Words are a Weight (On Loving the Church When it Hurts.)

“The Church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

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Several years ago while I was in college, I wrote those words on my Facebook page under the “Religious Views” section. The quote is often attributed to Augustine, but is rumored to have been said by Martin Luther and a host of other church fathers. I was a frustrated young millennial, seeing the overwhelming hypocrisy of the body that nurtured me and raised me into the man I was. I saw political jargon shouted from pulpits, taken as Gospel by racists and adulterers, one and all. I saw small huddles of men in the parking lots, filling their bodies with smoke and decrying those who spent their weekends at the bar, claiming that the world was going to hell in a handbasket and there was nothing we could do about it but curse the filthy sinners that filled it.  I heard the women gossiping in their Sunday School rooms about why so-and-so wasn’t here this week and did you hear that Pam was cheating on Jim with Ron Swanson?

I’d seen the faces of disgruntled youth, trying to fit into the world of religion like a kid’s piece into an adult’s special edition Thomas Kinkade puzzle, larger than life and filled with loud primary colors clashing with the tiny diminished hues of a portrait where they didn’t belong. Begrudgingly nodding, but not convinced that the Gospel could be summed up in these words: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?”

My understanding of the mercy and goodness of God was skewered by the inconsistencies I saw all around me, and I was pissed. So, when my mother called me in my dorm room and said we needed to talk, my heart momentarily stopped. Had someone died? Had I been caught in some elaborate lie? All of my sins were called up before my swirling head. What could it be?

“The preacher and one of the deacons showed up at our house today to talk about you.”

Oh, God. This is it. I’m going to be excommunicated. Can Baptists even excommunicate people?

Apparently, someone had seen that section of my Facebook. They went so far as to print it out and hand deliver it to the pastor with feigned concern. The concern, you ask? That i’d used the word whore.

Not that they wondered if I was losing my faith.

Not that I came across as angry or missed the point.

That I had used a word.

I saw red.

My blood boiled at the thought of all that work done to expose me as a pottymouth. Forget context, forget the state of the thing I loved with all of my heart. But I said a dirty word.

And far be it from them, adults, to come to me, an adult, to talk about this indiscretion. They brought it to my parents, because obviously I wasn’t old enough to answer their fears or questions. Maybe my mind had been polluted by the big, bad Christian university I was attending.

For the first time in my life, whether real or perceived, I felt like an apostate.


I sat across from a room full of students, all of them looking to me for answers. What did I know? I was just a volunteer chaperone at summer camp.

The church gives us no respect, they don’t see us as people.

How can we carry on the work of the church when we are adults if we’re never allowed to have a say now? Where do we fit in?

Why do they treat us like we’re little kids?

I listened to their fears and their desire to be part of the Body, to really take part and contribute. To some, it would no doubt sound like blind idealism of youth. But as they spoke, I felt that weight pressing on me as well. The adults may have many excuses: they are too broken, too sinful, too young, they don’t understand doctrine or the Baptist Faith and Message. They don’t get it.

But did they themselves even understand the particulars?

Do I? Do any of us really have what it takes to live beyond reproach and advance the Gospel? (How glorious a gift God gave us, entrusting us with a task for which he makes us able to carry out!)

I encouraged those students. I prayed with them. I cried with them. And I held out hope that someday, things would change. Someday, they would feel valued. And maybe so would I.


Apostasy.

The word rang in my ears. As the quiet hum grew deafening, I pondered the implications. What would happen if I just left it all behind? Is it worth it? If there is no place for me in the community in which I was raised, is there any place for me at all?

I spoke to my pastor later that day over the phone. It was a strange conversation, full of awkward silences and unruly dissonance. I tried to explain to him the manner in which I used the quote, tried to outline my frustrations, but overall hope that I held. The church is a whore in every sense of the word. She has sold herself to politicians and to the world. She has shouted in outrage at the sins of a broken world while waiting for night to fall, so she can join the debauchery. She has traded gossip for prayer, and has been the Pharisee, blind to the log bursting from her eye while trying to excise the splinter from another’s.

