“The greatest way to show gratitude toward God is to serve others.” When these words were spoken by one of my classmates during a group conversation on gratitude, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and then I spoke up with a push back, noting that actually, one of the greatest ways to show gratitude toward God is to rest in Sabbath and to whisper thank you in the stillness. My words didn’t come out as gently as I had hoped, nor did they encompass all I wanted to say, so I sent a note to my classmate, asking for forgiveness for the less than gentle way I had countered his comments and briefly explained what was underneath my remarks. Here’s the longer version of that explanation. It is tightly and intricately woven into the messy deconstructive process I have been living in the past 5 years of seminary.
For thirteen years I participated in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF),an international, interdenominational, in depth bible study. I was invited to attend BSF when I was a new Christian. I’d never studied the Bible, but I was hungry to learn and grow in my faith in Jesus. I loved the structure of the study, which encouraged digging into scripture in a methodical and practical way. My eagerness to learn was evident each week as I arrived to the study with completed lessons ready to share what I’d learned and applied. An invitation to become a leader came, and I accepted not knowing that declining was even an option. I figured if I was being asked, then it must be God’s will for me to step into a deeper commitment to study and serve. For eleven years I served in various leadership roles.
God refined me through multiple studies and diverse leadership responsibilities. My desire to serve with excellence awarded me opportunities to continue to grow as a leader through increased responsibilities. Because each new role was terrifying and way bigger than I could ever do on my own, I experienced God’s faithfulness time and time again, as I served and learned. Whether it was memorizing hymns and children’s bible stories, or managing the logistics of a class of 650 women, God continued to carry me through each and every challenge.
BSF gifted me with amazing sisters in Christ, who reside in a number of different states. Whenever my family moved, I found a BSF class. In times of change, attending BSF and studying God’s word were constants that imparted a deep love of scripture and service into the fibers of my being.
Over recent years, BSF has shifted and changed so as to reach new generations for Christ. I experienced this evolution firsthand and am grateful for the grace-filled changes that have been implemented, all while still having a high view of God’s word. But in the early years of my attendance, the organization existed through ridged and enforced guidelines: no answers on the lesson, then a person wasn’t allowed to answer questions; too many missed classes placed a person in jeopardy of being dropped from the class; leaders were to adhere to many policies and procedures; and expectations existed for leaders to serve in BSF and within their church community. Furthermore, all service was to be done with excellence out of gratitude, as for Jesus Himself.
To say I thrived in this environment would be an understatement. The discipline and rigor associated with study and service made me feel like I was living the full and abundant life Christ came to give. But the reality is it was just an illusion emerging out of works based religion that complemented my “we are good people who uphold the law” performance-based upbringing, and when done well, resulted in positive outcomes.
In 2014, God called me out of BSF and into seminary. Leaving was difficult, but the departure opened up space and time for me to invest in academic, spiritually formative, and heart healing endeavors. In the first few years of seminary, my family and faith crumbled as we navigated extremely difficult years of raising our teenage daughter. During this time, I entered a dark night of the soul, where I felt like God had grabbed my ankles and pulled me down into the depths of the ocean. In that suffocating darkness, I learned to see and experience God’s Grace in new ways, as the veil between the sacred and secular was stripped away. I also learned how to breathe holy, fully aware of each breath prayerfully entering and exiting my lungs, sustaining me in the deafening abyss of Divine silence.
After almost three years in the depths, I resurfaced to light, air, and sound again. On the shoreline, while God began to put pieces of my faith and family back together, he began to lead me into the dark, wounded spaces in my heart. Participating in centering prayer, spiritual direction, counseling, and Mending the Soul brought about destruction of the safety walls and Christian fortitudes I had so carefully constructed over the course of my life. As bricks of perfectionism, control, legalism, fear, anger, and shame fell, light began to flood in, revealing a world outside the walls that I’d never imagined. With a whisper God asked me to step out over the rubble into the unknown. I was terrified. Change doesn’t come easy for me; it has to make sense on some level for me to move. So for a time, I simply camped out in the rubble, knowing it wasn’t ideal, but too afraid to step away from all I had known.
