The Church I hope to pass on to my children

Creative Commons: keeva999,

Creative Commons: keeva999, “Country Church”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about legacy. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the church; more specifically, I’ve been thinking about what sort of church I’ll be leaving my kids.

Leaving.

This is an interesting word, isn’t it?  It’s interesting because there has been quite a bit of talk lately about people leaving the church.

Earlier this month, the Pew Research group released a National study that found:

Overall, 35% of adult Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religiously unaffiliated. Far more Millennials say they have no religious affiliation compared with those who identify as evangelical Protestants (21%), Catholics (16%) or mainline Protestants (11%).

Fully 36% of the youngest members of the Millennial generation – those between the ages of 18 and 24 when the survey was conducted in 2014 – eschew an affiliation with organized religion. This youngest group was not eligible to be surveyed as adults during Pew Research’s initial Religious Landscape Study in 2007. But the older cohort of Millennials – those born between 1981 and 1989 – was surveyed that year, when they were ages 18-26. In 2007, 25% of this group identified as religious “nones.” Among this same cohort, now ages 25-33, the share of “nones” has increased 9 percentage points and now stands at 34%.

This trend has been true on a denominational level, as well.

Recently my wife and I attended our Denominational district assembly where we were told that the Nazarene Church in the US and Canada had shrunk by 43,000 people over the past 10 years, and our district had struck 23% over the same period.

All of this begs the question, “Why?”

The “why” isn’t very easy to get at. People are complex and diverse, and their reasons for leaving are equally so.

However, in 2009, a protegé of Chuck Coleson, a man by the name of Gabe Lyons, gave us a window into the answer when wrote the book Un-Christian.

Lyons’ book dealt with the Church, with those who refuse to attend, or those who have left, and what their perceptions of the church might be, as well as the reasons they left.

His findings were that the Common Perceptions of Christianity were that Christians are:

91% Anti-homosexual

87% Judgmental

85 % Hypocritical

75% Too Political

72% Out of Touch with Reality

78% Old Fashioned

70% Insensitive to Others

68% Boring

Now, I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. Nor am I going to pretend these present a full picture as to the exodus of Millenials from our churches.

I am, however, wanting to share my hope for the church moving forward.

I want to dream, for a moment together, about what the church could look like as we hand it off to the generation that is inhabiting our nurseries. After all, everything we do today will affect my kids, and their kids. The issues we tackle today will benefit them, and the issues we ignore today will be issues that compound and are forced upon them to deal with.

And so, as a Father, I wanted to spend a few moments and talk about the church I hope to be. I want to share what I dream the church will look like for my children one day.

1.   Inclusive

I hope to be part of a church that no longer pushes people away. I hope to be part of a church that welcomes in the messy, and eats with those who are culturally shamed and refused.

I hope to be part of a church who welcomes into the community of believers the drug addicts. The single moms. The abortion clinic doctor. The Democrat. The Republican. The pot-smoker. The recently divorced. The frequently divorced. The over-eater. The under eater. The alcoholic. The attention seeker. The over eager. The unreliable. The food stamp user. The Bentley cruiser. The prescription medication abuser.

I hope to be part of a church that welcomes into the community of believers the biblical literalist. The evolutionist. The same-sex couple. The overwhelmed, newly married couple. The Doubter. The overly confident. The apathetic. The poor.

I hope to be a church that welcomes each person in, knowing what unifies us is Christ. Knowing what convicts us is his spirit. Knowing what provides the soil for the difficult spiritual work is the love and acceptance of the spiritual community.

2.   Justice oriented. 

I want to be a church that seeks out the oppressed, and diligently fights against injustice.

I want to be a church that is willing to live in the uncomfortable reality of someone of a different race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

I hope to be a church that’s willing to mourn with the family of a boy unfairly treated by police.

I hope to be a church who mourns with the family of a police officer shot in the line of duty.

I hope to be a church that fights against a system that oppresses based on color of skin.

I hope to be a church that mourns the life of the Afghani child killed in a drone strikes.

I hope to be a church that mourns with the family of a fallen soldier.

I hope to be a church that supports soldiers dealing with PTSD and depression long after our government has abandoned them.

I hope to be a church that refuses easy answers, and a church that asks hard questions.

