Faith

How you live your faith can change with time

If you look at my writing about my faith you’ll see a recurring theme: I’m trying to figure out how to express it in the way I live my life. I want my faith to be far more than just going to church, reading my Bible, and praying. Those things are necessary, but far from sufficient.

Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And James 2:17 says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” From these passages I conclude that I need to be doing good, loving things in the world. This is not about earning my salvation, as it was a gift freely given. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rather, this is about responding gratefully to that salvation and the enduring love that God expressed through it.

But what would that look like?

When I was a new Christian, I began by serving in my church. I used my technical skills to build a Web site for the church I attended then. I passed out communion and counted the offering. Eventually I taught Bible study to preteens, and later to senior citizens. But that wasn’t exactly doing loving works in the world.

One day while driving I saw someone pulled over with some sort of car trouble. I had the time, so I stopped. Turned out they had a flat tire, but had never put on a spare before and didn’t know what to do. I did it for them.

Then I said to God, “Maybe this is something I can do in the world. If you send me more flat tires, I will stop and help.”

I changed a dozen flats over the next year or so. I just kept coming across people with them.

Then one day I couldn’t be late. Sure enough, I came upon someone pulled over, struggling to pull their spare out of the trunk. I passed them by. It has been easily 20 years since that day, and I’ve never come upon another motorist with a flat tire.

I learned a couple key lessons. First, if you aren’t doing the work God puts in front of you, he’ll give it to someone else. Also, all ministries end.

In 2004, just as my first wife told me she wanted a separation, I was asked to go on a mission trip to Mexico. I went because it would be a new experience in serving God, but also because the trip would let me set aside my sadness and anger for a while.

The trip was to Piedras Negras, a town on the Texas border in the state of Coahuila. A flood had wiped out a number of houses, and we were one of several successive crews who were building new houses for people there. I knew nothing about construction so I was taught to apply stucco, and then with a small crew stuccoed a just-built house. I have one photograph of me doing this work, shown here.

The people in that neighborhood were trying hard to come back from staggering loss. And here we were just giving time and effort to try to restore some of the people there to normal life. This was doing loving works in the world.

I went back to Piedras Negras the next two years. In 2005 I built teacher’s desks for a preschool, and in 2006 I installed computers in that same preschool. (To read much more about these three mission trips, click here.) Each year, I came home feeling like I’d really lived out what I believed God was calling his people to do — go out into the world and help meet their needs, in the name of love and in the name of God.

But surely, I wondered, I didn’t have to go to some distant place to do this. Were there not people in need everywhere? Couldn’t I do this right where I lived?

It was at about this time I was asked to become an elder in my church. In my faith tradition, elders are the church’s leaders. (They’re supposed to be, anyway — in my faith tradition we’re seeing more and more pastor-led churches.) I quickly learned that the church was in dire financial straits, as the offering didn’t cover expenses and our reserve was spent. We were plunged into the intensely stressful work of trying to save our congregation from extinction. We managed to sell the building and with the proceeds begin building a much smaller one on a new site. I chronicled the whole thing in these posts; when you click that link, scroll to the bottom and read the posts in reverse order.

I thought being an elder would be much more about caring for the spiritual and physical needs of our congregation than it actually turned out to be. Primarily, it turned out to be about figuring out how to pay bills, sell a large church building, secure temporary worship space, purchase land, and negotiate construction contracts. The main area of caring we attended to was to guide a grieving congregation through the loss of not just a building, but of land that had belonged to the church for 170 years.

Occasionally, a family in deep need would find us, and we’d try to help them. It usually led to us letting them live in a house the church owned. This always blew up in our faces, and we learned some lessons from that that I ought to write about someday.

But the congregation almost never came to us with their needs so that we could walk alongside them in love and service. I think this is in part a failure of we elders to create the deep trust and safety that would have enabled them to do so. This is hard work that requires constant maintenance. We were so consumed with our immediate practical problems that we couldn’t devote the energy to it. But our members were of at least middle-class means and had the resources to take care of their problems on their own.

