What If: We Have Messed Up the Church?

If there was ever a question that just needed a one sentence response, it is this one. We have messed up the church. The WE that is the clear cause of the problem is humans. All of the humans. Anytime that humans try to control and give order to and manipulate the work of God, it is absolutely going to be messy. So messy, in fact, that sometimes I do not even recognize it as the work of the Creator.

The next 7 days of “What If” posts are about the Church. We are going to tackle things like the “rules” of church, the role of church and the need for church in the world. I am going to be as honest as I can, and that honesty comes through some well earned Church scars. But before we dive in, I need to invite you into my own church journey.

Year ago, I wrote about my formational years in Church. As a young child, this is the Church that I saw. My heart for and love of the Church began by watching a group of my parent’s friends be Church to each other. Here is a piece of that story:

I never felt shamed. I always knew I belonged. I believed that I was included. I saw the adults in my church give of their talents and time and sleep to impact our lives. This happened in the church building on Wertheimer Rd., but it also happened in my living room and in the back room at Los Tios restaurant. It happened in the car on the way to camp and as we were jumping off cliffs in central Texas. I don’t remember a single “Jesus said not to…” lecture. If you have been around the Church very long, you know that not every experience is this much fun. There were rocky roads ahead. But when I look back on the formational years of my life, I have no doubt that the preparation for my calling and love of the Church was rooted by a group of 30-somethings that said that they needed Jesus and each other to get through life.

In the mid 2000’s I experienced my own moment of adult discovery as I once again was reminded that the Church has never been defined by a building, a program or a leader:

We all realized that the bread and the cup and the conversations that we shared were more life-giving and hope inducing than conversations about cutting budgets and evangelism and debt payments and attendance numbers. For each of us, coming from very different denominational backgrounds, we found the story of tradition-breaking Jesus to be a breath of fresh air. One Monday night, over dessert, laughter and I’m sure some tears, someone said out loud what we all had been thinking. This IS church.

The road is long. My love story of falling in and out of love with the Church is treacherous. I have a firmly cemented belief that attaching an unrealistic expectation of human performance to the work of God through the Church is a dangerous step. On many occasions, I have been a part of messing up the Church. Anyone who has lead would be lying if they said differently. And even as I recall beautiful moments of deep personal and Spirit connection, I need you to know that that the road of Church life has not reached a tidy happily ever-after. I still fight to find my place. I still wrestle with connection and belonging.

I ask myself, daily, if I still feel called to participate in or if it time to step out of connection to the Church. I hope I never stop asking these question. This is one of the most honest conversations that I have with God today. Letting go and not being in control do not come easy for me. With the experience of ups and downs in Church life, these have become key components of making peace with where I need to experience personal resurrection inside the Church. I hope that God will always open doors for me to find connection to the people of God in moments of good conversation, around dining room tables and as we care for each other. That’s what the Church is to me in its very best form.

What If: Resurrection Still Matters?

Resurrection. A word that is deeply woven into the very fabric of all that is the Jesus story. One that is argued and disputed and yet held as a non-negotiable doctrine of Christianity. For once, I am not arguing. I’m not interested in that discussion today. What I need to say about this question is that resurrection does matter. It matters in such a significant way. A way that shapes all of us, even when we think we are not part of the story. Resurrection is the moment that life returns from death – when we think that the darkness has won and yet it does not have the last say.

“They were afraid.”

“They were filled with fear.”

“Do not be alarmed.”

These words depict the moments that the women came to Jesus’ tomb and they knew something was not right. The followers of Jesus knew about death, they knew about separation. They knew about having their very hope ripped from their hands and lives. The darkness won on Friday. The pain seemed everlasting. They had every reason to be afraid, and they were.

I get this. I have known moments of the deepest fear. A moment of looking over a bridge thinking that the world would be better without me. A moment of waking up still drunk and knowing that I was killing myself. A moment of removing a loaded gun from a desperate friend’s hand. A moment of crying on the floor of my closet wondering if my child would be alive in the morning. I know about fear. I know about the moments when things seem unfixable. I know about the times that by all worldly accounts, there is no good to come. I know about the kind of fear that can easily feel like the entire world is shaking at its core, earthquake like.

