A taste of life

It’s been a while. And it’s amazing I’m finding time, even now, to write anything on here. My workload this semester with school has been intense, not to mention the stress of my job and certain personal issues in my life, so I doubt I’ll be contributing much on here over the next few months.

But I thought I’d share something quickly that happened to me the other day. Something that gave me a taste–just a taste–of what the author of this blog post shared in his reasons for leaving the institutional church and instead joining a more organic expression of church. I will preface what I’m going to share first by saying I’m thinking of leaving this thing called the “institutional church” as well. I’m just so sick and tired of the superficiality, the ritual, the deadness, the lack of real community, the social club atmosphere…pretty much most of what the author of the aforementioned blog post said. I’m just so disillusioned right now and consequently no longer regularly attend church services.

However, in an effort to find some sort of spiritual community, I recently started attending a small group unaffiliated with any particular church, and geared toward people seeking emotional and relational healing. I wasn’t too impressed at first, even though the people I met were welcoming and friendly. To be honest, I thought at first it just seemed like a navel-gazing session, where everyone rehashed all their child-hood traumas for the umpteenth time. But, because the people were nice, I decided to go back. Well, this past Wednesday evening, as I sat in this brightly-lit room in a basement, surrounded by only four other women, I just spilled some of the things I’ve been struggling with, and instead of the condemnation and judgment I expected, all four women decided to spend some time praying for me. Me, and only me. I protested at first, but they insisted, so I let them pray for me, and afterwards the leader of the group said she felt God wanted her to hug me, because I needed it. So I let this woman hug me, and as she did so, something in me just broke. I sobbed. Hard. Tears of pent up frustration, of loneliness, of despair, of pain, of every negative feeling that has been oppressing me for so long, fell on that woman’s shoulder as she held me close. And as she held me, I felt, in a way, that God Himself was hugging me. Letting me know He understood. That He really did care. That He loved me, despite my brokenness. It was a powerful, cathartic few minutes, and after this woman let me go, the other women took turns hugging me as well, while speaking words of encouragement over me.

When I left that meeting, I felt so much lighter than when I went in. And I felt I had experienced, for the first time in a very long time, a taste of what the Body of Christ is supposed to look like. What the true church ought to look like. People ministering to each other. People being real with each other. A place where the broken, the lame, and the sick can come, just as they are, and be made whole. A place where plastic smiles and superficial spirituality are not allowed. A place where the love of Jesus is not just talked about, but actually seen and experienced. A place where rivers of life flow, in place of stagnant pools of dead doctrine and dogma.

I think it’s sad that most of my experiences of this type have been found outside an institutional church. And apparently I continue to find these pockets of life outside the four walls of a church. But I’ll take what I can get. For however long it lasts. If I must go outside of “church” to find church–real church, that is–then so be it.

I think I’ve had enough of the institutional church. But the other night gave me hope. Hope that not all is lost, and that perhaps, as far away as God feels most of the time to me, He is closer than I think, and just waiting to hold my broken, fragile self close to His heart.

A different perspective…& thoughts on church

So, no more self-pitying today. Despite my last post, in which a flood of emotions just spilled over onto the written page, I am not in the throes of despair merely because I’m single. I keep telling myself I’ll be more positive on this blog, but as is often the case, this place just ends up being my dumping ground. Sometimes all it takes is a day or two for some perspective to take hold of my wayward emotions, and then I realize how silly those emotions really are.

I’ve told myself if I am to remain single I do not want to be the cranky, bitter, self-pitying old maid that no one wants to be around. I have an aunt who is close to 50 and still single, and though I love her to pieces, I’ve often wondered if her crankiness is part of the reason she’s not married. Whether I ever marry or not, I do not want to be that sort of person. Nor do I want to be angry and bitter. Marriage is not a right or guarantee, and though I desire it strongly some day, to demand it from God is unreasonable. It may be very likely I’ll never marry–and I must come to terms with that. But to hold it against God if He never grants me this desire is selfish and silly. He has given me many other blessings in my life, such as the ability to pursue an education, and I confess getting my degree is the one thing I look forward to most right now. It is probably the one thing keeping me going right now. Like the marathon I trained for a few years ago, I know all the pain and effort I’m putting into pursuing this degree will one day pay off and bring great reward and satisfaction once I cross the finish line. And, God-willing, it will open up many doors of opportunity as far as a career is concerned. Doors that are currently shut to me.

So, no, no more self-pity on the singleness front. At least not today. Maybe my “time” is running out as far as marriage is concerned, but even if it is, I certainly don’t want to waste whatever time I have left on this earth bemoaning the fact that I’m not married instead of doing something positive with my life. I have to keep reminding myself of some of my “heroines” of the faith–Amy Carmichael, Corrie Ten Boom, and Gladys Aylward, for example–all single women who made a tremendous impact with their lives. Singleness is not a curse–often it can be a tremendous blessing. And when I stop and really think about it, there are definitely some aspects of singleness I enjoy very, very much. I don’t think I’ll ever stop desiring marriage, and I won’t stop praying for it, but I must learn to appreciate my freedom and independence more, while I’ve still got it.

