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Unvarnished Grace

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 7 years now since I walked away from a difficult church situation… and 5 years since I began to blog about my struggles as I tried to find my place in a healthy church. A lot has changed over those years. I’ve been through some horrible crises and enjoyed some amazing epiphanies (those wonderful “aha!” moments when you see something clearly for the first time).

When I began this blog, “Recovering Pentecostal” was a very appropriate title. My Pentecostal-ness had been so much a part of my identity, and the consequences of a messed-up theology were so deeply enmeshed in my life, that it continued to define me even after I left. Gradually, over these last 5 years years, my focus changed: and now I believe I can honestly say that my spiritual life is about my relationship with God, not about my relationship with religion.

Now, it’s time for my blog to change too, but I wanted to give you a “heads up” before I do.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be revising and reorganizing my blog… not just with a new look, but with a new name. I’ve chosen “Unvarnished Grace” because that’s where I am now. To me, “unvarnished” is raw and unadulterated. It is what it is… and hasn’t been polished and stained to look like something else. It’s authentic, it’s real. That’s the kind of grace that God has given to me… and it’s what I long to show to others.

Healing the “out of joint.”

This morning, I saw a familiar verse quoted on a friend’s page. Here it is in the NASB:

“Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;” (Heb 12:14-15 NASB)

But my friend also quoted it in the Amplified version:

Strive to live in peace with everybody and pursue that consecration and holiness without which no one will [ever] see the Lord. 15 Exercise foresight and be on the watch to look [after one another], to see that no one falls back from and fails to secure God’s grace (His unmerited favor and spiritual blessing), in order that no root of resentment (rancor, bitterness, or hatred) shoots forth and causes trouble and bitter torment, and the many become contaminated and defiled by it” (Heb 12:14-15, Amplified)

Usually, Heb 12:15 is quoted to encourage folks to examine themselves and keep bitterness out of their own lives. And that is true, we do need to examine ourselves and our attitudes. But what struck me this morning was the extra emphasis in the Amplified: “Exercise foresight and be on the watch to look [after one another].” We’re not just supposed to look after ourselves! If we are in a community together, we should be watching out for one another.

Bitterness is a deeply personal thing… but it’s also something that, frankly, others can clearly see long before the bitter person is conscious of it himself/herself. Unfortunately, many times, we don’t “look after one another” in this regard… but look down on one another and avoid the issue. We recognize the sinful attitude of the bitter person and condemn them to isolation without extending the grace that could not only heal them but prevent much damage to others as well.

When I see v 15 this way, it makes me look at verses 12-13 differently as well:

Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Heb 12:12-13 NASB)

We are all members of one body. I pray that I might become one who heals rather than one who puts things out of joint.

Pure Milk

I was reading 1 Peter this morning and this verse jumped out at me: “Like newborn infants, desire the unadulterated spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it in [your] salvation.” (HCSB) I just finished a semester studying 1 Corinthians, so the contrast between 1 Pet 2:2 and 1 Cor 3:2 stood out. In 1 Cor, the “milk” is cast as an undesirable thing; the preference should be for “solid food.” But in 1 Pet, the milk is to be desired.

Obviously, these are different letters from different authors to folks in different situations. The Corinthians were arrogant. They saw themselves as superior and enlightened. They attended lavish parties (idol feasts) and enjoyed rich food. They even considered some blatantly sinful acts to be badges of their spirituality! They saw themselves as sophisticated, wise and mature. Then Paul basically tells them that all they can handle is… baby food! Imagine a group of well-groomed businessmen and college professors expecting a dinner of bacon-wrapped filet mignon… and instead, they’re served jars of Gerber’s squash puree! I imagine that is how some of the Corinthians must have felt when they heard/read Paul’s words.

