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.

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?

Saying Yes to Jesus (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. In this week’s, I ponder what it really means to say yes to Jesus–which doesn’t always mean selling all our stuff and becoming a missionary, but that’s how I’ve often felt.
Saying Yes to Jesus
When I hear stories of people selling all their stuff and moving to another country to become missionaries, I want to like them. I really do. I want to be able to applaud their sacrifice, their willingness to give up all they’ve known, their dedication to following Jesus even though it seems so extreme. Except most of the time when I hear those stories, I get kind of annoyed at these other people’s piety, and then feel kind of ashamed that I’ve never done anything so extreme for Jesus. Almost every time I’ve gone to another country, it’s been for a vacation, not to serve Jesus.

There are two rather different stories of Jesus calling his first disciples. In the book of Matthew, it takes all of two verses (Matthew 4:18-20):

 

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

The book of Luke records things differently, and I appreciate the perspective it offers. Instead of instantaneously dropping everything to follow Jesus, Luke 5 shows that it takes a bit for Simon Peter to come around to the idea.
Keep reading at the Midweek Encounter blog.

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?

A Change of Faith

Some people are thrown into Strange Spaces of faith because of a major crisis, perhaps an illness or a death, or maybe some large question that has barged into their life and refuses to go away. These, I understand, can absolutely see why they send people into a tailspin of doubt and anger and questioning.

I have no excuse for my entry into a strange faith space, no major tragedy or question begging to be answered before I can move on to somewhere new.

Whatever the reason though, I’m beginning to think it’s needed. Socrates is credited with saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I wonder too if the unexamined faith is not worth having.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Ella's Dad, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Flickr User Ella’s Dad, Creative Commons

It feels as though I have been taking my faith and examining it from every angle, holding it up to see each side and nuance. Not so that I can ultimately set it down and walk away, but so that I can come to know and embrace it more fully.

There are big questions to ask, of why I hold this faith and what it means for how I order my everyday life, how I approach the world and all the complexities that come with simply being human. There are questions of how I read the Bible, what place I give it in my life, what Christian community means and what it looks like on a very practical level. How do I make decisions, big or small? How do I treat people, and is it reflective of what I believe about the love of Christ? How do I answer the big questions of why we exist and what the purpose of life is?

So many people have attempted to answer these questions and will continue to do so, and I can’t help thinking that no one has or ever will get all of these faith matters completely right. Which is a jarring thought, given what I had subconsciously believed for much of my faith life. Because what if there is no one perfectly correct way to follow Jesus?

I’m becoming more okay with that thought, what it looks like for other people’s lives as well as my own. There are core pieces I haven’t given up, nor do I think I’ll ever. But even those must be revisited, reexamined, if only to reaffirm where I stand. So much though, more than I would once have ever thought, I’m learning to hold loosely. Different really can be okay.

A reshaping of faith is not an entirely enjoyable process. It can be uncomfortable, convicting, and confusing.  Examining often comes with reshaping, discovering pieces may not fit at all anymore or may fit in a different way. Yet, despite my issues with prayer and the Bible, my questions of the practicalities of how to follow Jesus (and what does that phrase even really mean?), I have never seriously considered completely walking away from my faith.

For all the confusion it sometimes causes me, there is something to this Christian story, something to this God and this Jesus, that keep pulling me back. To grace, to mercy, to forgiveness, to a love so big I will never understand even a fraction of it.

There is no other story I would rather wrestle with.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

Jesus Loves Me, But Do I Love Him?

How do you love a guy you don’t really know?

I’ve read the Bible, I’ve studied theology, I’ve facilitated Bible studies, I’ve listened to sermons, and I’ve read books. Yet do all of those amount to really “knowing” Jesus?

More than that, do they amount to loving him?

Photo Credit: Flickr User rachel_titiriga, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Flickr User rachel_titiriga, Creative Commons

The intangibility of the Christian faith is something I have often struggled with. I want to see my prayers, I want to hug a tangible person-Jesus, I want to hear his replies to me.

But that’s just now how this Christianity thing works.

So I find myself eating instead of praying, writing down my prayers in hopes that those ones will maybe stick, eating cake while reading the Bible in an attempt to remember its goodness–because all of those have a physicality, an immediacy about them.

“It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” is a phrase that’s sometimes used to describe Christianity. Except all of my other relationships are with people I at least sometimes see in real life, or at the very least communicate with here and there.

Not that love is supposed to be immediate, or can be seen with the human eye. But the reality is, I say I love Jesus, but I don’t really know what that means. It sounds good. It’s what good little Christians are supposed to say.

