In Conversation with Steve Bell

Sometimes it pays to be bold with emails. I have long had a deep affinity for the music of Steve Bell. Not only is he a gifted musician and singer/songwriter, but he also conveys a deep thoughtfulness about the matters of faith. Steve loves the Church, and he loves Christians. He also loves the Psalms. This made him one of the first people I thought of when I desired to have these conversations.

Please enjoy the video below. Unfortunately, Steve’s audio is fairly quiet, so you will have to turn up your volume to hear him. Blessings!

When Discouragement begins

Maundy Thursday has always been my favorite liturgical service of the year. I love the contrast of celebrating the Eucharist, followed by the immediate removal of all decorations and beauty. The stripping of the altar is beautiful and haunting. On that night, the church is left an empty shell as we exit the barren sanctuary in uncomfortable silence. It is a reminder of how the very life, and heart, of faith is ripped away if we disregard the resurrection.

Such theological reflections are easy when you sit comfortably in the prayer-desk, never having truly walked the road of suffering and emptiness. In the past, I entered my reflections with ease. I would feel appropriately subdued and contemplative. But was I ever truly affected?

In 2015, everything changed.

The news of my wife’s cancer had come unexpected. She had a tumor previously removed, but all indications were that the growth within her was benign. After hearing about its malignancy, we had thought our visit to the cancer center was a mere follow up appointment. After all, the tumor had been removed – that should have been the end of it. But on Maundy Thursday, 2015, the oncologist told us, “I’m recommending chemotherapy. You start next week. Here is the paperwork.” We were dumbfounded. To this day the pit of my stomach drops whenever I think of those words.

The fact that we sat, weeping in the exam room, as our church gathered for our annual Agape Feast is testifies to how spiritually distant I felt in that moment. I felt encumbered by sadness and confusion. All the times I prayed with my wife while she hunched over in pain felt pointless; the prayers I prayed seemed forsaken. In hindsight, I see things differently. But in that moment, it felt as if my faith was very thin. This is not a comfortable experience for an ordained priest.

This feeling of spiritual discouragement would linger with me through my wife’s entire cancer treatment, and far beyond. Each day I wrestled with an odd dynamic of both daring to believe in ever-present goodness of God, and yet at the same time, feeling deeply a lack of spiritual life. I preached messages I had a hard time accepting myself. I offered prayers that felt flat. I smiled while internally I wept.

Spiritual discouragement can be hard to pin down because it is different for everyone. It may be a general feeling of lacking livelihood in your faith, a feeling about being stalled in your spiritual life, or a feeling of a complete lack of faith altogether. It may involve a struggle with prayer, or lack of desire to read the Bible. It may result from life turning ugly out of the blue. These feelings can be hard to deal with. We feel like Ezekiel’s dry bones, lifeless and dry.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we rarely talk about spiritual discouragement. We pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s like we want to keep the illusion alive that faith in Jesus removes us from anything truly upsetting. Faith means being stalwart, unaffected. We live out a faulty theology that assumes struggles in faith are the denial of faith – if we really loved Jesus we would just smile and sing Shine Jesus Shine.

But that is rarely the case. This wasn’t the case for Jesus.  It wasn’t the case for the disciples. It rarely is the case for us. So, if you are reading this from the point of spiritual discouragement, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to feel this way. It’s not a lack of faith, or a failure of your spirituality. It’s part of our Christian journey and myriads of faithful people understand exactly what you are going through.  The good news is, our Lord walked this path before us, and he walks this path with us today.

Being Kingdom-Minded

Note: This post was originally part of a blog series called “52 Weeks of Simplicity”. I got so distracted that I never completed the series!

I have noticed the strangest urge within me. Every time I sit at my desk with my Bible open, in preparation for sermon work or Bible study, a small voice goes off in my brain demanding that I check the current feed on Facebook or Instagram. When I sit reading, my mind immediately goes to a thousand tasks that I have before me. But when I engage in any of those tasks, I long for the quiet focus of silence and solitude.

Have you struggled with a similar thing?

We live in a world of constant noise and distraction. There is always something to tear us away from what we focus on in any given moment. Images flash before us, ever changing what we are thinking about or reflecting on. Music provides an endless soundtrack to life; we find it in malls, in banks, in hospital waiting rooms. The frenetic pulses of the world we live in, like a migraine that won’t end, eventually takes it’s toll on us.  The world views slow, methodical, focus a detriment and multitasking a virtue. We say things like ‘I wish there were more hours in the day’, or ‘If I only had a few more hands’ or ‘please stop the world I’d like to get off!’ We feel exhausted and tired because of the ceaseless pace of the world we live in.

Is this there a way to break out of this type of life? Can we combat the overexposure of sights and sounds, the barrage of messages highlighting self-indulgence, and that internal sense of being overwhelmed? Can Jesus lead us into a different way of living?

