What If: Nature is the Only Way I Experience God?

This question was posed to me in mid-March and I wondered how I would tackle it. Here we are, two months later and I finally have something to say about this topic. But the answer did not come out of study or even an intentional spiritual journey into deeper truth. The response has come through further breaking of my framework of connection. It has come with unknowing and letting old ways die. It has come through survival.

Prior to quarantine, I rarely went into my backyard. We built a gorgeous pool 8 summers ago and my unwillingness to put on a swimsuit meant that I touched the water maybe 3 times a year. There are only a few places where the “outdoors” and I are zen. I feel soul connected watching waves. I feel at peace in clear water with a snorkel on my face. I know a tender comfort while looking at the red rocks of Arizona. But running, hiking, biking, surfing, swimming (need I say more?) are not the ways that I experience the Divine.

Something happened when my only “escape” was the backyard – when the world told me that other places were not safe. When Target was no longer an outdoor adventure, I had to breathe fresh air in other ways. In an act of pure desperation, I went outside. I began each morning with a long walk. I explored paths in the neighborhood that I had never seen. I found a pond with turtles that I had never noticed. I began to love my coffee on the porch. I grew a garden – a BIG wonderful fruit producing garden. I found great joy in digging in the dirt. I now know all of the worms and bugs and even the crawly critters that my backyard has to offer. And when I “mastered” my fenced in space, I jumped the 8′ boundary and began trying to root the wild plants from the field next to our house.

Over the course of the last month, I fell in love with Galveston. I know…the brown water. But again, these things matter little when all you have seen for weeks is a master planned community. To sit on the seawall and feel the salty breeze has restored my deepest dying places. I have a new love, and her name is the outdoors. I’m still not ready to “rough it.” I long for the day that my time outside can be followed by a 4-star hotel with high thread count sheets and a spa. I’m not that changed. But, I get this question in a way that I never thought I could.

Now, for my great insight to the “what if?”…I know you are holding your breath. If you can experience the Comforter in ANY WAY, you are fortunate. If sitting in the sun gives you a glimpse into the mystery of soul connection, what a gift. If climbing a cliff or diving deep in the water allows your heart to see the infinite connection to Creator, hold that feeling as tight as you can and climb and dive as high and as deep as you can. Everyday.

The more that I explore new avenues of connection and allow myself to be freed from pre-programmed “right” thinking, the more that I drop the need to do it one way. I have a friend that finds more peace and stillness in Nature Church than in a building on Sunday mornings. Can we just stop for a moment and bless that worship as true and good? Rather than piling on the should’s and ought to’s, can we free each other to connect with the Holy in our own ways? I’m over it, in the best possible ways. And with that in mind, I’m going to the beach today. I need some good worship time.

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: 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: Science Has More Answers than God?

When I first saw this question pop up on my screen, I immediately thought, well it does. And then I thought about what I just “said.” That’s how these questions become the What If’s, especially for those of us that have the pre-programmed right answer. You know the one that makes you smart and sure and FAITHFUL? That’s the dangerous ledge that I find myself on when I hear questions like this one. I cannot count the number of times that I have been asked a question and my gut, my inner knower, knew the answer that should come out of my mouth, but instead the years of being taught how to answer a question demanded that my lips move in a different direction. So for the record, science DOES have more answers than God.

Here’s why: Science is factual. Science has provable data with clear right and wrong answers. Science produces the same results for every person. Faith, God, humanity’s connection to the Divine…well that is far from scientific. Rarely is it even quantifiable. And even when the moments of measurements are experienced by more than one person, the internal journey to process and bring meaning to the experiences varies as vastly as the hair color of humanity.

For many years, my belief system taught me that the answers to the things of faith were equally as precise. My religious system prided itself on the answers. Those that studied and attained and read and got letters behind and in front of their names were capable of offering the masses the clarity of answers to all of the questions. There were books and courses and studies to learn. There were words to memorize and songs to sing. When committed to pursuing the truth in black and white, you could find it. This all worked so well for me until the first time that I allowed myself to think about the answers that I so easily spouted. As I began to question and think about the reflexive responses, I began to cringe. I wish I could tell you that the answers in the Divine realm were clear. There are clear experiences. People can report their own journey. Others can tell stories that are factual in their own soul. But the majority of understanding and experiencing God comes down to a tricky little thing called faith.

