My Own Columbus Day Celebration: Seeing God’s Blessings in a City I Hated

columbus-ohio-day-home

I used to really hate Columbus, Ohio. When driving from Philadelphia to my college out in Indiana, it was the last major obstacle on a trip that lasted between 11 and 12 hours.

After weaving my way through the terribly maintained Pennsylvania Turnpike and then rumbling along the pothole-filled Pennsylvania section of I-70, the rolling hills of Eastern Ohio provided a welcome respite of clear, easy driving. I made excellent time and had minimal close calls with trucks or reckless drivers until I hit Columbus. Everything was always terrible in Columbus. At certain points a series of merges and exits led to one traffic jam after another along I-70, and if I wanted to doge the center city traffic, I could take the longer 270 by-pass option that added time but minimized merging and traffic jams.

Either way, I always lost time around Columbus. If my drive ever extended longer than the twelve hours predicted by Map Quest, I could usually blame Columbus. I used to sneer at its skyline.

And who would ever want to live in such a city? Nothing about it made any sense to me. There were no mountains, no oceans, and no major lakes to speak of. Columbus was just a smattering of skyscrapers and traffic jams surrounded by suburbs and cornfields.

Columbus also marked the beginning of the really flat part of my drive. As much as I wanted to escape the East Coast for a season, I really missed the rolling hills and mountains outside of Philadelphia. They’re no great shakes compared to what you see in the Northeastern states like Vermont or New Hampshire, and they’re like speed bumps compared to the Rockies, but it can be jarring to leave something that has surrounded you for most of your life.

Columbus marked the point of no return before the unrelenting Midwestern FLAT that persists until Colorado. As much as I looked forward to college, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad once I hit Columbus. It marked the point where I definitely didn’t feel at home, the point where I didn’t belong.

Fast-forward about ten years from my college graduation and my last trip through Columbus as a resident of the Midwest…

My wife and I took a walk along a country lane in Connecticut outside of the town where we’d been living for the past year.

She was a student at a nearby university, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for her area of study. She had applied to a few schools, and the best opportunity had been offered by a school in Ohio—a school right in Columbus. While the details of the program sounded amazing, I couldn’t fight off the sense of dread. I would have to make Columbus my home for at least four years, maybe longer. I figured that I’d at least get cheap hockey tickets to see the Blue Jackets.

We jumped into our move with both feet, and have tried to find our place in this city that had been my enemy for so long. For the most part, it has worked.

After three years in Columbus, we’ve certainly missed the mountains, lakes, and oceans of the northeast, but we’ve also found a great church, fantastic friends, excellent activities for our kids, and some decent hiking outside the city. There is a great local food scene, even pizza that approaches the quality of NY style joints, and those cheap hockey tickets.

It’s strange to tell people that I’m “from” Columbus. I still think of myself as someone from the northeast. But there’s no denying that God has taken an unlikely place that I’d completely written off and caused life to blossom. If Columbus was my wilderness, God has tapped open a rock and sent streams of water flowing. I’m as close to thriving in this season of life as I’ve ever been.

I have no idea why a landlocked city in the Midwest with a puny river running through it got named “Columbus.” Why name a city after a European explorer? I have no clue. It’s as mysterious as our ongoing celebration of Columbus Day. It’s been well-documented that Columbus was murderous, cruel, and responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions of native people.

It’s hard to find much of anything to celebrate from his legacy. So perhaps it’s our role to bring new stories to life that celebrate what’s actually worth remembering.

For my own Columbus Day celebration, I will remember who I was and I what I thought of this city. I didn’t see Columbus, Ohio as a place where I or anyone else could thrive. If I ever heard of someone living in Columbus, I always thought to myself, “WHY?”

Now, I get it. I have seen God bless us with friends, community, and a new life. It’s not the Promised Land per se, but it’s been a land full of new promises and hope. It’s been the scene of significant new life for me as I’ve confronted my anxiety issues and discovered a deeper experience of God’s love and mercy. I didn’t have to move to Columbus in order to make those steps, but I can see how key people and moments in Columbus have been a part of that process.

