Seeking God When God's Not There by Josh Pinkston

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There are seasons when the most accessible emotion to me is numbness or disorientation. Sometimes they come with a sense of grief. Other times, they seem mysterious and relentless. The old reliable comforts lose their warmth and grow rigidly frail. Relief is difficult to find except by way of distraction, but it is a shallow answer for a deep condition and only painfully prolongs the numbness, incasing it in callousness. It is an arduous season that, I believe, everyone experiences on a cyclical basis.

When I reflect on seasons like these in my past, two instances quickly come to mind:

  1. Years ago, there was a time when I was going through this season of numbness that was especially heavy. Still, I continued in my regular practice of Silent Prayer. Those times were filled with frustration and internal anguish. Eventually though, I had a personal revelation. It came to mind that I was stuck on trying to “hear” God like I had grown accustom to, but God was wanting and teaching me to “see.”

    I had become so used to “hearing” God (sensing the draw of God’s nature in one way or another), that I was oblivious to the fact that my eyes were closed. When there was only silence, I felt abandoned and angry; but I had only forgotten to open my eyes and see. God seeks to make us whole, not remaining internally blind or deaf.
     
  2. One of the most painful and agonizing experiences of my life was the loss of our first child. The numbness I felt to God’s presence and worth was overwhelming. I prayed and strenuously strained to find the comfort I had known I could find in God’s simple presence. But there was nothing. It was less than nothing. There was a felt absence. It felt as if I were being abandoned and intentionally neglected. It was excruciating. I felt no love, comfort, or peace.

    Something Jerry Cook said years ago has been a guiding light for me, “God is always good. God is always Love. Always work backward from that truth.” So, I persisted in Silent Prayer. It was like sitting in the presence of a shut and locked door with someone looking through the peephole waiting for me to give up and leave. But I knew that God wasn’t wrong; my feelings were. So, I persisted.

    Eventually, I had an awakening: Why would God lessen then pain of our child dying? Was his little, brief life not meaningful enough to feel the agony and pain of loss? No. Of course not. His life was worth mourning and I was trying to use God to numb me to his worth. 

In both of those cases, I was stuck feeling that God is not there. That emotion led me to feel lied to and betrayed. But each time as I persisted, understanding my emotions were what was betraying me, I realized something: God is not there. God is here.

When I can’t be “here,” (meaning: I cannot emotionally and mentally be where I am and in the circumstances I am in) I can’t see, hear, or feel God because God is "here" and I am too busy wishing I was “there.” Silent Prayer allows a stillness for my roots to grow Here, in the present moment. No matter the condition.

Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!
– Jesus, Matthew 5.3 (Amplified Bible Translation)

A Season of "Let" by Josh Pinkston

One of my core Christian values has become "sensitive receptivity." It’s not something I've heard about often, in either culture nor churches, but I’ve discovered that a faith or relationship without sensitive receptivity is riddled with disconnect and self-centeredness. As I’ve learned to actively and intentionally apply it to my relationship with God, it literally changes everything about my life and way of living.

Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants.
– Deuteronomy 32.2

That is one of my favorite descriptions of how God’s voice comes to us: like dew descending on new grass…abundant rain on tender plants. What especially strikes me about this passage from Deuteronomy though is the instruction to Let; "Let my teachings fall like rain and my words descend like dew…” What a gentle and humble request. It’s a revealing insight into the character of God.

Letting God’s influence in my life descend like dew requires the receptive sensitivity I am writing about. It takes sitting, being still and knowing, and being consciously available. Is my life set up in a way that makes me unable to receive God’s gentle whisper? It's a good question I regularly ask myself. I look at my day: How did I wake up? How did I prepare for what’s next? How did I travel? How did I arrive?

Am I moving (mentally and internally) at a pace that does not welcome a gentle descending dew? If so, I must change that. Make an effort. Wake up 20 minutes earlier and let myself spend time cultivating a sensitive to the humble, gentle, and easily ignorable presence and love of God. When I let God be present to me in the morning, it becomes exponentially easier to let God be present to me throughout the day.

Even right now: Let.

Let be and be still, and know, recognize, and understand that I am God.
– Psalm 46.10

What's so Good about Friday? by Josh Pinkston

Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

– Matthew 26.49/50

Friend.

