It is by the grace of God that every emotion, every fear, every question, every doubt, every bit of confusion that I am about to chronicle is not an unfamiliar one, but one I have walked through before. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, at least to the extent that I can self-assess and be introspective, there is no diagnosis that I’ve found. I don’t know how to fix things or change things or make them different. I simply have to wait. And wait I shall.
The present range of emotions I feel is vast: sadness, anger, fear, elation, confidence, insecurity, sentimentality, hope, discouragement, etc – somehow I manage to feel it all at once. I feel all of them and yet I feel none of them. And perhaps this range of emotions is what makes it so hard to place a finger on exactly what to do next and exactly where I am now. But alas, I shall try.
This will not be unfamiliar to you if you are a faithful reader: I left my home church of nine and a half years at the beginning of 2015. I went for an adventure, one that I thought be very different to what it has proven to be thus far. I left to find community that was closer to home because, as I saw it, it was better to be in a spiritual community with people who are living where you are – paying taxes to the same city government, going to the same bars, coffee shops, restaurants, cultural hubs, stores, etc – than to try to maintain spiritual community with a group of people who are geographically far away. The community I had, however, was stronger than I realized at the time, and upon leaving, I found myself alone more often and in deeper states than I expected. And, it proved to be no easy task to find a new church.
After all, you get very used to the way a church is set up. In one sense, that is what is nice about church in a free country such as ours – you can structure it the way you want, and you can choose a church that caters to the things you desire. But, I have found that such is the downfall of our free-market church system, too. In getting a church that I wanted back home, I have found it near impossible to find the “right” church here in Lexington. And as such, I am still without a church home. I was close to committing to a church but a couple of things changed that: first, work began demanding more time, or rather, different pockets of time. Where I had Sundays guaranteed to me for my first year and a half, I began needing to work on Sunday mornings. And (and this is my own fault) I did not account for this in my church hunt. I did not look for alternate days or times to go to church so that I could still go to church if I had to work on Sunday morning. Second, the church that I wanted to commit to preached a sermon series which I viewed as futile (it was aimed at a specific demographic, a tactic which I loathe in churches. To me, the gospel is for all people, and if you have to tailor a sermon series to fit a certain demographic, you are not preaching the gospel, and therefore are wasting time) and to me, preaching is such a key component of a good church that I decided then and there that I did not want to deal with any more futile or pointless sermons. So I left.
I cite that part of my story for several reasons: first, I find that the more often I talk about it, the more I see how many excuses I have made for not being in church (and subsequently call bullshit on myself); second, so that you may understand an underlying component of my spiritual state. See, I am firmly of the mind that growth happens in community, and there is safety in community. But I want to be careful when exploring this idea. I do not want to convey the idea that inside of community, there is no space for doubt, there is no space for questions, or even for laziness (all of which I find myself guilty) but rather that community is the safest and healthiest place for doubts, questions, and even laziness to exist. Because when one is isolated, it becomes easier to let doubts fester, it becomes easier to answer questions yourself (and usually we are fickle and foolish enough to arrive at the wrong conclusions) and it is easier for laziness to turn into permanence. For instance, it is harder now than ever for me to engage with a new group of people because I am so used to not doing so. I make many excuses for not attending church, small groups, or Bible studies, and it has (unfortunately) become my default setting.
With all of that said, I do not necessarily ask for compassion. I do not ask for sympathy, and I am not saying “woe is me, God is making me suffer.” Or, maybe I am. I am not sure. I ask you, reader and friend, to discern for yourself the response to have to this, because perhaps I am hard on myself and perhaps what I need is compassion and sympathy. (After all, often times I find myself wondering which Jesus I need more: the tough Jesus who calls people out on their wrong thinking and cuts through their excuses, or the tender Jesus like the one who told the woman at the well, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Although, the correct theological answer would be to say that there are not different versions of Jesus – He was the same in both instances.)
I struggle to find a way to dive into this issue, but I will try with this statement:
I do not feel like the same person anymore.