God has been guiding us through this season and changing us. Perhaps the smallest of these changes is my view of this city. God can bring blessings in the places we least expect them. God can take a poorly named, horrendously situated city and create no end of new life and opportunities.

Hope for Those Who Have Been Wounded by the Church

exit-from-church

I had the uncomfortable sense that Broderick would end up in therapy one day because of ministry. He had the look of a kind-hearted, well-intentioned lemming on the brink of charging off a hill—a hill called ministry. He asked people to call him, “Brod,” because he wanted everyone to treat him like best buds.

He was like a kid on his way to Middle School who expected everyone to be his forever friend. Brod only saw the upside of church—he was passionate about a career in ministry, committed to teaching the Bible, and putting relationships with others first. I could see how a church could leave him battered by the side of the road.

Burned out and weary from giving so much of myself to the church only to find that you end up stepping on toes and meeting opposition for even your best efforts, I’d long been disabused of the hope and enthusiasm that Brod exuded. Having swung to the opposite, more cynical side of things after several damaging church experiences, I thought to myself: you’ll see… some day you’ll see.”

I have no idea what became of Brod. As for myself, I’ve given up on any future ministry plans, but I’m finally hopeful again about church and what it can be.

When we expect church to be a place of healing, community, acceptance, and growth, it can be devastating to stumble into a series of personal turf wars, theological battles, vendettas, popularity contests, and power struggles. On the other side of things, it’s hard to see how things could be any other way. If you get a group of 200 people in the same room, any 200 people, and try to find music, learning styles, and activities that suite them all, you’re going to lose your mind. It’s only our cultural expectations and previous experiences of church that reign in our preferences and create a starting point when we gather together for worship.

I have two rules now for church. I may add to them or modify them in the coming years, but for now, here they are:

  1. Look for life.
  2. Commit to people first.

 

Looking for Life in Church

If I look at my previous church experiences, I often stuck around out of judgment or obligation. And if I did step out of a church for a season, I beat myself up with heaps of guilt.

Today my first question about church is if I feel free to worship God with these people, whether in the service, in small groups, or in other settings. Are these people experiencing the life of Jesus and imitating him in some distinguishable ways? Do I experience the freedom and joy of the Spirit with these people? Am I free to learn and be challenged by the Spirit? Do these challenges lead to more life and freedom?

You get the idea. There’s always a temptation to slip into a consumer mindset, but seeking life and “freedom” rather than what feels good is an important, if not fine line at times. We experience life and God’s presence often in the places where we are most challenged and where we are led to seek the deeper experiences of God.

If God’s Spirit is restricted by theology or an order of service, then I have no qualms with bailing. If the Bible is used to control, judge, and prove one side’s superiority, it’s time to jump ship on that church.

I’m not saying you should give up on every church ever. Just that church. There are churches that will guide you to God’s life. Sometimes we are so focused on the meager benefits of a toxic church that we overlook its judgment and harmful theology that could alienate us from God.

 

Commit to People First in Church

If you give up on having an opinion in the church as an “organization” or “movement,” you will eliminate the majority of your potential conflict with fellow Christians. In fact, I dreaded the fate of an optimist like Brod because, as a pastor, he was mandated to have an opinion of his church’s organization and future. As often as we hear about pastors who abuse their authority, there are just as many (if not more) unreported stories of pastors who have been hounded by members of their congregation. In addition, anyone who gets in the way of church members vying for control of their turf will get run over.

As I recovered from a series of negative church experiences, I found it immensely freeing to personally commit to the people rather than the church organization and its ministries. If the church stopped meeting tomorrow, would I still commit to community with at least some of these people?

That means I’m trying to depend on the people around me and to support them as often as I can. I’m not trying to keep the church as an organization going. I’m trying to keep the people going. And I know, I know, I KNOW… the church IS the people. I wasn’t going to say it, but I know someone will… so there.

I certainly have opinions about the church as an organization, but after giving so much of myself to the ministries of various churches, I was left empty and disappointed. The more I’ve invested in people, the more fulfilling my ministry has been and the less I’ve stressed about the songs we choose, the ministries we offer, the topics of the sermons, the facility budget, or whatever else.

