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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.

Substandard Roadways

I found these old road signs in several places in and around Louisiana’s Chicot State Park. I had never seen one before. At first… I kinda laughed when I saw them. It’s a rather ambiguous warning. What exactly does “substandard roadway” mean? Are the foundations about to crumble at any moment? Did they pave it with second-hand asphalt? What exactly was wrong with the road? On this beautiful, sunny morning everything looked fine to me… but what unknown danger was waiting around the next bend? Sharp curve? Falling rocks? Potholes? Dead end? Animal crossing? Should I just turn around?

Turns out that these signs are unique to Louisiana, and come from a program that was abandoned in the early 1990s… apparently, at least in part because of the ambiguity. The idea was to warn drivers about roads that fell short of meeting the highest standards — lanes too narrow, missing or inadequate shoulders, poor grading, etc. These were mostly older roads that were state-of-the-art in their time: before SUVs and low-riders and monster-sized pickup trucks were available to the masses. They just weren’t designed to accommodate that kind of traffic the way modern roads are. These “substandard roadways” weren’t bad enough that they needed to be shut down… and while most folks never have any problem using them, it wouldn’t hurt to pay a little extra attention when you find yourself on a “substandard” section. In a perfect world, every road would be freshly paved with wide shoulders and flawless drainage… and there would be no accidents.

But it’s not a perfect world. We’re living in a fallen, less-than-ideal world. When we hit a particularly bad stretch, sometimes there are warning signs… but we can miss them or misunderstand them. So more frequently than we’d like to admit in life, our substandard understanding collides with a substandard circumstance… and people get hurt.

I was glad to see 2011 come to a close. In many ways, it was a difficult year for me. I felt like I could see the signs that something wasn’t right — just like those deprecated and ambiguous “Substandard Roadway” signs. I didn’t know what they really meant or why they were there. All I knew for sure was that I was on a difficult road, I was there alone, and I could only guess at why. And I guessed wrong. I was so concerned about a possible sharp curve ahead… that I wound up getting hit by the falling rocks I wasn’t even expecting.

And that’s just life sometimes.

After something like that happens… it’s probably human nature to want to turn around and go another way, to abandon the difficult road in favor of a different one. It would be easier… but if we refused to travel on anything but the best roads that met the ultimate standards… we’d never get very far.  And the most amazing things in life… well, they tend to happen most frequently when you choose the more difficult road.

I’m not making New Years Resolutions this year. But I do have a goal or challenge for myself: to take the more difficult road, to do it quickly (rather than delaying and avoiding it), to travel it completely without unnecessary u-turns, and to accept that some things are just plain substandard… and I might not be able to (or even need to) fix them all.

Don’t call me beautiful.

Tonight, Anderson Cooper featured some of the moms from “Toddlers and Tiaras” on his Ridiculist. Granted… that’s a pretty easy call. I wonder how these folks can stand to watch themselves on TV. I’m kinda embarassed for them, even tho I doubt that they’re embarassed by much of anything, considering that they signed a release to show the world how they treat their kids… all so that someone else will call their kid “beautiful.”

And while the Ridiculist was still playing, I happened to click through to a blog post from a pastor who says that women need to hear the words “You Are Beautiful” every day.


Now, in that pastor’s defense, he wasn’t just talking about beauty pageant beauty, but the inner beauty that everyone has because they were created in God’s image. But honestly… I can live a very happy life without ever hearing the words “You Are Beautiful.” Partly, that’s because “you are beautiful” is a trite and often insincere statement from folks who think they are supposed to say it, or (worse) from folks who hope to gain something from you by saying it. And I realize that’s not always the case: I go to a church where every male leader takes every possible opportunity to publically call his wife beautiful from the pulpit, and I’m sure they’re sincere & say it as a high compliment.

But don’t call me beautiful.

