WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP IT'S BEEN

Back in 2006 I came across a book that set me, unknowingly, on a journey of deconstruction and discovery, The book was “Divine Nobodies” by author Jim Palmer.

Some of you may recall this book from a small group I lead. We studied each chapter together and marveled at the way Palmer could find the best in anyone he met. How each encounter was seen as a learning experience that only enriched his life. I didn’t know it at the time but this book deeply marked me and would act as the impetus to take a hard look at the life I was living and the type of faith I was proclaiming.

Over time I questioned much of what I had been taught in the evangelical church. I grew less and less comfortable with the “us versus them” tone and the “group think” mentality of the church I was attending. What was called discipleship looked very much like (not so) subtle brainwashing. I found that questions were not only not welcome but targeted me for “special attention” from those in leadership. I was invited to be part of closed accountability groups with people I hardly knew and to special “one on one time” with the pastor.

Having not grown up in the church I didn’t understand that my questions were considered dangerous and that my faith was in question. Honestly I was kind of terrified by the idea that somehow, after 25+ years that I was not actually “saved.” But, I needed to know what real faith was about and followed my heart. I didn’t know then it but my long path of deconstructing and rebuilding my belief system had started.

The process has been exciting, humbling, empowering and draining. I looked deeply at what I believed and found maybe things weren’t as black and white as I was taught they were. The process is frustrating and more than once I felt I had been lied to. I began to feel a pull (or perhaps a push) away from the church.  

It’s been a long strange trip. I’m not done, don’t think I ever will be. Faith is probably the simplest and most complicated thing I’ve ever encountered. There is so much more I could say about this process, but I think the one thing I want to do at this point is thank Jim Palmer for writing “Divine Nobodies”. Your book, sir, has certainly impacted my life in ways I never expected.

DRAWING LINES

It’s time to let go of the tribe analogy when referring to faith communities. I get it. We all want to find a place we fit, where people like us share common goals, values and beliefs. The problem is when we start identifying as a tribe we set ourselves apart form others. We build an us versus them mentality that does way more harm than good.

I admit, I’ve used the “t” word myself. Everyone wants to belong to something bigger than ourselves. But, if we’re always looking for a tribe we miss the fact we already belong to bigger things—the human race, those that share a common language or people who live in a specific geographical area. Why must we break it down to smaller and smaller groups to draw our identity from?

Think about it. If we focus on the “tribe” we lose site of the value of those who don’t act like, dress like, think like we do. They become those who don’t belong. We become suspicious and even fearful—especially when we are told we are the only ones who have it all figured out and anything on the outside is dangerous. Tribes naturally exclude people. 

A quote I saw on Twitter recently inspired my thoughts and still haunts me.

“As soon as you draw a line to exclude people, Jesus goes to the other side of that line with them and invites you to join him there. Every time.” — Carlos A. Rodriguez

Are we on the wrong side of the line? If we’re excluding people we are. Let’s do better.

NO MORE HOOPS. NO MORE STRINGS.

“I don’t agree with your belief that reconciliation is always possible.”

I was told this as I was saying goodbye. The words confirmed to me that saying goodbye was the right choice.

The statement has haunted me for nearly two years. I think the viewpoint is wrong and only leads to twisting what reconciliation really is about. At worst it leads to the hope of restoration becoming a weapon rather than an act of love.

I heard this statement in the context of a decision which upended the life of someone in the church. How could someone using the title pastor not believe that reconciliation is always on the table—unless they personally take it away?  

Here’s what happens. Someone supposedly breaks a rule. Discussions take place and ultimately forgiveness and reconciliation are offered—or withheld. Often, the offer comes with all manner of hoops to jump through or strings attached. Either way the person who is accused of breaking the rule leaves the situation feeling beat down and shamed. Welcome to today’s evangelicalism.

I’m sad to say I’ve seen this process from both sides—as a both a person in a leadership role and as a congregant. I’ve learned that when a church is unwilling to do the hard work of reconciliation they say “We forgive you. Now please leave.” Bit of a mixed message, isn’t it?

