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In the Ash Heap and By the River – There’s Only One Way Home

In the Ash Heap and By the River - There's Only One Way Home
When I first felt called to ministry over a decade ago, I had a lot to say. I thought I had solutions to important problems. There was so much I wanted to contribute.

For many years I was extremely active. I studied and traveled. I spoke and wrote. I plumbed the depths in spiritual exploration, and shared with others what I had found. I was on fire for the truth, and I wanted to share it.

In recent years, I’ve gone through a process of slowing down. I transitioned from full-time ministry to a life full of secular work and family responsibilities. Things were bound to change when my wife and I began to have a family. Raising children takes a lot of time, energy, and resources.

As I found myself withdrawing (or being withdrawn) from the kind of ministry I had known in my twenties, my voice began to change. The herald’s trumpet that I had been wielding no longer suited me. My basic convictions had not shifted, yet my clarity about how to apply them had. Who am I to instruct others, when my own life is full of such struggle, compromise, and uncertainty?

The events of the past year – in politics and culture – have also made speaking more complicated. With the rise of extremist political ideology, our public discourse seems filled almost exclusively with trumpets and war drums. Brash, self-styled prophets who have no volume setting lower than ‘maximum.’ Pundits, bloggers, and Twitter jockeys who fill the airways with righteous indignation, furious condemnation, and apocalyptic certainty.

As these voices have gotten louder, mine has grown quieter. As the trumpets blare, my gospel song seems less audible – and perhaps less relevant. Some days I feel that I am losing my voice. After all, what is left to say? The world is full of shouting. Maybe what we need most right now are praying hearts and working hands.

I have always prided myself on being strong, but I have become weak. I was full, but now I’m empty. I’ve never been at a loss for what to say, but these days I feel muted. I resonate with the words of Job, who finally saw the face of God and the fearsome nature of the universe: “…I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

I have faith that God is providing a voice and a witness that can speak in these times of turmoil and confusion. Amid this age of blaring trumpets, there is a need for the lament of violins, and the praise of choirs.

In a time of many words, where is the power of silence? In the face of arrogant ideology, what does genuine humility look like? In a whirlwind of violent and chaotic spirituality, who are the peacemakers? What does it mean to repent in dust and ashes?

I am becoming convinced that this is precisely what God is requiring of me: Not solutions, but repentance. Throughout the pages of the Bible, in times of tragedy and crisis, God is always seeking men and women who respond with repentance. God spared Nineveh, a truly violent and wicked city, because its king and people humbled themselves, repenting in sackcloth and ashes. They pleased God – not by building a monument, establishing a new philosophy, or solving their economic issues – but by simply stopping cold and turning towards God.

When Jesus began his ministry, this was his message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God is at hand. But first, repentance. First we must stop dead in our tracks and turn around. Turn again to God so that we might be healed.

The calling for me in this war-like age is not to double down on the things I think I know. It is not to fight to win. The way of Jesus does not defeat the enemy and establish a kingdom through force of argument or strength of arms. Instead he invites us into a life of humility and self-emptying. His ministry is one of healing and reconciliation. His challenge is one of endurance. We need marathon strength to answer hatred with love, injustice with righteousness, violence with firmness and compassion.

I say again with Job: “Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” I have nothing to offer but surrender, trusting that the God who created this world will sustain it. In turning, we can be healed.

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Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?

Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?
The Bible’s teachings on authority come not primarily though a set of terse doctrines set forth in a few lines, but rather through hundreds of stories. We learn about God’s authority and humanity’s original rebellion in the Garden of Eden. We encounter Moses’ authority, and the challenge it represented to the authority of Pharaoh in Egypt.

We learn that words spoken with authority can bring death, such as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts. On the other hand, godly authority has the power to bring life. Jesus often healed the sick, the lame, and the blind with the laying on of hands and words of authority.

When Jesus spoke in the synagogues, the people marveled at the authority with which he spoke. He opened the scriptures, not as a dead letter to be adhered to, but as a promise and a challenge to be received with joy and trembling. Jesus’ authority – the power of his ‘yes’ to truly mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to mean ‘no’ – was a hallmark of his ministry.

