Experience Vs. Theology

In June of last year, the hardest season of my life began. As I concluded my year of service as the Discipleship Pastor at my home church, God spoke a whisper in my heart. Though I had an inkling about one immediate consequence of that whisper, I had no clue of the ramifications that would result from it. Even now, I’m sure many are still unknown.

Within a matter of weeks, I moved 600 miles from home to continue my studies at seminary. I had many plans, but God didn’t seem to care for many of them. As God decimated my idea of safety and allowed every aspect of my life to be marred, I found myself in a place where I had never been: caught between my experience and my theology. They no longer matched.

The God I had known relationally for so long, had studied for years, and had taught so many people about seemed different from the God I was currently experiencing. His actions appeared separate from His character. And as I shared my story with others, I discovered many who felt this same tension. It caused me to ask myself the question: What am I supposed to do when my experience is in tension with my theology? When the God I see in Scripture seems so different from the God I’m choosing to follow now? 

I’m sure there are ample responses and possible answers to this question, which are likely unique for each person. But for me, God kept telling me to stop trying to do something to change my circumstances and perception. I wanted to be able to explain my problems somehow, when in actuality there was only one who fully understood them—and He wasn’t me. I was trying to defend God, when finally He helped me realize that was never my job. There is no way that God can be fully rationalized, for even when we may be able to explain Him intellectually, we are not able to fully rationalize Him to our hearts. This requires faith, many say. Yet that’s not really my job either. My responsibility is to be faithful, yes. But how can I have faith without God first demonstrating that He is worth having faith in?

I was reminded of how many times people in Scripture called out to God, pleading for Him to show Himself strong for the sake of His name. David begged this of God constantly, like in Psalm 143:11, “For Your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!”

I am utterly powerless to defend God, whether it’s to myself or to others. But I believe that He’s strong enough to defend Himself, and that He actually quite enjoys it.

So when what I know about God does not match God in my current life circumstances, when my theology is at odds with my experience, I have to learn to embrace the tension. I choose to trust that He’ll come through and redeem Himself to me. What stinks is that He might let me sit in the tension and distress for a while. But if I allow for the tension and let God be God, He will prove Himself and come through. And if He ever doesn’t, I’ll let you know.

“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” – Psalm 9:10

**Since this is an issue that God must deal uniquely with for each individual, I wonder, what have you learned about the times when your theology and experience are in tension? I’d love to hear your story and/or thoughts, so leave your comments below.

My Confession

I write today with a broken heart. But it’s a good brokenness. The kind where God has to break something which seems whole in order to refashion it to be like Him.

I don’t know the way God works in your life, but in mine it’s all about seasons. For one season, he’ll give me extra joy, contentment, fullness, and grace. But soon, He leads me through times of sorrow, inadequacy, lack, and utter dependency. The ironic part about God’s seasons is that during most there is both harvest and pruning, sowing and reaping. While I’m experiencing the abundant fruit of the last season, He’s planting and pruning areas for the next.

So what season is this? It’s one of deep pruning. Within the last few months, I’ve experienced a lot of life. From the loss of my grandfather, leaving my job, going on a missions trip, moving to a new state, leaving my entire community of family and friends, and starting school, it seems that there have been transitions in every part of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time facing the truth of my own heart and dealing with the ugliness. During a time of abundance, it’s hard to see the weeds and the seeds that were choked out underneath the surface, but as my life has been stripped down, God has been revealing the barrenness.

So here’s my confession:

I’m a perfectionist. I’ve built my whole life and self-worth on performance, the things that I do well. The good part about this is that I love to grow. I love to be a part of always making things better than they are now. And because of this drive, I’ve experienced lots of “success” and really exciting accomplishments. Spiritually speaking, I most love the change and growth that comes from seeing a broken life made new. There’s nothing quite as exciting as healing from pain and depravity, seeing transformation to wholeness in a person’s life. Since I love this process, this is the most important goal that I’m driven to pursue: life change.

But here’s the problem. Building my life on accomplishment is a big house with a weak foundation. No matter how tall it gets, it’s always susceptible to crumbling down. Finding my value in what I do well keeps me from finding my value in Christ. I have a hard time accepting that I have intrinsic worth, regardless of my productivity, because I am created in the image of our most incredible God.

And here’s what it looks like in real life:

When I mess up, I’m devastated. Problems that I can’t fix depress me. I have a hard time accepting that which I have no control over. Mistakes are crushing, even when they’re slight. I have a tendency to take too much responsibility for things that aren’t mine to take, which undermines those around me. Because I’m not okay with my own weaknesses, this can cause me to have a hard time feeling compassion for other’s shortcomings. I start to think that the reason I can do things well is because of my own hard work, which leads me to put a heavy weight on those around me to work harder for what they want. But that doesn’t work. This only creates legalism, which may look good on the outside but is devastating to the heart.

