God's Boundaries

One question we all wrestle over is the legitimate confusion we have about suffering.  I know this guy who is a really bad dude; he hurts others and one would think that the justice system would stop his reign of terror.  It hasn’t happened yet! He keeps getting released from jail with a long list of instructions to follow, all of which he ignores. Even his grandmother (and you know how we Memes are about our grandbabies!!!) is scared of him.  I got a ticket for an illegal U-turn one time and was sure they were going to lock me up for life. What’s up with this guy?



I know this other sweet, loving family who seem targeted for suffering.  They’ve lost three family members in six months, their young child was diagnosed with cancer, their house burned down and the primary breadwinner in the family lost her job due to downsizing.  


When these crazy dynamics collide our community often asks what’s up with God.  Where is he? Why doesn’t he intervene? Why does he send suffering on the righteous?  Why don’t the bad guys get what they deserve? These are great questions and I get itchy with anticipation for the great discussions we have because of our community’s willingness to wrestle what they honestly wonder about God and his ways.


In the next few days we are going to unpack a few things.  But first, here’s a scripture for consideration:


What happened was this:  People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives.  They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.


So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.”  It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out.  And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them - the God we bless, the God who blesses US.  

~ Romans 1, The Message


Point one:  God has boundaries.  He hasn’t a codependent bone in his body.  He doesn’t interrupt the consequences of our choices like a helicopter parent.  But what he does quite consistently is this: he blesses us. However we parse out our thoughts on what God is or is not up to, I put a stake in the ground and raise a flag to remind me of this one true thing:  God made us and he blesses us. No matter what my eyes can see, I must interpret it through this filter: God made us and he blesses us. We can have all sorts of feelings about how life is shaking out for us and those we love, but this one thing we must factor into the narrative:  God made us and he blesses us. How have you either remembered or forgotten this when you are trying to make sense of suffering?

To be continued….


The Truth about Ourselves

But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth.  But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.
~ Romans 1, The Message



In the recovery world we have this marvelous process summed up best in the fourth and fifth steps:


4.  We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  AND

5.  Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.


These two steps help us deal with the most valuable truth of all - the truth about ourselves.  Yesterday I proffered an example of confused truth - using God’s word as a weapon to get what we want (no divorce) rather than as a surgeon’s scalpel in the hands of the Holy Spirit to perform heart surgery (on us not another).  I love how specific the steps are and I have born witness to the healing power of telling the whole unvarnished truth about ourselves to God, self and another trusted listener. Sometimes we get wrapped around the axle of what we want versus what we know.  The steps and God’s word help us refocus but neither can make us care enough to actually change our behavior. Nevertheless, there’s more:  


What happened was this:  People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives.  They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.


~ Romans 1 The Message


Let’s get real.  Are there any cheap figurines you have clutched in your hands for dear life?  They are not life.


Lipstick on a Pig

When things don’t make sense to us, most times we should assume that we are not stupid.  (There are exceptions; but let’s start with this thought - when you think something is “off”, pay attention.)  A common example of putting lipstick on a pig for me is when a couple in the middle of working through infidelity come to talk to me about God’s view on divorce.  We know a couple things about divorce from the scriptures: (1.) God isn’t a fan and (2.) God made provision for it in the Law.



It doesn’t sound like a problem for a pastor, right?  One spouse and usually both, are deeply worried about violating the covenant they made before God when they wed.  We can check off option 1 above - God isn’t a fan of divorce. Inspired by God’s way of seeing, I try to live in agreement with God.  I grieve over divorce too. I empathize with their grief.


But I’ve learned to ask follow up questions. Without fail the person most vehemently championing for the “God hates divorce” position breaks eye contact and all of a sudden finds my office-grade, coffee stained carpet fascinating when I ask him/her to rate their passion level for God’s command that reads:  Do not commit adultery.


See my point?  Something is off in this discussion; someone is not ready to talk truth.


