When Do Christian Books Cause Too Much Damage?

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The last thing in the world that I want to do is write about that dating book—the one where the author now admits he had no actual experience in putting the book’s ideas into practice. He’s pretty sure that it’s wrong (calling it “speculative”), has been hearing people out, and even has started to formally collect feedback.

With no personal malice toward that author, I would very much like the rest of my life to pass without hearing about him or his dating book again. His book caused so much shame, judgment, and confusion in my own relationships that I’d like to assign it to the dust bin of history and move on. I’m just one of many Christians who grew up with this book and have spent significant time trying to work through the fall out. Even if you weren’t negatively impacted by the book, take a look at a small sample of the damage it has done:

What I Learned from Joshua Harris

Christian Boy Meets Christian Girl

I Kissed Shame Goodbye

Recovering from I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Storify of I Kissed Shame Goodbye Tweets

There are clearly better things to do than discuss books written by self-admittedly unqualified authors that have wounded us, the people we love and care for, or our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Here is my problem: That dating book is still for sale, and the simple fact that this book is for sale hints to me that everything we have feared about the Christian publishing industry may be true. Putting the most positive spin on this I can manage, the publisher of this book is at the very least unwittingly acting in a way that proves our worst fears

If I put my worst fears into stark language, they would be something like this: If you’re not a gay, drunk, adulterer, or heretic, you can write just about whatever you damn well please as a Christian author, provided that it makes money.

A lack of craft can be compensated with a ghost writer and a lack of substance can be excused provided the book makes money. If the book makes money but hurts people, the people who complain are just whiners, divisive Christians, or just collateral damage because the book didn’t harm everyone who read it.

Publishers have some limits, just not consistent limits.

Perry Noble? His latest book release was suspended because he was “too drunk.” Sorry, Perry. We can’t have alcohol abuse sullying the reputation of CHRISTIAN authors and publishers.

However, a pastor in Seattle could spiritually abuse people in his congregation, and he wrote a book on marriage—REAL marriage to boot.

And a very young conference speaker can totally handle writing a book about dating before he actually put any of it into practice. Never mind that the book has caused heartbreak and shame for many of our fellow Christians. It didn’t devastate everyone, so why not keep making money from it?

Where do we draw the line for a destructive book in Christian publishing?

We have piles and piles of stories from people who have experienced shame, intimacy problems, and unhealthy relationships because of this uninformed dating book. Sure, it may have helped some readers become a little more restrained, or at least confirmed their decision because a good looking author agreed with them. But shouldn’t the piles of stories AND the author’s admissions about the book’s speculative content prompt the publisher to pull this book from sale?

People can still buy this uninformed dating book after the author has gone on a national tour saying that he was wrong and has repeatedly apologized for it on Twitter. How is this possible?

I’ve been biding my time, waiting through one interview after another as the author goes on his anti-publicity tour where he admits he managed to publish a Christian book on dating that was deeply flawed and hoping that the publisher will pull the book. And so he says he’s sorry, people applaud his bravery, and then the next day people are still buying his bullshit dating book so that he can apologize to them in 10-15 years for their crippling shame and intimacy issues.

For all of the evangelical talk about preserving marriages, shouldn’t we be concerned that the “go to” dating book of a whole generation has been exposed by its own author as speculative? Doesn’t relying on a speculative dating book for advice sound like a “not strong” and “not healthy” way to start a marriage? Would we use a speculative book for advice on raising children? Shouldn’t we take all of the stories of hurt and heartbreak seriously and demand that the publisher pull I Kissed Dating Goodbye from all stores?

Well, the skeptics say, there were PLENTY of people who didn’t suffer shame and heartbreak, so what’ the big deal?

These are the people that the Christian publisher is no doubt listening to—the people who weren’t harmed by the book that is making them money. The bar has been set embarrassingly low.

Perhaps the people in charge at this publisher don’t see things this way. Perhaps they believe they are somehow doing great good in the world by keeping this book readily available. If they are living in this fantasy, I can only hope that spelling this out may help the light of reality start to shine in.

Looking at the publisher from the outside, there is no logical reason why this book should still be on sale. Period. A publisher somehow found the courage to suspend a book by a drunk pastor, but somehow a publisher is OK with a book by the author who is a well-meaning speaker who just did his honest best to help teens not have sex and made up a bunch of stuff along the way. If this is really a reflection of Christian publishing today, then we have a real credibility problem.

I write all of this as a Christian author who cares about the Christian publishing industry. I believe in many of the authors and editors I’ve worked with. We dare not lump everyone into the same boat here. There are many, many editors who would roll their eyes at the mere mention of this dating book. They know what we all know, but the opinions of individuals are quite different from the actions of organizations.

I know many, many Christian authors who invest years and years into their research and craft. They don’t speculate on anything. They seek out expert help, they go to workshops to get critical feedback, they read voraciously, and then they write really, really wonderful books that help make the body of Christ stronger. Readers may disagree with them on some points, but there aren’t entire movements of people sharing stories of shame, fear, anxiety, and heartbreak in response to their books.

