If Not For Love

If Not For Love... project video thumbnail

Image used with permission from ifnotforlove.com.

Social media has become a bit of a scary thing in the last several months. The amount of hate, anger, fear, and animosity floating around in cyberspace is brutal. The most gut-wrenching part of the social media nightmare has been the fact that the loudest voices in the hate campaign have often been those who profess Christianity. It would seem that some have completely missed the Christ of Christianity in their frantic search of Scripture to clobber their neighbor and annihilate their enemies in the merciless war of us-against-them.

Hostile environments are poison to the human soul that craves love and acceptance, and possesses the distinct need to be valued. Up until recently, my experience of hate was confined to social media and I could just turn it off when it got to be too much. This is because, living in Toronto, I was fairly insulated from the madness by a friend circle of like-minded social justice enthusiasts, activists, and advocates. Kingdom minded individuals who love Jesus and love people wholeheartedly and without reserve. But moving away from my little community has been a rude awakening of sorts. Because even as a follower of Jesus, my questioning of status quo (see my previous few posts) has been strictly frowned upon. And the loss of a safe space to be myself has been painful.

Speaking of pain and struggle, some of the issues that have been at the forefront of my mind lately are the Black Lives Matter movement, the LGBTQ+ struggle, and the Syrian refugee crisis. All I know is that Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, to treat others the way we would want to be treated. And as it stands, I can only imagine what it would be like if I was a refugee, or a young black man, or a lesbian, or a part of a group that is systemically and systematically marginalized and alienated. If my questions about faith have raised a ruckus that I could not have foreseen amongst those who claim to be the most spiritual, I can only imagine what my brothers and sisters are going through in their struggle to be seen, heard, and valued.

And so, I want to add my voice to those of the few dissidents who preach another way, a shift away from the dichotomous rigidity of who’s right versus who’s wrong, towards a revolutionary understanding of the Kingdom of God espoused by the revolutionary Jesus of the Gospels. The same Jesus who loved all people including the children, the outcasts, the transgressors, the nobodies, the weirdos, the misfits, the untouchables, the unworthy, and literally everyone He came into contact with—or we could say He orchestrated contact with.

Jesus regularly crossed social boundaries and smashed religious customs to demonstrate a new Kingdom that revolves on “an axis of love expressed in forgiveness”, and valuing people no matter what their social location. The same Jesus denounced the religious leaders and self-righteous teachers of the law and deliberately demonstrated mercy and grace. Jesus revealed the truth that God the Father is not full of wrath and vengeance, but God is Love. Jesus showed us that God is Abba, merciful, gracious, and tender-hearted towards His children.

So why do I care about social media? Because it reflects real life struggles, and real life wars that being waged daily, and real human fear expressed as anger against real human pain. And because social media can be a tool for social justice and be force of incredible good in the world. And every so often, you will be presented with an opportunity to show love and make a tangible difference in someone’s life. You can’t solve every problem, but here’s one that you can do something about. And so, my original intent in writing this post (before I went on a bit of a tangent) was to highlight a brilliant opportunity. It’s a campaign that has been popping up on my social media feed lately called “If Not For Love”.

“If Not For Love” addresses one of the three issues I mentioned earlier—the Syrian refugee crisis. This campaign is a refreshing change from all the fear and negativity that seems to otherwise be a constant. Esther is a family friend and we briefly went to middle school together way back when my family lived in Portland, Oregon. She is also a singer songwriter and has been involved in some amazing work. I would encourage you to check out the “If Not For Love” campaign here. And get yourself, and a sister or brother seeking refuge, a sweater in this one-for-one type project. They deliver to almost anywhere so you can order if you live in the U.S., Canada, India, etc. I’m heading over to the “If Not For Love” Kickstarter page right now to do what I can. As some of you know, I am taking a sort of sabbatical and have no income to speak of, but this campaign is one bright spot in an otherwise dark situation. And so, I’m going to do the little bit that I can. And I encourage you to do the same.

