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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

One Protestant Pastor’s Response to the Pope’s Interview

If you were to ask me, a Protestant, how best to describe the Pope, and I answered, “He is a sinner,” you might take offense. But, when the interviewer asked him who he is, Pope Francis humbly responded, “I am a sinner.” Then, in Latin, he whispered, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Pope Francis is a humble man.

This glimpse into the Pope’s heart sheds light on some of his recent comments during an interview conducted in person by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica. He has drawn some high praise and some strong criticism, but one thing that is plain from reading the interview: he desired neither. He spoke from his heart.

And, except in his traditional Catholic views which differ from my own, his words are hardly controversial. If anything he is seeking to reignite a commitment to the foundational truths of the church found in Scripture.

Church must remain open to all

As a church, whether Catholic or Protestant, he reminds us that the church is not a social club for a select few: “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

Harsh but true. Churches can easily cling to their mediocrity, to their legalistic, rigorist interpretation of Scripture or to their lax, nonchalance toward sin.

Walk with our neighbor

Pope Francis reminds us to walk alongside our neighbor, whether he is homosexual, whether she has had an abortion, or whether he denies God’s existence entirely. He claims that the pastor’s role, and arguably all Christians share this responsibility, is not to judge or condemn them but to walk beside them, offer them all kinds of “healing”, “warm the hearts of the people,” and “walk through the dark night with them.”

Pursue the un-churched

He challenges the church to be audacious in their pursuit of finding new roads into the lives of those who do not attend church, “who have quit or are indifferent”. 

Focus on the essentials

One of his most controversial statements came in this context: He said, “I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life.”

This leads to his oddly controversial statement, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He states his point clearly that not all of the teachings of the church are of equal importance. And, it is not the job of pastors to teach lists “of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
He goes on to say that we have to proclaim the essentials, on the necessary things, the Gospel. If the church tries to maintain a moral stronghold but ignores the Gospel, it is likely to fall like a “house of cards.” Our morality must flow out of the “simple, profound, radiant” Gospel.

Look to the past for courage not methods

“Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things.”

God is in every person’s life

“God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

How can we call these controversial statements? They simply remind us all who God is and what he desires for His church. We must focus on the Gospel. Jesus Christ died on the cross to the penalty of sin for all humankind. Faith in Him is our only hope. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Mission, the Men, and Me

Peter Blaber wrote a book by that title. He wrote about his time as a Delta Force commander, his training and his pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. It is a fun read if you like to read about military strategy and maneuvers. It is also a condemnation of the military's over-dependence on hierarchies, unwavering commitment to its plans and of course, to transport helicopters and their systemic mistrust of ingenuity and improvisation. Mostly, it is a thinly veiled book on management and working with teams.

Blaber's lessons are easily applied to the church.

Like the military, church systems put up many of the same obstacles to accomplishing the Mission that God has set for the church and which most churches have signed onto.

I described that Mission like this yesterday:

The Mission is to live in community, grounded in the love of Christ, demonstrating that love to the world of people within their reach and influence. "Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (MSG).

This is sometimes called the Great Commission. It was some of Christ's last words before leaving the earth and returning to heaven.

It's important.

It's clear.

And, it's clear that it is not that important to many of us.

The main principle that Blaber used to make decisions, even split-second decisions, was the inspiration for the title of the book. Early in his career, a battalion commander and Vietnam veteran taught them to him when he reported for duty in Korea.

"The first M stands for mission; it's the purpose for which you're doing what you're doing. Whether in your personal of professional life, make sure you understand it, and that it makes legal, moral and ethical sense, then use it to guide all your decisions. The second M stands for the men. Joshua Chamberlain, a Medal of Honor-receiving schoolteacher in the Civil War, once said that 'there are two things an officer must do to lead men: he must care for his men's welfare, and he must show courage.' Welfare of the troops and courage are inextricably linked. When it comes to your men you can't be good at one without being good at the other. Take care of your men's welfare by listening and leading them with sound tactics and techniques that accomplish your mission, and by always having the courage of your convictions to do the right thing by them. The final M stands for me. Me comes last for a reason. You have to take care of yourself, but you should only do so after you have taken care of the mission, and the men. never put your own personal well-being, or advancement, ahead of the accomplishment of your mission and taking care of your men."

Though we may disagree on how best to accomplish it, it's obvious what our first M, our Mission is.