But I also know resurrection. I know the voice that says, “Do not be afraid.” I know the friends that walk into your life at the moment that you didn’t know you needed them. I know about the doctor that takes the time to listen and help. I know about the words of truth that call forth hope from moments of death. I know about the kind of resurrection that transforms the pain so much that recognition is unclear. This is why we can’t deny resurrection. Resurrection is the reshaping, the breath giving, soul returning patchwork that God has done and is doing in our lives every day. Resurrection happened and it is happening – ALL AROUND US!

I have been in a bit of a lifeless season. It was time for some ways of thinking and shaming and self-betrayal to die. I have spent the last two months working incredibly hard to breathe some life back into places in my soul that have seen death. 6 weeks ago, I began an intentional journey with these questions thanks to my girl, Glennon. In her new book Untamed, she unpacks this line that took me out at the knees:

“You need to make sure that the eyes in the mirror are the eyes of a woman you respect.”

And then she went on to pose some ass kicking questions that I have used as a resurrection standard for the next season of my life. What is my root belief? Do I value that belief? What is my boundary? What is true and beautiful? I have spent hours writing and shaping these truths about myself. It has been such a gift of new life. I am breathing life into and embracing the woman that I know God has been calling forth for some time. But it does not come without pain.

Resurrection requires death. To believe in the gift of resurrection is to trust that in dying to self (or lies, or systems, or erroneously owned labels) we are allowing and believe that something new can be reborn in its place. Resurrection means that we aren’t always in control, because new life comes from a Divine source that we have to allow it to heal and shape. Resurrection is the absolute best but it takes the most excruciating pain to experience. I don’t want to sugar coat this, the dying part sucks. It feels like your insides are being ripped out and exposed for all to use at a dart board. But, oh, the other side. The beautiful, brave, bold, subversive, honoring, life breathing side of resurrection. It’s time for you to see that side.

So what’s it going to be, my friend? What needs to die so that you can live? Let’s do this together.

What If: Everyone Who “Speaks” to Me is Labeled a Heretic by the Church?

Eighteen years ago, I sat in the main hall at the National Youth Worker’s Convention and was introduced to a pastor that would dramatically change the trajectory of my ministry and life. He was engaging. He was interesting. He was talking about our roots, and calling us to look deeper at the text. He had black rimmed glasses and wore skinny jeans before the fad was cool for men. He was so intriguing. The following year, I decided to take an intensive course from him at NYWC and I sat for 8+ hours listening to him undo much of what I knew to be the ‘gospel’ of church work. He talked about sabbath and boundaries and authenticity. He confessed to doubt and disgust. This was unheard of in my church world. I found a CD of this talk yesterday, and as I listened again I was reminded of the weight of these words in my life. The following day, he was a main stage speaker and he engaged the hearts of thousands with a teaching on the ancient Jewish prayer shawl. He talked about the beauty and necessity of going to that quiet place and the sacred gift of being honest with God. He promised us that God could handle anything we had to say.

Right on the convention room floor, I crawled to my hands and knees, put my face on my chair and wept. I’m sure that Lucas (who was attending with me that year) was terrified at the puddle of emotions that were oozing from my 2’x2’ folded body. There in that space, I was pastored and challenged. I followed and listened and devoured anything that came from a church named Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI. I used his Nooma videos to teach and lead students and adults. I could not get enough of his work because this was an expression of faith unlike anything that I had ever heard.

And then something transformational took place. He wrote a book. About faith. And called it Velvet Elvis. That should say so much about this guy. It was clear that he did not speak in the language known to be safe and Jesus-y. I loved every word. To this day, I have multiple copies on my bookshelf at anytime to hand out to those wanting to ask questions. This book release coincided with a season in my own ministry that I knew I was being called out of my current understanding of church culture. What I was comfortable with was just that, comfortable. And in this season, I left full-time vocational ministry for the uncomfortable world of listening. I didn’t know that in the decision to step away from traditional church life I was entering a season of study and challenge and babies and church planting and personal bankruptcy and a call to return to wholeness.

One of the most consistent voices of Jesus and bigger love and audacious grace in my life has been Rob Bell. I have seen him speak at night clubs and concert halls. Lucas and I took his grandparents to hear him speak in a historic theatre in San Antonio. I have traveled to southern California to sit with him for 2 days and smell the ocean as he moved his ministry from the local church to a global speaking ministry. I spent a weekend in northern California sharing space and hearing stories. Whenever I have the opportunity to introduce people to his work, I drag them with me to watch and listen and think.