Before we finished building our new building it became clear that I should move on from that church, which I wrote about here. In time I landed at an urban church in a severely disadvantaged Indianapolis neighborhood. I had known the pastor there for years. I went just to visit, but felt so welcomed that I stayed. Soon I saw that this could be the very situation I had been looking for.

People in poverty, I learned, are very willing to tell you just what’s going on in their lives, and to ask for help. They all have challenging circumstances. One stroke of bad luck, such as their beater car breaking down, or an illness that makes them miss work for a week, can throw their entire lives into disarray.

There was plenty to do for them. Some things were obvious, such as running a food and clothing pantry out of the church. We also connected our people to social services, helping them find the right ones and guiding them through the complicated and confusing approval processes.

There were also plenty of spot needs to meet – paying a bill so the electric didn’t get turned off, filling up a gas tank so someone could get to an interview, buying a few days of groceries for a family out of food until the next paycheck. Sometimes the church paid for these things, sometimes we did it out of our own pockets.

WPCC

We also listened to them talk about their troubles. So often their relationships were unhealthy, and they had nobody they could really trust to talk things out with. Most of the time, just listening to them with compassion was all they needed. Knowing that we’d keep it confidential really helped them open up. Occasionally we had some wisdom and experience to share that helped them navigate whatever they were facing.

But it all wasn’t enough. The congregation’s troubles were never ending. And then the church itself ran into troubles. Our offering was covering expenses, but then the pandemic hit and the offering fell off dramatically. We burned through savings at a frightening rate.

But more than that, we elders were running on fumes. We were reeling from the failure of a daycare we had started (I touched on that here), and from the exit of a pastor we had hired who turned out not to be the right fit for us. We elders took turns preaching for several months, until we got connected to a preacher who had a regular job but was willing to preach for us on a freelance basis.

In the end, we went looking for a larger church or parachurch organization that was well funded, aligned with our beliefs, had urban mission on their mind, and would be willing to take over. We finally found one, a church that wanted to operate a satellite location, or plant a new church, in the inner city. As we finalized the details to transfer our property to them, I decided to exit, as I was burned out. Also, as my wife and I had talked it over, it had become clear to us that for me to be a truly effective elder, we would need to live in that church’s neighborhood. I have never really wanted to do that, and thankfully I wasn’t feeling called to it.

My life had changed radically since I joined that church. I had been a divorced dad when I started, with time on my hands for the church — my kids were with their mom half the time. I had since become a married man again taking on four additional children. Most of our seven kids were in their late teens and early 20s, all trying to launch into independent adulthood. A few of them were struggling with the transition and were leaning on us. We also had parents near the end of their lives who needed our help. It was clear to me that my family needed my time and energy now.

And so that’s where I am and what I’m doing. Margaret and I are attending a church in our faith tradition that’s a few minutes’ drive from our home. The teaching is good. We’re making easy connections with people there because Margaret has lived in this community for a long time and knows lots of people.

I still have a heart for the urban mission. But I don’t know whether my time with that is over, or it’s just on hiatus.

I am trying to be open to what God wants us to do, when the time comes. Until then, while I focus on my family I am also focusing on refreshing my faith. My service at my last church was exhausting and, frankly, at the end of it I felt distanced from God. This is a good time to get back to the fundamentals — attending worship, prayer, reading my Bible. These very things that I earlier called necessary but not sufficient will reestablish that connection.

Then I’ll be open to following the paths that God seems to be lighting in my life, wherever they may lead.

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COVID-19, Faith

Church homeless

I haven’t set foot into my church since early March of last year, just before Indiana locked down for the pandemic. That level of lockdown ended after several weeks, and West Park Christian Church decided to reopen last July.

WPCC

It was challenging to arrive at that decision. Some of our elders wanted to open sooner, saying that we shouldn’t live in fear, and that us staying closed was starving our members of Christian community.

I took offense to the first point — it’s prudent, not fearful, to avoid a disease that can kill you, or leave you with chronic health difficulties, or at least lay you up for a solid two weeks while it has its way with you. God won’t protect us from it simply because we gather to worship him. Anyone who thinks so has a gross misunderstanding of faith and the nature of God.