A cynical person might suggest that the adulterer in this situation might be using the scriptures as a way to manipulate his/her spouse to stay in the marriage.  At a minimum, surely the adultery is worthy of discussion if we are concerned about God’s way of seeing.


Instead of using scripture as a supporting document for our own preferences, I would suggest that we realize that even on thorny issues like divorce - where we know God loves us so much he hopes we never have to go through that suffering AND he made legal provision for it - we keep our eyes on the bigger picture.


Don’t put lipstick on a pig.  


How might you be putting lipstick on a pig?  Any incongruencies in what you believe versus how you are living?  Anything that you are trying NOT to notice?


But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth.  But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.

~ Romans 1, The Message


A Prayer For Monday

Today, I pray for you and yours…



Lord, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

Who do we deceive?

Ourselves, Lord.



We deceive ourselves when…

We believe we are too far gone for you to reach down and scoop us up in your arms

We judge ourselves and find our own lacking reason from condemnation

We manage our own anxiety with veiled attempts to push it onto some other poor schmuck

We use our anger to fuel our action

We believe our emotions on face value and run headlong into reaction without pause

We distrust our feelings without thanking them for getting our attention



Woe are we in our confusion and chaos!

Bring us home Lord, home to you.

Grant us rest, as you promised.

Wisdom as you intended.

Save us and ours!



Chaos to Clarity

Continued from previous days…


Once I focused on my pastor friend’s concerns (and not my own), I inquired about his insights into 1 Timothy (the passage that had him all hot and bothered in previous conversations).  He had none. This is understandable. During times of severe duress we shouldn’t expect insights. When we are stressed out, our body is preparing to fight, flee or freeze. It’s not usually our best time for theological discussions.  



“Do you remember the verse you quoted me the other day?  The one from 1 Timothy?” I asked.


“Yeah, of course, me and my shame.  I used to love those verses to guide me as a leader in good standing when faced with a problem with one of the other leaders in my congregation.  Now that I fear I am THAT GUY who cannot manage his family, these verses no longer feel so cut and dried. Standing on the other side of these words, I’m angry.  I feel judged. And that makes me feel guilty for the way I judged others. But mostly, I just feel like a failure who has disappointed God. Now I have to decide what to do about it.  Quit my job? Come clean with my daughter’s situation? She doesn’t want anyone knowing her business. But I’ve used other situations just like this one to force a deacon to resign his position.  What a mess!”


“Ok, well, before we get to that, can we go back to 1 Timothy?”  I asked. He agreed. Instead of turning to the “instruction manual for leadership” (his words not mine), I went back to the verses I quoted earlier this week:  This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ - and I’m the biggest sinner of all.  But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life.”  1 Timothy 1:15-16 CEB


We read it and he fell silent.  


“Look, I do not know what to tell you about how you manage your church.  I do have some thoughts about your daughter, if you ever want to hear about that.  But what I do know is this - Paul probably had a particular context for writing what he said in reference to leaders.  This was a letter to a particular person. And, it’s not the only thing Paul said. Just look at the verses we’re reading!  Jesus shows endless patience. He took the biggest sinner of all (according to Paul), Paul, and taught him that Jesus came to save sinners and show mercy.  I do not know what to make of your church policies, who am I to say? But I believe that if your policies do not align with endless patience and mercy, well, you might want to re-evaluate.”


He replied, “You think this would make a good sermon?”


“For me or you?  For me, yes. For you, heck no.  These are my thoughts, not yours.  You were perfectly ok with removing people from positions in the church if their kid got busted.  You cannot go preaching a sermon until you wrestle with what you really believe and why you believe it.  You cannot all of a sudden change the policy of your church just because it no longer suits you. What about this?  What if you just decide for now that it’s time to rethink the way you folks are handling families that hurt in your church?  Right after I get you the resources to get your kid into treatment! OK? Let’s do the critical things first!”