Just because you think you’re mature, that doesn’t make you mature. And using the right language doesn’t mean that you have the right heart. I’ve heard some people talking about wanting “pure spiritual milk,”  but unfortunately, many of them are just applying that label to whatever it is they already crave: a teaching on their favorite topic, a supernatural experience, etc. And most of the time this “milk” is something that makes them look good or lets them walk away feeling pretty good about themselves. I don’t think that’s what Peter had in mind when he wrote his letter.

It also doesn’t help that our modern concept of “pure milk” has probably tainted our view of references like these. Even though both Paul and Peter clearly connect the “milk” to babies, these days that phrase probably brings to mind a nice tall cold glass of milk & a smiling person with a milk mustache. (Remember the “got milk?” ad campaigns?) When we think of milk, it is chilled, pasteurized, and homogenized… and often accompanied by a plate of cookies. In short, it’s nothing like the milk that would have been available in biblical times. The “pure” milk of biblical times–the “fresh squeezed” variety–is not even legal to sell in many states. And probably not something that the general public would consider all that refreshing or desirable or even sanitary.

So what was the “pure spiritual milk” that Peter wrote about?

The HCSB and NASB differ in their translation of 1 Pet 2:2. The HCSB and most modern translations go with “pure spiritual milk.” The NASB and NKJV say “pure milk of the word.” Apparently, both translations are possible. But I like the NASB version better.

As Christians, we know that we should spend time in the Word of God. But most of us aren’t doing that. We might surround ourselves with Christian culture — faith based movies, Christian radio, church activities — but we don’t study the Bible for ourselves. And even when we do spend time in the Word, it isn’t really the pure Word of God. I’m not talking about one translation being more “pure” or “superior” to another… I’m thinking about the way we process things today. Pasteurization kills most of the unpleasant harmful things from the cow’s milk that we drink. But that process doesn’t discriminate: it kills the beneficial things as well. It takes away some things that have value. I think we “pasteurize” the Bible when we read it through the filters of what we want to believe and/or skip over the parts that make us uncomfortable. It might make things more palatable to us in the short term, but it doesn’t help us so much in the long term.

It takes some humility for a mature person to eat baby food. It also takes some humility to come to the Scriptures with the right heart & attitude to find the “pure milk” — and resist the temptation to pasteurize and homogenize it to make it fit our culture.

Thinking about life & death & what really matters

Recently, my (relatively small) church has been touched by a number of losses in a short span of time. I wasn’t very close to any of the deceased, but I knew their families… and I had the opportunity to help put together short remembrance videos for a couple of them (restoring some older pictures and putting them to music). I was honored to be able to do that for the families, and it was interesting to hear the stories and see what pictures people chose when trying to sum up the life of a loved one. It made me wonder what “snapshots” of my life would be most remembered.

With the holiday season here, I’ve also been thinking more about my dad lately. Even though it’s been a year and a half since he passed away, the void just seems more tangible around holidays or significant milestones. Last year was definitely more difficult, and difficult in different ways — for example, things would catch my eye that would have made great gifts for him, or I’d see something that I wanted to tell him about. Last year, it was about constantly being reminded of his absence. This year, it’s more about the memories. Good memories, but still tender. And being back at my mom’s house where every room and nearly every object has a memory attached has only intensified the effect.

Being so close to the end of this semester at school has also given me a few reasons to pause and re-evaluate. I remember when I was in high school, my dad challenged me to define success in my own terms. That was pretty powerful coming from someone who was very successful by most worldly standards. Over the years, I’ve defined it in different ways: finishing school, being independent, working in some sort of ministry, getting the job I wanted, solving problems, making a difference, serving others… all good and noble goals. But how I should define “success” in my current situation, as a non-traditional student in an extremely subjective field? At times there’s been a bit of a disconnect between my goals as a student and my values as an individual. “Success” means making sure that the things that have true & lasting significance don’t get buried under the things that have only temporary importance. The problem is… it’s not always easy to tell the difference when you’re in the middle of it all :)

My mom & I shared a lot of memories about my dad while I was home. But some of our greatest memories aren’t necessarily things that would have made his top ten list. In fact, some are probably things he’d rather have us forget! But they’re the things that stuck with us, the things we learned & grew from, the things that made us smile… and the things that made him smile. That’s what mattered the most in the end.