A couple final comments. First, I’m generally not in favor of one-for-one campaigns (e.g. Toms, etc.) because pumping consumer goods into another country’s flailing economy is more harmful than beneficial. However, here’s what I found under the FAQ section, in answer to the question “Who is distributing these sweaters?”

“Our contact on the ground, Julia. She has been living in Germany working at refugee camps for some time. She has recently moved to Bulgaria and is aiding people in multiple places. She will personally be receiving the shipment and ensuring it not only gets to where it should go, but is handed out with the heart that we have. This has been one of the most incredible and special parts of the project.”

Basically, the sweaters are going to someone on the ground with firsthand knowledge of the people and the issues. Furthermore, I think the refugee crisis is a unique situation. And most importantly, Esther is not a corporation looking to score brownie points for social awareness. She is an individual looking for a way to make a real and lasting impact both for the refugees who are in need and the people who have a heart to help in any way they can. So there you go! There are two weeks left on the campaign and you still have time to be a part of it!

Lastly, the sweaters look awesome. And they come in a cool bag. And you even get a digital copy of the song “If Not For Love” written and performed by Esther herself. AND you get your name and selfie on the wall of thanks at ifnotforlove.com. So do it for the sweater, do it for the song, do it for the bag, do it for the people who could use a warm sweater this winter, and do it because you believe in Love. Because in a world full of hate and fear, love is the only antidote.

Grace and peace.

Navigating New Realities

The hardest part about moving to a new place and having to start over isn’t so much the learning new things and adjusting to a new way of life. The hardest part is having to start all my relationships over again from scratch. Assumptions come easy when knowledge is lacking. I could make a seemingly outrageous statement to my friends, and they would be able to quickly file it within the context of their understanding of me. With strangers or acquaintances, even simple statements take on meanings that were never intended.

It goes without saying that being here has increased the love and appreciation I have for my amazing friends, supervisors, mentors, mentees, and well-wishers back home. To all of you dear ones who have been a part of my life for the past seven years of being in Toronto, you are incredibly loved, appreciated, valued, and missed.

There is a type of security in familiarity and that’s why new environments can seem threatening and overwhelming at times. You suddenly find that you have to explain yourself in situations that were previously settled. Or you suddenly have to defend yourself in situations where your friends would have naturally had your back. And yet, this is part and parcel of the relocation story. (Let’s be real though. A significant part of the struggle is the fact that I’ve moved into a culture that sees the world so vastly different that I do. The cognitive dissonance is off the charts. The double binds are debilitating. But I’ll save my thoughts on that for another post.)

Thankfully, I’ve been through this before and I can do it again. Thankfully, I know who I am better today than I did yesterday. And thankfully, I’m not invested in others’ opinions of me because that’s a losing game from every perspective. I keep having to remind myself that the journey never promised that I would be understood or appreciated. The journey only promises adventure, and a hell of a brilliant story on the other side.

So this is my journey. If there is some part of it that you don’t like or don’t agree with, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is not your journey, it’s mine. You are welcome to walk some of the way with me, or the whole way with me, or none of the way with me. Your call. And for whatever part of my journey you share, whether two miles or a lifetime, I acknowledge your investment and extend my deepest gratitude.

What I’ve learned over the years is that approval is irrelevant and unnecessary. Stop waiting for it. It won’t get you where you want or need to go. And it will be like walking with weights on. The simple fact of the matter is that you can’t keep everyone happy with you all the time. So let go of your need for approval because it is exhausting carrying that load around. Trust your inner compass. It will not point you wrong. 

Lastly, if you’re out there and you’re going through a tough time, I feel you. And I offer you this closing thought: Adversity is the trial of soul that develops the grit of character. You may have to reach deeper than you have ever reached before to find the will to endure. But you must not retreat. Let the process refine you. You will emerge with a strength that you may not recognize as your own. But that strength is you, dear one. That depth, that grit, that overcoming spirit—that’s your God-given instinct. You’ve got what it takes. So onward.