He has released books that have met me at my points of pain (Sex God and Jesus Wants to Save Christians) and he ushers me into the sacred gift of creativity in faith. He pushes me as a teacher and thinker, with What is the Bible?. He was lifted high as a leader in the modern church and then destroyed by the Christian machine for introducing topics and conversations that were seen as threatening. Rob is openly labeled a heretic. To his face, to his followers and to the world (heck there is even a documentary by that name) the establishment responds with hate and venom because he chooses to use words and remove labels and ask questions. The very things that drew me to him were the weapons that others used to call his thinking into question. Rob was just the first. In some ways he ripped off the bandaid of bigger thinking. Since then I have a list of honest, messy, glorious leaders that have pushed me out of the box and into growth.

Here is what I have to say about this question. What is the fruit of your heretic? When you look at the people that you are listening to and walking with and sharing the table alongside, do you see good, life-giving, loving, whole fruit? In my darkest, most scared and vulnerable places, it has been the voices of Rachel and Nadia and Jeff and Pete and Jen and Glennon and Jonathan and Mike so many others that have held space for me. This list is far from complete, but these are my ride-or-dies. They have introduced me to new spiritual practices, both ancient and modern. They have woven together pieces of my fledgling faith and taught that it is ok to love God and doubt, all at the same time. They have unpacked ancient truths and emphasized recovery, mental health, self-care, full inclusion, passionate love and stillness. Their work and lives have been there for me in ways that were life support to my dying faith. I am but one life that has been forever changed because of their powerful and unafraid work. Their fruit? It is good, good fruit. And if that is heresy, I’m going down on that ship. Every. Damn. Day.

What If: There is No “Right” Religion?

If you have ever been a part of a religious group that believed that they had the corner market on the right-ness, you get this question. Because I know that most of my readers are coming with a basis of a Christian perspective, I want to start in that territory. Even within the fractured Christian church, we find vastly different approaches to the correct faith. Not only can we not agree that one denomination (or non-denomination) has it correct, but even within churches of the same theological pathway, there is the rightER way. Just ask my Church of Christ and Baptist friends. Because there is Baptist and then there is Southern Baptist. There is the “progressive” CofC that shows videos with music and then there are the ones where salvation is deeply tied to all the rules. Friends, we have plenty of this within our own bubble.

Growing up as a United Methodist, there were many in other denominational circles that fully believed that I did not understand the real meat of giving my heart to Jesus. I came to that awareness at an early age. Somehow I was ok with this differing reality within the confines of the Jesus camp. But something began to happen as my circle broadened. I remember being invited to my first Bat Mitzvah. Upon receiving the invitation, the questions began. What does this mean? Why do some religions have different traditions? Why do they get a big party?

And then the harder questions. Wait. Just. A. Second. If they don’t believe what we believe about Jesus…then what happens…eternally? To an 8th grade heart this unthinkable. And then came the questions of other faiths. What about my Muslim friends and those that belong to churches that do not believe in the Trinity? What about my Mormon friends and those that have no faith at all. AAAANNND THE CHILDREN IN SMALL REMOTE VILLAGES THAT HAVE NEVER HAD AN AMERICAN MISSIONARY VISIT? If you have run in the Evangelical Christian world and simultaneously have a compassionate heart, you know this spiral. And you probably know the answer that I was given. I swallowed this for many years. I wore it as a badge of successful faithfulness. I knew something that all of these poor people did not and for that I would be in paradise and they in eternal torment. Because, Jesus.

This is such a black and white issue in the core tenants of modern faith. But what about the historical faith? Jesus clearly taught that he was the incarnation of the Divine. Within the beliefs about the reason for the death and significance of the resurrection of Jesus, the Church has a wide road of varying postures. I love studying the modernization of the Church because one thing is continual, even from the early moments of creation: God is up to something new. God’s very nature is expansive and generous. At the very heart of this bigger, more encompassing love is the person of Jesus. As someone who believes that with my entire being, it is very hard for me to reconcile that a certain way of believing about Jesus became the defining point of separation between the in and the out.

