What If: The Responsibility for My Spiritual Connection Was On Me?

To begin this post, I need to give a bit of groundwork. The heart of this question came from a conversation that I shared with a friend months ago. We were discussing the framework by which we are finding spiritual connection and the heartbeat of the conversation shifted to our personal responsibility for that journey. The more we talked, the more clearly I began to see the reality of the American Church.

I have accepted the consumer mentality of church attendance for years. I have fought it with all of my church leading ability, but for the past 30 years the pattern of participation in the life of the church has significantly morphed to a ‘what can you do for me?’ mindset. In seasons of personal frustration, I have fought against this current. But years ago, I gave up fighting. I have pressed into personal internal work and trusted that those that were ready for this track would join me, appealing program or not. I have thought less about target audiences and attention seeking models and more about if this is what I need, maybe someone else will see it as valuable. This is great for many, and off-putting for so many others. It is a shift. No longer am I catering to what is convenient. Instead I am focused on calling others to own their own journey.

This does a few things. First, it makes it look like you don’t “care” about people. This is anti-pastoral. Secondly, it can come off as elitist or closed off. I can assure you that is not my intent. Instead, I think asking people to own their own journey is actually quite open. More open, in fact, than anything that I have been a part of in the discipleship journeys or Bible studies of the past. Finally, this shift puts the responsibility on the participant. And guess what? People don’t like responsibility. It is heavy. It demands work. Especially in the spiritual journey. It requires looking for yourself at the things that you cannot embrace or own. When you are no longer spoon fed “truth” or a particular belief system, and instead are forced to decide if you care or value these things at all, the hard choices begin to appear. You have to own it. For yourself. And hot damn, that seems real and true in ways that are anything but consumeristic.

I want to talk to my friends that are sitting on this fence. The ones that know that they don’t fit in the system but just can’t imagine what it looks like to think about owning (really owning) their faith. The ones that do the things because you are supposed to. The ones that answer the questions the way that others want you to because it is just easier than disturbing the calm of status quo. To tell someone that you are changing the way that things have always been done or believed or participated in or accepted is terrifying. Especially when it comes to owning your faith. So much of our system of organization in the Church has pre-determined eternal outcomes and perceived truth. But, I need to let you in on a secret. THAT IS A LIE.

If you own your faith in a way that calls you to walk away,

If you find that you don’t believe what you once did,

If you listen, really listen, and find that your soul tells a different story today,

You will be ok. I am ok. I am here to be a witness, you will live on the other side.

And what if, the story on this side is a more beautiful, free, freeing, melodic, harmonizing, trusting truth than you could have ever dreamed? That’s what owning your spiritual journey looks like. When you find that the handcuffs are removed and you are finally free to reach for the most loving and generous parts of your own soul, you realize that is the very space that Creation and Healing is the most alive.

The single greatest thing that has kept me from this part of my own journey is that I have bought the shame based lies that I was not capable of being trusted. I had deeply embedded belief grooves that held my heart hostage that my “sinful” nature was not able to be barometer of goo. Instead, I needed to rely on the smarter, more studied, more spiritual people to do this heavy lifting for me. My job was simply to digest their truth and to participate in the prescribed path of connection. By doing the correct activities and following the path, I would find soul contentment. Well, guess what? That didn’t happen.

But when I allowed myself to do some guilt free breathing. When I took a long deep, open, full-lung breath of what felt warm and welcome and ME, something happened. I didn’t feel like I was breathing a tank of artificial air. There was no life support needed. Because, I had the capacity to do this all along. My Creator wired me to listen and hear and discern. The very stillness of Sprit that I have possessed from birth was absolutely sufficient. It was my inability to trust myself, my unwillingness to flex the muscles of exploration for fear of non-conformity that paralyzed me all along. I have a new tool kit these days. In includes intention setting, meditation, prayer, listening, study, reading, trusting others to speak Divine inspiration to me and most importantly reflecting on what the Teacher is telling me through listening to my own spirit. This beautiful reconstruction journey is wonderfully mysterious and wildly freeing.