Heart-Shaped Clouds

 
“Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.” James 1:17

My brief encounter with agnosticism (described in my last post) was short-lived. And the reason why is simple. I kept finding God. Or I should say, God kept finding me. He didn’t need a preacher to preach Him back to me. He didn’t do it with an altar call with softly playing emotional music in the background. And I didn’t have some larger-than-life come-to-Jesus moment. The fact is that I found God in everything that was good and perfect in my life.

I found Him in the loving, supportive friendships that have blessed my life immensely. I found Him in fellowship over good food and long talks late into the night. I found Him on long drives and stopping to have solo picnics in random green spaces. I found Him in the calm that settled me during times of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. I found Him in the peace that was a constant in times of doubt and questioning.

I found Him in the skate boarding adventures and belly laughs with my niece Rochelle. I found Him in the brush of leaves on the tall trees along my hiking path. I found Him in the way my supervisor valued and appreciated my contributions at work. I found Him in the gratitude of clients whose lives were being changed. I found Him in the little blessings—the parking space, the stranger’s smile, bubble tea from Chatime, and the tickle of grass on my bare feet.

I found Him in heart shaped clouds and ladybugs that kept showing up all through the summer of 2015. I found Him in my quiet times. I found Him in sunrises and sunsets. I found Him in the serenity of the wildflowers that grew along the side of the road. I found Him every time I stopped to gaze up into the starry night sky. I found Him in how my Mississauga family loved, accepted, and cared for me.

I found Him in the new found freedom that I felt. I found Him in “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. I found Him in the “unforced rhythms of grace”. I found Him in recognizing the sacredness of the present moment. And as I write this, I find Him in the tears that fill my eyes as I think about how overwhelmingly good He has been to me.

I found Him.

I believe in a loving and merciful Father. One whom I can call “Abba! Daddy!” One who sees me as daughter and delights in me. His ways are higher. His thoughts are deeper. I don’t need proof of His existence. I’m okay with not knowing because having faith doesn’t mean having all the answers. In Him I live and move and exist.

When I love my neighbor, He is there. When I bless my enemy, He is there. When I give water to a thirsty person, He is there. When I smile at a stranger, He is there. When I care for the planet, He is there. When I hug a friend, when I affirm and value people, when I encourage another soul, He is so close. When I allow my heart to be broken for what breaks His, He is glorified in me. When I question and doubt and wrestle, He leans in.

Let me not end without telling you where I didn’t find Him. I didn’t find Him in the people who kept wagging their fingers and waving their Bibles in my face. I didn’t find Him in their admonishments and accusations of rebellion and backsliding. I didn’t find Him in the four walls of any type of exclusive organization, including the church. I didn’t find Him in the popular Christian one-liners and judgmental jabs floating around on social media. I didn’t find Him in “love the sinner, hate the sin”. I found Him in love. Period.

God will always and ever only be found in love. Because He is love. He loves us, and his love enables us to love ourselves and love others. And the invitation to “taste and see” that He is good still stands. It is not an invitation to sin less, but an invitation to love more. It is an invitation to accept the finished work of the cross, to make room for mercy and throw the welcome mat for grace. Because it is always God’s kindness that leads to a change of heart. Because mercy always triumphs over judgement. And because love conquers all.

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

May you find Him today in all that is truly good. May you open your heart to His magnificent love. May you come to know how much your Father takes pleasure in you, His precious child.

Grace and peace to you my dearly beloveds.