“Ok, what should I do for her?”  


Tomorrow, we pray.  Because we all have family situations that are painful.  And we often fail to make choices that account for patience, mercy, and right action when said action is inconvenient.


Better than Jesus?

I set up a time to chat with my pastor friend and quickly learned the following:  his daughter was not in treatment, he had sent her out of state to “visit” her grandparents and she was terrorizing them with her out-of-control behavior.  He was still deeply concerned about losing his job.



“So what part of this do you want feedback on?”  I asked.


“What should I do about my job?”  he countered.


“You know, I have more resources that might be helpful to your daughter than I have experience about your job security,” I replied.


“I cannot think about that until I stop obsessing about this job thing,” he confessed.


“Ok,” I said.  I decided to start where he was, not where I wished him to be.


And this is a principle that my family crackup is teaching me.  We have to be realistic about where each of us is in life; it is a waste of time to think otherwise.  I wanted this dad to be strong and brave and loving and willing to go to any lengths to help his kid. He wanted that as well, but in the moment, he was distracted with his crisis of conscious about how he had handled previous situations as a leader and the implications of applying those same principles to himself.  I can judge him for this (my perceived lack of proper priorities) or I can try to be helpful. Helpful is in my core value wheelhouse; judging is not.


My teammate and son, Scott, has a philosophy of ministry he refers to as “assessing tolerance.”  What Scott means, I think, is that Scott wants us to consciously exercise both discernment and wisdom when listening to grieving, traumatized people who need to make hard calls.  Before a meeting with a suffering family, he often reminds me that part of our work is to assess how much “truth” a family can tolerate before we bring out the howitzer of information we have acquired and shoot them with it.  I wish I understood this perspective decades ago. I wish I had paid more attention when people I love taught me that we were on vastly different pages as it related to our core values. I wish I had acquired more acceptance AND more detachment - it would have saved us all a lot of trauma.  I have a principle for days when I wish I had known stuff that I did not - I remind myself: when we know better, we do better. Look, here is the skinny on this: I really did want to judge this dad for his priorities. I thought he should get his kid to rehab first and manage the fallout second.  But if I push my agenda, then I won’t be available to maybe have a chance with helping with rehab. Instead, I took a deep cleansing breath and tried to help him with the issue that holds his attention. This is what it looks like to assess tolerance, put your big girl pants on, lay down your weapons and try to serve.

Keeping it Real

One of the principles of scripture study that I try to practice is avoiding cherry picking verses and using them out of context.  Having recently preached a sermon while cherry picking a verse out of context myself, I am feeling a bit bruised as I write this devotional.  Nevertheless, the principle is important, even if I carelessly violated it. Fortunately, I did remember this principle and practiced it as I tried to respond to this broken-hearted pastor/dad’s call.



I grabbed my bible and began to look at the entire book of 1 Timothy.  It wasn’t long before I was challenged by 1 Timothy 1. In the first chapter, Paul is setting the stage for writing Timothy, his young disciple, a letter filled with practical advice to help Timothy create a faithful congregation.  It was of particular interest to me that Paul took the time to remind Timothy (surely this is a rehash of old news for Tim) that he, Paul, was only faithful because Jesus gave him the strength to be faithful. He reminded Timothy of his (Paul’s) wayward youth of persecuting Christians; and then he set forth a doctrinal truth:  This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ - and I’m the biggest sinner of all.  But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life.”  

1 Timothy 1:15-16 CEB


Does this mean that Paul is disqualified from being a supervisor (CEB language) in the church?  Or does this mean that it is ok to have once been naughty, but make sure to take care of those issues in order to move into a leadership position in the church?  And while we’re at it, let’s consider that lengthy list of qualifications:


So the church’s supervisor must be without fault.  They should be faithful to their spouse, sober, modest and honest.  They should show hospitality and be skilled at teaching. They shouldn’t be addicted to alcohol or a bully.  Instead, they should be gentle, peaceable, and not greedy. They should manage their own household well - they should see that their children are obedient with complete respect, because if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church?”

