Nashville is a weird place. I feel like most people either love it or hate it. But, our family doesn’t fall into either camp. There are things we love about it: our all-time favorite church is there, as well as Jeni’s Ice Cream and The Frothy Monkey (my favorite coffee shop), not to mention some of our dearest friends. But it’s also a big city. You can get lost in a big city… literally and figuratively.
Part of the reason we were in Nashville this week was for Sydney to meet with people in the Christian music world: writers, producers, and even people at record labels. This part of the story is her’s to tell, so I won’t share much. But, I will say this. Sydney has never aspired to be involved with CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). She can tell you stories about performing at shows and festivals where artists act one way on stage and the total opposite off stage. (Thankfully, all of the people the Lord has surrounded her with in Nashville are the real deal. It has been our fervent prayer and the Lord has provided that hedge of protection.) She can also tell you about the time she met with a music executive who listened to a song for Be The Change Collective. After listening to the song he told her, “That song will never get played on Christian radio.”
Her instantaneous reply: I don’t want it on Christian radio.
This is Sydney. She can come across as soft-spoken, or unsure of herself. But she really isn’t. Sydney listens before she speaks. She sizes up the room and can do it pretty fast… and she’s usually spot on. She is FIERCELY loyal and has no interest in wasting time, or energy, on disingenuous people. She will never tell you what you want to hear, just to get what she wants from a situation, or person. (And if you ever do it to her… yeah, good luck. She’ll forgive you, but winning back her trust will be pretty close to impossible. I’m pretty sure she gets that from Jamie.)
Just kidding… she DEFINITELY gets that from me.
Another thing about Sydney, she doesn’t really have a filter and she’s pretty direct. (It’s a good thing she has a genuinely good natured disposition.) Before we left on this adventure, she was interviewed by a radio station in London and the DJ asked: Why do you want to write music for the church?
Her response: Oh, I don’t want to write music for the church. I want to write music for people who’ve been hurt by the church.
Awkward silence followed. For a long time.
The DJ was waiting for her to say more. But Sydney didn’t. There was nothing more to say. Sydney LOVES the awkward silence and will sit in it FOREVER. It’s like a psychological game of Chicken. Eventually the DJ gave in saying, “Okay then, I guess we’ll go on to the next question.”
We left this visit to Nashville with a lot of questions. It’s a weird place to be as a parent when your child tells you they don’t feel called to go to college (knowing it’s not an excuse but a REAL burden placed on their heart) and then watching them NOT pursue opportunities that SEEM to make sense. But, I guess that’s the point… and it’s something the Lord has shown us over and over again on the road: What makes sense by the world’s standards isn’t necessarily the Lord’s plan. In fact, at this point, I think we would fiercely advocate for NOT doing something that makes sense to the world… as long as it doesn’t go against scripture.
Sydney is called to advocacy. Her heart beats for the least of these and she questions EVERYTHING antithetical to that position. Especially if the message is coming from inside the church. CCM isn’t necessarily known for that. (We found this article VERY interesting and a great conversation piece. We’ve DEFINITELY had some great conversations from it.) Sydney has been told on more than one occasion that speaking out on “controversial” subjects isn’t smart because it will cost her “followers.” I bet you can imagine her response to that one. But here’s the thing… we can’t really blame the Christian Music world for this. Like so many other things in our culture, in our Christian culture, CCM is consumer driven. If there’s a problem, then the first place we have to look is at ourselves.
And within the next few weeks we were going to take a very painful look in the mirror.
Here’s my confession: I have some issues with the Catholic Church. It could be due to my sister-in-law’s long held insistence that the Catholic Church is the only “true” church and how she persistently prays our family will convert to Catholicism. It’s an ongoing joke at this point and I don’t hold it against her… anymore.
But, for the record, her prayers are in vain because we won’t be converting.
I also take issue with how the Catholic Church holds their traditions and the Magisterium on the same level as Scripture. (I’m a sola scriptura girl.) Frankly, I just don’t see a lot of these additional rules and ordinances supported by scripture. In some cases, they are in direct opposition to scripture. (Catechism 841 is an example of that. Sorry… I’m not going to tell you what it is. But, you should look it up for yourself. It’s fascinating. Truly.) However, helping Sydney with her religion homework in second grade (she went to a private Catholic school for three years) was really what pushed me over the edge.
They were studying the 10 Commandments and the curriculum being used completely ignored 90% of the Second Commandment. There was no mention of idols, or graven images. When I brought this to her teacher’s attention the following day, the explanation I received centered around not wanting to confuse the students about praying to the statues of saints. My amused (and probably sarcastic) response: So, because you don’t want students to see those little statues as idols, you decide to change the Second Commandment?
