A New Way Home

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So, I’m starting over. Again.

For several years I have been living in fear. Just the phrase “living in fear” seems vague, cliche, and honestly lacking. The phrase is also an oxymoron: You can’t “live” in fear. In fact, the word “living” has been grossly misunderstand in everyday society. We think “living” means being uninhibited by nuisances like debt, crappy jobs, or that ten pounds we need to lose. But living is something much more profound. It means accepting your existence, your place in the cosmos, and everything in it. Then and only then can you see through the veils, behind the curtains and through the smoke.

To live in fear means to be a slave.

I’ve battled depression for several years now. I’ve tried medication. I’ve tried counseling. I’ve tried blaming all the negative circumstances and persons in my life. I’ve searched for answers to the big questions. I’ve tried running from my own demons, or flat-out denying they still linger. Eventually you have to stop running. Sometimes you even have to hit rock bottom. That’s where I am.

But at least now I can look up and see the stars again.

I can say that for the first time, I know I’m going to be alright. I no longer place that certainty in deities, or a naive and chronic optimism. I do not place it in any other person. Nothing outside of myself can do this. However, I can see why so many think it could be so.

Once I put all my trust and security in Jesus. I won’t lie. That shit works on a practical level for a whole lot of people. It “worked” for me for a significant portion of my life. I mean, if you think that you’re good, taken care of, loved, accepted, and have a GOD (for cryin’ out loud) on your side… yeah, you may indeed have some peace of mind (until you think you pissed that GOD off, anyway). But pragmatism is not the point. Lots of things “work” or achieve the desired goal. But how we win matters.

For example, as a society we could lock up our daughters in cages that hang from their bedroom ceilings. We could bring them food and water daily, tell them bedtime stories, and obviously tell them the outside world is scary and dangerous. We can keep them in there until age 20. And teenage pregnancy will drop to 0%. Mission accomplished, right?

Um. No.

Two plus two equals four. But three plus one, and five minus one, and sixteen divided by four work too. When you think about it, there are countless ways to arrive at the desired outcome. Some are more simple. Some more complex. Some will make you hate math and major in some meaningless degree like Latin.

We each have to find the way home that will bring us there in one piece.

Today I am happy. I want you to be happy too. Since I can’t do that for you, or anyone else, I would like to share with you a few videos that remind me what happiness feels like. For the full effect, watch each one in-full.

Love you all.

@brett









God Agrees to be Interviewed. Finally Admits He “Makes No Sense.”

diner

[Somewhere in a diner on the other side of the universe]…

 

Interviewer: Thank you so much for agreeing to this, God. I mean, this is huge. This is going to answer so many questions for so many people.

God: [holding a cloud in front of his face] Don’t mention it.

Interviewer: Why the cloud?

God: My face is so holy it would melt your face.

Interviewer: Oh, I see. Right. Well, let’s just get right down to business. [fumbles through a small stack of index cards] Here is a question sent to us from Susan, a teenager from Sector 5X. “Dear God, why is there so much suffering in the cosmos?” 

God: Ah, yes. I’ve been meaning to answer this one for a while. Suffering is a result of sin. I can’t force someone to do what is right, therefore all sorts of sins must be permitted to exist. If I somehow intervened, I would not be a loving God at all.

Interviewer: Interesting. Indeed. But, doesn’t that mean Heaven would be impossible then? 

God: [there is a slight pause] I would ask you what you mean, but I’m God so I already know what you mean. [clears throat] You mean to imply that I would be forced to allow sin in Heaven as well. But this would not be the case, because only the Holy shall enter into Heaven. 

Interviewer: I see. So the ones who get in will be perfect? Sinless? 

God: Of course not. Only Jesus and myself are perfect and sinless. They are Holy because we proclaim them to be Holy. 

Interviewer: You mean to say, you “make” them Holy?

God: We transform their nature to be one with our divine will. So they have no choice but to…

Interviewer: No choice? Isn’t choice a necessity for you to be a loving God?

God: Well, yes. But only while people are alive, on their home planets. 