 1 Timothy 3:2-5 CEB


Must. Be. Without. Fault.  This caught my eye and I began flipping through the gospels, garnering a bit bigger scriptural context.  I began listing all the faults that people found with Jesus while he was in the midst of his three years of public ministry.  Jesus taught with authority, exorcised demons, raised the dead, healed the sick, and recruited a core team for building his church.  He turned water into wine, he attended dinner parties, and he fed 1,000’s out of a kid’s lunchbox. But he was accused of working on the Sabbath, colluding with the devil, hanging out with bad company, yet he had his authority questioned at every turn and was eventually found guilty despite no evidence of wrongdoing and hung.  I was ready to call my friend back. Tomorrow we will talk about all this and more.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Years ago a pastor in a large church called me to discuss his daughter’s substance use disorder.  He was very concerned that if his congregation found out about his kid’s “issues” it would negatively impact his ability to lead.  He quoted a passage of scripture that spoke to the requirements of a church leader,

“So the church’s supervisor must be without fault.  They should be faithful to their spouse, sober, modest and honest.  They should show hospitality and be skilled at teaching. They shouldn’t be addicted to alcohol or be a bully.  Instead, they should be gentle, peaceable, and not greedy. They should manage their own household well - they should see that their children are obedient with complete respect, because if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church?”  

1 Timothy 3:2-5 CEB



His concerns were warranted.  It turns out that during his brief tenure at this church he had himself used this same passage to dismiss several deacons who served on the church’s deacon board.  He had been quite proud of his integrity on these situations. He had even spoken about his leadership style and these particularly tough calls at a pastor’s conference.  


Now he was having a crisis of faith.  Did he need to resign his position? Was his daughter’s substance use issue a reflection on his ability to manage his home?  He was also eaten up with guilt. One of the deacons dismissed from service was a guy whose own son had committed suicide related to his struggle with opiate addiction.  Why in the world, he mused, had he thought it was a good idea to kick a father when he was already down for the count? All good questions.


I didn’t know what to say to him so I asked for some time to pray and process.  Something was bugging me about the application of that scripture and I needed to consider the matter at length.  I also questioned whether I was his best source for information; my interest lay primarily with his daughter and family.  But the challenge of trying to figure out how that scripture might fit into this situation intrigued me and we both decided that I could at least take some time to see what I came up with for feedback.


My experience with faith is that when I am confused it is often the result of not understanding a spiritual principle (or three) that would help me sort out a confusing text.  I can only speak for myself, but as a general rule, God makes sense; he is not chaotic. He is also mysterious and let’s be fair - the scriptures are not the easiest of reads.


Have you ever found yourself in a position of having a personal crisis disrupt your own strongly held theological beliefs?  What did you do?


Can this marriage be saved?

When I was a little girl my grandmother had a monthly subscription to a magazine called “Ladies Home Journal”.  It had a monthly feature entitled, ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’. I read it with rapt fascination. The format was always the same - first one spouse, then the other would share their perspective. Next, the therapist would “weigh in” and finally the conclusion would be sort of a “what happened afterwards” wrap up.   I tried to predict what “the expert” would advise this couple in advance. I noticed a pattern that “the first person seems right until the second person speaks” - and was thrilled when I found a proverb that spoke to my experience. Although many of these marriages were “saved,” some were not. I understood that not all relationships are salvageable.  Sometimes the marriage is the mistake.



But this is not what I learned at my grandparent’s church.  Divorce was a sin, not an admission of human fallibility. Divorce split up your family AND required that you change churches.  Or, stop going to church at all. I thought the “Ladies Home Journal” was making more sense than the pastor on this one but my grandmother assured me I was wrong.  (She could not explain to me how her pastors kept running off with women who were not their wives.)