Needless to say, Sydney’s days in Catholic school came to an end soon after that.
But, in that moment, the Lord also opened my eyes to a deeper truth. Sydney would have gone to school that day and raised her hand during religion class to ask why the 10 Commandments in her homework didn’t match her Bible. (That’s what she did to me the previous night.) The Lord was showing me the difference between childlike faith and childish faith. Children ask questions, endless questions. So, when Jesus tells the disciples to be like children (Matthew 18:2-4; Luke 18:16-17), maybe this is what he was underscoring. Childish faith, on the other hand, is immature, uninquisitive… dare I say gullible and easily swayed.
It was about this time that I started to push back against what I was seeing in the church, specifically the things that didn’t line up with scripture. Definitely not a coincidence.
But, despite my resistance to Catholic teachings, there has always been this nagging question? Was there a way to find some semblance of unity with those in the Catholic Church? It doesn’t seem like a difficult question, but, I promise…. people have some pretty strong feelings on it. On both sides of the aisle. However, it really wasn’t something I thought much about until a couple of years ago.
On our first trip to Haiti in 2017 (the one where Be The Change Youth Initiative was born), we met PJ Anderson, a Catholic worship artist from Nashville, TN. Over the last couple of years, PJ and his family have become dear friends. They’ve opened up their home to us when we’re working in Nashville. They’ve gotten Sydney where she needs to be when traveling on her own. But, most importantly, they have become like family.
Our travel schedule had us in Nashville for Easter. We were planning to spend the morning at our favorite church (Strong Tower Bible Church) and then spending the remainder of the day back at the RV. But, PJ invited us to spend the day with them and some of their friends, which led to one of the most comical moments on the trip thus far.
PJ lives in a quiet, unassuming neighborhood, but you never know who you’ll run into at the local sandwich shop, or even at his house, because it’s a community filled with Christian artists. Our very first visit had us buying sandwiches at the neighborhood sandwich shop with Chris Llewellyn, the lead singer of Rend Collective. And the night before Sydney wrote her first song with professional songwriters in Nashville, we had dinner at PJ’s with Mike Donehey, lead singer of Tenth Avenue North, and his family. (Which was one of my favorite nights ever because he gave her the BEST dating advice we could have EVER asked for… and she has NEVER expressed any interest in dating since that night!)
On Easter, some of the friends PJ happened to be entertaining we’re Matt Mahar and his family. It was a complete shock to walk into the kitchen and see them sitting there. Well, it was a complete shock to everyone except Jamie… because he had no clue who Matt Mahar was! My kids were trying SO HARD to not freak out in that moment and they were doing a really great job until Jamie extended his hand to say, “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
For real. I’m pretty sure they DIED inside. But, it was so great. It’s one of the many reasons why I love Jamie so much. His cultural ignorance makes him unassuming… and keeps me entertained. For the record, Matt Mahar is the real deal. Super humble and really funny. He also spent some time helping Sydney do some research for an upcoming performance. When people of that caliber actually see your kids and take the time to help them, it leaves an indelible mark on both you and your children.
Shortly before the Mahars’ left, another young couple came over… Sarah and Dom. (And if you haven’t heard of Sarah Kroger, you should check her out!) This couple is so hilarious and full of life. You really can’t help but smile, and laugh, when you’re around them. We spent the rest of the evening talking about life, faith, and unity in the Church. All of these guys are a part of the Catholic Church.
We talked about the importance of the Holy Spirit: the power of the Spirit, how to walk in the Spirit, how to live in the Spirit. These weren’t topics of conversation in the Catholic circles I knew. Shortly after our time together, Dom reached out and asked if I would write a devotional for a project he was working on.
My response: You know I’m not Catholic, right?
His response: So?
That following week, PJ had his monthly worship night, The Summit. Every month, people come together to worship, hear a short message and then head over to the church across the street for mass. PJ asked Sydney to help with worship and then give the message for the April gathering. The experience was beautiful because she was surrounded by some of the most talented worship leaders in the Christian community, Catholic or otherwise.
This was another step. The Lord started a work in Haiti, almost two years to the date, and was continuing the work now. Looking back, it’s almost like this beautiful tapestry, with so many threads representing all the people He has brought into our lives. (Right now, as I write this, our family is in California…. six months removed from this story. The added threads to this tapestry are many. The colors vibrant. The work being created by the Lord is beautiful.)