* * *

I understand this course may not be viable for everyone. You may feel called to manage your church’s facilities for instance. Have at it. I’m not saying what you should or should not do.

I’m saying that I’ve been deeply disappointed and hurt by the church in the past. And when your source of hope and healing becomes a source of conflict and pain, you need to change something.

I’m sure that therapy could help my friend Brod quite a bit, especially if that therapy helps him face the sources of his pain and move forward with forgiveness. If Brod does need some therapy after working in a church, he may find this post helpful. I believe that we can rediscover community with Christians after a bad church experience. And while a different church can help, a vastly different outlook is actually more important.

When we’ve been damaged by church, the most important changes need to take place within ourselves. Seeking God’s life and supporting people over an organization has worked for me.

What has helped you recover from negative church experiences?

On Learning to Accept the Gift of Free Time

lake hope family free time
“I always talk about the flexibility of our schedules, but when do I ever take advantage of that?”

I said that to my wife while I had my jeans rolled up, my feet dipped in a shallows of a lake, and our son chirping joyfully as he dug at the sand and splashed it into the water with his shovel.

It was the last warm day for a few weeks, perhaps for the entire fall and certainly the last time the nighttime temperature would be warm enough to sleep outside.

It was also a Tuesday.

My wife is a graduate student and I work as a freelance writer. We split up the childcare with our two kids, and we try to keep our schedules flexible when she’s not teaching a class. This set up means I get to spend more time with the kids, but my income can also be uncertain from month to month.

I often tell people that being a writer means I get to be really flexible and get to spend more time with the kids even if the income isn’t amazing. And then last Monday we realized that the temperature would drop after Wednesday and it would most likely rain over the weekend. So we debated whether we should go camping on Tuesday evening and spend part of Wednesday at a lake.

I wondered for about an hour if I really should jump on the opportunity.

By the time we stood on the shore of Lake Hope the next day, I was disappointed in myself. Why had I even debated this? True I had to work late on Monday and then had to hustle a bit on Wednesday afternoon to keep on pace for one deadline. But I HAD the flexibility to make a 24-hour camping getaway happen when the weather was most conducive.

Our toddler especially loved sleeping in the tent. I mean, what’s better than shining a flashlight all over a tent and occasionally blinding your father with its beam? And what could be better than having free reign of a beach and lake with a bucket full of digging toys?

This little camping trip was supposed to be the precise kind of benefit to my uncertain freelance career!

Sometimes I’m so focused on my work and my career that I forget about the trade off I’ve made. I try to keep pushing, and I fail to rest, take breaks, or receive the gift of free time. I start to measure my success in terms of my bank account even though I’ve tried to make a flexible schedule a priority for my family.

I’ve tried to give myself the gift of free time. Unfortunately I’ve been so focused on my work that I’ve failed to take it.

How many gifts are right in front of us for the taking?

What keeps us from receiving what is already ours?

 

I’m at High Risk of Enjoying My Life

parenting-gratitude-spirituality

The sun has been shining non-stop each day for the month of September, and we’ve spent almost every morning taking a walk—myself and my two sons in our epic double stroller.

There was a season when I used to think of how much I wasn’t getting done compared to other people because I spend the morning with our kids. When E, our toddler, was a newborn, I used to really resent the times when his naps ended prematurely. When I can’t catch a break with our current newborn, B, there are times when I can hardly stomp my feet hard enough with frustration.

Today was one of those mornings where nothing seemed to be going right.

B needed his bottle during our walk within a half block of our home. Then he needed to be burped. Then he needed a new diaper within another half block. Then he fussed and fretted, whining for his pacifier but not actually sucking on it.

After forty-five minutes of sticking the pacifier back in his mouth repeatedly, I relented and strapped him into the Ergo Carrier where he immediately dozed off. We cut our snail-paced walk short and beat it to the playground where E was eager to kick his ball around on the tennis court.

“Ten-is court!” he said over and over again.