And I guess that’s not a bad definition of success: making the choices that would make my earthly father — and my heavenly Father — smile.

One year later

It’s almost 2am on June 4th, and I can’t sleep.

And I can’t help but remember that exactly a year ago tonight, I didn’t sleep this night either. Only last year, I was spending my sleepless night in the waiting room of an ICU… during the final hours of my father’s life.

I can’t believe that it has been a year now since he passed away.

I still wonder about all the “what-ifs”, despite my best efforts to banish them from my mind… and that’s at least part of what’s keeping me up tonight. I know that the what-ifs are a pointless pursuit. But pointless or not… they haven’t really gone away. They’ve just gotten somewhat easier to ignore (most of the time).

As difficult as things have been, I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it must be for someone to deal with the loss of  a loved one without God. I miss my dad a lot — but I’m confident that he is in heaven, so I know that I will see him again. And ultimately, that’s the best comfort anyone could ever have. For a believer, death is not a “goodbye” – it’s a “see you later.” That doesn’t make the pain and grief any less real, but it does remind me that this loss is definitely one-sided. For those left behind, it’s a big loss. For my dad, it’s all gain.

One thing I’ve learned over the past year is that it is important to grieve… but everyone will deal with it differently. I was amazed (and frankly, offended sometimes) by how many folks thought they knew exactly how we (the family) were supposed to work through this process. Some even went so far as to tell us that we were doing it wrong!! I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong way. I’m not even sure that it’s a “process” — since “process” to me implies a beginning and an end. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has gotten to the end.

My dad lived 1000+ miles from me, so things were a little strange for me at first (once I was back home). I didn’t have the constant physical reminders of his absence… so in some ways, it was easier for me to get back to my “normal” life. But then the loss would hit me when I’d think about calling my parents on the phone, or forwarding a funny email, or whenever I had news (good or bad) that I just wanted to share with someone. I began to pursue one of my father’s hobbies — photography — and there were some tender times when I wished I could talk to him about that. And then, of course, there’s the conversations with my family… which sometimes lead to tearful memories (or tearful sympathy for what they were feeling). I expected those moments of sadness… or at least I was somewhat prepared for them.

But there were other things that I really wasn’t expecting. For example, it would hit me sometimes when I’d listen to contemporary Christian music on the radio (which I used to love). Christian music can actually be morbid and depressing when you’re dealing with a loss.

Another thing I wasn’t expecting was how much I’d come to dread going to church. Even in a good, healthy church… people are people, and they can say and do some amazingly insensitive things. It doesn’t help matters that you desperately want things to get back to some sort of “normal.” You want people to believe that you’re OK… and you tell them that you’re OK… even when you’re not. Things have gotten a lot better over time… but even now, a year later, I still have no desire to go to my church when I’m feeling “down.”

The last thing I wasn’t expecting was how some new things have become very significant to me. Within a couple of weeks of the funeral last year, my church was going on a missions trip to a children’s home in Mexico. I decided to join them at the last minute… mostly because I just wanted to keep myself occupied… and because I didn’t want to be alone on Father’s Day. I had never gone before. But once I got there, I was hooked… and I realized that this was exactly the sort of project that my dad would have supported — helping kids who really needed it, doing practical things, and even throwing in a little photography! We’re going back to Mexico in about a week — we’ll be leaving June 12th. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m excited about the projects that we’re planning. When I go to Mexico, I’m not just doing something worthwhile – I feel like this is something I can do in my father’s honor. And that has made it all the more significant to me… and therapeutic too.

So here’s a little advice if you’re trying to comfort someone who has gone through a difficult loss.