I don’t agree with a lot of the doctrine coming out of the Catholic Church, but I also don’t agree with everything coming from ANY Protestant denomination. (I’m also completely ignorant when it comes to so many theological nuances.) Doctrine IS important because TRUTH is important. But, Jesus says there are two laws: Love God and love others as yourself.
What happens if we FOCUS on those things, not forsaking truth… but making sure those two laws remain the priority when seeking truth? What if we can humbly seek truth together, sharpening our theological swords in a healthy way, instead of dulling our swords in the echo chambers of our insular communities of faith? What if we stopped trying to prove we are always right and humbly concede the possibility we might be wrong? Because here’s the truth: We all have something wrong and our arrogance (and ignorance) is prohibiting our spiritual growth, as well as our witness to the world.
Sydney and I started our trips to Nashville almost two years ago, traveling back and forth every two to three months for her to either record or write. During that time, one of the young women from my disciple group reached out to see if I could connect with a friend of hers who was moving to the area. What unfolded was a relationship I hold so dear to my heart for many reasons. To know Lindsey is to know unending vulnerability and complete openness to whatever circumstances the Lord allows her way. Good or bad.
On our last trip to Nashville this past February, Lindsey took some photographs for us while Sydney was recording at the studio. (Lindsey’s also an extremely talented photographer.) I still needed to pay her for those photos and was hoping to do it in person. Lindsey suggested meeting up for coffee and told me she’d be bringing someone along with her. I knew she had been dating someone for a while and assumed he would be her plus one. But, I assumed wrong.
I was still recovering from the night before and had so many questions. I was tempted to ask Lindsey some of them because she had been attending The Belonging for some time. She asked how our meetings had gone so far, but the last thing I wanted to talk about was our conversations with music producers. I began sharing about the previous two nights, but kept getting distracted by Lindsey’s muffled giggles and the stares she and her friend kept giving one another. They either found my charismatic encounters far more humorous than I did, or there was some inside joke I wasn’t privy to.
It was neither. I think they were trying to contain their amusement because they knew, given my encounters the previous two days, they were about to push me over the edge.
Or maybe the Lord was just preparing us for what He was about to do.
The story that unfolded over the next twenty minutes was impossible to digest. It began with a sermon Lindsey had heard at The Belonging that first weekend in April. It was about having faith the size of a mustard seed and not trusting God fully in your life. In that moment, Lindsey knew where she wasn’t trusting the Lord: in her relationships and her identity. She knew her pursuit of those things needed to be placed on the altar and she made the decision to do it. But, not too soon after that, as the worship music began to play, she felt the Lord speak into her ear. It was an audible voice. Her voice. In a quick aside she tells us that this has occurred ever since she received the baptism of the Holy Spirit about six months prior.
TIME OUT: I’m not getting into the whole second baptism/baptism of the Holy Spirit controversy here. BUT, I will share my personal feelings on the matter. I don’t believe in a second baptism of the Holy Spirit. Well, not entirely. Here’s what I believe: We live in a Christian culture that is really great at manufacturing EVERYTHING…. Including the perfect setting for people to commit their lives to Jesus at the end of a service. We provide the mood music, the compelling promise of a better life and, in a lot of cases, an immense amount of guilt and/or pressure to not spend eternity in hell. And all we have to do is raise our hand, say a simple prayer and/or fill out a connect card so someone at the church can talk to you about baptism. I think a lot of us who grew up in church got baptized at a certain age because, well, that’s just what you did. I think a lot of us have also gone to church and wanted the things a pastor talks about and accept their invitation, even if the Holy Spirit never revealed himself to us. (This was my experience and, since being on the road, we’re learning that many others share in that experience.) My hypothesis: This second baptism of the Holy Spirit might actually be, for many of us, our first true revelation of God. That first baptism might have been more about the hope promised to us by a pastor with good intentions. I don’t claim to be right. But, this is how I reconcile what I see going on in the institution of church with what I see in scripture… and what so many of us experience.
Okay… back to the story.
Lindsey said she heard the Lord say she was supposed to marry her friend, a thought that made her literally laugh out loud for two reasons. #1 She JUST put the whole relationship/identity debacle on the altar. #2 Her friend was gay. The idea was fantastical and she really didn’t give it much thought… at first. Another thing she didn’t give much thought to at first… where she was going for dinner. Her friend, who was with her at the service, suggested grabbing a bite to eat. Unable to make a decision, they decided to flip a coin: Heads meant going to a sports bar and Tails meant somewhere else. Secretly, Lindsey wanted the coin to land on Tails, so when it landed on Heads she suggested the best two out of three. When it landed on Heads a second time, she decided to suffer through the big screen TVs and endless surround sound yelling. (Yeah… this part of the story doesn’t make sense now, but it will.)
