When Religion Makes You Think Too Much

 

It’s worth noting at the beginning my sensitivity to this topic. It began in 2012 when a well-intentioned, but misguided church pastor literally walked away from my dying father’s request for baptism.  There is no more anger. Over the years, I have understood this moment for what it was.

Fast forward six years.

Dana and I were working a  three-month term of volunteer service at a facility in Santiago de Compostela, Spain known for its welcoming atmosphere, peaceful environment, and Christian foundation. This is not a place that pushes religion on you, but it ideally operates as if Jesus managed it. We often said we hoped visitors experienced Jesus when they walked through the door. It’s also worth noting that the founders of this facility were abroad on business during these three months, and had they been there, none of this likely would have happened.

As I mentioned, Dana and I were volunteers working with several full-time staff members. We greeted visitors, helped them with travel issues, helped them understand the city, and other basic needs. Volunteerism is a commendable thing, but you also have to remember your place. You are there to assist, not necessarily lead. You are on someone else’s turf.

Several weeks into our service, a young man from Portugal came in. After helping him with some logistical issues, he began a conversation along spiritual lines. The young man mentioned he’d been on pilgrimage for three weeks, stopped in three churches to request baptism, and was denied each time. He was confounded how this could happen.

“Can you baptize me here?” he asked.

I asked a few questions exploring his faith a bit more. My judgment was that he’d had a genuine experience out there that fully merited his request.

I should have handled it right then and there. It was so exciting. What a moment this will be, I thought. We will remember it forever. It even crossed my mind that this was the reason we were called so far from home. Yes, I should have handled it right there. Were it to repeat, that’s exactly what I’d do.

But in the moment, I decided the best protocol was to quickly explain the scenario to a full-time staffer and let him and others move this process forward. There was no question in my mind they’d do so, and it was the respectful thing to do.

So I led Carlito into a conversation with the senior staff member on duty and went back to the desk, listening intently, and excited about Carlito’s decision.

Carlito described his frustration with the three churches who would have no part in his baptism. He did not wish to be catholic. He wished to be baptized in the name of Jesus. I counted this a real sign of his understanding.

At this point, it might be helpful to explain what baptism is, and what it is not.

It is not:

•Membership in a denominational church

•A magical moment of conversion

•Even particularly necessary for  one’s salvation

It is:

•A symbolic profession of faith carried out as a result of a previous experience

•Agreement that one believes in Christ Jesus, His deity as the Son of God, his death as atonement for sin, and his resurrection ,and place at God’s right hand today

•A milestone moment on which a Christian can reflect

Our staffer, a well-educated, deep-thinking scholar and Christian evangelical from Tennessee walked Carlito though conversation. I eventually heard him explaining how baptism is an act of community, and should be performed in community. He encouraged him to return home, find a church, explore his faith further and invest in a place where he could serve. There was so much talking, and so little acting.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It would be the fourth time Carlito was refused baptism. He left later that day never knowing the difference.  I was sick to my stomach.

So much theology!

It doesn’t take a special set of circumstances or a certain environment to profess your faith in Christ. Jesus doesn’t care if you are fully immersed, or sprinkled, or if you are in a church of five thousand, or with a friend in the woods. Jesus cares for the condition of your heart, and asks that you take a step in faith to know Him.

Our faith has never been about the rules, or the guidelines, or the principles. Just as it is not about your resume or list of achievements. We come to the place where we realize that we are not enough, and we need a helper. A simple decision, not a ceremony.

Don’t overthink Jesus.

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No Matter What, No Matter Where

But forget all that … For I’m going to do a brand-new thing. See, I have already begun! Don’t you see it? I will make a road through the wilderness of the world for my people to go home and create rivers for them in the desert. –Isaiah 43:18-19, The Living Bible 

 

Sitting there almost mesmerized, it was as if we were eye witnesses to freedom.

Whatever your level of spiritual maturity there’s an uneasiness that goes with visiting new churches and we’d spent most Sundays during 2015 as visiting strangers hoping to remain low-profile. We’d watched one church fight itself into a split, and another required that an elder certify our salvation for membership so the wounds were fairly fresh. We’d settled into this new church for more than three months now and sensed it might be the one.