But she is my mother. She birthed me, raised me, loved me, taught me who Jesus is and baptized me in his name. I am grateful for her witness, stained though it may be. I love her with all of my heart though she vexes me so.

The conversation stalled, but picked back up as he continually brought up that word. I had committed what seemed to be an unpardonable sin. These were the dregs of legalism if I’d ever saw them. To dismiss the words of a church father because you don’t understand them? In my soul, my frustration raged. I tried to remain calm, but as a college freshman, I was full of knowledge but wisdom and a healthy temperament had yet to show up on my course list.

We ended our conversation, still on opposing sides. This man was my pastor. I felt bad because I felt I owed him respect, but didn’t feel like the best way to show it was to give in and apologize. At that point in my life, I didn’t understand the value in picking your battles and if my time in the religion department had taught me anything, it’s that any topic could be a hill to die on.


In hindsight, I forgave those who didn’t understand and learned to be a little more discerning in the words I choose to say. I realized that in choosing love over bitterness, the quote I had been so adamant about was playing itself out in my life.

Sometimes the Church will choose legalism, even if you know better.

Sometimes the Church will misunderstand, even if you have the best intentions.

Sometimes she will harbor secret (or not so secret) sins and run after idols that vie for her affections, even as you call for her to repent.

But we do not exist as islands, we are not some distant relative of the beaten and beraggled Bride of Christ. We are her. We exist as one Church to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. We exist as deeply flawed, inexcusable sinners who do so much damage to the name of Jesus with our various failures and broken intentions.

But we choose to forgive the inexcusable in others because Christ forgave the inexcusable in us, as Lewis says.

Because though the Bride sometimes feels like she is barely hanging on, torn apart and stitched together again and again, she is loved by a Groom who will do anything, who paid everything to buy her back from the idols that have wrapped their tendrils around her heart. And as she gasps for breath amid the broken reality she chose, she finally sighs in freedom because her lover has rescued her and made her whole.

I love the Church, I am the Church.

And if you claim the name and mission of Jesus, so are you.

Rhema (or, Idol Hands Sit Idly.)

Emboldened by words left unspoken,
Crumbling beneath all that I have broken.

As I scramble to rearrange the jagged pieces,

To complete a puzzle named resentment.


Wordless, I have no thoughts left to pen,
I have no utterance to be uttered,

No rhymes left to usher in.

I have held all my cards close to my chest,

And I wish I could say I tried my best.
So I guess the letter I would’ve written would sound like

This:
Dear Future Me,

You’ve got so many stories left to be told, A blank canvas soon to be dripping with red and blue and gold. Do not give in, do not give up.But stand.

Stalwart and proud of the man you have become.

A man who knows what is past and what is to come. One who weighs his legacy like his idol hands weigh on his conscience, and idol words sit enshrined on tongues of fire racing around and around as if chariots set ablaze.
I speak because there is an inferno resting inside my bones, as I wrestle against flesh and blood and deny the calling which I have received.
To be simultaneously saint and sinner, to wage war on these rebellious legs that carry me to places I know better than to be.
Oh God, may my futile words be few.
May my lips tremble when I speak your truth, and may my heart be laid upon a blazing altar for you.

You are my past, present, and future. It’s always been You. So forgive my idol thoughts and my idol ears and my idle soul sitting idly by, waiting on You to move.
Jesus, rid me of deceit, of anger, and of my broken heart. Let me embrace the calling you have poured out upon me as you envelop all the idols that strive to gain a foothold in my life in refining fire.
“I love you Lord, and I lift my voice. To worship You. Oh my soul, rejoice! Take joy my King in what you hear. May it be a sweet sound in your ear.”

Fight For Joy (grief after three years)

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I feel like I’ve written endlessly about the topic of grief. As if it is the only constant in life, where all relationships, in one way or another, end up. As if it not only holds all the cards, but stacks them neatly into a house that could crumble at the slightest breeze. As if death has the final say, and we are always haunted by its specter.
But for me, writing about what I feel is catharsis. So, it’s probably telling that I haven’t written anything in a while. That sometimes you move into that stage of grief where feeling anything is an outright challenge.  This blog began for me as a desperate attempt to come to grips with the goodness of God in a world that sometimes indicates anything but.

