I’ve asked a lot of God lately.
There was a time, not so long ago when my god was poor and mean. I had a theology built on suffering. A god who was always a bit out of reach for frail hands and weak prayers. He was the Jesus who taught righteousness through selling it all and giving to the poor.
I thought that’s what he meant. I could find holiness if I just sacrificed enough.
He was a god who was always teaching lessons like a wizened schoolmaster rapping his stick across knuckles as I strained against the hard backed school desk and my hand cramped scribbling the word of God across my life like mantra, a punishment to be repeated for stepping out of line.
And the breaking comes in so many ways over the years. I’m a missionaries child. We are poor and simple. I am sick and broken.
I learn you have to submit to a will bent on breaking you. I am crushed wheat, hoping to bear fruit. And I want to look like Jesus so badly. I believe the way to do that is to hurt and break. I never imagine Jesus might be here to heal me too. To sit with my broken heart and love me gently back to Him.
North American faith nearly kills us. It teaches us we should have planned better with a sturdy 401K and dental package. North American faith teaches us we were foolish to trust God for provision. It teaches us faith is really a well executed plan to be followed once all the steps have been calculated and the safety net is in place. North American faith teaches us to sit back and let the professional Christians do the heavy lifting. It teaches us that patriotism is akin to holiness and that voting Republican is what Jesus wants most.
It teaches us that writing a hefty tithe check is important but opening your home with Kraft mac and cheese to the neighborhood latchkey kids with working parents is less so. It teaches us that white suburban convenience and comfort is what God desires so you can bless others with your blessings. How god loves a cheerful giver!
And the preachers on the shiny screen tell me I can have my best life right now, just ask and think happy thoughts and your fairy god-father will make everything sparkly and I feel like I’m being sold something. Something I can’t afford. The grace sold by flawless smiles and bestselling books is cheap and flimsy like a dime store trinket. I can trade a poor mean god for a vending machine god. Just put in my good works and faith offering, and out pops my wildest dreams.
North American faith teaches us it is possible to please god without any faith at all.
But somewhere along the line it’s all works. I am poor and righteous or I am rich and righteous and I am lost either way. Neither gospels have given me Jesus.
I hate this empty faith. I want the real stuff. I want to believe with empty hands. I want the dirt poor grin of impossible faith, the kind pleasing to God.
So I load myself up with heavy burdens and I never bother to ask Jesus to lift an edge. I never ask for a single thing for myself because I remember I don’t deserve it.
I say all is grace but I try hard to never need any.
I pray for years for God to send me. Use me. Make my life matter in some meaningful way. But meaningful to me is another continent, another life. Meaningful is living in an urban center, not affluent Bend, OR which is 93% white.
I’ve wanted out of this place for so long and almost 18 years later we are still here. I’ve felt trapped and forgotten. Looked over and left out. For so long, meaningful is another life altogether. But God gave me this one. I told Him it wasn’t enough.
So I have resisted roots in this place for years. I’ve resisted everything I resented about North American faith. I feel exiled to a place that people come to for vacations. I want to live a weightier life.
I have asked what God wants me to do.
I’ve waited on the Lord, patiently sometimes like a dog told to sit and stay and obey. I’ve waited for a treat but my tricks are never good enough. I didn’t want to be caught begging. I’ve hoped for something to fall from the table. I’ve bided my time waiting to be delivered, waiting to be unleashed.
I’ve lived years in service to a mythical poor and mean god, a visceral reaction to the god of North American faith.
And when I took a good hard look at my faith, I realized I had so little. How can God use me in a place that doesn’t know they need Him? How can God use me in this place where I don’t belong? Where a lot of the time, I don’t even want to belong.
And God spoke through Pastor Jonathan Brooks who also attended the Voices Project Author Launch Retreat. He referenced his neighborhood, where he pastors. West Englewood on the southwest side of Chicago, a city that is the polar opposite of Bend, Oregon with African Americans making up roughly 96% of Englewood’s population. He preached on being an exile. I was glad he’s a black preacher and I could yell amen now and again.
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.- Jeremiah 29:4-7
I’ve asked God what can I do. But Pastah J challenged and reaffirmed that what I really needed was answers to the “terrifying question of where do you want me to do it and with whom do you want me to do it?”
Because I’ve known that answer for a while now. I just haven’t always wanted to accept it. God put me here and in the spaces I write, and in the communities I belong to (and sort of don’t), for a reason. Theology of place matters. God knew “where and with whom I might be changed the most.”
Six months ago, we bought a house here. After 18 years, we’re not just moving in, we’re settling. And settling this time isn’t something of small faith or comfort. It’s also not sacrifice and unending pain. It’s a blessing and a burden. It’s a call and a command.
I’m seeking the welfare of my city, my exile, my home. God promises deliverance and sometimes that looks like staying put for the long haul.
“God has asked us to love the places of exile in our own cities not from a distance but from within. Where and with whom in the world will the biggest impact be made on me? Stop asking God what is the most comfortable you can be to minister. For nowhere in scripture has God ever called you to be comfortable.”- Pastah J
I live in an affluent mostly white resort-type destination town. I write and hang out in spaces with people who are often predominantly white, educated, and comfortable.
I don’t really belong here. But I’m home.
“So lastly, whether you are living in rural Bend or inner city Portland, stop asking God what you can do to be successful but start asking God where you can go and from whom you can learn in order to be more faithful. God never told us to be successful, He only told us to be faithful. Can you be faithful when change is not happening? Can you be faithful when transformation is not occurring? Can you be faithful when the only thing changing is you? Can you be faithful when you move in and you think everything is going to be different and everything is the same and you haven’t moved?” -Pastor Jonathan Brooks