Matthew records Jesus calling Judas “friend” as he is betraying him into execution. Friend. It wasn’t Judas’ actions that made him Jesus’ friend, but Jesus’ own way of seeing him. Nothing Judas could do would have the ability to alter how Jesus saw him. That is freedom.

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When someone hurts me, I quickly become blind to everything about them except their ability to wound. It enslaves me to a darkness; an inability to see wholly. And rather than address my lack of vision, I behave as if I’ve already seen enough. What's so good about Good Friday is we’re shown how Jesus was free from this. Judas’ betrayal had absolutely no control over His personal disposition or internal condition. That is freedom.

We confuse freedom with getting, behaving, and feeling however we want at any given moment. What we fail to see is how devoid that lifestyle is of freedom. It reduces our consciousness (the greatest tool of humanity) to an appendage. It leaves us lifeless and thrown about by the utterly chaotic whim of our emotions, when we are so much more than that. We become isolated, condescending, and arrested in development; like an orange tree unable to mature enough to produce oranges.

Jesus brings us a present and radical freedom. Most of us are bound to seeing people and circumstances according to a self-centered value system: Good to me = I’m good to you; bad to me = I’m bad to you. When someone presses the wrong buttons, we spit out bitterness as reliably as a vending machine spits out snacks. It is not freedom. It is mechanical and hopeless.

We’re more than emotional vending machines. What’s so good about Good Friday is Jesus reveals to us that we are able to be free. Free from bitterness. Free from fear. And most importantly, free to Love.

Am I Loving Enough? by Josh Pinkston

Recently, I’ve been listening repeatedly to a song called “Columbia” by Local Natives. There have been mornings and evenings when the chorus has quite literally haunted me. The lyrics are about the death of a friend who embodied generosity and love, and how, since their death, “every night” the narrator now asks themselves:

Am I giving enough? ... Am I loving enough? ... Am I?

During my commute this morning, it brought me to tears to reflect with this kind of self-critical thinking, especially when applied to “every night”. With the birth of Ellis, seeing the profound fragility, dependence, and beautiful significance of this new life, while at the same time seeing Shawna undergo a densely vulnerable and foundational transformation physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, I can’t help but feel absolutely awed. What a stupid word to describe how I feel to see them! Words are worthless for communicating the experience. It’s like trying to describe the vastness of the ocean and the countless expressions of life held within it. It’s impossible and vain to attempt.

In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m at risk of being a mere spectator because I’m not the weak, dependent baby, nor am I the mother who’s given everything she was and still continues to give in new and evolving ways. I’m just there. Am I giving enough? They both give everything. I feel so embarrassed for having at times hit my own emotional and physical limits when they’ve given everything they possibly can to do their best.

The joy and companionship I feel when I look into their eyes is the kind of satisfaction and love that people have lived their lives searching for. And here I am, helplessly stumbled into it. It’s ridiculous. Am I loving enough?

This experience reminds me why I have faith in God, and why Jesus’ words and life have endlessly spoken to me. Love. It isn’t a circumstance or an emotion. It is a clarity of vision. And I ache when I think of how rarely I exude the effort to see with this clarity. Then there are moments when I see more clearly who Shawna and Ellis are and I am given a blinding light that knocks me off my ass, like Saul on the road to Damascus, and I can’t believe I’ve wasted a single moment of my life living any other way. Am I giving enough? Am I loving enough? Am I?

I love Shawna so much. And I love our son, as well, so much. And I know that what I see in them is a glimpse of what exists in you; in all and through all. This is what has made marriage so significant to me. Loving with this consistent devotion and commitment is the most enlightening experience to the Reality and significance of life. There is not anything else like it.

Am I giving enough? Am I loving enough? Am I? The tough truth is, there is no answer. The moment I answer with a yes or no, I miss the point. “Enough” insinuates a conclusion. There is no conclusion in Love. It is eternally creative, giving, and present. God is Love. Love is God.

Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God’s child and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
– 1 John 4.7/8

Churchianity: Anxiety by Josh Pinkston

Recently, I read a short journal entry from Ralph Waldo Emerson and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind:

Life consists in what a man is thinking about all day.

I believe that. I believe it’s absolutely true. If my life doesn't look like God's (Love), it's a reflection of where my mind really is, no matter what I claim to be true about myself. My life consists in what I am thinking about all day. The same applies to a church.