We kicked and tossed his ball around at the tennis court, but he soon transitioned to the playground, lugging his ball along and looking over his shoulder to make sure we were following him as he trucked ahead. The sun continued to blaze in the sky, and I hung back in the shade whenever I could.

He zipped down the slide, scaled the steep steps, and ventured up a ladder. He even climbed a new ladder on the other end of the playground after I encouraged him to give it a shot. B hardly moved a muscle all morning, his docile face still with his hands balled up in little fists that eventually fell limp.

As E scampered from one slide to another, I paused to reflect on the moment. I wasn’t anxious, resentful, or distracted. I wasn’t wishing I could have a steady 9-5 job that paid more reliably than freelancing. I was present for a change.

This is something I’ve been working on.

It’s not that I don’t want to be a dad or to stay home with our kids during the mornings. It’s just that I’ve tried to balance the need to earn some money with my parenting, and it’s easy to let the money side of things win. When my anxiety came to a head last June and I struggled to fall asleep each night, I hit a point where I had to just let go of control.

I can work hard when I’m working, but I also need to play hard when I’m with the kids. Who would have thought that I need to learn how to play again?

I’ve spent so much time wishing I was somewhere else with my life with more stability and with more opportunities that I failed to see all of the blessings in my present. And when I failed to see the blessings of the present, I worried about all that wasn’t going right.

I used to think I was building something, creating something big and meaningful that I can leave behind some day. It’s not quite like that.

Yes, my writing work can be quite meaningful. Other days it’s just something to pay the bills. Still, it’s all something that I’m able to do and that I generally enjoy doing. But I used to place so much stock in my identity as a writer and provider for my family that I lost sight of everything else.

I’m trying to see what I’d overlooked.

I am being undone, unraveled, one day at a time. I’m demolishing that false identity that, quite frankly, was falling to pieces anyway under the weight of my expectations and comparisons with others.

I’m seeing the sun. I’m seeing my son’s delight in black walnuts and the way he holds them out toward a squirrel and says, “Yum! Yum! Yum!”

I punt E’s ball as high as I can and he tracks it down before settling it and giving it a kick of his own. These days his kicks are shockingly accurate for a two-year-old.

I’m grateful for babies who nap and who can be satisfied with something as simple as a baby carrier strapped to my chest.

I’m starting to see God’s hand all around me. I’m receiving these gifts he’s given me: the sunshine, my children, and a walk in the park. I’ve stopped looking for gifts and blessings in the future. There’s too much to take in right now.

God is present among us, and I never realized how much my “forward thinking” prevented me from sensing that. I never saw how looking ahead could turn into a steady upheaval of anxiety discontent.

I’ve worried about so many things, but only one thing has been necessary. If I’m not careful, I may actually end up enjoying my life.

There’s theology everywhere—even at the playground.

What Saved My Faith: A Synchroblog about Christian Survival and a Big Book Discount

 

synchroblog

I wrote last week about my doubts that arose when I didn’t receive any obvious manifestations of the Holy Spirit and God felt distant whenever I tried to pray. Much to my dismay, there wasn’t a quick fix to my faltering faith. I’m writing a follow up post as part of a synchroblog this week: What Saved My Faith? Synchroblog details are at the end of today’s post: 

 

When God felt distant throughout my early 20’s, I felt like my faith was completely breaking down. The only way to save my faith was to ask the question that I thought would mean losing it:

“Why has God abandoned me?”

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

 

I couldn’t figure out a way to make prayer work until I acknowledged that I’d hit a dead end. I had to admit that I was struggling to connect with God. In fact, one word sums my experience up:

SILENCE.

 

 

While I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly charismatic at the time,  I was used to spiritual experiences. I’d had many moments where the words of scripture seemed to jump off the page, and I sensed either an intense joy or sorrow. I’d felt conviction to make major life changes. I’d felt God’s presence while praying int he past.

However, one day it all just fell apart. I can’t say what exactly happened. It’s not like you plan for prayer to stop working or for insecurity to become the norm. Prayer, which had just flowed before, was riddled with uncertainty, doubt, and fear.

The Bible describes a present God who is able to meet people when they pray. That was not my experience.