The second M, Men, is our church. The Church all over the world, but specifically those around us, those we know personally and intimately and love deeply and sacrifice for and mourn with and celebrate with and have coffee with and pray with. They are the ones that we call when need someone to watch our kids while we fly to be at a family funeral. They are the ones who call you when their child is running a fever, and they can't decide whether to bring him to the ER or wait until morning. Those are your Men and women and children, friends, mentors, and more. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

The third M is Me and mine, my family, my career, my hopes, my dreams, my self-interest, my health, my wealth, and all that is mine. "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment."

"Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves."

We need to consider all three M's and we need to keep them in a proper balance, not neglecting any one of them, not even ourselves.

One of the fatal mistakes that the military has made over the years, according to Blaber is that it has not been adaptable enough. It has not trusted the "man on the ground" to evaluate the situation and adapt the plan to meet the mission. Instead, they process the plan through all of the levels of hierarchy and get it signed off on by superior after superior, each one covering his own butt, making sure that they are not ultimately responsible for anything.

Then, the plan is etched in stone, no variations can be made or else whoever gave the orders to allow adaptation is on the hook if anything goes wrong.

Within Delta Force, which often depends upon small groups of soldiers, open communication lines despite rank or experience, and creative adaptation as a situation unfolds, Blaber found success when he wasn't bogged down by the military system.

He stressed the importance of preparing instead of planning. In all of life this makes complete sense. We prepare as best we can by being physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally ready. Then, we head out on the mission. The plan is basic and leaves room for imagination. Success is defined as accomplishing the mission as opposed to following the plan.

In churches, the mission can easily get confused with the plan. Whether we are planning a potluck dinner or a missions trip across the world, we can spend countless hours developing a plan. We need this many people to arrive at this time and do these things. And, we need to make sure that we are all on time and that everyone knows what they are in charge of and who they report to. Got it! And, if we follow the plan, no one gets angry and lots of people are helped, then the plan is a success!

But, often, though we start with the Mission in mind, we end with only the plan in mind. Afterwards, we talk about whether or not we raised as much money as last year or whether we had enough people to help. And, we decide that in order to follow the plan better, we need to do things different next year.

It can be a rare moment when someone decides to forget the plan, "We are seeing God at work and we are going to follow the Holy Spirit's leading right now in this moment."

It might look like this...

Tom arrives on time to the church dinner, a little tired from work, but he has been praying about this opportunity to serve Christ for weeks. He reports to Sue, the head of the servers, and she gives him some simple directions. He prays one more time, "God use me to honor you."

While he is serving, he notices someone sitting alone and feels the compelling voice of the Holy Spirit, urging him to get some food and sit down next to him. Such a simple request from God that he would gladly obey.

But, he struggles in his heart with the pressures of the system. He signed up to serve, not to eat. If he doesn't serve, who will? What will Sue think of him if he abandons his post? What will the other servers think?

Then, he thinks, is it really God speaking to me? Maybe it is but maybe it's not.

I believe that this happens a thousand times in a thousand different ways because the system of the church is as broken as the system of our military. (In fact, I think the same could be said about our educational system, our governmental system and every system ever set up by people to control other people and protect them from themselves.)

One obvious example is church fundraising. Why is the church raising money? What does the church need money for?

To pay the pastor? It is the responsibility of the church, the people who are the church, to take care of the needs of the pastor (and not just his or her financial needs).

To pay the bills, for electricity and heat and to buy hymnals or a new video projector? Isn't that all just maintaining the system? What does that have to do with the Mission? Unless we think we need things in order to accomplish the Mission. In that case, it is the church's responsibility to pay for accomplishing the Mission. (And, it is God's responsibility to provide it to them.)

Maybe, they need the money to do something great and meaningful and totally focused on the Mission. Maybe they need food to give out to the hungry, want to rebuild a home lost in a fire, or want to purchase Bibles to give to those who cannot afford them for themselves.

A fundraiser, really? Is that the best idea we can come up with? The Girl Scouts do fundraisers. The soccer team does fundraisers. Should the church who serves the Almighty God, be doing fundraisers?

Trust in God seems to preclude fundraising. Anything beyond making the need known is coercion and not faith. (There is one exception I would make for this. If the fundraiser is designed not to make money but to raise awareness that would further the Mission. But enough about that.)

