Category Archives: Faith

the blessing of wrestling

This morning I was having breakfast with a few dear friends at Chick-fil-a.

Have you ever heard a more delicious beginning to a story?

We were sitting there communing over spicy chicken biscuits, frosted coffee (it’s ice cream you can have for breakfast!), and other delicious cuisine when we began discussing something that we mutually decided that we didn’t fully understand.  Apparently we must’ve not been too quiet because a man came up to our table and began to “explain” the topic that we had been wrestling with together.  He was speaking very confidently and using large hand gestures to reinforce his point.

In that moment, we did what people do when someone gives them unwanted explanation.  We waited until he was finished and nodded saying “that’s interesting, thanks.”  As he began to walk away, he looked back and said, “I’m a minister to men.”  I guess what he probably didn’t realize was that the four guys he was talking to are also identified as ministers by church title.  Of course, all followers of Jesus are called to be ministers to others.  Stating that he was a minister as he was walking away seemed to be his way of expressing that he was some sort of authority on the matter.  It was frustrating to me, but I couldn’t really understand why in the moment.

Whether or not this man was correct in his explanation is beside the point.  I guess I was bothered because sometimes we, especially those of us who are referred to as ministers, pastors, or teachers, can try and explain away the mystery of God.

Growing up in church is different than growing up outside the church and coming to faith later.  For me, growing up in church was an exercise in knowing about God.  I believed that I could know everything about God.  I believed that there was someone out there in the world who knew more about God than anyone else, some sort of super Christian or God’s right hand man.  In a way I believed that God delighted in people knowing his stats much like how I can recite the names and numbers of obscure former Tennessee Titans players.  I looked at my dad and thought, “He probably knows more about God than most anyone else, after all, he has a couple degrees in the Bible.  He carries around a Bible with an ancient language in it.”  I looked at my youth minister and thought, “He must know a lot about God, he teaches us twice a week!”

So going to a Bible college myself to study the Bible seemed like a great way to fill my brain with knowledge about God.  Surely that was pleasing to God.  A few years in to my studies in college, I had a harsh, semi-painful realization.  More study of the Bible was not answering all my questions, it was providing more difficult questions that were not as easy to answer.  There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God.

Looking back, I can identify this as a period of some faith “deconstruction.”  Deconstruction is a word that I had never heard used as a healthy thing regarding faith.  Wouldn’t you want your faith to be constantly constructing!?  Always building taller and taller so that it may reach new heights?  I think this period of deconstruction is natural and happens to all of us in one way or another.  Luckily for me, I did then and still do find myself in communities that are affirming of my questions.

Think about all the times people asked questions of Jesus.  Time and time again people come to Jesus asking questions.  These questions have all kinds of motives, some seeking, some to trap him, and some rhetorical.  Time and time again, Jesus does not answer these questions with a concrete answer that removes the mystery, but instead Jesus answers with another question, tells a story, or remains silent.  Jesus was not a cookie cutter, fill-in-the-blank teacher.  Jesus was a teacher who asked probing questions with which His followers wrestled.

As a community of Christ followers, we must give both ourselves and each other space to have questions and not have answers.  Naturally this is terrifying because we are an anxious people who need to know everything all the time.  That’s why Google is a thing, right?  So we can just Google anything that we don’t know.  And even more than in other realms of our life, our churches can seem like groups of people with whom we are uncomfortable expressing doubt or posing a tough question.  Here’s the thing about that: people will wrestle with doubt and questions regardless, but will they do that in the context of a people who believe that God is big enough for our questions, or will they have to leave our faith communities to ask their questions? 

We cannot place God in a box.  I am a minister who works in a church, and guess what?  I don’t have all the answers.  I went and got that degree in “Theology and Ministry” and guess what?  I am right there wrestling with everyone else.

So let’s try something.  And I’ll try and do this as well.  Next time someone expresses a question or doubt, let’s not be so quick to answer.  Life following God is a mystery.  Let’s spend some time in awe of the mystery of the Almighty God.  I think we will find that there is a blessing in wrestling with God.

-Michael

 

 

 

 

AN ASIDE:

What is it with Chick-fil-a and people trying to explain deep mysteries of God with lackingly short and easy quips?  I once overheard a man at Chick-fil-a attempt to explain the Holy Trinity to a 12-year-old using the metaphor of a buffalo sauce packet.  Don’t get me wrong, I love buffalo sauce, but I think even buffalo sauce in all of its splendor pales in comparison to the Holy Trinity.