But something in the atmosphere was different in the moments leading to this service. The worship team entered the platform more focused than usual and volunteers moved swiftly up and down the aisles greeting late-arrivals and newcomers and exchanging occasional glances as if nodding green lights of approval. There was a buzz in the air as a visual five-minute digital countdown launched ticking down the seconds on massive screens to each side of the platform.

My heart was completely unprepared for what happened next.

As the worship team made its way through a verse or two of a song called Reckless Love, individual members of a group known as Celebrate Recovery*, recognized for its work helping break habits, hurts, and hangups, walked out stage front one after another. Each held a large cardboard sign marked in heavy black ink with words describing a life they’d left behind. A man I’d known for years walked out before hundreds and humbly held a sign labeling himself a liar, thief, and drug pusher. A young woman followed with her sign, that read “crushed by the guilt of abortion.” Another came next, the sign declaring him a sex addict. “So depressed I tried suicide twice,” read another. One after another they came frontward with labeled identities and moved into rows on the platform. There must have been fifty people on stage.

This is the bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed, I thought, and tears streamed a steady flow. 

As the last member took his place in line the music reached a crescendo and in a single, coordinated motion each face changed expression and every sign flipped in unison. Now, the new sign for the drug pusher read, “clean, self-employed, Celebrate Recovery leader.” The guilt of abortion was replaced with “forgiven by God’s amazing grace.” A former sex-addict is declared “porn-free.” Hundreds stood cheering in the most anointed moment I’ve known.

In the midst of it all came the strangest feeling of misbelonging. Watching as the group members came one by one presenting themselves in a void of pretense acknowledging past mistakes, I felt guilty observing as if a judge. I belong up there with them, and the apostle Paul’s reflection on his own place as chief of sinners came to mind. Never have I witnessed a more defining example of God’s redemption, grace, and the power of testimony among average, ordinary, and broken people— the kind God has always used most.

***

There was a great sense of gratitude two years later when Celebrate Recovery invited me as guest speaker for their five-year anniversary. I’d just finished my first book focusing much on my own experience with chronic depression and the celebratory pilgrimage I took along the Camino de Santiago and in the early stages of recovery. It was that long five-hundred-mile walk where God put me on a new path to understanding, a genuine relationship with Jesus, and a burning appetite for His truth. And like so many in Celebrate Recovery I was set free from guilt, shame, and a debilitating depression. Because they’d had such an enduring impact on me from their presentation years earlier I worked for days on a thoughtful message I hoped to leave with them. What’s the truest thing I can share? As it turns out, it’s the same message I remember feeling right there in the church pews two years earlier.

We all carry a sign every day. Whether we have the courage to acknowledge, and do something about it is up to us. God’s not looking at our resume, our past performance, the number of chamber of commerce awards on our office wall, or even the number of times we knew what was right, but did the wrong thing anyway. Wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, a single, heartfelt cry for help unleashes the same power that created the universe. No one is beyond forgiveness or another second chance. Our past doesn’t define us, but it refines us. He promises to make a way through the wilderness.

Indeed, we’re all in recovery.

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We Were Genuinely Crying Out to God

 

Josh White has faced difficulties that few will ever know. He served a tough tour of military service in Iraq where his Humvee took a direct hit, fought the night terrors of PTSD, and battled depression and addictions through the years readjusting to life in a civilian world that he says has no rules or structure for war veterans.

But none of it compares to the moment three weeks ago when he stared helplessly at the last $2 in his hand and feeling a complete failure.

He remembers looking at his wife in bed that night and apologizing.

“The last thing I remember feeling that night was complete emptiness and embarrassment. There was nothing else.”

Just two hours before, Josh did something extraordinary. He’d given their last $2 away.

***

Josh and Brandi White

Things had never been easy during Josh’s return to civilian life. But he’d persisted enough to get his life headed back on track. He’d been drug-free more than a year, re-established a relationship with his ex-wife, gone from homeless to having a nice three-bedroom home, landed a job with the city maintenance department, and the family now had two new working vehicles.

“I felt like we’d really turned the corner in so many ways,” he said.

When an injury prevented Josh from working  earlier this year, the family’s financial situation was tight again, but nothing ever challenged Josh like the Veteran’s Administration letter he received on May 18.