But, fundraising is not alone. So much that is done in churches is based on a different mission. It is a base and self-serving mission. It might sound like this if a church was honest.

The Mission of ABC Church is to keep ABC Church open for as long as humanly possible.

Churches can become so enamored with themselves that they cannot imagine life without them. Those who have power in the church want to keep it. Those who have built and served in the church for many years want to relive the days of their prosperity and youth. Closing the church would feel like a personal attack. Those who enjoy church and feel at home there want to keep enjoying church and keep feeling at home there.

Christian love is a devotion to people not to an institution, a way of life, a philosophy or a religion. Love for one another is the heart of what it is to be the church.

The Church can survive without buildings, without budget meetings, without children's programs, without paid staff, without great preachers on TV and radio, and definitely without pressure to keep the system going.

The Church cannot exist without you and me expressing Christ's love to those that we meet. It cannot exist apart from relationships.

What then? Leave church?

This morning, someone asked me, "I realize that working with kids and talking to them about having a relationship with Christ, you prepare them for something much deeper (hopefully) than what traditional churches usually provide. What do you do then about church leadership? Would you leave the idea of paid pastor positions and lean more toward taking turns at leadership like the Quakers? Could you do community outreach without some planning or should Christians be prepared to do it individually rather than waiting for church organization?"

Great questions that I am wrestling with every day. Here's what I am thinking at this moment, though it is constantly changing.

Paid Pastors

The decision about whether or not to pay a pastor is based on the church. Remember, the church is a group of people who know and love each other intimately. It is impossible to have a church of a thousand people. You cannot know and love that many people. If a church building has that many people come through it each week, then in order to help them be the church, it must help them find an intimate number of people that they can share life with. And, that is then, their church.

In our spiritual journeys, we may decide to go to a church building and participate in any number of church programs, worship services, etc. Or, we may not. Either way, we are designed to be in a church, connected.

Together as a church, we need to decide whether or not to help support a pastor financially and to what extent. The Bible teaches us to raise up pastors and elders and leaders and to support them. But, it doesn't give clear guidelines about how we should do that.

Though this may sound like it may put some of us pastors out of business, the current system in many churches too often treats their pastors more as employees bound to their low mission rather than servants of God bound to His Mission. I think many pastors would gladly make that exchange.

So, whether we pay our pastors or not, we should find pastors and elders to lead us, and we should provide for their needs in all aspects of their lives.

From my brief look at an informational site by and about Quakers, I think that this is similar to their thoughts, but maybe not a typical understanding of them. Some Quakers have pastor-led gatherings. Some do not. Some have more form in their services and others are happy to sit in silence until receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit.

The key for me is that the church itself decides what is the best method to accomplish the Mission.

Community Outreach

Community outreach would be done with the Mission in mind. There may be a plan, but it would not be an intricate plan with unchangeable details. The Mission would take precedence over the plan. The plan would be to pass out water during the community day or to go where the homeless are sleeping and help meet their needs.

The plan would set the ball rolling, but the Mission, the Men and Me would be the guiding principle for all the decisions made once the community outreach began. If we run out of water, should we go get more or not?

The low mission would ask, "Do we have time in the schedule? Do we have money in the budget? Have we passed out enough water to consider this plan successful?"

The Mission would ask, "What is the Holy Spirit leading us to do? Based on what we've seen and heard and experienced here, would it be better to not have water to hand out and continue talking with people and developing relationships? Would we be more effective at accomplishing the Mission if we had Gatorade or Hot Chocolate to pass out, or hamburgers and hot dogs?" Together we can ask, "What are we sensing from the Holy Spirit, from the people we are trying to reach out to and from our own hearts?" And, then we adapt the plan to fit the situation.

Communication is crucial for this. Communication with Christ and with one another in the church. Together, we need to discover the next step.

Any plan has to incorporate room for adaptation or else it is only as good as our ability to predict the future.

When we label something a "Community Outreach", it may betray an underlying problem in our thinking. We might think that we are setting apart time from our regular lives to reach out to people in our community for some purpose, (either to fulfill our mission or His Mission, usually).

The problem with this way of thinking is that we are asked to reach out to everyone we meet. So, yes, we should not wait for the church to organize an event in order to reach out. But, we can organize events that will create opportunities to connect with people that we might not ever meet otherwise.

But, the plan must remain submissive to the principle of the Mission, the Men and Me.

