Grading Grace? Its Time To Stop Measuring Faith and Start Living Faithfully

Now that fall is here, we’re back into school and grading.  We’re measuring how are grades are coming along.  We’re taking a look at our football teams to see if they measure up.  Have you ever felt as though you simply didn’t measure up in your faith? I think that is something many feel and few feel able to talk about it.  We can make jokes about not measuring up to our exercise goals or in our careers.  There are memes in abundance (plus Dilbert and The Office keep us in good company).  Relationships and marriages provide great material for stand-up comedy and sit-coms.

But we sure do not seem to find much humor in our faith, or if we do it is more a matter of ridicule than anything.  Maybe that is why we don’t feel as though we are getting anywhere?  Or maybe it is the entire idea that we are even to “measure up” against something?  Or maybe it is we really haven’t even felt like we could really TALK about faith?

You do realize clergy face the same, right?  Yep, we’re to be “super-Christian” or “Bible Answermen/women.”  Numbers are batted about regarding our churches that we serve as measures of our success.  But these aren’t measures of our faith, only of our vocation.  Our faith and our vocation get so wrapped together they become inseperable and then who do the clergy TALK to about faith without it becoming about vocational achievement?

Maybe I am wrong to bring it up but I suspect both laity and clergy feel the reality of a weight unjustly tied to our faith and our journey of faith.  Our questioning, our wonderings, our wanderings, our messes, our doubting, our worries, all of these seem to be forced down into ourselves by a sinister (yes, and I do mean precisely that: sinister) tendency to establish measurements to that which is not meant to be measured.

Do we measure beauty?  Do we measure compassion?  What is the measurement we use for grace?  How do we measure trustworthiness? Have we found a way to measure love?  

Yet, in our churches (maybe even the Church), it seems to me, we have indeed found a way, even if unofficially, to measure one’s faith, and in so doing, it seems we have taken the “easy yoke” and the “light burden” of Jesus and have added to it in such a way that the faith our fathers and mothers has become something they would never recognize (see, Matthew 11:30). I certainly don’t think my Grandma Hagler would get it!

Being away from the pulpit for nearly 8 months gave me a new view of things.  Sitting in the pews and listening intently, I heard voices and thoughts I had not heard as a pastor.  My own faith journey, rattled and challenged by suffering, death and grief, has given me pause to ask questions and led me to wonder aloud.  When we allow (even encourage) competition in our spirituality, do we leave room for grace?  Those gold stars for memorizing books of the Bible discouraged me from Sunday School!  

This is by no way an endorsement for antinomianism, a belief that there is no standard or behavior for our faith. It is a statement for spiritual practices to be used to further a relationship with God, not to become a means for determining just how “good” of a Christian we can be.  We must move from grading grace to living in grace, entering into the relationship with God and becoming who God desires. Start with prayer. Start with reading one book of the Bible. Start with regularly attending church or mass. Start by attending a Bible Study. Start with having coffee and have a conversation with a good friend about faith. Start with something but START with believing God wants to be in a relationship with you and that it isn't intended to be a to-do is intended to be a love relationship!!!

May I Ask?
So what is it you’re wondering about?  On what paths have you found yourself wandering?  Who have you found helpful to talk to?

Trudging Through a Path of Jello: Get Real About the Spiritual Journey

No one is an expert in another’s journey.

It sounds so common sense but with each new day, I find the journey of my life through and now, seemingly beyond, the valley of suck, to be a journey of whole new discoveries. Everything and I do mean EVERYTHING, has been up for grabs as it were. The changes to me and to my family have left us scarred but stronger.

While having lunch with a good buddy this week, who has shared this whole journey with me, he said it was like “walking on jello.” You put your foot down and yes, you’re on “something” but it is squishy, fluid, shifting, it even gives for a time, you can sink all the way down and then come right back up. I’m not going to take the analogy any further so we’ll just be clear...the journey is a mess.

And here is the thing at the heart - you can’t write curriculum for this mess. You cannot preach a sermon series to sum the mess up. You cannot go to your community group study and get the answers. As a pastor, I’m pulling the curtain away and pointing out the true state of “Oz,” there isn’t anything there.