Reconciliation is likely uncharted waters. There’s no map and no time limit on how long it should take. I’m sorry if you’ve been working 14 months towards the goal. Perhaps there’s more for you to learn. It might take 14 days or 14 more months or even longer. Deal with it.

An ear ready to listen and actually hear the other party is most helpful. Perhaps it’s time to start fresh and pay attention. An apology will go a long way.

If Christians base their spiritual lives on reconciliation why do they give up on it so easily? I’ve seen people shunned for disagreeing with the most ridiculous rules. This evil practice sets the people who stay above those sent away. The psychological abuse is unbelievably cruel. And the in-church messaging—"don’t speak to them,” “don’t check on them,” “pray for them,” “they’re under church discipline,”—only prolongs the harsh treatment of the one cast aside.

So pastor, ministry leader, deacon, team member, lay pastor…stop playing the game of self-protection and beware of the group-think atmosphere you are fostering in your church. Please do not cut off communication with those you have a problem with. It’s your responsibility to bring reconciliation—especially to those who are seeking it. Let the process take as long as it does. Do not shut people out.

“But you don’t understand. You’re misinformed.” Save it. I don’t want to hear why I’m wrong and you’re actions are justified. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are called to make things right—no matter how toxic you may think things might be. How big is your God, really?

You can’t start to repair things if you don’t engage. Put away your anger and get to work. You represent Jesus and he doesn’t send people away.

Reconciliation is always possible. Now step up and make it happen.

STEP OUT OF THE TORNADO

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve rediscovered the habit of “soul care.” Think of it as “me time” but less frivolous—more introspection, less Netflix. I’m talking about time intentionally set aside to step out of the tornado of busyness to allow yourself to breathe deeply, to wonder at the beauty all around and to recharge your spirit.

News programs, the internet and social media offer all manner of outrage. Add this to life on a interpersonal level where people treat others in a less than loving manner and I’m amazed I can get out of bed some mornings. The battles are many, but the soul needs respite.

Recently, on two separate occasions, I disconnected from the junk that populates life these days. No electronics, no deadlines, no arguments, no adults behaving badly. It was amazing. The first day I joined some colleagues on a trip to an art museum. The following week I spent a day hiking and taking photographs at a local nature preserve.

The time spent disconnecting took on a spiritual aspect. These few hours provided more peace and contentment than I rarely, if ever, felt in a religious service—which, to be honest, is a stress filled place for me. (For an organization that peddles peace and love there sure is a lot of underlying strife in the church. Why? Let’s file that under “for future discussion.”)

Setting aside just a few hours of my week on something different caused me to see things more clearly and to feel refreshed and inspired. I walked back into the fray with new resolve and with my head up.

 

P.S. When I started this blog I didn’t think anyone but myself and some family might read it. Over the last month this site has had 628 page views, 70 percent specifically the blog. Thanks for reading and feel free to comment.

#CHURCHTOO

It’s been a tough week. Slogging through the SCOTUS confirmation hearings has scarred us as a nation and as individuals. Abuse in every form is rife within the halls of power. Everywhere from politics and higher learning to entertainment, women (and men) are speaking up about their experiences.

It’s time to admit it happens in the church as well. And it happens more than we might think.

We all know the struggles the Catholic church is going through and I applaud Pope Francis for finally engaging and dealing with sexual abuse. Survivors are being heard and believed. Hopefully healing will follow.

The Evangelical church is not above the fray. This year some prominent churches made the headlines. Willow Creek Church for one is dealing with serial abuse allegations against their senior pastor (who has now taken early retirement). I won’t go into detail here except to ask a question: How does a man get away with sexually abusing staff members and congregants for 30 years?

Personally I haven’t been in churches where sexual abuse allegations were raised. But abuse isn’t always physical.

I was part of a church where a strong, kind, intelligent woman was told in a cowardly email  “…for the health of the church, we need to part ways.” Read that again. Does that sound like a loving community where everyone is welcome and where reconciliation is taken seriously? Not at all. Yet the church continues to say this woman was not kicked out. And why would the church be unhealthy if she stayed?

To lift a phrase from the Bible Jesus wept.