Faith requires us to listen and question and think and process. The things of God are felt and experienced and nuanced and extraordinary and tender. These words make for a full life experience, but they do not reflect an acurate or even factual measuring of answers. At least not in the way that people who are willing to ask this question usually mean. If, from a place of sincere question and searching, this question is posed to a spiritually “smart” person, the attempt is to tap down the doubt and give the sure-fire Sunday School answer. I’ve spouted it off with great conviction on many an occasion. But if instead, if the questioned one listens to the heart behind the question, we see the seeker longs for truth. The most honest answer is to admit that by all worldly standards, science will always have more answers. But what if clear answers are not the end game? Connection and holistic beauty are the ultimate answer, but they won’t be measurable in a graph. Here’s to a soul journey that empowers the imagination and wonder and leaves behind the measurable success.

What If: God

I’ve tried to write this “what if” question in every imaginable form and nothing seems sufficient. My ramblings range from questions of existence to doubts about context, explanations and religious framings. More than anything, I want you to know that I’m not afraid of the biggies in this journey. If we are going to ask the questions, I think we need to start with the BIG question.

What happens when we begin to doubt and reframe and disagree and leave behind and embrace the things that formationaly define the Creator? This is scary territory. And for those of us that walk into these conversations with heavy baggage (which is most of us, right?) we spend equal parts our our energy defending our past or preconceived beliefs and fighting to give shape and open minded wonder to the ‘what if.’ It is from this seesaw battle of the mind that I come with a deep desire to set aside the things.

I recently attended a 12-step meeting that used a prayer that I had never heard before.

God, Please help me set aside everything I think I know about myself, my disease, the 12 steps, and especially You; So I may have an open mind and a new experience of all these things. Please let me see the truth.

This prayer is known as the Set Aside prayer. The roots of this prayer come from the chapter called “To the Agnostics” in the AA Big Book. This important section of the book is dedicated to those who come into the program without a concept or even willingness to consider a power that is bigger than themselves and more importantly their addiction. This prayer was exactly what I needed on that day and many days since. I have reached (again) a season of life where I cannot deny the presence of a wonderfully mysterious Divine power. But I am more sure than ever before that my human attempts to define, name, gender type, quantify and contain are insufficient. Often the language of humanity fails at explaining, and seems hopelessly empty in light of, the very real experiences that I have had with this unexplainable force. These unworldly experiences have propelled my heart to love in ways that are bigger than my humanity allows. Thats how I know it is not of my own making.

If there is one thing that this season of imposed down time has given each of us, it is an unplanned journey of slowing. I have had many recent experiences that remind me that we are all grasping for the things that we know. The times that I think I know God in a way that is sure, I miss the entire point. To engage and approach and interact with the Creator is to intentionally invite the unknown into our experience.

So for me, today, the question is: What if our experience of God is bigger than religion and language can articulate? And to that, I can say, “YEP!” I’m taking off the reigns of certainty, and trading them in for the deep, longing, searching, fear excluding, shame expelling gift of setting aside what I have known for the willingness to learn what the Divine still has to teach me.

To those that don’t even know where to start with this one, may I offer an invitation? I wonder if the unframed nature of mystery is one of the scariest parts of this quest. What if I do it wrong? What if this thing that I want to believe in is actually a lie? I get this. I really get this. In light of that, is there one thing that you CAN believe in? The love you have for your child? The moment that you felt loved for the first time? The deep desire to know and be known?

What if these are the very things that gift you connection to the inner gift of the holy. We over-complicate God. But you already know divine truth in your most quiet self. That moment, you know it already, when the friendship soars, the truth is finally said, the pain is admitted out loud. These are sacred moments. In those unexplainable seconds, you are experiencing the presence of something far more powerful than our human capabilities can manufacture. ‘What if’ changes nothing and everything all at the same time.