I conceded the second point. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Other elders, including me, took the position that our first duty is to keep our congregation healthy, especially given how many of them are elderly or have health conditions that put them at serious COVID risk. I wasn’t eager to stand before God one day explaining the people who suffered or died because I voted to open too soon.

We reached a compromise: we would ask at-risk people to stay away, require masks for all who enter, and alter the service to limit physical proximity. I’m naturally drawn to compromise so I said yes, but soon after I felt a regret I’ve never shaken.

Margaret and I have not been willing to expose ourselves to COVID risk, so we’ve stayed away. Most Sunday mornings we take in the services of North Point Community Church on our TV via our Roku. We both value the teaching of North Point pastor Andy Stanley; even before this, we often listened to his sermons on long car trips.

But a sermon is not the complete church experience, and it is not the main reason to attend church. We go to church to be a part of a community where we can encourage each other in the faith. Hebrews 10:24-25 lay it out very well:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.

West Park CC Sanctuary

Sure, a sermon is part of the worship experience. So is singing, and praying, and giving — other Scripture provides for all of these practices. But the point of these verses in Hebrews is that we’re meant to be Christians in community. This is a faith we do with others, if for no other reason than we can help each other stay with it and keep growing in it. Classically, we find Christian community in church.

That’s what’s been missing for Margaret and me as we’ve watched Andy Stanley preach every week. I can’t write with certainty about Margaret’s experience, but I can about mine: I feel increasingly isolated in my faith. I’ve lost feeling connected to fellow Christians. In parallel, the habits of my faith have fallen off, or feel increasingly stale. I don’t pray as often. I’m not in the Bible as much, and when I do study it, the words often fail to connect with me. And I’m not doing very much that expresses my faith. My faith is action-oriented: what mission am I on and what am I doing to move that in service to him is critically important. I’m not doing anything related to God’s mission right now. Margaret and I have our hands full holding things together with some family challenges during a time when everything is more difficult anyway.

For a long time, I believed that God wanted me to be a part of my church’s urban mission. We did our best to meet our neighbors, most of whom know the problems of poverty, lift them up as best we could, and introduce them to Jesus. My ability to organize and run things helped my church execute on its mission more effectively.

Since the pandemic, I’ve become disconnected from that mission. What is right in front of me is my family, whose spiritual needs have been underserved and often unmet for months now. I feel compelled to give all of my attention to us.

It’s become clear to me over the last couple years that my church’s leaders need to live in its neighborhood. People like me who don’t live there just can’t be fully involved, and full involvement is needed. We live a good 30 minutes away. And we don’t feel at all led to move there.

Moreover, as an elder it’s my duty to minister to our people. But I and my family need ministering. We’re out of spiritual gas.

I think that my time at West Park is coming to an end. Margaret and I agree that when we think it’s safe for us to return to in-person worship, that we will choose a church together. (I was at West Park long before we met, and she is technically still a member at the megachurch she attended with her children for nearly 20 years.) We want to find a community of Christians where we can make friends and find mutual encouragement in life and in the faith.

As we contemplate and (soon) search for a new church home, we feel church homeless.

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Faith

I came to believe

I’ve been reading a book that a friend wrote called Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help Or Hurt Social Peace (available on Amazon here). It’s about the nature of belief, why we believe the things we do, and how things that seem obviously true to us seem obviously false to others. It’s a challenging and fascinating read. I’ll write more about it in an upcoming post. Reading it has repeatedly reminded me of this post from 2011 in which I explained my faith in God. The friend who wrote the book is one of the bloggers I mention in the first paragraph below.

I’ve been thinking for months about writing a post called, “Why I follow God.” It all started when two bloggers I follow began discussing God’s existence with each other on their blogs. In short, one believes and the other doesn’t. I wanted to add to the discussion, but the more I thought about it the more my faith deconstructed. It created a minor crisis in my faith, until I finally realized that I believe in God because I want to, and that I follow God because I have decided to.

