Friday, September 25, 2015

Out of My Chains and Into Your Mercy

I finally did it. I made an appointment with a therapist. After 6 1/2 years of depression, anxiety, and good counseling, my counselor thought that a therapist might be able to help me heal. I'm broken inside. Something is not right in my brain. The healing for deep hurt is not happening like it usually does in most of us. And it's not a sin issue. I need help with mending my soul.

While driving to my appointment on the freeway my anxiety began to grow. What if she said I was imagining this? What if she said that I just needed to get over it, like so many others have said? What if I can't be fixed? What if this is what I will feel like for the rest of my life? So I turned the music up. And up and up until I was sure the other cars around me could hear it. Sometimes that's the only way to push down the fears. To cancel out all of the negative, mixed up thoughts that permeate my mind and crush my heart. Music. I know that's not spiritual. I know I should pray in these moments that my mind is swirling with thoughts so fast and frantic that I can't focus. And sometimes I do but it rarely helps in the moment. Usually, in the still of the night when its dark, I feel the Holy Spirit bring me peace and comfort. I hear Him whisper the sweet words that I am beloved. But during the day? When I feel like death is the only answer? Music. Loud music is what quiets those tumultuous thoughts.

When I arrived at the office the therapist came out to greet me. I came to tell a complete stranger all of my junk and that's a scary thing. But God. When I looked at her face I saw familiarity. She looked like one of my close friends. One who has walked with me through these hard years with patience and compassion and understanding. So I walked into the office and sat on the couch.

There was a box of Kleenex on the couch next to me. But I don't cry. Tears have been rare these past few years but the emotional pain is there. My heart hurts like its been ripped in two. On the coffee table in front of me there was a machine with lights and wires. Turns out I will one day be hooked up to that machine and supposedly those lights will help me to process the trauma that has been done to my brain. Its called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and it uses rapid eye movements to dampen the power of emotionally charged memories of the past. I'll talk more on that in a moment.

She began asking me questions and we talked a bit. I was stoic, telling her of my deepest wounds. She diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of trauma. When people experience trauma the brain usually processes that trauma and it becomes a memory. But sometimes it doesn't. When someone becomes traumatized it's like stress frozen in place –locked into a pattern of neurological distress that doesn’t go away and doesn't return to a state of equilibrium.

She hugged me when I left the office and gave me a typed-written prayer to say everyday and a journal assignment.

I need to journal my trauma. When did I first feel like I was worthless and unacceptable? When were those words repeated to me? Being raised by an abusive alcoholic those words were pretty much a weekly and sometimes daily occurrence. How old was I when I became convinced that in order to be acceptable to people, I needed to wear masks. When were the words spoken to me that had convinced me that I would be unacceptable and worthless if I were to remove those masks? That I was a disappointment to everyone around me and to God? I had to record how I felt at that moment. That moment when I confessed I had been diagnosed with severe depression, that I didn't think I was a believer, and that I couldn't keep being what everyone wanted me to be. How did I feel in that moment when I was told by my pastor that I was dragging the name of Jesus through the mud? Where did I feel it? In my stomach? in my brain? In my chest? Well, I can remember that moment withgreat clarity when all of my fears became true and all of my doubts were confirmed. The belief that God was not really pleased with me. That I was a disappointment to Him. That if I ever removed my masks and showed others who I really was, with all of my struggles, that people would be disappointed in me as well. They would deem me unacceptable. And then, in that moment all hope was gone. Darkness began to grow in my soul. My chest hurt and my heart broke. My brain felt like it stopped working.

That night as I lay in bed and lived that scene over and over again I could see everyone in that room and where they were seated. But I couldn't see myself. My thoughts could not conjure me up. I had been replaced with a dark, black blob that was growing on my husband. I knew I was destroying him and those around me. That night I contemplated ending my life. But God.....

Eventually, I would get back hope. I would learn that God really did love me just as I was. I would learn that He is not disappointed in me. But it has not been without extreme pain and loss. My struggle is real, and while I know that I am His in all the beauty of His grace and mercy, I still needed help to move forward.