I have also worked with Christian publishers who have extremely high standards. One editor at a favorite publisher of mine wrote in response to my 2006 book proposal that he frankly didn’t think I was qualified enough to write the book I had proposed. He was 100% right, and I had to work harder at my research and put my book ideas into practice in order to further refine them. When a publisher finally accepted my first book proposal, I had spent countless hours working with theology professors, pastors, small groups, and trusted friends. I had piles of research notes, and only a small percentage of them actually made it into my book. When I submitted my first draft, my editor pushed me to make it better, to do even more research, and to turn it into the best book I could produce. The book wasn’t a bestseller, but many college professors started to use my book for their classes, and I largely credit the people in the publishing industry for pushing me to make it a better book.

All of my first hand experiences in Christian publishing combined with my negative experiences with this dating book make this whole story extremely galling for me. I know that Christian publishing regularly does better than this. I know that there are excellent authors out there working with world class editors to give us books that don’t receive half of the attention of this dating book.

As much as I want to go my separate way from the author of this dating book and personally never hear from him again, I am grateful for the steps he has taken. I hope that he can move from remorse to actual repentance for his actions by also publicly calling for the removal of this book. I hope and pray that he can find his way again as a pastor, author, husband, and father. I just hope to God he doesn’t write another dating book.

At the very least, the publisher of this dating book owes us an explanation for why the book is still for sale. If the many stories about the damage of the book or the author’s admitted flaws about its content aren’t enough to prompt the suspending of this book, then we need to know what in the world the people at this publisher are thinking. Until they take action or offer an explanation, it sure looks like this dating book is only in print because it’s still making money, not because it makes the body of Christ stronger.

My Most Difficult Shift Toward Healthy Religion

 

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When I finally understood the impact of unhealthy religious beliefs and practices in my life, I don’t think I can quite put into words the joy and freedom that I experienced. It was one epiphany after another where God wasn’t as evil and monstrous as I’d been lead to believe. My beliefs weren’t as fragile as I’d been taught.

Rather than watering down the truth or picking and choosing my truth arbitrarily, I learned to begin taking in the full, mysterious witness of the Christian faith where God is just and holy, but God is also merciful, loving, and compassionate.

If only I’d expended the same effort to experience the love of God as I’d invested in fearing his judgment and holiness.

It’s as if a whole segment of Christianity has become so fearful of God’s judgment that we’ve become fixated on it. We dare not spend too much time talking about God’s love, mercy, or compassion, even if the Psalms, prophets, and writings of the apostles all but hit us over the head with these themes about God’s love and patience.

If we start to think God is soft or easy on us, we could start sinning, and then who knows what would happen next.

Actually, we’ve been told what to expect next: judgment.

Is it any wonder that people who spend so much time beholding and fearing the judgment of God feel an irresistible pull toward judgment of others as well? We become what we worship, that’s what the Psalms and prophets tell us in particular, and if we fail to see how God’s love coexists with his holiness and justice, then we end up with a God of judgment and we can’t help but follow that lead.

Seeking the full witness of scripture about the love, mercy, and compassion of God for us has completely changed how I pray and practice holiness. Rather than acting out of a fear of judgment, I’m working on accepting the loving embrace of God for prodigals who cross the line and stuffy judgmental sons who walk the line. The contemplative prayer tradition of the church tells us over and over again that it’s the present love of God that transforms us, not a constant fear of his judgment.

As much as I have enjoyed this shift toward “healthy religion,” as Richard Rohr would call it (rather than creating a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion), the most difficult step for me has been to respond with mercy, love, and compassion toward those who are still under the sway of an angry, judgmental God who demands holiness. As I step toward mystery and contemplation, I struggle to respond with grace and compassion toward those who are still citing chapter and verse with angry zeal, defending boundaries, and attempting to define who is in and who is out.

I’m grateful in part for this struggle. I need these reminders of how far I need to go. You’d think that I should know by now that having the right information about the love of God isn’t the same thing as living in that love daily and being transformed by it.

When someone takes a swing at my beliefs or practices, I still feel the urge to judge, excommunicate, or strike back. I still want to repay snark with snark, sarcasm with better sarcasm. And it’s killing me sometimes because I love sarcasm so much.

Most days I can only know on an intellectual level that the people who embody the judgment, boundary-defending side of Christianity are in bondage to a flawed perception of God. And the more that I want to respond in kind, the more I’m in bondage to that flawed perception as well. At the very least, if I struggle to respond with compassion and mercy, then I’m not doing a good job of experiencing God’s mercy and compassion for myself.

It’s hard to learn to shut up and to take a shot on the chin. I’ve invested so much time (and money!) in studying theology. It’s ironic that I want to put my hard-earned training into use to strike back at someone, but the truth is that I need nothing more than to shut up and return to the present love of God.