The Universe Washed My Feet

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“Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean.” – Jesus Christ

Unraveling

2015 was a significant year for me. During the end of 2014 and heading into 2015, I had hit an all time low, the circumstances of which are omitted for personal reasons. Essentially, I was angry, restless, hurting, and my faith was unraveling. I felt divided, conflicted, limited and frustrated. But in the midst of this deep emotional pain, I decided that 2015 was going to be a “year of soul-rest”. I had just finished reading “Soul Keeping” by John Ortberg and vowed that I didn’t need the hustle and the grind. What I needed was rest and a new way of being, of living in the “unforced rhythms of grace”. I was sick of American Christianity, Biblicalism, and happy clappy Pentecostalism that was useless for anything save for taking up all your volunteer hours and extra money.

Shift

In 2015, I decided to follow my heart. I decided to not care what people thought about it. I traveled the world and went on road trips. I spent all my extra time reading, writing, walking in the woods, and swimming at my local pool. I left my church and started doing yoga, meditating, and generally taking care of me and putting my own needs first. I called it “soul care”. And I refused to have any guilt about it.

I’ve heard plenty about sin, selfishness, rebellion, and backsliding. And I’ve had quite enough of it. I’ve come a long way from where I was, but I’m not completely healed from the wounds inflicted by controlling, fear-mongering religious tribalism. And those topics simply trigger traumatic memories for me. If you’re not where I am, that’s okay. I’m not saying you should be. I respect your position. I only ask that you respect mine.

Truthfully, this was not the first time I found myself in a dark place. It was familiar because I had been there before. Only this time, I was older, wiser, and more experienced. I was able to shift from simply an intuitive sense that something was wrong, to having the experience and the language to tell my story and hold my own. I didn’t have to succumb to people’s interpretations about the status of my relationship with God, and their pious admonishments to “pray about it”.

Deconstruction

Most significantly for me, I entered a period of deconstruction. I took apart my faith, piece by piece, statute and tenet, and stared the thing down to try and see it for what it was. I asked myself why I believed as I did. And whether it was producing good fruit in my life, or just more anxiety and depression. Were my beliefs leading me to become more like Jesus? Or was I becoming more rigid, close minded, resentful, un-loving, and un-forgiving? But more than all that, did all this stuff that I supposedly believed even make any sense? Because Christians were starting to become the very people I wanted to stay as far away from as possible. The hate, the mean-spiritedness, the self-righteousness, and the Bible-thumping, it was all too much.

In this process of deconstructing faith, I started having more questions than answers. My views on everything were starting to change. Or I guess I should say they had changed, and I was finally accepting it. This was scary and exciting all at the same time. I became fearful about how the people close to me would take it. And yet I felt relieved because the questions felt lighter than the weight I had carried around for so long thinking that it was “my cross to bear”.

I found Brennan Manning, Dallas Willard, Sarah Bessey, The Liturgists, Science Mike, Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Gungor, and Brian Zhand to name a few. These amazing Christian people who I never knew existed helped me put words to what I was thinking, feeling, and experiencing. It was comforting to know that others had been in my shoes and shared some of my views, but my faith was clearly coming apart at the seams. Everything that I previously thought settled, was up for debate. And yet in the midst of all of it, the world was becoming a beautiful place again.

Godless

I distinctly remember one day when I was on one of my walks along a trail I regularly took. On this particular day, I left the trail to get close to the water. As I approached the stream that ran through the park, I watched as the water gushed past and the rock face on the far side stared back in all its majesty, juxtaposed to my smallness in such a grand space. For most of my life, in moments like these, my first thought is to pray and thank God for His Creation. I started to gather my thoughts, but could not do it. Because in that moment, I wasn’t sure what the meaning of prayer was anymore. I wasn’t sure if there was any Being on the other end listening to my deepest cries. I wasn’t sure if I even cared. In fact, I had no desire to involve God or the idea of God. I slowly came to realize that I wasn’t sure God even existed. And the mental gymnastics required to make it all make sense was silenced.