The more that I have worked to understand the heart of the biggest of the biggies – of ‘in or out’- for most Christians, the more I go back to the understandings of the ancient Christians. I grew up with penal substitutionary atonement as the primary basis for all eternal implications. The more I study the ancient church, the more that I have come to understand that this theory (and that’s what it is!) is a modern one. Much like the other conversations that we have had the past few days, I am not here to convince you that I am right. I actually think that is where most Christians get it wrong.

The non-religious world couldn’t care less what those of us that enjoy huddling together in holy houses expouse as “good” theology. They really don’t care. At all. If anything our continual drum beat of unwillingness to ask a question is off putting and door closing. My peace with this question has come through years of asking the hardest of the hard questions. It has required listening and reading and digesting. It has required being uncomfortable and not knowing. None of which, for the record, do I love to do. It is not comfortable. It is not easy. But I have done it.

With that work, I have landed in this place. “Right” implies that there is a “wrong.” I am not qualified for the job of judgement on the issues of all knowing spiritual insight. Without God’s job description (which, by the way, none of us have) I think it is high time that we get out of the business of absolutes. What I know, FOR ME, is that I can see the love of God in the person of Jesus. I do not, however hold tightly to the ideas of atonement that I was taught for many years. I have embraced a generous and open faith, one that aligns much more closely to the ancient Orthodox and early believers. To answer these questions is to awaken more than 2,000 years of complex doctrine and thought, much of which, I believe dilutes and confuses the deep message and hope and restoration that is found in Christ. So that’s where I am going to camp out. I’m pitching my tent in tremendous love and overwhelming grace. I’m majoring in the welcoming of questions and the ability to trust that no human constraint, theory or idea can embody all that is the Knowing. I’m setting a bigger table.

“Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called “Christianity.” ― Rob Bell

What If: Jesus Is Not Enough?

I remember the first time that I doubted my salvation. I was in middle school and someone implied (aka told me – there is no subtlety in middle school) that my “way” of becoming a follower of Jesus was not sufficient. A real encounter with Jesus involved a certain prayer, usually after a certain invitation, and a certain response. This was not how people in my church world did the things. I tried to explain Confirmation, which was my most intentional response to date, and immediately things went even further south. That was “a Catholic thing” and I knew what that meant. My ticket to eternity was not punched in the eyes of that particular friend.

This trend did not end there. Sadly, I spent much of the next 20 years trying to give labels and moments and markers to the experiences that would qualify me for the in crowd. Throughout that time, this particular question was never on my mind. The search for belonging to the Christian community (both now and in the afterlife) was the driving factor in my quest for a sufficient demonstration of belief .

It was during my mid 30s that something significant shifted. I began to long for reconciliation and restoration. I quit fighting to be in the inner circle and realized that the one that I wanted to spend time with was always on the margins. The more that I looked for Jesus in the bigness and the production, the more I realized that I would always be disappointed. The life I longed to emulate would never thrive in the fancy, best or flashy. The only thing that I could hold onto was the fact that I just couldn’t shake the call to love like Jesus. It was only at that point that I first thought, what if Jesus is not all that I think he is?

So, I had to go back to the basics. What was it that I longed for and valued in my faith? Stillness. Peace. Hope. Joy. Grace. A call to include. The mandate to serve, with a pressing desire to live authentically seeking God’s will. All of these things could be found in the person of Jesus. Every time I tried to divorce myself from the trappings of rules and right/wrong thinking and closed minded religiosity, I could not shake the need to connect with this human example of love.

But, Lacy, what about the question? What do we do if Jesus is not enough? My first thought is which Jesus are we talking about? Are talking about the Jesus that the world told you about? Are we talking about the Jesus that your middle school friend dictated you were not qualified to spend eternity with? Are we talking about the Jesus that you are afraid might know the real truth about you? Or, are we talking about the Jesus that invited and welcomed and healed and advocated for the least, last and lost? Because when I go back and read about the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who’s life story was recorded by those who knew him, that’s the Jesus that I just can’t shake.

I want to clarify that by “shake” I don’t mean that I have atonement all figured out. I also don’t mean that I believe all the things that other Jesus people believe. I actually have about a 60/40 track record on the majors, and for someone who is hell bent to fight the rules of the establishment, I feel like that is some kind of big fat miracle in and of itself. What I know TODAY is that on the days that I’m sitting in the ‘I just don’t have the belief to believe today’ camp, I know that the Jesus I read about joins me there. I think that’s my most honest position and that is exactly the person that Jesus would have hung out with. He was not happily schmoozing with the religious leaders. He was not writing the rules to belong. He was not the slickest and most publicly appealing. He wasn’t holding the press conferences for attention. He wasn’t twisting truth for personal gain. He was honest. He was true to himself. He was human. He was an advocate. He was an includer. He was determined to offer freedom. He was Jesus.