So God’s been taking me through a hard process. He’s stripping away my confidence in the areas where I’ve found my identity. He’s reminding me that they’re gifts He gave me, but they’re not who I am. What if I couldn’t communicate well? What if I had really poor social skills? What if I was unable to work? Does this mean that I have no value? As St. Paul would say, “Absolutely not!”

I can just imagine Jesus standing with me in the middle of an incredible view of nature. As we would look around at the trees, birds, grass, hills, sun, flowers, clouds, and all else, he would point to them and tell me what God does to carefully provide for each one. Then he would look at me and say,

“Starla, all of these are important to me. After all, I created them, provide for them, and enjoy them! But even as much as I care for each, you’re set apart from the rest because I created you to be like me. You’re the only one that I view as a mirror to see my own reflection. So how much more valuable are you? And yet I require nothing from you. I only desire a relationship. I just want you.”

I’m having a hard time accepting that. I have a hard time with the fact that I would be just as valuable to God if I were in a hospital bed having no cognitive function as I am when a pastor or seminary student, working in a church and contributing as much as I can. The gifts He’s given me were meant to be a joy, not a burden. They’re an invitation rather than a requirement.

So what does all this mean? I don’t know yet. But what I’m hearing the most is God saying, “Just be.” I’m trying to let go of the pressure to create certain results, choosing instead to listen for God when He says, “I love you regardless.”

Come, Lord Jesus!

Over two years ago, my college roommate’s sister was in a traumatic car wreck while on her way back to school for the Spring semester. She was in the hospital and other forms of intensive care and therapy, but never recovered well. Five months after the wreck, she passed away. I remember going to her funeral, which truly was a celebration of her life, yet sobbing through the whole thing. A lively nineteen year old with her whole life ahead should not die so tragically. Yet we lost her anyways. But even in the midst of such devastating heartbreak, my roommate Chelsea astounded me with the way she lived. Because here’s the truth for us as Christians: when we deal with death, it forces us to live in hope.

In The Bridge, a young adult ministry at my church, we’ve been going through the book of 1 Thessalonians. And today, my heart is reminded of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

Last week, one of the leading pastors in America, Rick Warren, lost his 27 year old son. Warren and his family will no doubt carry the loss of their beloved son with them for the rest of this earthly life. However, (and this is a BIG “HOWEVER!”) they do not grieve as people without hope. Hope that one day, the Lord will redeem, restore, and make all things new!

One of the biggest marks that distinguishes us as Christians is the hope that we have. For we know that the loss and grief during this life is only temporary, as we serve a glorious Savior who is beyond time. And beyond death! We serve a God who lives!

And because we serve the living God, there will be a day of no more tears. No more pain. No more death. No more sadness.

So let me leave you with the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in Revelation 22:20, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Why I Do What I Do

It’s been a hard week. You know those weeks. The kind when one minute, you’re at your job, loving it, and think, “This is why I do what I do!” Then the next minute, something happens that causes you to not only retract your last sentiment, but then think, “Is there any way I can get out of this?”

My life in the ministry so far has looked a lot like this. There are things that I love about working at a church and committing my life to knowing Christ and making Him known. However, like many jobs, it’s one where you have to deal with people A LOT. But you’re not just dealing with people, no. See, I worked with people doing customer assistance for over five years, and although it was frustrating at times, it wasn’t a big deal. Because while working to assist customers, the customer is always right–even if they happen to be very wrong. In ministry, the job is not dealing with customers. It’s dealing with fallen human beings who are created in the image of God, and instead of selling a product, our job is to help them become more like God. What a tricky and impossible task. But this task is made all-the-more impossible by the fact that I am one of those people.

I’m a fallen human being, just like everybody else. The first inclination of my heart is not to wake up every morning and thank God for being alive. And it’s not to set a chunk of time aside every day to pray. Nor do I naturally desire to read an ancient text of literature for fifteen minutes every day, while I study specific sections for hours on end every week so that I can help others to understand it. There are times when each of these things and all that I know I should be doing seems totally unappealing and unnecessary. As much as I believe in prayer, Bible study, fasting, and tithing, that doesn’t mean that I always feel like doing them. And it doesn’t mean that I always do them even when I don’t feel like it, even though I know I should. In fact, it’s been a few weeks since I wrote in my prayer journal, I’m about three months behind in my one year Bible, I can’t remember the last time I fasted for a whole day, and I’ve got a little bit of a backorder on tithe. (I better stop and fix my tithe situation right now before I continue writing. . . . Okay, now we’re good. Thank the Lord for online giving!)

I think all of this is probably the hardest part of pastoring: knowing that I’m supposed to be leading other people in spiritual transformation when I still have so much farther to go myself. I’m a perfectionist, which means I believe in excellence, so I don’t like failing. And what is failing? In Starla terms, failing often means missing excellence, when I can think of so many ways that I could have done something better. The worse failures I make are when I missed my set goal and someone ends up getting hurt in the process. As a leader, I hate hurting and letting down the people whom I’m serving. And in these kinds of failures, that’s when I have to ask, “Why do I do what I do?”