It shouldn’t be this hard to rest in the present love of God. The more I struggle with this, the more I have to question what I want out of life. Do I want to be justified? Do I want people to respect me? Do I want people to think I’m clever?

It sure doesn’t sound all that clever or unique to say that I am loved and you are loved deeply, perfectly, and constantly. That’s what Christians have been saying for centuries. It’s not flashy, snarky, or catchy for a blog headline. It won’t win a theology debate. It will actually look like a surrender.

Surrender. That’s the word that I’m learning to accept. If I am going to surrender to the love of God, it also means surrendering in every other competition, debate, and desire. I can’t win. I can’t reach what I think I want.

Jesus taught us what it means to surrender and to “win” by “losing.” He modeled this kind of surrender in the most extreme of circumstances, entrusting himself to the love of God even to the point of trusting in resurrection.

Can I let God’s love so transform me that I can even show his love, mercy, and compassion to those who have none for me?

Can I surrender to the point that I’ll let my aspirations for my reputation perish? Perhaps one day I’ll trust God to raise up my true self from the ashes, refined and secure in his love that conquers all.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

I’m Not Used to the Cycle of Death and Resurrection Yet

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Today I’m digging out 40 bulbs of garlic from our garden, a grape vine, and a blackberry bush. The latter two were birthday gifts for my wife 4 years ago.

We’ve been renting this home that we’re preparing to leave, and our landlord changed his mind about the raised bed garden and surrounding plants that I put in. He wants it all removed and reseeded with grass.

I took the phone call about the garden in a crowded café last Saturday, and I nearly broke down in tears at my table. I can’t tell you what that garden has meant for me, what it has done for my life and for my family, and what it symbolizes to me. I want to try to put it all into words someday, but for now I’m just feeling the ache of that loss.

If we want to move on to the next season of our life together as a family, we need to literally dig up the old stuff and leave this place as if we had never been here.

We’ve moved quite a bit since marrying back in 2002 and moving to Philadelphia. In 2005 we moved to Vermont. In 2009 we moved to Connecticut. In 2011 we moved to Ohio. In 2016 we will move to western Kentucky.

We’ve dug up so many things, packed so many boxes, and left so many people behind from each place. Each time I’ve clung to a promise from God that we were doing this living by faith thing, moving on to a place that we knew we needed to go. We trusted that new life could spring up in each new place we settled.

And so today we’re digging up the life we planted at our home in Ohio so that we can move on to the next thing. I’ve had plenty of chances to get used to this process of planting, uprooting, and moving on, the cycle of death that must precede resurrection and new life.

Among the Bible verses that I wish didn’t exist, there’s this one:

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24 NIV

There’s this cycle of life, death, and resurrection that spins on and on in our lives, and each time something comes to an end, I can’t help holding my breath and worrying about the next thing that follows. Will life come out of this loss? What will come next?

Today I’m looking backward at the past provision of God and all of the times that I didn’t think we would make it. As we stepped out in obedience into the great unknown, leaving behind what we knew for certain, we didn’t always find what we were looking for or wanted, but we learned that God was holding us. Isn’t that funny how we want God to hand over what we want, but then we find that God has only wanted us all along? I have pouted and fumed that God’s hands were empty when I reached out to him. Why didn’t God give me what I wanted when I wanted it?

Little did I know that God’s empty hands are there to hold us and to draw us near. When I asked God for the desires of my heart, he showed me that I’m the desire of his heart.

 

Do You Want to be Made Well? Probably Not

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“Do you want to be made well?”
 – John 5:6

That’s the question Jesus asked a blind and paralyzed man. The man was so focused on his own plans and solutions to his hopeless problems that he never even answered Jesus’ question. Perhaps that non-answer was answer enough.

It’s a good thing that Jesus wasn’t picky about his answer. I can relate to this man. Who hasn’t been so fixated on the solutions that work for everyone else? Who hasn’t looked at his own faltering plans and doubled down, trying to make them work?

There’s an even deeper issue at play, at least for me:

Honestly, I don’t want to be made well. Too often I choose to limp along or to stick with my comfortable half measures that make life tolerable. Actually moving into a place where I could thrive and experience renewal takes sacrifices, discipline, and, most importantly, hope.

Do I believe that God can make me well?

Do I believe that God offers something better than what I already have?

Do I believe that reaching out to God will change anything?

Who wants to make time for God if there isn’t a guarantee that prayer will “work” or that God can offer something better than what I already have?

Here is what I’m learning: I settle for far too little, far too quickly, far too often.

The first step you take is often the hardest because you don’t have hope or experience to fall back on. Beginning with prayer is the great unknown. Where is this going? Who knows?

I have learned that Jesus promises “Seek and you shall find,” but he doesn’t offer a lot of details about what exactly we’ll find. We’re seeking the treasure of the Kingdom, but we only have this guarantee: “You’ll know it when you find it.”

