The Holy Awkward with Pastor Ryan

Basic Faith and Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Basic Faith and Pumpkin Spice Latteswon’t lie to you, but today I caved and purchased my first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season at Starbucks.  It was one of those impulse things where the weather was semi-blustery and the morning ride into work called for something seasonal to boost my mood.

For me, things like PSLs, stores selling decorations two holidays ahead, and playing Christmas music that doesn’t make sense before Thanksgiving or even during Advent for that matter reveal the predictable complacency we buy into.

How often do we act on these seasonal impulses or urges and can we apply them to our attitude towards church?

People generally can go into any church nowadays with the expectation that coffee will be provided in some manner, someone else can babysit their children, free welcome gifts abound, and that one can contribute to something good in the greater community by stroking a check, but letting someone else do it.  I think we can draw parallels between today’s cultural norms and expectations with a faith or way of “doing church” that is at its core, BASIC.

The first effect of a basic faith is when the church limits faith to a therapeutic lens or in more blunt terms, a “feel good mentality.”

Is faith really something that should always feel predictable or comfortable?  Or should we embrace faith as a continuum where we are always hungering for more?

One of my favorite stories in the gospels is the one about the rich young ruler, who approached Jesus with the impression that he had checked off all the boxes he needed to in order to live his faith with a degree of satisfaction.  And yet, even after citing that he knew his Scriptures cover to cover among other things, Jesus told him there was still more to be done.

I think we could make the case that what is basic or predictable makes us feel good.  Like PSLs and other things we look forward to that drive our consumer attitude, churches too can promote a theology that lends itself to a false sense of comfort or contentment.  

Take churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Texas that follow a prosperity gospel path.  To clarify what I mean by prosperity gospel churches, I call upon a former seminary professor of mine, Dr. Kate Bowler of Duke Divinity School.  She describes these churches as the “Christianity of the American marketplace” and for most of their participants, their pastors function as “America’s counselors, self-help advisors as trusted as professional therapists (Blessed 2013).  The reason Osteen is so appealing is that he provides people with fodder for quotes on Facebook or a desk calendar at work that make people feel like they can move on with the expectation that God will never give us more than we can handle.  Sadly, many do not see the clichéd, misinformed theology behind his ministry persona.  There is a point where the message of “God will reward you for the strength of your faith in tangible ways” grows stale and if I am being honest, unrealistic.  When do our efforts to SWEETEN church make it STALER?  A church that leaves us with casual blessedness rather than joy-filled anticipation. 

I think of the Wave Church, a megachurch not too far from my home in Virginia Beach that really seemed to correlate faith with satisfaction on all fronts.  You can pass by this church on Great Neck Road and mistake it for a high rise corporate office building with a mall-size parking lot.  Their worship is like a concert production and their staff is twice the size of any large United Methodist Church.  But what troubles me is that their membership is built upon a tiered structure of tithing.  In the last few years, a woman was convicted of fraud because she wanted to be able to give enough money to be accepted at the Wave Church!  The woman’s attorney discovered that the Wave Church is a “three-tiered society,” where the “Kingdom People” who give the highest amount are “considered closest to God and made part of the Church inner circle and bestowed many privileges” (https://pilotonline.com/news/local/crime/attorney-woman-helped-steal-k-to-become-more-prominent-church/article_4fb95bc9-fd7d-5510-9543-8a5ca9ca4ffc.html)

The Church doesn’t help itself when it treats discipleship like a menu where everything is mapped out in black and white terms.  In several ways, the church loses its sense of its identity when it is not giving people something to examine within their faith journey.  If we are not striving towards anything, what is the point?  There is life on the other side of that cross we often put weighted emphasis on, and if we forget about the person who was on it, we lose sight of that new way of seeing and being. 

The second effect of basic faith is falling in love with the “fringe idea.” Think of the churches you may have encountered in that last ten years that get fixated on these fringe ideas to the point where they get lost in communicating the message and fall short of the content of it.  Let’s do church in a pub or let’s set up this elaborate coffee bar in our welcome area to get young people to come back.  Let’s set up accounts on all the social media platforms out there, only for them to go underused.  Let’s come up with this new church logo or brand that is edgy or clever to reach those unchurched people out there.  And while these all have proven to have some value when treated as the support or vehicle to communicate the heart of the gospel, many times have they become many churches’ own worst enemy.  There comes a point where we exhaust too much energy into the idea for making the gospel accessible that we lose sight of the core or the why of what it is we are doing.

And so I pose to you for thought, when does faith, or our understanding of church for that matter, become lost in a sea of trends?

 

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Why “praying it away” doesn’t cut it (Confessions of a Broken Preacher)

The first one felt like a heart attack.  I was in my second year at UVA.  Picture a large lecture hall filled with

hundreds of students and you clinging to your seat with a headache as tight as a rubber band, tingling hands and a heart racing so fast your chest begins to hurt.  I thought I was gonna pretty much collapse or die in the middle of Intro to Politics 101.

Several blood tests, doctor appointments, medications, pastoral conversations, and late night phone calls later, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.  Contrary to common misconception, this is not the same as the various normal anxious responses to stress, change, etc.  It is a mental illness that many deal with day-to-day as others do with depression, bipolar, and others.