There is a thread in the biblical tapestry that argues clearly and forcefully for subjection to authority. Romans 13 comes to mind as an important – and often abused – example of this line of thinking. All authority is instituted by God, says Paul. The governing authorities are to be honored and obeyed, not just out of fear, but for the sake of conscience. God wants us to obey.

This is fascinating, coming from Paul. After all, Paul regularly tussled with the established authorities – religious and political – publicly challenging their world view. He was no one to shy away from upending the religious and cultural chieftains of his time and place. It’s not a coincidence that he regularly had to flee for his life. He spent much of his time in jail. How strange that among his teachings should be the idea that a violent, often tyrannical government like that of Rome should be honored and obeyed.

It’s not just Paul. We encounter this unexpected message in the life of Jesus, too. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – not because he was in need of repentance, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness.” John’s ministry possessed authority, and Jesus found that in submitting himself to John, he was submitting himself to the Father.

Jesus didn’t submit himself to every authority. Jesus openly defied the life-denying teachings of the Pharisees and priests that dominated Jewish religious and political life. He challenged Herod, the notoriously unjust local strongman who murdered John the Baptist, even calling him names at one point. Jesus seemed to have no problems picking fights with those in authority.

And yet, when Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, he ordered his disciples not to fight. He submitted himself, first to the abusive authority of the priests, and later to the state violence of Rome. According to scripture, Jesus had no defiant words for the Pilate. The Roman governor was amazed at his passivity! Jesus exercised a ministry characterized by direct confrontation with those in authority, yet he was led to his death without resistance.

No matter how much some of us may resonate with the maxim, “question authority,” the Bible gives consistent witness to the importance of obedience. Jesus himself is the ultimate authority. In him all things hold together. Everything that does not join with him scatters. All authority is instituted by God; it is the skeletal system of the God-created cosmos. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but power.

We live in an age in which almost all of our authorities and civic institutions are being ripped down. The individual reigns supreme. In the absence of authority, truth becomes a moving target. With no one able speak with authority about the things that really matter, we are all relegated to the realm of “alternative facts.”

Despite the twistedness of our human authorities and value systems, we clearly need them. God instituted authority when he said “let there be light!” and divided the day from the night. Through his supreme, creative authority, God drew us out of chaos and into a beautiful, ordered universe. Only God’s authority can overcome the chaos and confusion that now reigns in our personal and civic life.

Yet there’s good reason that so much authority has been rejected. Our authoritative institutions in government, business, and religion have all been thoroughly discredited. Corruption abounds. It’s hard to see how we should submit ourselves to an authority that is so hollowed out, so rife with injustice and hypocrisy. The Bible supports us in this conclusion, too, with its many stories of resistance to an unjust social order.

How do we reconcile this biblical ambiguity? Are we to submit to the governing authorities – to the civic and religious institutions that govern our society – even when they’re wrong? Or is it more important to stand up for truth, even if it means trashing the authority structures that lend shape and coherence to our communities, nations, and the world at large?

It would be easier if we could simply say, “submit to authority, always” or “question authority, no matter what.” Black-and-white rules are easier to follow than principles guided by conscience. But for better or worse, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. God has given us free will, in clear anticipation of the challenging and nuanced choices we are called to make.

What does it mean to imitate Jesus in our relationship to authority? What does it mean when he teaches us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which belongs to God”? Like so many profound teachings, these words of Jesus contain a tension that demands discernment on our part. We are to subordinate ourselves to the authority of the state. Yet we can only rightly submit ourselves to human authority in the context of our ultimate submission to God.

Who are the authorities in your life? Police, the IRS, employers. The money economy, church leadership, social expectations. Fashion, loyalty to sports teams, family. Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as free and independent people, beholden to no one. Yet there are so many authorities that we answer to. What does it mean to obey – or to resist?

Paul, who in Romans calls us to submission to the civil authority, also writes, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” All authority is instituted by God, yet not all authorities are to be obeyed. How does Paul navigate this dilemma? How do we?

Though not an author of the Bible, C.S. Lewis provides a clue when he writes that the devil doesn’t create anything. The Father of Lies can only twist the good creation that God has made. God created all authority to bless and give life, but through our rebellion against that holy and healthy authority, we have allowed the creation to become twisted. Authority no longer works as intended. Rather than acting as a skeletal structure for the body of Christ, it can be misdirected to empower evil.

