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Believing When All You Can Do Is Doubt

 

Credits: Fairfax CC

Photo Credits: Fairfax CC

The use of paradoxical and polar opposite concepts seems unavoidable to me these days. Perhaps indicative of where I am with life right now; perhaps it is because paradox is important and needs acknowledgment and pondering. Some realities are nonsensical in the truest sense of the word. When bad days turn into bad weeks, and bad weeks become bad months; when “one of those days” turns into multiple bad days; when the God of more than enough seems like the God of less than enough, barely enough, not nearly enough – believing and doubting appear simultaneously possible.

Dialog with others reveals that one can be in relationship with God for years, and still reach a point in life where the existence and involvement of God is questionable. They are not sure whether what they have believed is truth or a hoax. Would we still classify them as believers though they are in a place of doubting?

Sometimes disillusion and discouragement replaces clarity and hopefulness. No need to deny this – if God is God, it makes sense to me that God prefers honesty above pretense. Crying, praying and wondering, yet hoping, and shutting down, going silent in prayer and drawing odd conclusions.

Quite a few Christians that I know are ok with reading about ancient Bible characters that doubted, experienced and even did negative things. Yet somehow, when it comes to people today having some of the same experiences, we gasp, point fingers of shame and should not, as if God does not understand and as though God also gasps. Hiding behind the stories of others and denying our own realities is hypocrisy at its best.

A notable difference in our stories and their stories – both positive and negative, faith filled and doubt plagued, is that their stories are recorded in a book published for all of us to see and read. With reluctance we expose our hearts and put aspects of our lived experiences on display. We share the good, and hide the bad, thereby creating an allusion for others, conveying a message to others who struggle that the struggle they face is somehow unique. Falsehood helps no one! Though our lives are not recorded for any and everyone to read about, we are still just as human as they were. But it’s easier to talk about “them and those,” than it is to acknowledge “me and mine” – distancing ourselves from their stories as though they are somehow not our stories too.

But the question remains, is it possible to be a person of faith who questions? Is it possible to believe and simultaneously doubt and question everything you once believed and were nearly sure of – especially when God seems distant and uninterested in us and the things that are hurting us? Could it be that even when doubt overwhelms our existence, there is still a minutia of faith that remains?

There are places within ancient biblical text that allude to the possibility – people such as the dad of a child in trouble who cried “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” or Thomas, a follower of Jesus whom we label according to his moment of doubt as though “doubting” is his first name.

Being honest about our doubts is somewhat scary. But could this being we refer to as God be more compassionate than a finger pointing, shame on you type of God, welcoming our doubts and receiving our questions as prayer or at the very least honesty? Perhaps God understands when no matter how hard we try, things don’t change? Perhaps God understands when smiles are replaced with frowns and laughter with tears? Perhaps God even understands when our faith and confidence turn into doubt and fear. Maybe God is “standing” gently by us, listening, guiding, and compassionate towards us.

I have doubts, no sense in lying about it – moments when I question as deeply as Job and laugh as boldly as Sarah and Abraham. There are things that I don’t know, there are things that I thought I knew, but I am no longer so sure of. But if God is in fact real, I know that I am loved by this God. What I don’t know is how much I trust/believe.

Many Christian folks will never admit to having doubts, after all we are referred to as “believers.” Truth is, sometimes we feel abandoned, alone and disregarded by God and by others. Sometimes the strength to hope, to dream and to continue moving forward eludes us. What I have discovered is that when courage does comes and we feel free enough to acknowledge doubts, a friend or two walks away. They may not call it walking away, but their silence speaks volumes, their decision to no longer interact with you, and ask “how are you?” are not so subtle hints that they have abandoned you. Individuals who only desire to hang around you when you are a happy, believing faith filled, positive Christian and stand aloof and at a distance when you are filled with pain, and not so happy and positive, are…, well I don’t know what to call them???

All I know is that pain – whether physical or emotional, is real. Some pain leaves us speechless. We want to talk, but no words will come; we want to scream, but our vocal cords won’t cooperate (plus, it might disturb our neighbors too). Sometimes all we can produce are moans, sighs, tears.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try, because even in the trying nothing works out and all that remains is disappointment. Sometimes just when you think you are moving forward, growing and progressing, you discover that you are bound to the place where you’ve always been.