I hope to be a church that chooses Christ and his Mission over Politicians and their schemes.

I hope to be a church that listens to the cries of the oppressed.

3.   Confessional

I hope to be a church that accepts that we are a broken people, filled with broken hearts, and wounds that cause us to lash out at one another.

I hope to be a church that allows us to confess our short comings to one another. To speak the struggles of our hearts. To name the issues that bind our wrists. To encourage the forward movement of a people who can hardly stand by themselves, but who find strength and courage in numbers.

I hope to be a church where pastors no longer feel the need to put on a mask of perfection, but can live out their calling to be a wounded healer.

I hope to be a church that lets her people bear their scars, and a church which nurses the wounds of the broken.

4.   Forgiving

And in the moments when we hurt, I hope to be a church that practices the sacred practice of forgiveness.

I hope we can be the church that forgives freely, and without any expectation of return.

I hope we can be a church that forgives past the point of convenience.

I hope we can be a church that sees our oppressors as humans created in the image of God.

I hope we can be a church that forgives, even when culture tells us to retaliate.

5.  Loving

I hope we can be a church that lives out Christ-like love. A love that says, no matter what you do, no matter where you go, no matter what you say, you are loved.

I hope we can be a church that loves out of a deep understanding that we were first loved, even at our most unloveable. A church that recognized we were welcomed into the family by no right of our own.

I hope that we can be a church that lives this love out in a real and tangible way in a world that is desperately seeking love. And I hope to be a church that realizes this sort of love is a bit chaotic and messy, and hope to be a church that loves anyway.

Friends, lets become this church. If not for ourselves, for the sake of our children.

And when we do this, maybe- just maybe- we’ll find our youth returning to the fold.

On Wyoming, and experiencing peace together.

Creative Commons:

Creative Commons: “Un nuevo viaje!” by Andrés Nieto Porras

On Wyoming and Experiencing Peace.

Somewhere along the line, we got this image that the best way to experience God was to do it alone. Whether through worship, through prayer, through devotions or through confession, most of us have spent the majority of our spiritual lives building walls that isolate us from others.

We grieve alone.

We sin alone.

We try to experience God alone.

But try as we might, we’re never quite able to experience peace alone.

///

I have made the drive from the Midwest to the West Coast twice.

The first trip was made as recently graduated college student, idealistic and feeling as though I was in complete control.

The second, as a recently hired pastor, anxiously packing and carrying the possessions of a wife and 18 month old little girl to a city I had spent a few hasty hours interviewing, late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, with a beautiful congregation.

The first trip, beginning one June morning, was done with two of my closest friends. We packed into an old Ford Taurus and started West on I-70. Our destination was a wedding in Northern California where we would celebrate another close friend’s wedding.

Along the way, we found ourselves caught in a rocky mountain snow storm, witnessed the brilliance of the stars in the Utah desert, the brilliant lights on the Los Vegas strip at night , and frigid wet of the Pacific followed by the warmth of a bowl of San Francisco Clam Chowder.

The second trip was made with my Father-in-law. Being winter, and not wanting anything to do with the Rockies in January, we decided to take the southern route; old Route-66.

Pushing west, an overloaded mini-van and a moving truck, together we witnessed the beauty of the Texas Basin, the oasis of Flagstaff in the midst of a sea of red clay, meteor crater in Arizona, and the beautiful rolling hills that run along “I-5” in California.

There was a distinct moment during each trip out West when I remember being awe-struck by the sheer beauty of what I was seeing, and then became overwhelmed with gratitude that I was able to share this experience with someone else.

///

Peace.

We yearn for it, don’t we? Our efforts are dedicated to finding it; often finding that our searching is in vain. And so we keep searching for it through books, through music, through exercise, or through long drives at night.

After failing more times than we want to admit, we find ourselves believing maybe we haven’t pushed the right buttons, or maybe we lack enough self-discipline.

What if peace isn’t what we’ve been taught it is?

What if this counter-intuitive peace was so powerful and so beautiful because it has more to do with the collective whole rather than the individual?

What if peace was never intended to be found alone?

In a sermon about the Kingdom of God the peace it brings, Pastor Tim Keller talked about peace this way:

“God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent… The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. The more interwoven they are, the stronger and warmer they are. God made the world with billions of entities, but he didn’t make them to be an aggregation. Rather, he made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with one another.” 