How do we tell the difference between authority instituted by God and demonic strongholds that must be challenged? Sometimes it seems impossible to sort out all the mixed motives in our relationships and institutions. Fortunately, the author of all authority is available to guide us in our discernment. Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would be present, speaking through us as we interact with authority. As we submit ourselves to God, we can be instruments of healing and reconciliation for earthly authorities that have become twisted with rebellion and diverted from their God-given purpose.

This process of courageous discernment requires that we maintain an awareness of who is in control. All authority is delegated by God, and so all authorities are answerable to God. The Holy Spirit lives and speaks in us, so even the weakest of us can be called to speak in God’s authority. We are called to submit to the governing authorities, and to all authorities that God has instituted over us – citizen to government, child to parent, worker to employer. Yet in all these relationships of authority, God must always reign supreme. Each one of us stands or falls before our own master – the Lord Jesus. We are primarily and ultimately responsible to him. We must be mindful of our obedience to him even in the midst of our subordination to lesser authorities.

As the early church said to the religious authorities who ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

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That Gospel – I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

That Gospel - I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, & Mark 13:24-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.
But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.
In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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How Can I Ever Measure Up?

How Can I Ever Measure Up?
Early Quaker leader George Fox taught that each person has been given by God a certain measure, or portion, of life from God. Not everyone has the same abilities. Some of us are stronger or weaker, smarter or less intelligent, possessing greater or lesser faith.

Because human beings are not equal in our abilities, Fox taught that God expects different things from each of us. A small child is not expected to get a job and provide for the family, but an adult parent is!

This teaching is perhaps best summed up in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This a very challenging concept, especially for those of us who have received a great deal of privilege in our lives – safety, family, education, wealth, job opportunities, and so many other factors that benefit us. From those of us who have received much, a great deal will be required.

But I am also finding these words of Jesus to be liberating. Because there is another side to this coin. While I am responsible to use the gifts I have received, there are so many things I am not responsible for. There are so many ways in which I am weak, lacking in talent, and deficient in understanding. In these areas, less may be required of me.

Jesus shows me that I don’t have to grip so tightly to my own sense of self importance. I don’t have to volunteer for every good project. I’m not responsible for the outcome of the human race. Because that stuff is way bigger than me – way beyond my measure. Like the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, I will be held accountable for the gifts that God has given me. Not for the fate of the whole world.

For an overachieving control freak like me, that’s really good news. It’s good news that challenges me to examine myself. What are those few talents that God has given me to steward, and what are the many other important matters that I can lay aside? After all, God has other servants to take care of those.

I’m used to taking on more than is truly my responsibility. But when I release those things that are beyond my measure, I discover the easy yoke that Jesus promised. It’s a life of challenge, but not burnout.

What are the talents that God has entrusted you with? How do you distinguish between the many good things, and the few necessary things in your life? What does it look like to live your life in measure?

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How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?
This past weekend the Friends of Jesus Fellowship gathered in Barnesville, Ohio. Our theme was “Stay Awake” – drawn from the teachings of Jesus to his sleepy disciples.

Even 2,000 years before cell phones, streaming music, cable news, and video games, it was hard to stay awake. The original Jesus community struggled to stay conscious, aware, and focused on the things that matter. Even when Jesus was with them in the flesh, teaching and leading them, it was a challenge to stay grounded. Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake with Jesus for one hour while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane!

When Jesus was arrested and hauled off to be executed, every single disciple fled for his life. Just hours before, they had all insisted they would die rather than abandon Jesus. Now where were they?

The first disciples struggled to stay awake and responsive to Jesus’ voice, but it seems like we have an even greater challenge. While the twelve apostles knew Jesus as a man, we today only know him through the Spirit. It’s easy to lose track of who Jesus is in our lives. It’s easy to forget that he’s even real. In the midst of so many worries, comforts, and distractions, most of us operate in a state of practical atheism.
Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2017
This is certainly true for us in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We’re all tired. We get get our priorities mixed up. We lose track of who Jesus is and where he’s calling us. Like Martha, we are worried and distracted by many things. But we need only one thing.