Sometimes we have more questions than answers. And whether we believe the character Job in Hebrew text is real or fictional, reading the book of Job reveals a clear picture of questioning as a result of what one is experiencing – questions for God, questions for himself and questions for his friends. Here are a just a few:

QUESTIONS FOR HIS “FRIENDS”

But why? Have I ever asked you for a gift? Have I begged for anything of yours for myself?

Have I asked you to rescue me from my enemies, or to save me from ruthless people? Honest words can be painful, but what do your criticisms amount to? Do you think your words are convincing when you disregard my cry of desperation?

Look at me! Would I lie to your face? Stop assuming my guilt, for I have done no wrong. Do you think I am lying? Don’t I know the difference between right and wrong?

“Is not all human life a struggle? Lying in bed, I think, ‘When will it be morning?’ But the night drags on, and I toss till dawn.

QUESTIONS FOR GOD

Why won’t you leave me alone, at least long enough for me to swallow! If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of all humanity? Why make me your target? Am I a burden to you?

QUESTIONS FOR HIMSELF (reflection)

Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? Why was I laid on my mother’s lap? Why did she nurse me at her breasts? Why wasn’t I buried like a stillborn child, like a baby who never lives to see the light?

I don’t have a lot of answers. I do, however, have a plethora of questions. And I choose honesty over pretense and I believe God is honored in honesty.

All of the questions may not get answers, but we can still ask them as a means of being honest about our hearts, what we feel, what we wonder about and to release some of the pain we feel; to help us process our grief, suffering, pain. And who knows, we may eventually arrive at a place of peace with the unknown and incomprehensible even if the questions and doubt never go away. Having doubt does not mean that I don’t have faith; it just means that faith is not the only thing I have.

When we clean up our stories and present the censored, sanitized version of those stories, concealing the truth of whom and how we are – sure we maintain the image of perfection, but that doesn’t make it real and actual or helpful.

Having doubts and denying those doubts doesn’t somehow make them less real. Being annoyed with unanswered and unanswerable questions due to the trouble not only in our individual lives, but also in the world around us – racism, injustice, poverty, illness, the list goes on, is natural and human.

Life can cause us to identify with Job who in essence says that no matter where I look or which direction I face, I cannot find God and the evidence says that God is not there (Job 23:8-9). This is not Job’s starting point in relation to God and if we keep reading, it is obvious that this is not the ending point. BUT it should not be denied, dismissed or ignored that these words are also part of his experience in relation to “God.”

I am guessing that quite a few of us have these experiences, but to avoid shocking, confusing and devastating those near to us, we remain silent about these times, and only give voice to our faith filled, confident moments. The problem is that this approach is not real – it makes us a fraud, hypocritical, and quite frankly insensitive to others. So own your doubts, be unashamed of where you find yourself in life and try to keep moving forward.

 

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20 Things I Am Learning About Pain and Suffering

Photo Credits: freefoto.com

Photo Credits: freefoto.com

My last post on the problem of pain and some of the needs that come with it was somewhat raw, but real. Here are a few things that I am learning – in no particularly significant order.

1. One of the greatest gifts we can give to folks having a difficult time is letting them know they are not alone. Never underestimate the gift of presence.

2. Having people around you who believe when all you can do is doubt, is priceless

3. The theological perspective of “you must have done something wrong to be going through what you’re going through” is flawed, twisted and a bunch of #%&@%#!

4. Just because a person is still holding on doesn’t mean they’ve never considered giving up.

5. It’s ok to question God, correct or argue with crazy responses from friends, and admit that you despair of life and sometimes despise the day you were born like Job did (eventually, I must write about that brother and his wife too).

6. When you are so angry that you don’t have anything to say to God, having praying people in your life helps. They pray for us when we can’t (and don’t want to) pray for ourselves.

7. Honesty is better than pretense.

8. Folks who claim that they have never been pissed off at God or wanted to give up could possibly be lying or maybe just need to live a while longer in order to find out that it is possible to get there.

