When Scriptures Say Things We Struggle to Believe

I will give thanks and praise to You,

For I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139:14 Amplified Version

I wonder if these verses make you shiver; if they are irritating to you; if you totally cannot relate to this perspective. I STILL struggle to believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I SAY that I know full well that God’s works are wonderful, but I struggle to believe that my own choices have not ruined the wonderful work that God “supposedly” did when he knit me together in my mother’s womb.

As part of my recovery I choose daily to practice believing things - including this - that are difficult for me to accept. I return to this passage trusting in something bigger than I can understand, acting on faith that this is true regardless of how I feel. As an act of discipline, I try to order my thoughts, my emotions, and my behavior in response to this belief, not my internal angst. Some days are better than others in this regard. We do not need a visit from Freud to understand that it took some doing to teach me that I was afraid and fearful but not wonderful. We are uniquely created to understand that we bear the image of God. This knowledge is forgotten, distorted, lost for most of us as we grow up in a world that prefers comparing and competing over cooperation and compassion.

What happens when we are assaulted with experiences that do not support our wonder-full origins? We survive. We study the world and give it what it demands from us. We create a personality that seeks to either fit in, fight or flee the world around us. This is survival of the fittest and our definition depends on what our environment requires of us. It is NORMAL for us to build a personality, a way of being in the world. It is INEVITABLE that, at some point in our lives, we will be shocked to discover that we are at war within ourselves, that our lives are unmanageable, and we need help. Transformation requires that we enter a period of reconstruction in response to the destruction that a broken world encourages.

Am I going to continue to rely on the messages my brain holds onto from its years of studying people on earth? Or am I going to make a decision to change my perspective because I believe in something bigger than me?

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….