What If: I Can’t Ever Go Back to Church?

I have seen very few of my people over the last two months. Prior to the mid-March Stay at Home order, I would have told you that I am an introvert and really did not need to be around people. For the most part, this season has solidified this feeling. I have confirmed, however, that there is a distinct difference between people and MY people. I need my people. Like water and oxygen, I need my people. After almost 60 days of distance, I saw two of my closest in a socially distanced, no-contact, outside meet up last weekend. We drove in separate cars, met at a time that there wouldn’t be a crowd, collected our own coffee and sat (maybe not all 6′) feet apart while we talked. For hours. It was absolutely glorious. It was so wonderful that I actually had to force myself not to hug them – which, for the record, I’m not sure that I have ever hugged either one – but I did not because you know I’m not a hugger. But, for real, I need my people.

I met both of these friends in the circle of my religious life. I can honestly say that our paths may have not crossed otherwise. On the surface, we have very little in common. But there is a level of honestly that we have established that is safe. We speak to each other with all the passions of f’s and sh’s. We hold tightly to the belief that there is safe space. Even when I don’t think we intend to, we walk into conversations and suddenly find ourselves neck deep in what most consider controversial territory. It’s glorious, but not very churchy. Not very churchy, at all.

As we sat together this weekend, I confessed that I don’t know what to do with my current feelings of apathy about missing weekly gathering times. This led to a fascinating conversation about where we each were pressing into and working to find community. Our paths are very different, but we all come from the since-childhood Church world. Each with our own baggage and view of the value, we come to the table at different places of interest. It is at this point that I need to confess to you, dear reader, that this what if? question is mine. It’s one that I have been wrestling with since the pandemic began. I have never, not one time in my life, not been to church for 10 weeks. I took 4 weeks of maternity leave with child #1. I made it all the way to 6 with kiddo #2. Even when we were between churches, I visited (sometimes multiple) churches every week. And yet, here I find myself.

There is a huge part of my life, schedule and calendar that has been tied to the rhythm of all things church. We choose not to travel for certain holidays, so as not to miss special events. We prioritize the “extra” days because I have always believed that the practices of church activities were vital to my spiritual health. But something happened inside of me during Holy Week 2020. I didn’t not participate because I was not at church. I didn’t forget or even minimize the journey because I was not in charge of things. In all honesty, the opposite happened. I came alive.

I chronicled some of this in my Holy Week posts, especially my Saturday post. I allowed myself to do the things that I needed to do. I was not bogged down with telling the story so others could hear and understand, rather I told the story to my own soul. I gave myself space for quiet. I offered myself grace. It was so honoring.

My girl, Jen Hatmaker, threw down some truth on Facebook on Monday:

“Mostly, quarantine hasn’t created brokenness but exposed it. It has removed all the distractions and shiny parts that have kept us from the truth, from admitting what is real, and from the work.”

@jenhatmaker on Facebook

Thank, Jen. Thanks for calling out my crap right here on the carpet in front of the world and all of the truth tellers. That’s what this season has been. Most days have consisted of a long morning walk, gardening (yep, in my WEED FREE backyard), long writing sessions on the porch and some great conversations. I have talked on the phone WAAAAY more than I ever would. I have called friends that I rarely talk to because I needed MY people. I have trusted my truth and pain to new and old friends. I have searched for the truest of the true because I have been exposed. All of the cover of busyness and schedules were removed and I was forced to get down to business.

I have more to say about what’s next, post-quarantine, but for this question I need to honor myself. So today, I am going to speak to myself like I was speaking to one of my best friends. If they came to me and said, What If? I would say: Rest. Heal. Share. Search. Hope. Dig. Honor. Read all the things that you have been avoiding because of the what if’s. Listen to the voices that speak to you. Turn on music that stirs you to tears. Walk on the seawall at dawn when your soul is tired. Stay up too late and look at the fire. All of these things are Church for you, Lacy. And if, when the time comes, you are finding love and life in other ways, give yourself grace. God is not keeping attendance records.