Now put yourself in the same situation. How would you feel if you received an email like that from the governing board of an organization where you committed your time and support? Words can hurt as much as a slap across the face. Some say this isn’t abuse, but I would disagree. The long term emotional damage inflicted by the pastor—and the board that is supposed to guide him—is considerable.

With that said, I’d like to challenge you to read the stories of other survivors of church abuse. Check out #churchtoo. The centralized power structure within the church needs to be challenged. Ask the hard questions of those who are leading your congregations and influencing your thinking. And keep asking until you get answers.

Believe the survivors.

LOVE HAS NO AGENDA

Over the years I’ve listened while pastors droned on about love. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an important topic—maybe the most important. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard preaching based on the “Love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13). Many a message was filled with flowery, hopeful words about loving our neighbor. In my experience there’s a lot of talk but no serious action when it comes to a life lived with love. And if nothing else love is action.  

Personally, I’m constantly relearning that love has no agenda. All are equal and the only reason I should love you is because you are created in the image of God. Often I fail, but I keep trying.

I’ve also come to believe if the intended recipient of love doesn’t feel loved the whole venture is a complete failure. Why do you assume that whatever effort, small or large, anyone makes toward another will be seen as love? Where is the commitment to those not like you; the homeless person, the immigrant, those of a different faith and the LGBT community? You say you have a heart for these, but in reality you are too busy, and maybe too scared, to actually care.

[Side note here: I hate categorizing and labeling people. I do it here to highlight those most often said to be invited to but actually unwelcome in the faith communities I attended.]

I always hope for the best, but the church even has trouble demonstrating love to its own. And often inflicts the most pain. You say you love me when in truth you love what I bring to your community. Where’s the compassion, acceptance and affirmation? I’m still looking for it, and so is your neighbor.

WOULD JESUS BREAK UP WITH ME?

Over the past 35 years I held lay leadership positions in each church where I was a member. From small group and ministry leader to council member, these experiences have given me a unique perspective on leading a Christian community.

In that time I discovered two things.

I learned a Christian community needs to be different. The church should be the safest place in the world—a place of acceptance and care, of grace and safety.

I’ve also learned that it’s not.

Many communities say that they’re all about acceptance and caring for the least but don’t actively live it.

If we want to reflect Jesus, we need to do what he did. Did he ever send anyone away? Did he ever disrespect them? Did he ever send a terse email saying “it would be better for you and me if we parted ways”?

Would Jesus ever break up with me?

Sorry to be absurd, but church leaders do a lot of absurd things.

The last community I was part of did a series on reconciliation immediately after telling a member they were no longer part of the family (I personally believe Jesus was not part of the break-up).

This former member reached out to leadership with hope of reconciliation, but no messages were returned. The pastor, staff and much of the congregation were not willing to engage, to do the hard work. Apparently, they forgot they represented Jesus to this person. Missed opportunity at the very least. I assume that story was not a sermon illustration for the series.

The church needs to do better. If you say you follow Jesus then treat people better. All people.

OPEN LETTER TO THE CHURCH I LEFT

Dear (what do I call you, ”friends”? “brothers and sisters”? “partners in ministry”? “family”?):

None of those salutations work for me. Though you portrayed yourselves as all these things, I don’t think any of them speaks to our relationship right now..

I only did what I know Jesus would have done—and what we were taught to do. I stood with someone who was being marginalized and unheard. Someone looking for reconciliation but blocked at every turn. Someone who gave selflessly to the ministry of the church only to be shunned and sent away. Someone seeking to follow Jesus with their whole heart.

I wish I had gotten involved in the situation earlier. I placed my trust in a group of people who were ok with a different outcome than I hoped for. I only understood how messed up it was when this church member (friend? brother, sister? partner in ministry? family member?) was kicked-out of the community. The decision was the wrong one and the process was deeply flawed.

I believed that people at this church could deal with someone standing for grace, even if it went against what leadership deemed necessary. I expected discussion, care and concern, not silence. Things were swept under the rug and “church life” went on.

In the past 16 months I have heard from one of you. Just one, and they prohibited me from even mentioning the reason for my departure.