We must stay focused on the Mission, look out for the welfare of the Men, and not lose track of caring for Me.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Going to Church is a Good Idea, But Don't Go

We need to be the Church, not go to church. Part of being the Church is joining with other believers for relationship and worship and teaching and mission. I agree with the premise of an article in Relevant magazine that tells Millennials to go to church. They need to be grounded in a local community for relationship building over time to those who need to see the love of Christ lived out. They also need mentors and a secure place to return to after taking risks in their faith.

The systemic problem of the church is what limits the church's connection to this generation. What God-fearing Christian wants to spend their life energy, passion and resources maintaining a broken system.

Millennials, like other sane people, don't want to spend time filling positions on planning boards, redecorating the church foyer or making photocopies for Children's Church. They want to connect with people who are in need (spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially...) and pour out the love of Christ into their lives.

The Mission of the Church is as clear as the mission of most churches is muddled. The Mission is to live in community, grounded in the love of Christ, demonstrating that love to the world of people within their reach and influence. "Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (MSG)

The typical church structure hinders this. It is much more direct to walk the streets, strike up a conversation with a homeless person and invite him to lunch than to sit in a planning meeting about the next church barbecue.

Church-owned property, church-centric programs, and finance-driven decisions betray the anemic mission of most churches.

When I mention that our family has started a home church, we sometimes get asked questions that reveal a tragic misunderstanding of the nature and mission of the church.

The first question is usually: "How many people come?" I want to say, "Really? Is that your first question? How about, 'How have you seen God working in your midst?' or if we are close friends, 'Are you fulfilling your mission as a church?'" What I usually say is something like, "Not many. It's been the most rewarding and life-giving experience of our lives."

We are called to be light and salt, to bring life to those who are dying, to rescue those who stumble, to feed the hungry and preach the Gospel to everyone we meet.

Millennials should not join a church just because there are some good reasons to. They should continue to think outside of the church systems and find new ways to be the Church. They can help the rest of us figure out how to be rooted in communities, facilitate much needed mentoring relationships and maintain a strong faith community without wasting our resources on finding creative ways of inviting people into our well-maintained buildings.

I was a pastor at a traditional church for 18 years and was unable to break through the systemic problems to get back to the important role of the church to be light and salt. In a traditional church, buildings must be maintained, bills must be paid, organization and hierarchy are necessary evils.

Every moment spent on these hinders the church from fulfilling its true mission. When we ask questions like, "How do we keep people from leaving?" or "How do we attract more people?" or "Who can we get to fill this position?" we demonstrate a commitment to the structures that is stronger than our commitment to Christ and to His mission. The traditional church model is not the answer and more and more it seems to be a hindrance.

Let's find a way forward together.

My next post is in response to questions that arose from this one: The Mission, the Men, and Me

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What is Best for Me? A Case for Selfishness

When, I think about where to go to dinner, what to wear, or where to go to church; when I think about what college to attend, what job to take, or where to live; when I think about who to love, who to be friends with, or who to do business with, I think about what is best for me or maybe for Us, if others are in the picture.

Obviously, I don’t always know what is best.

And, typically, I almost always think that I do.

On a larger scale, we ask what political party is best for our country, what side of an issue should we raise our voice for, what role should capitalism and socialism play in society, and how should we respond to poverty?

When dealing with national and global issues, we ask a remarkably similar question to the one we ask when choosing what restaurant to eat in. What is best for Us? What is best for the people of our world?

As I’ve studied childhood development and development throughout a person’s life, I find that the question we ask grows in scope as we grow in maturity. The youngest of children are only concerned with themselves, while older children focus on their families and friends. The most enlightened adults among us consider themselves to be world citizens, considering what is best for all people including the unborn, future generations. Some empty themselves of self-interest to the extent that they are able to sacrifice themselves for a greater good.

In essence, we always divide the world into Us and Them. As we mature, the number of Us increases and the number of Them decreases.

Our question remains constant, what is best for Us?

Still obvious - We don’t always know what is best.

Still typical - We often think that we do.


For many of us, though, we can confess that there are just too many variables for us to believe that we have it all figured out.

Part of being human is: We always want what is best for Us.

Maybe trying to figure out what is best for Us, is the best any of Us can do.


That is what we call people who are willing to courageously risk and often sacrifice their own lives in pursuit of the common good. Both the fireman who enters a burning building to rescue a single child and the soldier who dies attempting to the rid the world of terrorism are celebrated as heroes.