Now, this is where the story gets really weird. (Just kidding, it was already weird for me, but, to be fair, my threshold was practically non-existent at this point.) Lindsey’s friend jumped in to tell us about how he had been working in his garden a few days earlier when he was suddenly overcome with this feeling that he was supposed to get married to a woman. It was something he had been wrestling with and had even discussed with the one Christian he truly trusted — his grandmother. It didn’t make sense to him at all. He even pulled a Gideon and told God that if this thought was truly from Him, that he would find a ring in the flower garden. Well… there wasn’t a ring THAT day. But, there was when he picked back up with his gardening the following day. (As he continued telling the story, Lindsey pulled out this baby blue plastic ring that was most likely purchased for a quarter in a gumball machine. The band was wrapped in tape and you could still see the dirt wedged into the crevices.) He said that upon finding the ring he knew it was for Lindsey, but he didn’t know what to do with that information.
This all happened before the church service. Before Lindsey’s revelation.
As her friend was relaying this story to her at the sports bar, Lindsey wasn’t putting two and two together. That she was the woman he was suppose to marry. In that moment he asked God, “If you want me to ask Lindsey to marry me, make it clear at this very moment.” (And this is where the reluctant game of Heads and Tails comes into play.) Because at that exact moment, all of the TVs in the sports bar went black.
Lindsey jumps back in and takes over the storytelling.
She begins to tell us how Beyonce could be seen on the television screens singing Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It). On all of the screens. At the same time.
At this point, I’m pretty sure my brain was incapable of retaining any more information. Nothing. I honestly don’t remember much after that. I do remember thinking how often I’ve heard stories like this: drastic conversions, callings. Lindsey, stirred by her emotions for Jesus, talked about a calling to live out biblical marriage. Not in a romantic, fairy tale, happily-ever-after way, but in a hard, sanctifying, God honoring way. She talked about living their lives in a way that glorifies the Lord’s redemption and underscores the hard work and selflessness required in marriage. I have heard stories, but I’ve never personally known anyone living it out. Honestly, I don’t even think I know anyone willing to CONSIDER living it out. And, honestly, there’s NO WAY in the world I could do what she was willing to do. I was dumbfounded. This was something I didn’t understand and I couldn’t explain. What, or more importantly Who, would compel someone to do something so insane?
Sydney and I parted ways with Lindsey and her friend and started the one-and-a-half-hour drive back to the RV. Thankfully, Sydney slept the whole way back. She usually has a million questions, but there was absolutely no way I would be able to answer them. In fact, as soon as we got back to the RV, I went straight to bed. Jamie was still waiting to talk about that first night after the show. Lord, that seemed like months ago. He had no idea about our experience with the small group at The Belonging. He knew nothing about my meeting with Lindsey.
I went to bed at 5:45pm.
The next morning, I agreed to tell Jamie everything, but made him take me to Starbucks first. It wasn’t really in the budget, but I needed coffee. Lots of coffee.
There’s more to this story, but I will share it as it occurs in the timeline. I was starting to see something. This life, it really isn’t about comfort. But, we have made it about comfort. As a Christian, it’s suppose to be about sacrifice. But, few of us are willing to live sacrificially. (And I’m not talking about sacrificing your church time to serve in children’s ministry. However, the truth is simple: We can’t even do that. Or, if we do, it’s usually joined with grumbling and a level of preparation similar to that of a kid cramming for a test the night before. ) God’s at work, in the most unlikely and unpredictable ways. And, no matter our circumstances, He never changes. He is the one constant. The only constant. What changes is us. In living sacrificially, we become more humble. More wise. More selfless. More like him. But, we have to walk away from the comfort… and for many of us, the institution of church has been our biggest obstacle in doing just that.
Still reflecting on the previous night, our family was forced to put the group processing on hold. Jamie would be heading to Manchester, Tennessee with the youngest three, to stay at a RV park that wouldn’t completely bankrupt us. (Thanks to the generosity of those kind people the previous night, our family had enough money to get us through the next 10 days.) Sydney and I were headed to Nashville for the first of many meetings, including an invitation to a local small group at The Belonging.
If you know anything about The Belonging, and anything about me, you might find the acceptance of that invitation a bit peculiar. For a lot of reasons, some of which I’ll get to down below. But, the invitation to this particular small group came from someone our family has come to adore, and trust, so we accepted the invitation.