And, as I believe life is a journey and we never stop learning, I don’t have any neat and tidy answers for you. I can’t tell you with absolute sincerity that I never have doubts or fears. I can’t tell you that I don’t find myself crying with little provocation. I can’t say that I don’t get a knot in my chest when I think about the people in my life who are gone way too soon. I can’t tell you that injustice doesn’t make me question why.

I think about absence, which hurts a ton more than outright rejection, and my mind is drawn back to the good times, which overwhelm me in the way that simultaneously feeling joy and pain does. How two opposing ideals–joy and pain–can be so irrevocably intertwined and cause me to understand myself even less.

Three years ago from last Tuesday, one of my dearest friends was involved in a hiking accident and fell from a hundred feet and died. 

I’ve written it so matter-of-factly so many times because I need to understand it as reality. Sometimes, even three years later, it’s so hard to fathom, impossible to comprehend. The unfortunate thing about trying to wrap your head around something so much is that it leaves you with a terrible migraine.

Tuesday, I came back to my hometown and spent the day with some of my closest friends. We all went to the park we used to hang out in and then the cemetery. Sitting around Jordan’s grave was different this time. Before, I’d almost always go alone. But surrounded by the friends he helped knit together, we laughed, we talked, we cracked jokes and reminisced. It is times like those that give me hope, that show me, no matter what, that I am not alone. That the God of the universe who I so love to question, knows exactly what I need and pours it out lavishly. That he is not content to leave me in my grief that feels so like fear, as Lewis says, but instead shows me perfect love to cast out fear.

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Out of His Love, he replaces that feeble house of cards with stone and mortar, and refuses to give some immovable fate the victory. He is a God who loves his children so much that even in their pain, he gives them good gifts, relationships that do not end with this side of eternity, reasons to rejoice though the pain is sometimes so intense.

Leo Tolstoy said that “only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” And I do not always believe that is true. But on days like today, I do.

I do because on this week three years ago my world was shattered. I was like a flattened house of cards, but I know a carpenter who was also called the great physician and binds up all my wounds and floods my weakest moments with his insurmountable strength.

I’ve learned after these 3 years to fight for joy. And you will fight. Because it is by no means easy to be joyful, but on days like today I believe it is not only necessary, but possible.

Pursuit and Faithlessness (or, Holy Week and where I find myself.)

“Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.” (John 19:15-16)

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Since I was a child, I was always as fascinated as I was terrified by the events of what those in my tradition of faith have come to call “Holy Week.”

How could people who revered Jesus at the beginning of the week, even so far as to throw palm branches and their coats on the ground to make way for him and call him Rescuer, their Hosanna, join the chorus for his demise by Friday? And what is so good about Friday, anyway? How could the disciples, who dedicated everything and vowed allegiance to him and walked and talked and lived with him for three years just abandon him in his darkest hour? What kind of disciple would do that?

These were the thoughts that crossed by mind as I was a boy. But as I grew up, those questions gave way to more powerful questions, questions that came from experience and from the fear that comes from having your faith tested. Questions like, if I were in their position would I do the same? Surely I would. Surely I have.

How many times have I abandoned Christ for something much less fulfilling? How many times have I praised him in one breath only to curse him in the next? How many times have I accepted the title of disciple in the light but abandoned it in the dark, or when it demanded too much of me?

What is loyalty to Christ, and do I myself have it?  Do you? Do any of us, for that matter?

As we reflect on Easter, on the glorious resurrection of Jesus, who paid for all of our sin and shame on the cross, it is my prayer that we would not lose sight of the fact that it was our transgressions that put him there.

The story isn’t simply one we read of characters in a book. No, the story of Scripture is more revealing and powerful than that. We are invited into the story, recalling that though our sins and betrayal are great, a debt we can never pay, what held Jesus on the cross was his love for all of us.

Though our sins are as scarlet, he has washed them white as snow.