When someone is willing to sacrifice what is best for herself as an individual, in order to achieve a higher good, we hold her up as a model for all of Us to follow.

Christ declares that, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

You don’t have to be a Christian to know that what Christ is saying rings true. It feels right to all of Us.

The Twist

What if what is best for all of humanity is for each person to know and love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength? That is another claim of Christ. He implies that that would lead us to loving our neighbor as ourselves. He claims that that is what is best for Us.

That everyone on earth would be included when we say Us and that no one would be left to be called Them.

So, what is best for humanity is not to strive for what is best for humanity, but to strive to love and know God.

1 John 5 teaches us that “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”

Don’t be misled by the word, “conquers”. John is not talking about a hostile takeover. He is talking about conquering the world through love, defeating the “Us vs. Them” paradigm one act of love at a time, like dominoes falling to reveal an intricate pattern of beauty and grace that includes all people of all nations.

And, in this conquering
– by faith and through obedience to God’s commandments which are: first to love God and then to love our neighbors –
we experience what is best for humanity.

The Shift

What if, what is best for Us, as individuals and as all of humanity or all of Creation, is not the beginning or end of the story? What if that is not the most important question?

Here is the shift. What if what is best for humanity is not the primary focus of history, of our world, of our time? What if what is best for humanity is not the primary focus, but what is best for God is the primary focus?

What if that is the end all, the final deciding factor?

What if humanity, history, creation and all of the above are here because that is what is best for God?

What if the main goal of every person’s life is to bring glory to God and enjoy a relationship with Him forever?

What if the main goal of every family is to bring glory to God and enjoy a relationship with Him together forever?

What if the main goal of every tribe and every people group and every nation is to bring glory to God and enjoy Him forever?

What if all of Creation was designed to bring glory to God and reveal His power?

In Exodus 9, through Moses, God tells Pharaoh that He hasn’t destroyed him and his people completely because, “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Did you hear that? God wanted to reveal his power and make His name known in all the earth.

At that time, He did his revealing through Moses’s obedience and through Pharaoh’s disobedience.

He will do the same in our lives, through our obedience or through our disobedience.

In Our Lives

As human beings, the best we can do is to consider what is best for Us, in ever widening circles, including more of our fellow humans with Us.

God’s desire is to bring glory to Himself, to make His name known throughout the earth, and reveal His power.

Since we are all here because that is what is best for God, then we can determine two things…

First, knowing what we know about the character of God, we can be confident that fulfilling our purpose is equivalent to receiving grace, mercy, compassion and love.

Second, we can accept that following God’s will, doing what is best for God, is actually also best for Us.

We can surrender all of our understanding, performance and passion and submit to the will of God.

Maybe then we will discover for ourselves that we have not only found what is best for God, but what is best for me, for Us, and for all of humanity.

This is the history of our existence. This is the story of humanity. This is the story of the Scriptures. This is what God has revealed to us throughout His word.

All of this is encapsulated in an age old saying, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

So, our answer to "What is best for me?" is to love and know God. Let's do it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

2 - Lauren: Her Search for a Place to Belong

(This is the second part in a series of blog posts based on interviews I did with 7 adults ages 26-32 about their experience growing up in an American evangelical Christian church setting. All names have been changed to protect their identities.)

Lauren was 32 years old when I interviewed her. She grew up attending a single church until middle school.

The pastor there “knew my name. I always felt loved by him, by everybody there.”

Her description of this church was “the happy, typical church experience,” but what she described was something almost too-good-to-be-true.

When her parents left that church to search for another, she struggled with feelings of insecurity and isolation. Her entire world revolved around her relationships at church and when they were taken from her, she felt totally alone, unloved, and unknown.

Her family bounced around from church to church. “There wasn’t any one person I could look back at that time and say that person truly cared about me really…. At that point I was a preteen and teenager and I felt like a ghost. I didn’t really belong anywhere.”

This loss of place, loss of identity stuck with her in the following years.

Sarcastically, she described her parents looking for “the perfect church in the county”, she felt like she was placed in very uncomfortable situations week after grueling week.