Interviewer: Right. Okay. So, people who are not holy of their own merit must endure a world of suffering to finally reap the riches of Heaven?

God: Yes, they must prove they are worthy through suffering. 

Interviewer: Prove? So they do have to earn something after all? 

God: No, grace is not earned. It is a free gift of grace. It cannot be attained by good works.

Interviewer: Then who gets the grace? Why is anyone chosen?

God: Whosoever believes in me shall not perish, but have everlasting life!

Interviewer: Ah! I think we are getting somewhere. So believing is the key. If someone believes, they become saved. Am I understanding you correctly?

God: You’ve got it! 

Interviewer: So the only “work” you have to do is believe. 

God: [there is another pause, this time for a good twenty seconds] Well, I wouldn’t call believing in me a “work”. 

Interviewer: I would.

God: I wouldn’t.

Interviewer: Do you love everyone unconditionally?

God: Of course!

Interviewer: So no conditions? You love them no matter what?

God: Yes, but unfortunately I can only save the ones who ask for my grace and believe in their heart that I am real.

Interviewer: Is that belief a “condition” for salvation?

God: Absolutely.

Interviewer: [face-palm] So salvation is contingent upon their choice? Their action. A work of faith. What if all beings choose not to believe? Are you powerless? Do you lose? Did Jesus die for nothing if the Disciples simply looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and said “I don’t feel like it”? 

God: Oh, that would’ve never happened.

Interviewer: But what if it did?

God: I was feeling lucky.

Interviewer: Okay, so to recap… Suffering is caused as a direct result of the free will of people to choose. Suffering remains because for you to intervene you would be taking away that same free will. But those who choose good are no more deserving of Heaven since no one is holy until they are “made to be holy” by you. And you choose which ones to make holy, not because they are good people, but because they believe in you. And in Heaven everything will be perfect because the people will be holy, but they’re only holy because you basically turn them into demigods, more or less, who no longer have free will?

God: What? Does that not make sense?

Interviewer: No. I’m afraid it doesn’t. 

God: Well, my ways are higher than your ways. So, Checkmate.

Interviewer: Checkmate? You can’t just say that when things don’t add up.

God: Okay, okay. You’re right. It makes no sense. 

Interviewer: Let’s try another question. Josh from Battlestar Galactica asks “Can you really do anything?”

God: Yes. Anything. It comes with the whole “God” package.

Interviewer: Not a surprising answer. But does that mean you could save everyone? 

God: I could.

Interviewer: Will you?

God: Of course not.

Interviewer [getting a bit flustered] Why not?! Don’t you want everyone to be saved?

God: That is my will.

Interviewer: If it is your will, and you can do all things, why won’t you do it?

God: Because not everything deserves to be saved.

Interviewer: Who does deserve to be saved?

God: Jesus. Yeah, that’s it. Just Jesus. And you may have to ask him that one. He practically does all the “saving” these days.

[Jesus enters and sits next to his Father]

Jesus: Oh hi. Sorry for the confusion. Yes, I was the only one who deserved to be saved. 

God: So proud of you, Son.

Jesus: Yeah, sure. 

Interviewer: Do I sense some tension between the two of you?

Jesus: Tension? Nah. I mean, I’m such a good son that I got to be crucified by the Romans.  

God: Son, it was the only way.

Jesus: BULLSHIT! YOU JUST TOLD THIS GUY YOU COULD DO ANYTHING YOU WANTED!

Interviewer: I can leave you two alone if this is a bad time.

Jesus: No. It’s okay. I think it’s about time we got all this out in the open. Dad, I specifically called and asked you that night in the garden if there was another way that whole thing could have went down without me getting my skin ripped off and me getting nailed to a block of wood. Then you tell me you’re driving through a tunnel and there was a bad connection? 

God: You know we have Sprint! It’s not my fault!

Jesus: You know, Mom was right. She knew better than to get involved with you. I can’t believe she left Joseph, for… for all this!