And though we are forgiven, we can’t forget what it cost. We cannot withold forgiveness from those who don’t deserve it, because that isn’t what our Hosanna did.

We cannot cling to past sins that try to chain us to shame.

We can’t cling to present sins that keep our world shrouded in dark.

We can’t forget that our identities are tethered not to who we have been, or who we have been believed to be, but to whom we belong.

That the Cross is as relevant today as it ever was.

As a kid, I always wanted to blame people trapped in a book, because Jesus was the hero, and the people who betrayed him, who denied him, whipped him, and killed him were the bad guys and I was angry at them for what they did.

But that was before I realized that their story is my story, I am just as capable for that treachery and just as culpable for it.

When asked by Pilate if Jesus was their king, the chief priests answered that they had no king but Caesar, but maybe even that was a lie.

In my own experience, I have lived as king of my own heart and life, and I suspect the same was true of them.

I have lived in pursuit of holiness, grasping and rules and regulations to handcuff my heart to something that slightly resembled God, but left me wanting.

I have lived in pursuit of everything but holiness, indulging in everything I could to fill the emptiness inside me, but all it did was leave me broken and handcuffed to pain.

And I have, in those elusive moments of honest clarity, pursued Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior. He rescues me time and time again. And I deny him like Peter. And I sell him like Judas. And I just run away like the others.
Abandoment. In the face of such a wondrous love, I spat.

What God is this who loves me still?
Who seeks my heart and my devotion,
even when I am blithe to his pursuit, going about my merry way and pretending the lover of my soul doesn’t exist?

Friends, as we think about Easter, I pray we remember what it cost. I pray we share the life giving Gospel again and again. I pray we never turn it into a self help manual, but as a key to unlock doors and let the light pour in.

God is faithful, even when we are faithless.

Happy Easter week.
Honor Christ.
Keep it holy.

ΑΩ

Random Thoughts (on contentment, goals, and how I’m feeling about life)

I’ve always wondered when it is, that moment when you look out at all that you’ve done, all the stories you’ve told, and are finally content. Or when you get to a place of real intimacy with the people you care most about in the world and finally believe that authentic relationships can last, or even begin. Or can finally have the courage to speak boldly about what you’ve been given without fear of criticism.

I know that once you feel like you’ve arrived, you’re probably more blinded and arrogant than you’ve ever been, but I’d for once like to be sure enough of myself to believe I’ve done some good in this world.

In all my questions, I’m confident of this: to know God is the greatest joy in this life. Jesus is everything, his peace makes even the dark times bright. We don’t always overcome our nagging questions with abundant joy, but we are blessed with joy for the small moments that keep us running the race. As a dear friend once said, “God is my alpha and omega, my beginning and my end.”

He is constant grace, for the moment and for the long haul. Know tonight  that you are more loved than you ever thought was possible.  that in Christ, there is no condemnation, no fear of inadequacy, no comparing yourself to another person. Because in relationship with Christ, when God looks at you, he sees Jesus. When he looks at me, he sees Jesus. We are all the same at the foot of the Cross.

No matter what relationships you value most in your life, they will always fail you. People will always fail you, but the omnipotent God of the universe who saw you first, who, while we were still sinners, sent Christ to die for us, that God knows you and He loves you and he will never fail you.  We are so worried  that the people we love most in this world will not love us back. We pine for their affections, yet we ignore the One who loves us with a love that never ends.

We bury our boldness underneath layers and layers of low self esteem, terrified to testify about the only one who can save us from ourselves. And if we have experienced Christ’s overwhelming mercy? Well then, we have no excuse to keep silent. How dare we keep to ourselves what has the power to save!

It is my prayer for you that knowing God would be your most deeply cherished treasure. That nothing would come between you and a relationship with Jesus Christ. Not fear, depression, not anxiety, not other people, not complacency, not bitterness, not dissatisfaction with your life. Because the goal and aim of our lives is to know Christ and to make Him known.

This God knows your hurt. He knows your pain. And he wants to be your joy. I pray that you would let him be your joy, your peace, and your salvation.

