in our lives and our desire to share that with others. None of these actions, on their own, have the power to save. But we’re supposed to do them, as long as our intentions are right.

And therein lies the difficulty. It’s easy to say things about living in God’s love and letting our actions be an outflow of that, but it gets very messy in the conflicting motivations of life in the real world. Where do we find the balance between living from a place of knowing we can never earn God’s love, yet following his words about praying and serving and being generous and all the other wonderful actions the Bible tells us to take part in? Is signing up for a service project because my friends did still a good action? Is giving to a good cause still good if it’s out of guilt because you haven’t given to anything else that month? Is it even possible to be a “good Christian?”

A simple definition of guilt from Dictionary.com is, “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong,etc., whether real or imagined.” Even the definition gets complicated though–the feeling of guilt doesn’t always correlate to an actual offense, but there are times when guilt is a legitimate, even necessary response. When I know I’ve done something wrong, I should feel a sense of remorse about it. That doesn’t mean I have to forever dwell in that feeling of guilt, but allowing myself to feel it allows the severity of my actions to sink in, hopefully so that I’ll learn from them. 

Yet I don’t think we’re supposed to live in a constant state of feeling guilty about all the things we could, or even should, be doing for God. That level of guilt would be crippling. It would be too far to say that doing things out of guilt negates the good of those actions, but it does forget the true purpose of those actions. None of it is supposed to be about us and how we feel, and all of it is supposed to to be a response to God.

Again though, “a response to God” is one of those Christian-y phrases that sounds really nice but is crazy difficult, arguably impossible, to truly implement. But I’m beginning to hope that God honors the process. Our motivations may always be a little off-kilter and with a few blemishes, but God already knows that. Since the beginning of time he’s been using imperfect people and their mixed-up motivations to accomplish his work, and I have to trust he’ll continue to do so–even through me.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. How do you live in the tension between guilt and grace?

College Students Need Your Church (From the YALT Blog)

I’m a contributor for the blog of the Young Adult Leadership Taskforce (YALT), which is a ministry of the denomination I’ve grown up in and still consider myself, though perhaps somewhat loosely, a part of. Even though I’ve been out of school for several years, this season always makes me a bit nostalgic. There’s an energy to college campuses that’s unlike anything else, and there’s a piece of me that still misses it. It can also be an intense and overwhelming time of life, so I think churches have great opportunities here.

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Photo Credit: Loic Djim

College Students Need Your Church

Over the next few weeks, colleges will be filling back up with students. Particularly for churches geographically close to colleges or universities, this brings a host of unique opportunities–not in a “Millennials are leaving the church oh no what do we do about it” sense, but because all churches are able to be a blessing to college students in some way. How each church does that will vary greatly, and it should–not all churches are the same, so they shouldn’t use the same formula. There are many unique ways churches can use their resources, be they space, finances, time, or something else, to support students.

As cliche as it may be, it’s often true that college students love free food (or at least, this former college student sure did). There are many ways churches can meet this need. Maybe it’s church-wide potlucks that get special promotion to college students so they know they’re welcome whether or not they provide a dish to pass. Maybe it’s a college-specific ministry that has a Pizza and Movie Night once a month. Maybe it’s supper clubs that meet at people’s houses and provide college students with a chance to get off campus and eat a homecooked meal.

Keep reading at the YALT blog.

3 Reasons the Olympics Rock

I’ve never been into sports. Even as a kid when nearly everyone at my school was playing at least one of the school sports, I was not–nor did I particularly mind that I wasn’t. But every two years or so, for a couple of weeks I become obsessed with sports. Wish-I-had-cancelled-all-nonessential-activities-for-the-entire-duration level obsessed. There is something about the Olympics that captivates me in a way unlike anything else.