One of the reasons I have such a hard time with stuff like this is because it’s easy for me to make judgments of people based on the theology and adhered practices of their church. It’s been ingrained in me to believe that anything deviating from how I was raised is wrong. (I also want to be VERY clear: some theologies and practices ARE wrong and deviating from the truth will have HUGE consequences for both the false teachers and those placed under their care. But, in my opinion, not everything falls into that category… for instance, whether someone plays drums or an electric guitar. You might be willing to die on that hill, but I am not.) With this specific church, my wrestling went deeper than musical preference. Much deeper. But on salvific issues, we seemed to be on the same page.
Here’s what I can say about that night. The people were amazing. Period. They came from all walks of life. Some from affluence and some struggling to make ends meet. While many of the participants were probably in their mid-thirties, there were also college students and those entering into retirement. Different races, ages, economic demographics. It was beautiful. And they were welcoming. Many made an effort to make sure Sydney and I felt at home and included. A twinge of conviction was starting to creep in. Maybe I had been too harsh in my appraisal of the church. (Confession: I already discussed this with my friend. I told her my reservations, specifically, where I was struggling, theologically speaking, with her church. She GRACIOUSLY acknowledged my reservations and still wanted me to come.)
But, the visit also wasn’t void of tense moments, like when a woman talked about praying for her mother to receive the gift of tongues. I could feel Sydney’s body tense up. Or when someone mentioned receiving a vision. (Things were going SO WELL. Why do you have to go and ruin it, Lord?) But, even in my discomfort, I witnessed some of the most beautiful examples of love. There were several times in the evening when someone would share a personal struggle or prayer request and someone else in the group would stop the conversation and pray over that person. No one was writing down a list of prayer requests to be prayed over at the end, or to be emailed out during the week… that may, or may not, be prayed over. In that moment, they immediately felt the need to pray and just did it. Right then and there. It was beautiful. Maybe chaotic at times, or disjointed, but beautiful.
When it came time for Sydney and I to share about our story, I couldn’t. I’m not sure how to explain it. Maybe it was a need for confession, or just transparency. But, I felt this need for them to know how UNCOMFORTABLE I was. Not because it was about me. It was more about wanting to dig in deeper. Looking back on it, I really think that night was when the Lord planted the ie of church unity on my heart. What does it look like? With whom can we seek out unity? Are there limits on unity? If nothing else from this trip, I’ve learned that conversations are desperately needed when it comes to things like this.
I know what scripture says about tongues. I don’t deny its existence. Discernable languages with interpretations. I’ll even give you the private prayer language between you and God, but what I was witnessing didn’t fall into those categories and I literally told them that I had to fight against my desire to run out the door. Seriously. I told them that my theology obviously doesn’t align with theirs on certain issues and I was really wrestling through it. Later Sydney confessed that she couldn’t believe I did that. I mean, I guess it’s a little rude to be invited into someone’s home and tell them their expression of faith makes me want to run as fast as I can out of their house. But, it was the truth. And, more importantly, it was where God had me. Like I said, that night the Lord revealed a bigger piece of this adventure to me.
What does unity within the body of believers look like?
How they responded was almost as surprising as my confession. They told me they appreciated my honesty and my willingness to push in and to engage in a conversation many people refuse to have. (It’s a lot easier to distance yourself from the unknown than to push into the uncomfortable.) Before we left, my friend’s husband asked if their small group could pray for us and I said yes. But, he told me it was going to be “Belonging Style.” I told him that I didn’t expect anything different. And, I didn’t. But, that didn’t mean we were ready for what was coming next.
Sydney and I sat on two chairs in the middle of the room and people circled around us, laying hands on us. It was similar to the previous evening, but more intimate and orderly, weirdly enough. Everyone took turns to pray. Some in tongues. I had to fight off the urge for my body to stiffen. I was taking deep breaths, but not too deep, because, honestly, I didn’t want to offend the people praying over us. There were prophetic words and visions. I actually have a video someone took, but haven’t watched it. It was too much for me to take in. Too much to process. (I’m convinced the Lord likes to laugh at the craziness of our lives and how we handle it, or don’t handle it.)
After the small group ended, Sydney and I finally made our way to the car. She looked at me and said, “What was that?”
I don’t think I verbally answered. I remember widening my eyes and shaking my head, but nothing audible escaped my lips. She carried the conversation back to our friends’ house in Nashville. They happen to be Catholic. Talking to them about our experience made everything seem more surreal. Catholics and a Southern Baptist talking about prophetic visions and speaking in tongues.