Our time together in Barnesville was a reminder of that one Life that gathers us together. We reconnected with the still, small voice of Jesus who speaks to us when we’re ready to listen. We are part of a Spirit-led community that draws us out of distraction and into a more true and beautiful world.

It was a joy to have several families at the gathering, and to care for one another’s children. We watched them play together as friends in the family of God. Our young ones reminded us that we are all part of a larger community of friends. We’re knitted together in the love of Jesus. I’m very grateful for the grounding and sense of place that I find as part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

Coming back home to Washington, DC, I need to remember that sense of connection and purpose. The distractions have not gone away. I spent four days unplugged from electronics, but my screens were waiting for me as soon as I left the gathering.

It’s easy to wish for a simpler, more innocent age. People have always longed for that, regardless of their circumstances. But I’m not called to that kind of nostalgia. I’m wondering how I can embrace an abundant, Spirit-filled life in the midst of urban America.

My challenge now is not to remove distractions, but rather to repurpose them for good. How can I use technology to foster greater faithfulness, connection, and resilient community? Rather than distract myself, how will I connect and focus? I need more signal and less noise. How do I get there? More importantly, how do we get there together?

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What if my Religion is just Self Help?

What if my Religion is just Self Help?
I came to religion for selfish reasons. I was often depressed. I felt empty. I couldn’t find meaning in life. I explored faith because I wanted to receive, not to give. I was looking for a spiritual solution to my lack of direction and purpose. I wanted a faith that would make me feel good.

I did a lot of religious exploration before I became a Christian. I engaged with philosophical movements like existentialism. I went deep with political ideologies like democratic socialism and anarchism. I even explored Buddhism, Islam, and other non-western faiths.

My motivations were very human and self-centered. I wanted a faith that would fix me, that would make me happy and fulfilled. I wanted a system that could give me the right answers and make my life easier.

If I’m honest with myself, most of my faith journey has been a path of self help. My religion was like those books that promise rapid weight loss, financial prosperity, or success in love. Everything was about what I needed, wanted, and craved.
What if my Religion is just Self Help?
Even my experience of God was a product to be sought after. Buddhist books written for westerners promised me inner peace and clarity. Quakerism offered me ecstatic, mystical experiences that took place in meetings for worship. That sense of presence and power made me feel special, purposeful, and loved. I wanted more of that.

I felt like these religious experiences were making me better. Throughout my twenties I would say, “every day is better than the last.” And it was true. The more I got into spiritual practices and religious devotion – meditation, Bible reading, worship, prayer – the more mature and grounded I felt. Other people seemed to think so, too. I had objective evidence that religion was making me a better person!

My faith was fun and gratifying. It was fantastic to feel successful. My life was filled with meaning and purpose in a way that I had never experienced before. I still had periods of darkness and struggle, but I came out of each one feeling more triumphant than before.

Until I didn’t.

My thirties have been a hard decade. I had my whole sense of mission and purpose called into question. The ministry that I’d been focusing my whole life on fell apart. It was hard to know what to do. I felt so clear about what God had called me to do. And then there was nothing left. Where was God in all this?

At the same time, my life turned upside down. After years of ministry, I started working full-time in non-church-related jobs. We also had our first child, which changed my life and outlook in ways that I never imagined. Life got busy. Full with comings and goings, work and responsibilities. I didn’t feel able to be present to God in the way I used to. I felt that emptiness again.

This new dry season is very different from the one I experienced in my teens and early twenties. This time, I’ve already committed to a religious path. I know that I want to follow Jesus. I’ve met him. I’ve seen that he is the Messiah. For me, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And yet I’m so burned out on religion. I’m so exhausted by church, theology, and all the human stuff that goes with being in faith community. Religion doesn’t feed me in the way it used to.

As hard as this is, I’m wondering whether this might be a good sign.

What if I’ve been mis-using religion this whole time? What if my relationship with God isn’t about making me a better person? What if it’s not about giving me purpose, identity, or comfort? What if my faith in Jesus isn’t about me at all?

Maybe these questions seem obvious to you. “Of course, Micah. What, you thought it was all about you?” In truth, I’d have to answer in the affirmative. That’s the whole narrative I’ve received about faith. It’s about self-improvement. Growing in maturity. Becoming a better man, able to help and teach others because I’ve got it together. That’s what I thought “sanctification” was all about.