Interviewer: You know, I think I’ve got everything I need! [signals for his check] 

Confessions of an Ex-Youth Pastor

This coming June 15th, I will have been out of ministry for three full years. This seems unreal to me. What seems even more strange is that this coming Fall will mark ten years since I enrolled in my ministry undergrad program. I can’t help but look back on the past decade and wonder if it was a mistake. “Was it worth the heartache?” I ask myself that question daily. From a vocational standpoint, the answer is crystal clear; I failed. I was unable and unwilling to continue in my line of work. Simply put, I was fired twice, and I did not wish to try for a third assignment.

Now, here comes the trickiest part in writing such a blog post. I am not here to wallow in the sweet, dirty aroma of martyrdom. I am not here to “bash” the churches and staff members who ever so gently placed me underneath the proverbial bus. I am no rockstar because I have suffered at the hands of church committees. I now understand that being on a church committee is its own punishment, so I wish them a smooth journey through their dark and stormy sea. I also understand that my differences of opinion and my failures to satisfy my job expectations are not marks of superiority. I will now and forever admit that being a youth pastor is not what God, Buddha, Vishnu, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson wants for my life. I will respect their wishes.

However, I am not ready to call it all a wash. I learned some very valuable life lessons that I’d like to pass on to the rest of you. If you sense a bit of sarcasm, don’t worry; it’s just what happens when oxygen flows past my vocal chords.

1. THE YOUTH REALLY ARE WORTH IT ALL

We all like each other so much!

I will begin by stating that if I ever had any regrets about tossing my hat into Youth ministry, the Youth were never one of them. I mean, I was 24 when I graduated from college and took my first position in Warner Robins, GA. (I won’t name the church, but it rhymes with “binity phunited smithodist”). I was practically still a kid myself. I immediately fell in love with the Youth, being reminded constantly of my own teen years with every conversation I had with them. I honestly wasn’t the most outgoing youth pastor, but I soon bonded to them with my own brand of dry humor, mind-stretching questions (like was it a sin to kill Jesus, or did Jesus have fleas?), and random mass-texting trivia games with no correct answers.

When you’re that in-love with a group of youth, you immediately become vulnerable to claims that you’re “too buddy-buddy” and not “adult” enough. There is no getting around this conundrum. There’s just not. If you don’t relate enough to the youth, watch out for parents holding secret meetings with your boss. If you relate too well with the youth, you may not be taking your job “seriously” enough. But you know what? All the bullshit was worth it, because I had an awesome time with those kids. I’ll always remember those life-changing conversations where I really knew I had helped someone get through a dark time. One girl even said I saved her life. What’s more rewarding than that?

 

2. YOU’RE A CRIMINAL UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT.

Did you send a mass text to my daughter?!

Let me begin by saying I don’t make light of the very real presence of sexual abuse in Christianity. I’m simply saying that when you are a male, given the task of overseeing a large group of middle and high schoolers, people are going to think/say a lot of things. Try relating to the half of the group that’s female. You’re expected to delegate that wing of your relational ministry through as many female volunteers as possible. Any texts, phone calls, or conversations happening on the far side of the youth room will set off red flags everywhere. And hey… I get it. We all want safety for our kids. But I’ll always think it’s odd that churches hire the “morally upright” and then assume their calling was actually just their excuse to flirt with teenage girls.

If those parents only knew how many of their own kids were doin’ the dance with no pants. Oh man. They’d leave the Youth pastor alone and start investing in chastity belts.

 

3. DON’T GET HUNG UP ON THE WHOLE “JESUS” THING.

John, I won’t ask you again. Where did you hide the kick-ball?!

I once made the mistake of thinking Church was about Jesus. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Brett, you’re getting petty. You’re just upset that you had a bad experience.” But what I mean is… Church is a business. If you haven’t sat through a finance meeting, try it out. It’ll clear up any doubts you may have. It is a numbers game. Managing metrics. Income. Payroll. Attendance. It’s about money.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s ONLY about money. It’s also about power grabs and politics. Are there good things too? Of course! But at the end of the day, just don’t be naive. I’ve been in a staff meeting where we opened with prayer, listened to the Pastor lie about why a staff member “chose” to step down, and looked across the table at that very staff member fight back tears knowing they were being removed against their will. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I knew a brilliant (and blind) associate pastor voted out of his position while he was in the same room. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I was voted out of my position while I was gone on a mission trip. Jesus wasn’t even in the same hemisphere for that one.