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“It wasn’t shared social status or ethnicity that brought Jesus’ followers together either, nor was it total agreement on exactly who this Jesus character was – a prophet? The Messiah? The Son of God? No, there is one thing that connected all these dissimilar people together it was a shared sense of need: a hunger, a thirst, a longing. It was the certainty that, when Jesus said He came for the sick, this meant Jesus came for me.”

Rachel Held Evans Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church

What If: Mary Was Not a Virgin?

I once read an article about the danger of questioning the “biggies” of the Christian faith (and this would fall into that category). The author compared it to trying to take one pearl off of a strand. A problematic situation developed when you begin messing with the pearls of the faith because if you remove one, you are likely to lose the entire strand. My first response was laughter. And then I realized that this author was serious. They really believed that by taking off one pearl, we faced the very real dilemma that the whole thing would fall part.

Insider tip to my faith: I think God can handle all of our pearl removing. I am quite confident, in fact, that each time we dive deeper and look harder and pursue connection, we don’t just screw with the nice jewelry, but instead we have the ability to create a statement piece that can shape our soul and heart and hope. There is not one part of me that believes that this whole thing falls apart if I question or doubt or even decide that I can’t fully commit to every detail of a story that has been challenged for thousands of years. I really think that the God of the Universe can handle my wrestling. I actually think God delights in it.

This is why I am not afraid of saying some things on this topic. First of all, what if? Does it change everything? Why? What is the significance of the Virgin Birth in YOUR life?

If you are still with me, let me show you a few interesting things as I have wrestled with:

  1. Context – Do you know where the prophesy of the virgin birth comes from? Let me share with you why I love Pete Enns. He is waaaay smarter than me and he always has a way of cutting through the crap to what I need to know. He shares in his blog about the root of the word that is used in Isaiah (which is where the Gospel of Matthew draws the prophecy from) to predict the miraculous birth of Jesus. The Hebrew word in this text that is translated virgin in English, is literally defined as a young women, post puberty that was not married – thus culturally she would traditionally be a virgin. The interesting part to me is there was a specific Hebrew word that translated exactly to virgin. So why not use that word? These things intrigue me. And make me wonder.
  2. Experience – What part of the Virgin Mary is vital to your understanding of faith? Is it because you have always been told Mary was a virgin? Is it important that the mother of Jesus never had sex before he was conceived? Is it because that is the word used in the Bible that you read? I’m not questioning any of these for you. I am asking if you have ever done the heavy lifting of your own faith to know if this even matters to your understanding of the life of Jesus. Think about it!
  3. Connection – Anytime I bump up against a question, I always go to the history of the followers of faith. The Christian church has seen some things. There are as many understandings as there are people who have followed Jesus. I can assure you that us asking these kinds of questions is not new to God or the people of God. It is also deeply challenging for me to learn about the ways that my questions and faith align with others throughout the ages. It is these very questions that have called Church councils whereby the great creeds of faith come into existence. So if it is not new, why not dig deeper into how the people of God have struggled through the centuries?

I am more committed than ever to discussions on context, experience and connection. Asking about these areas of historic and universal faith have allowed me to use the lens of my own experience and see how God is teaching and growing me to work out my own faith. What if Mary was not a virgin? I don’t want to answer questions like this for you. When they pop up, I want to help you have the tools to seek the answers for yourself. That is the beautiful thing about trusting that God is enough. We don’t need a smarter, more faithful guide to give us all the answers. We need our own desire to explore and in the process, people to teach us how to ask better questions. Let’s do that together.

What If: Everything Cannot Be Solved in the Pages of the Bible?

This is an easy one for me. It can’t. I said it and I’m not going back.

Somehow, that does not seem to satisfy the heart of the question, so I am going to try and put thirty years of wrestling with this one into a few paragraphs. I’m sure that this will be wildly insufficient, but I need you to know my starting point as it relates to the Bible. I have spent many years learning how to study the Bible. I have studied for memorization. I have read for direction. I have examined for the storyline. I know the content. But it has taken me years to make peace with the scriptures.