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This emphasis on thought is why myself and so many believers shouldn’t rush into publicly identifying ourselves as Christians: our minds are not thinking about what Jesus thought about. We’re still thinking about ourselves. Our faith is really centered on making ourselves better: more successful, more admirable, more in control, and more loved. It is not focused on relationship with God, like Jesus’ was. This produces anxiety. Anxiety is proof of where our minds really are; what or who they really belong to.

Anxiety is a definitive characteristic exposing a faith of Churchianity (a culture centered on church rather than Christ), as opposed to Christianity (the faith Jesus exemplified and taught). We find so many excuses for living anxiously. Money is a biggie. I know quite a few pastors who use the government to excuse themselves to live, speak, behave, and “status update” anxiously. I feel a new anxiety within myself to provide now that I am a parent. I can even feel anxious about not being loving enough! How silly is that? As if worrying about it will cover my family in more love? At the heart of it, my anxiety has everything to do with control and nothing to do with Love. But I want to be about Love.

I tell you, do not worry. Don’t worry about your life and what you will eat or drink. And don’t worry about your body and what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than eating? Aren’t there more important things for the body than clothes? … So don’t worry.
– Jesus, Matthew 6.25, 31

That language is the mark of Christianity. Yet, it sounds so foreign to how most Christians and churches talk. So many function with the motivation of anxiety and don’t think twice about it. We especially excuse anxiety when it’s in the name of church. This manipulative compromise corrupts our hearts, faith, and peace.

We worry about money. We worry about clothing. We worry about politics. We worry about the youth. We worry. But Jesus asked us, “Can you add even one hour to your life [or anyone else’s] by worrying?” Can worry free you? We attempt to use God to heal our anxieties in the most vain ways. Like a medicine that represses cold symptoms without providing any real healing. This is not Christianity. Instead, anxiety should be to us like an alarm. The emotion of anxiety should ring out in our hearts and minds like a warning siren reminding us to return!

The Lord Yahweh said, “In returning and rest you will be saved; quietness and trust will be your strength.”
– Isaiah 30.15

How do we do this though? We identify with our anxieties so much that when Christ says, “Don’t be anxious,” it’s like telling you to produce a different color of hair out of your head. “But I am anxious, Jesus!” we exclaim. We have to return to the Reality that we actually aren’t our feelings. We aren’t even our minds. We are made in God’s image, so we are inherently Love. This is why anxiety does so much literal damage to our bodies, minds, and hearts; we weren’t built for it. It is opposed to who we really are; who Christ leads us all to be.

Finally, my brothers and sisters, always think about what is true. Think about what is noble, right and pure. Think about what is lovely and worthy of respect. If anything is excellent or worthy of praise, think about those kinds of things. … The God who gives peace will be with you.
– Philippians 4.8/9

All Desire Is Desire For God by Josh Pinkston

Years ago, I was nearing the end of a 5-mile morning prayer-walk I made regularly from Peet’s Coffee to our home in Livermore, CA. I’d always take the long way, through the country and vineyards during sunrise. This was one of the most influential practices in my life. It was how I became a morning person. The beauty, incremental progression, and solitude of sunrise halts my internal busyness. It is captivating to be present to it. It does wonders for my soul to be up before others and begin the day in a way that impacts how the rest of my day will unfold.

On this particular day, something tremendously significant happened. Suddenly, all of my want and desire evaporated. I felt completely satisfied. Entirely. It was unlike any other experience I had known before. I wasn’t even desiring more of the feeling of satisfaction. I was simply and wholly satisfied. I knew and rested in God’s presence and love and needed nothing else out of life, circumstances, or people. I was worried about nothing. It felt like a magnificent spotlight had been projected directly onto me and everything appeared completely clear: I saw things for what they really are rather than what I feel about them in relation to my needs. 

This changed my entire life. It felt like I could point this “spotlight” wherever I looked. I faced it toward my past and became instantly aware of how I had spent my life attempting to use everything and everyone to find this fulfillment of satisfaction. Literally, everything and everyone.

