Real or Not Real? [Dear Addie Column #6]

Real or Not Real

I’m over at Off the Page again today with my 6th “Dear Addie” column.

Today’s question is from a young woman who recently found out that her youth pastor, who she’d been very close to and who’d been formational in her faith, was a “manipulator and a predator.” This new information has cast much of her faith story into uncertain light. She writes:

“Sort of like Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games, I found myself thinking back to ultra-spiritual personal moments and wondering, ‘Real or not real?’”

I was so drawn to this question because I think it’s one that many of us have found ourselves asking about our faith experiences. I know I have.

I hope you’ll click over and join us!

10 Questions to Ask Instead of “How’s Your Walk with God?”

10 questions to ask about faith

“Intense listening is indistinguishable from love, and love heals.”

~ Kenneth Blue

Several months ago, I started meeting with a spiritual director.

The first week of every month, I go to her office, and she lights a candle to recognize that God is here with us. And then we begin.

Sometimes we talk a lot. Sometimes there is a lot of quiet. Most of the time, I cry, and it’s not because I’m having some profound emotional experience or because I feel God in that way I used to think I had to.

It’s because I feel safe. It’s because I don’t have to pretend.

I come to these sessions all twisted up and preoccupied, mostly not sure what I need to talk about. And my spiritual direction’s gentle, purposeful questions are like soft, solar lights on a pathway, inviting me into the presence of God.

I leave those sessions not with a sense of my inadequacy or an armful of suggestions…but rather a sense of my belovedness.

*

This past month, I’ve been reading a book about spiritual direction by Alice Fryling called Seeking God Together: An Introduction to Group Spiritual Direction.

I’m not sure yet, if I am ready to start my own spiritual direction group…but I picked up the book because the process has been so life giving to me, and I wanted to find ways to integrate that kind of attentiveness into my existing groups and conversations and church experiences.

In the book, Fryling writes this:

“In spiritual direction, we look at the truth of our present situation and experience.
The question asked is not ‘What should be happening in my life?’
but ‘What is happening in my life?’ We look for God here, now, because the place
we are in in our lives is the place where we find God.”

~ Alice Fryling, Seeking God Together

It’s a subtle shift in language, but an important one. After all, there are a million miles between what should be and what is, and so many of the Christian Living books and blogs and music and “devotions” out there focus on the former.

Believe me, I’m acutely aware of all of the ways I’m not measuring up. I don’t need seven simple steps toward a vibrant spiritual life – seven more ways to fail. I don’t even really need an “accountability partner,” that churchy staple – to ask prod me toward more intentional time in the Word and in prayer.

I do need people to ask me questions and to move alongside of me in my spiritual journey. But I need those questions to be asked with exceptional gentleness and care, without agenda, making room for me to recognize that God is already here. God is already at work.

I think this is something that each of us needs, but it’s particularly important for those like me, who are coming blinking into adulthood from blinding-bright, “on fire for God” spiritual adolescence, where performance and spirituality were so tied together. We are hyperaware of the inherent expectations in loaded questions like, Are you reading your Bible? and How’s your walk with God?

We need to be asked better questions if we are going to re-engage with our faith in any meaningful way. Questions that focus not on what we are doing or not doing…but what God is doing.

After all, the healthy, whole spiritual life is not about hustling to read the Bible more, pray more, be more, try harder. It’s not even about feeling God – a lesson that I have to continue learning and relearning.

It’s about attentiveness. It’s about recognizing God, as Alice Fryling says, here, now – in what is actually happening in my life.

*

So what does that look like?

If we’re not going to ask “How’s your walk with God?” in that off-handed, expectant way that we’re used to, what should we ask? If we’re going to be mindful of not offering suggestions and tips, what should we offer instead?

One of the great gifts of both my own spiritual direction experience and of this book I’m reading has been finding a different language for interacting with others in their spiritual journeys – and for interacting with my own.

Most of the time, it’s a simple tilt of language – away from performance, toward the heart.

For example, instead of asking “How’s your prayer life?” – which requires your friend to make a judgment on whether he is succeeding or failing, praying enough or too little, connecting with God or not – try asking this:

“What is prayer like for you? What kind of prayer is most appealing to you?”