Unity in Diversity (thoughts on the Church, what it is, and what it can be)

I am in awe of God’s goodness lately.

This has certainly been a crazy week. Our church has been having interdenominational revival services since Sunday night, where we have joined together with about 4 other churches from all across the theological spectrum–Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of God/Pentecostal, and AME Zion—and boy, has it been incredible.

It all started about 18 years ago. A few churches across the city would have a one-day event called the pulpit exchange, where the Pastors would switch places and preach to a different congregation.

And so it went for years, taking one form or another. But this year, my Pastor and several others got together and talked and prayed and sought the Lord. And what God orchestrated was something none of them could’ve anticipated.

Spanning from Sunday to Wednesday, we are taking part in an event called Crossover Kannapolis, which has become, in this iteration, a revival service where these churches come together and meet in one another’s sanctuaries and worship together, pray together, and reflect on our calling to be God’s Church together.

It’s only Tuesday, and the Holy Spirit is definitely up to something.

A little background, I was raised in a church that was not so diverse. Theologically, socio-economically, racially, everyone seemed to be cut from the same cloth.

And sadly, this is a similar story for so many churchgoers in America.

Not even taking into account theological diversity, this info-graphic from Lifeway research gives a rather grim picture of racial diversity among protestants:

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The numbers are disheartening, especially with racial tension in America in the wake of events like Ferguson heightened. And if we added the theological variances, we would be looking at even more division.

I’m not saying that there aren’t reasons why different Christian denominations exist. And I realize that the differences in theology and praxis would present issues, however I do not believe that the issues these differences would present are irreconcilable.

As the Church of God Pastor said last night during the revival, “It’s all about Christ. HE is the way, the truth, the life.It’s not about the differences in how we praise God or how we look.”

And what I have observed in the past few nights is this: We are all distinctly different. From the color of our skin, to the style of our worship, even to the way we articulate different aspects of our faith.

But as I looked out across the crowd of people last night, I saw the beautiful diversity of God’s Kingdom. I saw people who looked differently, thought differently, spoke differently, some who danced and some who didn’t, some who ran up and down the pews shouting and screaming, and those who sat quietly in their seats. I saw men and women, old and young, who loved Jesus first and foremost. And that was all that mattered.

I saw these people from all walks of life proclaiming that Christ is King.

Standing in solidarity with believers across the aisle, across the street, and across the world proclaiming that whatever divides us is null and void at the foot of the Cross.

I looked out at all these people, some familiar friends and some new friends, and thought to myself: This is what the Kingdom looks like. I am grateful to be part of a Church that is so much bigger than one denomination or one building, made up of different people who don’t let their differences divide them. Whose collective cry is that Jesus is King. People from all walks of life, all over our city, who are seeking unity and have a burning desire to see Christ bring the dead to life. This is my Church. These are my people. And God is so very present. God, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It is not God’s will that we continue to divide ourselves. If a lost and dying world sees a floundering and dying Church that cannot even embrace each other, what is there to make them believe it will embrace them? 

It is in the beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom that we show the world how to be united unifiers, how to love one another and love Christ, regardless of the plethora of reasons that keep up safe and warm inside our own prison cells we built with our hands and call churches.

So it is not longer the Presbyterian Church,

or the Baptist Church,

or the Church of God,

or the AME Zion Church.

It is the Christian Church.

Those who, against all odds, stand united in diversity. Those men, women, teens, children, who maybe aren’t so different, after all. We are not many churches, regardless of where we all meet. We are one Church. We serve one God. And it is time to stop hiding behind our pews and show a broken world a God who pulls all of our scattered pieces together and makes us all look like Jesus.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

New Year, New…Everything (on dealing with loneliness)

At the time I began writing this post, it was 11:30 p.m. 30 minutes until January 1, 2015 is over. A beginning for so many people of something new. A new lifestyle, a new diet, new relationships, new everything. We make promises to ourselves, we make promises to our families, we make promises to God and wrap them up in the nice little bow we call “resolutions.” And then, so often, we break every promise we dared utter within the first few days.