EMDR

EMDR is a treatment used to treat PTSD and other emotional problems. "It uses right/left eye movement, or tactile stimulation, which repeatedly activates the opposite sides of the brain, releasing emotional experiences that are 'trapped' in the nervous system". You can read more about it here: EMDR Therapy

I held a paddle in each hand and they would vibrate left, right, left, right. I also wore a headset and a beeping noise would go move back and forth - left, right, left, right. The panel in front of me had lights and I had to track them left, right, left, right.

My therapist and I talked a bit at first. I was already in a heightened state of anxiety. I left the house on time but the bank took longer than expected and then I went east on the freeway instead of west. I thought I was going to lose it by the time I got there. But I arrived there on time. I believe God in his mercy orchestrated this because it didn't take much for me to once again feel the anxiety of my PTSD for the treatment.

I sat on the couch and thought of that night. I felt it in my stomach and in my chest. My senses were busy with the lights, sounds, and vibrations. There were pauses as she asked for a word to describe how I was feeling after each round. It was intense. It was exhausting. The appointment took an hour. When I left my eyes were so tired. I was tired. I just wanted to go to bed.

That evening was very quiet and I didn't have the energy for anything. I slept great and the next morning as we were having coffee, Mike said I sounded different. I sounded lighter. I felt lighter. I didn't have my normal sense of sadness. I was encouraged! This lasted a couple of days and then some stuff happened and the pain in my chest began to come back. But not as bad and not in a debilitating way.

I've since had 2 more treatments with EMDR. I have now been released from treatment and I feel like a new person. I feel alive again. I'm glad I wrote about my first visit at the time that I did because now when I read it, I feel so far removed from it and it feels as if someone else is writing it. The treatment took my trauma and made it a vague memory that no longer has power over me.

I'm so very thankful for all I've been through because through it all, God has shown me his love. He has shown me his great grace and mercy. I have learned to live in freedom (thank you, Steve Brown!). :) I'm thankful for my husband, Mike. He has walked through some really dark waters with me. He has protected me and prayed for me, gently leading me to Jesus with patience, understanding and gentleness. And for my daughter, Jaime, who helped me in so many ways during all these years even though she herself was going through her own pain. She gave me courage to do the EDMR treatment. I'm thankful for friends who have loved us both through all of this. Too many friends to name but I hope you know who you are, and to my sister who had my back. We aren't meant to walk this journey alone and I thank God for all of you. I'm thankful for my counselor, Gini, who helped me to see so many things about myself and for the way she pointed me to Jesus. And I'm thankful for my therapist, Jenn, who helped to set me free from the bondage of PTSD.

-Susan

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Absurdity of Antinomianism

It's absurd. The accusations of "Antinomian" and "Hyper-Grace" that we keep hearing about ourselves and many of our grace-centered friends is disappointing. Our commentaries, creeds, church constitutions, bylaws, and theological statements may champion sola gratia but move it from paper into real life and it scares the hell out of us. It scares us because in real life, grace can't be tamed. It can't be managed or balanced and we so desperately want to manage and balance it. Move it from a theological treatise or a doctrinal statement into something that goes deep into our souls and takes over from the inside out, and we begin to panic because we're losing control. We want grace to be reasonable, balanced, and within easy reach of our supposed control. But a tamed grace is no grace at all. It's bondage masquerading as freedom. Grace is wild, uncontrollable and always finds its way to all the wrong people at all the wrong times and in all the wrong circumstances. If you doubt me, read the gospels.

Here's what saddens me; the people we're hearing these accusations from have never asked us what we believe. They've talked to others about us, but they've never taken the time to talk with us about our understanding of grace. They prefer instead to stand far off and cause dissension and misunderstanding. I guess it's easier to just dismiss us altogether and sling mud from afar and label us Antinomian than it is to have a conversation. It's cleaner that way. The assumption is that we have a low view of God's law because we have a high view of God's grace. But that's not true.