What If: I Love God But Cannot Find a Reason to Walk in the Doors of the Church?

The honestly of this question is haunting. Again, the poles of love and hate are desperately disconnected in my response to seeing it on my screen. I want to hug this person and slap the Church all in the same beat of my heart. My posture in interacting with questions like these is especially tender because I can hear the pain behind this searching.

I received two questions that on the surface seem to be the same thing, but I can hear the slight difference. I am going to answer them back to back. This one comes from the voice of the outsider. One who’s experience of religion is defined by watching others. Not only have they not been immersed in the culture, but they have intentionally avoided wading into what they see as dangerous and unnecessary waters. Tomorrow, I will tackle the other, but today, I want to speak to the ones that have never wanted to know what it looks like to explore spirituality in community.

I need to say something to my friends that are open to Spirit and have never been saddled by the confines of religious expressions: I am sooooo thankful for you. That is probably one of the most insufficiently expressed statements I have ever made. Thankful is wildly inadequate. But you need to know why you are not only needed in my life, but vitally necessary to those of us that have not known searching without the walls of pre-programmed thought. You are needed oxygen. You are the calm in the midst of the storms of doubt. You are the gift of freedom that I didn’t know I was missing in my spiritual life. To talk to those who come at the practices of soul tending with the freedom to shamelessly explore is a beautiful gift to those of us that have been told how and when to think and study.

Years ago, I went to California on a spiritual quest of sorts. During my days away, I stayed at a retreat center that was filled with students and teachers of many disciplines. I was in awe of the freedom to encounter God in art, yoga, food, conversation, prayer and silence. I was challenged to think outside of my ideas of “retreating” and connection. It was one of the first times that I had allowed myself to label something so seemingly un-Christian as spiritual. It has taken me a lifetime to open myself up to the possibility that perhaps we (the only religious tribe I have ever belonged to) don’t have all of the answers. This is blasphemous to my previous channels of thought. This reality has emerged from my intentional welcome of those that are excited to learn about the Divine without the trappings of religion.

It is important for me to say these things so that you understand that my answer to this question is based in my love for, friendship with and deep concern for those that have allowed me to see their spiritually curious spaces. Without this gift of invitation, I could not say what I’m about to say. What if I love God but cannot find a reason to walk in the doors of the Church? Then don’t. Please don’t. With all of the love that I have in my heart for your curious and questioning self, hear me out. If you don’t think that the Church will bring life to your soul, it is not for you. If you don’t think that your best version of spiritual community is waiting for you in the Church, keep looking. If you have not experienced a welcome and openness that feels like a breath of fresh air, the Church is not the place for you.

For many, religious or not, the expectation is that answers and truth are found in churches. For some, that is the case. There are people worldwide that have sought and found thriving spiritual community in the Church. But this question says so much. The wording is not lost on me. This seeker has an established love of the Creator. There is connection to a Higher Power that is thriving and hopeful. That is more than I can say for many people that find themselves lost in their soul, yet sitting on the pews of churches today.

As I tend to do, let me see if there is a different question that might be more beneficial in this scenario. What if: thriving spiritual community can be found outside the walls of the church? It can. It does. It will. But I want to say one thing very clearly. Spiritual community is necessary. Walking alongside people that push you to see new growth and long for connection is one of life’s greatest blessings. Having others that know your story and heart is not only soul feeding, it is what draws you to know more fully all that you are created to be. I would not be who I am without those that have stood beside me, especially in times of spiritual homelessness. Rather than feeling regretful or guilty about not wanting to go to church, what if instead, the focus turned to intentional community. Perhaps it is a friend that you commit to read with? Maybe it is group that you know values the same hope that you seek? May we be willing to see how community and connection are being offered all around us and in those moments, may we recognize that THOSE are the doors that we need to walk through.