  • Don’t expect everyone to deal with pain the way that you deal with it… or in your timeframe.
  • Don’t try to be someone’s counselor and confidant unless you already have that level of relationship with them.
  • Sometimes the best thing you can do is just be there. A friend who can sit with you through awkward silences can be far more comforting than one who feels compelled to give advice… even if it is good advice.
  • Be honest. Don’t say that you know what someone is going through if you really haven’t experienced it.
  • Even if we say we’re OK… there’s a good chance that we’re not.
  • Talk about something other than the loss. (It can be discouraging when every conversation begins with, ‘Are you doing OK?’)
  • Most people are very supportive for the first couple of weeks after a loss… and then they disappear. If you really want to help someone who is going through this sort of thing… be there for them when everyone else has forgotten. (a month or two later… or more… and on holidays).

Examining Orthodoxy

Some answers are definitely more satisfying than others.

One answer that I’ve heard multiple times since I’ve started digging into doctrinal issues is particularly unsatisfying to me. It goes something like this:

Doctrine X is true because this is what the majority of the church has historically believed. People much smarter / more educated / more spiritual / more historically connected to the source materials / more… “whatever” than I spent significant amounts of time wrestling with these things, and we should accept their time-tested conclusions.

I have a couple of problems with this. Historically, many things that we would now consider very wrong were once considered normal and right. Just because the majority of a group accepts something as true and good, that doesn’t guarantee its truthfulness and goodness. (Consider Apartheid or Slavery… or the idea that the earth was flat.) Also… if we consider anything outside of the Bible to be on par with its teachings–even the Bible-based teachings of others whom we respect–are we truly letting the Bible be the ultimate authority?

But even worse, this argument is usually invoked as a discussion-ender… and that makes it feel eerily similar to a favorite argument of some controlling pastors I’ve known in the past: “I’m the leader, God directs me, either you trust me or you’ll be outside of God’s will.” And maybe that’s why I resist it so much.

I have no problem with the concept of learning from the wisdom of others. But until I can see something for myself in the Scriptures, I’m not going to accept it… no matter how many dead theologians say otherwise.

Doctrine: What’s important?

I haven’t been blogging much lately… but that’s because I’ve been keeping myself pretty busy. I’m back in college this semester as a full-time student, for the first time in ~15 years. It’s been an interesting experience so far. I’m attending Louisiana College, a Baptist school. I’m not there to study religion, but several religion classes are required for all students, and I’m taking some of them this semester. They’ve given me a lot to think about.

What doctrines/beliefs are truly important? Until now, my list was pretty short, simple, and (frankly) vague. Being at LC is challenging my vagueness. It’s not always a comfortable process, but it’s a valuable one. And it’s good for me.

For example, I’ve never heard the doctrine of the Trinity explained with such detail or “forcefulness” before. Of course, most of the churches I attended in my pre-Pentecostal days never actually taught on the Godhead at all. They were Trinitarian on paper & by default — because that’s just the way it was. There was no need to go into detail because as far as we all knew, that was the only option. But when I began to move towards more UPC-like churches, I started to hear a lot of Oneness teaching. It made sense to me… at least in part because it really didn’t seem all that different from the way I pictured God in my head. In fact, if you forced the average Oneness believer and the average Trinitarian believer to talk about the Godhead without using the terms “Oneness” or “Trinity,” it seemed like you’d get mostly similar descriptions. So the issue had become a non-issue for me.

But these two positions are not the same. And they’re not compatible. And despite what each side would like you to believe, neither position is taught explicitly in the Bible the same way that it is explained in texts and apologetic works. And neither position can give a fully satisfying explanation of the Godhead without ultimately acknowledging that certain things are simply a mystery.

So that’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few weeks :)  And I’ll probably blog about it some more now that I’ve “broken the ice” a bit.

A Tale of Two Artists

Early in my teens, I had an opportunity to go to a Christian music festival that was sponsored by the only “contemporary” Christian radio station in that area. I was so excited: some of my favorite artists and radio personalities were going to be there. And it wasn’t one of those huge mega-concerts… so there was the distinct possibility that I might even get to MEET them, maybe even shake their hands! What more could a star-struck teen possibly want?