So as far as singleness goes, that is my pep talk to myself for the day. However, certainly I’m still dealing with many other painful and discouraging issues in my life right now. And today as I drove home from church, I felt like crying again, because those feelings of being unseen and unknown somehow get highlighted the most when I go to church. The truth is, I’m about fed up with church. I’m tempted to give up on it altogether. I’m just so disillusioned with the emptiness of it. I went to the Christmas party for my singles group a couple weeks ago, and yes, everyone was lovely, and I had a decent time, but is it wrong of me to want more than sitting around eating, making pointless small talk and playing silly games? The pastor talked again today about the church being a family, and he even specifically addressed those of us who still feel like we’re on the fringes and trying to remedy that, but somehow his words only felt hollow to me. Especially when during the service he urged us to get into groups and pray for each other, and though I had plenty of people around me, only one young woman, sitting closest to me, actually prayed with me. Everyone else nearby had already formed their own little groups, or gone off elsewhere to seek another group. And the young woman who prayed with me looked rather reluctant to do so. I wondered if I had spiritual “cooties” or something? Sometimes forcing “togetherness,” instead of drawing those of us on the fringes in, only tends to highlight the fact that some of us are on the fringes. Which is awkward, to say the least.

I’m just sick of this charade called “church.” Occasionally I’ll get something out of it, and I suppose I’m better off getting a tiny bit of spiritual nourishment rather than none, but overall, if I come away from church crying and feeling empty inside rather than feeling uplifted, encouraged and/or convicted, then something’s wrong.

I feel like I’m dying spiritually right now, but I no longer know where to turn to find the life and help I’m seeking. Even the one friend who’s stuck with me through thick and thin over the last couple years no longer provides the spiritual and emotional support she once did. She’s into some weird charismatic stuff I don’t ascribe to, and when I do try to share some of my burdens with her, she seems to barely listen and always seems far more interested in talking about her own affairs. She says she prays for me, and I believe her, and am grateful for that at least, but I no longer feel our friendship is the life-giving, mutual relationship it once was. So I’m understandably frustrated and disappointed. I feel like I have nowhere to turn.

I’m trying to keep my chin up. I’m trying to press on. I’m trying to believe that somewhere, somehow, I’ll find the fellowship, the friendships, and the spiritual family I long for. But the honest truth is that with each passing day I grow more and more disillusioned with this thing called church. I haven’t lost my faith, but even that is on some wobbly ground right now. I don’t know where God is in all of this. I know He’s out there, somewhere, and every once in a while I think I hear His voice, but more and more it feels like He’s led me into a vast wilderness and simply abandoned me here.

But enough of my woefulness. This too shall pass. It must. Some way, somehow.

Sad

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I’m not sure why, but tonight a wave of sadness so overwhelmed me, that directly after dinner I put my pajamas on and crawled into bed. And, as I did so, tears began to trickle down my cheeks. Maybe it’s partly PMS. Maybe it was my grandmother’s snappy attitude toward me when I walked into the house earlier this evening.  Actually, I do know that had something to do with it. But I’d been feeling inexplicably blue all day, and after encountering her bad mood, I just wanted to disappear.

I only dozed off for a little bit, and then I finally sat up in bed to force myself to work on a paper for school. As I sat there, I sort of listened to a sermon being preached in the background on the radio, and when the preacher talked about the Body of Christ being a place to find healing and accountability for our brokenness, tears once more cascaded down my cheeks. Oh, if only, I said to myself, or God, out loud. If only that were true in my experience.

I’m not in a good place right now spiritually. Disappointment and disillusionment, with church, with myself, and–dare I say–even God at times, have hardened a once soft heart. I’m grieved over this, but I also don’t exactly know what to do about it. My counselor has been visibly frustrated with me lately, because, for the last few months I’ve found myself stumbling backwards. You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t try, she told me. You have to keep trying. No matter how many times you fail, you have to keep trying.

So, I’ll keep trying. I’m going to a Christmas party tomorrow evening, for the singles group at the charismatic church I’ve been attending, not really because I want to, but because I feel like I have to. I’m also hoping to join a women’s group at another church I’ve been attending. (Yes, I go to two churches now.) I’m seeking fellowship. I’m trying to put myself out there. And yet, my experiences so far have been so damn frustrating, that I don’t have very high expectations anymore.

It’s the seemingly never-ending source of frustration for me: finding meaningful relationships and accountability within the Body of Christ. I’ll keep trying, like I said. But sometimes I’m flat-out exhausted from trying. From dealing with disappointment after disappointment. So when preachers, or anyone else, claim the Body of Christ is where we’re meant to find healing and accountability, I just break down and sob. Because, apart from a few short-lived experiences in my life, that has not been the case for me. The Body of Christ is where I’ve been hurt the most, disappointed the most, rejected the most. And it shouldn’t be any wonder I have such a difficult time trusting and connecting with other Christians. Of course I blame myself. And then that just heaps more guilt and shame on top of the burdens I’m already carrying.

I am a broken, broken person. I have no problem admitting that. But I’m sick and tired of trying to make myself whole. All alone. I am too weak to keep carrying these burdens alone. While I’m definitely grateful for the few Christian friends I have, none are the sort I can just casually meet up with, or pray with, when I’m going through a rough time. Most live too far away for one thing. And so far I’ve been unable to really connect with anyone at either church I’m attending. (Unless you count going to lunch with a guy and then practically being stalked by him as “connecting.”)

So maybe my sadness today really does have a source. Maybe I’m just so weary of living in this place of brokenness and having so few people–if any–to turn to for support. Maybe I’m tired of hearing “healing only happens in community” when that community has been so hurtful and/or elusive for me. Maybe I’m tired of hearing God is enough, when He hasn’t been enough for me, and I feel incredibly guilty that I even think that. Maybe I hate the person I’ve become…indifferent, selfish, spiritually cold and cynical. Maybe, even though I’m disappointed with God, I still miss Him. Maybe all I want is to believe again all the nice, warm and fuzzy things about God that I used to believe. Maybe I’m so disillusioned with church–at least the way it’s done in America–that I feel like throwing in the towel and giving it up altogether. Maybe I just need to get out of this narcissistic, materialistic, self-centered culture I live in and go live with and serve those who have nothing–to remind myself of what truly matters.