This has nothing to do with me getting nervous before I preach, nor is it about feeling uncomfortable interacting with people at all!  In fact, I find joy in being around lots of people.  The scary part of this thing I live with is that it does not always have a clear, identifiable trigger, but leads my body to react as if it were in constant fear or danger.  For me specifically, it is a fear of losing control over my body and my thoughts.  In its first iterations back in college, it led to many sleepless nights, constant coping with feel-good rom-coms, odd eating habits, and even some concerning weight loss.

I have always been a constant doer.  An extrovert.  A type-A sort of guy.  My Enneagram is a 2, which translates to “Helper.”  That is to say, I worry about people.  I care about people.  I read too much into people’s emotions behind emails or texts.  And with that, I sometimes lose track of me.  This and so much more had built up inside me that year in college to a point where I finally caved.   What had once been a strong animosity towards getting help for something I thought I could figure out on my own had been replaced by a new sort of attitude.  You see, I had associated counseling with shame and the stigma of being viewed by others as “complicated” or “crazy.”

I speak openly and candidly about this experience because I have come to a place of gratitude for the way the idea of counseling was presented to me by my campus minister when I thought I had reached a breaking point.  Deborah and I had met several times around the valley I was wading through, but I remember her being very clear that while faith was very much a part of the moving forward, it did not negate the importance of making informed choices.

The Psalmist acknowledges an understanding of God who created us out of fear and wonder (Psalm 139).  And with that, we have to recognize that we are delicate and susceptible enough to the complex things of this world that may impact us biologically, socially, or emotionally.  My concern, however, is that not all of these conversations around the Church and mental illness end with these thoughts in mind.  And it begs the serious question as to how we as the Church are or are not creating space where individuals or families facing mental illness can have support without a fear of being problematized.  The fear of being belittled or made to feel inadequate because one has a “lack of faith” or has lost in a conflict of “spiritual warfare.”

I don’t like to rain on one’s parade, but most Christian movies released in the last several years fall short of navigating such human realities without spinning them through a rose-colored lens, not to mention poor production value and troubling theology.  I like to call this the War Room heresy because I cannot tell you how many times someone has told me to lean into my faith and hold out with prayer in the midst of my most desperate trials with this anxiety disorder.  In all honesty, the last thing I wanted to do during a severe panic attack was center myself in stillness and pray.  I wanted to curl up in a ball in my bed with the lights off or stand in a steaming hot shower letting the water hit my face.  In conversations with some, it felt as if they saw my anxiety as a demon possessing me and that my faith was a measurable thing.  I did not like it.  I felt attacked when some would say I needed to be more true to the faith inside of me.

A couple of Sundays ago, I talked about the importance of letting our stories inform our ministries.  In other words, how can our various life experiences shape our response to God’s call in our lives or how we minister to others?  And so, I have been pondering lately through my own story what would be some helpful conversation points when helping the Church grow in its approach to conversations around mental illness:

  • Don’t present faith as the bandaid, but instead, the affirmation that nurtures choice and decision.  The Church really should avoid a “praying it away” “read your Bible more” attitude when it comes to mental illness.  This can often enhance the severity of the situation because it carries a patronizing or legalistic tone that says we are not doing enough.  God relates to us on this journey in unique ways that we sew together with God.  Leave room for the relational character of God to enter in and instead of telling them what they need to fix, remind them that we are called to lament just as much as we are called to praise.  In that lamenting, you might encourage them to seek resources that are available to them.   
  • Counseling and therapy resources are enriching integrations of faith and appropriate treatment.  The United Methodist Church has repeatedly adopted a resolution that states the following: We believe that faithful Christians are called to be in ministry to individuals and their families challenged by disorders causing disturbances of thinking, feeling and acting categorized as “mental illness.” We acknowledge that throughout history and today, our ministries in this area have been hampered by lack of knowledge, fear and misunderstanding. Even so, we believe that those so challenged, their families and their communities are to be embraced by the church in its ministry of compassion and love.  Professional help can be a means of grace in the way it allows individuals to receive guidance without having to put on mask.
  • Be a visible reminder of God’s grace and presence yourself rather than attempting to pinpoint what God is or is not doing.  “God is in control” (while one might think it sounds reassuring) carries a lot of theological problems. The last thing you want to say to someone who has hit a breaking point in their struggles with mental illness is this phrase, especially in times where he or she might feel helpless.  We have a God who desires a relationship with us and yet who also gives us the creative gift to act and to choose.  In other words, don’t attempt to rationalize mental illness as part of God’s plan.  The grace you are extending by listening, empathizing and encouraging is so much more important than trying to put a flag on where God is in the situation; for the grace you display is a window into God’s providence and dwelling within the space of uncertainty. 
  • Shift Church culture away from one of hesitancy towards one of understanding.  A posture of hesitancy is easy to adopt when there is a lack of knowledge or awareness a part from what media and culture have wired us to assume.  Imagine if a student joined a youth group and shared that they had chronic bouts with depression only to discover that the group was taken aback or that the youth leader had no idea how to respond.  Foster opportunities where these discussions can be had, be it a book study, a conversation group, or within the context of a sermon series.
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