 

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Photo Credit: Agberto Guimaraes

First of all, there’s the togetherness of the Olympics. So many countries and people groups represented, all united around the common goal of pursuing sports–whether it’s participating themselves or watching. International competitions happen on a regular basis, but for the Olympics, everyone pulls out all the stops. TV networks dedicate days and days of programming to it, fans come from nearly all the countries in the world (having never attended the Olympics, I can’t personally vouch for this, but I imagine it’s likely to be true), and an entire city gets taken over by it. Even for those people who don’t travel to be a part of the event, we feel a part of something as we watch on our screens, discuss it over lunch, and gasp over it via social media. For both the lovers and the haters of the Olympics, there is a kind of bond, a unity all its own.

Second, there’s the dedication. I consider myself to be a fairly loyal person, and I’m dedicated to certain things, but I cannot even fathom dedicating my entire life and livelihood to a sport like many athletes do. While there’s a piece of me that thinks they’re a little over the top about the whole thing, there’s another piece of me that deeply admires the kind of dedication it takes to focus so much time, energy, and physical strength on one activity the way Olympians do. Training years for perhaps a 10-second run requires a single-minded focus I would do well to carry into aspects of my own life.

Third, there’s the sheer thrill. Swimming gets at this the most for me–the races won and lost with mere hundredths of a second making the difference, or sometimes even dead ties–but other sports certainly have it too. The nail-biting anxiety of waiting to see how the other athletes will perform and how the judges will award certain elements of a routine, the unadulterated joy on the face of an unexpected champion, the beauty of athletes so in control of their bodies in a way that seems almost impossible. There’s also the magnificent complexity of an event as large as the Olympics actually taking place–all the coordination, the travel, the scheduling it takes to pull off such a feat.

There are downsides to all of this too, of course. Togetherness, dedication, and thrill all have their flip sides of discord, addiction, disaster, and more, all of which run rampant at the Olympics. Steroids, corruption, violence, cheating, overly inflated egos–the list could go on and on. Yet I don’t think it would be possible to have an event like the Olympics that’s completely free of all these unfortunate realities, and their existence doesn’t outweigh the many positive attributes.

 
So for the next week, unless I have a prior commitment, I can likely be found on my couch, watching the Olympics. Yes, I will cheer too loudly at athletes who are on another continent, I will talk too emphatically about people I’ve never met but feel as though as I know, and yes, I will cry over the inspirational stories and the underdog athletes no one thought would win. And in two years, I will do it all again.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. What do you like about the Olympics?

One Reason Being Single is Hard

For all its freedoms (and they are true and they are lovely), there are times when being single is not my favorite. While I’m a firm believer, though not always a good practitioner, of the idea that being alone does not have to equal being lonely, there are times when certain kinds of loneliness feel more pronounced.

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Photo Credit: Levi Price

Lately, one of the larger difficulties of being single is not having one specific person. One person to take all of my stories and troubles and joys to, and in turn, not being that person for someone else. It’s not that I have no one–many times recently I have been thinking of, and rejoicing over, the abundance of good, deep, meaningful relationships I have in my life–yet for all they bring to my life, there is a particular kind of with-ness they do, and will always, lack. It’s the with-ness of having one particular person who has vowed to keep showing up even when it’s hard, to keep hearing the same stories even when they’ve heard them all before, to keep caring about the little things that matter to me even when they’d rather watch TV.

All of these wonderful qualities are ones that can be found in family and friends, and again, it’s not that I don’t have those. But it’s too much to ask just one of those people to be my go-to for all of life’s complexities. Burdens are better when they’re shared, and I know I would become an unhealthy mess of a person if I didn’t vent and talk things through with other people.

Yet for single people, I think that sharing burdens can be more difficult than for those in a relationship–not having one constant person means we have to spread them around a bit. One friend might be our person to talk to about frustrations at work, a different friend for talking about the lows and highs of singleness, and another friend for talking about the complicated mess of trying to be an adult. There’s a beauty in this, of having enough good, solid relationships where this is even possible–but there is are unavoidable complications to it as well, and an ache of wanting to not need to remember who I talk to about which things, because there’s one person I can talk to about all of it.