It’s this communal experience of peace that prompted the angels to proclaim “Peace on earth.” The word used there was “Eirene.” It’s a word used to describe a collective peace; this is peace on a national scale.

Eirene shows us that Christ didn’t come to save you, and he didn’t come to save me. He came to save us.

When the church is acting in one-accord and when it’s threads are tightly woven together, there is a peace that is present in the midst of the people who goes beyond any explanation, and defies any logic.

Kingdom peace, in all its beauty, will never be found through escape; it can only be found through communion.

///

With the wedding a success, we began our trip back to the Midwest. I had the lonely responsibility of driving the grave yard shift from Salt Lake City to Denver Colorado. The road stretched for miles with no turn in sight, and we found that the only change for miles was a slow and steady rhythm of small hills that rose and fell like a small child peacefully breathing. Couple this with the soft hum of the tires and I quickly I found myself to be the only one awake.

It was dark.

Then came Wyoming.

The Sun began to creep up and cast the full range of reds, oranges and blues along the eastern sky directly in front of me. I was witnessing art in progress.

This moment was sacred, it was peaceful and I knew it was a gift.

Disappointed that I would be the only one to witness this sunrise, I hopefully glanced over at my friend, Chris who was sitting in the passenger seat, and saw that without my knowing he had woken up and was silently soaking in this moment with me. We witnessed the slow birth of beauty, and experienced a quiet peace.

That was 6 years ago, but Chris and I still talk about that sunset to this day.

Originally published in Standard,  February 22, 2015 (WordAction Publishing Company: Kansas City, MO). All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

The Necessity of Stories: A response to my open letter

I recently found myself at the receiving end of a post gone viral. For someone who has a very small social media platform, it was quite an eye-opening experience.

I wrote words that meant a great deal to me. I asked questions which were very personal and were questions which found a home in the deepest parts of my soul. I made myself vulnerable. I opened myself up and I quickly realized the questions I asked both resonated and offended in equal measure.

I subsequently spent two weeks talking with those who agreed with me, and more often, listening to those who disagreed with me.

At the end of it all, I don’t harbor ill-will or feelings of anger against anyone. For the most part, people were very Christlike- if not passionate- about their disagreement with me, and in a time when we need more passionate, Christlike disagreement, I respect them greatly for their fervor.

I have, over the past two weeks, also been thinking about how I wanted to respond to those who were offended by my asking tough questions.

Many have done a fantastic job explaining why it is very Biblical to question authority, particularly those in Spiritual leadership, and have done a beautiful job of citing Scriptural examples of this, and so I don’t feel the need to rehash this.

I do, however, think there is another aspect of this anger which must be addressed; this being the larger issue of our willingness to hear and respond to people’s stories and experiences within our communities.

We all love a good story. 

Whether it’s a book, a movie, a comic, or a podcast, stories and the characters within them, do something to us few other mediums can. They evoke within us feelings we can’t suppress (and we love them for this).

We’ve all experienced the power of story, haven’t we?

I still remember tearing up as a 10-year-old when Goose dies in the arms of Maverick in Top Gun (don’t judge me!).

goose

I still remember the feeling of rage when Tom Robinson is convicted of a crime he never committed, by a jury that was never going to let him go free.

tom robinson

I still remember the feelings of wonder and dread as I read about Middle Earth, and the conflict between good and evil within her.

gondor

And I remember the feelings of anxiety and tension, wondering if Bilbo or Gollum would emerge from the dark victorious.

riddles

Stories create within us, this unique ability to know the heart and experiences of others.

To quote my favorite literary character, Atticus Finch,

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

To listen to another’s story is the sacred act of climbing inside another’s skin and walking around a while. Their eyes become our eyes, their skin becomes our skin, their hopes become our hopes, and their fears become our fears.

Our church desperately needs more stories. 

The comment section of my “Open Letter” is filled with stories of those who were wounded by our denomination. These stories are important and need a place to be told.

We need the stories of clergy hurt by their colleagues, congregants or superiors.

We need the stories of parishioners who were hurt and silenced by clergy.

We need the stories of the ways leadership has stifled questions and who subsequently pushed the questioners out of their ministry assignments or their home congregations.