Eventually though, the discomfort and pain associated with remaining in the rubble, which at that time also included existing in a community of faith I’d outgrown, was greater than the imagined discomfort and pain I’d experience in the wild. So I prayed to be released, to be free, and while the release and freedom came, it did so in a way I not could have imagined.
Accepting the invitation to step out required I leave my church community and many of the constructs I was told “good Christians” had to do to faithfully follow Jesus. I no longer was involved in a particular ministry, bible study, or other traditional Christian accountability structures. Seminary and my group of scattered friends became my church; the Wilderness became my new home.
Here in this wilderness, God has been shaking the BSF out of me as I slowly allow the shame associated with not being a member of a church, not serving in a church, and not participating in a consistent bible study with fellow believers to fall off like scales. About 7 months into this wilderness experience, as the Christian “shoulds” fell to the ground, it became clear God was redefining what it meant to do church, to be church, and to serve the church. Indeed, on many levels, God has been redefining what it means to be me, as my previous identities have been slowly stripped away to reveal someone completely new, yet also the same.
In the wilderness, I’m learning to abide in Christ alone. I’m learning what it means to live Sabbath and shalom. I’m also re-visioning what it means to not only be a disciple of Christ, but also how to disciple others.
In fact, I often wonder, outside of being tempted, if this is a key reason Jesus was led into the wilderness? Because when he returned to his community of faith, he served and cared for others in very subversive ways. His understanding of Torah and God shifted from what was taught to him during his early years, to a more mature, more nuanced understanding of God, Sabbath, and Kingdom. His teaching and daily interactions went against the Jewish flow of expectations as he cast off the legalism that had gripped his people for generations. Jesus envisioned freedom for them in ways they could not fathom. In order to bring forth this freedom, Christ had to abide completely in his Father, trusting the Spirit to lead, equip, and empower him to bring forth God’s Kingdom. Did he embrace his Jewish roots? Absolutely, but he did so in a new way, as he redefined what it meant to be and to live as the people of God.
Though much of the shame driven motivations forged in me through BSF continue to be shed, there are still many foundational aspects that remain. I still have a deep love for God, God’s Word, and Christ’s Church. But I also have a burning passion to see people freed from chains of shame that bind and prevent them from living a life of abundance and freedom in Christ. I have new vision borne out of fresh perspectives, intense refinement, and academic rigor. And I have a new community of wilderness wanderers that are out here on the margins, engaging in ministries that are not just scripturally informative, but also deeply experiential so as to bring forth holy, transformative healing.
Stepping outside of the old self and Christian religious constructs is scary.
Going into unknown territory is difficult.
If you can no longer breathe where you are in life, or you’re tired of sitting in the rubble of the fallen walls you’ve constructed over the years, or you’re hearing God’s call to enter the wild but you’re terrified to move, then I’d encourage you to get up, climb over the broken pieces, walk forward, one step at a time, and know that your Dwelling Place will be waiting for you to abide more fully in Presence and Grace. Better is one day in that Place, than thousands of days elsewhere. And I promise you, though you may feel lonely, you are never, ever alone, for God has been leading people out into the wild for millennia. Why? Because it’s the place where God works best, where we encounter the fullness of God and ourselves, so that when we are lead back into traditional communities, we can help shepherd others into the goodness of God’s glorious Grace, and not that undeserved favor grace, but rather a rich and abundant love Grace where freedom is found.
Will you join me?
It’s a good Place. I promise.
Photo by Lucas Gallone on Unsplash
BSF is an organization that remains near and dear to my heart. In no way is this write up meant to diminish the work God has done through BSF in the lives of tens of thousands, including myself. Few para-church organizations do in depth bible study as well as BSF. My intent here is to share my personal experience, and how that experience transpired in my shame-ridden heart. I do not speak for BSF or for others who have attended BSF, only myself. As with all religious organizations, there will always be positives and negatives. As an organization, BSF has slowly and intentionally worked to change their policies and procedures, especially those that were stumbling blocks for many who desired grace and love as much as they desired sound teaching and study.