“So we went to all these different churches and you can imagine, middle school girls aren’t easy for anybody and now I’ve been ripped away from my friends and sort of that comfort and security, and thrown into these awkward, awkward situations of churches making you stand up and introduce yourselves and having you go to Sunday School class after Sunday School class with all these people that you don’t know and looking at you… and being on the outside. I was not an outgoing person at all and really shy, and it was just horrific. When I think back on my life, that was like the most… darkest, and uncomfortable, and just lost feeling ever… and I’m so angry at my parents for pulling me out of church.”

A detailed story that she shared illustrates how this time of transition between churches impacted her and actually helped her to discover strength that she didn’t know she had.

“I went to the overnight sleepover at this church, not really making any friends, nobody was talking to me. I was by myself the whole time. Then, they played a game of hide and go seek.

We hid and I had a really good spot, a great spot, and the game was over and nobody had found me, and I just sort of waited to see what would happen, and they just started the next activity. They didn’t realize I wasn’t there. It was purposeful. It wasn’t like I was stupid sitting in the dark not knowing what was going on. I knew that they wouldn’t notice, and they didn’t.”

This had an interesting effect on her. Instead of feeling unloved and unwanted, she had this feeling of being in control. She had put them to the test and they had failed to care about her. “I remember actually having a better time after that point because I realized that they didn’t care about me, and I was able to have that self-worth.”

When she realized that no one there cared about her, she took control and enjoyed herself without having to test them anymore. She could just take what they had to offer, the program, the event and have fun. She didn’t make an effort to try to build relationships. She knew that wasn’t part of the deal.

She later described these churches in this way. “They were running programs, it wasn’t there because the people that were involved truly cared about what I was going through.”

It was not until years later that she felt accepted, like she belonged anywhere.

Worse yet, Lauren never felt accepted by her parents. She felt like she could never make them happy, no matter how hard she tried.

“I wish I had grown up with the acceptance of people who had flaws, as opposed to this rejection of people who had any sort of flaws.”

A Church Family

Her family finally settled into a church, but she hated it. So, in ninth grade, she decided to start attending church with a friend.

She CHOSE to go somewhere other than where her parents went.

As an adult, she thinks it is strange that her parents would let her do that, but at the same time, she believed that having that choice and that independence helped to shape her identity.

Lauren described her time at her new church as reminiscent of her time at her first church. It was here that she finally felt like she belonged again.

She regained her sense of safety and security. It was here that she felt loved and accepted.

“I always will look fondly at [that church] because I had an Aunt [Rachel] and an Uncle [Bill] and I had Mrs. [Johnson], I had Mr. [Johnson], I had Uncle [Bob]. It was all these people that I didn’t know, they weren’t my family and yet they immediately became my family. You and Rachel, okay now I’m not going to cry, you never made me feel, I never felt insignificant. I always felt important.”

As she detailed many people from this church who became an extended family to her, the emotion rose in her voice. Then, she remembered a humorous story to illustrate how far this love and acceptance went.

As a teen, the youth group was preparing to leave for a retreat when the driver noticed that the headlight wasn’t working.

“He told me to hit it, and I decided to kick it. I don’t know why. I wasn’t like that. And I broke it, and it wasn’t something like, it wasn’t even the light that broke, I broke the…, the whole thing kicked in. The light stayed intact. I was horrified.

In my house, I would have been done. And here they were totally—I will never forget, it was the most, one of the most embarrassing times in my life—I remember they were both, they were cracking up that I had done it, and they were so loving and caring and it shocked me.”

She perceived the church family as being even more accepting and understanding than her own parents. This allowed her to grow in her identity and self-worth. She went on to say, “I think the churches that stick out in my mind are the churches where somebody noticed me; somebody cared; somebody paid attention; somebody KNEW MY NAME; somebody asked me a question; somebody cared about me.”

With this confidence in herself and guided by her understanding of what God wanted for her, she was able to move out on her own after high school, go to college, get a few jobs that she really felt good about. She became successful.

Perfection vs. Imperfection

As an adult in her twenties, she was actively involved as a volunteer at church and unknowingly had adopted this attitude of rejecting people who showed signs of imperfection. At one of the volunteer Christmas parties, Bill gave her the book, Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, which is all about God’s gracious love for broken people like the author, who was an alcoholic.

She recalled, “I read that book and this is literally what I said at the end, ‘This book is a joke. This isn’t true. You shouldn’t be allowed to mess up like this and then be able to write about it and make other people think it’s okay.’ That was my impression of that book and I couldn’t understand what [Bill] or anybody saw in it. I thought it was absolutely wrong and that nobody—you shouldn’t promote things like that.”