Simply stated, we desperately need to hear the stories of the people.

We need these stories because they lead us to, as a denomination, a greater depth of empathy and compassion. And in a time of great misunderstanding or resistance, this empathy, compassion and commitment to understanding will become the balm that heals our corporate bodies and souls.

However, this road to empathy is a difficult one.

To gain a deeper sense of empathy and understanding, we as the church must allow ourselves to be broken by what we hear; by these stories of the people. We must allow ourselves to identify with the victim, to hear their stories, even when it creates within us a sense of instability and even (especially) when it goes against our own experiences.

We must listen and tell these stories, we must ask these questions, even when others demand our silence.

We must resist.

We must do so lovingly, generously, and in a deeply Christ-like way, but we must resist all the same.

We must resist because we are a people who exist for the broken. We are the followers of a Messiah who identified with those who were told to shut up.

We must resist because we follow a Savior who listened to the voiceless.

Our church seems to be dividing down an experiential line. 

We’re dividing ourselves along the lines of those who love and appreciate her, and those who have been wounded and find themselves unable to trust her.

And the gap between these two continues to grow.

Friends, we must remedy this. Friends, we can remedy this.

This remedy will come when we decide we’re done with being an idealogical people, and instead dedicate ourselves to becoming a story telling people.

Friends, lets tell our stories, and may we watch as the beauty of reconciliation unfolds before us.

Book Review: “Searching For Sunday” by Rachel Held Evans

search

Books are beautiful things. They move us, shape us and through them we grow.

Some books are better than others. Some make us laugh, some make us cry, other books find themselves flung against the walls of our bedroom in anger. Anger which we may or may not feel guilty about later.

Still other books are exactly what we need at exactly the right time. They hit that nerve which speaks to us in ways more significant than just as words on a page. They convey a deeper truth, they give a name to that aching within our soul, that scratch we haven’t quite been able to itch.

What Rachel Held Evans just published in Searching For Sunday is that kind of special.

 A little about the book:

“Many months would pass before I understood that people bond more deeply over shared broken than they do over shared beliefs.” p. 67

Part memoir, part theological exploration, Searching For Sunday effortlessly weaves the telling of Rachel’s story with a theological exploration of the seven sacraments; baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage.

As she explores the sacraments, Rachel walks the reader through her own experiences with the church, tells of how it shaped her, formed her, hurt her, how that hurt pushed her away, and how she found her way back to the community of believers once more.

Many attest to the fact that the spiritual journey is an intimate experience akin to marriage. Into the fold we bring our fears, baggage and hurts, and in doing so, we find ourselves deeply exposed for all to see.

For many of us, we will fight our whole lives to keep this sort of thing hidden from the eyes of others within the church. Rachel, however has courageously invited us into this journey. Sharing with us her story as tangible proof that those who doubt are not as alone as maybe they once believed.

What I loved

“But the gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome! There is bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a Kingdom of the worthy; it’s a Kingdom for the hungry.” p 147

I could write 5000 words on all I loved in Searching for Sunday, but for the sake of brevity I’ll limit it to only a few.

Even if the rest of the book were rubbish (which I can’t stress enough, is not the case), I would recommend readers buy it for the chapter on Communion alone. At multiple points during this section, I found myself choked up, with goose bumps, and audibly (and inaudibly) shouting my agreements.

Filled with stories of Methodist dance parties, heavenly bouncers, and stories like how the Eucharist was a divine instrument of racial-reconciliation in the 1940’s segregated South, Searching for Sunday provides the skin-and-bones beauty and sacredness of what the sacrament of Eucharist really means. It paints the beautiful picture of how the taking of the cup and the breaking of the bread unites people of all races, genders, political affiliations and orientations.

Rachel reminds us that the Eucharist is a divine act of remembering that not one of us belongs at the table, yet because of Christ, all are welcome at the table. The Eucharist reminds us that the food is just as much mine as it is yours, that the nourishment provided by the bread and the cup will heal you just as deeply it heals me. It reminds us that we need to let go of our disagreements, and in finding ourselves face-to-face with those we disagree with, speak the divine words of Jesus;

This is my body which was broken for you.

This is my blood which was poured out for you.

Easier said than done.