I’ve asked this kind of question a lot this week. Then tonight, I had to ask God to help me let go of the things I obsess over that I want to improve. Shortly after this prayer, out of nowhere I received a text from a friend, who knows nothing of my situation, saying that she was praying for me and to keep faith.

A little over a year ago, I started keeping a digital photo album on my computer with all of the comments, emails, pictures, tweets, etc. that have encouraged me personally. I currently have 99 notes in that album, along with a plethora of saved text messages that remind exactly why I do what I do. I do what I do because God called me to do it. Because success in God’s eyes is measured in nothing but faithfulness. When it comes down to it, I often get my job confused with God’s. It’s His job to equip, empower, and send me out. My job is much more simple. My job is to let God do His.

Why do I do what I do? Because God’s doing what He does. And I’m letting Him.

Salvation

Yesterday my church put on a huge outreach event in a neighborhood. We basically threw a block party with food, live worship music, the sharing of the gospel, and an invitation for salvation. Several came forward to accept Christ’s precious gift. Then, we filled a tub with water and ten were baptized right on the spot—in 95 degree weather; no change of clothes; no special certificate.

What an incredibly beautiful, God-filled day!

Unfortunately, my heart was far from where it should have been. Sure I was excited to see people getting saved and even got chills when they were also baptized. I was witnessing the very active, living beauty of God in broken people. But while others came up with tears streaming down their cheeks, realizing their need for a Savior,  I was not with them.

I was sitting behind a drum set, waiting for the altar call song to get enough momentum so that I could start playing. My mind was on me. People were present that hadn’t heard me play before, or at least in a long time. My mind was on them. And I wanted to make a good impression. My mind was on me.

Why is it that my mind isn’t always focused on God?

Even in the midst of ministry, it becomes so easy to miss God. I was so focused on myself and on other people that I became distracted from my purpose. From GOD’s purpose. “…for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost,” (Luke 19:10). 

Just as God’s salvation is true for those who were baptized yesterday, so is it true for me who was baptized 16 years ago. When I get lost in my own agenda and poor thinking, He recaptures my heart and renews my mind so that I can again be aligned with His good and perfect will (Rom. 12:2). Jesus always brings me back to where salvation lives—in Him.

Learning to Forgive

“If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” – Jesus (Luke 17:3)

These can be hard words to hear. But what makes them even harder is that Jesus continues, “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying ‘I repent,’  you shall forgive him.” (Lk. 17:4). Wow! I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to respond by saying, “Really, Jesus? Are you sure? Because that person really hurt me.” Sometimes I forget that Jesus kind of knew what He was talking about. After all, He was abandoned by all of His followers (except a few women, one being His mother), betrayed by one of his closest friends, put to death by the very people He came to love, and was denied by His best friend as He was being tortured and was dying. This causes me to think that Jesus may have really understood what pain is. Sometimes we try to let Him off the hook because He is God, but this is to deny Him as the Son of Man, a whole human, with full human feelings and emotions. And if He was (and is) not fully human, then He could not do that which was necessary to save us, so we would still be left to sin and death. So to sum up everything, Jesus was human, suffered intense emotional pain from other people, and still calls us to forgiveness.

As I look at these two verses though, I have to ask, what if the person who offends me does not repent? What are we to do then? In the past year, I have suffered from two significant relationships in my life that have hurt me considerably. And neither of them really repented.  Maybe they didn’t because I did not “rebuke” them, or did not do it correctly. But now, it’s too late to try to make it right in that way. The relationships we once had, are now virtually over. One of these people I may never even see again. Yet even though the relationship is over, I am still left in brokenness and pain. So what am I to do?

After Jesus presented this message to the disciples, they responded by saying to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (17:5). Jesus’ answer astounds me. He doesn’t tell them to go pray, read the Bible, or any other churchy kind of answers; He simply tells them to be obedient. “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ ” (17:10).

When we are left hurt and broken by people who were supposed to love and care for us, I think we are always called to forgive them- no matter how much or how often they hurt us, and even if they never repent. But I think that Jesus is also telling us that forgiveness may look very different from what we would originally expect. Forgiveness is not a one time thing. We do not often forgive someone in one sitting, then go on fine and splendidly. Instead, forgiveness is a process that comes as we do the work of God that He has commanded us to do. Forgiveness comes as we become that humbled servant who is not after a profit or any special treatment, but only desires to be faithful in the least of things (Lk. 16:10).

If you are that person that has been hurt by someone else, I am sorry for your pain and what has been done against you. But I encourage to you respond in faithfulness to God. I know that it’s hard and probably will be for a while, but as you are obedient to our Father and do what is commanded of you, He will carry you “as a man carries his son,” (Deut. 1:31). True healing rests only in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.