In my performance days of yesteryear I was convinced I had a high view of God's law because God's law was all we talked about. I thought my knowledge of the rules and preoccupation with them meant that I had a high view of God's law. But I was deceived. I had a low view of God's law for the simple reason that I thought I could pull it off. But I discovered that a preoccupation with God's law doesn't produce a high view of God's law, it produces a high view of moralism, legalism, and self-righteousness. It produces a high view of one's self, masquerading as a high view of God's law. It produces modern day Pharisees and bullies who think they have a right and duty to speak law, shame, and condemnation into the lives of others whom they view as not pulling it off like they think they are. It takes broken younger brothers and turns them into self-righteous older brothers. They are sad slaves.

But it was grace that gave me a high view of God's law. Grace stopped me dead in my tracks and put me on a new course. Grace alone teaches us to renounce ungodliness while simultaneously empowering us to live accordingly.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, (Titus 2:11-12)
For years I was preoccupied with God's law. I was chasing every command in Scripture to the best of my ability and judging myself and others every time one of us failed to measure up. I proudly wore my obedience as a merit badge of honor so others could see how pleased God must be with me. That's exhausting and it kills your joy. Do you want to know more? We talked about this in a recent podcast: Grace, Hyper-Grace, and Antinomianism (#012). Check it out when you can.

-Mike

Monday, August 31, 2015

What if....Love?

What would the Church look like if we were known by our love for one another?

What if someone admits a struggle with an addiction to porn, alcohol, or drugs and our response was to love them? To show grace and mercy and help this person as a friend? As one who is beloved.

What if someone is suffering because they sinned greatly in their marriage, and instead of jumping to judgement that not only judges their sin but their repentance, what if...love? What if we wept over this broken marriage and their shattered lives? What if instead of writing blogs about another's sin, we prayed for that person? What if we prayed for the broken family?

What if someone confessed they were suffering from depression or anxiety and we didn't jump in with answers and accusations that they weren't thankful enough, didn't believe enough, or that they should just choose joy? What if we sat with this person and loved them? What if we wept with them in their pain and let them know they weren't alone in this, no matter how long they suffered? What if we shared God's love and goodness instead of telling them God is disappointed in them?

What if someone begins to lash out in anger because of the abuse that they suffered at the hands of others and instead of being shocked and dismayed at these angry rants, we sat and listened to what they had to say? What if we wept with them and held them, affirming they were hurt? Holding them and loving them in their suffering instead of standing firm in our own self righteousness, insisting they need to get over it.

What if, instead of protesting and shouting hateful things to women seeking abortions, we held up signs offering to help. Help with doctor bills, help with housing or help with adoption. What if instead of making our hatred known, we offered help.

What if a friend comes out as LGBTQ and instead of throwing out words like "church discipline," or shaming them with our anger, we loved them, showing grace and mercy? What if we didn't pick up that stone to throw but instead recognized our own great need for grace and mercy?

What if love was our first reaction, followed by grace and mercy, because that is how God responds to us?

What if, instead of shielding our children from the brokenness of people, we showed our children how to love? What if in seeing that kind of love, they began to believe that God is kind and merciful, full of love and grace, instead of a God who is more concerned with our morality and successes than our hearts and failures?

What if when you read this, instead of getting offended or angry because you think I'm dismissing sin, you instead realize that we are all desperate beggars? What if we all need God's love and grace and without it, we are toast? All of us.

What if we really believed Jesus when he said in John 13:35 "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another"?

-Susan

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A High View of God's Law

I spent years as a Christian preoccupied with God's law. The burning question each day was how is my obedience. As I spent countless hours, days, months, and years muscling my way through my sanctification, certain that my obedience was THE barometer for knowing I was a believer and knowing God was pleased with me, I assumed I had a high view of God's law. After all, I was pulling it off, or so I thought. I was at least doing it better than most of those around me. Or so I thought.

But then I discovered through severe trials that a preoccupation with God's law doesn't mean one has a high view of God's law. Quite the opposite. I found out the hard way that my preoccupation with God's law actually resulted in my having a very low view of it for the simple reason that I thought I could pull it off. I thought God's holy standard was attainable by my own effort. After all, I was a new creation with a new heart and sin was no longer my master.

But then God stripped everything away from me and brought me to a place where I had nothing. Nothing but Jesus. It was there that the doing stopped. The masks started to crumble and the idols of my heart started being exposed, and the real me, the broken me, started to show. And there was nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide. By putting me in a place where I could do nothing, God started to show me that Jesus is enough. His grace is sufficient.