It was amazing. I DID get to meet many of the voices I had heard and admired from a distance on the radio. But two encounters in particular had a lasting impression on me.

The first was a negative encounter. This particular artist was out at her product table… berating the volunteers who were staffing it. She wasn’t happy with their work… and she told them exactly how she felt, right in front of anyone else who might have been around. The volunteers were visibly hurt. Any respect that I may have had for her before melted into pure disgust. She might have just been having a bad day. Or she might have had a legitimate beef with the volunteers. But regardless, I never bought another one of her albums.

The second was a positive encounter. At the time, this artist was my absolute favorite! (Does anyone else out there remember Steve Camp’s 80’s & early 90’s stuff??) I knew many of his songs by heart. If I remember correctly, he had been one of the “headline” acts. All I wanted was to shake his hand, just to be able to say that I had met him. I don’t even remember exactly what I said to him — but I do remember that during our short conversation, one of the event staff members came up and interrupted us. I’m sure that whatever the staffer had to say was definitely more important than the star-struck ramblings of a little girl — but Steve Camp (politely) stopped the staffer and asked him to wait while he finished talking to me.

The truth is, even if the staffer had just interrupted and cut my conversation short, I would have still been excited about that day… but I probably would have forgotten about it long before I turned 20. The reason I remember it and still think about it 20+ years later is because it was so unusual for anyone to treat a stammering, awkward, nervous teenage girl (who had nothing practical to offer) as if she mattered.

Primal by Mark Batterson

Reading this book was an excellent way to kick off the new year!

Primal is about going back to the basics of Christianity, figuring out what is most important and focusing on that. Luckily, Jesus Himself told us what was most important: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength. It’s such a well-known quote that it’s easy to hear it and agree with it without ever really understanding it. I had always just understood it as a poetic/prosaic way of emphasizing that we’re supposed to love God with everything in us… but what if those four distinct areas were listed for a reason? Batterson explains what it might look like today to love God in with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I was most intrigued by the idea that we love God with our mind through our God-given curiosity — not just about spiritual things, but about the world around us. That was especially encouraging to me as I’m heading back to college in a week!

Reading this book helped me realize that I’m pretty fortunate to be a part of a church that already puts a huge emphasis on loving God in many different ways. And it challenged me to love God even more!

Un regalo grande y maravilloso (A great & wonderful gift)

I know that it is something of a Christian cliché to say that you received far more than you gave on a missions trip… but it’s so true. My church helps to support a Children’s Home in Mexico, and at least once a year they organize a short missions trip there. This year, we made two trips, and I was fortunate enough to participate in both.

The first time I came to Casa Hogar Benito Juarez in Reynosa, MX was this past June. It was just a couple of weeks after my father passed away. We left for Mexico on Father’s Day… and that was one of the reasons why I went. I just couldn’t imagine facing that day alone. Selfish motivations? Absolutely. But I wasn’t auditioning for sainthood.

I didn’t speak much Spanish, and the kids didn’t speak much (if any) English. Yet, even though they couldn’t always understand us, those kids trusted us implicitly and loved us. The gift I received from that trip was an invitation to trust God and love Him even when I couldn’t understand Him. That’s a lesson I’ve thought about many times in the six months since then.

Now I’m back in Mexico for another short missions trip. This time, we’ve come to deliver Christmas gifts that we collected from members of our church. We’ll be doing that later on today, and I can’t wait to see the looks on the kids’ faces, but I know I’ve already received my gift. There are things I take for granted back in the states (like a little privacy, hot water, and Internet access) that you can’t count on in Mexico. I knew that I’d probably be doing without those things this week. Yet… God (& Pastor Nathan!) worked it out so that I have all of those luxuries here… and I’m extremely grateful.

This trip has helped remind me that even the smallest things in my life are truly gifts… far better than the trinkets and smores and clothes and toys and everything else that we’ll be passing out to the kids today. And that realization itself is a great and wonderful gift.