I grew up required to go to church on Sundays. I went to Sunday school, went on church trips, attended Awana and youth group. My parents made church a part of our lives. And as many teenagers do, as I got older I resisted. I didn’t understand why I was obligated to go and I never really believed the answers I was given. My disenchantment with church grew. It felt like a hollow, superficial place where I went through the motions around a bunch of people who were pretending to be perfect while I was pretending to be perfect. Looking back, this feeling was likely more a product of my own wounding and insecurity than what was actually happening. But the feelings I associated with church were guilt, shame, fear, loneliness, boredom and threat.
When I left for college, I left church behind. It wasn’t until I left church that I felt like I found Jesus. College was chock full of challenging situations. I often felt alone, misunderstood, unworthy, and broken. I regularly entered two extremes within my day to ease my pain: praying on my knees and partying it all away. It was in the midst of these activities, in the middle of my mess of poor choices, doubt, fear and even anger where I experienced the Divine presence I had read about in so many Bible stories.
It didn’t come in the form of wrath, which at first, had me even more confused. I had learned that God was the ultimate judge and all these sins I was committing required repentance and reconciliation before God would even turn toward me. That’s not what I experienced. In my lowest moments, a warm light filled with love, grace and mercy surrounded me. I didn’t understand it, but I knew who it was and whose I was without question in those moments.
Then I’d be back in the rat race doubting once again whether God was real, and convincing myself that even if He was, there was no way He would want and love me. As I got older, I recognized that the people I most enjoyed being around and those I most wanted to be like had a strong faith. When I built up the courage to share parts of my own story and reveal how much doubt I had about who God was and why, if He did exist, He would love someone like me, I found the people I admired and respected the most had those same doubts. Faith, as they explained it, is a challenging road and we choose to walk it each and everyday. Some days it fills our hearts and minds and we are open to God and some days all we can grasp is that mustard seed sized faith that Jesus tells about. That’s OK, a seed is all we need.
They encouraged me that if I didn’t have doubts, I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about who I was and who God was. Then one of my mentors gave me the greatest gift, she shifted my focus to learn more about who God is through the life and story of Jesus. God’s only son. The Lamb of God. A gentle and lowly servant. A man who experienced all that it is to be human, who walked right beside us in this broken world, and who at the same time showed love to everyone he met, challenged people to become their best, and maintained hope in even the darkest of circumstances. A leader who humbly accepted his call to give up his life and die a brutal death to save all of mankind…even those who persecuted and betrayed him.
In the story of Jesus, I see who God is calling me to be (more like Jesus) and I see the Father that He is: gracious, loving, merciful. No matter what I do or what I have done, He stays in pursuit. He sent His son to die on a cross, the most brutal form of death at the time, for me. FOR ME! When I finally realized and accepted this truth, my whole world changed. I no longer felt obligated to go to church, read my Bible, spend time in prayer or live according to the law and more like Jesus, I was motivated to do these things.
As Christians in our talk and in our churches, we so often focus on the rules but this focus on the rules doesn’t bring about the heart change that lights the fire to live for and like Christ. It’s the stories of grace and mercy and love that do that. Only when we truly allow ourselves to be fully loved and accepted by God will we be inspired to live like Jesus and to obey (listen to) The Law. This focus on rules keeps so many us stuck in fear, shame and guilt. We are trying to work our way out of sin instead of letting God love us out. We work so hard to be perfect, not knowing what to do with the fact that we will sin again. We will and God knows it.
Do the best you can each day, truly in your heart, and then allow yourself to be forgiven and loved by God over and over and over. It is a process and a journey. To surrender and be held. To be vulnerable. To sit in childlike wonder and praise God in all His glory. Overtime, your mind, heart and behavior will evolve. It takes intentional, daily effort and our egos and our wounds keep us from the only posture that will free us. They keep us in self-protection which prevents us from being healed. Slowly, we have to bring the shadow parts of us to the light…to full acceptance. This takes time and space. Time in prayer and meditation, allowing God’s truth and love to wash over us. I can’t explain the Divine power of this experience…you have to witness it for yourself. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster are great books for helping you develop your spiritual practices.
When the only way we know is following the rules, we shame and guilt and pressure our friends, family and community into following the rules too instead of simply loving them into an inspiring vision of the life they could have. Fear is not the way, love is. Any good leader knows, fear can force someone to do something for a short period but without an inspiring vision coupled with care and compassion, real and sustainable change will not happen. This doesn’t mean we let people off the hook in any way. We speak truth to them in love. We say the hard things, help them see possibilities and potential and encourage them to do their work to to live into who they were meant to be. But before we can serve others on this journey, we have to have a solid practice for ourselves.
Focus on you and Jesus. Learn about who he is and who he says you are. Let him restore your vision and your heart. I know the Bible can seem intimidating. Just try it out. Start with one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John) and read about their accounts of Jesus’s life. I have found a study Bible to also be very helpful. Another small way to start is by getting a devotional and reading the associated scripture or downloading the YouVersion app on your phone. If you want other suggestions on resources that I’ve used, email me and I’m happy to give them: firstname.lastname@example.org
We make time to read and listen to a lot of things. Why not the Bible? Why not learn about the greatest leader who ever lived? Even if you aren’t a believer, Jesus is a great model for good leadership and the parables and lessons in the Bible are a great foundation for any good life. All are welcome at the table. Jesus loved everyone right where they were for who they were, while challenging and encouraging them to continue to walk the path to who they are at their best. You have your seat, you just have to accept it and take it. It is a challenging journey. Once you accept the truth of who God is and who you are, you will be motivated to change.
A new vision for you and your life will be revealed. Not one that rejects who you have been or what you have done, just the opposite. One that is able to acknowledge and accept all of who we have been, what we have done and what has been done to us. All of who we were will be integrated into who we are. No more need for denial, guilt or shame about our past. New potential and possibilities for our future. I could only hope that for each and every one of us. Only when this is true, when we allow ourselves to be accepted, forgiven and fully loved, only then we can start the work of restoring our families, workplace cultures, communities and our world.
Are you willing to start your journey?