Some of this might be “naive single person wishes,” and I realize that. Should I ever get married, I truly hope and intend to maintain other healthy relationships besides that one specific one. There will always be certain situations that specific people will understand better than others, because of shared history or experiences or simply because of who they are. I also realize that, along with having one person for all my stories, I would then become someone’s one person as well–there is immense weight and responsibility in that, which I hope I don’t take lightly.

Still, there are times when, and reasons why, being single is just plain hard. There’s a certain dimension of these qualities that cannot be met in the same way through family and friends, no matter how wonderful they are. I have a good life and am reasonably content much of the time, but I have no neat and tidy resolution to these thoughts. It’s simply the way things are right now, and will continue to be at times. It’s mostly okay, but it is also, deeply and truly, kind of hard.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. What’s a reason being single is hard for you?

When Someone’s Faith is Drowning (From the YALT Blog)

I’m a contributor for the blog of the Young Adult Leadership Taskforce (YALT), which is a ministry of the denomination I’ve grown up in and still consider myself, though perhaps somewhat loosely, a part of. Lately I’ve been thinking about what it means to have faith and to keep faith, and also the flipside of that–what it looks like when faith fades or ceases to exist altogether. How do, and should, churches and faith communities respond to that?

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Photo Credit: Stephen Di Donato

When Someone’s Faith is Drowning

It’s not a secret that young adults are leaving the church and, in many cases, leaving faith as well. Yet the numbers only show the big picture, not the stories of the individuals whose lives have, for whatever reason, changed from being one where faith is a central component to one where faith is, if existent, merely a side project. And I can’t help thinking that those stories, of faith slowly fading, or of wrestling with pain, or of doubt creeping in and taking over, don’t happen overnight. So where are the people reaching out to the real, living, breathing people who are experiencing these realities?

I once heard a story of someone being at a pier where people were jumping into the water. Suddenly, the screams of delight ceased as people began to notice a young woman struggling in the water. Shouts came from the pier, encouraging the woman to swim harder, to keep kicking, that she was getting close to the ladder. Someone dove in to help her and they both climbed out of the water to safety, but in those tense moments before that person jumped in, the noise was all directed at the woman in distress. Meanwhile, in the water itself, silence reigned.

Keep reading at the YALT Momentum blog.

Christian Baggage

Growing up in a Christian community is simultaneously a wonderful gift and an odd kind of difficulty. I don’t know what it is to not know about God, to not go through the practices of prayer and devotions and church, to not be taught all the stories of the Bible alongside English and math and science. For me, they were all commonplace, the usual, simply the way life. There is certainly a grace in my kind of upbringing, even while recognizing other’s experiences have graces all their own.

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Photo Credit: Mayra Carreno

At the same time, approaching Christian faith as a school subject taught me read the Bible in an academic way, poring over it for answers to fill-in-the-blanks and multiple choice questions and essay topics. There is much value in the ability to read the Bible closely and study it thoroughly, but there’s also a subtle danger. For as much as the Bible is to be studied, it also meant to be experienced and lived. Aspects of my schooling tried to incorporate that crucial element, but there is only so much that can be done in a school setting and with students who are there, primarily, not through their own choosing but through their parents’. Only recently have I begun to notice the baggage I carry with me as a result of growing up in such settings. It’s not any weightier or more profound kind of baggage than many other people who grew up very differently than I did carry, but it exists all the same.

In my current phase of life, this plays itself out in the ways of faith formation I am and am not drawn to. The kind of writing that ties up difficult sections of the Bible with neat little bows and a “The Bible said it, that’s the end” mentality makes me break out in hives. There are so many ways to interpret the Bible, and I am increasingly less confident that there is one way that is the only way. Certain kinds of Bible studies, the ones that require lots of fill-in-the-blanks and copying down answers straight from a Bible passage, make me want to run away. I filled out many Bible worksheets as a child, and while I absolutely believe they have value and can be a helpful guide, they are the exact opposite for me at this point. Any idea that memorizing Bible verses or working down a “spirituality checklist” is a magical gateway to getting closer to God makes me nauseous. Knowing the Bible is so important, but there are other ways of knowing it that better meet me where I’m at today.