When I graduated from high school, I received multiple books that had topics with associated chapter and verse. Where should I turn when I was worried? When I was doubting? You get the point. The number of times I would feel something very normal and human and I would go to these books so that God could “correct” my doubt or fear or pain are too numerous to count. I spent many years forcing a text about a struggling widow or a leper onto my 23-year-old struggle. And while there is constancy in the heart of the message, it never fit and often left me feeling unseen.

There was a turning point about 10 years ago when I began to find a pack of thinkers with whom I could resonate. My desire to learn from and be shaped by, yet not be shamed by or mistakenly instructed in a way that was never intended, was lived out in their writings and lives. While I have countless voices that speak truth on this subject to my soul, I need you to know about the Holy Trinity of scripture shapers for Lacy Hilbrich. As I have learned and questioned and opened myself up to see that the text is a story of the people of God and not an instruction manual, it changed the way I want to see God.

“The Bible is not an argument. It is a record of human experience. The point is not to prove that it’s the word of God or it’s inspired or it’s whatever the current word is that people are using. The point is to enter into its stories with such intention and vitality that you find what it is that inspired people to write these books.” 
― Rob Bell, What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything

“Bible stories don’t have to mean just one thing. Despite what you may have heard from a pastor or Sunday school teacher along the way, faithful engagement with Scripture isn’t about uncovering a singular, moralistic point to every text and then sticking to it. Rather, the very nature of the biblical text invites us to consider the possibilities.” 
― Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

“Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to “defend the Bible” against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag—fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.” 
― Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

My love for reading scripture only deepened when I began to let go of the worry of getting it right. When I embraced that reading the text was a conversation starter rather than an ending point, I began to love the story of God more. What we know from scripture is the heartbeat of God told in the stories and voices of the people of God. In reading, we are invited into the way that the Spirit has worked throughout the ages. This is refreshing news for many of us that have faced the reality that this one book is not the answer manual to every modern question and problem. Often the solutions I am looking for are not on the pages of Ephesians or Deuteronomy, but if I take the faithful journeys of the past and sit with the truth, I can find my own way to listen to God.

What If: I Can’t Say That I’m a Christian Anymore?

When I asked for questions for this series, I received such a beautiful array of topics. Because most of my blogs have a spiritual undertone, I fully expected that many of them would center from this space. It was clear as I started curating questions that there were a handful of themes that dominated, but there were two that seemed to need some thoughtful unpacking. Clearly, my sphere of influence had some big questions about the Christian faith the Church. This was no surprise to me, but I was honored that I was trusted with some of these questions. While I am doubtful that I have sufficient answers, I have thoroughly enjoyed the personal exploration that I have been gifted in this process.

Today’s question has so many layers. The only way I know to begin is to start on the outside and work inward. First of all, the wording has implications. “Anymore” implies that there is a basis for understanding the word Christian though the questioner’s life experience. I hear from this word that at some point in the past, the word Christian has been a marker of identity. Assuming this is true, we open up an entirely different level of question. A textbook definition of “Christian” is not applicable to those that have been personally woven into the faith. With the experience of embracing faith comes beliefs, rituals, direction and dogma that is not universal to every experience.

There is not one way to “be” Christian. Even within the faith, some define it as friendship, some a relationship, some a Baptism and others a mystery. At the core of all of these expressions is the rooted belief in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The way that Christians express, pray, talk (and just about everything else) are as different at the people themselves. This has caused splits and separations in the Church for centuries. The varying insights, truths and experiences are vast. So vast, in fact, that some inside the circle have a steep sense that claiming the name alone is not sufficient. The laundry list of do’s and don’ts is vast. The proving ground to gain entry is ever growing. Ultimately, the meaning of this word is loaded from every angle.

With that as the foundation, I hear this question and I immediately hear wounds. I hear the weapons of exclusion and the judgement of faithfulness. I hear the preconceived ideas that ______ is not enough to be considered in the club. I hear a struggle to reconcile all of this person’s being to the presentation of Christianity that has not fit. I get it. I really do. This is such a deeply personal seeking that I must dig deep for the response. I ask myself this question on the regular. I can do Jesus. I can read and study the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ. I can see the deep well of compassion and grace that embodied his life. I can rally around the Jesus of the broken and poor and women and sick. I can feel acceptance in his welcome. CHRIST is the not the problem with this word. It’s the -anity section that causes me to stumble flat on my face.