I say this to make a point, not to indict anyone. Businesses do what they feel they have to do. But when you are in the “Jesus Business” …your idealism will take a big hit. Your rose-colored glasses must come off, or the shrapnel will hit you when you least expect it. Don’t blame Jesus. When the coast is clear, grab on to him and jump the prison wall. You’ll finally be able to get some real work down once you get out.

Seriously, all joking aside, don’t take things personally. Assholes are everywhere. Sometimes they just live in parsonages.

 

4. EVERYONE THINKS YOUR IDEAS ARE STUPID

I blame the crowd for encouraging this one.

This one shouldn’t be too shocking. I bet you can name five people you work with right now who have stupid ideas. I’d also bet five is a conservative figure. But when you’re a Youth pastor, your grand visions for the future of the program? Crap. All of them. And hey, maybe they are crap. I’m not going to pretend I had it all figured out. I made my share of dumb moves (e.g. Saturday night youth service. Omg. Even Jesus shook his head at that one). But when you’re 24 years old, and the church has filled your position five times in the past six years, no one is honestly expecting you to have any new, ground-breaking ideas.

I still want to try LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE. Maybe in my next life.

5. THE ENTIRE PREMISE OF YOUTH MINISTRY IS FLAWED

Stop me if I’m wrong, but I have always been told Youth ministry exists to…

“Foster and develop the students’ spiritual identities for the purpose of incorporating them into the life of the church”
(i.e. Let’s grow us some tithing church members)

From a business standpoint, there is nothing illogical about this approach. Obviously they need a long-term plan for sustained growth. And don’t misunderstand, I honestly believe they have the best of intentions and hope the Youth do find a healthy spiritual life, whether in their church or another somewhere out there after college. But you see… there’s a problem. If this is the point of Youth ministry, it’s failing. Big time.

If you do some research you’ll find a lot of figures and studies on the topic, but basically 70% of graduating teens leave the church, and maybe half of that 70% return sometime later in life. This is common across the board. It doesn’t matter if the church sets aside millions of dollars for its youth program. It doesn’t matter if normal Wednesday night attendance breaks 50, 500, or 5000 kids. Only 3 out of 10 youth 18-22 will stay in church, any church.

You see, it has nothing to do with the size of the program, or how well we relate to their interests, or how many community outreach programs we coordinate. When kids are done with youth group, they leave. And the reason why isn’t all that bad! They leave for all sorts of reasons, but a major reason is that they simply feel their life is beginning a new chapter. They’ve graduated. They did the Youth group thing, maybe they loved it (maybe they didn’t), but now it’s time to move on to other things. They may look back on their days in church with fondness. Their choice to leave has little to do with the trips to Malaysia, Third Day concerts, or lock-ins featuring LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE.

The point of youth ministry is that those kids need to be cared for while they ARE in church. Now. It has nothing to do with creating church members. Oh, and if you want some stats on general decline of religion in America, click here (if you dare).

~

In closing: You may look up there^ and see the ramblings of a guy who still cares very much about the youth of Christianity. You might see a bitter, disenfranchised soul who wants to take cheap shots when he can. You might think I’m even being too easy on the Church. When I strike these keys on my laptop I honestly think to myself “Wow, if so-and-so from x-council ever finds what I’m typing, they’ll feel quite vindicated for their decision to vote me out.” My extensive usage of the phrase “bullshit” is enough to confirm their suspicions I was never Christ-like enough.

But at the end of the day, I guess I am thankful I was put on this path filled with the best and worst examples of Jesus’ legacy. I am thankful I didn’t waste any more time in Christianity than I did. I mean, there’s some fabulous believers out there who need to keep fighting the good fight. So, keep it up! But I had to break up with Jesus, or at least the Jesus I was sold so long ago. I still see him on the street, in my friends’ faces, in children’s laughter, in Life of Pi (great movie, people. Just buy the Blu-Ray), lots of places.

