Losing My Worst Self

I had recently been walking around in the rain on a 41 degree February work day. It was the kind of day when the rain would just. not. stop. And to be honest, I had not really thought that much about the cold and rain throughout the day. With my job, I am in and out of offices all day and I have gotten used to the wildly variable Indiana weather. But as I was nearing the end of the workday, I walked out of the last office and directly into the pouring rain toward my car.

In that split second, I almost grumbled in frustration about the cold and wet.

But I caught myself.

I’m always amazed at how many thoughts and questions can go through a person’s head in just a fraction of second.

Why am I getting frustrated?
Why am I getting frustrated with the rain and cold?
Why am I getting frustrated when I will be in my car in 15 seconds?

The quick succession of questions immediately took me back to one of the most emotionally difficult days on our 2014 Alaskan backpacking trek from Stony Creek to the Toklat River in Denali National Park. It was our third day and we were covering eight miles of rough terrain, all without trails, fighting miles of alder and tussock. The rain was unrelenting, as it pounded us in the cool 40 degree wind. There was not a single dry place along the entire route for a short reprieve, not even for a short, dry lunch break. We were in the unforgiving heart of Alaska, out in the wide open, completely exposed to the elements. And we had to deal with it, because there wasn’t anywhere else to go.

I snapped back into the present, still walking through the parking lot. That quick memory of Alaska made me smile. And within seconds I was laughing audibly, like a crazy man who had just lost his mind, thinking of my relatively insignificant present inconvenience. The joy of unlocking my door, getting into my dry car, and turning on the heat eviscerated the frustration before it could even be birthed. I was immediately thankful.

So why in the world do I share this short account of my frustration, my anger, and my resentment with you?

You may think it is fairly innocuous compared to the deeper issues and problems each of us face every day. I mean, come on, is it really a life accomplishment to not be frustrated by a little rain and cold at the end of the day?

I completely get it.

But I have to tell you, it goes so much deeper than that for me. I have always lived a very reactionary life, in which my automatic internal frustration gauge was always set to maximum. And while many people may have never seen my frustrations visibly, they were always there raging within me. I leaned heavily toward frustration and anger when my circumstances were not ideal. Words like self-reflection or contemplation were not a part of my vocabulary, let alone a regular rhythm of my life.

The hard truth to admit is that I resided in a relatively joyless existence for the majority of my adult life. I was always frustrated with my own personal situations and with the people around me, whom I believed were making my life difficult. And it didn’t help that during much of this time, I was addicted to news and politics, which was a lethal cocktail for that much more frustration. It was an exhausting existence to always be frustrated or angry or outraged about something or someone. And it was starving me from living this life in fullness and abundance and joy.

Even more, when anyone would confront me on the absence of joy in my life, I would summarily dismiss the assertion, or perceived accusation, by claiming that I was using my cynicism in a positive way. The truth is that I was a joyless person hiding behind pretense and justification. And that is the ideal place for an egocentric man to hide and remain unchanged. My resistance and excuse-making were the perfect ingredients for an unhappy, unhealthy, and stagnant life. And the ideal facade to keep my false self intact.

So while it could be easy to dismiss my story of rediscovering joy while laughing like a wild man as the rain poured down on me in a parking lot, to me it represents a man who has been slowly changing and patiently transforming into someone more content and joyful, and hopefully, someone growing more beautifully each day.

Maybe you are like me, a person living each day, veering further and further from your true self, spiraling in disunion, longing for a life that isn’t so angry or disappointing or hopeless. Maybe you have spent the majority of your life in constant, and maybe increasing, frustration with the small irritants of your daily life. Maybe this constant frustration has accumulated over the years and has been robbing you of joy and the experience of the beauty and magnificence and wonder that surrounds you and envelops you in every moment. Maybe your frustrations and irritations have hardened you through the years, disabling you from recognizing the small miracles and beauty of every seemingly ordinary moment.

Maybe you have been experiencing pain or carrying a heavy burden with you each day as you walk out the door. Maybe you are in a place where you are depressed, where you feel worthless, or in a place where you are living in constant shame. Maybe you wake up each morning grieving your life, thinking about the life you used to have, and living in remorse for what you have lost or how you have pushed others away. Maybe you hate yourself, hate what you have become, and you know that you are about to hit rock bottom.

Only you know exactly what you are dealing with or going through.

When we find space for self-reflection and contemplation, we begin to see ourselves more clearly, maybe even for the first time. And in all the ways we have propped up and defended and preserved our false self, we now begin to be transformed into something new and even more beautiful.

That is what the holy inner work of shalom begins to do in each of us. It frees you to become your very best self, the self you were always meant to be from the very foundations of creation, the self that is wholly and completely loved, as you are, by God. And that is the most beautiful and liberating thing in the world.