My grandmother taught me that love is unconditional and so are relationships.  A “good” Christian girl didn’t get divorced. I assume this is the same message she gave my mother.  But in point of fact, “good” Christians do get divorced - at about the same rate that everyone else who gets divorced and doesn’t go to church.  My grandmother, who I love with all my heart, gave me bad intel. I understand that she was doing her best, teaching what she had been taught, but she got this one wrong.  I just didn’t understand how she could get it so very wrong when she was serving on her fourth pastor search committee because of the infidelity and eventual DIVORCE of the three previous Senior Pastors!!!  This made me feel like I was on crazy pills.


It is also spiritual malpractice.  What I have learned is that when what I am being told is a spiritual truth adds chaos and confusion rather than clarity to a situation, I need to step back, take a breath and seek additional (wise) counsel.  Choosing counsel is a big deal; I need to seek counsel with a broad range of understanding and one that isn’t operating within the same “system” that I am living in. Spiritual truths can withstand scrutiny.


Tomorrow we are going to unpack that concept a bit.  In the meantime, can you think of times when you have been confused about what you were taught or read in scriptures that did not jive with your reality?  How do you work through that?


Honesty may be the best policy but it sure is hard to practice it in real time.  In my family of origin we have historically embraced conflict as a form of intimacy - in the worst of ways.  This has been our family legacy - one I had hoped to avoid. Over the decades I worked pretty hard to try to stay connected with my family.  I was bossy and codependent and tried to smooth over conflicts which were not mine to manage. Other times I was passive-aggressive, trying to sneak in suggestions for change in the hopes that we could establish relational equilibrium and avoid conflict.  I cajoled. I bargained. I even tried to change the system. My greatest disappointment in myself are those times when I did not trust my own instincts, choosing instead to try to mitigate harm rather than addressing it openly. Innocent people were hurt in the process of me trying to avoid the breakup of a family system.  None of it worked long term. My family of origin is all busted up. We sit in opposing camps and even on my best days I doubt reconciliation will occur.



Oftentimes I reflect back on my efforts to maintain relationship and wonder if those efforts were a waste of time.  What seemed like a sacrifice for love now feels more like being played for a patsy. But here’s the thing - I bet if you talk to the “other side”, they feel pretty hurt too.  And therein lies the problem with honesty. We are all spin doctors in our own personal soap operas. We misunderstand ourselves and one another.


In the next few days I’m going to try to unpack a few principles that I am learning as I try to lean into this difficult disappointment. I am going to share a couple stories, poke around in some passages of scripture, and maybe make a few seemingly random points. But my end game will be to bring this all together in a way that I hope challenges the way we think about our faith in light of our daily experiences. I fear that some of what we believe is wrong and it actually tempts us to be less honest with God, ourselves and others. It also makes it less likely that we will be able to utilize our faith as a guiding light.  I hope to address these issues and help sort through some of the confusion of believing things that the scriptures do not actually teach and then trying to live THAT gospel.


Do you struggle with telling yourself the truth about what you believe and how you live?  Why or why not? Do you have any concerns about your own ways of relating to others and to God?  How does this affect you personally? Professionally? Within your community?



Michel Quoist wrote a book named “Prayers” (Sheed & Ward Inc., 1963) that I have appreciated for decades.  The author, Father Michel Quoist, was a Catholic priest, theologian and writer.



I love the structure of this book; he poetically leads us through his core conviction that if we knew how to listen to God all of life would become a prayer.  Here is one of his poems. It presents both comfort and challenge. I like to imagine that after a particular sorrowful day, this is what God has to say to me. And to you….


Son, I have heard you.

I am sorry for you.

I have long been watching your closed shutters.

Open them; my light will come in.

I have long been standing at your locked door; open it;

You will find me on the threshold.


I am waiting for you, the others are waiting for you, but you must open, you must come out.


Why choose to be a prisoner of yourself?

You are free.