Twinkle-lights-for-New-Years-Eve

This year, instead of making resolutions I knew I wasn’t planning on keeping, I spent my day eating collard greens and black-eyed peas (a southern tradition that has carved itself into my life, regardless of how gross I thought it was as a kid) and reflecting not only on 2014, but on years past.

In a little over a week, I’m going to turn 24 years old, and I’ve found that it is so easy to spend all of your time thinking back to “the good old days.” And I even spend my time chasing those days again, attempting to relive days gone by when my close high school friends go back home for a few days, a few weeks, maybe, and I return to the town where I grew up to spend precious minutes with them.

And in that time, we make new memories and it is beautiful.

Some days, I wish the moments would last forever.

Let me restate a few truths I’ve mentioned on this blog and elsewhere in the past year.

1.) This is my first foray into living by myself in a new city.

2.) I work as a Youth Minister for an incredible, supportive church and I really love it.

3.) I am, by definition, an extrovert. Everything about me is encapsulated by that. I process everything externally, value constant contact, love to be surrounded by others, gain energy from that socialization, and turn into a sluggish pile of molasses when I don’t have it.

4. Maybe that makes me needy, but I’m currently okay with that.

All of that said, living in a new city is an overwhelming and terrifying thing. I have met folks at the church I work at who I care a lot about and consider friends, but that doesn’t go far beyond the walls of the church, because, well, relationship building takes time.

I have met people at local coffee shops and through mutual friends and the times I spend with them is great. But it doesn’t feel like home just yet. And I’m told that’s normal.

But a year ago last month, I left a college campus filled to the brim with people I spent every waking hour with. And now, experiencing the brunt of loneliness isn’t just relegated to the times I am alone in my apartment seeing what’s new on Netflix.

So, many days in the past 6 months, my extroverted soul has been sick, even when I’m surrounded by others.

Frederich Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, once said:

“That you can be lonely in a crowd, maybe especially there, is readily observable. You can also be lonely with your oldest friends, or your family, even with the person you love most in the world. To be lonely is to be aware of an emptiness that takes more than people to fill. It is to sense that something is missing which you cannot name.

Did he read my mind? Probably. Or maybe it’s that the human condition is incredibly predictable. And this keen observation tells me I’m not a freak, I’m not alone in my (sometimes self imposed) isolation. That, as extroverted of a person as I might be, people cannot solve the innermost longings in my soul.

Buechner then points to a familiar passage of scripture, Psalm 137:1

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Buechner, and many Christian theologians like him, find parallels between the Psalmist’s cries of dire landlessness and a longing for home with our longing for heaven, our hope to see God face to face. For the one who knit us together inside of our mother to hold us closely and call us Beloved.

This is so that we, fickle people who can’t always keep their emotions in check, can be reminded that our lives are of importance to the only One who can love us with a fierce and undying love, and embrace us despite that we are so slow to give love in return.

And that, when we feel loneliness creeping up inside of us, that longing is for Zion, for Heaven, for the place we can’t quite see but that we know is there.

He finishes with :

“Maybe in the end it is Zion that we’re lonely for, the place we know best by longing for it, where at last we become who we are, where finally we find home.”

I am in a transition currently that is both beautiful and painful. The little boy that I was is becoming the man that I am. I am responsible for others, someone people look to for guidance and the best I can give them is an assurance that though all may not be right in the world right now, it will be one day, and in the meantime, they aren’t alone.

As I reflect on the year, one common theme that emerges is change. Everything is in a constant state of change, like sand shifting underfoot. There are very few things you can hold onto in this life, but I want to make one thing clear: Jesus Christ is the only thing worth holding, the only thing that, at the end of it all, won’t slip through and leave you lonely.

When and if I can look back on my life on January 1st, 2016, I am fairly confident I will see a life where my extroverted soul is free and surrounded by new friends and deeper relationships than I currently have in my new setting, but everything can change in a precious moment. But not Jesus.

He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

This New Year, after being surrounded by my dearest friends and closest family and feeling a joy that sometimes feels elusive, I resolve to not resolve. Because life is a journey that doesn’t end until I reach Zion, until I’m finally home.