But for now, I still feel like crying.

The ache intensifies…

I am more confused and frustrated than ever.

I have tried to seek out answers to some of my theological questions and doubts recently. In doing so, I came across a good apologetics website, that had a bunch of teaching videos on theological issues, so I watched a few. They were pretty good and got me really thinking. But a remark in one video struck me with particular force, considering my struggles lately. The guy teaching mentioned that having a “personal relationship with Jesus” is actually not Biblical. It is more of a “westernized” phrase. The guy pointed out how a lot of cultural assumptions influence our theology. And here in the US, and other western nations, we have very individualistic societies, as opposed to the collectivistic societies of Bible times and other modern-day nations like China. So, during the early church, for example, having a “personal” relationship with Jesus was a completely foreign concept. Knowing and following Jesus was a communal thing. Which makes perfect sense when you read the book of Acts.

Of course, that’s not to say none of us are to endeavor to know and follow Christ individually–there are plenty of examples throughout the Scriptures of those who walked with God and knew Him on a personal level. Such as Enoch, Abraham, King David, the prophets, and the apostle Paul just to name a few. But no one, especially within the church, is to have that personal walk with God in a vacuum. Yet here in the US, and other western nations, we focus so much on the personal aspect of a walk with God, that we do tend to often put it in a vacuum.

And so suddenly I’m wondering if that’s part of my problem. That because of my cultural background and influences I’m putting my relationship with God in a vacuum, so to speak. Even as there is, at the same time, an ache in my heart for community with believers and a rebellion against the individualistic society I’m a part of. Naturally, this war, or tension, within myself is utterly confusing and exasperating. While I won’t argue with the fact that a “personal relationship with Jesus” is a cultural concept, I think it’s nonetheless Biblical to have, at some level, an individual relationship with Him. We have to, at some level. My confusion lies in where does the individual relationship end and the corporate relationship begin? If God is all I need, then why did God say of Adam (in his perfect, not-yet-fallen state no less), “It is not good for the man to be alone”? And why is the church urged not to forsake assembling together? Clearly, we need each other. Clearly, in some capacity, Christ leaves us incomplete if we need each other. So how does this reconcile with the verses that tell us we are complete in Christ?

I just can’t quite figure all this out. And meanwhile this ache and void in my heart just continues to grow. Because, more than anything, I want intimacy. And I don’t know how to have intimacy with Jesus, because as much as He might care for me, it doesn’t feel like intimacy to me when ultimately I know I’m just a small and insignificant part of His larger Body. And I currently still don’t have intimacy within that Body either, leaving me feeling desolately alone most of the time. Then there’s the desire for intimacy with a husband, that also goes unfulfilled.

So I ache. Desperately. And suddenly I don’t know where to turn to fix that ache. I can’t fix the ache within the church. I can’t fix the ache with a husband. And most frightening of all, right now I can’t fix the ache with God either.

More thoughts on intimacy…

I should be studying my precalculus right about now, but instead I feel the need to unburden the confusing, frustrated, and hurting thoughts milling about my head.

Intimacy. Fellowship. Relationship. Friendship. These are things every human longs for. They are natural desires. They are meant to be fulfilled in some way. We are wired this way by God. He said Himself, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

So, why, I keep asking, both myself, and God, are these things still so elusive for me? Why, throughout all my experiences in the church, do I continually find myself feeling like I don’t quite fit in, that deep and meaningful friendships and relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ are so few and far between? I’ve had so few truly fulfilling, truly satisfying experiences in the church, that I’m tempted to give up hope altogether that the “spiritual family” and spiritual friendships I long for will ever materialize.

I’ve been attending a wonderful, Spirit-filled church for the last several months, that I’ve been greatly been blessed by and thank God for, because it’s been a long time since I’ve even attended a church regularly–but as wonderful as this church is, I still feel that familiar, disconnected feeling there. Even in the singles group I’m a part of, I feel out of place, as sweet and friendly as everyone is. I know that part of that out-of-place feeling simply comes from the fact that I happen to fall in that unpleasant category in Christian singledom: mid-thirties, never married and no children. Most of the people in my singles group are not only much older than me, but also divorced with children. So while I put no limitations on friendship, not being able to chime in when most of the people around me are discussing their kids, ex-spouses, etc., definitely hinders me from establishing meaningful relationships. It’s also frustrating when you’re still the “newbie” after several months, and it’s clear everyone else has known each other for a while and formed a friendly rapport with each other.

But more than any of these things, it frustrates me most of all that the majority of the people in this singles group seem more preoccupied with superficial, trivial things than the things of God. Unless we’re actually sitting down in our official “discussion” time, it seems most of the chatter revolves around sports, recreation, painted toenails (for the women), and other trivial matters–which, in and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with, and I’m certainly not opposed to, but when I gather with fellow believers on a Sunday morning, I’m not really there to talk about trivial things. I want to share Christ. I want to pray. I want to be prayed for. I want to see Jesus show up. But how can He, when we’re so preoccupied with everything BUT Him? And how can I ever truly find the sweet, intimate, Christ-centered fellowship I long for, when those around me seem more satisfied with talking about who won the football game and what color their toenails are?