It is not I who locked the door, it is not I who can open it.

...For it is you, from the inside, who persist in keeping it firmly barred.

Michel Quoist, p. 114-115 Prayers



May we all accept the help; enter the challenge. Amen


Building a Tribe

Throughout the scriptures, God is all about the tribe.  Unfortunately, we forget that and try to over personalize some of what the bible teaches.  But take another look. His message is around tribe. Rarely does God call out an individual, he works primarily through the tribe.  Yes we know the names of the individuals that God has called to serve - but the vast majority of God’s people throughout history have worked in small, steady, faithful ways to serve him and their communities.  



The beauty of a tribe is that we don’t all have to be believing and behaving well on the same day.  My son and I co-pastor a community called Northstar Community. We have our off days. Heck, in 2017 we had an off year filled with family suffering and heartache (and a new and amazing grandson - do you want to see my pictures?).  


But what I have observed is on the days he or I were at our lowest, someone in our community was faithfully stepping up to fill the gap that our inability to be fully present created.  I like to think that we do the same in return. A family will get all out of sorts with one another - over a serious issue, not just petty stuff. We have had times when either Scott, me, or another community member was invited into the family to help work through the issue.  Many times this calms down the chaos and allows for healing.


This isn’t some grand thing.  It’s just tribe doing its thing.


Build the tribe.  I do not know how we survive without it.


What I do not know

I do not have a bunch of answers for the issues that arise from our human limitations while we simultaneously desperately want to believe.  For Christians, we wrestle with the notion that we are created in the image of God. We are taught that we have the capacity to “bring it” - which to me means that when God calls us, we can respond in obedience AND participate in his bigger story.  And I love the story. It’s a story of God’s presence and love for his people. It’s a hope for tomorrow as we wait confidently for God to do his thing.



I have so very few answers.


But I suspect that this “not knowing” can be a beautiful thing, although scary to admit.  It goes back to Brene Brown’s work. She encourages us to be step into vulnerability even as we brave the wilderness of sometimes standing alone for what we believe to be right and true.


What is more humbling than “not knowing”?  But we do not know. That is a truth.


Historically we can look back and name all the times we did what we thought was right, only to learn that we were wrong.  How many times have well-intentioned men and women tripped up and ended up on the wrong side of history? Too many times to count.


Why would we be different?  


When we get real about all the things we do not know, could be wrong about, etc. etc., then we are free to get curious.  Lose judgmental opinions. Gain empathy and compassion. Or, experience the very word of God:


Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  Hebrews 11:1 NIV


We are coming to believe that God loves us and doesn’t leave us; we hope for His work in our world; we are certain that the future is still in process; just because we cannot see and do not know does NOT mean grace is not happening.  How can you get more curious?


Heroes of Faith

Once I grew up and took responsibility for studying the scriptures for myself, I discovered a wide world of opportunity to learn from a variety of scholars and theologians.  This reading and studying has been a regular practice for me since Pete and I joined the church as young newlyweds.



Here is one thing I know.  I know this without a doubt.  God uses messy people. Here are a few examples.


Yes, Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  BUT God went with them. He gave them a consequence, but he neither stopped loving them or abandoned them.


Noah built a big boat that allowed for many to survive the flood.  But he disembarked and got wasted, bringing shame to his children.


Moses was both a murderer and a rescuer of his people.


Rahab was both a prostitute and a protector of God’s people.


Paul persecuted Christians and then became one.


Peter was the first to name Jesus as Savior but Jesus also told him to “Get behind me Satan!”


And then there is Hebrews 11.  Paul writes it as a recounting of the heroes of faith - -and just look at the list!!!  They are all a mixed back of messy humanity.


So why.  Why would we ask people to live under the heavy blanket of shame associated with telling people that if you believe you can only belong if you behave?


This has tremendous implications for how we teach, how we build community, how wrestle with our own limitations and especially how we deal with the limitations of others.