“Beautiful” has nothing to do with who I am, my character, my creativity, my intelligence, my integrity, my abilities. We praise men for these characteristics, things that are more than just skin deep. That’s what I want. That’s what I can’t live without. If you’re going to praise me, praise me for the same things that the Proverbs 31 woman is praised for: trustworthiness, business skills and savvy, productivity, generosity, humor, and wisdom (to name a few).

Don’t call me beautiful. Beauty is vain. But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Jeremiah 29:11

I have a confession to make: I cringe a little when folks quote Jeremiah 29:11.

I can understand why it’s such a favorite — after all, who wouldn’t want that kind of promise for themselves? Here it is in the NIV:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

But taken alone (which it almost always is), it seems to mean something that the author never intended.

I can hardly read it, even today, without the mental image of a Word of Faith/Prosperity preacher, beads of sweat on his brow, a look of intensity on his face, dramatically pointing at people and quoting this verse, his booming voice lingering for effect on the words “prosper”, “hope” and “future.” And the message is that God wants to bless you, prosper you, great things are going to happen for YOU! Your future is bright and full of the promise of happiness, financial success, and health! You are chosen! God has big plans for your life!

The problem is, if you take the verse in context, that’s not really what Jeremiah was saying.

This verse is most often quoted and applied to specific individuals — but Jeremiah is talking to the Jewish people as a whole. This isn’t a promise to every specific individual; it’s a promise to preserve a nation. Yes, it’s still a positive message — but not a prosperity message. It’s not a “God has Big Plans for YOU” message. Not the kind of spiritual “instant gratification” that seems so popular today.

“Prosper” is probably not the best translation of the Hebrew here. In fact, the word that is most often used when speaking of material prosperity, tsalach, is not the word used in this verse. It’s shalom… and while shalom can mean many things, it’s the word we most often associate with the English word “peace.” Here’s the same verse in the NASB:

“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”

If this verse really meant what some modern preachers would like us to believe, then why didn’t Jeremiah’s audience react the way modern audiences do? Jeremiah wasn’t received as a hero. He was ultimately imprisoned because he did NOT preach a feel-good message. So why do we feel at liberty to take it as a feel-good message today?

Jeremiah was writing a message of consolation, not celebration. He wasn’t giving his audience hope for immediate or or near-term blessings. In fact, when we read this verse in context, we see that Jeremiah was bringing comfort to people who would most likely be dead before these words were fulfilled. He was not promising an absence of calamity — the exile itself was a hardship that would have to be endured, and Jeremiah promised even MORE calamity for those who hadn’t been carried off into exile. We only have to go back to verse 10 to see that the promise of verse 11 would come only after 70 years of captivity had passed. There was an awful lot of time and hardship standing between the exiles and the fulfillment of this verse.

If we go back even further, to Chapter 28, we’ll see that Jeremiah was in conflict with another self-proclaimed prophet, whose message was much more in line with the “instant gratification” message of today. Jeremiah was telling the people that they would be in captivity for 70 years and they needed to pray for their captors and make the best of it. Hananiah was telling them that within two years, they’d be out of captivity and everything would be restored. Can’t help but wonder, which prophet would the modern church embrace?

Will Anyone Remember Me?

September turned into a month of extreme contrasting memories and emotions for me:

Preparing for a 9/11 service, and re-living a host of emotions and memories 10 years later…

The paradox of attending a conference which simultaneously stirred strong memories of both belonging and rejection…

Passing through a former hometown and visiting with some wonderful old friends… and remembering the abuse and control that we were subject to at our former church…

Attending a funeral for a fellow church member’s father, which stirred memories of my own father’s death… and made me wonder what my own funeral would be like.

Funerals aren’t for the dead, they’re for the ones left behind. But since I’m single and have no children of my own, I wouldn’t be leaving anyone behind. So who would be there? What would be said? What would be in my obituary? Who would even write it, let alone read it?

Would people actually miss me, or just wonder why certain things weren’t getting done anymore?

Will I truly make an impact in the areas that I’m passionate about before I die? Or will I spend my life working for things that aren’t going to last… and people who aren’t even going to remember?