I quickly became an anxious Christian. I wanted my spirituality to work, and if it didn’t work the way I expected it to work, then I feared that I’d been abandoned by God.

It’s not that I didn’t believe in God. I’d experienced too much. Rather, I just feared abandonment. All of the promises of scripture couldn’t squelch the burning anxiety that God had abandoned me.

“Where are you God? Why won’t you come near?” I asked each day.

I knew so many people who heard God speak, who experienced God, and who sensed God’s direction in their lives.

Why not me?

 

I had to start believing something without personal proof: What if God was near even if I couldn’t sense God’s presence? What if I had to remain faithful without any assurance that God saw me?

I had to learn how to wait on God.

I’ve been surrounded by Christians who talked about victory and breakthroughs, but I didn’t have any concept of a dark night of the soul. One thing pulled me out of my downward spiral into darkness: I relied on the prayers of others. 

First, I asked for prayer.

I asked for a lot of prayer, in fact. Each time I received assurances. I gave God every opportunity to tell me what I was doing wrong through the people praying for me. It turned out that I wasn’t living in sin or on the brink of being cast into the flames of hell or anything else.

In fact, my father-in-law sensed that God had imparted the Holy Spirit to me. If God wasn’t angry with me, I decided to take a different approach to prayer.

I prayed the prayers of others.

When you can’t find your own words to pray, the words of the Psalms and the historic church can serve as a real life saver. In fact, as I struggled with doubts and uncertainty during my dark night of the soul (or whatever one calls these things, I’m a Protestant, remember), I relied heavily on the daily prayers from the Divine Hours (buy the books or pray online).

The Divine Hours exposed me to all kinds of prayers: petitions, laments, praise, etc. I saw that doubt, dark nights of the soul, fear, and uncertainty came up quite a bit while praying. The majority of the readings were short passages of scripture, and I saw that waiting on the Lord comes up quite a bit in the Bible and especially in collected prayers in the Hours.

Psalm 5:3
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Psalm 27:14
Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Psalm 130:5-6
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

The Psalms are full of waiting, in fact.

So I started to wait. I started to rely on the prayers of others. Slowly, gradually, I learned to wait and trust God on my own.

The more I relied on the prayers of others, the more I say that my prayers were full of pushy petitions and demanding deadlines. I was asking God to show up in the time, place, and manner I specified. Perhaps my season of silence was God’s way of shutting down the ways I’d been trying to exert my control over prayer. Who knows.

I started waiting and praying the prayers of others, and I eventually began to sense God’s presence and voice again. In silence and in the recitation of scripture, I found a new path to God that didn’t rely on crafting clever prayers. In fact, prayer became peaceful and restful, inviting God to come and simply paying attention to however the Spirit would move.

I don’t think I could have figured out how to pray on my own. I had to experience the prayers of others and copy the prayers of scripture and fellow Christians. That felt like cheating. It made me feel like a failure, as if I wasn’t smart enough to sort this out on my own.

Rather than failing, I was actually learning what faith looks like. I was learning to stop relying on my won wisdom and to seek the wisdom that can only come from God alone.  By relying on the prayers of others, I finally learned what it means to pray in faith, waiting and trusting in the presence and direction of God.

The things that feel like threats to our faith are often just the necessary failure of flawed faith that must break down and shatter before real faith can take their place. 

 

This post is part of a synchroblog for the release of A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth  that’s answering the following question:

What saved your faith? 

Write a post this week answering that question and then scroll down to learn how to join the synchroblog.

 

A Christian Survival Guide is also being offered at a steep discount this week.

On Monday, August 18th, it will be offered as a free eBook at select sites:

Amazon and B&N

Tuesday-Friday, August 19-22, it will be offered for $2.99. (See also the Publisher)

Print Copies: Get $3 off on Amazon this week.

Survival Guide Order Button

 

How to Join the Synchroblog:

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

2. Begin or end 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 the prompt: ‘What saved my faith?'”

3. End with a link to today’s post.  (This is the short link: “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 your own 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 this week. “

4. Link to your post in the comment section on Ed’s blog post and tweet 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!