I’m not claiming to be more spiritual than any of these people. Far from it. I like painting my toenails, and I love watching football, but there is a time and place for those things. I just don’t think Sunday mornings are that time and place. And when I sit there, as those around me discuss everything but Jesus, something inside me just aches with loneliness. And I walk away feeling so empty and disappointed. Feeling once again that I don’t fit in. That as much as I long for relationships, apparently I’m not going to find them in church. Or at least I haven’t yet. I’m there, but I’m not there. I’m there, but I’m not known. I’m there, but I’m sitting on the outside looking in. And this is the feeling I’ve had throughout my life, in nearly every church I’ve attended. Most often, it’s been outside the four walls of “church” that I’ve found, in brief periods, sweet, Christ-centered fellowship with other believers. Like the time I sat outside for nearly a whole afternoon, in Brazil, talking in Portuguese with a sweet, sweet Brazilian man who told me he was disappointed that most Christians he knew didn’t want to talk about Jesus. So for nearly a whole afternoon he and I simply talked about Jesus. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and one that, sadly, I really haven’t replicated in my life since then.

Is there something wrong with me? Or is it more than just me? Why is that kind of friendship, fellowship and intimacy so elusive for me? Why do I only seem to find it in isolated pockets and experiences in my life? I’ve been crying out to God for a while now for more Christian friends, deeper relationships, and just a Christian “family” where I feel safe being vulnerable, but so far, even at this church I now attend, such relationships feel so out of reach for me.

I long for intimacy. And I don’t just mean the romantic kind (though I certainly want that too). I long to be known. I long for more than “Hi’s” and half-hearted “How-are-you’s” on Sunday mornings. I long to sit over a cup of coffee with someone, pour out my heart, pray, and just talk about Jesus. But I don’t have that. And I can’t figure out why I don’t. Especially when I pray so much for it, and I’m trying to do all the right things to find it.

So for now, God is all I have. And while having Him is certainly a great comfort, I still struggle in attaining intimacy with Him as well. Sometimes all I want is “Jesus with skin on.”

So here I am, just aching inside, and just wishing the ache would go away.

Thoughts on intimacy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intimacy. What is intimacy? What does it mean to be in an intimate relationship with someone?

I guess intimacy has been so much on my mind because it is the one thing I feel my life sorely lacks and the one thing I crave, more than anything else.

I am, by nature, an introvert, and reserved and a bit shy with people, so developing intimate relationships with people has never been my strong point. I am also currently single, and while I’ve been in physically intimate relationships with men in the past, I’ve never experienced true intimacy–the emotional and spiritual kind–with a man, and I confess, especially as I get older, it is the one kind of intimacy I long for more than any other. Which, I suppose, is only natural.

I’ve stated before that I know, at least intellectually, that only Jesus Christ can fully satisfy these cravings of my heart. And I still know, at least intellectually, that no person–no man, even–can truly, fully meet the longings and needs of my heart. To place that burden on anyone is unhealthy, and I recognize and accept this. I’ve been on the receiving end of someone placing that burden on me (my first boyfriend), and it suffocated me so much I ended the relationship. So I get it. I get that no human being, no matter how wonderful and fulfilling the relationship may be, can truly be expected to meet all my cravings for intimacy, acceptance and love.

But if this is true, and God alone is supposed to satisfy and fulfill me, and meet my needs for intimacy, then why is intimacy with God something I continue to struggle with? I read books and blogs by lots of Christians who tell me that God alone is always enough, that it is only through an intimate relationship with Him that I will find true fulfillment, and I always nod my head in agreement, even though my own heart is feeling completely empty, thirsty and unsatisfied, in spite of my attempts to “draw close” to God.

So, I’ve been wondering, why is this? Where am I going wrong? And do any other Christians struggle with this? Just the other day I sat on a fence at my old childhood home, surrounded by green forests, softly chirping birds, a blue sky, sunshine and a delicious, peaceful silence (aside from the birds), and I poured out my heart to God, with many tears, asking Him why, if He were to be my first Love, and the One I’m most intimate with, then why is He so hard to know? And why must He be invisible and remote, when, in my deepest moments of pain, all I want is two safe, strong, and very visible arms to hold me close? In my pursuit of God, I often feel like I’m playing hide and seek. He’ll let me catch glimpses of Him, and those glimpses are wonderful, but then He disappears again, and I’m left chasing after Him, trying to find Him again. I have this very vivid picture in my mind of being in this beautiful forest playing hide and seek with God. I know He’s there in the forest with me, so that’s somewhat comforting, but He’s always just out of reach. I’ll see Him just ahead of me, peeking around a tree, and excited, I run toward His direction, hoping to finally catch Him, only to find He’s disappeared again by the time I get to the tree. And on and on this game goes. He’s always just ahead of me, “teasing” me as it were, peeking around trees, but actually getting close to Him, or being caught up in His tangible embrace, is always just out of reach.

