Lord, to whom shall we go?

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I’m going to begin by assuming that everyone reading this knows who Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are, and the news that they’ve recently made. If you don’t, read this and this.

It’s not easy to watch iconic Christian leaders crumble. I was particularly impacted (for better or for worse, but that’s a discussion for another time) by Joshua Harris as a teenager, and his public renunciation of his faith in Jesus Christ left me with a lot to process about my own roots in the Church and journey with Jesus.

Some of it is not easy. Like one hundred percent of church-attending Christians, I have experienced pain there, pain that has been inflicted on me by other believers. That’s sad, but that’s life until the King returns - we will hurt each other.

Like ninety percent of church-raised children, I have been very sure of what I believe until the day came that I wasn’t. I have experienced doubts and fears, and that’s hard, but that’s life until the King returns - faith is not yet sight.

And like an untold number of Christians in this age, I have wondered what it means to love others and tell them how lost they are at the same time, when it feels like the only voices speaking are those of self-worshiping license or self-powered hypocrisy. That’s a wild pendulum to ride, but it also seems to be the ride of choice, because it’s always easier to shout from an extreme than to dodge the hazards of interpersonal nuance.

I don’t know the whole story of why Joshua Harris left the faith. I would imagine that immense pain, doubts, and exhaustion helped to pave the way.

And there is just one passage of Scripture that keeps echoing in my mind:

“… The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to Him from the Father.”

As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:63b-69

I think there’s room in following Jesus to acknowledge that others on the journey sometimes hurt us - and sometimes excruciatingly so. I think He is gracious and understanding with our biggest, scariest doubts. I think the complicated messiness of trying to love people enough to not leave them in their sin is something we all get tired of after awhile.

But I will not turn off His way, because honestly - to whom would I go? It is He who holds eternal life - the Holy One of God.

A mentor and friend recently inspired me to imagine what my life would be, right now, without Jesus - and what I saw in that imaginary world made me so thankful that I don’t live there.

Without Jesus, there would be no refuge from the misery of sin, guilt, and shame. I would live with those ugly entities for all of my days. I’m an over-thinker and a people-pleaser, and it is only Jesus who sets me free from the unnecessary burdens I often carry - and even redeems the necessary ones with His blood. Only Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Without Jesus, all the good relationships I treasure would evaporate, from my marriage and my family to my closest friends and spiritual mentors. Yes, I’ve been hurt in the community of the faith, but I’ve also found healing there. Perhaps there would be other relationships, but none with the iron strength of bonds wrought in Christ’s blood.

Without Jesus, where would this deep-thinking, endlessly-learning spiritual seeker find her rest? God made me with too much thirst for what is real and true to be satisfied in the vanities that other philosophies can offer. I would have spent my life searching and yet returned void, hopeless, despairing.

My view of Christianity is not rosy or naive. I am the first to challenge and question any idea, belief, or tradition that is presented as truth, and I am not afraid to acknowledge the incredible harm that some individuals in some churches have done. I’m against hiding sin, sweeping pain under the rug, telling people to band-aid their wounds with more Jesus, or rebuking doubts. I don’t think there’s a right denomination or a right translation of the Bible or a black side and a white side to every moral issue.

But I do know that there is nowhere to turn for what fills the void in the human soul except Jesus.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

background noise

I have gradually become a rather avid podcast listener. In the aftermath of losing most of my interest in reading as a hobby (for which I blame Mrs. Kruse, and college classes in general), and in my ever-increasing sensitivity to emotional distress in all aspects of life which makes most television pretty unbearable to watch, podcasts have become an enjoyable compromise. They are varying degrees of educational, which satisfies my learner’s brain, and the stories they often contain are much more real-life (and therefore, less unbearably distressing or dramatic) than what TV shows and movies can offer. I like that the pace is slow, the discussion is overwhelmingly “normal,” and I can work with my hands and eyes while my ears take in the information.

But, like all media, they can be annoyingly diagnostic of my current emotional wellbeing.

More than once in the last week (we won’t talk about how much more than once) I caught myself staring blankly at my computer screen while the Bluetooth speaker blared on endlessly, strangers’ voices continuing a conversation I had lost track of twenty minutes ago, brain split between the complexities of formatting a manuscript in Adobe InDesign and that annoying subconscious awareness that I was purposely trying to drown myself out.

There’s a dual theme to my favorite podcasts: Conversation and consistency. I listen to shows in which the same two or three people co-host every episode in a loosely-structured conversational format. I hardly care what they’re talking about; yes, I listen to shows that reflect my own interests, like the Bible, health, self-improvement, or non-inflammatory news and political commentary. But in the past week alone I’ve listened to a show about “Wisdom Gained in Our 30s” (I’m 25), home decor (which is fine, but I don’t really care about it), and a discussion on postpartum recovery (despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby and am not pregnant), just to name a few. Sure, there’s an element of these shows that feeds my curiosity and hunger to learn about how other people live and what they care about, but overall these topics are not exactly what I’d consider reflective of my current interests or place in life. What I need is the conversation, the stimulation, the taste of being part of something.

When I start to binge on such shows, I know that my brain is trying to communicate something to me which I’d rather not hear.

Like Hey. You’re lonely.

Gah, I hate being lonely. I hate the feeling of needing people. I hate the fact that I can’t healthfully subsist in isolation and that part of my call as a disciple of Jesus is to be just one working part of His whole, diverse body. And I hate it when my attempts at pseudo-community fail to take the ache away.