9. When people are courageous enough to expose their heart/soul, we should be compassionate enough to support rather than run away from them/avoid them.

10. Sometimes the people you never expected to “be there” are there in ways that provide healing and a sense of relief. They listen more than they talk, they call, they check in with you….

11. [In relation to claiming the status of “friend”] Asking people what they need is so much better than assuming you know what they need. It might even preserve/strengthen a friendship

12. Sometimes people ignore you in the name of “I didn’t know what to do/say,” which leads to an increase in your feelings of isolation.

13. Sometimes forgiving those who add to your pain (knowingly or unknowingly) is frustrating and difficult.

14. God provides others when some neglect you and say they “thought” they needed to give you space. What!?

15. Every smiling face is not happy…. When you take time to look beyond the surface, sometimes you’ll discover the pain of a soul that is crying. Be kind. Be gentle.

16. God can handle expressed anger and doubt and will love us anyway.

17. Faith = holding on when everything in you has quit, given up.

18. People say a lot when they are silent and sometimes the silence is just plain loud!

19. Presence truly is a gift – just being there goes a long way. Nuff said. (I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating). 🙂

20. Scars are evidence that not only have we been hurt, but that we have been healed. But when the wound is still fresh and open, gentleness is appropriate.

 

I am pretty sure that the list is not complete, I am continually learning…. What would you add to this list?

 

A Tribute…

On this day, not because of any special holiday set aside for the commemoration of modern African American women, but because of sheer gratitude, I pause to celebrate the lives of a few African American women whose voices and contributions to society and to me, are worthy of acknowledgment. These are those who are not quoted on Facebook/Twitter, are not found in history books just yet, but I consider them worthy of applause, admiration and appreciation. These women provide the necessary encouragement for me to be fully me. They teach me the meaning of bringing my whole self to the party.

As a mature, and continually maturing woman, their wisdom and courage to live authentically into who they are, has shaped who I am and who I am becoming. In short, they inspire me to “be…!”  Half of them are individuals whom I know personally, others I have learned from at a distance, but each of them through written and/or spoken word – whether via books, video, blogs, or invaluable one-to-one conversations, are in part responsible for the courageous woman I am becoming. This post is my way of saying “Thank you.”

For those who wonder why I have chosen to highlight African American women, please know that it is not due to prejudice. Rather it is due to an awareness of my history and the challenges that women of color have faced in regard to the silencing of our voices. So, here they are.

ZinaDr. Zina Jacque – During a time in my life and ministry when I lost all hope and confidence that there were woman in ministry who had achieved high accomplishments without wearing a cloak of arrogance, God placed Zina in my path. Her mentoring, advice, strategic ability to pose the right questions to me, and most of all her friendship has transformed my life. She seldom tells me what to do/what she thinks I should do, but through the skillful use of questions she helps me think more deeply. I’m grateful. She knows my flaws and STILL sees me as good – never once has she been a voice of condemnation. Everybody needs a “Zina” in their lives – what a gift, and what a true friend!

jossie oDr. Jossie Owens – My former pastor who demonstrated what it meant to be secure in her role as a leader. My plethora of questions were not a threat or source of intimidation for her. Her door was always open to me, and her love was without condition. During a time in my spiritual journey when I was wounded by the actions of other church leaders, her compassion, patience, wisdom and humor brought healing to my soul and gave me courage to give ministry another chance.

Wil GafneyDr. Wil Gafney – Her bold Kingdom voice often leaves me wondering how she gained the courage to write the way she does, serve in the setting which she has chosen as an African American woman – I have never encountered anyone like her. She is one whose life gives me “permission” to be different and know that it’s ok to be my authentic self. Dr. Gafney is fierce, a skillful communicator (written and verbal), and one of the boldest scholars I have ever beheld – she tends to leave me asking “did she just say that?!” When I “grow up” I want to be as bold, daring, knowledgeable, and wise as she is. Classy, to say the least!