If we were friends you would have at least reached out to see how I was. If we were family I know I would have received dinner invites and to offers to chat over coffee or a beer. Nothing. Was the sense of community I felt at your church a lie? At this point I tend to think it was.

Even though you didn’t ask…I’m doing fine. If you’re reading this you’re at my website and can see I continue to create and that makes me happy. As for being part of another faith community, that hasn’t happened. Actually, I don’t know if it will. My trust has been shattered. I had thought I found a solid, healthy expression of Christianity, doing life with y’all. Now I see it was all a ruse. The scars are deep but healing is ongoing.

I wish I could say I look forward to hearing from you, but, obviously that would be folly.

Sincerely,

Kevin

P.S. To the leadership; one thing I’ve learned—contrary to what I was told by the pastor—is that reconciliation is always possible. God is bigger than all circumstances and his heart to reconcile people to himself and one another. Take the hint and do what needs to be done.

PROCRASTINATION

Someone asked me last week how I found time to paint. Out of reflex I said something like ”You can always find time for the things you love.” Sounds noble, right? Pure b.s. In reality you don’t always do what you love, even if you have time.

The truth is procrastination is the close friend of most creatives—especially those who work under deadlines. In my profession I live in the world of deadlines and know how to make them work for me. I can plan what it takes to complete a task down to the second. Then I can gauge how much distraction I can squeeze in before crisis mode hits.

Anything without a deadline—like painting, blogging, photography, drawing—becomes something I’ll do tomorrow or that free afternoon on Thursday or next Sunday when no one else is home. I like to tell people I have a plan, that I set aside specific times to be at work in the studio. True confession time; I don’t.

This should really come as no surprise if you look at the date of the last blog post. It’s been nine months.

Today’s world provides myriad distractions. Checking texts, email, news headlines and the obligatory visits to Facebook and Twitter steal time and move us farther from doing “what we love.” Add to that family responsibilities, job commitments and what’s new on Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Amazon…I’m sure you get the idea. Procrastination 1, creative pursuit 0.

Truthfully, I work in spurts. I get excited by a new project or vision for something I want to create. In those times you can’t pull the brushes from my hands. That is until I hit a wall. What happens often—and where I am now—is at some point in the process I have a piece “mostly” finished. I love where it is, but I don’t know what to do next. So I wait. And wait some more, but can’t seem to get the last part of the puzzle.

Sometimes I set a piece aside, sometimes I wait, sometimes I paint over everything and start again. The finished project will fall into one of three categories; 1) I'm happy with it (sweet! everyone must love it as much as I do). 2) Someone else finds worth in it (they see something worth looking at so I may let others see it). Or 3) I want to burn it and never think of it again (I suck and I must destroy the evidence). Now you know more that you ever wanted to about my creative process.

I could promise to blog more, paint more, create more but I won’t do that. All I can say is check back often. I'll try my best to provide something new to distract you from the things you love.

 

 

A YEAR OF GROWTH AND CHANGE

Happy new year. Welcome to my new website and blog.

In the coming months, I will be posting my thoughts on art, spirituality and life in general. If you find my words worth reading, visiting this space for more.

2017 was a year of change for me and the beginning of what I expect to be a long journey. I have a sense of things being open ended and unfinished. There seems to be what might be called a messiness or disarray in my faith journey at the moment. Surprisingly this doesn’t come with fear or panic. I feel more confident and assured that there’s a purpose and a road of discovery and experience ahead.

In April I stepped away from a faith community I had been part of for 5 years. Circumstances arose that made it impossible for me to remain there. I can’t go into much detail, but it was my faith and belief that acceptance in the kingdom and the local church is for everyone that belief brought about my exit.  

Looking back, this wasn’t the first step in my journey, but may have been the most public one. There continues to be pain and disenchantment associated with that time. It’s likely I will write on how that decision still drives my faith, but, for now I look to the path ahead.

Over the last eight months I’ve spent a lot of time reading, listening, painting and creating. Some of the artwork and photos on this site reflect this time. They might represent unknown or untraveled paths while others move toward the whimsical or surreal.

As for 2018, I am expectant. I embrace the continued change and look forward to opportunities for grace, generosity, peace and unconditional acceptance of others.

Cheers!