What are some of those from your perspective?

God is not like Santa

With all the love I can hold in my heart, I say unto you:  my early church experience was fraught with misdirection. Even the paintings of Jesus were more reflective of the neighborhood my grandparents inhabited than the real Jesus.  We can forgive our narcissistic tendencies to turn everyone into reflections of ourselves, but what is much more difficult for me is to deal with the wounding of what I was taught.  



I was taught that God was a lot like Santa.  He only loved you if you were good. I have never been particularly skilled at goodness.  From my earliest years my own self-image was one of a little girl who wanted to be good but kept getting put in tough situations where she had to speak up and out against corrupt authority figures (I know - grandiose!  But I’m trying to present my child’s perspective.). Or, as my brothers say, “She is so bossy.” But no one ever told me I was good.


Can you see the problem?


When we teach people that in order to belong we must believe and that if we believe properly we will be good (as defined by the behavioral constructs of the culture and church we belong to), the inevitable outcome is that even the most sincere among us will regularly doubt whether or not we belong.  Or believe “correctly.” This discourages honesty. It creates a vacuum for teaching real life skill sets and I believe decreases our capacity to embrace and support transformation.


What were you taught (or not taught) about belief and belonging?

What must I believe to belong?

It is incredibly confusing to folks when what we say does not match with what we actually do.  Of course, we are all inconsistent at times. But you know what I mean! If you are a pastor and you talk about prostitution as a sin (in practically every sermon you preach) but get caught in a hotel room with a prostitute and it turns out you have spent $50,000.00 of your church’s money on prostitutes over the course of your career - that’s a problem.  



If on the other hand, you behave like a human - desiring to love Jesus and others and respect yourself and messing that up in a variety of ways on a regular basis, well, that’s human.  When you mess up, after a bit of defensiveness maybe, a time or two of blaming others, if eventually you start talking about how you messed up and what you are responsible for and how you plan on making amends - again, you are not only a human but you are practicing believing in the sacred act of humility and repentance.  Who wouldn’t want to belong to a tribe that lives like this? I think there are some hints about belief and belonging in these two illustrations.


Before we get to that, let’s take a few moments and consider when we have personally acted in ways that seem to contradict our beliefs.  What did we do? How did we feel? What were we thinking? Did we have a path forward? Was it littered with shame? Was it restorative?


If we are going to be part of a faith community, these are important questions to ask because they will define in many ways our faith experience during times of crisis.  Whether we are community members or leaders - these questions will impact our capacity to love humans and participate in their healing.


Believing and Belonging

From an early age, I have been confused about the criteria for believing in order to belong to a faith community.  My early exposure to faith was a mixed bag. My parents did not attend church or ever speak of spiritual matters. (Other than when my dad was cursing.)  My maternal grandparents were Baptist through and through so I went to church with them during my summer visits. It was in their church that I learned what white grape juice and stale crackers tasted like, Jesus was a white man with a long light brown beard, heathens were not to be trusted but if you got baptized all was forgiven and you could belong (My grandfather was deathly afraid of water so he was an outsider for 30 years before he screwed up his courage after a heart attack and took the plunge. However, he panicked and flailed around which resulted in the pastor taking a plunge and the two men splashing around in that baptismal pool for quite awhile before choir members rushed to their rescue.), all other denominations were heathens especially the Catholics, you don’t go to church unless you are dressed to kill (that was confusing), baptists drink (often excessively) but not together, and... baptist pastors have this habit of running away with either the choir director, pianist or church secretary (there was a stretch when they were three for three in that department).  I learned a lot of other lessons too, but who has the time to read all that?!? Anyway, all of this was going on with the backdrop of sermons that preached: behave. Behave. Behave. Like I said, it was confusing.