Do not get me wrong, we NEED pastors and priests! There is a need for shepherds in our lives BUT they do not belong at the controls of your life or my life. They have not lived your life nor mine. Just because a pastor leads a large congregation it is no guarantee these men and women are even spiritually healthy or worthy of following.

Is this a statement on the large, mega-church paradigm? No...ok, maybe a little, but what is at the heart of our life journey (which IS a spiritual journey), is the reality that it is OUR’S and it belongs to no one else. Growing dependent on the men and women of “the cloth” for your spiritual health and well-being is a dangerous thing. Trusting solely in the creators of good curriculum or lesson plans is dangerous. Even being completely committed to living according to the Bible is something we need to be cautioned on.

What is needed is for us to put our faith and trust in God. In his “First Epistle,” the early church father, Cyprian, wrote,

“Walk with a firm step. By that I mean, firmly resolve that you will depend on God with all your heart and strength… The first step in this way of the Spirit: Come before God each day, always with holy reverence. Like an innocent child, trust Him. This attitude will protect your soul. It will keep you from becoming like some, who are so sure they are ‘saved’ that they become careless. Begin today to walk in the way of innocence, which is the way of right living before God and [people].”

We need no arbitrator between us and God but Jesus Christ, Immanuel, “God with us.” And yet we do need shepherds. Shepherds lead but do not grow the grass of sheep. They know their jobs and their limitations.

I have not found any single expert or author to truly help me. I have sought God and the counsel of “shepherds,” namely, faithful friends and my spiritual director. The path through this “jello” is not so clear. You are going to be a mess when it is done and you may well find, like I have, the person you are becoming is a better, more authentic human being who began the journey.  

Check out Ken's book:
Life Sucks Seek God: 5 soul-healing habits to connect you with God when life seems out of control.

Order here on Kindle or Paperback:

Looking at the Valley of Suck from A Certain Point of View

Days turn to weeks and weeks to months.  The months pile up into the first year and then the next one begins.  Life does not stop.  The demands do not stop.  While everyone else goes on, widows and widowers and the children are left behind to sort through it all.

This is not complaining nor is it bragging.  It simply is a reality young widows and widowers are forced to face.  For me, the nest is emptying out a bit and the plans that Heather and I had for the second half of our life don't exist now.  The life my kids imagined doesn't exist either and they too, are dealing with it.  My vocation as a clergy has even changed and "the bottom" takes new meaning.

In truth, it does not matter where in valley of suck we find ourselves, there does not ever seem to be an end to strange twists of life that keep us wondering when the pain comes to an end.

People still talk about "God's plan" being at work here and I just don't see it.  The arc of the Christian faith in Scripture speaks of redemption.  That "re" tells us God is going "back" to make things correct, to heal what was broken and wounded.  The redemption story is how Jesus "makes things right" between God and humanity.

At its simplest, "the fall" was not God's plan, God never WANTED sin to invade the world and our lives.  What we are living, and so many others, is not God's plan.  The Bible is a big book and there is a lot of theological insights through the centuries that make clear that SOME things we believe that are "Christian" are so only from a "certain point of view."

(Spoiler!!) Maybe you recall that line from Star Wars.  Ben Kenobi says that Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin Skywalker.  The truth is Vader IS Anakin, but from a "certain point of view," you might look at it from the idea of betrayal and murder.

Our faith and world views must make room for tragedy.  Christian faith must make room for tragedies too.  Our bodies betray us as the years go one and we face sickness, health problems and death.  Though the day will come when this ends, it has not yet and until that time comes, we don't get a pass out of the pain.  No one is going to fix it for us.  There is no one who will rescue us.

The promise Jesus gives in Matthew 28 is that he will be with us.  If the pain of life doesn't pass, it doesn't mean God has betrayed you or left you.  It just means that the pain is not over and lots of people don't know about your pain and they may not really care.  Nothing has changed in my own observation in my book:

Life Sucks.
Seek God.

It is going to suck and the best thing you and I can do is keep seeking God.  One thing I've learned is that the 1 friend who sticks by you maybe the only person who sticks by you.  I wouldn't change that person for the world...

So whether it is one person or if it is God, keep seeking. Jesus is still there in the midst of the valley.

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