In the years that have followed, he has enlarged my understanding of, and affection for, grace. It's when this confrontation with grace shook me to the core, that my view of God's law went through the roof. My crash and burn encounter with grace gave me a high view of God's holy law because I saw for the first time that I couldn't pull it off and that I didn't need to pull it off. It was too big for me and someone else had already pulled it off for me. My former preoccupation with God's law left me in ruins. But grace alone taught me that God's requirement isn't progress, but perfection. Grace taught me that I needed a Substitute, not a goal. It's at the cross that "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48) meets "It is finished" (Jn. 19:30) and mercy triumphs over judgment.
... and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- - Philippians 3:9
-Mike

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Church, Ativan, and Gospel Misfits

I know they mean well and I certainly don't question their hearts or motives, but I think the help they're offering misses the point a little. We've not had a church (in the institutional sense of the word) to call home since the one we were members of merged with a mega-church, or folded, or ceased to exist, or morphed, or whatever that was that happened.

Since that time, we've darkened the doors of many a church building only to hear moralistic, duty-laden law preaching that majors big-time on the Christian's failure to do the Christian life in the Christian way. We've been scolded from several pulpits and in one instance, even told God is mad at us and wants us to "shut up." We've been chastened for not being brave like David was brave and to prove his point, that particular pastor dimmed the lights to show a clip on bravery from the movie Titanic. My wife got up and left before the clip ever started or the lights dimmed, but I had the decency to wait until the lights dimmed before I ducked down and made a beeline for the door. I attribute my wait to my fear of man. Yet another of my plethora of sins Jesus died for.

I've lost count of the number of churches we've visited since the one we were a part of ceased to be. My wife and I sometimes joke that we've walked out of so many churches that we've stopped walking in. We've surfed the web for countless hours looking at church web sites and listening to sermons. We've come across some that boast the gospel on their web site but when you get inside the building, it becomes clear they don't really know what gospel-centered means. When I mentioned to one pastor that what drew us there that Sunday was the gospel references on their web site, he immediately glazed-over and didn't know what I was referring to. His message that morning was all about accountability groups, submitting to the pastor, and the importance of keeping each other in line because we're such screw-ups (we are, by the way) and God is angry with our sloppy selves. There was no mention of Jesus. No hope. No good news. None. When visiting a church results in running to the medicine cabinet afterward to pop an Ativan or two, something's terribly wrong. I could go on and on, but I'll spare you the agony. You get the idea.

I take comfort in knowing we're not alone in our struggle. We're finding that there are pockets of people, both across the country and locally, who are in the same crazy predicament. They haven't left Jesus but they feel the church (again, church in the institutional, traditional sense) has, so they don't go there very often. Some of them don't go at all. One blogger called those pockets of people "The Dones" because they're just done with it all. They haven't left Jesus; they feel the church has left Jesus. Rod Rosenbladt'smessage, The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church is helpful and encouraging and is one of our early podcasts.

It's amazing how these pockets of like-minded gospel-centered "Dones" find each other. We've found some of them and some of them have found us. Our Thursday nights are spent with one such ragtag group of gospel misfits and ragamuffins, all of whom have experiences similar to ours with institutional churches and all of whom just want to be reminded that "it is finished" and that Jesus' grace is greater than all our sin and failure. That there is sweet hope outside of ourselves in our perfect Substitute, Jesus, whose perfect record of righteousness is ours by faith (and even the faith itself is a gift!), even when our faith is wobbly, which is most of the time. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief! We remember Jesus' sacrifice for us around the communion table and we speak his grace into each other's lives in the midst of our troubles and failures. No one gets scolded and we don't try to fix each other. It's a safe place to be. We may even throw on an occasional video to be reminded of the now-power of the gospel in the midst of our brokenness. This is the church without all the fluff. This is fellowship and this is community. This is the church. And other "Dones" are catching wind of it and our number is growing ever so slowly. Broken people who know they're broken and who know Jesus came for the broken, tend to attract other broken people. I'm good with that. It's a beautiful thing to see and be a part of.