This unity thing… it was going to be complicated.
Putting God in a box makes sense, from a human perspective. We place things within a framework created for the purpose of better understanding. We make judgments, set up criterion and categories, and then place things within our own prescribed construct in an effort to help us comprehend meaning and implication. But, we also do it, ridiculous as that may be, in a feeble attempt to control the things we don’t understand. When it comes to God, we see it all the time. People focus on the things they’re confident in, paying little to no attention to the things they consider “scripturally ambiguous.”
Maybe if we ignore them, they’ll go away.
Maybe I can still follow Jesus without ever really addressing those supposed ambiguities.
Maybe you can. But, I wanted to know the Lord as fully as I could. So, I asked Him to show me where I had put Him in a box. Simply put: Where was I refusing to see the possibility of who God really is because it went against what I was taught on Sunday morning. **PLEASE NOTE: I did NOT say what went against what I was taught in scripture. I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible… and I can also go off on bad translations!*** But, I will NEVER truly understand who God is this side of eternity. None of us will. To think we can is arrogant. And I guess that’s what I was asking God to show me. Where was my arrogance limiting my ability to know Him… and his people.
I should have known as soon as those words escaped my lips, the Lord would turn my world upside down. Without getting into a lengthy explanation of my theological background, or positions, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: I grew up Southern Baptist. I went to Dallas Theological Seminary. I am not a cessationist. I’m not a dispensionalist. I am a FIERCE opponent of the Prosperity Gospel. (False teaching is serious.) I believe in the gifts of tongues and healing, but I have neither. (If you try to convince me that I can learn them, I’ll try my best to control my face from revealing my thoughts.) I believe in spiritual warfare. I am a HUGE proponent of social justice. HUGE. (If you don’t want to advocate for social justice, then following Jesus might not be for you. The gospel saves you, but the fruit of that salvation is seen in your deeds. See Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25) I love a good theological debate. Not because I’m eager to prove I’m right. Quite the opposite. I want you to show me where I’m wrong and I DESPERATELY want to learn how to better wrestle out our differences with humility and love. I don’t believe my theology is 100% accurate. In fact, I’m pretty sure when we get to heaven, we’ll be surprised how many things we got wrong on this journey. I think a lot of us are prepared to die on a hill at this particular moment (Cough, Cough…. 2020 Presidential election) in this particular culture… that’s probably far from where God is actually leading.
Some have labeled me a “theologically conservative progressive.”
I think labels are dumb.
Honestly, when I see the melding of political and theological, I get nauseous. And irate. Sometimes in reverse order. I just saw a Facebook post today advocating for Christians to “get out on the battle field” for the next Presidential election. Um… I’m sorry, were you not paying attention to the 2016 or 2018 elections? People have strong feelings about it. I have strong feelings about it. But, I’ve been trying to put my feelings aside and push into truth. So, that’s where I’ll start. (These next three posts aren’t “political” at all. But, as the weeks and months start to unfold, you will begin to see that our American Christian/Political culture is scripturally inconsistent at best. (That’s me being EXTREMELY generous. I can give you a very long list of Christian “public figures” who have built their platforms on vilifying the very people Jesus has called us to love… and who have sold books and merchandise to profit on all their hate-spewing diatribes. It’s all connected and Satan is pulling the strings.)
Our first “official” stop on this road trip was to a small church in eastern Tennessee. They graciously invited us in to share our story and support our family. It was the first show and the kids were incredibly nervous. So were the parents. Sydney and Brayden were worried about messing up on stage. We were worried that no one would show up. This is always a real possibility. But, we worried for nothing because the kids were amazing and the gracious and generous people of that community showed up. Their church took a love offering to support our family and then people bought merchandise to love on us even more.
Up to this point, the overwhelming majority of the presentation was focused on the history of Be The Change Youth Initiative and the music behind Be The Change Collective. Only 6 minutes, literally, was spent talking about depression and suicide. But, this is what the pastor spoke about when he closed out the night. He talked about his own struggles and how the topic of mental health needed to be addressed in the church. (We definitely agreed, but it wasn’t something we really focused on as a ministry. And, we didn’t feel called to focus on it. Laughable now.)
The pastor asked our family to come up on stage so their church could pray for us. I could immediately see Jamie squirm out of the corner of my eye. He hates stuff like that. His Catholic upbringing was FAR more conservative and legalistic than my Southern Baptist roots. He had come a long way through the years, but was still the last member of our family to walk up… and actively tried to convince the pastor to not bring us up on the actual stage. But, the pastor wasn’t having any of it. He wanted his church to pray over our family, and we were about to be prayed over like NEVER before.