Peace…

Brandon

Benefit of a Doubt

Over the years, I have had tons of people comment and reach out to me on this blog to ask questions, get clarification, and seek additional insight on a variety of topics. I love getting questions from people who are on their own faith journey, who are deconstructing their long held beliefs and belief systems, and who are asking tough questions through it all.

Maybe this is the way faith should have always been, people being honest about their questions, their struggles, and about their doubt. But we have long been in an era of ungraceful self-assuredness and self-righteous certitude that has pushed the inquisitive seeker away, and it has been likely rooted in our lack of understanding in the biblical narrative leading up to Jesus and in our fear of not having all the “right” answers to “keep people in the faith.” And, at the same time, we have sadly behaved as if we are communities of perfection, communities without a doubt.

To that end, we have left no room for honest movements of wrestling, questioning, or doubting. In fact, we have shamed, looked down upon, or even repudiated those who have been wrestling with their faith and then asking hard (but really good) questions about their faith and belief systems. We have acted as if there is no room under the grace of God for a little doubt, or that somehow the Almighty God is not capable of handling a few tough questions. 

Of course, this is ridiculous.

There is room for doubt in the grace of God… and of course God can handle our wrestling and our tough questions. But day after day and story after story from friends and acquaintances remind me over and over how poorly we operate within that space of grace and how incapable we are of walking through tough questions or a little doubt from fellow seekers. And it should not be surprising that many of these people have abandoned our churches in order to wrestle through their faith and deconstruct their belief systems, either in isolation or in more accommodating and graceful communities.

This is one of the main reasons the Church has lost a generation.

And if you don’t have any idea what I am talking about then this is why a generation has been lost.

The truth is that the church ought to be the community in which people can ask the toughest questions and wrestle through the most difficult topics because it has the grace enough to push the edges and love enough to handle the tension.

And it’s amazing how far grace and love can go in creating a healthy church community when a church is comfortable residing in the mysteries of God and existing in a humble posture of unknowing, while always holding the door open to fellow seekers and wanderers/wonderers.

I remember a time, as a young 30-something, when I was leading a Bible study of five or six couples. One week, at the beginning of the study, on the first question of the study, this new guy came in with his own question-gun blazing. Not only was he questioning the questions I asked… he was questioning me and my house-of-card faith. My flimsy card house was no match for his semi-automatic. He decimated me and my faith. I was so rattled that I closed out the study after ten minutes. I wasn’t prepared for questions or thoughts outside of what I knew about my faith.  It was brutal.

But even now, being in a place where I am well-studied and well-versed in the Bible and in answering tough questions of faith, I understand that people rarely want canned “Bible answers,” or lessons in how they need to read their Bibles more, or platitudes on how we will “pray for their faith.” People need room to wrestle and grapple with their faith. They need us to be with them without cheap one-liners or generic platitudes. And they need graceful and loving people to gently walk alongside them through it all.

We are shepherds, not judges.  We are those who walk among, not ahead. We are those who walk as fellow seekers, not as those who have already crossed the finish line.

This reminds me of some sage advice I received early in my marriage when someone told me that the best thing I can do when my wife is struggling through something. They told me to ask her, “Do you want me to fix your problem or just listen?” They were spot on. Much of the time my wife just wanted me to be there listening to her… rather than trying to fix the problem.

And that’s where we are at in our culture.

Yes, there is truth. And yes, we may have all the biblical answers. But there is a generation of people who are genuine seekers, askers, and knockers who are looking for a safe space, filled with the grace and love of God, to dig below the surface of tradition, to challenge the status quo of belief, and discover a more vibrant and robust faith that is built upon more than surface-level assumption and convenient ritual.

But in order to be a faith community that can handle tough questions, we have to be built upon and rooted in the radical grace and love of God, rather than faith-limiting fear.

And despite this being a seemingly self-evident fact, the reason I know this to be true is because I, too, have had (and continue to have) questions about everything I believe and I am in regular, daily community with others just like me.

What I have found is that asking questions, even and especially the hardest questions of faith, does not diminish or undermine my faith. To the contrary, and in so many ways, asking tough questions has actually strengthened my faith. Being that I am never satisfied, and all too unsettled with cookie-cutter answers, I am always pushing to understand more deeply and find greater clarity in what Jesus meant for his followers. I continue to seek, ask, and knock even when it may challenge or make others uncomfortable.

And while I am a better man of faith for it, I am not sure if I have ever felt that my questioning of, or having doubts about, the status quo, our tightly held belief systems, or long practiced traditions has ever been welcomed or encouraged in the church context.