Who knows when you’ll find it.

Do you want to be made well?

Yes and no.

I want to be made well, but only if it’s easy and doesn’t cost much. I want to be made well if I can understand and, ideally, control the process. I want to be made well only if I’ve seen the solution work for other people so that I can imitate them.

The hardest thing about spirituality for me, and I suspect many Protestants, is grasping the amount of effort and will power it takes to daily surrender to the love and power of God. The life-change and healing we seek is 100% from God, but it takes everything we’ve got just to surrender and to trust completely. It takes so much effort to bring ourselves to the place where only God can work to heal us.

Healing will never come from our own plans, methods, and “medications.” We can choose to limp along with sleeping pills, wine, recreational drugs, consumerism, or sexual indulgences. We can choose to run from the pain of the past, the anxiety of the present, and the terror of the future. There’s no escape that we can engineer on our own. There’s no way to medicate this pain long enough. There’s no healing that we can engineer on our own that replaces the healing power of God’s loving presence.

As a new struggle, source of pain, or wound emerges in my life, I ask God yet again, “This too, Lord? Must I bring this to you, completely out in the open with a blind faith that you can heal this?”

Surrender is a life-long and daily struggle.

There’s no guarantee about what follows after the surrender, what the healing will be, or how long it will take. There’s no guarantee for anything other than the hope I can gather from past experiences and the experiences of others (including the stories of scripture).

Each time I bring my wounds and limps to the Lord, I find that it’s only through this bracing vulnerability and faith that I can find healing. It’s only through doggedly fighting to make space in my mind and in my day for God that I can expect to be made well.

Do I want to be made well?

Do I want to make time to be made well?

Do I want to make time to hear the voice of God?

Do I want to make space in my life for God’s presence?

Or do I want to keep limping along, hiding my pain and medicating it with the imperfect medications on hand?

You can be made well. I can be made well. I suspect that we can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. That may be the greatest challenge we face when it comes to answering Jesus’ question. Only Jesus himself knows how badly we need to be healed, and that’s why he isn’t picky about how we answer his question.

Whether we struggle with vulnerability or surrender, God’s mercy is more than enough to meet our great needs and weaknesses, even when we can’t manage to say one simple word: “Help.”

I Resisted Winter and Missed the Renewal of Spring

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The kale we planted in the garden last spring grew into thick stalks all summer and kept our table supplied with greens. By fall the kale stalks were curling and falling all over themselves. Their leaves, which had been full, crisp, and green throughout summer started wilting, turned shades of brown and yellow, and finally succumbed to the constant attacks of tiny pests. By the time the cold winds of November swept the final leaves off the trees, our kale plants were little more than battered stalks with tiny bits of green poking out here and there. Yes, they were just barely alive, but they were far from healthy.

I don’t know why I waited so long to pull out the old kale. Maybe I was hoping that it would survive the winter and sprout new life in the Spring. I left it hanging limp and lifeless all winter. By the time the snow melted, the kale had all but rotted away.

As soon as the weather grew warm, I finally gave in and yanked the old kale stalks out of the garden. I poured new compost into the beds and raked it smooth. A few weeks later I scattered a new crop of kale and lettuce seeds into the orderly garden beds.

The new kale is going to take some time before it’s ready to eat, but I couldn’t hold onto last year’s planting. It had to go in order to make room for what’s next.

How long have I tried clinging to last year’s planting and held up the new things that must take their place?

I have been longing for the new thing, but have continued to cling to what is old.

I have become withered and overgrown, bitter and stagnant, but then I wonder why the new life hasn’t taken root and grown yet.

This week I had a chance to finally pull some old roots up as I make space for a new venture. The “Revert to Author” notice arrived for my first book that I wrote about theology. At the time I was one of many writers trying to sort out Christian theology and whether my faith could survive without the promise of certainty. Some are still wrestling with that question, some have moved on with their faith, and some needed to leave their faith behind. I have moved on with my faith, realizing that I didn’t need an airtight theology in order to have a relationship with a God whose top concern is love.

As I set aside my identity as a writer about theology and culture, I felt both a relief and a fear of what’s next. The fear of “what’s next” is why we often cling to what’s old and dying. We can’t imagine that something better is possible.

I made the mistake of thinking: Better to stick with the broken thing we understand than the new blessing we can’t fathom.

The same day that I signed my agreement to revert the rights of my theology book back to myself, I also continued to work on plans to launch a new website: www.thecontemplativewriter.com. This is a project that has been in the works for a long time, but I just didn’t see how to move forward with it. I kept plodding along with what I knew about theology, uncertain about what would grow if I pulled everything up and started all over.

I finally started planting new things a few years ago when I took a break from blogging about theology and then released Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. Since then, each step toward prayer and writing, or writing about prayer, has been affirming and life-giving.

