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?

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 of 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 to 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?

When What You Want Isn’t What You Need (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’re in a message series about layovers in life, and I especially appreciated the reminder this week that while God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want him to, he does answer them how we need him to.

 

When What You Want Isn’t What You Need

There’s a worship song we sing pretty regularly at Encounter that I struggle with at times. Called “Always,” it includes these words:

Oh, my God, He will not delay
My refuge and strength always
I will not fear, His promise is true
My God will come through always, always

 
One Sunday after singing it, I remarked to a friend that I wasn’t sure I bought it. At that point in my life, it seemed as though God was either moving really, really slowly, or perhaps not at all. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe God was there, but it was difficult to see how and where he was working. When we’re in a layover season in life, a time of uncertainty, disappointment, loss, heartbreak, change, or any number of other things that seem to keep us from moving from one place to the next, it can feel like “He will not delay” is a bit of a lie.

 

Keep reading at the Midweek Encounter blog.

I’m Afraid of the Holy Spirit

In the religious tradition I grew up in, the Holy Spirit was by far the least talked about member of the Trinity.  When he was referenced, it was in ways like, “Let the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts and actions today,” or “Listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit.” And let’s be real–my life has been steeped in the Bible and Jesus and prayer and all that, but I still don’t truly understand what any of those phrases about the Holy Spirit are actually supposed to mean and how they’re supposed to change the way I live. As a concept, I understand that the Holy Spirit should be as much a part of my life as God the Father and Jesus are because of the complicated three-in-oneness of the Trinity, but on a life level, I do not understand it.

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Photo Credit: Dominik Lange

For most of my life, I was fine with mostly ignoring the Holy Spirit. As I’ve learned more about the different streams of Christianity though, I’ve discovered just how much many Christians decidedly do not ignore the Holy Spirit, and this is where things get complicated. I don’t think my way, of ignoring the Holy Spirit, is a good or healthy way of not understanding him. The way some Christians interact with the Holy Spirit is so dramatically different than I grew up with though that I don’t quite know what to do with it.

When people talk about speaking in tongues, it’s like I don’t have a category for where to process it, the same way I don’t know what to do with faith healers making people stand up out of their wheelchairs and ridding people’s bodies of cancer. I believe some people who speak in tongues and heal people truly love Jesus and are performing those acts in genuine, God-fearing ways, but I also believe that some people abuse and warp those seemingly good gifts. Even less extreme examples, such as people saying they made a certain decision because they heard the Holy Spirit talking to them, are outside of my own personal experience and make me pause. What does “heard the Holy Spirit” actually sound or feel like? And how do they tell the difference between the Spirit and their own thoughts?

It’s not that I don’t believe the Holy Spirit can and does work in these ways–I do. But if the Holy Spirit hasn’t worked in those ways in my life, does it mean I’m doing something wrong? Admittedly I think I am missing something about the Holy Spirit, in the way I live out my faith and also possibly in the way I believe in and think about the Holy Spirit, but I also wonder if the way I’ll experience him will just be different than those.

Perhaps the logical thing to do would be to set out on a religious quest to learn all I can about the Holy Spirit, with the hope that learning would lead to experience. There’s value there, and I am making steps in that direction–but it’s with trepidation. I’ve grown rather comfortable not really understanding the Holy Spirit, and I’m a little afraid at what I might discover, because I don’t think I’ll end up in the same comfortable place I’ve been in. Change is scary, and I suspect the Holy Spirit may have work to do in my life that I don’t want to admit to. When I pray, I’d rather avoid leaving time for silence to listen to the Spirit, because who knows what I might hear? It’s so much easier to ignore uncomfortable parts of our faith than to face them head on.

My time for ignoring the Holy Spirit needs to be up, though. It never should have existed to the extent that it has, and I need to learn a better way to understand all three persons of God. I just don’t know what it’s going to look like.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. What has helped in your understanding of the Holy Spirit?

When Holy Week Gets Complicated

When faith is still a bit out of sorts, things like Holy Week can be complicated.

The story itself isn’t so complicated, in theory–Jesus rides into town on a donkey on Palm Sunday, he has his last supper with his disciples on Thursday and then is betrayed by one of his own, Friday he dies, Sunday he rises. There are complexities and nuances in there, of course, but those are the bare minimum details.