Naturally, this game of hide and seek with God is extremely frustrating for me. I know, as wiser Christians keep reminding me, that I’ll never develop intimacy with God unless I spend time with Him, and to spend time with God I am supposed to pray and read His Word. Well, I confess, I do derive some comfort from “spending time” with God in this way, but the truth is, at least lately, even praying and reading His Word seem to give me only so much satisfaction. I still come away, not only feeling thirsty, but asking more and more questions. I’ve been delving into the Old Testament lately, and the more I do, the more I shake my head in bewilderment at many of the passages I read, as I honestly ask myself, How do I develop an intimate relationship with a God who is so beyond my reach, so utterly holy, and, quite frankly, downright frightening at times? I know He is love as well as holy, and there are many beautiful passages that express His love toward me. I know, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, I am supposed to be justified before Him, and given access to Him. But still, I find myself drawing back in fear, because I ask myself, How can a sinful, puny little human truly have an intimate relationship with the God of the universe? Especially the God I believe in, as described in Scripture? How can I truly be intimate with someone I am afraid of? If I were married, I would only be able to have an intimate relationship with my husband if I were not afraid of him. Obviously. So, if intimacy with God is more fulfilling than even a marital relationship, then how does the fear of God factor into this? How is fear truly compatible with intimacy? Is there something I’m missing?

I haven’t read any books, or heard any sermons, that address this issue. And so I am left, for the time being, wrestling on my own with these thoughts, questions and frustrations. The only comfort and quasi-answers I’m finding in Scripture are passages written by the apostle John. I like to call John the “apostle of love,” because he seems to write more about the love of God than any other writer in the New Testament. Even he states in 1 John 4:18–a favorite Scripture of mine–that “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” So how do I reconcile this statement with so many other Scriptures that tell me to fear God and portray God as a fearful Being? This is where I’m struggling. I understand the need to fear God. I understand the seriousness of sin. I understand how that separates us from God. I understand Jesus’ blood cleanses us and reconciles us to God. But somehow, none of these truths make me feel truly secure in my relationship with God. They don’t make me feel close to Him or able to truly enter into any kind of intimacy with Him.

When I think of God, I think of my earthly father, who, while never failing to tell me of his love for me, and even showing it to me in different ways, still caused me to draw back from him in fear because he was the strict disciplinarian in our family, and he could/can often be quite intimidating in his “wrath.” I’ve never been able to have an intimate relationship with him, despite his repeated assurances of his love for me, because I’m too afraid of him. Likewise, I feel too afraid of God to truly have intimacy with Him, even though His Word assures me of His love for me. I’m afraid of His anger. I’m afraid of His wrath. I’m afraid of His holiness.

So when people tell me to have an intimate relationship with God, is this really possible? And for those Christians that claim to have this kind of relationship with God, not only am I envious, but I want to know how they enjoy this sort of relationship. Because I’m not sure what I’m missing. I’m envious of the apostle John, who the Scriptures always portray as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and resting against Jesus’ breast. That’s the kind of intimacy I want with God. I don’t think Jesus loved John more than any other disciple–at least that’s not how I interpret those passages of Scripture. I simply think John was somehow able to enter into a more intimate relationship with Jesus than any other disciple, and because of this intimacy with Christ, he had perhaps greater insight into the love of God than the other disciples. Which is why he wrote about love so much. But that is just my hunch.

So, practically speaking, how do I find this all-satisfying intimacy with Christ, that apparently John had, and other Christians have? Why is it so elusive to me personally? Is it really, truly possible to have intimacy with an invisible Spirit? To find satisfaction, when one’s faith wants so desperately to be sight? Or, is it more like the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13–“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known”? Must I learn to simply be content with dissatisfaction, as contradictory as that sounds? Is true intimacy, whether with God, or another human being, even possible? And if not, what do I do with this cavernous thirst, this profound emptiness, that haunts my soul? I feel like an utter failure as a Christian for even admitting I’m wrestling with these things.

I’m sharing these struggles here because, sadly, I don’t currently have any brothers or sisters in Christ I feel safe admitting these questions and frustrations to. And that in itself only frustrates me more. Despite the fact that I’ve found a church, and that I’ve even made some new friends there, all my relationships there, and with other believers, are mostly surface-level relationships only. I have no one right now I can truly open up to. Either most people I know aren’t on the same page spiritually, or they are simply not interested in developing anything beyond a very superficial relationship. So, even though I have some fellowship now, and I’m definitely grateful for that, I still feel like I’m starving relationally.

I’m starving for intimacy. Even in the midst of a loving family, even in the midst of a wonderful church, even in the midst of new friendships…I feel alone. Desperately alone. And I wonder if there is anyone else who feels the way I do.

How do I find the intimacy I crave? Will I ever find it with a husband? Will I ever find it with God? Will this emptiness, this thirstiness, this hunger, ever go away? Or will it haunt me till I die? Will it only be satisfied when I leave this mortal body?

I wish I had the answers. For now I’m simply searching. Praying. Wrestling. Hoping this gaping hole in my heart will one day be filled.

Imprisoned by the past

“Why can’t we just sweep all of that under the rug and let the past be the past?” So says an old man, pleadingly, angrily, to his daughter, who has, once again, unintentionally embarrassed him by reminding him of his past life.

A little while later, after being confronted by someone from his past, he is seen collapsing into a chair, his body convulsing with heart-rending sobs.

Both these scenes are from a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel “Little Dorrit.” I am a huge Charles Dickens fan, and I just recently watched this masterpiece of a drama for the second time. However, this time the movie touched me in a way it hadn’t before, as I suddenly realized how much of myself I saw in one of the drama’s main characters–old Mr. Dorrit.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, “Little Dorrit” tells the tale of a man, and his family (the Dorrits), who, after being stuck in a debtors’ prison for over twenty years, suddenly find freedom and wealth when they learn of an unclaimed inheritance. Transitioning from the bottom rungs of society to the very top proves to be a challenge for all of the Dorrits, but most especially for the father, Mr. Dorrit, who, having been accustomed to prison for so long, finds his newfound freedom, wealth, and “respect” exhilerating at first, but eventually more than he can handle.