Instead of asking “Are you doing your devotions?” which invites shame and discouragement if the answer is no, try asking your friend:

“How is it for you when you read the Scriptures?”

With this simple language shift, we move from judgment to curiosity. We invite our friend deeper into her own heart; we give grace for where she is rather than suggesting that she do more, be more, try harder.

Alice Fryling’s book is filled with dozens of life-giving questions, along with so much wisdom about seeking God with others in a gentle and purposeful way. I’d encourage you to pick it up and read it.

When it comes to asking better questions though, these ten, found in her book, are a great place to start:

seeking god together, alice frylingWhat is something you desire in your life these days?

Who in your life (past or present) has given you a taste of God’s love?

When or where are you most likely to be aware of God’s presence? When or where are you least aware of God’s presence?

What do you think God feels [or things or is doing] in you as you experience this situation or relationship?

How is your view of God changing because of this experience?

How would you like God to help you in this?

How do you think God is inviting you to respond to this?

How would you like to experience God in the next few weeks?

What would be helpful to you right now?

*

I think about the friend I wrote about in my last post, the friend whose Christian college roommate asked “How’s your walk with God?” right after a close cousin had committed suicide. It sucks! My friend said — and then received a boatload of suggestions to improve it. I know she left feeling defeated; I imagine that her well-meaning friend might have left feeling that way too.

How might have that conversation been different if the roommate had asked, How would you like God to help you in this? Or What do you need Jesus to do for you?

And when I say, Ask better questions, sweet pea, this is what I mean: ask with grace, ask and then listen.

Ask knowing that it’s not up to us to direct one another’s lives…but rather to help make space for them to meet God.

Ask with grace and with care. Ask with loving, transformative listening.

“How is Your Walk with God?” and Other Questions Jesus Never Asked

how is your walk with god

I had lunch the other day with a friend. Over soup and salad at Panera, she told me about the unexpected suicide of a family member on Christmas. Then, she told me about the subsequent conversation she had with her Christian college roommate after she returned to school for second semester.

“How’s your walk with God?” the roommate asked, and as my friend told me this, I found myself rolling my eyes so far back into my head that it gave me a sudden rush of headache.

It sucks,” she told her roommate that day – the most honest answer she knew how to give in the face of the tragedy that had split her life into two distinct parts: Before the suicide. After the suicide.

But the Christian college roommate leaned in, armed with a litany of suggestions masked as questions. Questions that she had heard, I’m sure, from years of churchgoing and youth group, years of Christian college classes and Bible studies and conversations. Are you spending enough time in the Word? Are you praying? Are you remembering that God IS Goodness?

She was, I suppose, trying to help in the way she knew how, but hours after I drove away from that lunch, that question kept niggling at the back of my mind, bothering me for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate.

How’s your walk with God? It’s a question that I’ve asked others hundreds of times in my life. A question that I’ve been asked more times than I can count.

It sounds like an open-ended question at first blush, but it feels to me heavy-laden with expectation. There is a right answer to this question. It seems almost clinical – something your physician might ask when charting your health. Something along the lines of How is your diet? Or Are you exercising?

It’s a question that wraps around you like a blood-pressure cuff, and the way you answer it tells you something about your failure or your success.

How is your walk with God? If the answer is “it sucks,” then it stands to reason that you must be doing something wrong.

Let’s figure out what that is. Let’s get this thing back on track.

*

Ask me about my walk with God these days, and I mostly hem and haw. I don’t know what to tell you about the state of my faith, which seems to ebb and flow with the seasons and the hours and the moments of my daily life.

While I recognize the importance of the spiritual disciplines of prayer and quiet and Scripture reading, I no longer believe that they correlate directly to that vibrant, heady spirituality that I used to frame as “success.”

I’m not even sure that “walk” is the truest metaphor for my particular spiritual journey. So many days it doesn’t feel like I’m moving anywhere – forward or backward. Rather I’m just here, still – waiting for something like faith to grow inside of me.

It seems truer to talk about my faith life as a tree – so dependent on the soil and the weather and the rain and the sun. Dormant during long stretches of the year, but reaching ever toward a hope I can’t fully understand. My faith is not a movement – a walking toward. The growth is so slow and quiet that you’d never even notice that it’s happening.

