Posts Tagged ‘I Can Only Imagine’

Thirteen years ago I didn’t listen to Christian music. Well, that’s not totally true. I was a church choir director and listened to demo recordings of potential anthems, but none of that contemporary stuff. My religious experience was contained in a very carefully packed box containing what I liked and didn’t like in worship, and what I would and would not accept in a church. I made sure that my Sunday morning worship didn’t really leak out into the rest of my life. The result was that I was living on auto-pilot; a life with no defining purpose except to get through the day with as much comfort as possible. I don’t know if I even wondered if there was more, I just sort of drifted through life in a daze.

Thirteen years ago this week, a former student who had been in my inner circle of jazz band kids died unexpectedly at the age of 16. It was as if someone kicked me in the stomach and turned the lights off in my life. I found no help or comfort from inside my carefully curated religious box and wandered in a black fog for days.

On March 17, 2005, Staci Stephen’s witness, captured on video and brilliantly recorded in her daily journals, flipped the lights on for me. At her funeral service, when I heard about her life and her faith and the fulfillment she found in Jesus, I was done with the auto-pilot life. I was done with the darkness. I was ready to walk into the light.

I began listening to the Christian radio station, reading the Bible intensely, devouring books about heaven, attending multiple churches, and cornering pastors and trusted church elders with rapid fire questions about how God works in life and death. I began to find the truth that I was seeking. The soundtrack for this time in my life was the song I Can Only Imagine by Mercy Me. I realized that there was abundant life outside of the box.

Today I saw the movie of the same name and it spoke loud and clear to me about a dissonance I have experienced since I decided to answer the call to ministry. ┬áThe movie tells about the life of the songwriter and his early disappointment in his career. The criticism from the record label reps was that the band was good and he was a good singer, but it just wasn’t genuine. They weren’t getting to the heart of what it’s all about. To do that you have to face your fear, walk into your pain instead of walking away from it. For the music to reach people, it has to come from a lived reality.

Over the past five years, I’ve had people complain to me that they don’t like new songs, that children in worship make too much noise, that we shouldn’t begin a new service, we shouldn’t sing music from black composers for black history month, that it was a bad idea to hold a healing service, that I should be condemning LGBTQ people from the pulpit, that the 50 year-old Sunday school curriculum doesn’t need to change, to stop preaching about discipleship, to not say that I’m divorced from the pulpit because it makes me look bad, that worship should be at 11 am not 9:30, that change is happening too quickly, that we need to cater to preferences of the older people in the congregation, and for heaven’s sake, don’t even think about moving the chairs in the Worship Center!

Here’s the dissonance I’m experiencing: NONE OF THAT STUFF IS OUR WITNESS!!

My life changed when a 16 year-old girl who died too soon, witnessed about how her life had been transformed. As a result, I got out of my carefully curated religious box and found joy and purpose that guides me every day.

I’ve been too sensitive to the criticism that comes with the territory of being a pastor of a congregation full of human beings. I’ve taken complaints personally, allowed my heart to be broken for the people who have stepped away from the church, and have constantly searched my conscience to see if I am operating out of false or self-serving motives. But I realize that I am falling into an old favorite of mine, codependence. I’m taking on their pain as if I could heal it.

I can’t.

But I know who can. ┬áToday, the movie reminded me about the life changing power I experienced when I made the decision to walk in a genuine, authentic life in Jesus. No matter how much we’ve been hurt, no matter how hard it is to forgive, we can lean into a power that is so much greater. A power that can heal hearts, reconcile enemies, and make new anything or anyone we thought was beyond redemption.

I needed this movie today, especially during this anniversary week of Staci’s death. It reminded me that in every church I’ve served, there are people farther along the path, guiding me forward, just as there are some people still walking in darkness. It reminded me that even middle aged Christians like me can still be transformed by the power of a genuine witness. I’m grateful to Staci, who wanted a unique ministry and to her mother, Kristen for getting her story out there in the world.

To hear more about Staci’s amazing story, click here.

Also, go see the movie. Let me know what you think.


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