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Reflecting Praise

Sometimes, people say good things about me.  I’m sure people say good things about you too.  Isn’t it nice when people say good things about us?  Doesn’t it make us feel good about ourselves?  Well it does sometimes, anyways.  Other times, doesn’t it make us feel shameful?  I know this is part of my story.  Why does someone saying good things about me make me feel shameful?  Because I know myself.  I know I’m not good.  Maybe you’ve felt similarly?

For the longest time, when someone would give me a genuine compliment about something they saw me do or heard me say, I would say, “Thanks,” but immediately think, “If they knew about that one thing that I’ve done or do, there’s no way they would say good things about me.”  We’ve probably all felt that way on some level before.  I know as someone who works in a local church, sometimes I feel pressure to look like I’m loving and flourishing at the whole following Jesus thing, even when I know I’m not.  This feeling of “if they only knew ‘x,’ they wouldn’t love me,” is called shame, and yeah, shame is not from God.

See, we all have issues.  Each and every person on earth has that sin or sins that tempt us, that call out to us, and that we have given in to before.  And yes, by the grace of God we have been set free from the bondage of sin!  But if you’re like me, sometimes you might choose the temptation of the sin that is familiar over walking freely with God.  And this happens, and no its not the right decision or action, but unfortunately, it happens.

But here’s the kicker, if I were perfect, I might start reading my own press clippings.  I might start thinking that things are going well because I made good things happen.  I may start thinking that when people compliment me, that they are doing as they should because I’m pretty awesome.  And if we’re honest, there have been times where we’ve had this attitude as well.

“OK, Michael.  Now I’m confused, because first you said that shame and thinking that we’re bad is not from God, and now you’re saying that we’re not supposed to think that we’re super amazing.  So like, what are we supposed to think?”

That’s a fair question!  So here’s the thing: Any compliments or praise that we receive for the way we live is a compliment or praise that belongs to God alone!

Let’s face it, God works through us, and we are FAR from perfect!  I would go as far as to say that God exclusively works through imperfect people.  It doesn’t take much time reading the Bible to see that He used people with some serious issues to advance the Kingdom of God on earth.  God used Jacob, a cheater and liar, to be the forefather of His people.  He used David, a scheming adulterer, to unite His people.  And God used Saul of Tarsus, killer of Christians, to spread the good news all over the known world.

Here on earth, we are God’s instruments in the symphony of His Kingdom.  When someone does something impressive with a violin, we don’t go up after the show and tell the violin that it did a great job.  The good things that others see in us are merely a reflection of our Heavenly Father, who has given us great gifts.  “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down for us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.  He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.” (James 1:17)

God gives us words to say and things to do to reflect His glory on earth.  So when we receive praise, let us pass that on to God who uses us in ways that we could never choose for ourselves.  For God’s is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever and ever, Amen.

 

I want to be someone who…

I remember the first week of my freshman year of high school, I was sitting in English class, and we were given a classic freshman assignment.  The assignment was to set 10 goals for ourselves for the next four years while we would be in high school. I’ve never been much of a goal-setter, but I knew what to put down on the paper.  So I wrote down what I viewed as the normal “successful” high school stuff.  I don’t remember all 10 goals, but I remember two of them: 1. Graduate in the top 10 percent of my class.  And 2. Become a starter on the football team.  I accomplished neither of these goals for myself.  For different reasons, of course.  There were factors in those that were out of my control like other people competing and natural ability limitations, but also, looking back, I am not sure those were really things that I cared much about, at least, I didn’t show it by my effort level.

When someone is growing up in school, the question adults often think to ask is “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  The answers that these awkward-feeling adults are expecting is a type of profession like doctor, firefighter, or teacher.  And so, depending on the kid, they either change their mind on this a few times, or some know from a very young age what it is that they want to do.  This changed a lot for me over the years.  Obviously I wanted to be a professional athlete for a while.  Get to play sports for a job? Make tons of money? Be famous? Sign me up!  I pretty quickly realized that perhaps for me, that wasn’t going to be a career option.  So I think then I said that I wanted to be a lawyer.  I did have quite the argumentative gift (My mom always says that if she said the sky is blue, I would say its not. That’s not too inaccurate… Sorry, Mom).  Then I realized that I thought talking to people was an ok thing that I could do, so when asked, I would always tell people I wanted to be a counselor.  Then very early on in college, I found that I wanted to do youth ministry.  And guess what!? That’s what I do.