Yet how do you love someone you don’t sit down across the table from and eat dinner with, or text to see if he wants to hang out on Friday night? Jesus loves me, but do I really and truly love him?

In my relationships with friends and family, I (somewhat, and very imperfectly) know how to love them. Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages outlines 5 different ways people give and receive love–words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch–which I’ve found to be helpful when I think about how to care about my friends and family.

Jesus does not have a love language we can discern, though. Or maybe he has all of them, since he is love. Whichever it is, all of the ways of expressing love have a limit when it comes to how they apply to my relationship with Jesus. I can tell him he’s great, I can do things that please him, I can give him gifts (sort of?), I can spend time with him (again, sort of, but since we can’t hang out on a Friday night, this is a tricky one for me to figure out), and…well, if someone figures out how to give Jesus hugs, please let me know.

So what does a love with an invisible person, a deity, look like? In concrete, tangible ways? 

What do you think? (Really, I want to know.)

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

The Fail-Proof Way to Keep CHRIST in CHRISTmas

Christmastime comes loaded with pressure. Pressure to host the perfect party, pressure to bake eight different kinds of cookies and then package them prettily, pressure to make Instagram-worthy memories with the people you love. And then, for Christians, there’s the pressure to keep the CHRIST in CHRISTmas.

Except no one actually has the fail-proof way to do that.

Reading the Christmas story and Advent devotionals, going to church, and praying are all ways to help keep Christ in Christmas, but even those can fail. Or maybe I’m just a particularly bad Christian. But I suspect I’m not the only one who has found that even the best of intentions to keep the focus of Christmas on Jesus’ birth sometimes don’t turn out the way we want them to.

Because here’s the thing: At the end of the day, we’re still human. We can try try try to keep Jesus at the heart of Christmas, but our intentions will always go askew.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Ben Husmann, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Flickr User Ben Husmann, Creative Commons

Being human is the recipe for mixed-up intentions.

Which, when we let it, can lead to a lot of guilt. We beat ourselves up over getting excited about presents and looking forward to Christmas dinner, worry that our Christmas parties don’t reflect our Christian faith enough, and fret over singing along to songs about Santa. And, weaved among it all, we subtly fear our celebrations of Jesus’ birth aren’t good enough. We haven’t tried hard enough to bring him glory and to keep the focus on him through it all.

Occasionally it seems tempting to just quit trying to focus on Jesus, and instead throw up our hands, succumb to greedily wanting all the presents ever and yell at our family when they mess up the Christmas ham.

Or, we could realize there is no “fail-proof Christian way” to celebrate Christmas. As with many of the practices of Christianity, there’s not a perfect way to approach Christmas with completely pure intentions. I don’t think we need to take down the tree, return the presents, and give away all our food in order to keep Christ in Christmas.

Our outward actions this time of year may look much the same as the rest of the world, but our reasons for doing them can be drastically different. Perhaps it is in the doing of these actions that our intentions get purified.

Maybe, when we undertake these activities with the knowledge that God rejoices in our celebrations, we can do them in good faith that he knows our why of doing them. We can give—and receive—material gifts realizing that we haven’t earned any of it, and that we’d never, in all our strivings for good intentions, be able to earn the gift Christmas is really about. We can celebrate Christmas in assurance that we serve a God who is not out to make us earn our standing with him, but, because of Jesus, he sees us as good and clean anyway.

A God who loves us, Christmas parties, presents, mixed-up intentions and all.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. How do you handle the pressure to keep Christ in Christmas?

Advent Longing

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sung “O Holy Night,” or heard it on the radio or overhead in the mall. The words are ones I know so well that I rarely even think about them as I sing.

But this year, they are striking me anew. As someone who loves the Christmas season and all its festive cheer, but also reveres the holy anticipation of Advent, I wondered if maybe this time of year would be what I’ve been looking for lately–that elusive “God feeling.” Because despite the commercialism that is so easy to get swept up in, there is still something sacred about this season.

Photo Credit: Flickr User ItzaFineDay, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Flickr User ItzaFineDay, Creative Commons

I can’t say that God has showed up in a boisterous, ruckus fashion, clanging his way back into my life with shouts of “I’m here! I’ve been here! Can’t you see me?” In still, small ways though, I have been noticing–and appreciating–his goodness, and the words of “O Holy Night” so beautifully express my, and the world’s, longing for more.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

This year especially, it seems like the world is weary, on edge, waiting for all to be made right–and the song speaks to that as well. Because Jesus wasn’t born just to be a King and a Savior, though he’s those things too. He’s something much closer.