Jesus points us to a life of unhurried grace. He calls us to not worry over “what we shall eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ Instead of running after the things of the world, the things the heavenly Father knows we need, Jesus calls us to seek first the kingdom. When we do this, Jesus promises that all those things we tend to stress over will fall into our lives. They will be “added to us” if we but set our eyes, hearts, and souls toward following the Kingdom.

Like you, I have grown up with this verse. I have sung it as a hymn in churches many, many times. Yet I never really thought about what that verse points us to. What does it mean to seek first God’s kingdom in our lives? How do we go about this? And how does living for or in the kingdom of God, differ from living for or in the kingdom of this world?

Have you ever seen the movie City Slickers—starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance? In this movie, Palance plays an old rugged cowboy named Curly, while Crystal acts the young mid-life crisis-baring city person. Crystal’s character is in awe of Curly because, as Curly’s life makes sense. He seems undistracted and singly focused. In the central scene of the movie Curly, with cigarette dangling from his mouth, says to the burden-laden Crystal, “You city folk are all the same. You spend 50 weeks tying knots in your rope and then think two weeks up here will untangle them for you. None of you get it. Do you know what the secret of life is. This. (Curly holds up his finger) One thing. Just one thing.’ With one speech Curly seems to disarm the frenetic distractions of the world.

Hollywood, of course, takes it’s typical turn and suggests that everyone must find their “one thing.” Unfortuantely, what this means is that everyone is called to seek his or her kingdom. The movie never really explores the glaring irony that seeking his own kingdom was what got Crystal discouraged in the first place. How do you define your “one thing”, when you feel lost and do not know where to look?

Jesus makes a stark difference between two fundamentally opposed manners of living. There is the way of seeking the kingdom, first and foremost in our lives; and there is the way of ‘The Pagans’. The way of the kingdom is unhurried, focused, and diligent. The way of the kingdom is to follow the path that Jesus hold out. We do not find the kingdom; we do not create it or produce it. The kingdom erupts around us. It is a gift of Jesus we are invited to enter, enjoy, and participate in.

This is contrasted with the way of the pagans—the way of the world. The way of the world is to run around in an intolerable scramble, trying to achieve that which we are worried about, yet can never fully receive. The way of the world is to find the clothes that make the man, to win with the most toys, and to keep up with the Jones’. Of course, whenever we believe ourselves to have procured our ultimate goal, we find it hollow and fleeting.

Jesus tells parable after parable about the centrality of following his Kingdom; it is a person searching for a rare pearl, a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep; a father searching for his lost son. The kingdom of God is to be that which redefines all of life. Unlike life according to the world—telling us we are to flit about in ten thousand directions at once, chasing everything and finding nothing; a simple, kingdom focused life arranges all actions, duties, and tasks around one unified and definitive principle and goal—life in the kingdom of God; life as a disciple of Jesus.

__________________________________________________

Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

Psalm 73: A Song for the Faithfully Forlorn

We all get discouraged or frustrated in our faith. Our spiritual lives rarely occur exactly as we would imagine or hope. After all, we live in an imperfect world, and we bear those imperfections within ourselves. We all struggle. We all question. We all, at times, raise our voice to the heavens and scream “why?” These experiences are not a denial of our love for God. They do not indicate a loss of faith or a deconstruction of our spiritual life. They are a natural part of our relationship with the Lord. This is why the Book of Psalms are so important for us. The psalms show the normality of our questions and discouragements; they teach us how to voice our discomforts honestly and faithfully. Psalm 73 is a good example of this.

The psalm (attributed to Asaph) begins by heralding stalwart faith. Asaph speaks to God’s utmost goodness in providing for the righteous. He sings, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” This affirmation almost rolls off the tongue. It reads like it may have been a spiritual slogan common to the day. Is this something Asaph had heard before? Was this the go-to response whenever someone voiced struggle or doubt; the ancient equivalent to a patronizing pat on the should and a softly spoken “there, there”?  Did someone turn to Asaph, immersed in a time of turmoil, and hurt, and offer the not-so helpful response of “There, there…Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” As if mouthed by one of Job’s friends, the subtle charge of such a statement implies that Asaph, mired in confusion and discouragement, is not pure in heart.

Have you ever had someone offer you such not-so-helpful spiritual soundbites?

Of course, Asaph believes this statement in principle. Yes, God is good.  Yes, God’s goodness is known to Israel. The problem is, in this moment, Asaph doesn’t experience this goodness. He is struggling. He is discouraged. His song describes how he has almost slipped and stumbled. The solid base of Asaph’s faithfulness appears shaken. The problem is not so much the imperfections of life, in and of themselves. What truly stings is how the arrogant and wicked appear to prosper. They seem blessed with unrestricted happiness.