That would be my shortest post ever. So I decided I should explain.

I think we curious humans naturally look for answers to big questions: How does the universe work? How did life begin? Is there a supreme being? We weigh evidence and draw conclusions against the backdrop of our predispositions.

Some end up predisposed toward God and others toward reason and evidence. I came to be predisposed toward God, I think, as a boy when my parents briefly sent me to a church’s Sunday school. They spoke of a loving creator, and I rather liked that idea. Later unsatisfactory encounters with people professing their faith did deter me for a while.

Monon Bridge

I wrote long ago about how, as a young adult, achieving my dreams left me unfulfilled and failed relationships left me sad and lonely. In despair and depression I decided to seek God. My search led me down a winding road that has ultimately left me with faith, which has sustained me through later, even more difficult times.

It’s not that I don’t dig reason. When I was a young student, my best subjects always included math and science. I followed that path to engineering school, where I graduated with a degree in mathematics. So I came to Christ with a good grounding in logic, reasoning, and the scientific method. That knowledge tells me that you can never prove God.

To prove something requires evidence that makes the conclusion certain. Unfortunately, evidence for and against God is incomplete and imperfect. We may weigh it and draw our conclusion; we may even say that, to us, it proves or disproves God. But what we really mean, even if we deny it, is that the evidence resonates so well with us that we are willing to step over the gap of imperfection and incompleteness. For example, some argue that the universe’s intricately balanced design is evidence of an intelligent designer and therefore proof that God exists. Even my brother, who calls himself an atheist, considers our improbable existence in this mean universe and admits to a creating god. He steps that far over the gap. But he is correct when he says that nothing about this evidence points to a personal God, such as the one the Bible describes.

We draw lots of reasonable conclusions every day from the evidence available to us. We’re wired to do it; we have to do it because so much is uncertain or unknowable. I sometimes stop at a donut shop near my office and buy a dozen to share at work. It’s reasonable to conclude I can do this any morning I want. Unfortunately, the shop burned to the ground early one morning last autumn. Good thing I didn’t make a donut run on my way to work that day. So with any reasonable conclusion, we take some step of faith to believe it.

Rainbow Bridge

I think God hasn’t left conclusive evidence of himself lying around because he wants us to take a step of faith if we are to believe in him. My experience with God is that he loves me and wants my love back. In human relationships, love can fail. People you love can betray you, abuse you, or leave you destitute. Even if none of those things happen, someone you love could die before you, leaving you to grieve. Such are the risks you take when you choose to love. In choosing to love God, you risk him not being real. You risk the whole thing having been a sham.

Some won’t take that risk. Some who take that risk end up feeling gypped. If God is real and loves us, why is the world in such a sorry state? Why do so many people suffer? Why do I have to face pain, injustice, and loss? Everybody who contemplates God one day faces these questions; some reach them and turn away. My experience is that patience and determination carries a nascent faith through this crisis.

The worst thing I’ve ever been through was my brutal separation and divorce. I prayed for years that God would heal my marriage, but things just kept getting worse between my wife and me and eventually she hired a lawyer. How could God have ignored my desperate prayers? Doesn’t he hate divorce? I could easily have turned away from God in anger and disgust. I considered it. Yet facing crippling pain and loss, I decided to keep turning to God. I am not entirely sure why. During this time, I repeatedly suffered consequences from destructive choices, sometimes mine and sometimes my estranged wife’s. Each time things could have gone much worse for me than they did. It seemed to me as though somebody was placing soft pillows beneath me each time I fell. And then during this time I had an experience that felt to me like God was loving me directly. Read about it here.

Broad Ripple

I perceived a pattern of intervention too strong for me to write off as a string of coincidences, and I chose to attribute them to God. This time of difficulty actually cemented my faith. I’m God’s; there’s no turning back. Some might argue that I am drawing too heavy of a conclusion from scant evidence. I freely admit that my conclusion involves a big step of faith.