I used Shawna, my wife. My closest friends. Church. Religious behaviors. My family. My focus and center had been misplaced. They were all external attempts to satisfy and internal need. Seeing this simultaneously broke and opened my heart. All frustration, insecurity, and anger in my life was the direct expression of my misplaced desire, burdening everyone and everything with the responsibility of satisfying my subconscious needs.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all your needs will be provided for you. ... The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or, “There it is!” For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
– Jesus, Matthew 6.33 & Luke 17.20/21

It is my belief that Jesus’ goal was never to form a new religion and call it Christianity, but He came so that everyone might have life and have it in abundance (those are His words). He spoke and taught about what is Reality, not a belief system. Whether you believe His words are true or not bares no effect on the fact that they are. He is waking us up!

If Jesus says that when we seek the kingdom of God first we will find everything we are seeking, it’s because everything we’re seeking for is really found there. For instance, we don’t really desire money. It’s painted paper and ultimately worthless. We desire what money represents to us: security, safety, and comfort. The issue is, those are internal conditions; the very place where Jesus told us the kingdom of God is found.

When we idolize money, sex, friendships, religion, or possessions, we set our gaze on the distant, external horizon; no matter how hard, far, or fast you travel to attain the happiness you’ve attached to it, it will always remain as distant from you as when you first saw it. Stop gunning for the horizon. Seek first the kingdom of God, within you.

All desire is desire for God. Whether misdirected, distorted, or misplaced, all desire is really desire for God. Jesus wakes us up to this. Living with our deepest desire fully satisfied is the abundant life He came to direct us toward. It is a true and definitive characteristic of genuine Christianity.

I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor.
– Philippians 4.12

Live, Move, & Be. by Josh Pinkston

Acts 17.28, “It is in God that we live and move and have our being.”

I love the enormity of this statement. It is not talking about a religion we can opt in and out of. Nor is it projecting on what things look like after we die. It is also not referencing a specific moment in our history or future. It is a definitive description of the ever-present moment; in which, we are all living and all moving and all being, right at this very moment.

It is so hard to fully realize how we see our world, ourselves, and our neighbors very imperfectly. We thoughtlessly and blindly trust our sight and opinions. I realize that culturally the term “born again” has been reduced to meaning fundamentalist or conservative evangelist, but this understanding of our imperfect sight leads us to Jesus’ definition of being “born again”: Completely start over with how we’ve learned to live and move and be.

We’ve shaped our lives around our unquestioned ability to see (the sight I’m addressing is not merely with our eyes, but with our minds and hearts). Everything we do and perceive is filtered through this imperfect or uncultivated "sense" for Reality around us. We've never stopped to question, exercise, and mature in our ability to see. Then our lives our formed, built-up, and complicated on this shaky foundation.

The distractedness of our living, speed of our movement, and state of our being can create an insensitivity to the level of gentleness with which Jesus moves in our lives. God is so kind and humble that He can easily be overlooked and ignored. Zephaniah 3.17 describes this well, “In his love, he will be silent.”

This is why Jesus instructs us to withdraw from life to be with Our Father. “When you pray, enter into your room, and having shut the door, pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you,” he says. When we slow down regularly enough, we become increasingly familiar with the greater reality in which we are all living, moving, and having our being. We need to intentionally and consciously make room in our minds and lives to grow in sensitivity to God’s gentle humility and love.

God's Nature by Josh Pinkston

On January 23-25, 2015 we made room in our schedules, minds, hearts, and conversations for intimacy with God while on retreat at Camp Koinonia. A few of us took the time to share our experience.

Last weekend, some wonderful folks and I made room in our schedules, minds, and hearts to retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. It was a time of reprieve and refocus. I’ve led contemplative retreats in the past, but none like this. We had such an incredible time. It was especially meaningful to me for some reasons that will take months, if not longer, to process.

Being in nature is a real catalyst for spiritual intimacy. The surroundings of trees, shrubs, dirt, and a constantly varying sky is disarming. It helps Jesus’ emphasis on giving nature our attention make so much sense.

Have you ever noticed how often Jesus called people’s attention to the nature around them? I’ve heard it explained away as just being the result of him talking with farmers and fishermen, but I can’t help thinking that there’s more to Jesus’ communication. When Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air,” I think he actually means, “Consider the lilies of the field and birds of the air.” It is so easy to take the things we regularly see for granted. People overlook their spouses all the time, let alone lilies and birds.

When was the last time you looked at nature as a depiction of God Himself?