Will anything or anyone truly be better because I was here?

Those are questions that I can only answer myself, by the way I choose to live. But thinking about all of this is good for me — it’s healthy — because unless we step back every once in while to see the big picture, it’s easy to forget that the things that scream the loudest for our attention are often the most insignificant. The significant is nearly always silent. It doesn’t seek you out, it demands to be sought.

From Elated to Deflated

I’ve been on a technological roller coaster over the last few months. It started when some of the technology I relied on for day-to-day life — my laptop and my cell phone — both failed within days of each other. That experience was both frustrating and eye-opening. I never realized how much I used my smartphone, not just for texts, calls, and checking email — but for more mundane tasks like checking the time and acting as my alarm clock in the morning.

Being without a phone and a laptop at the same time also gave me a chance to ponder my options moving forward. And since I was already planning to add a tablet to my tech family, I began to consider two sets of options: Go with Apple (Macbook Pro / Iphone / Ipad) or go with HP (Envy / Pre / Touchpad). An Android family of options didn’t even make my list — my secondary cellphone is an Evo, a “top of the line” Android contender for its time, but it failed to impress me.

In the end, I went with my heart and my wallet. The biggest ticket item in this purchase trio by far was the laptop, and the bottom line was that I could get much more computing power for the same price if I went the PC route. And I had fallen in love with WebOS. It was so easy to use and intuitive for me.

In retrospect, I guess I should have realized that all was not well with HP when I attempted to buy a laptop from them. The Envy model that I wanted had been discontinued, and that same set of features was no longer available in any laptop system from HP. It struck me as odd… and seemed like a bad customer service / marketing move… but didn’t raise any major red flags at the time. In the end, my laptop business went to Dell.

I was also a little disappointed that the much-hyped Pre3, HP’s latest and greatest WebOS phone, was nowhere to be seen by midsummer. But as an original Pre owner, the year-old Pre2 was still an upgrade for me and I was excited to have it.

The 32-GB HP Touchpad rounded out my happy new tech family, and I was elated! WebOS doesn’t have the same number of apps available as Android or Apple, but I could do everything I wanted / needed to do with existing apps or “homebrew” offerings from other WebOS enthusiasts. It seemed like everything had fallen into place for me and I was looking forward to putting my new tech toys to the test with the start of the fall semester.

But while I was busy snapping pictures of hundreds of students during registration this past Thursday, HP was holding a company meeting to announce, among other things, the end of WebOS. (Really, the end of HP, as we’ve known it…)

And I was stunned. And deflated. I know it’s just technology, just something inanimate, just a tool… but it stung. And not just because I had made a financial investment in hardware that was now being liquidated for a fraction of what I had paid. I had also made an emotional investment — and I felt a little betrayed. I wasn’t just buying a tablet, I was buying HP’s commitment to future development of a platform I loved. HP did say that it wasn’t walking away from WebOS, but those words ring a bit hollow.

So now what?

Well, it’s not like I’ve been left with absolutely nothing. For better or for worse, I am the owner of two WebOS devices that, at the present time at least, work very well for me. I’ve been robbed of most of the joy of ownership… but I figure I have at least a year of usable life in these devices. That’s about a year to resign myself to the inevitable and save up for the transition to Apple.

Am I bitter? Well, that new printer I need to purchase? The new server I’ll be needing soon? They’re not gonna be from HP…

Unexpected Solutions

I just got back from another roadtrip. I love taking long drives, especially when I get to be in the mountains or explore areas that I haven’t visited before. Those road trips put a lot of miles on my car… which means more frequent oil changes during those times of the year when I travel the most.