But now I’m thinking there might be a different story. To put it in Paul’s language, what if I’ve been a baby drinking milk this whole time? What if God gave me what I needed in my very immature state, but it’s not the main course? What if the meat and potatoes of discipleship is less about improving myself and more about forgetting myself? Could it be that, by seeking life improvement – even by desiring to be “a better person” – I’m avoiding the real journey that Jesus wants to take me on?

What is that journey?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think it has to do with looking at Jesus rather than myself. I suspect it’s about learning to focus on the needs of those around me rather than my own dreams and desires. Even good dreams and desires. It might be that the kingdom of God isn’t about what I experience. It’s not focused on how I grow, or what I do. Instead, it’s unlocked when I lose track of myself. When I become yielded to the light of Christ. Even when that light feels like darkness.

This is a scary path. It’s frightening because I have no idea where it leads. To walk down it is to surrender my ability to steer. This is what it means to get past “self-help religion.” When I get into the strong meat of faith, the overwhelming sensation is that of being out of control.

Yet there is also the hope here. Hope that, in the midst of it all, I am loved and guided. There is a presence and power beyond my narrow understanding and selfish desires. She will direct me.

I want to trust this Spirit. I want to trust that this path will lead me through green pastures and beside still waters. Even if I’m thirsty most of the time.

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Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine?

Do You Think You'll Age Like Wine?
Christianity is a wine-soaked religion. My teetotalling Quaker ancestors did their level best to rid the world of alcohol. Still, the pages of the Bible are full of references to the drink.

Jesus’ ministry began and concluded with celebration. He kept a wedding party going strong into the night when he transformed water into wine. And when his time on earth was almost up, Jesus enjoyed a simple passover meal with his disciples. He offered them bread as his body, and wine as his blood.

The Hebrew scriptures say that the life of a creature is its blood. What is wine, that Jesus would offer it to us as his life?

Wine is a mysterious drink. It breathes, ages, and develops over time. Even before Jesus made it a centerpiece of the Christian faith, wine has always held a religious significance. It has a life of its own.

One very interesting thing about wine is the unpredictable way it ages. It is well known that good red wine can improve dramatically over the course of several years in a cellar. What’s less commonly known is that this improvement is not always linear.

A young, bold, and aggressive wine can mellow into a refined, coordinated vintage. But open it too late, and it may have turned to vinegar. Open it too early, and it may not have the qualities you expected at all.

In the midst of all this change, there is often a “mute” period. Between the boldness of youth and the sophistication of age, the wine falls silent. If you happened to sample it during this time, you would certainly be disappointed. But wait a little longer, and you may experience a masterpiece.

Jesus himself is like wine. We experience the boldness of his teaching, healing, and rebuke to hypocritical leaders. We witness the glory of his resurrection, the power of his triumph over sin and death. And Jesus also passes through a mute period. Between the last supper and the resurrection, Jesus falls silent.

As he stood before the High Priest, he said almost nothing. Only enough for the religious tribunal to condemn him. Then he was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who was astounded at how little Jesus had to say. It was as if Jesus’ fierce boldness and righteous anger had slipped away.

As he hung dying on the cross, the silence was deafening. There was no dynamic action. No sermons or healings. Angel armies did not come to the rescue. Instead, Jesus turned inward and directed himself to the God who felt so absent right then. He showed love to a fellow condemned prisoner. He consoled his disciples and his mother.

Jesus’ whole life was churning in the vortex of this “mute” time. Jesus had been faithful, and something amazing was about to happen. But as Jesus drank the muted wine of that moment, all he could taste was gall and vinegar.

In both wine and human life, this muted space is awful, mysterious, and necessary. Wine must lose what it once was in order to become what it is meant to be. Our lives must pass through brokenness and surrender. The loss and emptiness of the cross is the only path to a resurrected life.

You may be living through a muted moment in your life right now. You feel empty, shorn of the enthusiasm and excitement that once propelled you. There’s a gentle brokenness in you. It invites silence. Grounded humility comes unbidden as you repent in dust and ashes. There is peace here.

Now is a time to wait. There’s no need to open that bottle before it’s ready. Like any good wine, your life is breathing, opening. You are an unfolding mystery.

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