When Your Parent’s Simple Religious Answers Don’t Work

 

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I have watched time and time again how the older generation of evangelicals interacts with the youth and young adults. I have seen parents supply the answers to their children before they even knew what the children were asking. It’s like the teens and young adults with questions and, gasp, doubts are laden with theological TNT that could demolish the whole enterprise of the Gospel.

I see the appeal of the safety of evangelical Christianity for some, especially the churches and denominations that thrive within largely closed theological systems. Within the system and the community, you have the assurance of answers and practices that all work… as long as you stay within the system. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if all of the answers are proven true because you’ve learned that they HAVE to be true. If the answers of your group don’t work, you’ve got nothing left—no community, hope for the future, and no way to explain how the world works.

Teens and young adults are often caught in the bind between the simple answers of their communities and their honest questions. And don’t think for a moment that children can’t tell when they’re safe to ask questions and when they’re not.

Having been that young teenager within the closed system of the Catholic Church, I knew exactly what was going on. When a priest met with me to “answer” my questions, I could immediately tell that he was fully confident in his ability to smash my answers into his tidy box of Catholic doctrine.

There was no mystery, no humility, and no mercy for my dissatisfaction. Either I accepted his authority and his theological system, which was all presented as reasonable and fully true, or I was just being rebellious and sinful, rejecting my God-given spiritual leaders and the truth of the Bible.

Is it any wonder that closed religious systems like conservative evangelicalism and Catholicism are both equally capable of creating mini inquisitions of their own? Their adherents learn that truly embracing what is taught and seriously practicing it will require them to at one point or another to stuff their questions and doubts down deep and to ensure that everyone else does the same. If you let someone else doubt or ask the hard questions, what will stop you from facing your own uncertainties and misgivings?

What so many young people suspect and what so many religious leaders fear is this: our beliefs, practices, and institutions are deeply flawed and in error.

Here’s what I suspect: We’re so flawed and in error that we don’t even know which parts are flawed and in error. We could spend the rest of our lives attacking the mistakes and hypocrisies of each other while defending the purities of our own traditions without realizing we’re really all in the same boat.

Yes, if you’ve ever doubted what you’ve been taught in church, you’re not rebellious. You’re just being honest. Most importantly, you could even be on the right path. Not that we want to spend the rest of our lives doubting, asking questions, and deconstructing so that we never find anything. I assure you, Jesus said that those who seek will find, but he doesn’t guarantee what we’ll find.

The problem is that those raised in closed religious systems think that these tiny little havens are the only places to find God. While God is most certainly within these systems in one way or another, there is a larger reality that is often obscured in the midst of the rule following and defenses of doctrinal territory.

There is the bedrock certainty of God’s grace and mercy that roam free regardless of our systems and boundaries, his endless oceans of love for us, and his streams of life that promise us a different kind security. I have found that I don’t need to worry about defending doctrine or truth, I need to live in it. The simple answers and the doctrines we’ve learned had their place, but as many of us suspected, these were just scratching the surface. The difference then is whether you toss all pursuit of God aside or you take the risk of seeking God’s larger reality of presence, mercy, and love—truth isn’t opposed to these, but it can stop you from pursuing them. At one point or another your religious system will fail you, even if you don’t admit that it has failed you.

I’ve been there, clinging to the fragile structure of theology, Bible study, a few seemingly spiritual experiences, and the hollow assurances of others around me. God’s love for me was strictly theoretical and largely wrapped up in the acceptance or rejection of those around me. If they could reject me because of what I said or believed, then God could do the same. If I was expendable to them, then it seemed like I was expendable to God.

I am learning to surrender to the darkness and the silence. I have done so kicking and screaming, wanting to keep shouting praise songs, hoping I could think my way out of this vast unknown land, and trying to spark a light by reciting one scripture verse after another.

Most days I feel like even less than a novice when it comes to the still small voice of God or the presence of God. For as little as I know and have experienced, it has been a true awakening to God’s mercy for me and for the religious leaders and their closed systems.

I see the well-meaning spoon feeding teens and young adults simple answers and doctrines that they can take or leave but must take if they want to be accepted and loved. I see some slump over with indifference because deep down they know that they’re wasting their time. As soon as they can make their own decisions, they’ll most likely drop away from the faith because it never was their own.

They never learned how to receive nourishment from God directly because their parents or church leaders feared that they may leave the faith if they start asking too many questions or let their doubts take root. I have seen the exact opposite among so many of my friends and colleagues. Once we stepped into the darkness and learned to make our faith our own, however imperfect it was, we found a God who is deeper and stronger than the simple answers and systems.

Speaking for myself, I’ve found a presence and love that I can’t explain or quantify, and it can co-exist with my imperfect theology and the theological questions that hang in the wind without resolution.