Even as he moves among the elite in society, travels Europe, and does his best to “fit in” with those of the upper-class, he is continually reminded of his humble, painful days in the prison. Mostly by his youngest daughter Amy–known affectionately as “Little Dorrit”–who finds it difficult to give up her humble ways and become a proper “lady of leisure,” but also by former friends and aquaintances who knew him during his stay in the prison. Finally, toward the end of the story, his mind begins to crack, as paranoia sets in and he begins to imagine everyone is mocking him and talking badly of him, and at last, he loses his mind completely and then he dies.

There are other happier parts to the story, thankfully, but Mr. Dorrit’s storyline, as tragic as it is, is what struck me most profoundly, for although I’ve never been in an actual prison, I, like Mr. Dorrit, know what it’s like to live daily in the prison of my own mind, which, even once it finds freedom externally, can never forget the past–especially when people from the past continually return to refresh painful memories and reinforce old lies. It’s like an analogy I once was told about elephants: once they are trained via chains to remain standing in one spot, even when those chains are removed, they still stand there, unwilling to run away, convinced in their scarred minds that the chains are still there.

This, unfortunately, is the reality of anyone, like myself, or a fictional Mr. Dorrit, who has gone through tremendously painful, humiliating, and/or traumatic experiences. As Richard Lovelace put it so eloquently in his poem “To Althea, from Prison:”

“Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.”

So much, at least externally, has changed for me for the better recently. Like Mr. Dorrit, I’m tasting freedom for the first time in many areas of my life. Outwardly, most would say I am doing well. But true freedom is never found in external circumstances. True freedom only really happens in one’s mind and spirit. The cruelest, darkest prisons are not physical ones, but the ones imposed in our own minds. As Lovelace says, a mind “innocent and quiet” could take even an actual iron-barred prison and find peace there. I envy those with such unscarred, peaceful minds. Minds not continually haunted by memories of a painful past. Minds not tormented by a past that one wishes every day one could forget. Minds not continually reminded of the person one used to be by people from that past who continue to reject and turn a cold shoulder, seeing you always as “that person.”

Like Mr. Dorrit, there are days, especially after running into people I used to know, when I retreat somewhere and simply weep. Weep in agony that, no matter how hard I try to escape my past, no matter how much I change, no matter how affirming close friends and family are, no matter how well some aspects of my life may be going, all it takes to send me spiraling downward is a confrontation with those who hurt me in the past and continue to hurt me with their coldness and disregard. I know I shouldn’t let these people get to me. I try to remind myself of all those who have built me up instead of torn me down, but my mind much more easily believes the negative over the positive. Like the elephant, I know that, in reality, my chains are gone. But in my mind those chains are never really gone. And when others treat you as if those chains are still there, it’s even easier for the mind to believe that somehow one can never truly escape. That one is forever imprisoned by one’s past.

I know in Christ I am supposed to be free. I know all about “renewing one’s mind.” I know, at least intellectually, that I am loved by Christ–that no matter my past, no matter how others perceive me and treat me–I am who He says I am, and not who others say I am.

But still I struggle. And I believe I struggle because my painful past involves a cult-like church and many hypocritical Christians who, instead of loving and reaching out to a lonely, broken, hurting outcast, contributed to her pain. And who, even to this day, when I should come across them, turn away from me as if I somehow have the plague. Like Mr. Dorrit, I just want to say, why can’t the past be left where it is? In the past? Why must it continually thrust its ugly face into my own via the voices of those whose looks alone tell me all I need to know about myself? “You’re unloveable.” “Something’s wrong with you.” “You’re wicked.” “You’re not godly enough.” “You’re messed up.” “Once an outcast, always an outcast.”

The mind is a cruel prison. A cruel prison I long to escape from. And I keep trying to escape. But, like Mr. Dorrit, I’m so accustomed to my imprisonment, that freedom itself is a scary, overwhelming thing that I’m not sure I would know how to handle.

I hope I don’t succumb to paranoia one day and lose my mind completely (though I’ve felt I’ve come close before)–I hope the end to my story is a happy one and not a sad one–but, as of now, I don’t know how to break free of my mental chains. I don’t know how to handle those reminders of my past (mainly people) that keep me locked up behind bars thicker and stronger than ones of actual iron.

I can only hope and trust that the grace of God will somehow do what I cannot do. And that someday I will possess a soul, and mind, that is completely free and, with the angels soaring above, able to “enjoy such liberty”…

On Pat Robertson & being apalled

I don’t normally comment on current news, events, or goings-on in the Christian world on this blog, but after reading the following articles regarding some statements by a well-known Christian “leader”–and watching the accompanying videos–I feel compelled to share some thoughts.

The articles and videos can be found here and here.

Hopefully any discerning Christian with half a brain agrees with me that the time has come for dear Pat Robertson to step down, step aside, and stop opening his mouth. Men like him are just one more reason American evangelical Christianity has become such a laughingstock to the world. If we are mocked and persecuted for the sake of the gospel, that’s perfectly acceptable, but to be mocked and ridiculed because someone claiming to be one of us keeps opening his mouth and saying absolutely ludicrous, chauvinistic, and un-Christlike nonsense is totally unacceptable. This man does not represent Christ. And I wholeheartedly disagree with 99% of what came out of his mouth.

Should a woman, by the power of the Holy Spirit, forgive and love her cheating husband? Absolutely. But overlook it? Absolutely not. Diminish it, because, as Robertson says, “he’s a man” and “all men tend to wander”? Absolutely not. Take responsibility for it? Because, somehow, it must be her fault he cheated? Absolutely, unequivocally, most resoundingly not!