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Photo Credit: Flickr User ArturoYee, Creative Commons

Why did he do all this, though? Who really killed Jesus–the Romans, or God himself by allowing this to (or making it?) happen? Did Jesus actually go to hell? How is salvation accomplished? In what order does salvation occur?

And if I haven’t fully figured out my answers to these questions, but instead can see how people arrive at different conclusions and appreciate those differences, does it make me a bad Jesus follower?

Not exactly the questions most people discuss over Easter dinner.

But every year, Holy Week invites us to experience the story of Jesus and ponder what he means to our lives. They’re all good, valid, complicated questions worthy of studying and discussing and revisiting time and time again. Yet, if I let myself get lost in them, I’ll miss the things I am sure of–or at least as reasonably sure as I can be.

 

I believe in Jesus.

I believe he was God and human, that he lived on earth, that he died but didn’t stay that way.

I believe that somewhere in that process, salvation was accomplished.

Salvation to set me free from the messy sinfulness of humanity I was born into, and that allows me to live for a purpose much greater than myself.

 

I believe much more than that, but for now, those three things. The whys whos hows and whats will always be there, and I can’t–and won’t–ignore them; but these three things I believe ground me. Everything else comes flows out of, and comes back to, these three. And mainly, Jesus.

Not that I follow him well every day, or even ever for that matter. But I believe in him with all of me that can, and I’ll keep coming back to that.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. Does Holy Week get complicated for you?

Faith Lessons in the Dark

As part of the launch of her new book Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, Addie Zierman is hosting a synchroblog sharing stories of faith in the dark. I haven’t read the book yet, but I have a sense that much of it will resonate with me. This is my contribution to the collection of stories, and you can read others here.

In life and in faith, there are different kinds of darkness.

Some is sudden, all-consuming, like the flicking of a switch.

Some is gradual, gentle, like the fading from day to night.

Nearly all darkness is confusing.

When what was once so easy to see becomes murky and unclear, it can be tempting to become angry at the dark.

 

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Photo Credit: Flickr User heyFilbert, Creative Commons

For a longer time than I can keep track of anymore, and a much longer time than I would have expected, I have been in the shadows of faith. Not always, not completely, but often. I’ve never been able to pin its coming on any one specific instance or circumstance, it just arrived, all on its own, uninvited. But sometimes even uninvited house guests have their merit, and while I am not yet to the point of being able to say I’m truly thankful for the darkness, I am beginning to develop a hesitant appreciation for it.

It turns out there are more people in the dark than I thought, and being there myself has made me seek them out in ways I wouldn’t have before. Having questions, not feeling like God is there, struggling to understand why God does and doesn’t behave in certain ways–there are, and have been, many people who have been in the same place of wondering and wandering. Though I grew up in a Christianity-saturated environment, these weren’t topics that were wrestled with often. Since I didn’t struggle with them in any sort of significant way for most of my life, the absence of those conversations didn’t bother me. Darkness feels a little less lonely when there are others in it though. It’s not that I would wish darkness on other people, but if they’re in it too, it’s better to know we are not alone. Blogs and books, like Addie’s and many others, are a gift for the darkness.

As valuable as reading about people in the darkness can be, experiencing it is something different. Defining the darkness of faith is a tricky business, because it looks so different for different people. For me, the darkness has made me realize much of faith is not black or white but myriad shades of grey; it’s made me more okay with uncertainty, and helped me make room for other’s uncertainty as well. I still believe most of what I used to believe, but I cling a little more loosely to some of it. There has been a lot of value in being forced to reexamine how I approach my faith. Not “feeling” God has frustrated me, but has also made me realize that, like all relationships, there will be seasons in my relationship with God. During some I’ll feel close to him, during some I’ll feel farther away, and neither of those are objectively a result of me “succeeding” or “failing” at doing faith well. For all the good that reading the Bible and praying are, they are not magic ingredients to a faith I’ll always feel. True faith doesn’t work like that.

Perhaps the most valuable thing of all that I’ve found in the darkness is that God is enough. Even when it doesn’t feel that way, even when I’m sick of trying so hard and feeling nothing, God is still enough. Enoughness is who he is, part of his very essence and being. Always and ever, he is enough.

I forget that daily. Almost always, really. I want more of him and from him than I may ever get, but it’s because I already have enough of him for all that I need. Even in the dark.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. What faith lessons have you learned in the darkness?