Her inability to accept others stemmed from the feeling that her parents could never accept her. She never felt good enough for them. So, she made sure that no one else was good enough either.

During what turned out to be a pivotal time in Lauren’s adult life, she felt frustrated with where her life was headed and decided to take control. She decided to stop trusting her future to God and doing what was expected of her by people at church. She was going to do what she wanted to do so that she could be happy.

Soon after this, she stopped working with the church youth group because she wanted to focus on herself and on getting married.

“You figure at that point I was 25 and every girl feels they are going to be alone forever at that point (which is totally irrational but now looking back that’s what I thought). I decided to focus on myself and so I met this guy who had two kids and was not a [Christian] and I was ready to throw everything away. I was going to date this man and just ‘Ha, ha!’ to everything else.”

Everything changed one day while she was brushing her teeth. She remembered
shouting out to God.

“I remember at that point God told me, ‘You’re doing something dumb. This is not the plan for your life. This is not what you’re supposed to be doing.’ And I remember shouting out to God and saying, ‘Oh yeah, what have You done for me?’ Because, by 25, I didn’t have a good relationship with my family. I had been moved a thousand times. I didn’t have a typical story. I didn’t have boyfriends. I didn’t have proms. I didn’t have these things that other people have.”

Lauren’s entire life was playing out before her. She could feel all of the injustice. She had sacrificed so much to be a Christian. All the normal things, the fun things that kids get to do, she had given up to serve him. She had done so much for Him and was so angry and challenged God, “What have You done for me?”

She was “just so angry and that’s what I said to God. And, you know those moments where God just talks to you? God said, ‘I sent my son to die for you on the cross’ and it was the most—I don’t want to even say like the most humbling—It was the most loving point, like I totally—It wasn’t a moment of like that God punished me and made me feel guilty and made me feel—cause that’s a horrible thing to say, you know that’s awful to say to God but it was like this moment of absolute purity and love and simplicity and I was like, ‘You’re right.’”

She struggled to find just the right words to express the inexpressible presence of God. The presence of God overwhelmed her with love and she no longer felt that he had abandoned her.

Her sacrifice seemed reasonable when pictured alongside Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. God loved her and had not forgotten her desire to get married and be loved.

Soon after she broke off the relationship with this man, she started dating the man who would become her husband.

God’s grace did not culminate in Lauren finding a husband. God wanted her to know that he loved and accepted her for who she was and not just because she had sacrificed so much for him.

Lauren found herself in a very difficult and confusing situation when she “got pregnant before I was married, all of a sudden I [understood] that Ragamuffin Gospel. And now I get it because it’s not about—it’s not about perfect people and what he said in that book, the Gospel is not for perfect people.”

The culmination for Lauren was realizing that there was a lie that she had believed and accepted from her family. “I had adopted exactly what my parents did to me, which was “Reject everybody.” … If somebody has an issue, you reject that person, and just that perfection and that lack of love.”

This started her on a yearlong journey of trying to understand what love is. Her perspective on everything had begun to change, for Lauren, “it was an absolute break in the way that I have viewed the world for, up to that point, 30 years. It was a massive change of a worldview and absolutely I had adopted that [lie], probably unknowingly, because what’s the worst mask, [thinking that] you’re doing what’s right. So why would I ever doubt what I was doing was wrong because I was doing what was right.”

She recognized the lies of perfectionism and judgmentalism that had become her perspective. By God’s grace, she was able to begin the process of learning to love unconditionally.

She is still following that path, attending church and feeling very connected with her church family.

Lauren felt like everything was perfect in her world as a young child when she belonged, when she was surrounded by people that loved her and knew her.

When she lost that sense of belonging, she felt like she lost her identity.

Finding a new church, people that loved her and accepted her brought her a new sense of identity. And, typical of adolescence, that new identity formed apart from her parents.

She didn’t realize until years later that she had adopted some of the same judgmentalism and perfectionism that isolated her from her parents. As they had pushed her away, she had pushed so many others away.

When she had a moral crisis, she was forced to face her own imperfection and her own need for God’s grace.

In this place of humility and a desperate need for grace, she found her true identity in Christ. Finally, she truly belonged. She belonged in her own skin. She could accept her own imperfections and therefore accept the imperfections in others. Her understanding of what it means to belong was transformed and became a strong foundation upon which to build her life.