When talking to a youth minister, some people may still ask the question, “So what do you want to do, really?”  At this point, I can honestly say youth ministry.

So I’m 23, and I think I have a ready answer for the “what do you want to do?” question.

But now, I, and I suppose every other person, have to ask the question: “What kind of person do I want to be?”  This seems to me to be a far more important question.  But this is a question that is much harder to break down into a list of goals, if you like making lists of that sort of thing.

See, we live in a world that is all about climbing up the next wrung of the ladder.  Our world cares about graduating at the top of your class from business school, our world cares about getting that next promotion, and our world cares about being able to afford living in the comfortable neighborhood with the comfortable car.  From a young age, we’re conditioned to want to associate with a certain crowd.  “Oh, you don’t want to send your child to that school.” We’re conditioned to not accept finishing in any place other than first.  I remember three times in elementary school that I was devastated because I didn’t win (2 spelling bees and a science fair).  We have accepted these expectations placed on us by voices other than the voice of God.  And some of these voices have even been backed up by scriptural references!  How many times have you heard Colossians 3:23 (context: Paul’s teaching for 1st century slaves) and thought that meant you need to work harder to achieve earthly success?

Woah!  Slow your role, Michael.  The Bible is God’s Word.  Are you saying that we shouldn’t try hard at things!?

No, that’s not what I’m saying.  What I am saying is that we should not pick and choose Scripture to enforce our desire to succeed in the eyes of other people.  Definitely work diligently in your jobs and in your relationships!

Ok, ok, so here’s my point: We spend way to much time trying to answer the question, “What do we want to do?” And we do not spend enough time trying to answer the question, “What kind of person do we want to be?”

I find myself in a season of life where that second question keeps coming up.  So I’m going to make a new list.  This time I’m going to pick 10 qualities that I want to aspire to be.  Maybe if you’re reading this, it will give you some ideas about the kind of person that you want to be.

*DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT ALREADY THESE THINGS ALL THE TIME BECAUSE IF I WAS, THIS WOULD BE A POINTLESS LIST.

I want to be someone who:

  1. always tells the truth.
  2. cares for the marginalized.
  3. is hospitable toward the outsider.
  4. seeks to gain understanding.
  5. is willing to be vulnerable.
  6. seeks wise counsel.
  7. responds kindly.
  8. leads by example.
  9. radiates patience.
  10. loves deeply.

 

-MC

Perfect in Weakness

If we live long enough we will experience something that completely wrecks our plans. We experience something that causes us to turn to God and ask, “Why?” Why did this happen? Why do we have to experience loss? Why can my will not align with Your will? In these moments we feel like we have nothing to give.  We feel like there is no wind in our sails.

We live in a world and society that is low on hope.  Everywhere we turn, we see things that communicate to us that we don’t measure up.  We don’t look like the people on television, we don’t feel like the happy ending of our favorite movie, and our lives don’t seem to be nearly as fun and adventurous as the people that we follow on Instagram.

We live in a world that scoffs at vulnerability and tells us that we must always project strength.  But if we live long enough, we learn that there are days where we cannot even fake it.  There are days where everything with us feels so wrong that we can’t possibly give people the impression that things are good.  What do we do then?

“Give your burdens to the Lord and He will take care of you.”         -Psalm 55:22

Sound simple? It’s not.

Time and time again, we ask God to take away our pain, sadness, and temptation, yet we still feel it.  We try to give our burdens to God, but everyday we feel more and more burdened.  It takes far longer to pass off our anxieties to God than it does to take on more anxiety.

But there is hope.  Whatever we are going through, we are not alone. Even when we feel distant from God, He is still there working for us.  Even when everything in our life feels out of control or messed up, God is there.  God is our provider.  We will ultimately be taken care of by the Almighty God.  And there are some pains, doubts, and fears that may never leave us, but God will still work in us. Paul speaks of something like this in his life:

He says this, “In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor 12)”

God’s power is made perfect in our shortcomings, failures, and pain.  Often we may feel like we can only give a little, but God can do so much with our little. With little food, Jesus fed 5000 hungry people.  With little faith, God can move mountains.  We are fully known and fully loved by a good Father, who created us, and will do so much with what little we can offer.