pamela lightsey_newdimensions2012Dr. Pamela Lightsey – Her commitment to scholarship, social justice, diversity and inclusion in the face of opposition not only amazes me, but instructs me in what it means to believe so deeply in equality for all people that I am willing to bear the cost of my convictions. She consistently holds nothing back, and refuses to mince words to appease the majority. In her absence I refer to her as my “hardcore” older sister in Christ. She inspires me, perhaps more than she realizes, and her approach to life and ministry has gradually caused me to resist the temptation to “punk out” when others desperately need me to stand up and speak up about subject matters that many within the Church would rather keep a hush about.

princessPrincess Kasune Zulu – A women of tremendous courage, faith, and hope; and my friend. When she prays with and for me, I never doubt that God is listening; when we talk I walk away much wiser. She has overcome the loss of both parents at a young age, she is a surviver of HIV/AIDS, world-wide speaker and advocate for those living with disease, and an entrepreneur –  leader of Fountain of Life in Zambia. Her Beauty is both external and internal. Though she has sat with US Presidents, she maintains a common touch with whomever she encounters. We’ve talked with each other, prayed through challenges, and I am honored to call her friend. This is my sister, a confidant, a spiritual leader in my life and one of the most humble sisters I have ever met.

Monica ColemanDr. Monica Coleman – There are societal issues that most spiritual leaders shy away from or only whisper about behind doors of privacy. However, Monica Coleman holds nothing back when it comes to public dialog regarding depression, sexuality, abuse, and the female body. She opens her life to us, unashamed to own her struggles, and as a result, the stigma of these issues is being erased.

 

 Carol Louis-Maire – One of my biological sisters. Her triumphant spirit, sisterly love, and courage to endure sickness and pain has inspired compassion in me for individuals who battle illnesses with stigma attached to it. She is why I am in ministry today. She is why I have way too many books on my shelves. She is why I believe prayer works. I started ministry because of her mentoring and gentle nudging to study, learn and live into the call and plan of God for my life. I couldn’t ask for a better older sister – and in all of this serious stuff, her sense of humor is slightly outrageous, and she is the only one who can get away with referring to me as “youngest.”

momWillie Mae Kelley (1931 – 2000) – Yes, this is my mother! Not only did her love for family stand out to me, but her love and intentional care for other families in the neighborhood was equally outstanding; she loved me with spontaneous, thoughtful gift giving – no holiday needed, but with each small/great thing given came the phrase “I saw this and thought about you….” Whether it was flowers, a card, miscellaneous item that she knew would make me smile, it was all her way of telling me how special I was to her. And through this as well as the things that she hoped to achieve in life, but never did, she inspires me to keep pushing forward with love for others an determination not to waste my time or rob the world of my good contribution.

 

Flunder_furman eduYvette Flunder – Songstress, preacher, advocate, organizer, trailblazer for justice and equality. I could write more than a few pages about this woman of God. The opportunity to sit in a seminary class with her on the topic of “sexuality and spirituality” changed my life and reminded me of the significance of making space for all of God’s children. There are points where we absolutely agree, and other points on which we differ. Nevertheless, her life shows me a different way, and a fresh approach to what it means to love all people.

emilie townes_bc eduDr. Emilie TownesScholar extraordinaire! The embodiment of wisdom, and by her example of following God and using the uniqueness of her voice and story she empowers those younger than she to go further, deeper and grow stronger. I admire her so deeply that when I saw her recently on the campus of a local seminary I was too awestruck to say anything. Sometimes being in the presence of greatness leaves me a little speechless, but luckily for me I later had the opportunity to join in on a conference call with her and just listen! Now if only I can sit in on a class, seminar or workshop with her – surely this will add to my respect and admiration.

TerrieWilliams_black radio network

Terrie Williams – We’ve never met, but her journey through the darkness of clinical depression which she has chosen to publicly share in Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We Are Not Hurting in order to give voice to the challenges of mental illness within the Black community, is noteworthy. She speaks up when it is no doubt safer to be silent. This deserves recognition.


renita j_twitRenita Weems – Her skilled use of words captivates me even when I don’t want to be. Works such as What Matters Most, Battered Love, and “Just a Sister Away” make me rethink what I thought I might have known about the Old Testament. She’s my elder sister in the Lord! The lens through which she sees and understands biblical texts never ceases to challenge me and provoke deeper thinking. Her style awakens adventure within me.