If I could say one thing to these teens and young adults who slump in the back rows of church today and hope to make their escape in the not too distant future, I would say that my faith never took root until I surrendered everything I thought I knew and learned to receive God’s mercy and love on God’s own terms.

God’s love for you and for me doesn’t change if I rebel against the answers and systems we were told to accept. Jesus has already overcome the world. He alone is worthy to unlock the deepest secrets of eternity past and the mysteries that await us. Are you tired of lugging around these questions? Are you weary of hiding your doubts? Are you thirsting for God’s presence and life instead of demands for spiritual conformity?

Jesus has a single word for you and for me: Come. There are no strings attached or limitations. Come to him with your reservations, disappointments, discouragement, and brokenness. He alone can give us rest and peace.

After spending most of my life fearing that I wasn’t good enough for God or that my doubts were too much, I found that his love for me truly overcomes every barrier I could put in the way.

If I Created God in My Own Image, He’d Let Me Slap You

slap Christians over doctrine

God is merciful, and I am not.

That is one of the most important conclusions I’ve reached after years of theological wrangling and Bible study. In fact, it’s the mercy of Jesus that often caused the greatest amount of friction between himself and the religious leaders of his time.

I don’t think you can deny the mercy of God in the story of scripture, but the challenge often becomes how to apply that mercy today. I mean, God does get around to judging people at the end of time and all, right?

But whatever form that judgment takes, it’s also abundantly clear that Jesus would really quite rather we spend our time showing mercy to others. He framed his ministry as the work of a doctor healing the sick. He even prevented religious authorities from stoning a woman after she committed adultery—an act that they could have easily backed up with chapter and verse.

God patiently sent one prophet after another to tell the wayward Israelites: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In other words, learn to be merciful and you will be obedient. Don’t use your obedience as an excuse to abandon mercy.

As I try to sort out what God’s kind of mercy looks like today, I’ve often heard those who self-identify as more “biblical” or “gospel-centered” accuse me of reinventing God in my own image. By seeking to be merciful, I’m going soft on people because it’s what I want rather than what God and scripture teaches. If God had his way with me, I’d go around shoving the faces of sinners into the chapter and verse for everything.

This accusation is both annoying and frustratingly inaccurate. How dare they mistake me for a merciful person!

I’m just about the most stodgy, rule-following, judgmental person there is. I would love to point the finger at other people than deal with my own issues. Really. It’s super easy to find other people to criticize and judge. It makes me feel amazing because all of these other jokers set the bar so low that I can’t help but look like a religious super hero.

And if I could get God to see things my way, he’d also let me slap more people. Nothing harmful or abusive. Just a little, “HEY! GET IT TOGETHER!” They do this thing on television and the movies all of the time, and I think I would be really good at it in real life. If God let me slap more people like that, I think I would exercise restraint and there’d be a ton more people who would “get it together” faster.

At the very least, all of my slapping would ensure that people wouldn’t go around making ridiculous assertions that people who speak of mercy are remaking God in their own image. I assure you, the vast majority of us are not. I’d love to be more judgmental, to set up stronger boundaries, and to ensure I exist in an echo chamber of ideas that never leave me challenged or uncomfortable—what some may call a “remnant.”

I could be wrong. Maybe the slapping approach isn’t the best way forward. I’m willing to admit that.

While I can admit my slapping plan may have flaws, I wonder if those who accuse the merciful of reinventing God in their own image could ask themselves the same question: “Are we also inventing God in our own image?” That’s not a comfortable place to be.  Maybe getting slapped doesn’t sound so bad now, amirite?

As I read the story of scripture, I don’t see people who struggled to judge others. If anything, God’s people struggled time and time again to be merciful. The people who received mercy direct from Jesus failed time and time again, calling down fire from heaven, writing off the blind as sinners, and trying to protect their turf when casting out demons. Mercy was anything but natural for them.

What if those most prone to judgment are just as likely, if not more likely at times, to be inventing God in their own image?

 

 

What Saved Your Faith? Highlights from the Synchroblog

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Last week I asked “What Saved Your Faith?” as part of the release celebration for A Christian Survival Guide. I was overwhelmed with the honest, beautiful stories of faith that felt on the brink and was saved. There are so many different ways that your faith can be saved, and I’m grateful that so many participated and shared with the Twitter hashtag #savedmyfaith.

I’m going to take the next week off from blogging in order to catch up on some things I had to put on the back burner, but I first wanted to share a round up of the posts along with some of my favorite quotes:

 

Alise D. Chaffins

“In the middle of the night, our church was that stairwell; our hymns, an improvised jumble of notes and rhythms that spoke of longing, of peace, of joy. We shared our hearts with one another in a way that was sacred. In the midst of the questions surrounding my faith during my college years, I found holiness in the music of a dirty hallway.”