I wouldn’t recommend my old job to anyone in good conscience, but if you’re ever looking for a wild 18 month ride, give youthspecialties.com a spin. I hear those churches are always hiring.

…Kinda like Wal-Mart.

The Wisdom of Sophia

I, Wisdom, was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be…before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. -Proverbs 23-29

So, I have a new daughter. Her name is Sophia. Quite frankly, she’s far more beautiful than any of your daughters, so… just wanted to give you the heads up. I’d post a few pictures, but then you’d be so blinded by jealously that you may just unsubscribe from the blog. (Oh, by the way… make sure to subscribe to the blog!)

I almost don’t know where to start when it comes to Sophia’s story. Honestly, she emerged from a series of very unexpected events. The details of those events are saved for my close friends, but the gist of the story is I will be co-parenting with someone who I am no longer in a relationship with. I also have three children from my former marriage, so the grand total is (wait for it)… you guessed it! A lot of kids! But it’s not quite worthy of a reality show, so I think I’ll live.

I’m writing this blog post from the Ronald McDonald House here in Springfield, MO (the city where Sophie’s mom is presently living). I’m here because Sophia had a life-threatening infection that was caught in time for treatment but requires over a week of antibiotics and general monitoring. I’m excited to say that she is getting stronger everyday and I can’t wait to take her home.

I always loved the name Sophia, because I’m a theology nerd. Sophia is Greek for wisdom. Not only that, but (depending on the particular tradition) it can be referring to a goddess, the wisdom of God, a central theme in Platonic thought, and the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity (i.e. Jesus). Some have gone to far as to call her the feminine aspect of God. No matter how you slice it, there can be no mistake…

…her name kicks ass.

sop2

Sorry boys, Father says I can’t date until I’m 37.

But better yet, she is already teaching me her wisdom. She reminds me that yes, there is pain and regret, things we can’t change or do over… but that there are new beginnings, more powerful than any darkness that preceded her. The last year has been excruciating for me personally, and for many others. I honestly had no plans to have more children. But, here she is. She makes me want to fight again, to find strength again. She reminds me that when we are most vulnerable, love can still find us and show us a new way. She is brand new, seeing the world through her blurry eyes for the first time, and she is already infinitely loved. What does that say about us? Why do we feel so alone?

I don’t know if there’s a God. Maybe the cosmos in all its endless splendor linked us together from the beginning. Maybe a truth so grand we ought call it divine was at the helm, steering her to me. Maybe it was fate wrapped up in serendipity, chasing providence through destiny’s door. Maybe she was as the proverbs declare, before the heavens were set in place. Who knows?

Yet she is here… teaching me her wisdom.
(jealousy in 3…2…1…)

sophia

 

The Worst Reasons to Believe in God

People, lots of people, believe in God.

Who’s God, you say? Maybe you’ve seen his followers on the corner of Main St and EVERYWHERE. Religion is a fact of life, a fact that some don’t mind and others despise. Like with any issue, opinions abound. Atheism has become more of a force in the world. Even those who believe in God may ridicule various interpretations or religious philosophies. Nevertheless, religion isn’t going anywhere, at least not for a very long time.

I’m not here to suggest we should all agree on the issue, but over the years I have discovered some less-than-rational reasons to believe in “The Man Upstairs”. I don’t mean to imply there is no God (since I’m not personally an “atheist” in any traditional sense), but a bad idea is a bad idea. Here are a few I’ve come across.

Everything is like Soooo Pretty… There like, MUST be a God.

I’ll be the first to admit, I used this logic a lot growing up. There are still moments where I’m so in awe of nature that I am tempted to fall back on this one, but its entire basis is subjective. Beauty is interpreted by the observer. I mean, what if the very waterfall I gaze upon with astonishment also makes someone else want to vomit? My view is no more “accurate” than theirs. The same principle is true for my bewilderment by the complexities of the universe. I can look up at the night sky and be utterly convinced it was set up by an intelligent force, but that only reveals the limits of my own capacity to comprehend the unknown.