As time goes on, I am hopeful that this list will expand, but for now I salute the women whom I have named and described above along with a few others such as Kentina Washington, who embodies compassion; Kim Thomas, who is more amazing than she realizes; Alise Barrymore, who models a different way to pastor, Olive Knight, who believes in others and helps them find their voice, Keyonda McQuarters, who is the best example of parenting I have ever met, and Alisha Lola Jones, a young woman who encourages me to be about all that I need to be about. There are countless others who keep going even when they could easily quit – thank you for hanging in there! For the multitude of African American scholars whom others tried to convince me didn’t exist, and the women whose faith is large, passion for their work intense, and skills unmatched, I am grateful. Through their lives and witness they have taught me to be bold, vocal, compassionate, and reach toward all that I have the potential to become.

Who are the African American women who have shaped who you are/are becoming? Leave a shout -out to them in the comments.

What We All Need

Determ_

Everybody has them. You know, those days, sometimes weeks, months and even years when the things you hope for, wish for, pray for and even work for, just don’t seem to happen.

Recently I have been involved in an employment search. I am graduate level educated; I have not only skills, but experience; I have sent resume after resume and received rejection letter after rejection letter. Truth is, there are days when I simply would prefer quitting, giving up and being done with the search for that place where I can do great work and make other folks lives better. During these moments, as during other moments in my life, the one thing that keeps me hanging on is “DETERMINATION.”

We all need it, especially when losing heart is presented before us as a viable option and the intensity level of the discouragement we feel nearly overwhelms us and sweeps over us like an ocean wave.

Where does determination come from? Where do you get it? Usually for me it involves:

Hunger/Desire

When we are hungry enough for what we are reaching for, determination becomes more powerful than discouragement and we press on, we move forward with every ounce of strength we can muster. Hunger/desire will take shape differently depending on the person, but for me, during this job search it means improving myself while I wait – reading, listening to helpful audio, cultivating my writing skills, and of course continuing to send apply for jobs. There are some things that I desperately want in life, so I keep going and also look for different strategies and approaches to take to get me where I need to go.

Faith/Trust

I realize that not everyone who will read this shares my Christian faith tradition. If you don’t perhaps for you it is important to tap into whatever source of strength and hope that is a part of your faith practice. For me, God is everything – life, breath, hope and strength that far surpasses my limitations. Looking to the God of all creation and trusting this Gods’ accessibility and provision is what helps me continue during tough times.

Self Awareness

The truth is that we all have something(s) to offer the world. The truth also is that we all can be better versions of ourselves. Taking time to assess strengths and the specific areas where we need to grow is all part of the determination process. Need a class? Need to read a book or article? Need to connect with folks who know differently than you know? Growth is ALWAYS an accessible option – even with limited financial resources, there is always a way.

So, when all else fails keep holding on. Even when you claim strength, take a risk and then fail, and it causes you to doubt your strength/capability, and entices you to give up and refuse to try again; cry if you need to, regroup, get back up again (whether on your own or with the assistance of some friends), dust yourself off and keep trying.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact some days are just plain hard and make you want to throw up both hands and just scream! But after you do that, keep pushing forward – be determined!

The Church and The LGBTQ Community.

***This is the unscripted/unedited version of what’s on my mind***

About a year ago I fearfully shared my journey as it concerns the subject of homosexuality. You can read it HERE. Though it is not my tendency to cower in fear and be silent when the occasion calls for speaking, I found myself hesitant. Here I am a year later and the core of my being is moved to a point where silence is no longer sustainable.

I didn’t wake up one day and decide that I want to care about Gay/Lesbian folks. I sincerely believe that what is happening in my heart is the moving of God within me. I care about people – period. I also hold a special place in my heart for groups of people who have historically been marginalized and even ridiculed from pulpits in churches. Preachers have proclaimed messages of “get right because it is wrong” without providing love and support and seeing the LGBTQ Community as human. We can do so much better!

The reality is that caring will cost me. On some level it is costing me now. By caring and being a voice I risk losing friends, having people who KNOW that I love God question my role and calling as a spiritual leader or pastor; I risk being misunderstood, rejected and encountering those who believe that the only role I have as a spiritual leader is to tell the LGBTQ Community that they are living in sin and need to be changed. I believe there is a better way to interact with the LGBTQ Community – some of whom are my Christian brothers and sisters.