 

Lisa Burgess

“When freedom is as evident as it’s ever been and God’s presence breaks through the thin places again and again, yet I still struggle with occasional (though less frequent, praise God!) worries about my kids or fears about new adventures, God reminds me through songs to keep focusing on him, keep showing up to love, and keeping praising through everything.”

 

Andi Cumbo-Floyd

“Grief and loss and the iffy decisions that I made in that dark hour led me far, led me to push hard against the edges of my faith to see what would break away and what would stand.  And all that while, when I battered away at the false promises of ease and lifelong marriage, as the accusations about divorce and celibacy lobbed from without and within, that love held my core tight and firm, reminding me in groans I could neither utter or hear that I was profoundly and deeply loved by One who is love.”

 

Jennifer Luitweiler

“As the new and clueless mother of infants who cried and demanded things in a language I didn’t know, my faith was stretched like a breaking rubber band. I remember stretching out on the carpet of my bedroom while one or two wailed, praying for peace, and knowledge and creativity, and energy. I remember rising from that carpet, tears on my face and carpet impressions, too, walking with a supernatural calm to ease their discomfort, to fulfill their needs, to be the mom I had to be, wanted to be.”

 

Kelly J. Youngblood

“While the timing of past events has become very fuzzy to me, there is one moment I do remember, although I do not remember when or where it occurred.  I was at a point where I thought I would have to make a decision to give it all up.  Faith, church, Jesus.  And as I contemplated what to do, I realized it could go either way.  I didn’t know anymore who Jesus was or what he was supposed to mean to me.  It was as if I was facing two paths to walk down, and I had to choose one.”

 

Sequoia Ways

“Ultimately I don’t believe it is my faith in God that keeps me going, it is his commitment to love me and be at work within me that endures in good times and in bad. He saves the faith he planted in me whenever it is threatened by times of darkness, disaster or drought. ”

 

Jason Whittington

“I’ve been on the edge of giving up. Weary of rituals. Weary of people equating my questions with a lack of faith. Weary of people using the first chapter of 1 Corinthians to persuade me to stop digging deeper. Weary of people telling me to “just believe.” Weary of people in general.

Then there are people that God uses in tremendous ways.

Every person that listens to my story and my struggles and says, “me too.”

Every person that listens to me recount the ups and downs of my day to day existence with even a hint of love and empathy in their eyes.”

 

Christian on the Frontline“These “heretics” have quite literally saved my faith and my relationship with Christ. They blew wide open the questions and dared to go down roads many deemed too dangerous. Anytime I find someone branded a heretic by a Christian, it encourages me to go read their work. ”

 

Cara Meredith

Because when The Gray emerges, when it overwhelms and frightens and clouds our stories, it also sometimes forces us to huddle under cozy blankets and stare out cloudy windows and just be. We become lost in a tangle of unknowing and we question God, hurling insults at him and raising questions towards him, one after another after another, like the ball pitching machine in the batting cages. Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Our hands lob and they sling and they fire fastballs towards the Great One, wondering if this’ll be the last time he’ll lend ear to our third-degree queries. For somehow, in this insult-throwing, not-knowing, time-of-questioning period of gray, I’ve felt the most certitude.”

 

Traces of Faith

“Sometimes I was the only one at the altar, but it made no difference. Through my tears, God taught me deeper lessons about faith. And sharing our story with loved ones. I walked away from this time knowing one’s salvation truly rests in Christ alone.”

 

Melinda Inman

“It took me a full decade to grasp what God was doing. He was stripping me of my legalism, arrogance, and self-reliance. He was transforming me to rely on him, so he could show me that his promises are really true and I could learn to love him. It wasn’t about me and my capabilities, but about Christ and his cross.”

 

Cindy Brandt

“You see, I want all of the beauty. I want the irreverent, gritty honesty out there AND the deeply mystical prayers in here. I want the pragmatic, scientific solutions for the world’s problems out there AND the earnest faith for the impossible in here. I want the big, huge tent that welcomes everyone out there AND the narrow road of life giving sacrifice in here. I want to glean the wisdom of the world AND own Jesus’ beautiful vision. I want to be a Christian, but not THAT kind of Christian.”

 

Leigh Kramer

“I’ve long turned to books for answers and solidarity. In spite of this new section, I wasn’t hoping for much when I asked Andy for recommendations. He didn’t hesitate before placing A New Kind of Christian in my hands. It had been published almost a year earlier and when he described its impact on him, I immediately sensed it would have the same effect on me.”