As I read and re-read this section, I once again rediscovered the beauty in the Eucharist. The deep and unending mystery of the eucharist. The great hope that comes from remembering Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

It was a journey in finding myself at the Table of Christ for the first time, again.

In conclusion

I cannot recommend Searching for Sunday strongly enough. It moved me, shook me, reached deep within me and changed me. While the American Evangelical church has lately become known for who they are against instead of who they are for, Rachel reminds us through her words, and through her stories, that the church isn’t defined by either of those categories.

Rather, we’re defined by the one whose table we dine at. For we eat at the table of the King.

You, me and the guy whose politics we can’t stomach.

So let’s pass the bread, let’s break open the wine, and lets remember that there is plenty for all to eat and be filled.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

///

For those who want to purchase the book, today is the day to do it! Rachel is giving away free download codes for “Seven Songs,” an album by singer/songwriter (and sister of Rachel) Amanda Opelt. “Seven Songs” was inspired by the seven sacraments featured in Searching for Sunday, and so they are closely tied to one another. So make your purchase and submitted you proof of purchase by April 18th, 2015 at 11:59pm EDT, and this amazing album is yours!

///

About Rachel:

rachelRachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include Faith Unraveled (2010), A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012), and Searching for Sunday (2015). Hailing from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925— she writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible Belt.

An Open Letter to a church I love. (Is there room for me?)

New-LogoTo the leaders of our Nazarene tribe,

It’s been a tough few months for us, hasn’t it? We’ve been through a lot together.

We’ve read about our family in the pages of newspapersmore than once. We’ve felt the effects of strong disagreement, feelings of betrayal, and the need for apologies from others and from myself. We’ve accused, we’ve repented, and done all within our power to be reconciled once more.

These stories, however, are beginning to pile up: NPH, MNU (Randy Beckum), NNU (Tom Oord).

If I’m being honest, as an ordained pastor, I really don’t know where to go from here.  I’m really, truly at a loss for words.

I think it goes without saying, that many issues like the ones we’ve recently faced require a great deal of discretion. I also know that leaders in high positions are forced to make decisions which are unpopular, but are done in the best interest of the group they lead. These same leaders are then forced to weather the storm of outrage and calls for transparency in silence; knowing they will do more harm than good in their justification.

I get this. I really, truly do.

However, I ask that you see this from our side. 

In the past year, two of the most respected leaders and theological thinkers in our denomination have lost their positions. These men both happen to be progressive in their practice and theology.

Randy and Tom are two men I deeply respect, and these are two men who have shaped my own theology, and who had a hand in saving my own faith. I respect them deeply; not because I always agreed with them, but because they were leaders unafraid of asking the difficult questions.

But they are now silenced.

What was the reason for their demotion and/or removal? We don’t know. Nobody will tell us.

Their departures/demotions are filled with confusing and contradictory evidence.

Now, again, I admit I know very little of these situations. I know little of the background to these removals. While I’m not privy to this information, as an ordained elder in our tradition, I do believe I have a right to say this:

There is a point when perceptions begin to convey a cultural reality.

This unveiling reality is that difficult questions are unwelcome, and hard conversations are not allowed to be had.

For me, the only thing the Nazarene church has done in the past 6 months is plant a question firmly in my mind: “Is there room in the Nazarene church for me?”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love this Denomination more than anything. My children are the 5th generation of Palmer’s who have darkened the doorways of a Nazarene church. The history of this church is in many ways the history of my own family heritage.

I will never leave her. We are forever tied to one another.

Recent events, however, have begun to make me ask, “while I’ll never voluntarily leave the Nazarene church, will she push me away? Will she walk away from me?”

Because the questions asked by Randy Beckum, and the questions asked by Tom Oord, are the same questions I, myself, am asking, and these recent events have placed me on very unsteady footing.

It was once said,

“I often hear people in churches across America asking, “Where are our young people going?” I can’t help but believe they are leaving our sanctuaries of certainty in search of spaces where their doubts are welcomed and where there is room to wrestle with faith’s uncomfortable questions. If the church wants to find the next generation returning to the fold, they must accept all that comes with them. Doubts, fears, questions and all.”