It was a long winter, but I now see that I needed the winter. I needed a winter to kill what was no longer productive or life-giving. I needed winter to force me to uproot the past and to make room for what’s next.

Shifting to writing about prayer feels like the beginning of Spring. There is new life to this direction, and I’m finally realizing how I’ve held myself back by failing to uproot what I planted last season.

How many of us go into winter kicking and screaming, lamenting the loss of summer’s warmth and the brilliant colors of the fall because we lack hope for the future?

Perhaps fighting winter is a good sign at times. Perhaps we rightly see the good that we’ve had. I’m grateful for all that I’ve accomplished and learned from that last season. In fact, the things I’m planting today are benefitting from what I planted before.

For this new season, I need to keep writing on this website with longer form posts about prayer, writing, and Christianity, but I’m also making a new space for brief, daily posts about contemplative prayer. The site officially launches April 2nd and begins with regular daily posts (not Sundays) on Monday, April 4th.

My new site, The Contemplative Writer, will offer daily posts that provide guidance for daily prayer, Christian spiritual practices, and sources for meditation and contemplation. You can sign up to receive posts via email, the weekly email with highlights and a custom Examen, or follow through the RSS feed. In the coming month I hope to add more spiritual direction topics and a podcast version of the newsletter.

This website is what I’ve needed in my own life. It’s my hope that my own imperfect journey toward prayer and the wisdom of others will prove beneficial for you as well.

Visit The Contemplative Writer today.

 

Does Christian Spirituality Boil Down to These Two Questions?

 

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Christian spirituality often boils down to two questions: Do I have time? Will this work?

You could say these are chicken and egg questions. If prayer works, you’ll find the time for it. If you don’t find the time for prayer, it won’t work. If prayer doesn’t seem to work, you won’t find the time for it.

Find the time for prayer, and it will work… eventually.

This is why it has helped to compare the ways that the reflection of prayer resembles the reflection that goes into writing. The two use many of the same practices and mindsets. If I struggle at one, there’s a good chance I’m struggling at the other. My failures and breakthroughs in writing have helped me understand my failures and breakthroughs in prayer.

Writing is a lot like prayer since everyone thinks they can write, just as everyone thinks they should be able to pray. However, both require learning some basic disciplines, mindsets, and practices in order to make them more likely and more fruitful. True, anyone can and should pray. Anyone can and should write. However, just sitting down to write can be extremely frustrating. The same goes for just sitting down to pray.

Disciplines, structure, and the wisdom of those who have gone before us provide a framework that helps us stand. We learn within the security of these structures and disciplines. What we learn from others we imitate clumsily at first. Over time we find our own way forward.

In the case of writing, I’ve faced these questions about whether I have the time and whether writing will “work.” I’ve found that I had to spend years making time for writing, prioritizing it, learning from experts, imitating the masters, and failing a lot. The progress was slow and incremental.

We can find time for just about anything if we make it a priority. I have learned that prioritizing things like prayer, exercise, and writing means I have to really plan ahead during the day for things like:

  • When will I do the dishes?
  • When will I fold the laundry and put it away?
  • When will I sleep and when will I wake up?
  • How will I keep myself from wasting time on social media?
  • How will I focus on my work?
  • Some days go better than others with all of these tasks!

If I want to make the most of my writing time, I need to invest in things like:

  • Reading constructive books.
  • Free writing when I have a moment.
  • Jotting down ideas in a notebook or phone.
  • Practicing and stretching myself with new projects.

My growth as a writer is a lot like prayer in that I need to learn the disciplines of prayer, learn from people who have greater experience in prayer, and practice using them. Just trying prayer out a few times won’t give you a clear sense of whether it will work. It’s a long term discipline that you develop over time.

Will prayer work? Only if I make the time for it.

Can I find time for prayer? I can, but I’ll be more likely to do so once I see that it works.

If you’re uncertain, discouraged, or leaning heavily toward doubt right now, I trust that prayer is hard to attempt. Where do you begin if prayer has been a source of frustration?

I’ve learned that I need to begin with making time to practice and learning what I can.

We’re left with faith, believing that God is present already and that the greatest barrier in prayer isn’t coming from God’s end of things but rather training ourselves to become aware of God. We can step forward into prayer believing that those who seek will find. Mind you, we don’t know what exactly we’ll find when we seek. We can’t control the timeline of our seeking.

We can only control our schedules and what we believe about God: that God is present, that God is seeking us, and that the simple desire to pray is enough to begin making time for prayer.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

 

Does God Pursue Us When We Wander Away?

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That stupid sheep got what was coming to him. That’s how I’d rewrite the parable of the lost sheep. I mean, gosh, the shepherd had 99 other sheep. Just sheer a few of them and buy another sheep with the profit if he likes big round, even numbers.

Ironically, our family recently lost a sheep. It wasn’t a real sheep. It was a bath toy that our son started obsessing over. He wanted to take the sheep everywhere.