 

Charity Singleton

“Not only is God not made of dust, He is capable of making me from dust, and you. He creates something—everything—from practically nothing. He takes ruined things and makes them whole and valuable again. But he remembers, always, that I am not more. I am just dust.”

 

Kris Camealy

“Learning to pray prayers formed from my own words, out of the contents of my own heart transformed my faith. Listening to the honest prayers of my fellow congregants served as an invitation into something richer than I ever imagined–real conversational prayer with Jesus.”

 

Jennifer Tinker Clark

“When I am struggling in my faith I am particularly glad for corporate worship and liturgy in particular. Even if I can’t pray, the community of faith carries me through their prayers. Churches who do liturgical worship are accused sometimes of “just going through the motions.” I have to tell you though, when infertility plunged me to my lowest point, those “motions” were all I had. Reciting liturgy that I have memorized, that I know by heart allowed me to pray when I would not have otherwise been able to pray.”

 

Interviews

Jennifer Clark Tinker at Life & Liberty

“The book had me laughing out loud and reading passages to bystanders, while also giving me wisdom to continue to ponder in my heart.”

Listen to the Interview

 

Trip Kimball

Read the Interview here.

 

A Few Reviews…

Joan Nienhuis

“If you are being challenged in an area of Christian belief, take a look at this book. There just may be a biblical perspective you have not considered that will help you survive with your faith intact. Above all, rely on the Holy Spirit to sustain you and keep you focused on Jesus.”

 

Jason Freyer

“Every year, almost like clockwork, our students who are in 11th grade suffer some sort of crisis of faith. It’s something that we’re looking at pretty hard, trying to research and discover where this phenomenon comes from. But in the meantime, as I was reading Ed’s Christian Survival Guide, I knew that I would be purchasing several more copies, and handing them out to students when these crises of faith arise. I would highly recommend youth pastors of all walks of life buy a batch of these books to have on hand to give to your students. You’ll be glad you did.”

 

Anna Joy Tucker

A Christian Survival Guide lays things out in a methodical and logical way, but it also leaves some wiggle room.  Rather than having an air of authority and arrival or one of pure confusion and questioning, Ed’s tone is one of the best I’ve seen in terms of opening a conversation.  He shares his own experiences and thoughts, he provides Biblical backing when he can, he offers perspectives from lots of different Christian traditions, and he is soft and gentle on things that could get confusing.  In short, he makes me think.”

 

* * *

I appreciate everyone who posted a review, picked up a copy of the book, shared about it on social media, and helped spread the word. This has been a labor of love for me over the past four years, so it means the world to me that you’ve helped tell others about it.

I’ll be back to the blog in a week or so.

Gratefully,

Ed

When Prayer Is a Still Small Voice for Big Loud Problems: A Post for Preston Yancey

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A few weeks ago the upcoming memoir Tables in the Wilderness by Preston Yancey arrived on my doorstep. I started to casually read it. He’s a twenty-something writer who likes to cook and hang out with icons. I didn’t quite know what to expect. While I haven’t finished it yet, I’ve been completely delighted by his story and his masterful writing, and I highly recommend preordering it today.

Preston is also a passionate blogger who has kindly shared his blog, hosting me for a guest post adapting A Christian Survival Guide’s chapter about prayer.

 

Did you know that Jesus spent significant amounts of time praying? He regularly took trips into the wilderness and up mountains to pray for extended periods of time. It’s not exactly a hidden aspect of his ministry. It’s just one that I didn’t think about too much until recently.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus prayed so often?

Wasn’t Jesus already pretty tight with God since he was a member of the Trinity? The fact that he took time to pray is a Trinitarian brain bender. Wasn’t he still God?

If Jesus made prayer an integral part of his life, what makes us think we can do any better without it? If anything, Jesus sent us a very important message about the practice and importance of prayer. Our survival as followers of Jesus depends on it. If our Lord modeled prayer for us, then we’d better figure out a place for it in our lives.

Many Christians I know today, myself included, struggle with a condition I call “prayer guilt.” We all like to pray. We all see the value of prayer. We even pray most days. However, we always feel like we never pray enough. If we have prayed, we didn’t pray long enough or failed to stay focused while praying. I’ll even tell myself, “Sure I prayed, but the prayers weren’t very good.” It would be nice to at least have a vision or speak in a tongue or two before checking prayer off my “to do” list.

I’ve spent far too many days living with an underlying sense that I should be praying more or doing more for God. I can always think of someone who must be meditating longer, reciting prayers that are more ancient, or lighting taller, brighter candles. Whether or not I’m correct, that guilt leaves me feeling inadequate and unable to approach God with the kind of confidence that Jesus talks about.

Read the rest at Preston’s blog.