This brings me to the thrust of this post:

To those in leadership positions in the Nazarene church, while I admit the truth behind the removal of Tom Oord and Randy Beckum might not be theologically based, the message you’re sending about them very much is, and it’s a message we millennials are receiving loud and clear.

“Get in line. Don’t ask questions, and all will be okay.”

So I want…no I need to ask a question as a friend, colleague and person who deeply wants our tradition to live on: “Is there room for us?”

Because, if I’m being honest, right now I am struggling to believe there is.

What marriage taught me about God, and how it saved my faith

Creative Commons: "Igreja Ibiporã - Paraná - Brasil" by Lírica Aragão

Creative Commons: “Igreja Ibiporã – Paraná – Brasil” by Lírica Aragão

Sanctification* nearly pushed me out of the church.

Being the child of the church, I had from an early age experienced the beauty of the community of believers. I had witnessed God’s provision, witnessed miracles and the power of a Spirit-drenched corporate worship. Church, and the church life came easy to me. Sanctification, however, did not.

Sanctification was this little voice inside my head reminding me of all the ways I fall short. I was supposed to be “perfect,” but my lack of success at being sanctified proved something much different; it was the tangible proof of my inadequacy.

Hearing story after story, I began to believe others had it all together, and as a result, were happy.  I, however, didn’t have my “it” together and as a result, had a growing dissatisfaction with my own spiritual life.

About Marriage and a Lamb

Through the Gospels, Jesus often refers to a coming wedding. A unification of heaven and Earth. A reestablishing of shalom and a final, complete reparation of the deep wounds that afflict our world.

Having been married for 5 years, I am relatively new to marriage life, and as a result am daily realizing more and more what it means to committed myself fully to someone.

This awareness began on a (seemingly) unremarkable Spring afternoon, in the lobby of the Smith Building at MidAmerica Nazarene University, when I crossed paths with an impossibly bright and beautiful fellow religion major.  I didn’t know much about her, but what I did know was that she was beautiful, talented, and universally loved by everyone who knew her.

Our relationship began with dinner and grew. It grew over the course of the following weeks and months as we shared hopes, dreams, fears, preferences and often hidden personality quirks. Hundreds of conversations paved the pathway over which we slowly walked towards our becoming one.

As great as conversations were, there was a day I realized that, without hesitation, I could be offered anyone of my choosing and the only person I would choose was Elizabeth. It was in this moment I realized the depth to which I had trusted her with my heart, and so I knew the only logical next step was for me to invite her to join me in a life-long journey together.

Brimming with hope, I invited, and she said yes!

Over the next six months, we called churches, and we made reservations.  Dresses were chosen and flowers were selected.  The cake was designed and invitations made, folded and stuffed into envelopes.

I blinked and we had arrived hand in hand, six months later, at a church in St. Louis, Missouri. It was at the front of this church, and in front of a number of our closest family and friends, I found myself  standing hand in hand with a stunning woman in a white dress. Catching myself in wonder at the magnitude and depth of the situation, I was brought back to reality by a simple question; a question that would forever alter the lives of myself and this beautiful woman whose hands I held.

The question? “Do you take this woman, to be your wife…till death do you part?”

Of course, I said “I do.”

On Clipboards and Check-lists

Early in my spiritual journey, I saw my relationship and sanctification as God holding a clipboard with a piece of paper clipped to it, and on this paper was written a list. This list included all of the possible sins, and each sin had a box on the left side of it. This box would be checked every time I failed. God was keeping score, and the story my score was telling closely resembled a Greek tragedy.

With the weight of my inadequacies hanging around my neck, and spiritual night surrounded me, my world became darker and darker. Hope nearly abandoned, it was in this darkness that God began to tear down many of the “realities” which had become millstones around my neck.

If I really search back to the beginning, as far back as I can remember, God had been part of my thoughts. I always wanted to learn about who Jesus was and what he meant for me.  There was a point, though, when I realized other people’s conversations about God no longer were enough. Another person’s story and experience can only be enough for so long before one must live their own story.

God wooed, I responded, and a relationship was formed.

Somewhere along the way I realized doing the acts of following God- devotions, church..etc-  weren’t enough.  I realized the love and affection I felt for God ran deep, and I knew these were feelings no human could fulfill. It was in this moment, a moment that happens at one point or another in every relationship, in which an unavoidable decision had been thrust upon me; Either I had to go all in, or I had to fold and walk away.