Why anyone listens to this man and gives him credibility is beyond me. For any so-called “man of God” that essentially says it’s ok for a man to cheat on his wife and that it’s the wife’s fault he cheats in the first place should be seen for what he truly is: absolutely deluded. And certainly not a “man of God.”

Pat Robertson just gives the perfect example, and provides one more reason, why I am so disgusted and disillusioned with so much of what passes for “Christianity” these days.

If only people out there calling themselves Christians would stop looking to mere men for advice and spiritual direction. Stop putting all these fallible, sinful men up on pedestals and expect them to tell you how to act and behave. Get out your Bible. Read it. Pray. And seek out those who do the same. Put Christ first. Not man. Christ is the only One we can really trust.

I wish the people at the megachurch I serve at would do this. Much to my disappointment, both of my fellow ESL teachers basically defended the pastor of the church, who, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is being accused of sexual misconduct. I also saw news interviews with some of the congregants, who defended him as well, some giving him all the praise for “saving them.” Yikes. Wake up, people. Never look to man to save you. And if you think this pastor “saved” you, you need to start reading your Bible. Only Jesus saves.

I guess all of this hullabaloo–both with Pat Robertson, and with the pastor at my local megachurch–just goes to show how biblically illiterate and undiscerning much of American Christianity is nowadays.

How incredibly, tragically sad.

Reflections on Easter

It’s Easter. Or Resurrection Sunday. Or whatever one prefers to call it.

I should be happy, joyful, remembering that Jesus is alive, and all He did for me. I should feel more than I do on a day like this. Instead, I feel dead inside. I’m struggling. Wondering some moments how I can keep on going. Wondering what’s so wrong with me and will things ever get better. Wondering why church feels as dead as I feel inside.

I went to three services today. I went to an outdoor sunrise service first thing this morning with a friend of mine. It was a bit chilly, but the wooded scenery was nice and the service was sweet and short. I couldn’t really get into the spirit of things, however, or pay too much attention to the sermon, because a little field mouse decided to show up and distract those of us sitting near its little hideaway in a crevice of the rock bench in front of us. He was a cute little thing, and kept poking his head and beady eyes out of the crevice to look at us. He apparently wanted to get out, but we kept scaring him back in, till, at last, near the end of the service, he got bold enough to make a mad dash for it. He scampered across the ground toward our rock bench, where apparently he found another crevice to hide in. But what a commotion and distraction he caused. It was kind of funny, actually. Those of us who enjoyed his antics affectionately labeled him our “church mouse.”

After the sunrise service, and a yummy breakfast served at the church, I joined my friend for the regular early-morning service, and while it was nice, it just felt like the same ho-hum routine church service. It just felt like all of us were going through the motions, and I admittedly nearly dozed off a couple times. After it was over, it was still fairly early in the morning, so on the spur of the moment, as I drove toward home, I decided, after phoning my sister, to join her at her church service. This service, at a Presbyterian church, felt “deader” than the Baptist one I went to earlier. I looked around me at the well-dressed congregation, and I realized that there was a time I would have felt somewhat at home there (I used to attend this church many years ago), but no longer. I suddenly missed the little Spanish church, with its poorer folk, and its livelier music and sermons. I felt as if I were attending a funeral at the Presbyterian church. Oh the songs were good–good, solid hymns, most of them–and the sermon was good and doctrinally sound. But there was no life there. And I felt lifeless sitting there.

Maybe that’s what’s missing in most churches these days. Maybe that’s what’s missing in me. Life. On a day like today, I should be filled to overflowing with life, remembering the One Who gives me eternal Life. But instead I feel numb and dead. And nearly every church I walk into feels numb and dead as well. As much as I hate to say it, and as much as many Christians here in the US like to “complain” about it, I think a good dose of persecution would be a good thing for the American church. Persecution would awaken us out of our slumber and awaken my own dead, cold heart. Sometimes (ok, often) I wish I’d been born in a different country, where life is harder, and where persecution is normal. I envy Christians in Africa, China, Indonesia, and other parts of the world who truly understand what it means to follow Christ, because of the suffering they endure. I don’t envy their suffering, of course, but I envy the joy and abundant life they seem to possess, even in the midst of their sufferings.

My own life has been full of suffering, though of a different sort, and while there are days when my pain seems too much to bear, and I don’t know how I can go on, at other times I am grateful for it, because without it I think I would survey life on a more superficial level. There’s something about being stripped of everything you hold dear that really “wakes” you up, as it were. You realize money isn’t important, looks aren’t important, intelligence isn’t all that important, possessions don’t matter…nothing matters but your very soul, and it stands naked, like every other soul in the world, before a holy, loving, and righteous God, Who could snuff it out in an instant if He chose to. Before Him we are all equals, and before the Cross we are all equals.

So how is it, on a day like today, that symbolizes life–Real Life–that I feel so lifeless, and the Christianity I see around me appears lifeless as well? Jesus has to be more real than a Sunday school lesson or a dry, doctrinally sound sermon. If He is truly alive, then I should feel alive as well. I’m sick of religion. I’m sick of lifeless, mediocre Christianity. I’m sick of my own lifeless heart. I’m sick of being sick.

I watched part of The Gospel of John movie the other day–the last part, which portrays the Last Supper and Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection–and it made me cry. It made me wish I had been there, over two thousand years ago. It made me want to see Him, face to face. And it made me more aware of the contradictions and hypocrisy in my own life. Because, if I truly believe Jesus is as alive now as He was then, and that He’s with me, then why don’t I live as if He is? Why don’t most Christians? We profess one thing with our lips, and yet live as if we have no idea what we’re talking about.