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Ironically, I know that in this, I’m not alone. Authenticity is a buzzword in our world, and people keep trying to share their “imperfections” on Instagram in aspiration for vulnerability and relationship, but somehow it seems we’re all more isolated than ever before - maybe because only some imperfections are socially acceptable enough for public consumption, and if your only evident vulnerability is the short temper you wrote about in a caption online, what does that say about my dissolving relationships or secret addiction or desperate depression?

Some of the most bonding real-life conversations I’ve had recently have been based on the admission that I am lonely, and you are lonely, and we don’t know why or what to do about it. The trouble is that this seems to be where the conversation always ends, and then we return to our faithful Friendship Substitutes. For me it’s podcasts, but for you it could be TV, books, food, drink, social media, busy work, or any of a number of other options. Those things place no demands on us, and they make us feel better for awhile, but even in the healthiest usage they don’t solve the problem.

So how is this problem solved? Once we’ve bonded over our mutual loneliness, where do we go from there?

I can’t say I know a definitive step-by-step strategy, but my instincts say we need to move toward each other. We need to cut ties with our Friendship Substitutes long enough to get hungry for the real thing, and then move toward each other - offline, in real life, where I can see your face and hear your voice and touch your hand. The world is becoming more virtual and less real all the time, but our bodies and brains are designed for what is real. Our hormones and chemicals respond to what is real. Bonding happens in the real world.

A trendy hashtag does not a community make.

Last weekend I took a self-defense class at my church. I’ve been attending services there for seven months, but had hardly met anyone at all yet. I didn’t want to go to the class because I would be alone in a room full of strangers, but I went anyway.

And they were real.

All it took was for someone to say hello and start the conversation, to make eye contact and smile, and to start practicing hand-to-hand self defense with me, and I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t lonely anymore. And more than that, I rediscovered a healthy appetite to be with real people in a real setting doing real things.

But here’s the rub, at least for me: once we’ve moved toward one another physically, we’ll need to start moving closer emotionally. We need those few, lovely people that we’re not only in bodily proximity with, but that are near to our souls. The people who know us for who we are - good, bad, or unimaginably terrible. They’re the ones who love us exactly the same no matter how much good, bad, or unimaginably terrible we bring with us, and who - by being the light that we desperately need shed on our inner worlds - will help to enact and reveal God’s work in us.

I’m not good at this. In fact, the real reason I often have to be dragged toward any kind of real-life social situation kicking and screaming is because I really, really don’t want to move toward others emotionally. In the aftermath of a formative friendship in which my trust and vulnerability was often exploited, I am happy to pretend, for as long as I can get away with it, that I don’t have any needs at all. But in this I’m not just isolating myself; I’m involuntarily isolating those around me who do have needs, and need to know they’re not the only ones.

I think it’s time to turn off the background noise and reach toward real-life relationships with real-life people. The kind that won’t just numb out the loneliness void, but fill it up and make it whole. The internet is a marvelous thing, but as much as it connects us, it will never be able to bond us.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

thoughts from a loud silence

I think I must confess the reason for my recent silence.

Some of you already know that longer gaps between blog posts usually mean that my brain has grown too loud for me to fully distinguish and organize my thoughts in the way that writing requires. I take these weeks of silence to reflect and try to give the noise its space by taking long walks in the fresh air and doing a lot of informal doodling, but often it takes weeks or months of this treatment before I can fully untangle all the different threads.

They’re still pretty tangled up right now, but one of them has begun to catch my attention.

I’ve found that it’s become harder for me to write about real-life struggles when I’m not confident that I can wrap them up in a pretty bow for you.

And so I err on the side of not writing at all - even though I’d like to - because silence seems more bearable than leaving you with a lament that I can’t genuinely end with a positive spin yet. Or worse, false joy.

But then I began reading a new book this week - Inside Out by Larry Crabbe - and this paragraph convicted me:

“Yet there is no escape from an aching soul, only denial of it. The promise of one day being with Jesus in a perfect world is the Christian’s only hope for complete relief. Until then, we either groan or pretend we don’t.”

My soul aches - it always has, and it always will. It is always throbbing a little (or a lot) in the void that, if we were still in Eden, the tangible presence of God would fill.

And so does yours.

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Following this thread through the deafening silence of recent weeks has reminded me that not all pain can be wrapped up in a bow. Not every heart-wrenching lament is fully processed into holy surrender overnight. Sometimes we must come to God with the untempered groaning - sometimes we must honestly lay out the anguish with Him, and with each other.

We’re not where we belong. We’re not who we were made to be. We’re being made new, but the process is excruciating.

We can pretend none of this is true and live in denial of our pain - we can try to cover it with good deeds, more consistent devotions, the praise of others, or whatever our drug of choice may be - but it’s still there. We either feel it or we spend our lives putting on an act - and then still feel it, in the dark of alone when there’s no one nearby to use as a buffer.

What if we could all be honest about this? Imagine if we could admit to each other our disillusion with life without fearing that the response would be “You must need to spend more time with Jesus.” Imagine if we lived with the expectation that this life is, and should be, disillusioning, but that this very fact is what gives us such delight in the anticipation of the life to come:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the anxious longing of creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

Romans 8:18-23

I looked up that word, “groan,” in a Greek lexicon. It’s transliterated stenazo, and it means “to groan because of pressure of being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth).”

We are in pain, yes, but our pain is productive. It’s forward motion. It has a glorious reward, like the agony of birth.

It’s not meant to feel good yet, but it will.