I have been out of youth ministry for years. Most of the teenagers that I served are in their 30’s…some at the upper end of that decade. They have lives and families. They have joined churches (or not) for themselves. They have had real pain and struggle and many have lived to tell about it. But some have not. Because life is real and foundation rocking and gut punching. Not long ago, I was at my house when the doorbell rang. One of my former youth was at the door. I had not seen them in years. We talked for quite some time and in the midst of painful truths, they asked, “Lacy, are you a Christian?” The sure-fire Sunday School answer was coming out of my mouth when I stopped. My mouth froze and their eyes met mine. With all of the truth that I could muster in that moment, I said, “I’m not sure that we agree on what that means these days. I can’t answer that question in one word. The automatic response that I have always given doesn’t work for me anymore.”

To say that this only further confused this conversation is an understatement. What they needed in that moment was the assuring, neatly packaged “yes” that I would have gladly passed out with cheer in years past. What they got that day was a historical and practical conversation about love and welcome. They were reminded that a label is not diagnostic. For the first time, to one of the teenagers for whom I had neatly packaged all the things, I had to unpack the ways that I still have faith in the person of Jesus but cannot claim the label of Christian most days. I can tell you all the things that I honor and treasure about so many aspects of faith. What I can’t do is honor and treasure a word and movement that has sought to divide, politicize, weaponize and defend the very things that Jesus stood against. The camp of Christian just feels like a pair of jeans that no longer fits. On some days, this is freeing. On other days, I am heartbroken. Either way, I’m choosing honesty in the process and worrying less about the label that I don’t want to wear, and more about the connection with the Divine that I need to develop. I think Jesus would be just fine with that.

What If: We Took Gender Labels Off of the Divine?

Yep. We are going there. This is a big one for me that I need to talk about. Today is my birthday, so I am giving myself a gift. There is a glorious freedom that comes with each passing year. While I come across as someone that always speaks their mind, I also want to belong. My primary and consistent place of safe belonging has always been in Christian community. There are many things that I have carefully weighed the cost of confessing in spoken and written word throughout my years. This post is the first of a few where I’m going to use my 4 1/2 decades of life to hold me while I trust my knowing, honest voice to speak.

I know that people don’t agree, and that is ok. Just come sit in my living room any night of the week and you will hear four different perspectives on any given topic. I want to be very clear that I’m not looking for acceptance and agreement on all the things. I am walking into some areas that I have studied and lived and grieved and embraced for decades. In the process, I have met and been in deep friendship with people that are afraid to ask these questions because they know the cost of answering them the “wrong” way. Before I go any further, I am going to be firm on this. My blog will not be a place of shaming or mean spirited hate spewage. This is a place to ask ANY question, and in order to do that we need safety. I will gladly block and delete commentary that is not helpful and loving. You do not have to read anything I post. As a matter of fact, if it is not helpful, please do not. I desire to build a home for those that are looking and can’t seem to find a place to land. That requires us to not have all the answers. Together.

Now, back to the question. There is a dangerous thing that happens when God is labeled by our human words. First of all they are wholly inadequate. Words are representative of one language, culturally derived and hold weight. Unfortunately, when we cross borders and generations and context, words are loaded. They are loaded with assumptions and baggage. They are loaded with delight and disappointment. For instance, say the word dream and some immediately think of Peter Pan while others quickly associate their night terrors. That is the reality of communication insufficiencies.

When we are studying ancient texts that were written in other languages and to other cultures, we give great trust that our 2020 English translations are accurate. Unfortunately, most of us do not do the heavy lifting to understand the detailed nuisance of centuries of translations. Before we go much further, I want to define a few terms. Sex is a biological term. Gender, in contrast, is defined by the World Health Organization as, “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.”

Hebrew (the language that introduces us to God in the Old Testament) is exclusively gendered. For instance a table (shulchan) in Hebrew is masculine while the sun (shemesh) is feminine. This binary reality has lead many faith leaders to use the masculine as the default. At the same time, we see examples throughout scripture where God represents a more female gendered reflection. For instance throughout the Psalms, the images of God as a mothering protector are many.