In the past, churches have prayed for us and it usually looked pretty much the same. The pastor would take the microphone. Sometimes a few others, most likely the elders, would surround us placing their hands on our shoulders, as the pastor began his prayer. And when he was done, some in the congregation would join in with the “Amen.” But, for the most part, the pastor was the main orator.
Well… not at this church.
I immediately knew things were going to be different when the pastor passed the microphone to this unassuming older woman sitting the in third row. He then started telling people to come up on stage, specifically directing people to stand next to certain members of our family. I remember feeling a rush of adrenaline, the faint metallic taste in my mouth. It wasn’t due to fear. I think it was more about expectation. Just as I was regaining my bearings, a chorus of voices filled my head. It was overwhelming. I remember doing two things immediately: squeezing Sydney’s shoulder because I was startled and wishing I could see Jamie’s face because I KNEW he was about to lose his mind.
I also remember listening to see if anyone was praying in tongues. I don’t know if it happened, but I didn’t hear anything indistinguishable. What I did hear was a beautiful sound. Prayers from both young and old filling the room. Each person praying specifically for the person they were touching. I heard teens pray for the Lord’s anointing to continue to fall upon Brayden. (This is a prayer so many have prayed since that night. So many.) I heard someone pray for a hedge of protection to form around Sydney. That God would provide for every need of our family… in ways that would humble us.
It went on for what seemed like hours, but it was only a few minutes. I remember thinking that heaven must surely sound like this. A cacophony of voices, mostly indiscernible, but all giving praise to the Lord. While I’m sure it was restrained, compared to other expressions of prayer, it was audacious for us. But, not irreverent. It was exuberant without forsaking the holy. We felt the tension and decided to rest there. But, He didn’t let us rest there long because within 24 hours things were about to get REALLY uncomfortable.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist church. This meant several things: The only instruments used for worship were the piano and organ. Period. If you wanted to sing, you better like wearing polyester because everyone on stage wore a choir robe made of the cheapest polyester you could find. And the ONLY raised arm you would EVER see on a Sunday morning was for a question. Charismatic worship didn’t exist. Weird people did that. REALLY weird people.
When I moved to the north, I couldn’t find a “real” Baptist church, let alone one that was Southern Baptist. So, I went to a non-denominational church… until they told me I was no longer welcome when I became pregnant with Sydney. (There are SO MANY things I could say about this church and their leadership… rife with false teaching and built on manipulation. But, I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was the teachings spoon-fed to me through my Southern Baptist upbringing were never cloaked in the “love” and “acceptance” I felt from this church… at first.) Had I known they believed the TRULY saved speak in tongues and never get sick, I would have been out of there so fast, no matter how nice they seemed.
That church also introduced me to charismatic worship. It was an introduction from afar because no sane person would make a fool of themselves by raising their arms while they sing, swaying side to side. (Some might be saying, “Amen!” and some might be offended. Remember, this is a glimpse into our lives, an evolution of our faith. This was my introduction to charismatic worship. I was skeptical, AND I’M STILL SKEPTICAL, for many reasons, including my strict religious upbringing and my experience under false teachers.) Anyone who knows me now would also find this hilarious because I’m a full-fledged arm-raiser and music swayer. It took me a while to throw off the heavy yoke of legalism, but still hold tight to the importance of reverence… and honestly, to not care what people thought about me. I once sat in that place of judgment; I know what people might be thinking. Getting to a place where I didn’t care was a lot harder than I imagined. Laughable now… but, at the time, a very real weight.
All of this is important because it underscores a very powerful, debilitating reality: I had God in a box. And FORGET about the Holy Spirit. Up until seminary, the Holy Spirit was hardly preached about at ANY church I went to, which I find really odd. Jesus left us so the Holy Spirit could come. We’re supposed to walk in the Spirit; the power of the Spirit is in us. But, looking back I don’t remember hearing one sermon about what that REALLY looks like. (Since this time, I have. But those sermons are still few and far between.) So much of my spiritual life was shaped by the crafted theologies of man and not my own understanding of the Bible. I never really questioned the teachings, whether it was the sermon on Sunday morning or the policies and programs instituted by leadership. Remember when I talked about reading the first few chapters of Acts and asking the elder why our church didn’t look like that? He flat out said the church wasn’t like that anymore. That should have been a red flag. I should have asked more questions. When things contradict scripture, no matter how seemingly innocuous, ALWAYS ask questions.