The VA claimed he’d violated the conditions of a felony release from years ago and ruled to terminate his benefits immediately. The ruling caught him completely off guard, especially because of his involvement with a local program that helps keeps veterans on the right side of the law, and he’d been faithful to the program.

“There was no way it could be right, but it was a government agency’s word against mine, so what are you going to do?” he said. “It was devastating.”

As the bills quickly grew, Josh’s biggest burden became not knowing how to provide his family with the basic necessities. “I remember looking up one day and just saying, ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.'”

Through his most difficult times with PTSD, Josh said he never questioned his faith in God, but would sometimes wonder what he’d done to deserve so many tough breaks. “I knew I wasn’t doing all the things I needed to do, and going to church and being active in church was one of them,” he said.

“I just remember looking up one day and saying, ” ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.’ “

As they realized the desperate nature of their situation, Josh’s wife looked at him one Wednesday afternoon and said, “Looks to me like we ought to be back in church.” He agreed.

“When we pulled into the parking lot that night, I reached into my pocket and found the $2, looked at Brandi, and said, ‘This is it. That’s all there is.’ And we made the decision right there to give it to the church. I just said a quick prayer and said, ‘Lord, bless this and bless it abundantly.’ And we gave it away and that was that. We were broke.”

The next four days were some of the most difficult the young family had faced.

“My only thought was I’m not going to be able to take care of my family, where is my next dollar going to come from, where is my family’s next meal going to come from? I was injured, depressed, mentally exhausted and couldn’t stop wondering what I’d done to deserve all this. But I can honestly say the night we gave the money away I gave that situation to God and completely turned it over to Him. There was nothing else I could do. I was empty, and genuinely crying out to God.”

Five days later Josh received another letter from the VA and a local senator that read just as shockingly as the first.

The agency made a mistake in its ruling against Josh, the letter said, and found cause to award him $43,000 in cash benefits. When Josh checked his online bank account the records showed a direct deposit made less than six hours after he’d given the $2 to his church.

His first thought (and fear) was there had been some terrible mistake, so he immediately fought through the maze of bureaucracy and automated telephone voice prompts to clear the confusion. When someone finally came on the line, Josh told them the money wasn’t his.

“The lady on the other end of the line said she couldn’t explain the money, and saw no real reason for it, but also could find no reason the agency should reclaim it. She even went and got her supervisor and the only advice they could offer after a long time was that we should use the money to pay our outstanding debts.

“You can imagine all the things running through my mind at that moment,” he said.

The family has since paid $18,000 in debt and eliminated a $2,000 loan taken to pay monthly bills last May, and they’re using the unforeseen circumstances to start a new life.

“We never lost faith during the whole time. It wasn’t easy and I’ve had my share of shortcomings, but we never lost our faith. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to explain the money.”

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You Can’t Depend on Church People

 

An old photo of the first church I ever attended back in our little country community. It was razed nearly 40 years ago. I was christened there.

An old photo of the first church I ever attended back in our little country community. It was razed nearly 40 years ago. I was christened there.

For most of last year, and up until just a few weeks ago this year, Dana and I attended a small, denominational church just two blocks down the road from our home. We stopped going there about six weeks ago, and returned to the church where we’d attended before.

As I rounded the corner in the Wal-Mart deli yesterday, I ran smack-dab into the preacher whose church we’d been absent from for nearly two months. It was the first time I’d seen or talked to him since we were there.

After a minute or two of awkward small talk, he said they sure had missed us there.

It put me in an uneasy position in a public place. If they’d missed us so much, why were we having this conversation in Wal-Mart instead of a phone call four weeks ago? Why was I now getting put on the spot feeling like the bad guy? If you really missed me wouldn’t you have let me know a long time ago?

I’m not mad about it. But it just wasn’t true.

***

I had another random encounter with a different church friend a few weeks after returning from the Camino de Santiago. We exchanged a few fairly impersonal pleasantries before he said how much he enjoyed following my pilgrimage and how he “couldn’t wait” to get together and hear more about it. Haven’t heard from him since. Don’t expect to. I don’t think he really meant it.