The only way I can explain this is to compare it to the way we bind to our mothers when we’re newly born. Our ability to perceive the world is extremely limited. We don’t even see our mothers as separate from us. Yet as we grow, the love that our mothers hopefully showed us through touch and care seeds in us. We know our mothers love us. And so, through my limited ability to perceive God, I have experienced what I believe to be his loving involvement in my life. I have concluded that God is real and loves me.

And so it goes, I think, for anyone who determines to patiently follow God. Sooner or later they experience God in their lives. At that moment, God starts to become as real to them as their mother.

Unfortunately, you can’t get there without making that step of faith. You have to choose to believe and decide to follow. God can be nothing but elusive, mysterious, and maddening until you make that choice. He becomes less so as your faith grows.

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What's the Reason for the Season?

What’s the reason for the season?
Canon PowerShot S80
2010

I remember well making this photograph ten years ago. A little church within walking distance of my home planted a row of pine trees on the edge of their property, I imagine to block the sights and sounds of the busy main road. For many years at Christmastime, they strung lights around them all. It was lovely, especially at night.

It was just ten degrees out that mid-December night I decided to walk over there and photograph the scene. I brought a tripod — I would need to make long exposures with my Canon PowerShot S80, which was my primary camera then. I made a couple dozen photos here that night. I would have made more, but neither the camera nor my hands could abide the cold.

Back at home I sorted through these photos and selected two that turned out well, including this one. I then wrote a post about Christmas that used them both.

That post was about coming to terms with Christmas. Most of my time as a Christian had been in a church that did not celebrate the birth of Christ. The Bible did not expressly authorize it, the logic went, and therefore we should not do it. This is a niche position in Christendom.

I left that church over its legalism and landed in a more mainstream branch of this faith. The churches I’ve belonged to since all celebrate Christmas. I struggled with it for a long time. Writing that post helped me come to terms with it. I’ll re-share that post here tomorrow.

Last year at church it fell to me to give the Christmas Eve sermon. (You can read it here.) How far I’ve come in my journey!

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Photography

single frame: What’s the reason for the season?

A lit cross at night.

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Faith, Stories Told

Holding up my hand: A story from my next book, A Place to Start

In this blog’s early days I wrote a lot about my faith. I’m a Christian, but I wasn’t raised as one. I wasn’t raised with any faith, actually. I went looking for faith in my 20s and I found Jesus Christ.

This story is in my book A Place to Start, available soon.

I thought faith would be a way to make my life more certain. Trust and obey, and all will be well. But it wasn’t true. I experienced at least as much disappointment and difficulty with faith as without. It almost drove me away from the faith.

But I’m stubborn. I meant to hold God accountable to what I thought he had promised me. I laugh at myself for it now. I spent a lot of time in the Bible looking for scripture that I could wave in God’s face. Instead, I learned that God aches when we experience loss and suffering — but he means for these things to cause us to grow, and to draw us closer to Him. This is the nature of faith.

This story is about the beginning of that transformation in my faith, about how I moved from legalism to grace, from God as cold judge to God as someone who loves me and wants me to figure it out.

Even though I wrote this in 2007 during my blog’s first year, it remains my favorite post I’ve ever written on this blog.

This story and many others are in my book, A Place to Start. I’m working hard to make it available later this month.


On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I felt anxious about the long walk, but also reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came, I held my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me to stay on the sidewalk because the hippies liked to hang out in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that I was not to join the other kids if they shortcut through their property. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. When we reached the corner across from the school, Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.

James Monroe School
The elementary school I attended

On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted a path to follow that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. The pastor sprinkled water on my head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up.

I also struggled to understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and church weren’t making sense. In time, I had some serious brushes with church politics. It turned me off and I fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.

One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with my wife and me soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He flipped rapidly through his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. In counterpoint, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak.

My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society’s theology and doctrine didn’t always add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then we would naturally do whatever the Watchtower Society asked of us. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we had turned away from their faith, they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.

Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. Dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, they looked only to Scripture for their authority and not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism by sprinkling didn’t count. The preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away, and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: my wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening

On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.

On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did.

Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. We practiced only what the New Testament specifically authorized. It led us to have some distinctive practices that included singing a cappella, and not celebrating Christmas. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. (Look it up in 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:7.) My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said. “If you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.

But I loved those people. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that the end of my wife’s previous marriage ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that God didn’t recognize our marriage and we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.

Through my own study I came to disagree with the elders’ interpretation of the relevant scriptures. We couldn’t come to a mutual understanding, and so we left the Church of Christ. We soon settled in a Christian Church down the road. Soon one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders telling us that by joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ,” we had left the faith. Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were no longer Christians.

God disagrees.

Shortly after we started attending that new church, I had this strong sense that my family belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. They celebrated Christmas. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. Perhaps my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines. Perhaps he will make good use of a church even if it uses musical instruments and celebrates Christmas. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.

My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through a brutal divorce. Not only were church members a great encouragement to me, but both pastors met with me regularly mostly to listen and empathize, but also sometimes to offer a good word of advice, and always to pray with me. The senior pastor, who grew up in an ultraconservative church similar to the Church of Christ, taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage rent free while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians helped me stand firmly through everything that happened while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.

Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.

The house I grew up in as it appeared in 2010

You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important. But the crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I held my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.

I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I hold up my hand, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.

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COVID-19, Faith

Attending to spiritual needs during the pandemic

I haven’t been to church since the first of March. That Sunday, Hoosiers were just starting to get sick from the coronavirus. We sent messages to all of our members discouraging them from hugging and even shaking hands. We didn’t pass the communion plates but rather asked people to come to the front to take the emblems, which elders handed them while wearing disposable gloves.

West Park Christian Church

The following week the state shut down, and so did we.

You may recall that we hired a pastor early in 2019 but by autumn it was clear we weren’t a mutual fit and he moved on. The elders, including me, had been sharing preaching duties with several guest preachers. Just before we shut down one of those guest preachers expressed interest in preaching for us every week until we found our new permanent pastor. We took him up on it.

We tried to offer worship and connection for our members. Our interim preacher recorded his weekly sermons on video and sent them to me for posting on Facebook. They went live every Sunday morning at 9 am. It wasn’t the same as worshiping in person, but many of our members appreciated the effort very much. We also began to have Zoom gatherings for our members, but they were poorly attended. Many of our members couldn’t make the technology work.

The city and state began to reopen in May. Curiously, they allowed churches to congregate well before they allowed any other large gatherings. We elders were not of one mind about how to proceed. A couple elders wanted to resume Sunday services right away so we could be in Christian community and take care of each other’s spiritual needs. I was staunch: reopening was irresponsible. To resume in-person services could result in our members becoming sick — and, given that many of our members are in high-risk categories, possibly even dying. The elders favoring reopening reasoned that our members should decide to opt in or out based on their own conscience and willingness to tolerate risk. There were good and valid points on both sides, but these difficult discussions were hard on the eldership.

We stayed closed for several weeks, reopening the first Sunday in July. But I and one other elder have not attended. We remain unwilling to place our families at risk.

Additionally, serious family stress has taken my attention almost fully away from West Park Christian Church. Except for the elders’ meetings over Zoom every couple weeks, I have neither time nor energy for the eldership.

Being an elder is not meant to be primarily an administrative role. Elders are meant to be involved with the congregation as shepherds. That was challenging enough for me before the pandemic because I live 30 minutes away from West Park, which is really a neighborhood church. It is impossible now.

I don’t know why it’s not been clear to me before, but it’s clear to me now: West Park’s elders really need to live in or near the neighborhood. Maybe the situation at West Park has evolved to this and I’m just now catching on. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I don’t believe I’m called to live in the neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood.

Since lockdown Margaret and I have been watching the online services of North Point Church in Georgia together every Sunday morning. We both love the teaching of their pastor, Andy Stanley. He brings such a fresh perspective, always well reasoned from the Bible. We’ve benefited greatly from his sermons during these months.

But we both know we want to be in community with Christians again. We miss it greatly. But it’s not clear to us that we will return to West Park. We feel like our lives are leading us in a new direction, yet to be determined.

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