But then the Bible has to go and guilt us with shit like this…

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. -Romans 1:20. NIV.

So naturally it’s normal for many believers to take this verse to mean “It’s obvious there is a God… because look at all this cool stuff! Oh, and there’s no excuse for questioning that.” Really? So, a book written by and for people with no knowledge of the scientific method, quantum physics, heliocentrism… is giving us the easy way out: You don’t need faith after all! Just look at that double rainbow. Oh my God! It’s so bright and vivid!

 There has to be a God. It would like, totally suck if there wasn’t one.

This is by far the most prominent reason I’ve heard for a belief in God. People cannot handle the alternative. They cannot imagine their children don’t have immortal souls, or that humanity came about by evolution, or that morality isn’t set in stone (i.e. the Ten Commandments). Death can’t be the end. There is too much pain and suffering in the world. There has to be ultimate justice, vindication, punishment. eradication of evil. This is indicative of a very common theme in Christianity. Answers are often formed based on what Christians refuse to believe. Hell, I once sat through a SENIOR LEVEL THEOLOGY CLASS and heard the following words come out of my professor’s face…

Our text is called “Theology” of the New Testament, not Theologies of the New Testament. There is only one. We know the Bible doesn’t have contradictions or competing theologies. That would mean none of it is trustworthy and we would have no basis to believe in God at all.

The lack of academic integrity was so shocking that it has stuck with me to this day. We have to go where the evidence takes us, not take only the filtered evidence where we are willing to go with it. Similar statements like “I didn’t come from a monkey!” or “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” are just a few more examples of this tendency to pick our own reality.

Why is evolution false? Because it would suck if I came from primates. Those guys are lame.

Why is homosexuality wrong? Because God wouldn’t want guys to make out. That’s disgusting!

Why is it obvious that God exists? I couldn’t imagine dying and that being the end of me!

Sure, the idea of not existing beyond death is a pretty heavy one to cope with. As much as we’d like to live forever, or at least anything slightly more generous than YOLO has to offer, fear of death or yearning for heaven isn’t evidence for God.

Your life will be so much better!

This one is less about evidence and more about a perceived incentive for believing in God. There is this weird logic going around that following God will make your life easier, or better, or… something like that. If you have problems in your marriage, or your job, or if you have addictions or vices… something must not be quite right with your relationship with God. If you serve him though, good stuff is heading your way. Also, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christianity used as the measuring stick for a person’s character. “Oh, she’s dating a nice Christian man. I’m glad her life is turning around.” Or “If he’d just put God first then God would bless him.”

But then there’s all the talk about sacrifice, and suffering, and… martyrdom. Jesus said that stuff. Bad shit is heading your way simply for believing in him. Where do I sign up!?

Frustratingly, this other side of the coin is also used to foster a sense of moral superiority and victimization in the believer. If you suffer, that’s a good thing because Jesus suffered. It’s like… an honor. You are suddenly part of the long lineage of saints and preachers and prophets and Republicans who endure the perils of this fallen world.

So, when good things happen to Christians, it’s proof of God’s blessings and favor (which is evidence God exists).

And when bad things happen to Christians, it’s proof of the validity of their message (or more evidence God exists).

Sounds legit.

Conclusions and stuff.

You or someone else may have deep, personal, intriguing, thought-provoking reasons to believe in something more. It’s not inherently irrational or primitive to live a path of spirituality, of seeking a divine purpose or design of the cosmos. The examples I have mentioned are simply examples, not an exhaustive record of how Christians or theists interpret reality. However, fear and ego and attachment to prejudices and ideologies will inevitably cloud our judgment. Never believe something because you’re unwilling to entertain the alternative. Never be scared to find out the truth.

Well, unless the truth is that we’re asleep in an elaborate computer program while our robot overlords harvest our bodies for energy.

Feel free to take the blue pill.