*

Out of curiosity this week, I Googled questions that Jesus asked. I wanted to know if this How’s your walk with God business had any biblical grounding, and so I read through several lists compiled by pastors and bloggers and theologians.

Reading through Jesus’ questions, so odd and beautiful, so simple and complex, I was arrested by him all over again. I found myself in quiet awe of Jesus who asks:

Who are you looking for? (John 20:15)

Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:13-15)

“Why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26)

This is the Jesus who doesn’t, in the end, ask How’s you’re walk with God. Nor does he ask How’s your prayer life? Are you doing your devotions? Are you in the Word? Are you plugged in to a church?

In fact, none of his questions seem posed to assess the spiritual performance of the people he’s talking to. Instead, they reach deeper, toward desire and identity.

His questions reach into the hidden places, the unwell places, the broken places – not to suggest that we get it together, but to show us that he is holding it together for us.

He is asking: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matthew 20:32-22)

He is asking “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6)

*

In one of her most famous columns, Cheryl Strayed (as the Rumpus’ “Sugar”) responds to an inquiry that says very simply:

Dear Sugar,

WTF, WTF, WTF?

I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.

Best,

WTF

“Sugar” (aka Strayed) responds to this seemingly throwaway question with a moving account of her own sexual abuse as a child and about the way we have to press into the terrible things in life in order to finally kill them.

She concludes the column by encouraging the writer to “Ask better questions, sweet pea,” and that line has stayed with me.

I hear it in my head sometimes, when I’m skimming the surface, when I’m careening into my own cynicism, when I’m slammed against the unfairness of life. Ask better questions, sweet pea. Because in the end, the answers we get depend on the questions we pose.

I think about Jesus’ questions – the best kind – that cut through the performance and the religion and the rightness and into the broken, beautiful heart. What do you want me to do for you?

I think of that earnest Christian college girl, of all of us, so eager to help each other in the walk. Ask better questions, sweet pea. We need it on a bumper sticker, on a whole fleet of bumper stickers.

We need it to remind us it’s not our job to fix anyone. Our work, despite the mixed messages from our DIY culture, is not to give one another spiritual health assessments and then offer 10 steps toward better faith.

Rather, our work has to do with making space for Christ, with making space for healing, with offering grace and mercy, kindness and love.

Ask better questions, sweet pea. Ask them to yourself. Ask them to one another. Ask that which you cannot answer and then be quiet.

Wait for the whispering of God’s love to fill in all the gaps.

Honest to God: The Middle Finger Theory [Guest Post]

I’m so pleased to introduce you today to my new friend, Matt Bays. I connected with him back when I posted my book trailer for Night Driving, and then I sobbed through his book trailer for his new book Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain. (I’ve added it at the bottom of this post…but get the Kleenex before you start watching it.)

I had the honor of meeting him in real life at the Festival of Faith and Writing last month, and he’s just as genuine and kind and down to earth as he sounds in this post.

I haven’t read his book yet, but I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it. Read his stunning piece below, and then pick up his book here!

Author Photo with Book

If pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world, my middle finger is a megaphone to rouse a deaf God.

Before you freak. Before you call me blasphemous, know that I’ve heard it before. And besides, I think it’s time we all got a little more honest with God.

Know why?

Because of abuse, incest, children being set on fire by their fathers, suicide, the straight jacket of depression, disease, mental illness, rape, and…

Should I go on? Because I easily could.

Each one of those words has a hundred thousand stories attached to it. So take a good hard look at that list. Get real quiet for a moment, and then say a prayer that your heart would finally understand the person who sticks their middle finger up into the face of God. Let an empathetic sigh part your lips before you offer one word of judgment.

He seems angry.

I am angry.

I’m worried about his faith.

I appreciate your concern.

I’m going to pray for him.

Yes. Thank you.

Who does he think he is?

An abused child, that’s who.

An incest survivor.

A brotherless brother.

A recovering addict.

And…a son of God.

Matt 2nd Grade

This is me when I was in the middle of all the terrible. This is me in second grade.

Looks like a good day, doesn’t it? Look at that sweet face. The shine of those dark brown eyes. That right there is a good boy. A lot of love and compassion for others. Sensitive. Almost always happy. A ball of energy.