I usually try to keep his most prized toys in the house unless we’re taking a road trip, but I relented when he wanted to take the sheep to the farmers market on Saturday. We loaded into the stroller, and he clutched his sheep… for about a minute. Then he dropped it out the side.

I was afraid this would happen.

“All done,” I said. “No more sheep. You dropped him.” I stuck the sheep in the stroller.

“Sheep! Sheep!” he said.

“All done,” I said with finality.

“All done… sheep,” he parroted back to me with resignation.

While I’d intended to tuck the sheep away for the walk and bring him out when we arrived at home, I somehow lost the sheep during our walk. It took a few days for our son to accept this development. I explained that’s why we don’t take our favorite toys on walks.

A few months later, my wife and I read him a children’s version of Jesus’ parables, and that included the parable of the lost sheep. Our son was really into it. It’s like the Bible’s version of Blue’s Clues, right?

Where’s the sheep?

Is he behind the rock?

Is he behind the tree?

Is he in the stream?

SHEEP! SHEEP! WAAAAA! WAAAAA!

So yes, the sheep is stuck in the mud in the shallow part of the stream. The shepherd, who has endured the hot sun, thorn bushes, and many weary hours of searching joyfully carries the sheep home. In this version of the story all of the other sheep cheer and smile when they see the shepherd return home with their friend.

The story ends with a full on party with balloons, party hats, cake, and, most importantly for our son, juice. It’s a golden colored liquid, so I suppose it could be juice or beer. I’m sure the sheep wouldn’t mind either way.

After walking downstairs I remarked to my wife that Jesus always looks for the sheep, but if our son loses his sheep, daddy says, “Too bad!”

I started out joking, but as I considered what I’d said, I realized that I’d just uncovered a really big problem. Sometimes it takes explaining something to a child to uncover that your theology and spirituality are actually bankrupt.

* * *

Try harder to obey God.

Seek God more fervently.

Commit to God more passionately.

Work for God more devotedly.

Study about God harder.

These have been mantras for my faith. I can’t say when or where I picked them up. I just know that I’ve had a, “Don’t blow it!” approach to faith as my default more times than not.

There have been glimpses of God’s grace and mercy. I’ve had breakthroughs when I realized that God’s mercy means he does the saving. However, I still struggle with guilt, fear, and isolation when I screw up. Over the past two years I’ve especially faced my issues with control, anger, and an overall detachment from people in need. In my head, I imagine myself repeatedly screwing up and God tossing his hands in the air with resignation.

I imagine the trinity having a conversation.

The Father: Maybe he’s not so great after all. He keeps being such a selfish jerk to people.

The Son: Look, I did my part. I died and rose again. Don’t ask me to do anything else for this guy!

The Spirit: Hey, look, I’m dwelling in him, but he keeps turning away. Let’s find someone else who “gets it.”

I’ve spent a lot of time with a kind of frantic guilt ridden spirituality. Even if I have plenty of evidence for God’s love and presence in my life, I keep worrying that I’m never doing enough. I’m never reaching out to God enough. If I make one false move and stop working hard enough, I’ll lose my grip on God.

This isn’t without some proof texts in the Bible. In the Gospels, Jesus often gives people a choice to follow him or their own plans. The story of the rich young ruler has given me chills for years. At one moment Jesus looked at him with love and then Jesus watched him walk away.

There’s also a strong theme of reaping what you sow. The Psalms open with a striking image of meditating on God’s law being like a tree planted by streams of water. That choice to draw near to God results in ongoing life, so we can imagine what the opposite result will be if we neglect this practice. In addition, Jesus warns that the measures we use on others will be used back on us.

However, this cause and effect theology shouldn’t override the message of mercy and grace that comes up over and over again in the Bible. It’s not just that God is inviting people to come back. God often sent prophets to reach out. Putting this in terms of the lost sheep story: The prophets acted as the “shepherds” with the task of bringing people back to God.

If the people came back, their welcome was never in doubt. The tragedy was that the people, who had wandered off like lost sheep, refused to even return with the shepherd in the first place.

I wonder if we forget that God is actively seeking us. We believe that we will reap what we sow, but we overlook our chance to accept God’s mercy that actively seeks us out. Perhaps we don’t believe that God would welcome us back.

There have been times when I’ve been ruled by guilt and judgment. I see the ways I’ve wandered off, and I start to believe that I don’t deserve mercy. I don’t deserve a shepherd. I don’t deserve a warm welcome.

Perhaps I have rewritten the story of the lost sheep in my mind. The shepherd in my version stands at the gate sighing in disappointment, waiting for me to get my act together, to work harder, to try to be a better sheep, and to stop wandering off.

And if I ever do manage to come back, the rest of the sheep will point their hooves at me. No balloons, no cake, and certainly no juice. Perhaps they’d even whisper behind my back:

He doesn’t deserve a good, merciful shepherd.