Even in our deepest and realest pain, God is beckoning us deeper into a relationship with Him.  He wants to show His almighty power in us.

Let us share our weaknesses.  Let us be vulnerable and open with each other, so that God, in His unending grace, can take our brokenness and messiness and write a beautiful  story of love and redemption with our lives.

Identity Crisis

Looking back over my 22 years on earth, I see a lot of different things that I have done.  I also see the different people that I have been along the way.  Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you.  Let me explain…

Throughout my life, if you asked me to describe myself, my answers would be different based on what I was into in that moment, or who I was trying to be.  I remember in elementary school, I thought I was THE smartest kid in the whole school.  So, in order to prove my intellectual superiority, I entered into the 3rd grade spelling bee.  I studied a little, my mom quizzed me and whatnot, so I felt very confident going in.  Obviously, I was a little nervous, there was going to be a lot of people there.

*I take the stage behind the podium for the first word.*

“Michael, your word is museum.”

“Ok… m-u-s-u-e-m.”

“That’s incorrect.  The correct spelling is m-u-s-e-u-m.”

*I start crying as I walk to my mom.*

Well, that was disappointing.  Later one of my teachers said, I bet you’ll never forget how to spell that word, will you?  She was right, I didn’t.  Why do teachers have to be right all of the time?  They’re like moms, moms are always right.

So I was determined to take my rightful place among the top spellers in the land.  I entered into the 4th grade spelling bee.  I studied exponentially more.  My mom quizzed me a whole bunch.  I was ready.  I felt like Rocky Balboa before his fight with Ivan Drago (Rocky IV).  I glided through the first several rounds with ease.  This was my year, I just new it.  And it was down to me and my arch nemesis, Bianca.  This wasn’t the first time we had squared off, she was also impressive when it came to multiplication tables.

*I step to the podium*

“Michael, your word is collage.”

“uhh… (palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy) c-o-l-a-u-g-e.”

“That is incorrect.  The correct spelling is c-o-l-l-a-g-e.”

*I step back.  Bianca steps to the podium.*

“Bianca, if you spell this correctly, you will win the spelling bee.  Your word is banana

“b-a-n-a-n-a”

*My heart burns with rage.*

I know what you’re thinking, totally unfair, right?  SHE SHOULD HAVE HAD TO SPELL COLLAGE!!!  I had been snubbed, yet again, by my imperfections and a broken system.  This was unjust to say the least.  To make it worse, my little brother Joel won the 2nd grade spelling bee in a landslide, then the 3rd grade, then the 4th.

If I actually look deeper at why I was so upset, I realize that these were not simple losses of spelling bees, they were losses of my identity.

Throughout middle school and high school, I tried to find my identity in other things.  I tried to find my identity in football.  The thing about that was, I was no good at football.  And in high school, I was injured most of the time.  I also tried to find my identity in being the funny guy.  You know this type of person, they have to be the funniest person in the room at all times.  But someone always got more laughs than me.

In college, I tried to find my identity in being all Christian author-y.  I read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and wanted to be just like him.  I started a blog – this blog – to show my skills as a writer.  I read Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, and I wanted to be just like him.  I started wearing bandanas to show how pacifistic I was.  I thought that being a pacifist was the coolest.

See, I was so busy trying to be all of these different things, that somewhere along the way, I forgot to be me.

One of my favorite quotes from the recent Olympic season is from Simone Biles (I know, you were expecting America’s new hero and role model, Ryan Lochte. /s).  In an interview, Simone Biles, darling of the U.S.A., made the statement, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, I’m the first Simone Biles.”  It would be easy for her to feel some need to get as many medals as Phelps or Bolt, or to accept that she is another exceptional Olympic athlete who should be mentioned in the same sentence as those two icons.  Biles is a terrific athlete, and there has never been another like her.  Despite all of that, she is focused on being the best Simone Biles that she can be.

That is the point isn’t it!?  God has made us all unique and different!