He’s alive. As much now as He was then. So why am I so dead inside? And why is the church so dead?

I’m just rambling. But I’m simply fed up. Fed up with myself and the church.

On a day that symbolizes Life, that’s what I find lacking and want so much. I just want Life. Abundant Life, as Jesus promised.

I have a dream…

I have a dream.

A dream of a beautiful church. A church where rich, poor, black, white, prep, goth, beautiful, not-so-beautiful, broken, whole, American, Asian, African and every other nationality and ethnicity worship together. A church without partiality. A heterogeneous church. A church made beautiful by its diversity and yet made one by the indwelling Spirit of Christ. A church where the only head is Christ, not a single man labelled a “pastor”–a church where truth and love are not mutually exclusive–a church where no one is marginalized or “slips through the cracks”–a church where discipleship is a way of life–a church where the Spirit is allowed to move freely–a church that is neither hyper-charismatic nor cessationist–a church that doesn’t water down the Gospel–a church that is worship-driven, and not entertainment-driven–a church that seeks out the lost and broken–a church where, most of all, Christ is glorified, and not man.

This is my dream. But, sadly, in the worldly and divided church that makes up most of Western Christendom, I recognize this dream most likely will never be a reality. And I also recognize I am just as much a part of the problem as anyone else. But as I deal with my own issues, and seek to become the more godly woman God wants me to be, I’ve become more and more frustrated at my inability to find a church where at least a few of the above qualities are exhibited. I know, in this fallen world, and within a church made up of saints who still sin, there will never be such a thing as a “perfect” church, and I don’t seek a “perfect” church–but I continue to wrestle with so much disillusionment when it comes to the modern, Western church.

I realize my background of growing up in a nearly-cult-like church that left me deeply scarred still influences how I perceive the church, and what I feel it should look like, but in the thirteen years since I left that negative environment, I’ve struggled to find a church where I have truly felt at home. I have felt like an “outsider” within the Body of Christ for most of my life, and while I’ve questioned over and over if this is entirely my fault or not, lately I’ve begun to wonder if my perspective as an “outsider” is God’s way of giving me more of a heart for other “outsiders.”  Maybe, just maybe, instead of seeing my difficulties as a curse, I should instead see them as a blessing in disguise. Maybe I was never meant to “fit in.” At least not in the way that most homogeneous churches these days qualify “fitting in.” If fitting in means dressing a certain way, acting a certain way, and presenting a superficial spirituality to those around me, then I absolutely will never “fit in.” And I no longer want to. I’m tired of trying to live up to other Christians’ superficial expectations of me.

But even as I’m learning that feeling like an “outsider” is not necessarily a bad thing, and that hopefully God can use this “outsider” to reach out to other “outsiders,” I’m still frustrated at my inability to find a church home. Or at least a group of believers who would be able to provide me with safe, Biblical fellowship and discipleship. It seems every time I think I’ve found a group to “plug into,” there is at least one aspect of the group that troubles me and causes me to leave. I met with a group in a home for a short time, and while they were some of the most loving people I’d ever met, they were into some crazy, charismatic stuff that really disturbed me, and I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, participate in or agree with everything they were doing and teaching. So I left.

Then, just recently, I started attending a megachurch (much to my own astonishment, as, generally, I’m not a big fan of megachurches). It’s very entertainment-driven, with dance, rock-and-roll music, and watered-down preaching, but I liked the fact that it was full of the very sort of people I don’t see in most churches: the poor, the broken, the homeless, the “outsiders.” The kind of people I wish were in more churches. So I was willing to overlook the things I didn’t like about the church, all for the sake of being in a less stuffy, more heterogeneous atmosphere, until I found out, quite unexpectedly, that there were issues of immorality and spiritual abuse going on with the pastor and leadership. So once again I’m left with a stricken conscience, wondering if I should stop going.

The only ray of hope so far in all of this is another church service I’ve attended twice now. It’s a little Spanish congregation that’s affiliated with the megachurch, but meets in a different building and has a different pastor, and both times I’ve gone I’ve been welcomed warmly. The service is entirely in Spanish, and everyone but me are Hispanics, most of whom look as if they come from rougher parts of town, but so far I’ve really enjoyed my visits, and I’ve already been befriended and introduced to several people. They’re very enthusiastic in their worship, the pastor preaches fiery sermons that rouse loud claps, “Amens,” and other exclamations in Spanish, and I’ve been surprised at how much I actually understand, despite my rusty Spanish. I’m hoping that attending this church will, at the very least, give me an avenue to serve. I hope to begin helping out with their ESL classes–I sat in on one two nights ago and had a lovely time meeting some of the students and getting to know one of the teachers, a friendly and sweet Hispanic guy.

So I’m thankful I seem to have found some sort of fellowship for the time being, but my heart aches to be connected in a deeper way to other believers, and to receive the sort of discipleship and accountability I so desperately need. Going to church every Sunday is one thing, but I want so much more, and I continue to feel frustrated at my inability to find that “more” I want and need.

I’m tired of feeling like an island, but, so far, when I look around me at most churches, I find myself so disillusioned I want to give up altogether trying to find a place I can call “home.”

I’ll keep praying, I’ll keep searching, but maybe I simply have to lower my expectations and try to come to terms with the fact that my dream of the church, or anything remotely similar, is just that: a dream.