There was no third option.

God would either have all of me, or none of me.  Was this a marriage or a fling? Was I willing to give up all of my power and leverage to follow the one to whom I had trusted my heart?In this moment I chose to go all in, and I was now no longer the master of my own domain.

At the altar

All who have said “I do,” know the story doesn’t end with those two words.  With our vows spoken, the cake consumed, and hugs of family exchanged, we drove into the night and towards a new reality.  This was a new reality where “wise words” came up short and pre-marital counseling was inadequate in preparing me for what was ahead. A new world in which I am no longer my own.

I wish I could say it came together easily for me, however, in those early marital moments I quickly learned the depth of my selfishness and incompetence as a husband. Sure, I occasionally did a few things right, but more times than I want to admit, I did things completely wrong.

This marriage could have ended in disaster, and had this been a casual relationship, Elizabeth and I almost certainly would have parted ways. What made this different was the deep understanding and agreement that our mutual commitment trumped all. It was commitment that drove me to own my failures and pressed me to strive to become more than I once was. When I messed up, I fought to do things better the next time. I still failed, often miserably, however I had a deep desire to do it right the next time…or the time after.

For me, the old cliché rang true: I was a work in progress.

Our desire for restoration proves our loyalty.

In our marriage, Elizabeth and I both fall short, however it is in our failures where we learn to offer and receive forgiveness. Nothing drives us towards forgiveness like our own overwhelming need for forgiveness.

To be married means to be known, and it’s this being completely and wholly known which accomplishes something guilt and manipulation can never dream of accomplishing: a deepening trust and the desire to give even more of ones self no matter the cost.

Love propels us to become more and it encourages us towards becoming what we are not in this moment. In a healthy marriage, there exists no list of past faults and failures. Being known would never stand for such a list. When a person is known and accepted, there is no mask to hide behind, and it is in having our masks stripped away, that we no longer feel the right or desire to keep a list against another. To be known is to be humbled.

A Slow Transformation

Early on in my spiritual journey, my relationship with God was defined by a broken system of sin lists and petty nitpicking, however through a dark and painful time of spiritual reflection, I was forced to acknowledge my actions as nothing more than man-made attempts at holiness.

Admitting the problem was, to borrow the language of addicts, truly the first step towards recovery, and it was the admission of guilt that began a new journey; a journey towards wholeness. This journey will wind its way through amazing victories, and crushing defeats.  I will have to re-surrender myself to God thousands of times. However, over the course of this journey I will continue to learning that my strength comes, not from my own ability to stay the course with God, but from God’s commitment to stay the course with me.

Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, a Jesuit priest and philosopher wrote one of my favorite poems in which he implores us to, “above all, trust in the slow work of God.”

In it’s purest form, sanctification is, like marriage, about hope. Hope that God is not done with us, and hope that He will finish what he started. And we can trust that this hope in God is hope well placed. Each step we take is propelled by hope, and as the poem so beautifully says, we “Give our Lord the benefit of believing that His hand is leading [us].”  We are on a journey that will take a lifetime, but we have started that journey with the love of our lives.

In my story, it was sanctification that nearly pushed me out of the church, and ironically, it was sanctification that kept me here.

( This essay appeared in Renovating Holiness, a book containing over 100 essay written by Millennial and Xer leaders in the Church of the Nazarene representing 30+ countries in the world. You can purchase a copy of the book here, and join in the conversation happening on Facebook here.)

*The doctrine of Christian perfection.

What a dentist taught me about pain, death, and the love of God.

Creative Commons: Azlan DuPree, September 2010 "Suffering Is Permanent"

Creative Commons: Azlan DuPree, September 2010 “Suffering Is Permanent”

I have a daughter whom I love more than life itself. She’s wildly intelligent, talented, passionate about life, and has a smile that can melt my heart, even at it’s hardest.

I’m crazy about her.

Recently, my daughter had an accident. She tripped, hitting her front two teeth on a piece of furniture.

They bled.

She cried.

Her blood staining the shoulder and chest of my shirt. Noticing this, she looked up at me and said “daddy, I’m getting blood on your shirt.”

“Baby,” I said, “I don’t care about my shirt.”