Human sexuality and God’s view of it is not nearly as simplified as some lead others to believe. The Church’s silence is at times deafening and our shunning is destructive. I absolutely believe that we not only should, but can do better.

Yesterday, President Barak Obama gave voice to his affirmation that same-sex couples should be able to marry. Members of the LGBTQ Community rejoiced. Some members of the Christian Community were outraged,others agreed with him, and still others were silent (whether because of ignorance, fear, apathy or something else). Whether we believe homosexual practice is a sin or not is really not the point to harp on. At the heart of the matter is the issue of humanness, equal value and learning HOW to love people well.

I don’t have all of the answers, but what I do know is that we need to be open:

1. To authentically enter into people’s stories

2. Listen for the purpose of understanding (not to fix or convince of our perspective)

3. To thoroughly think through what we say we believe & why we believe it

4. To consider that whether right or left, Christian or not, Gay or Straight, we each are capable of being right or wrong

More to come on this subject in future days. In the meantime I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or privately.

Trusting God Again…

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Here comes randomness!

Although some Christians are afraid to admit it, let me be one to admit the truth. I know a lot of Bible, I go to Church, but truth be told, I move from days of being extremely encouraged to days of being deeply discouraged as I consider my life and ministry. Today happened to be one of those deeply discouraging days – a day when I became frustrated with God because I ask Him questions and He won’t provide answers, a day when the things that I hope for seem as though they will never be an experienced reality. A day when vision seems obsolete or at least real far away. A day when I found myself yelling at God because of my frustration with waiting on Him. I am hungry for Him and for His plan for my life. I just want to make a difference…. Yet, there is silence and confusion.

And then I listened to a sermon by one of my former pastors Dr. David Ireland that left me with the impression that I shouldn’t give up just yet, and maybe even use the frustration as fuel to empower me to keep believing and trusting. While listening to the message, I received an email reminder from a dear friend who reminded me of where he (and I) were and where he now is. When we met I think on some level we were both simply trying to figure life out in terms of where we were going and how to fulfill our life purposes. And now just 5 years later he is the owner of a business that he started called The Cupcake Gallery, which has now grown and expanded to the start of an additional company called Uptown Pie Company.

Just one message from him today encouraged me to keep believing, keep hoping, and keep trusting.

Sometimes it is easy to subtly lax into a state of self reliance, and dependence upon others and forget about the God factor – not only the utter necessity of His power, but also His utter willingness to do big things not just for others but for me! So as difficult as things are right now, and with an outrageous level of uncertainty, I have decided to trust God again. Has the feeling of discouragement subsided just yet? No. But my decision still remains – I will trust God again.

It Doesn’t Make Sense

Though I have been a follower of Jesus for over 20 years, I must be honest and say that during the journey it hasn’t always made sense to me. Lately as I read the Bible and really think seriously about some of the stories contained therein I find myself realizing how far fetched and outlandish some of the stories are. Here are some examples:

Fully grown man created from the dust of the ground and a fully grown woman created by use of that man’s rib

A guy being put in a den of ravenous beasts, lions to be exact. And living to tell the story. He even took a nap while he was hanging out with them

A sea of water parting long enough to allow thousands to cross to the other side on dry ground. (no mud at all???) Be serious.

Dead people coming back to life after being dead for 4 days.

People blind all their lives eventually being able to see again either because Jesus honored their faith or because He decided to make some mud out of God knows how much saliva and smear it on a dudes eyes

And that’s not even the half of it. The Bible has some bizarre stories to tell….

And then as I live life from day to day, following Jesus seems like the last thing a person should do – the pain in the world, the things that simple don’t work out favorably for me, living with more questions than answers, not to mention years upon years of waiting for Jesus to return like He said over two thousand years ago that He would.  But still I keep following and calling Him my Lord and acknowledging Him as Savior. WHY?

Why do I keep following? It’s simple. #1 He changed my life. #2 He Himself is life and hope. #3 I still believe. #4 His love constrains me.