I've been in the faith for 43 years now. I'm almost as old as one of my gospel heroes, Steve Brown (but not quite!), and in all those years, I've seen a lot of changes in the church. I'm an ordained pastor and I've pastored several different churches and planted two. I've spent time on the inside and I've seen how things work in there. On the one hand, I get it when people express concern over our not finding a traditional church. But on the other hand, I think your concern is misplaced. I get what you're saying. I really do. I've been looking for years, but to no avail. I'm tired now and I feel like one of the "Dones." Someone has suggested that we just join a church (that phrase even sounds weird) - any church - and then work from the inside to change it to a gospel-centered focus. But having spent years in leadership and pastoring, I know the futility of such an undertaking. I can't even change myself, let alone, an entire church. That's the Holy Spirit's job, not mine. It's above my pay grade. Others have yelled at me on social media, saying, "Just find a church!" That's like telling someone to find gold. It's one thing to look but quite another to find.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said,
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. - Hebrews 10:24-25

Of all of the "Dones" in my life (myself included, if I truly am becoming one), none of them fits this description. I love the church - the people of God - and I want to be with God's people, at least most of them. And I am with them, but not in droves or in a mega-sense, or in what is considered a traditional or institutional sense to many today in the west. Small and intimate is where God has me today and I am loving it because the ones I have the privilege of being with are real and they know they're broken and that Jesus came to call sinners, not the [self] righteous to repentance.

To reiterate what I said above, I get what you're telling me. I really do. And I appreciate your care and concern. But I'm far from isolated even though I don't frequent a building every Sunday morning and participate in structured traditional worship there. Since my crash and burn six years ago, resulting in my deliverance from performance-based Christianity, grace has confronted and changed my thinking in many areas. This seems to be one more as I've been forced out of my comfort zone regarding church. The church isn't a place. It's a people in any place. It's a body. It's the body of Christ, not a location, or a building, or a campus. None of us "goes to church." We are the church. If you have the privilege of going to a place of worship every Sunday, good for you. Cherish it. But keep in mind you're not going to church. You're the church and the church is going to a building. Maybe one day I'll be able to do that again too. Maybe not. But either way, give me Jesus!

-Mike

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Valentine's Day Grace Massacre

It was six years ago today. I'm sure I'll never forget it. I was out of town taking care of my dad. Susan drove up to meet me so we could have a nice dinner together on Valentine's Day. Our conversation began over a nice meal and continued for the next five hours. We didn't know what to call it then, but we couldn't stop talking about it. It was crushing and liberating all at the same time. It simultaneously brought us low and raised our spirits. It made Jesus big and us small. It right-sized a sinking boat and rescued both of us from what we had slowly become. We had started to recognize it as something significant months prior, but this was the first chance we'd had to talk about it face to face in all of our busyness.

It was our crash and burn.

Our rescue from performance had officially begun and Valentine's Day 2009 marked its first real milepost. We talked for the first time about what had been going on in our hearts individually over the previous months and years. It was healing and it was hard. The Holy Spirit had led us individually to the same realization and conclusion. We didn't know what to call it then, but we know now. In fact, we knew shortly afterward. It was our brokenness. We were broken people who didn't know we were broken until we hit a wall of performance where we couldn't fake it any more so we crashed and burned. We crashed and burned together. That Valentine's Day dinner six years ago was like sitting in the ashes of what our lives had slowly become, while we confessed our sin and brokenness to each other. Burdens began to be lifted from our shoulders and our hearts started to find hope as we began for the first time to recognize, openly talk about, and start to remove the plethora of masks we realized we had been wearing for years. It was all the Holy Spirit's doing as the more we talked, he gently showed us more and more of our true selves and Jesus' gentle forgiveness. He was opening our hearts wider to his gentle love and through it all, there was not a whisper of condemnation. The more we talked, the more we recognized how bound we had been for so many years. We had been stuck in performance-based Christianity. The years we had spent in performancism had taken their toll and it came to a head on that Valentine's Day night. While we both felt relieved to finally be talking about it, our responses were completely different. Susan had been flattened by the years of performance to the point of walking away from the faith. Beyond what I'm about to mention below, I'll let her tell you her story when and if she is ready.