I’ve always been pretty faithful about getting my oil changed… but until I got my current vehicle, I had never really noticed any difference performance-wise before and after oil changes. And I never thought much about that, because it was just a maintenance thing. I was doing it to prevent problems, not correct them. Plus, since I use one of those full-service oil-change places, I got all of my fluids checked, my tires filled, windows cleaned, and the inside vacuumed too :)

But my current vehicle always seemed to “perk up” noticeably after an oil change… almost like it was happy to be clean and topped off! Since it’s a convertible and more of a “sports car” than anything I’ve ever had before, I just figured it was more sensitive to oil and fluids than the average sedan. The most striking difference I noticed was that the gas pedal was so much more responsive! Then it would slowly lose some of that responsiveness as the odometer closed in on my next scheduled oil change.

I assumed that the responsive gas pedal had to do with something that the oil change guys were checking, lubing, or topping off.

But I was wrong.

I accidentally discovered the *real* reason for my post-oil-change perk up the other morning.

It’s the vacuuming.

It turns out that the floor mat “creeps” up under the gas pedal as I go about my normal driving routine. It slowly makes the pedal physically harder to push. But if I just pull the mat back a bit… which you pretty much have to do when you’re vacuuming the inside of the car… instant improvement!

I love finding unexpected solutions. Sometimes big improvements come from small, seemingly unrelated adjustments!

My Tech Addiction

It’s been rough couple of weeks to be a piece of technology in my house. I’ve had issues with my computer and my cell phone — which is my primary phone, since I haven’t had a landline in years.

My laptop is on life support. Literally. It’s sitting on a cooling pad — an external heat sink platform with some build in fans to help with ventilation. Without it, if I run photoshop or even try to play angry birds, the laptop overheats and shuts off. So basically… my laptop is on a ventilator. I’m treating it like a sick family member: giving it plenty of time to rest and trying not to get it too excited or stressed out. Ironic… here’s technology that was supposed to make my life easier, and now I’m going out of my way to make its life easier. *shrug*

But I was already well aware of the extent of my laptop addiction. I spend more time with my laptop than I do with anyone or anything else. Period. If I’m not showering, driving, or eating out somewhere with friends… my laptop is rarely out of reach. I’m one of those intensely connected people who will check email if I happen to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

But my phone? I didn’t consider myself to be as much of a phone addict. First of all, I don’t like talking on the phone and I’m not the kind of person to spend hours on end in phone conversations. (On occasion, I have… but it’s not the norm for me.) I’ve had a cell phone in some form since I was just out of high school… but I was not an early adopter when smartphones hit the market. In fact, I resisted smartphones entirely until June of 2009 when the Palm Pre was released… mostly because my pastor was so excited about this new phone with its amazing new operating system, WebOS. But once I got a taste… I was hooked! I started using it to check emails, keep up with my calendar, send text messages more efficiently, play games, even get GPS-style directions. But even so, I didn’t consider myself addicted. I had friends who were far more attached to their devices than I was. Compared to them, I was a relatively casual user.

Or that’s what I thought until yesterday morning… when my Pre finally died before church. I knew that being without my smartphone would be an inconvenience, but I never realized just how much it had become a part of my routine until it wasn’t there anymore.

I don’t wear a watch. It isn’t that I’m opposed to them; it’s just that my wrists have always been watch killers, so I’ve just stopped trying. Now, in the age of smart phones that auto-sync the time and even update your time zone as you travel… I use my phone to check the time A LOT. And I’ve been lost without it!

My phone had also become a replacement for my point-n-shoot camera. I would have loved to take some pictures of a special presentation at our church yesterday morning… but without my phone, and my much larger and more complex DSLR at home, I couldn’t.

I’m on the worship team & many Sundays, I’ll play a song at the end of the service. Sometimes I think of one that would be perfect during the message and look it up on my phone to refresh my memory for chords & words. Couldn’t do that either.

Couldn’t tweet or post a facebook update.

Couldn’t text the tech team during service to let them know when something wasn’t showing up right.

Couldn’t check emails.

At lunch, couldn’t check in with my friends using a location service.

Couldn’t check the weekend hours of a store I needed to visit while I was driving there.

At home, couldn’t call my mom from a phone number that she’d recognize as mine.

Couldn’t text a quick question to a friend.

Couldn’t set my alarm for the morning.