I held her for a long time in the waiting room of our dentist; waiting for the inevitable to come- the news that her teeth would need to come out.

The teeth extraction appointment was scheduled, we drove to the nearest pedodontist (who was an hour and a half away), and we entered the room.

The hygienists were there, the table was reclined and realizing what was to come, my little girl sobbed.

Because they couldn’t risk her moving during the procedure, they had to restrain her.

As they tightened the restraints around her little wrists, my little girl sobbed, “Daddy, hold me! Please, daddy, hold me!”

I sat next to her head. Kissing her forehead. “I can’t baby, but it will all be over soon, I promise.”

“This is what’s best for you, and I’m here. I won’t leave you. I promise”

Her 3-year-old mind couldn’t understand. How could it? All she knew were her wrists being bound, and pain like she never knew before.

And her daddy watching it happen.

As it happened, as she cried for me, I muttered, through a throat constricted by tears, a promise that I loved her and would never leave her.

***

As the Church, we’re concluding our journey through the season of Lent. Lent is a season of pain and of restriction; a season of extraction. A season where we mirror Christ’s death on a cross by surrendering our own lives. A surrender that leads to our own death to self.

A death to pride.

A death to arrogance.

A death to anger.

A death to self.

We want the outcome of this death- the Life that follows- but we don’t want the pain that comes from dying.

It’s in this season of silence, pain, extraction, many of us (like my daughter) don’t understand what’s happening to us.

Maybe its physical sickness. Maybe is divine silence during our time of prayer. Maybe its physical, emotional or spiritual pain unlike we’ve ever known before.

No matter what it happens to be, the truth is it hurts. In our pain, silence and confusion, with tear-stained faces, we call out to God with a desperation we’ve never known before.

“Please, Daddy, take me off this table!” we beg.

Yet, He doesn’t.

And we weep, not understanding why.

***

The church doesn’t know what to do with this sort of pain, this kind of anger, this depth of sorrow. We gather together on Sundays, paint on faces of hope and happiness, sing songs of joy, and “amen” sermons on the love of God.

Yet, during the week, our experience is anything BUT joyful, hopeful or filled with divine peace.

The most painful part of these moments are, however, not that we feel this depth of sadness, anger, or pain, rather it’s that the church isn’t often willing (or unsure of how) to invite this pain into the light.

And so, in our uncertainty or unwilling, our services are filled with songs that say,

“Our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

Yet, on the inside we’re actually singing the songs of the Psalmist,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Ps 22:1-2)

***

After the dentist pulled that final tooth, they un-strapped my little girl from that table. Once the final strap was released, she jumped into my arms- burying her head in my chest, sobbing.

I held my daughter in that corner of the dentist exam room as tightly as I had ever held her before. I kissed her, stroked her hair, and tried to soothe her rapidly beating heart. She didn’t understand what just happened, she didn’t understand why.

And so I just held her, kissed her, and sang quietly in her ear.

***

The most painful part of the Christian experience can be those moments when we’re in the deepest reaches of darkness, sadness and despair; when the pain is at its greatest, we cannot feel the presence of our Father, and when we cannot hear the soothing songs he sings, nor the warmth of his touch on our forehead.

In those moments we feel so alone.  And we don’t know how to move forward.

In our mind, we know God will never leave us nor forsake us, however that is little consolation to our hearts in the midst of the emptiness.

The truth is, one will never know why God behaves as he does, and I’m not here to explain his movements. It’s beyond my understanding.

However, I believe, deeply, that in those moments, God is pleading with his Church to be that soft touch, that warm voice, and that loving kiss which reminds people they are not alone in the midst of their pain.

I wondered, as I cuddled my baby girl, if maybe God quiets his own voice in order to allow his Church to speak love into the hearts of those around them; allowing them to be the voice of love and compassion people are desperately looking for.

I have a dream that the church will live into this invitation to mourn/doubt/grieve/suffer with others.

To do this, though, we must be willing to embrace people at their messiest. We must be willing to sit in their pain, let their blood stain our shirts, and their doubt about God and faith linger in the air around us like cigarette smoke.

I want to be that kind of pastor, and want to be part of that kind of Church community.  Mostly, though, I want to be the church that allows people to bleed on their shoulder while assuring them that it’s okay.