I wonder how many prophetic voices the Church has silenced for self-preservation? How many people the Church has lost in it’s self-righteousness and self-assuredness?

The Church of the future is one in which we walk alongside each other patiently and graciously in love, wrestling together through the tough questions, finding peace in our unknowing, and embracing long-suffering as a community through moments of doubt. This Church will be known, not as a uniform entity comprised of perfect people with all the right answers that one needs to emulate. But rather, a diverse community with open doors that welcomes, and is not afraid of, honest questioning, seeking, and dialogue.

For both our individual faith and the faith of our church community will be better for it.

Always seeking…

Brandon

In All Things and With Every Breath

I want to talk about giving thanks. Not as an event, or specific moments in time. But as a constant outflow in our lives.

The sad thing is that I can already hear the cynics and naysayers shaming my idealism in pursuing love, seeking peace, and living in a spirit of perpetual thanksgiving.

We live in a time when old hatreds are coming back to life, old divisions are widening, old scars are being torn wide open. We are being told that this is our only reality and we must pick sides and prepare for the battle. There is an ever-growing chorus across generations who believe that love has failed, peace is for the weak, and giving thanks is only for those who live in privilege.

I reject those notions.

No matter how dark or cynical our world has become. No matter how frequently we are reminded or have participated in the wreckage around us through social media. No matter how tilted and jaded the news is that we consume. No matter the heights to which we have climbed or the depths to which we have fallen. Despite our unique situation or circumstance. And no matter how many times we are fed the narrative that our only reality and response is anger, hatred, division, and death… we can embody, participate in, and invite others into another way of living.

There is an ever-present reality into which we can enter, a realm into which we are continually invited, where love wholly embraces, mends broken-hearts, births a new way of living, gives eyes to see people and the world differently, and changes each one of us in such a profound way that thanksgiving becomes the very essence of our being, and the perpetual outflow of our spirit.

Thanksgiving is so much more than an event, so much more than a sporadic, momentary act, so much more than an expression of gratitude only when something goes in our favor or when the conditions are right. Thanksgiving is a an ever-flowing expression of gratitude in everything, in every moment of the day, with every breath that is taken, and never dependent upon the situation or circumstance.

You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You’re deeply rooted in him. You’re well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.  Colossians 2: 6-7, The Message

Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house.  Colossians 3: 15-16, The Message

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.  1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18, The Message

Thanksgiving is our perpetual expression of gratitude for God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s provision, and God’s marvelous creation.

Thanksgiving is our perpetual expression of gratitude, rooted in the love of Christ, for all people, all relationships, and all things.

Thanksgiving is our perpetual expression of gratitude, rooted in the love of Christ, regardless of our life situation or our changing condition.

Thanksgiving, rooted in the love of Christ, says right now and right now and right now, “This Life is good. And I want to invite everyone to a seat at Life’s table.”

Thanksgiving, rooted in the love of Christ, responds in the midst of chaos, confusion, and calamity, “Thank you God for your grace, your mercy, your love, and your beauty. Let me be an extension of You everywhere I am and with every breath I take.”

As followers of Jesus, we are present participants in the promise of God making all things new. God’s new creation has been initiated in our lives. And we have been given new eyes and new hearts to see clearly the beauty, majesty, and wonder of God right now, even amidst the wreckage around us. And we have been given the present task of inviting others into this beautiful, life-giving reality.

For it is an invitation, not for the privileged, but for the unworthy.

The Spirit cries… See the wonder! See the glory! See the beauty! Move forward in awe!

Be an invitation.

Listen.
Smell.
Feel.

Close your eyes.

Take it all in and delight.

Let the wind blow at your back and let the sun shine down on your face.
Listen to the conversations.
Joy in the laughter of your children.
Celebrate that you can give your baby a bath.
Delight in the songs of the birds and the rustling of the leaves.
Be enveloped by everything and everyone around you.

Count your blessings.

Smell the autumn fragrance.
Let the preparation of your meal be a prayer and a blessing.
Savor every bite as if it is your very first.
Feel the textures.
Let the work of your hands be praise.

Count your blessings.

Enjoy friendship as you break bread at the table.
Find life in mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, and in all the seemingly mundane.
Be still and marvel at every star brilliantly shining in the night sky.
Rejoice in every good time and bad, for it is all worth it.

Count your blessings.

Sit in the woods and notice every detail of creation.
Close your eyes and absorb every note and harmony.
Glory in every drop of your morning coffee.
Embrace the touch of another.
Join in the chorus of all creation in praise.

Count your blessings.

It is good.
It is good.
It is good.

From the depths of our souls and with every breath, we give thanks.

Brandon