I would read passages like 1 Corinthians 12-14 and become uncomfortable. But, I would also watch sermons where the preacher took horrid liberties with scripture, preaching false doctrine about the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit… as they told people to call their 1-800 number and financially support their ministry… to receive additional blessings from the Lord. There was a real tension I was feeling between inexplicable truth that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around and a very real twisting of the truth that clearly violated scripture. I wanted to push into that tension. I wanted God to show me where I was putting Him in a box, unwilling to explore the possibilities of His power, not for my gain… but for my loss. That last part might not make sense now, but it will over time. Our family has definitely gained so much over the past 6 months, but we have lost so much more. We’ve lost things that people in the church told us we didn’t need to lose, or give up, in order to follow Jesus. Always be skeptical of people who tell you that living a life of comfort is biblical. Jesus never says that and he most definitely didn’t live it. Neither did the Apostles. But, those Pharisees surely did.
The next three posts will show you how the Lord began answering my question. Over the course of three days, with three different interactions, the Lord opened my eyes to who He is, what He is capable of and what it looks like to truly be willing to go where He wants you to go.
On September 16th, I began the first draft of this post. I was sitting at a REALLY upscale coffee shop in the suburbs of Seattle… that serves cupcakes with champagne… waiting to meet with a woman I don’t know. I had no clue what she even looks like. (And yet ANOTHER example of how INCREDIBLY weird my life is… this mystery woman is best friends with Kay Arthur, founder of Precept Ministries International. Seriously.) I’m still dealing with the fallout of a Facebook post I made earlier this week that was COMPLETELY innocuous in intent. But, the conversations taking place behind the scenes, because of that post, are AMAZING… and an answer to prayer. So, I’m here drinking coffee and, yet again, wondering WHAT IN THE WORLD IS MY LIFE?!?
Back to the story, it’s April 14th. We’re leaving Virginia and heading to our next stop in eastern Tennessee, but we find out a really bad storm is heading our way. In fact, it’s so bad advisories are popping up on my cell phone telling mobile home owners to take cover. Awesome. Like we needed another reason to question whether this little adventure was a good idea. We weren’t sure what to do, so decided on the tried and true fall back: ask for help via Facebook.
People often ask how we decide where to stop on this little road trip of ours. Well, truth be told, 95% of our connections are through Facebook. I reach out to friends, tell them we’re in the area and ask if we can get together. People usually say yes if they’re around, but sometimes we get a no. And that actually happened a few days before the storm.
We have some dear friends in Knoxville. We’ve known the Atherton family for years. Pete actually co-led my first mission trip to Nicaragua YEARS ago. A few years after that he also co-led Jamie and Sydney’s first mission trip. I had reached out to Pete a week prior to our arrival to see if we could spend some time with him and his wife, Michelle. But, given the time of arrival, he thought it might not be a good idea.
I want to stop here to say this one thing: I look back over the past six months, and I see the Lord’s hands ALL over this trip. Sometimes we can see it in the moment, but mostly, it’s looking in the rearview mirror. This was one of those times. Long story short, Pete and Michelle’s oldest child, Katelyn, committed suicide in 2018. Her birthday was the following day. Simply put, with absolutely no need for an explanation, they needed space to breathe. But, within five minutes of posting my S.O.S., I received a message from Michelle telling us to come stay with them!
Immediately, Jamie and I felt horrible. We didn’t want to impose. But, they were insistent on us spending the day with them. So, we planned to arrive early the next morning, parking our RV before the storm hit. Upon arrival, Michelle made us the most amazing breakfast and then we spent some time talking about Jesus. We talked about the church. We talked about immigration and the “wall” along the Texas border. We talked about refugees and what Jesus must think about it all. We talked about mental health. We talked about how many in the church shift in their seats when you bring it up. We talked about the NEED for the church to not only talk about it… but be one of the loudest voices in the conversation.
About three weeks later, the Lord would completely wreck out lives. COMPLETELY. Looking back on this time with Pete and Michelle, we understand what God was doing. He was preparing us. I’ve talked about my friends SO MANY times on this trip. I’ve shared Michelle’s book with several people who lives have been affected by suicide. The Lord was adding yet another thread to the tapestry He’s creating with our lives. We see this thread still weaving in and out. Hopefully, it will for a long time.
And the funny thing about all of this…. THE STORM NEVER CAME! It just dissipated, with the exception of some pretty crazy winds. It was almost like the Lord created this crazy weather pattern just so we could spend time with Pete and Michelle. (This won’t be the last time He does that either!) Jamie still refuses to believe that the Lord would do that just for us.
I’ll let him continue living in denial.