He didn’t deserve to be found or welcomed back.

He was dumb, discontent, and untrustworthy.

What shepherd in his right mind would search for him?

That sheep should have come crawling back. It’s a good thing he’s trying to do better now because that shepherd surely isn’t coming for him next time.

When Paul prays that his readers would “grow in grace,” I wonder if he had parables like this in mind. It’s so hard to believe that God is pursuing us when we screw up and that God expects us to show the same mercy to others who fail.

Perhaps it’s so hard for me to love others and to welcome those who have screwed up because I don’t believe God is doing the same for me. I don’t believe I’m worth it. I can believe in the cross as a divine transaction into my eternal bank account, but it’s much harder to believe in a shepherd who takes extraordinary risks and suffers unimaginably just to bring me home.

What if the only way to grow in grace is to receive it? What if we need to place ourselves into the story of the lost sheep every single morning so that we can believe we’re being pursued by a God who wants nothing more than to carry us home, throw a party, and serve us juice.

 

 

Get 5 FREE eBooks with A Christian Survival Guide

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I’ll level with you. I’m a writer, not a book promoter. However, over the next two weeks, I’m going to be promoting my new book A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth.

I loved writing this book. I’m working on loving the promotion of it. Every author tries to talk up their books without overwhelming friends and family with updates. So here’s the plan, my publisher and I have put together some different offers that will appeal to different groups.

Each offer is about giving readers a chance to get the best deal possible on my writing, whether that’s just A Christian Survival Guide or it’s a bunch of books I’ve written. For instance, if you’re relatively new to my writing, this week you can pick up six eBooks for the price of one.

 

Starting today, August 11th: Buy A Christian Survival Guide from my publisher, and you will receive a link to FIVE free eBooks at the end of the day that includes: the TWO full length Coffeehouse Theology Study Guides, Divided We Unite, Creating Space, and Why We Run from God’s Love. The offer ends Friday, August 15th.

Not convinced? You can also read a two-chapter sample of the Survival Guide for free over at NoiseTrade books.

Can you help spread the word? 

Get 5 FREE eBooks when you purchase A Christian Survival Guide by @edcyzewski at Kregel: http://ow.ly/zR9b1.

 

And just a heads up, I have no idea about the precise time this offer expires on Friday the 15th (I assume by midnight EST). So don’t delay, but if you do hit any glitches, please drop a comment to let me know!

 

What Saved Your Faith?

Holy Spirit Download Error

“Why does God bless some people and not others?”

That was one of the questions that almost ended my faith.

When I learned that miracles can happen today and that many had actually been healed, I had a brand new crisis of faith to consider. I met Christians who spoke in tongues, shared words of knowledge that were eerily accurate, and even healed people from various ailments. I saw a friend receive deep spiritual healing during a revival. I saw another receive a life-giving blessing.

Throughout all of this Holy Ghosting, I stood by, flat-footed and uninvolved. God hadn’t “poured out” his Spirit on me. I was just a regular old Christian with a Bible, notebook, and highlighter, learning more truth but not experiencing the kind of life the New Testament described.

Why not me?

Although there are many hucksters and abusers of spiritual gifts such as tongues and healing, I’d witnessed and learned about enough genuine encounters to know there was something to it. I wanted in. And when things didn’t start happening when I prayed for them, my faith took a nosedive.

What did my lack of charismatic experiences mean about my faith or about God?

I feared that I wasn’t a true Christian or that God had somehow found me unworthy. It wasn’t so much that I doubted God’s existence. Rather, I feared the end of my faith if I stepped out in faith, asked God for something, and then nothing happened. If I stepped out in faith and found only silence, I didn’t know what to do next. Should I just keep praying and waiting?

American Christianity has done a terrible job preparing me for patiently waiting on God or preparing me to deal with a spiritual “dark night” of the soul. We have language for quick fixes, processes, how-to manuals, and words like victory and break-through.

We hear a lot about break-throughs, but we don’t talk so much about breakdowns.

We hear about God delivering someone in the nick of time, but we don’t hear much about God being “late.”

I feared that the problem was inside of me and that God couldn’t or wouldn’t fix it. I feared that God was playing games with me, waiting for me to say the right words or to make the right sacrifice. If couldn’t figure out the code words, I couldn’t have the blessing.

In a sense, the hardest thing was simply letting myself ask that question. It seemed like the wrong kind of question for a good little Christian to ask. I feared the question and avoided it for years. I lived in fear and uncertainty.

The only thing that relieved the tension in my life was the moment I finally leveled up with a trusted mentor: “I don’t understand why God won’t bless me with the Holy Spirit?”

The day I asked that question, putting into words the seemingly irreverent if not downright heretical questions in my mind, I could finally do the one thing I wouldn’t let myself do: Search for answers.