In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger…

Even in the midst of the messes of our lives and of this world, at this time of year, I’m reminded of why this faith I hold so imperfectly, sometimes bewilderingly, but dearly–matters. I’m reminded why Jesus matters. He matters because he brings hope to weariness and brokenness and trials. Because he is making all things new, and reminding me afresh of the truth and beauty of these words.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. Are there any Christmas carols that are striking you anew lately?

You Are Not Disqualified

I almost didn’t publish my last two posts.

 

After all, I’m a Christian. I work at a Christian company and am heavily involved at my church, including being a youth leader. There’s a Bible passage stating, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned…”

 

Giving God a Piece of My Mind” and “I Stopped Reading My Bible” are not exactly “good little Christian” titles.

 

As I sat in our first youth gathering of the school year, I wondered a bit if I should have published them. If maybe spewing my insecurities and doubts and issues with God onto the Internet was not a wise move for a youth leader, or even just as a Christian.

It crossed my mind that maybe they were words I should have kept to myself, because maybe putting them out there made me a bad example, a bad youth leader, a bad Christian. Maybe they disqualified me, and maybe I should have waved goodbye to those high school and middle schoolers and walked out the door.

 

Then I wondered if it would’ve been, in some way, worse for me to not have published them. Nothing I wrote, of  not really knowing what the deal is with God and having mostly stopped reading my Bible right now, was untrue.

Which is exactly why I decided to publish them anyway.

I chose to put the messy, ugliness of what I’ve been thinking and feeling into a public space, but doing so wasn’t what caused me to think and feel that way. It was simply putting words to what already was.

 

But would it really have been the publishing of those words that disqualified me? Or the thinking and feeling and them?

 

As I sat there, it hit me: I am not disqualified. 

Those messy thoughts and feelings and questions I have about God and following him do not disqualify me from serving him. They don’t disqualify me from hanging out with high school and middle schoolers, they don’t disqualify me from greeting people at church, they don’t disqualify me from being a Christian. 

 

And here’s the thing:

YOU are not disqualified either. 

 

I don’t know what your messy thoughts and feelings about God and Jesus and prayer and the Bible are, I don’t know what you’re arguing with God over right now, I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve read your Bible. But I do know those struggles do not disqualify you from serving him and being used by him.

If they did, there would be no pastors, no seminary professors, no Christian conference speakers. No one who follows Jesus has it all figured out, all the time.

God is in the business of using imperfect people. They’re the only kind he ever has.

 

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. Have you ever felt disqualified from being used by God? How were you reminded that you’re not?

I Want to Fall in Love with Jesus

“I love Jesus.”

It’s the Christian thing to say.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I really mean it.

Photo Credit: Flickr User S. Reachers, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Flickr User S. Reachers, Creative Commons

In the past few months, I’ve met two people who love Jesus so much they cry when they talk about him.

It’s not that I think the mark of truly loving Jesus is crying when you talk about him, but it communicated something significant to me.

These people know what’s it like to love Jesus in a way I don’t yet.

I do love him, in my own way. The choices I’ve made about how I live my life are, in small ways at least, reflections of that. But I’m not sure I know what it’s like to be in love with Jesus. To feel it so deeply inside of me that I never lose it no matter what my day or month or year has been like. To be so full of love for him that it’s positively spilling over into every.single.thing that I do. To love Jesus infectiously. 

I can say that I do, but I don’t know that I really mean it.

There is no magic wand to wave to get me from where I am with loving Jesus to where I should be, want to be, need to be. These people I met who cried when they talked about how much they love Jesus have been through stuffDeep, dark, soul-wrenching stuff, and I can’t help but think that’s part of what got them to where they are with being in love with Jesus.

Is that the only way to really fall in love with Jesus though? I can’t entirely believe that it is.

 

Loving people that you see and talk to and spend time with in a tangible form is not so hard. You hang out with them, laugh with them, hug them, eat with them, show up at their house when they’re having a bad day.

But one of the most difficult things for me about Christianity is that we say we love this person who came to earth in a bodily form, but is no longer here in a bodily form. I’m still not sure what it means to love someone I never see or laugh with or hug. 

Because most of the human ways of showing love don’t work with Jesus.

 

So I don’t have answers here, because I’m still figuring it out. I can say that I love Jesus, but I’m not entirely sure what that means. One answer might be that we love Jesus by loving others, and I think there’s some truth to that–but I also think there’s more.

The kind of love for Jesus that makes you cry when you talk about him is not achieved merely by loving others. I’m just not quite sure how it is.

Til next time…

~Brianna!~

p.s. What do you think it looks like to really love Jesus?