Here is where the discouragement finds its roots. Do you see how verse 3 seems to contradict verse 1? Slogans of faith seem triumphant enough. They are catchy and repeatable. They stick in our minds. God is good…all the time…and all the time…God is good! Yet Asaph simply cannot deny that when looks at his own life, set against the lives of the arrogant and wicked, the goodness of God appears one sided. The wicked have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong. They live free from burdens. Despite scoffing at the Lord, they “lay claim to heaven” and enjoy the delightful possessions of the earth. Power, prestige, and privilege befall the wicked. Asaph, however, is left feeling divinely cast aside. For ten verses his complaints come gushing forth. Asaph holds nothing back.

Who hasn’t borne these questions today? How can we not? Mass media continually bombards us with new occurrences of prideful arrogance, violence, or oppression. We lift the rich and famous as the elite to emulate. Hollywood brags the good life, even though we are all aware of the deep narcissism, selfishness, and personal destruction that lurks behind the scenes. Despite continuous occurrences of personal, professional, and relational breakdown, the world tells us to look at them as if they are “always free of care as they go one amassing wealth.” Oh, if we could be like them, we think. Oh, if we made the money they did! Oh, if we had their house, their car, their glamour.

Asaph has these exact feelings. He is brutally honest, with himself, and with God. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”, he says. Can we be as honest enough to admit that, at times, we bear a similar envy?

What is the faithful response to such discouragement? How do we exude faithfulness when this sense of envy rises within us? Where do we go when we ask the haunting question “how come them and not me?” Asaph feels all this deeply. He feels that his faithful following of God’s ways has garnered him nothing but affliction and punishment. “In vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence”, he laments.

Feelings of deep spiritual discouragement are wrapped in dismay, hurt, and profound sadness. They are felt in that deep inner place where we are most uniquely ourselves. We should not, however, rush past our laments. We should not minimize these feelings or attempt to explain them away. Leaving our spiritual discouragement unexplored does us no spiritual good. To do so is to avoid meeting God in life’s unpleasantness. Too often our faith becomes abandoned as a result. The psalms diligently articulate feelings of discouragement to illustrate that they are a normal side of our spiritual lives. None of us are immune. Thus, instead of avoiding these feelings, or these questions, we should engage them. This is exactly what Asaph does in his song; Asaph enters his spiritual discouragement and begins to walk through it.

In his song, Asaph considers whether his faith is worth it, whether it really matters to believe in the Lord. Yet by sitting with these questions, Asaph concludes that the momentary delights of the world hold no weight against the eternal blessings of the Lord. He recognizes that wandering away from the Lord, in pursuit of vain pleasures, would be to abandon who was created to be. It would betray who he is at the core of his being.

Asaph comes to this realization in the sanctuary of God. In this sanctuary he is surrounded by people who struggle with the same struggles and ask the same questions. The sanctuary of God does not peddle easy answers. To be clear, Asaph does not return to the patronizing slogan of verse one. The sanctuary of God simply reminds him of the vision of God’s eternal glory and blessing. Surrounded by the worshiping (and lamenting) community, Asaph perceives the ultimate end of all who chase after momentary delights. When their spirits depart, they return to the ground, and all the baubles of the world come to naught. So instead of looking enviously upon the wicked, Asaph begins to set his gaze on the greatness of the Most High.

Of course, his newfound realization does not make his struggles vanish. Asaph does not escape his feeling of daily struggle or affliction. Tomorrow, the wicked will still flourish, and (most probably) Asaph will still feel discouraged. The difference is, despite the discouragement, despite the confusion, even despite the doubt, Asaph can say with confidence “I am always with you.” Spiritual discouragement, then, is an invitation to journey to a deeper place of faith. Relaying our honest struggles, as Psalm 73 illustrates, does not drive the Lord away. We lay hold of God more tightly when uncover our honest selves

The Lord is not offended by our questions. The Lord does not abandon us when we feel discouraged or dismayed. Our questions do not discredit our faith nor do our struggles indicate a deconstruction of our spirituality. They are but a deeper way we reach out to God for guidance, council, and support. It is because God is the one who journeys with us in the messiest of places that we can voice our laments. Even when our own hearts fail, God is the strength of our hearts, forever. God is faithful to us, even if we can’t see it.

We are all psalmists at heart. We sing out our joys and our dismays, our victories, and our struggles. We need not mask how we feel; the Lord knows it anyway. And as we sing, we are invited to experience the deep reality that, through it all, the Lord is our refuge, our guide, our strength, and our delight. We don’t have to figure things out. We don’t have to arrive at some “solution” to our plight. The spiritual life is not a Disney movie; things don’t always get wrapped up neatly at the end. That’s ok.

Despite his struggles and doubts, Asaph ends his song on an important note. “It is good for me to be near God”, he cries. In the end, that’s enough. This is where we, as psalmists, rest our faith. We rest not in well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfactory spiritual slogans nor in polite pats on the shoulder. Our faith is built not by gritting our teeth and pretending that we do not hurt. Instead, sing. We join Asaph’s psalm with our own. And despite the ups and downs and twist-turns of life, we dare to believe that it is good for us to be with God.

_____________________________

Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”