***

Two years ago we attended an Easter church service with a family member when just before the service began an older gentleman was walking around shaking hands with people. You could tell he was especially looking for those who hadn’t been there before. When he came to me, he offered this warm greeting:

“It’s my job to go around and shake people’s hands this week. We’re really glad you’re here.” So heartfelt. So genuine.

***

Four years ago my father lay dying in a hospital bed just as he’d experienced one of the most genuine Christian experiences/conversions/revelations (choose whatever word you like) I’d ever seen. And for the first time in 71 years asked to be baptized. When the church pastor of another family member arrived supposedly to lead the tradition representing my dad’s decision, he soon called my mom and me out in the hall to tell us the very last thing I ever expected.

Because my dad was bedfast, it would be impossible to “fully immerse” him in water. Anything less violated the pastor’s personal baptism doctrine. He was sorry. He couldn’t help us. And so he left.

I could share dozens more stories like this, and as you can imagine, have had a volatile relationship with church (little c) over the years. But never with the Church (big C). So this probably isn’t going where you might think. I love the Big C Church.

***

I had conversations with many people last year, especially along the Camino, who because of experiences just like this, have separated from the church. People said more than once “the church has a lot to answer for.” I’ve learned it’s SO not true. Jesus already answered for the Church in a big way. We celebrate and recognize His answer in our behalf through the coming week.

So much of my church philosophy changed when I changed the way I looked at church itself. As I grew and matured, I viewed it not so much as a place I go to receive, but much more as a place to give and serve. It’s more outward than inward. More about Him than about me.

This side of Heaven, the church is made up of people. We’re all imperfect. We’re going to let one another down on a regular basis. It’s no different than anything else we experience every day, and we have to look past the small stuff.  The church isn’t bad. Its people just aren’t that great at fully living out its mission. It’s been that way from the beginning of time, and will be that way to the end.

We try. We fail. It doesn’t mean we stop trying.

There were periods in recent years when I stayed out and away from church. I let the small distractions get in the way of the bigger reality, and after a time realized how much I missed being part of Church – not the traditions or the regal recitations or even the cheerleader messages or multi-media entertainment so much of the “church” now emanates – but the genuine worship that happens only in a collective group. I missed that.

Dana and I joined a church last week. After five years of not being on “church membership roll” whatever that means, it was kind of a big deal for us. We’re happy about it.

I had to learn you can’t depend on church people.

But the Church will never let you down. It’s perfect.

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9/1/2013 All Are Welcome

A thoughtful and insightful post about “servant-hood” from a talented fellow blogger who sees beyond the surface. Well done.

ForeWords

World Hunger Emphasis (Community of Christ)
Ordinary Time (Proper 17)

Jeremiah 2:4–13; Psalm 81:1, 10–16; Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16; Luke 14:1, 7–14

Any reading of the Gospels reveals this defining characteristic of Jesus: He loved a party. Of course, that raised more than a few eyebrows back then, as it does for many “good, church folks” today. Jesus was often confronted with the way he and his disciples comported themselves, in comparison especially to John the Baptist and his disciples. But Jesus was not John. His agenda and “gospel” was a different, yet related one. We pick up the action in chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel:

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely…. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them…

View original post 1,002 more words

On God and Suicide

I’ve spent a good part of my life wondering what God thinks about certain things.

When I was a kid, I wondered what God thought about all the bad things I did. Sins they were called. It’s what the pastor at our church talked about most of the time. This thing called sin. It was everywhere, and I was bad because I did it, he said.

Even as an older adult, I still contemplate God’s thoughts. When I was divorced several years ago, I wondered how disappointed He was in me. Certain things I read said I’d just filled out my own prescription to Hell.

Today, I wonder a lot about how God’s going to bring all this worldly mess together for His glory. He will do that, no doubt, but I don’t have a clue how.

Rick Warren

Rick Warren

About the time I was 30, though, I was wondering something that I didn’t even know I was really wondering. Until, that is, Pastor Rick Warren wrote his best seller Purpose Driven Life.

It was Warren’s subtitle that really caught my attention … What on Earth Am I Here For?

When I saw Warren’s book on the best seller shelf of my local bookstore, I devoured it, because it was exactly what I’d been wondering for years.