When my husband and I were newlyweds we joined a beautiful Southern Baptist church in our community and loved it.  Our Sunday School teachers became spiritual parental units for us - loving and encouraging us and seeing potential in us that we didn’t even dare to dream might be true.  They challenged us too. They taught us the scriptures and cast a vision for what it might mean to bear the image of God and take it with us in our daily lives. They sacrificed for us, serving our entire class Sunday lunches around their large farmhouse table made of pine and waxed until you could see your reflection in its surface so long as you moved aside the steaming plates of food and the baskets of Mama John’s yummy yeast rolls.  We met on Thursday nights as families for bible study (with the babies) and the women returned on Friday morning for a women’s study. These folks were NOT confusing. They were clear, consistent and oh so very kind. In their presence, everyone felt like a favorite child who belonged. If I have any instincts about what it means to love Jesus and follow him, it is because they planted them.


So what made one experience so confusing and the other so clarifying?  To be continued….


A Simpler Approach to Spirituality

I’m going to close with a simpler way to process your spirituality if looking at all the individual puzzle pieces (as we’ve done the past few days) isn’t all that interesting to you.  

What constitutes a good day?  Do you ever ask yourself that question?  What do you need to do today, that you can (in reality) do, that would contribute to experiencing a meaningful day?  

It tends to be that we’re so bogged down trying to get done the things that need to be done that we don’t think about building meaning into our day.  Or, we don’t consider what it would take in order to create space to create meaning in our day.  

Of course, building meaning into our day such that we spiritually flourish requires a little bit of planning.  But it’s not just about planning- it’s about intentionality.  Intentionality is at the heart of a flourishing spiritual life.  

Are you living as you intend to be living?  

Spend some time with that question.  It’s not an easy one to answer.  And, the answer will always be a little bit yes and a little bit no.  

Life will be more spiritually enriching if we’re living as we intend to be living.  This means we regularly evaluate how we’re living and intentionally seek to adjust the areas where things aren’t going well.  This process allows our lives to become more full, more spiritually enriching, in part because we confidently know that we're approaching our lives wholeheartedly.  That requires courage.    

If we’re living intentional lives then we will experience ourselves as being more whole, or unified, persons because there will be, over time, fewer discrepancies between our desires and our actions.  There will be less hypocrisy, less internal tension, and the joy that comes from knowing we’re doing the best we can.  

Every Moment Holy

Every moment is holy.  Or, perhaps, every moment has the capacity to be holy.  Holiness is about distinctiveness, it’s about being “set apart.”  God called Israel, in the Old Testament, to be His people, meaning, they were to live with by a unique set of values that pointed others towards God.  

We lose track of individual moments quickly.  They pass us by while we’re looking elsewhere.  But each individual moment grants us the opportunity to be kinder, gentler, more patient, more gracious, more attentive versions of ourselves.  The world is not a gentle place so even a small, seemingly insignificant display of compassion can dramatically impact another person’s day, or life.  

Perhaps we miss these small, significant opportunities to fulfill the call to be a people “set apart” while we anticipate grander opportunities to put our goodness on display.  Or perhaps we (wrongly) assume we have no goodness to display, and give up the fight.  Whatever the case may be, focus on the smallest possible way in which you can exercise your distinctiveness.  

If we can “focus small” then we will be far less likely to miss grander opportunities.


16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  
James 5:16, NRSV

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

Confession is a term that points us in the direction of a number of spiritual practices.  We can’t confess until we’ve done rigorously honest self-reflection, for instance.  We can’t confess without surrounding ourselves with community who are willing to hold us accountable to our certain way of seeing, who we, for our part, trust to do so.  

The 12 steps provide us the mechanics required to carry this process out (in step 5 and its surrounding steps).  We take a moral inventory, we share it with God and a trusted accountability partner.  

The Bible casts a more obviously spiritual vision for confession (though, of course, the 12 steps are profoundly spiritual), a vision which includes healing, forgiveness, acceptance, redemption, restoration, and community up-building.  That's a powerful list.  We can't over-emphasize the importance of confession.