The months and years following have been both rewarding and hard to get through. Everything was stripped away from us initially. People got mad at us and long-standing friendships came to an end. Instead of receiving help, we received criticism and were told we were dragging the name of Jesus through the mud. As the drama unfolded and the criticism continued, Susan fell into a severe clinical depression, ended up in the ER more than once with severe chest pains caused by extreme anxiety, and wanted nothing more to do with Christianity or church. As she was moving away from the faith, I found myself alone, wondering how this was going to end after 36 years together doing life and ministry. I had never dealt with depression like Susan's before. It wasn't theoretical anymore. It came home with me and lived under my own roof. Prior to that, I had a black and white view of depression but when it took up residency, everything changed for me. I didn't know what to do with it, but somehow I knew what not to do with it. I kept harsh people away from Susan (and those with to-do lists) and only allowed near her the few she trusted, who talked to her about a Jesus who loves her apart from her ability to do anything for him. A Jesus who came to rescue the broken, not the self-sufficient. This was a message we had slowly forgotten over the years. Hearing the good news of a Jesus who loves us in our weakness was the beginning of her healing that continues to the present time.

While I was being repeatedly accused of being edgy and it looked like Susan was walking away from the faith and no help was on the horizon, I decided to leave that church I had helped plant. That was hard for me. That was real hard and it tore me up inside. Following my decision, things were said about us that weren't true and our reputations were trashed. Unfortunately, that is still going on, but less frequently. We lost relationships and long shadows were cast over our reputations that are still there today. I once heard Steve Brown say that sometimes God does things in your life where all you can do is watch and say "Wow!" That describes us. We didn't ask for this and we weren't seeking it. And there were times we didn't handle things well. But we're so glad it happened. God was at work, bringing us back to gospel centeredness and our first love. Not because we deserved it, but because he is a beautiful Savior. He was starting to show us that the gospel isn't something we needed only at the beginning of our Christian life, but it's the hub of the Christian life and we never outgrow our need for it.

For the first time that Valentine's Day night, I was able to say I was tired. We were both tired. Tired of faking it and tired of being fake. I was tired of being a pretending pastor and Susan was tired of being a pretending pastor's pretending wife. That's what Performancism does. It's exhausting and it turns you into a fake person and puts you in a fake reality where only those who pretend to be strong can survive. And I was quite the pretender. We were both quite the pretenders. But now we were exhausted and there were no quick solutions or pat answers to be found. It was time to face the music because we were at the end of ourselves and both of us had hit a wall. There was nowhere to go but to Jesus. It was time to be real.

I thought I had to be strong for Jesus' sake. If I wasn't strong and competent, I wouldn't get the goodies Jesus promised. Christians are supposed to be strong and competent, right? Wrong! We're called to be real, which means we embrace our brokenness and Jesus' competency for us. As a pastor, pretending to be strong and competent makes you ugly and darkens your heart over time. It hurts the people you've been called to shepherd. You become judge and jury of who is and who isn't a Christian based solely on how they are performing or pretending to perform. Somehow, you become content with pretending. Your view of the Christian life propagates hypocrisy in the church as you become obsessed with cleaning the outside of the cup because the outside of the cup is your barometer for true spirituality. If you don't "look like" a believer, you probably aren't one. So you become the sin police and a spiritual bully. You become a modern day Pharisee. You insist that people fight sin but with no mention of the gospel, all you're really doing is driving them and yourself, deeper into despair. With no mention of "it is finished", nothing is finished, hope vanishes, and it's left up to you get 'er done.

Your performancism also makes you have to be right all the time, even over stupid and insignificant things. You're always looking for a fight - a theological smackdown where you come away the victor and your pride is momentarily satisfied. The wall you hit when you crash and burn, is a wall of pride and when you hit it, God brings you low as only he can. Gently and with no condemnation. Even in discipline, he is full of grace and mercy.

There is so much more I could say, and I probably will at some point, but I'll stop here for now. After six long years, I'm only recently getting to the point where I can write about it and now, I could write a book! Thank you Jesus for rescuing me from my own blindness and foolish performancism.

Happy Valentine's Day!
Mike