What If: Our Experience of Church as Children is Actually a Barrier to God?

I can remember sitting in a staff meeting in my early years of vocational ministry when the discussion of the “best time” to connect young-married’s (yep, the whole group is one category) to the church became the topic of the day. The clear call, by all good research and intel was that after the birth of their first child, couples often seek to return to the church to raise their children. Thus, you see entire ministries built from the roots of Baptism and baby dedication classes. Small groups on parenting are launched to receive these wandering young people, who are finding their way back from the wild days of college and early independence. Books have been written, studies have been commissioned and many dollars have spent launching these efforts.

But what about the kids that come along with these wayward young hooligans? Many of them are thrust into nurseries and pre-schools with those that they will one day come to know as their youth group compadres. In the early days of their lives, as their parents long for an hour of free babysitting and a cup of coffee, kids are entrusted to the church world, for better and for worse.

My early years of church life were magical. The wonder of the step stool behind the big pulpit, the flowing choir robes and the secret communion closet were enough to intrigue me and keep me, not only engaged, but fascinated by God and Jesus and the many things that my parents did in the name of church. For me, church meant time with my best friends, the good possibility of a Happy Meal or a Shipley’s donut and an almost certain late bedtime. These things were glorious and holy.

But something shifted the first time that I realized that the man in the black robe was fallible and that church people lied. I remember being asked to sit on a church committee in my early teens and I watched an argument over the church budget. I can still recall the first time that I was listening to a stewardship (aka give your money) sermon and I felt icky. There was something that didn’t sit right in my gut, but because I trusted the person who lead the campaign that year – he was my Sunday school teacher, after all – I thought that I needed to just be more faithful.

There is a strange thing that happens when the grooves of ‘belief’ and ‘right’ and ‘sure’ and ‘godly’ are etched in our childhood impressions of church. Often they are connected to people. Be it the pastor that you loved or the VBS song that you can still sing from memory, we deeply tie our understanding of faith and God with these memories. For many of us, that creates a warm and nurturing first contact with the Divine. But as we age and we see more, we can find ourselves in a deep well of conflict as we discover that things are not always as they appear. The one who taught you about God is not god-like. The idol that you created to defend your faith was just that. The non-negotiable teaching that could never be questioned because it “just was” is suddenly not. And then what?

Some in the church world call this deconstruction – a season of breaking down the things that you have believed so that you can open yourself to the things that you now know to be true. But the more concerning aspect of this entire conversation is not deconstruction or reconstruction. It is not even the marketing that goes into reshaping parents into loving the church again so that they will bring their kids to the programs. For me it is the group of young adults that will not ever darken the doors of a religious institution again because of the experiences, and in some cases, trauma of their childhood in the church. The ones that were manipiatued and spiritually abused. The ones that cannot ask questions. The ones that when they reached an age that they couldn’t make sense of their doubts, were pushed away as heretics and cynics and unworthy.

There is one group of friends that I cannot speak for, but I need to speak to. To my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters: I love you. Jesus loves you. You are whole and holy. Of all of the childhood messages that have destroyed and shamed and held an entire people group hostage, the words that you heard and felt in the pews and the youth groups of your childhood are by far some of the most painful. For every time that you heard that you are not enough, that you are unworthy or that you are uninvited, I want to say I’m sorry. For my part in leading the church to that place and refusing to walk with you and out of spaces that could not love you – all of you – I want you to know that I recognize that I have been part of some of the most damaging childhood messages that you could have ever received. I know that an apology is insufficient, but I’m hoping that my love and friendship is enough to remind you that there is not one entity or person on this earth that has the ability to define your worth. Not me, and sure as hell not the voices of hate in the Church today.

May this be a chance for all of us to call all of the messages that we have be given as children into question. Looking at something with an honest and harsh light does not negate it. Rather, I am more convinced that ever, that a good old household purging only helps you recognize what really matters, and what you want to box up and move with you into your next house.

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: 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.

===============================================

“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: 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.