It rears its head the most when I find myself in the company of old friends or people who knew me 2-4 years ago, when I was in the period of arguably my greatest spiritual vitality: when I was preaching, when I was leading worship and teaching children, writing great blog content, etc. These people with whom I had theological conversations and discussions, studied the Bible with, prayed with – when I see them, I feel the most estranged from myself. After all, are you not supposed to grow strong in the Lord and STAY strong in the Lord? This is perhaps the most perplexing thing – the sense of a loss of identity. And, I am increasingly of the mind that our identities are not so much lost, but altered. Although, the voice pops in my head that identity is the single most important issue in Christianity and our identity never changes – we are sons and daughters of God, and nothing can change that. Perhaps that is the truth I am missing out on. But situationally speaking, what do you do when you run into an old friend, one of those types who always seems to be hearing from God and having a “word” for someone – let me pause here…I have always had an inferiority complex with those types. For almost ten years now, I have been intimidated by the type of people who are bold enough to talk to a stranger in the mall and say that God told them that they had a problem with their knee and that God wanted to heal it. Do you know those types? I do not know the word for them – prophetic? Lunatic? Brave? In-tune? Whatever you want to call it, I have always felt outdone by and insecure compared to these types. Anyway, what do you do when you run into them, and they are telling you about how great their life is, and how God is bringing them into a season of growth and good things – especially when you are in a season of dryness, when you feel you have not heard the voice of God in months, and when you feel you have no authority to even make a single claim about God, at least not for other people? I mean, how am I going to go up to a random stranger and encourage them and tell them that everything is going to be okay, or that God wants to heal them, when I do not even grasp the idea that God wants to talk to me because of how I lost my temper at work, or how I have not been to church in two months?
And perhaps therein lies another issue (do you see the tangential thinking here? I have not arrived at a single conclusion, as long as I have pondered this.) I was always told that the voice of God is one of love, and if you hear the voice of condemnation, you can rest assured that it is not the voice of God. God does not make accusations against you – He affirms and loves you. But it proves very difficult to feel worthy of hearing the voice of God in the middle of a thousand mistakes you knowingly make, especially when you know better, and moreso when you know there was a time in your life when you wouldn’t have made that mistake. There was a time in life when I did not care about being overworked, but somehow now I find myself frustrated with long hours. There was a time in life when I would not have dreamed of having one too many drinks. A time in life when I managed my stress with pizza and video games instead of alcohol. A time in my life when I respected more physical and relational boundaries than I sometimes do now. A time in my life when I would have managed my money better. A time in my life when I made the Bible and spiritual community more of a priority than I do. In a lot of ways, I am a worse person than I have ever been before. And (hopefully understandably so) I feel horrible about it, and so I struggle deeply with unworthiness. There is a part of me that has no mercy for myself, and I hear my extremely conservative upbringing in the back of my head saying, “if you know better, and you still do the things you do, then there is no mercy for that.”
But that seems so not-Jesus. So anti-gospel. Yes, I will concede – in the case of 100% of the mistakes I have made in my life, I knew better. But does the cross somehow stop exuding mercy at the point at which you knew better? How many other people knew better but still did horrible things? Do you not think (at this point, I am speaking to myself, but take this for you too, reader) that David knew better when he invited Bathsheba over for sex and killed her husband? Do you not think that Abraham knew better than to pimp out his wife when they got to Egypt? Do you not think that Peter knew better than to deny Jesus three times? Do you not think that when the church used to sell pardons, they did not know better? That every crime and murder committed in the name of God or by someone bearing the title of Christian went without remorse or correction? Do you not think that countless pastors struggle with pornography? Do you now think that countless people, Christian and non-, struggle with alcoholism? Do you not think that countless married people crossed boundaries either in their own relationship or their relationships prior to meeting their spouse? Do you not think that other Christians deal with being angry? Do you not think that other Christians have doubts and struggles with church structure and polity?
Such is the cynicism I have framed for myself – and self, have you no mercy? What I mean is that I have found myself re-subscribing to the idea that Christianity is about rules and morality, and when you frame your Christianity that way, then you begin to treat yourself as God: you either puff yourself up to a level of goodness equal to that of God’s when you are good; you punish yourself and wallow in self-pity and piousness when you fail; or you justify your mistakes and pit yourself and your own standards against God’s, and none of those are good outcomes.
Ultimately, a Christianity about rules is a recipe for cynicism because we are human and we are guaranteed to fail. Then, when we fail, we will likely see it as unfair how much God requires of us, and then we will begin to question God Himself. It is moral-centric religion, I believe, that makes people frame questions such as “If God were good, why is there evil in the world?” Or, “If God were good, then why did Christians murder people in the crusades?” Moral-centricism creates self-justification, comparison, and competition, and none of that works in an economy of mercy like the one that God operates in.
Sorry for the tangent – I told you I used to be a preacher!