I thought it would be scary to lose God. But standing there at the water’s edge, breathing in the glorious Canadian air, I realized that it really didn’t matter. Because this earth was beautiful. This stream was life-giving. The rock face was gorgeous. The universe was fascinating. And my body is literally made of stardust and cosmos. How lucky am I to be alive and to be a part of it all, even if only for a fleeting moment, a tiny micro-blip of existence in the larger timeline! In all my thirty-one years of living, I had never doubted the existence of God. And yet, that moment of doubt was remarkably peaceful. The earth didn’t swallow me up. The sky was still as blue as ever. There was no fear. The simplicity of the moment was disarming. And I felt the weight of thirty one years of evangelical charismatic bible-thumping Christianity fall off my shoulders for the first time. I felt free.

Free

Free to be authentically me. Free to think my own thoughts and not somebody’s interpretation of what “God’s Word says”. Free from the crushing weight of “trust and obey”, original sin, eternal death, literal hell, the B-I-B-L-E, God’s wrath, missing the mark, missing the rapture, and even fear itself. I could let go of all the toxicity that was slowly killing me. I threw out all my ideas of “sin” and decided that I don’t want to keep seeing myself as intrinsically bad or depraved or evil or fallen. I stopped seeing myself as a “sinner” or even “saved by grace”, and started seeing myself as a human, perfectly imperfect, and figuring it out as I go along. Whatever I hadn’t already dropped along my journey, fell to the wayside now. Mostly, I stopped trying so hard to believe something I couldn’t even palate anymore. Nothing was certain, and that was okay. Because everything was left to be discovered and that was far more exciting.

The Universe Washed My Feet

Religion didn’t matter. God didn’t matter. Spirituality didn’t matter. Everyone’s opinions and ideas didn’t matter. The Book with all its translations and interpretations didn’t matter. It was just me, the sky, the trees, the clouds, the rock face, the flowers, the stream. I breathed deep of freedom and responded to the urge to slip off my sneakers and wade into the water. The rocks were slippery beneath my feet and the cool stream water washed over me, cleansing, purifying, and healing my soul. The moment was nothing short of ordinary and miraculous all at the same time. And strangely enough, I don’t see that as ironic. The old was washed away and I was made new, alive, whole, and free. I felt at one with myself and one with nature. The very breath of life was breathing in me.

I lost God. And the universe washed my feet. Because God was not lost.

God

God has always been there. And now, I no longer have to confine Him to the box of one subset of a subset of a faith tradition that has gone off the rails in recent years. God is bigger, more expansive, more awesome, more marvelous than my mind can contain and I discover Him daily.

Furthermore, I am open to learning about other faith traditions. I do not think myself to have the monopoly on truth. I am not here to convert anyone, which allows me to be genuinely interested in people and their stories without an ulterior motive. I’m here to engage dialogue. If you like who I am and how I live, you are welcome to join my journey. I do my best to love, respect and value people simply because we are all part of the human family, and not because we think the same and believe the same. We’re all here together on God’s pale blue dot, and we’re all figuring out this life together. So let’s be kinder to each other. Let’s forgive and show mercy. Let’s lift up and encourage each other. Let’s be more like the Jesus we claim to serve.

I am no longer cautious about saying that I am for justice and social progress. I affirm the LGBTQ+ community. I support marriage equality. I am excited about scientific discovery and progress. I consider evolution as the natural, scientifically verifiable method by which we are all here today. I view the Bible as a collection of personal stories of people and their experiences with the Almighty. And as such, I see the God of the Bible as ever always inclined to draw near to His children. In the life of Jesus Christ, I see the very image of God made human. In Jesus I see mercy triumph over judgment. I see acceptance and kindness. I see authenticity and truth. I see the purest form of Love that lays its life down for people. In Jesus, I see God.

I lost God. And the universe washed my feet. Because God was not lost. He is bigger than my being able to lose Him. He is present in the questions. He is faithful in the doubt. Because I don’t know what I don’t know. Neither can I pretend to know it. And that’s okay. Because even when I lost God, God was not lost. He had the universe wash my feet.