Doubt is Not a Bad Guy

The other day as I was driving, I happened to be listening to a Christian radio station. I have a hard time not nitpicking Christian music as it is, and this lyric jumped out at me:

I don’t wanna ever doubt You

It’s a noble goal in theory, but in the face of real life, real problems, real heartache, it immediately struck me as unrealistic.

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Photo Credit: Flickr User Barbara Walsh Photography, Creative Commons

No matter how well we strive to follow Jesus, there will always be moments of doubt–maybe not doubting his existence, though that’s certainly a possibility–but doubting his plan, doubting his goodness, doubting how things play out in our lives and in the lives of those around us. I don’t think we’ll ever fully escape those kinds of doubts.

And, I’d argue, that’s not a bad thing. There are times when we learn more through doubting than we would in any other way.

Wrestling with doubt can be holy.

It can also be treacherous, which is why it gets portrayed as the Bad Guy. If doubt causes us to only seek out people and places that tell us our doubts are all valid and everything we’ve believed is a lie, it’s problematic. That kind of doubt is only enforcing what we may already want to hear. Perhaps even more dangerous is the kind of doubt that does nothing at all. Instead of doing the slow, hard work of confronting doubt and examining it from every angle, ignoring it moves us nowhere. It’s a grand stalemate, a lazy kind of doubt that’s afraid of finding any sort of answer, because those answers may be uncomfortable.

But doubt can also spur us to action. It can force us to reexamine, rethink, and possibly even renew what be believe. There is value in exploring how other people have dealt with similar doubts, no matter what conclusion they reached–there is good to be learned in seeing their process, in seeing echoes of ourselves reflected in other people’s stories. It doesn’t mean that our process or destination will end up looking the same, but there can be comfort in the commonalities.

 
This may not be a popular opinion in Christianity. There are no guarantees when we set out on a journey to examine our doubt, because doubt is messy and complicated and painful. But saying it’s always bad only makes us afraid of something any Christ-follower will encounter at points along the path. Presenting doubt as the objective Bad Guy makes people hesitant to talk about it, and can leave people feeling as though they are the only ones who have ever struggled with it. When doubt is presented as a likely part of the faith journey instead of an aberration, we create space to talk about it honestly in community, instead of struggling through alone. Talking about it doesn’t mean we, or our faith, will come out unscathed–there is far too much mystery in God and faith and grace for me to understand how two people’s seemingly similar paths can have such dramatically different outcomes–but it may mean we won’t come out alone.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. Have you encountered good in doubt?

Faith Beyond Feeling

“If God feels distant, guess who moved?”

It’s a saying that gets tossed around in Christian circles sometimes, and honestly, I’ve likely even said it myself at some point. Lately though, I’ve been pondering it, and am beginning to see it for what it is: A lie.

If Christianity made total sense, then yes, reading the Bible, praying, going to church, being in a Bible study, and volunteering would likely guarantee we always felt God’s presence.

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Photo Credit: Flickr User ZoeLouisePhotography, Creative Commons

Except Christianity often doesn’t make sense. It’s not a religion of checklists (though it may be treated and presented that way at times), making sure we tick all the right boxes so God hands us our Perfect Little Lives. There’s much more mystery and ambiguity to it than that. I love God, I want to know him better and follow him well, so I try to read the Bible and pray and serve him in various ways, but a lot of the time I’m pretty bad at all of those. And then he seems to go missing for a while, and the ways I used to feel him, though they weren’t big and flashy, don’t work like they used to. Even though I’m still doing “all the right things.”

Which means, I’ve been told, that I’m the one who moved…like I somehow messed up, and God is punishing me by not letting me feel his presence anymore.

I don’t think it really works like that though.

As someone who interprets the world largely based on feelings, I want to feel God’s presence as a real, tangible work in my life. He works that way sometimes, but not always. So I don’t think I’ve moved and God is holding back from me because of that; I think I’m finding my way to a faith beyond feeling.

A kind of faith that trusts God is there, that he is who he says he is, that he will do what he has said he will, even when my present reality may not bear the witness of it like I had hoped it would. It’s a kind of faith that knows there are seasons, some where God makes himself known through feelings, and some where God makes himself known in the complicated, uncomfortable way of simply being held by his grace.