As I’ve been noticing some of the Christian baggage I carry, it’s tempting to feel guilty. Shouldn’t I be looking for any way to work on my relationship with God, through any means? On some level that’s true, and I want to be faithful to the practices that help facilitate that possibility, recognizing some form of these are vital to the Christian life. But I’m also a firm believer in the idea that we experience seasons in all areas of life, be they physical, emotional, spiritual, or anything else. Being taught the Bible as though it was another school subject was good for me in many ways, but just because it was good for me then doesn’t mean it’s good for me right now–or that it won’t be good for me again at some point down the road.

What to do with baggage is a complicated question. For now, I think it’s enough to begin to see my baggage for what it is and to recognize the ways it does and will continue to shape the way I approach my faith, while also appreciating that other’s journeys look different than mine. And to know that my own trek is, in many ways, just beginning.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. How have you dealt with any baggage from the faith background you were or weren’t raised in?

That Time I Bought a Condo

At the beginning of this year, I picked one word I was supposed to focus on, one word to to provide a sort of framing and direction for the year. I attended an event at my church where we painted or decorated little canvases showcasing our word, meant to be a reminder we could hang somewhere we’d see it often so we would look for it and be aware of the way that theme was playing out in our lives. For the first few weeks, I did look back at it often and tried to seek it out in my daily life, but I never found a great place to put that little canvas in my room. After a while, I mostly forgot about it. It sat on my desk, more and more layers of papers and receipts and random paraphernalia collecting on top of it.

Until, finally, I unearthed it. I hadn’t forgotten my word, not in a large sense, but I had forgotten to let it soak into my everyday–which is a bit funny, considering my word is dwell. When I chose it, I wrote:All at once a command, a reminder, and a promise. It feels gentle though, and kind. Something I can manage.”

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And while in one sense it felt manageable, in another sense it felt so very, very far off. The spiritual component, of seeking to do more dwelling with God while also more fully internalizing the mysterious beauty of him already dwelling in me, seemed doable. That was a space I had been before, and while it had been a while, I could see there being a path back. In the physical sense though, I had no idea what dwell would mean for me in 2016. As a young, unmarried adult, housing had been complicated for years and there seemed to be no end to that in sight. Since graduating from high school, I hadn’t lived in the same place for longer than 14 months. For someone who often struggles with change and doesn’t do well with uncertainty, it had become incredibly taxing. To dwell in a physical sense seemed nearly impossible.

Yet, when I finally found my little canvas again, I did so with a sigh of deep, deep gratefulness. Because I found it when I was starting to pack to move into a place of my condo, a condo I bought, a home that will be mine for the next while and hopefully won’t cease to be mine until I decide otherwise. A place where I am throwing away the boxes because I likely won’t need them again in a year, a place where I am thinking of affixing shelves to walls instead of decorations hung up with poster putty. For the first time, I changed my permanent address to something other than my parent’s house. I’ve been in my new place for a few weeks now, and it is slowly beginning to feel real, to feel like mine.

It also feels like such an immense gift.

Through the whole process of looking at condos, making an offer, getting finances squared away once my offer had been accepted, having the inspection done, and waiting to hear that everything had gone as it was supposed to, I kept expecting something to go wrong. Being the largest decision of my life, and one I both had and got to make completely on my own, I prayed furiously through the whole process, begging God for something to go wrong if this was not supposed to be my place. People talk about the excitement of buying a house, but they rarely talk about the sheer terror that accompanies it. But everything fell into place. I signed a stack of papers, and suddenly, I owned a condo.

Dwell had come true in the way I least expected it to.

Now, my little dwell canvas lives on my fridge (I have a fridge) in my kitchen (I have a kitchen) in my condo (I have a condo). 2016 is far from over, and that word may take on depths of more meaning in the coming months. But already, it’s a reminder to not only look forward to what is to come, but also to know that God is at work even when we forget he is.  

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. If you have a one word for 2016, how have you seen it shape your year so far?