We do ourselves and the Kingdom of God a disservice when we place our identity in anything other than being children of God existing for the redemption of the world.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its parts form one body, so it is with Christ.    1 Corinthians 12:12

We are all differently gifted and blessed by God to serve in ways that only we can!  We are members of the body of Christ, created for a specific purpose, and together, God will do powerful things.

 

Peace and Blessings,

-Michael

my.. I mean thy… will be done

So I guess I would describe my current season of life as a season of waiting.

In my current situation, I have learned a lot about myself.  Waiting for things tends to do that.  See, when we wait for things, we often like to pass the time doing something to keep out minds busy about other things until the time comes to do whatever it is that we’re waiting to do.  Go ahead, next time you’re waiting on anything, see what you do.  I almost always pull out the phone.  That’s pretty much a go-to.  It’s safe, and strangely it has become completely socially acceptable to bury my head in my phone in the dentist’s waiting room, when I’m waiting on someone to meet me, or even at times when there is a lull in conversation.  I do not say this to condone my behavior, I am just making an observation as to something that I do that maybe you relate to.  ANYWAYS, the point is when we’re waiting, we like to keep our minds preoccupied with other things, as opposed to facing the strangeness and potentially awkward experience of waiting.  After all, what are we supposed to do?  Just sit and think?

Well by this point in what I would consider to be a prolonged period of waiting, I have pretty much exhausted all of my time-wasting options or gotten bored with them.  So now I sit here with questions.  Questions that I’m not sure I have a clear answer to.

For starters, when will this waiting end?

So you can better understand what I mean, let me explain.  I feel this calling to youth ministry, and I also feel a calling to do that as part of a church.  At this point, I want youth ministry to be my life’s work, and I need a church to support me in that; a church family to take me in and work with me to show the love of Jesus to teenagers both who are part of the church and those who are not yet part of the church.  I want to come alongside parents as they lead their children in faith.  So I’m waiting for a church to welcome this partnership.

So I am seeking these opportunities.  And I trust that God works in ways that I do not understand and cannot fathom, and I trust that it will work out for the best.  I’m also learning that the saying, “patience is a virtue” is true because virtues take practice, and patience certainly takes practice.  So I wait, and I have to believe that God’s time is better than mine.

Secondly, why has nothing already fallen into place?

The saying, “good things come to those who wait,” may be true, but it rarely appears to be truthful to those who are actually waiting.  To be comforted by this conventional wisdom, one must be hopeful about the result of their waiting.

I believe Abram was asking himself a similar question when God had proclaimed that he would be the father of a great nation, but all he had to show for it was an aging barren wife.  This question, if left unchecked, can cause us to do some rash things like how Abram slept with Hagar in order to conceive a son (Ishmael), perhaps to take his future and his family’s future into his own hands.  Maybe he thought this would in some way force God’s hand into sending his blessing through Ishmael’s line.  But God Almighty doesn’t always do what we think is best.  The Lord was planning something else, something that would go far beyond anything Abram could have imagined.  Through barren Sarai came a son, Isaac.  Through Isaac’s line, came Jesus of Nazareth, Savior of the World.

So maybe nothing’s fallen into place because though it was convenient, it wasn’t quite the plan.

And finally, when will thy will be my will?

For me, sometimes the hardest thing to pray is “thy will be done.”  Not because I don’t believe that God’s will is good and perfect, but because it’s not mine.  And I don’t feel like a necessarily terrible person for struggling with this because Jesus didn’t seem to have a particularly easy time praying this in the garden before his arrest.  Even Jesus, Son of God and member of the Holy Trinity had to surrender control to the will of the Father.  How much more so should I!?

To have God transform our will into His will, we must acknowledge that there is an Almighty God who created our world and that there is the Holy Spirit who is alive and active in our world.  We must also trust that God’s will is good for us.  And finally must pray that His will be done in our world and in our lives.  I think the latter of those is the more difficult for me most of the time.  I have to acknowledge that my life is not really “my” life, but rather that I am here on earth as an agent of the Kingdom of God.

We have to train every part of ourselves to surrender to God’s will.  We must pray that God will give us his eyes.  We must pray that God will indwell us with His Spirit.  And we must pray that God turn our thoughts towards him.

So yeah, strange times currently.  Life can get weird when you graduate from college.  I’ve learned that.  I want to leave you with a couple of prayers.  The first from Thomas Merton, and the second from Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.