Speaking of which, I have, in some ways, taken a lot of comfort from that fact, but it is also opportunity for condemnation.
As a former preacher (and by former, I do not mean that I do not wish to do it again, or that I will not do it again, I simply mean that I used to do it regularly and now do not do it regularly) I learned to have a lot of confidence and conviction in the things I said. Preaching exercised my faith. Preaching taught me confidence in God’s mercy, God’s sovereignty, and God’s goodness. Preaching taught me that whether I was having a good week or not, that the things I said from behind the pulpit were true, because they were about God, not me. Preaching taught me that truth is truth, whether or not I perceive it or believe it with all of my heart. So in that sense, preaching prepared me for a season like this, when, for example, the Bible just does not light up for me like it used to. Preaching prepared me for the moments of condemnation that I experience, such as when I hear a voice (and whether this is me condemning myself or a real enemy of our souls – I have debated such theology and have no conclusion worth discussing here) saying: “if the people who heard you preach saw you now, it would all mean nothing.” Or, “if you preach, you are not allowed to lose your temper.” Or, “why can you work so hard at preparing a sermon, but you cannot work hard at your job?” or, “you cannot tell someone that something is wrong and then do it yourself – you hypocrite!”
Preaching taught me that because preaching is, for me, the ultimate experience and example of being an imperfect vessel, that I am still usable despite all of my imperfections – an idea which I have not found reinforced a whole lot since leaving church.
It is a funny dichotomy – it is almost as though preaching was some form of coping mechanism, but I want to be careful in exploring that idea. I do not view preaching as some sort of moral justification, but perhaps a forced reminder of God’s reality, or at least a forced reminder to keep an eye on Him. If you are a preacher, it is very hard to do your job without being in the Bible. Actually, if you do any sort of ministry, it is difficult to do without being in the Bible, constantly studying God, and keeping your thoughts on Him. Ah-ha! Maybe now we are on to something.
Maybe I am guilty of having God-centered thoughts because there was an outlet for them – perhaps a crude way of saying it is that there was a product for me to prepare, whether that was a sermon, a children’s lesson, a worship set or song, or a small group Bible study. Perhaps I am guilty of being God-conscious for the church’s sake, but not for God’s sake. Perhaps I got so used to the routine of ministry that it became my primary motivation for studying the Bible, listening to sermons, etc.
In fact, I suspect that this is true. I remember when I was preparing to leave the church, I thought that would be the hardest transition – not being in ministry. And sure enough, it has proven to be difficult! Not because there is nothing to do – I am plenty busy! But I have found it true that if there is no one or nothing keeping me accountable, I am likely to stop prioritizing the study of scripture and the overall pursuit of God. I find it easy to get in my bubbles of work, friendships, relationship, and hobbies – and by the end of it, I have left out spiritual disciplines. And, I suspect (God being the Father that He is) that this is a season of learning – learning what it means to desire God for God’s sake, to follow Him because of who He is, etc. As I approached the date when I would leave, the word “expendable” rang in the back of my mind, and perhaps I am now seeing the full fruit of it – that God is teaching me what it means to be a Christian simply because of Jesus, not because of church.
Oh, dear reader: you have borne with me on a long train of thoughts, and I deeply appreciate you for doing so. I will have you know that this entry has not gone the direction that I thought it would, and I found rabbit trails along the way. For me, the blogging process is a bit like a therapy session in that you begin with a series of questions, and then you are simply asked more questions until you begin to answer them yourself. This blog was supposed to be about how horrible I felt – how I felt strange to Christian friends who knew me as Jeff, the guy who preaches or Jeff, the guy who is “on fire for Jesus,” and how I find myself sometimes hesitant to even use those sorts of phrases. I was going to vent and complain and perhaps berate myself for being so self-focused that I could not bring myself to have concern for the needs and struggles of those around me. I was going to ask questions such as, “if all of my friends simply befriended me because I was a Christian, would I even have friends left?”
I wanted to talk about all of the anxiety that I have battled – how many times I have tried to defend myself and seek my own well-being above that of everyone else and how that has led to insufferable anxiety (this is still an excellent point and I will soon write about it, I believe) and how difficult this season has been. I wanted to more clearly articulate the panic and doubt I experience, how fake I feel, how out-of-touch with God I feel; and perhaps on another day. But, alas, as God often does, He has found a way to take this and bring again to my memory that this life, this brief existence, is about Him, not me.