There’s an easiness of “If God feels distant, guess who moved?” which is probably why we say it. We are sometimes, perhaps even often, the ones who wander away from God. I don’t think God ever really wanders away from us though–that seems to go against his very nature, of one who is love, who is always there fighting for us. He does seem to use unorthodox methods for getting our attention, so maybe it’s more that he lets it seem like there’s distance.

I’m not sure how this all works. I’ll never claim to understand the complexities of God.

But I don’t think we need to feel like we’ve failed when God seems distant. Do we always have to put the blame somewhere, either on ourselves or on God? Or can distance sometimes just be…a thing that feels true right now, even if we ultimately know that it’s not? And maybe it’s a way to a different kind of faith, a faith beyond the need to always feel it.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. How do you make sense of it when God feels distant?

The Freedom of Uncertainty

As part of the launch of her new book Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey is hosting a synchroblog exploring the idea, “I used to think ______ but now I think ______.” This is my contribution to that project. You can read other entries here.

Usually, when things fall apart, there is a reason. An ugly fight, a giant shove, a shocking secret.

And sometimes, things fall apart for no foreseeable reason at all.

It’s just what they do.

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Sarah Bessey’s new book Out of Sorts starts out with these words that so perfectly sum up my story of faith:

“Once upon a time, you had it all beautifully sorted out.

Then you didn’t.”

For most of my life, I thought I had faith pretty figured out. Having been raised in a Christian home and sent to Christian schools, faith was my first language. It was the way I was taught interpret the world, which, while in many ways a blessing, carries baggage of its own kind. Christianity was laced through everything I did. There was, and still is, something in it that rings inherently true to me, a knowing I can never fully describe.

That, at least, hasn’t changed.

Many other things have, though.

There was no inciting incident, no major tragedy or triumph to set me off on a path of wandering. It just…happened. And one day I realized, or perhaps finally admitted, that I had moved and no longer knew exactly where I was.

I’ve taken up residence here, though I still don’t exactly where this “here” is. It has a lot less certainty than wherever I was before. But I’ve come to a restless kind of peace with the uncertainty.

For as much as it is uncertain, it is also freeing.

Because I used to think there were far more wrong ways to follow Jesus than there were right ways, and now I’m not sure I, or any other humans, have quite so much say in that kind of “wrong or right” as we often think we do.

I used to think doubt meant I was failing at my faith, and now I think doubt can be good. It’s a sign I have something at stake, something worth wrestling with, something I’m not ready to give up even when there is more that doesn’t make sense to me than does make sense. Doubt means I’m still thinking, still engaging.

I used to think reading the Bible and praying and going to church earned me credit of some kind. They’re important for spiritual growth and community, certainly, but salvation doesn’t depend upon them. My faith does not cease to exist when I fail to read my Bible or pray consistently.

I used to think God likes me more than he likes other people, and I’m still working on losing this idea. He doesn’t like me more because I go to church or because I don’t do certain things. Following Jesus is not a race—there are no winners and losers, no competition to beat. Grace is wide, and long, and deep.

I used to think feeling distant from God was all my fault and was always a result of major sin or failing. It might be sometimes, but now I think there are seasons of faith, and they change sometimes regardless of what we do or don’t do. True faith exists beyond feelings and in spite of a lack of them.

I still believe in right and wrong, that there are ways we are to follow Jesus and ways we think look like following him but are actually the opposite.  The edges of what I hold to be absolutely true have blurred though, more so already than I ever thought they would, and I’m learning to hold those absolutes less tightly. “Different” is not as scary as I once thought it to be. There is deep value in exploring ideas we disagree with, even if ultimately we end up in the exact same place we started. At least we stretched ourselves, learned to see things from different angles. As Sarah puts it, “If our theology doesn’t shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we’re paying attention.”

Because life, I am certain, has more questions in store for me yet. It’s both a wonder and a terror that I will never be truly done sorting through faith, will never truly arrive. So these words, from the oh-so-beautiful Benediction of Out of Sorts, are one ones I will cling to, return to, and take as my own.

“I pray you would be an explorer, you would recover delight and wonder and curiosity about your faith, about God, and about the story with which you continue to wrestle.”

I’m never going to have this faith thing all figured out. But I will keep showing up, because I believe that God is bigger than my wrestling and wandering.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. How has your understanding of faith changed?