And since my Pre displays the time while it is on its touchstone charger… I also lost my night table clock!

No wonder I’m feeling a little depressed! No wonder I’m going into tech withdrawals!

For a brief moment last night, while I was lamenting my situation, in a flash of either clarity or insanity… I wondered if maybe it might be a good idea to stay disconnected for a while…

Nah. Not gonna happen!

How To Discourage Visitors

It’s difficult for a church to see itself through the eyes of a total outsider, someone who shows up for the first time and doesn’t have any friends or family in that church to help them navigate through the facilities, culture, lingo, and expectations… so I’ve compiled a little list of observations based on multiple real churches that I’ve visited over the last 6 years or so. I hope that this tongue-in-cheek “How-(Not)-To” post makes you smile… and maybe even opens your eyes to some things that your church might be doing without even realizing it.

Web Site:

Make sure that your service times and exact address are nowhere to be found on the main page of your site. (As an added bonus, if your church is in a city with a common name like Springfield, boldly proclaim that fact and even provide a street address… but neglect to mention what state you’re in… and don’t give the area code with your phone number.)

Mention your service times at least two other places on your site, at least three clicks away from your homepage… but make sure that you give different times in both places. Gotta keep folks on their toes!

Give written directions that use landmarks like “turn by the old Walmart” (that was torn down years ago). Folks who are new to town need to have enough respect for the community to learn where things used to be, not just where they are.

Devote half a page to your statement of faith, and dedicate at least four pages to a defense of tithing.

While re-designing your site, don’t use “under contruction” pages or other placeholders… instead, direct every incomplete link back to the main page of your site with no explanation.


If you have an early service or early Sunday School classes prior to your worship service, make sure that everyone who attends these functions parks in such a way that their vehicles cannot be seen when the visitor first pulls into the parking lot. Maybe the visitor will just turn around and go home…

Avoid having any sort of directional marks or even painting parking stall lines… things always work out so much better when folks are allowed to choose where to park for themselves, free from the legalistic confines of yellow paint.

If you have a parking lot ministry, make sure you station those volunteers inside the foyer.


Didn’t Jesus say that a wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign? Who needs them! Especially if you have a larger campus with multiple buildings, three of which used to be your main sanctuary at some point and still look like they could be from the outside. Anyone who is being led by the Spirit will be able to figure out where to go.


If you want to run people off, there are two opposite but equally effective ways to accomplish this. 1) Don’t talk to them at all. Make them go searching for a bulletin. Make sure that none of the staff are identifiable or available to help in any way. 2) Stalk them. Make sure that at least 6 people greet them with uncomfortably long handshakes, and at least two of those attempt to get the visitor to fill out a multi-page dossier before they even make it to the sanctuary.

For bonus points, slap a nice big “Hello, my name is…” nametag on every visitor… and make every effort to spell their name incorrectly.


Give every ministry, small group, fellowship, and committee a truly unique and uninformative name. Then cheerfully announce that “Cobalt” is meeting tonight, but “Indigo” is postponed until next week. Give no indication of what these are.

When giving an announcement that requires folks to see a specific individual for more information, position that person in a poorly lit back corner of the sanctuary and have them wave briefly when you announce them. Yeah, I’ll remember that hand next time I see it.


Use worship music that is popular and familiar to many folks — stuff they might have heard on Christian radio — only change the words just enough and alter the melody just a bit so that any comfortable feelings of familiarity are eliminated. This will effectively squelch any desire on the visitor’s part to sing out and participate in worship for fear of sticking out like a sore thumb.

Another approach: use only music that members of your church have written, and sing them in keys that are unattainable by the general public.


Never let a sermon “stand alone.” Preach in such a way that no one will have any idea what you’re talking about unless they’ve listened to the last 40 sermons leading up to this one…


Don’t distinguish between visitors and members in your church database. That way, after they’ve visited the church once, they’ll still get mail five years later pleading with them to contribute to the Pastor Appreciation gift.