Because of the connection and association of words and genders, defining God seems impossible. What we know from the text is that from the very beginning of creation, humanity represents the image of the Divine. There is not one gender that is a more “true” reflection. Again, language and gender and cultural norms are completely insufficient for the deep well of hope and love that is God. So why is it that so many people of faith struggle with a gender neutral image of God? If we were to walk into most religious gathering spaces, there would be a gender assignment for the Divine. He, Father and Him are the most common, but this is not exclusive. Even churches that are sensitive to the need for gender neutrality sing songs with masculine language and bristle on the rare occasion there is a feminine pronoun or descriptor for God. While I could go on and on about this subject, those that have had this conversation with me before know that my personal call has long been to depict God in words like Creator, Healer, Divine, Spirit and Comforter. None of these words are exclusive and most importantly for my heart, none of these are easily associated in our culture with a gender.

Let me share one final thought to help you understand the weight of this discussion on people. If there is one thing that stands in our way of trusting and desiring God, it is our mistrust of people. I don’t care how many times that a wise spiritual person has told me that God is not human, they just as quickly assure me that God is represented in every creation – including humanity. So when we use ‘he’ or ‘him’ and even ‘she’ or ‘her’ to give representation to the Divine, we immediately assign humanly associated labels, whether we like it or not. If you have been a victim of incest and your Sunday School teacher prays to Father God, how can you pray? If you were assaulted by your mom when she was drunk on Saturday night, the last thing you want to hear at church is how “she” is holy and just. If you were date raped by your boyfriend, how can you ever trust that “he” is compassionate and able to heal? We cannot divorce our human context from our faith journey. Perhaps this small shift in language could be the open door that allows someone to see that God is not human. God cannot be boxed in. God, in all of God’s greatness is God alone.

What If: I Never Feel Spiritually Fulfilled Again?

I have a text saying that friends have recently received from me excessively. No commentary, no explanation, just “GOLD.” When this question appeared on my screen last week, I wanted to send back my favorite response. In the realm of truthful, hard, beautiful ‘what if’s’ for the spiritually seeking, this is GOLD. I’m going to do my best to unpack this gem, but before I begin, I need to place myself in the posture of learning. This is a question that I share with the asker. Regularly.

When you grow up in a tradition that is known for promoting and loving the experiences of faith that exude emotional responses, you have a warped “experience” of faith. As I have moved though different seasons of growth and tearing apart and construction, I have come to understand that my moments of greatest connection do not come when I FEEL spiritual. I falsely equated feelings with connection to the Divine in my younger years. As I have endured pain and struggle and grief, I discovered that the moments when I feel the most distant, even cold or uninterested, that God is actually working and shaping me into an entirely new spiritual shape. But these moments do not feel full. They actually feel quite lonely and empty.

When I first began to see these as holy moments, it was painful. I struggled because they did not present themselves as moments of fulfillment. They hurt. They made me question. And then I would walk a few more steps and I would realize that my soul felt stronger. Not because I was happy or had answers, but because I found that my grounding was secured with experience and reflection. As I learned in high school theology class, these are the very roots of faith. When we walk, one heavy foot in front of another, and realize that we are trusting that the God of the universe is at work – in spite of our undoing – we find our faith. A faith that is deeper, and more real and more full of questions. Instead, a faith that will be trustworthy when faith FEELS inadequate and incomplete.

One more thought that may give another dimension to this question: For those of us that have grown up with a context for faith that is wrapped in a handed down expression of spiritual connection, we often reach a moment(s) that require us to choose a different path. Do you remember the Pick-a-Path series from childhood? I think they were also called the Adventure Series. In these stories, you would reach a moment of the plot and choose a direction to continue. If your experience of faith is anything like mine, you have reached these moments multiple times in your faith life. Sometimes the path was obvious. Sometimes more hidden and nuanced. No matter the circumstances, taking the first step down the chosen path is the hardest part. But an amazing thing happens as I embrace the adventure. The weight of the situation shifts from the choice to go or stay or believe or deny, and transforms into the beauty of the journey. I’m not saying this is easy. I would actually admit that it is one of the hardest things that I have experienced in life. But a shift in the path is not a destruction, it’s simply an opportunity to change course. Honoring the journey is one of the most spiritual things that we can do. Allowing ourselves to honor the journey rather striving for a feeling allows us to be present all along the way.