We run from all kinds of questions, issues, and doubts. That running undermines our faith and alienates us from God far more than simply asking the questions we fear the most. In fact, there is freedom in simply asking what you’re not supposed to ask.

Starting Monday, August 18th, I’m going to blog about this question and some others that I wasn’t supposed to ask. These were some of the questions that guided my journey while writing my new book A Christian Survival Guide.

I’m inviting you to join me by writing your own post for a synchroblog. Here’s the prompt:

What saved your faith?

 

We face so many reasons to stop believing, so much discouragement, and face palm ourselves daily with the antics of certain Christians.

Why do you keep believing? What made the difference for you?

I’m inviting you to write about it and to link up for the week of August 18th. I’ll include some basic synchroblog information to include at the end of your post so readers can join in or read additional posts.

If you’re wondering how I resolved my question about the Holy Spirit and healing, I’ll write about that on Monday the 18th of August to kick off the synchroblog.

 

synchroblog

 

How to Join the Synchroblog:

1. Write a post for your blog during the week of August 18-23 about what saved your faith.

2. Begin your post with something like: “I’m joining the synchroblog for the release of A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth by answering this prompt: ‘What saved your faith?'”

3. End with a link to my post for Monday, August 18th (This is the link that is NOT live yet: http://wp.me/p36rtR-k5). Add the link up information to your post, the synchroblog image, and end your post with a prompt like this: “What saved your faith? Write a blog post answering that question and then visit www.edcyzewski.com to learn how you can join the synchroblog or to read additional posts to celebrate the release of Ed’s book A Christian Survival Guide, which is discounted on Amazon. ”

4. Link to your post in the comment section on Ed’s post and share it on Twitter with the hashtag “#SavedMyFaith”. 

5. Read other posts by checking the comments or the #SavedMyFaith hashtag on Twitter. Then comment, tweet, or share the best posts you find! I’ll make a round up on Monday, August 25th.

 

We Don’t Need Church INC, But We Need Community

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I used to really overthink what church should and should not do.

Having swung all over the map on church meetings, I’ve realized that anything from candlelit high liturgy to a group of friends gathering in a living room can serve just fine as a church. In fact, I’m grateful that we have so many different ways to worship God in community. That can actually be a tremendous asset for us because we can seek out the places where we can find life—sensing the deep, healing breath of the Holy Spirit as we gather together.

Healthy Christian community is an essential, but not because skipping church is a sin. The command from the author of Hebrews to not give up gathering together (Heb. 10:25) hardly demands the formation of a nonprofit organization that constructs a building, hires a pastor, and holds a morning and evening service every Sunday with a worship band and a sermon. The author of Hebrews was thinking of the life that comes when we worship God together (most likely with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper), encourage one another, and hold one another accountable—the details are wonderfully sparse.

 

Here’s what we need from Christian community:

  • We need to confess our sins to real people.
  • We need friends to pray for us.
  • We need to be challenged to get off our couches and serve our communities.
  • Everything about Christian growth is very specific and personal, and there is no better way to draw near to God than with the support of a community.

 

Sometimes we turn Christian fellowship into an all-or-nothing matter where you’re either fully involved in a church and its “discipleship system” of Church INC or you need to abstain from it fully. We need process more than we realize, but that process doesn’t have to be a discipleship program with study guides and graduation certificates.

Throughout the Gospels, we see the disciples and especially the apostles as people who are immersed in a process with Jesus. They frequently missed the point of his stories and failed to step out in faith at crucial moments. We don’t ever read of Jesus saying, “That’s it! You’re all fired. I’m getting a new group of apostles.”

Perhaps we imagine Jesus audibly sighing or needing to step away to skim rocks along the Sea of Galilee, but he stuck with his apostles right through Pentecost when he shared his Spirit with them. If it takes us some time to figure out a healthy and life-giving form of church, I think Jesus can stick with us.

From the perspective of American Christianity, there is a strong expectation that good Christians go to an official church service. For everyone who feels like the church has let them down or has caused more problems, these expectations can be suffocating. Sometimes we feel like our only option is escape, and for those who attempt an escape, the condemnation that follows may serve as justification for fleeing a supposedly sinking ship.

When it comes to church, we have so many options available to us. I have seen friends who felt liturgy too constricting and therefore joined a network of house churches. Other friends found that liturgy provided a wonderful order for their worship as an alternative to the three-hymns-and-punt approach in their former churches.

There come times when we need to suck it up and join a community where we can find strong relationships despite other trappings that are less appealing. However, if a particular church becomes difficult to attend, it’s not like Christians today lack options. God’s Spirit is alive and working in many places, even among small groups that simply meet together for prayer and encouragement.

We need community, but we don’t need that community to come wrapped up in the trappings of Church INC. We need the support of our Christian family to help us stay focused on God and to pick us up when we fall down. That is something sleeping in on Sunday morning can’t do.

 

This post was adapted from my new book
A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline for Faith and Growth.

 

A Christian Survival Guide