This is the problem of pain; on the outside things seem fine. But on the inside, the lies scratch around like a dog trying get comfortable at the end of the bed, settling in for a lifetime, which is exactly what happened to me.

It’s no wonder that I was angry with God.

It’s no wonder that people walk away from their faith altogether.

And because our churches and church leaders have failed to provide a safe place to express our anger or talk about our pain, before the age of reason, we drink ourselves silly. Or sit in front of a computer screen exchanging intimacy for intensity. Or go from broken relationship to broken relationship. Or shop until we literally drop, control everything in our path, exercise until we’re rail thin, or eat as much as we can, hoping to fill the great void we’ve been carrying around for decades.

We force our faces into a lie every waking moment of every day.

But the years roll on, the pain is still there, and we haven’t the first clue how to get rid of it.

That’s how it happened for me.

That’s when I realized that God was worthy of my middle finger.

Sounds bad, right? Blasphemous. Or maybe just ridiculous. I was a man of God, after all. A worshipper. A pastor.

But the lies; my life was filled with them. I just couldn’t utter them any longer.

That boy up there – that little second grade sweetheart…he wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on God. He wasn’t planning to grow up and showcase a veneer that didn’t match his insides. He didn’t know that living a life of spiritual clichés was dangerous. And he wasn’t warned that an unhealed past would eventually track him down.

But it did track him down. It will, you know. It always does.

We have tried desperately to recover, haven’t we? Spent ages doing our best to be okay.

We are thirty…

Forty…

Fifty years old.

We have lost years of happiness, years of peace, self-love, and self-acceptance. And now it’s time, beyond time, to BE HONEST with God.

And perhaps our middle finger is the most authentic tool in our honesty arsenal.

Because a middle finger says, “That was wrong. What were you thinking?”

A middle finger says, “I’m not okay. I’ve never been okay.”

A middle finger says, “TAKE IT BACK!”

But do you know what else a middle finger says? It says…

I deserve peace. I deserve faith. I deserve hope, I deserve…

LOVE.

To be loved.

I know how people feel about this kind of theory. I grew up in an evangelical Christian church, and giving God the finger is certainly not how we were raised.

The buttoned up Christian generally prefers a God who carries gold stars in his back pocket and ruffles our hair whenever he passes by. But God is not a kindergarten teacher. His job isn’t to make our dreams come true. His job is to redeem the world, and to do it…

Honestly.

In my new book, Finding God in the Ruins, one of my favorite passages says this:

“In some ways it is devastating to tell God all you wish he had done differently, saved you from, or converted you into. But when the God of your church of origin gives you the same remedial cliché for your pain time and time again, there’s not a thing wrong with sticking your middle finger right in his face. You might think this kind of bad spiritual behavior will cause you to lose your faith altogether—that you’ll end up losing sight of God. But maybe the moment you flip God the bird is the exact moment he looks into your eyes and says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

The night I wrote the last sentence of that paragraph, I had tears in my eyes. You know why? Because I love God, deeply and passionately. I love him so much that I’ve devoted my life to his children who have lived their lives beneath the overpass of life, waiting for something unpainful to happen. I cried because brutal honesty with God is nothing short of holiness, and writing those words created a sacred moment in my living room that was palpable.

So I cried. Because I love God. Because I gave God the finger.

AV-Bays-Quote-Image-851x315

Listen, I spent years wasting away in alcoholism, doing everything I could do to ease the pain. But God’s plan for healing is to get to the root of things, not simply treat the symptoms. And digging up the root will always bring us to the end of ourselves, because it’s painful before it’s peaceful.

When it comes to true healing, God is painful. God burns. God goes down like whiskey and you can’t chase him down with water.

You don’t have to like it. I sure didn’t. But telling God the truth about how we feel along the way, that’s what keeps things REAL. That’s what keeps things honest.

Honest to God.

God can handle your honesty. He has broad shoulders. He’s not afraid of you. And for the record, when you show your anger to God, I hope you realize that you are in good company with Job, King David, and others. You won’t be the first to rage against God and still be considered his child. So take heart, my friend. You are going to be okay.

The opening line of this blog article included a portion of a quote from the C.S. Lewis book, The Problem of Pain. I want to share that quote in its entirety.

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

God shouts, my friend, right into our lives. Maybe it’s time we started shouting back.