It’s one of only a few books that’s really had a profound effect on my life for the good, and since that time, nearly 20 years ago, Rick Warren has carried a special place in my heart, as is the case with so many others across the world.

And so last weekend, we all collectively mourned when we learned that his 27-year-old son Matthew took his own life, a result of chronic depression.

Matthew Warren

Matthew Warren

Sometimes very bad things happen to really good people.

When such “everyday things” happen to prominent people, it makes us wonder. The Warren family’s circumstance caused me to ponder a  “God question” I thought about for many years.

Did Rick Warren’s son go to hell because he committed suicide?

The church teachings to which I was exposed as a child and young adult all basically gave an unfortunate, but profound “yes” to a this question. The justification behind the doctrine? In a nut shell, murder is a sin, the man took his life, and by taking his own life could’ve never repented for said sin. Harsh, but simple and true, the sin preachers preached.

It’s the academics of God’s word, I think they believed.

Because the authority figures taught that teaching, I bought it for the longest time. It made me sad, but I believed it because that’s what the men behind the pulpit said.

I’m glad I don’t believe this today. And thank God he’s not the God of Academics. Actually, he’s God of everything, but you know what I mean.

I didn’t know Rick Warren’s son, and truth is, I don’t know where he is today. I hope he’s in Heaven. But I do know this. He wasn’t doomed for Hell because he killed himself.

How do I know this? Because rather than counting mistakes and messes you and I make against us, His nature is forgiveness. Unquestionable, unconditional forgiveness, circumstances be damned.

Matthew Warren‘s mistake was an unfortunate one. Terrible timing with collateral damage everywhere – friends, family, you name it.

But it was a mistake, and that’s all it was. And mistakes don’t necessarily send you to Hell. I believe that, and I’m staking my life on it.

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The Parable of the Blessing Box

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in Heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” ~ Matthew 7:7-11

***

(Blogger‘s note: I’m not sure if it’s possible to plagiarize a parable, but just for the sake of full disclosure, this parable, or a form thereof, has been passed through the generations. It may be most noticeably found in Bruce Wilkinson‘s Prayer of Jabez. The parable takes on subtly different variations with each telling. This just happens to be mine.)

Blessing Box

William was 72, and he’d just died.

And he now found himself face-to-face with a man who greeted him as if he’d known him all his life.

***

On earth, William had been a good man. He was faithful to family, attended church regularly, and respected by all who know him. For William, life was pretty easy. Most days he felt blessed beyond what he deserved, and so for the many magnificent things in his life, he always felt a little guilty.

No one ever knew it. He just carried it around, and kept it in a place where no one ever saw it.

Lord, why have you blessed me with so much?” he often asked in his prayers.

And as a result, he mostly coasted through life, grateful all the while, never asking for much. To have asked for more would have been an insult, he thought.

Blessing  Box

At this moment, William stood face-to-face with Peter. William was in Heaven. Light was everywhere. Will saw colors he’d never seen before, and the music was so beautiful it took on a new dimension. William could actually see the music in the air.

Peter was standing by, waiting for William’s arrival, to give him a tour of the place.

Quickly in, among the majestic beauty of golden streets and sidewalks of pearl, William noticed a facility resembling what a warehouse looked like on earth.

“What is that place?” William asked.

“Nothing we’re interested in seeing,” Peter replied.

But William was drawn to the warehouse.

William will have nothing of Peter’s ongoing tour until he can see the warehouse.

And Peter, as he has so many times before, finally relents.

He opens the door and William almost trips over himself to see what’s inside.

 He sees millions of white boxes with red ribbons wrapped carefully around each one. Each box has a name on it.
William runs to the “J” aisle (his name had been Jones on Earth) and finds a box with his name. He opens the box and Peter hears the familiar deep sigh, he’s heard so many times before.
Inside the box, William’s just found all the blessings God wanted to give him. But they remained in side the box because JOE NEVER ASKED FOR THEM.
Fortunately, for William, there no regrets in Heaven. Just more wisdom every day.
Blessing Box
“Now Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me, indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep me from the harm that it may not pain me!’ And God granted him what he requested.” 1st  Chronicles 4:10
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