From the beginning, creation in its magnificence enlightens us to His nature. Creation itself makes His undying power and divine identity clear, even though they are invisible.
– Romans 1.20

I don’t want to overlook God’s nature being magnificently and continuously depicted to me. If I'm numb to It in nature, I'll be numb to It in my neighbors, home, and own heart. I need eyes that see.

Ask the animals, now, and they shall teach you;
    the birds of the sky, and they shall tell you. 
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you.
    The fish of the sea shall declare to you. 
Who doesn’t know that in all these,
    Yahweh’s hand has done this,
in whose hand is the life of every living thing,
    and the breath of all mankind?
– Job 12:7-10

Churchianity – Worshipping Worship by Josh Pinkston

When I take my posts about what being a pastor means to me and churchianity  and look at them together, I’m motivated to look toward what it is that I’d hope to see. So much of what Jesus brought into the world has been hijacked or dumbed down for the sake of what happens for an hour or two on Sunday mornings. I’m not saying Sunday mornings are dumb. But I am saying that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had little, if anything, to do with a Divine desire for groups of people to come together for a few hours on Sunday mornings.

Believe me, the time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [places religiously designated for worship]. … The time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.
– Jesus, John 4.21,23/24

I’ve talked with so many Christians who have such a hard time centering on Christ without the aid of music and I can’t help but question; if we can’t do it without music, what makes you think it’s what we’re doing with music? Could you really just be centering on emotion? I am not saying you are or are not, but I am asking the question.

My criticism is birthed out of having been a “worship leader” for many years. It is a very personal criticism of myself. When that personal criticism reached a breaking point, I locked myself in a tiny unmarked room in a basement and turned off the lights. What I found in there was silence and presence. I found a greater fulfillment, which Jesus points to when he said, “When you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.” Churchianity taught me to worship as a statement to others, but Christ teaches me to have a secret.

This is why taking personal retreats has become such a value for me. These are times when I remove so many things that make me comfortable and outwardly focused so that I might focus simply on Christ’s presence within and without me. My goal is always to find the edges of my comfort-zone with awareness of Christ and push it as far as I’m able. That’s what the retreat near Santa Cruz next weekend (January 23-25) is all about and you’re invited to join. For more information, click here.

Jesus describes and models such a personal, secret, intimate, and dependent relationship with God first. And then a public expression that follows. But Churchianity has reversed this. My hope is that we will individually correct it and then find churches following. I hope we will literally shut doors, be silent, in secret, and throw down the crutches of music and programs to begin more fully walking with Christ individually and then collectively.

Churchianity – What being a church means to me. by Josh Pinkston

A few weeks back I had written about what being a pastor means to me and I was moved by the responses I received. Folks seemed relieved to read a description so simple and “authoritiless.” It was especially moving to be approached by other pastors who felt freed by the description. That was so significant to me because I realize how weighty the typical pastoral expectations and labels can be, and to help alleviate that in any way is the greatest affirmation I could ever seek. I also know that it felt good for me to write it out.

Since having written that article, the role of “Sunday church” has come up a lot in conversation. The community we’re now a part of in Santa Clara is unlike any other formal Christian community I’ve encountered. There is an incredible lack of pretentiousness and demand on people to “serve the service.” I can’t begin to describe how being in this environment has freed me to really believe and see the things that were only ever trapped in thought and opinion in the past.

What “serve the service” means is, most of Christianity centers around an hour and a half partly-musical production we call “a church service” that happens (usually) on Sundays. We tell people to invite their friends to these “services.” We pour a ton of energy and money into these “services.” Once people show up consistently enough, we ask them to volunteer at the “service”: greet people, sing, pass out communion, receive tithe, watch the kids, or brew the coffee. The more that someone is involved with “serving the service” we (usually) consider them a more devoted Christian and think we’re doing our Christian duty well.

Have you ever realized that Jesus, the one whom we’re all gathering around on Sundays, never once invited anyone to church? He also never once told anyone to invite their friends to church. Yet this is how we’ve come to define how it looks to follow Jesus. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

It’s always my fear that when I write honestly I may be hurting or angering someone. That’s really not my intention and I hope I’m not. My hope is to help propel a moment of reflection and refocus, for what it’s worth.

What centering on “serving the service” has done is created a faith that is dependent on a church, rather than a church that is dependent on a faith in Christ. So we puff up our churches! We celebrate big numbers and revere the pastors who gather them! We adopt whatever culture and media are doing to rally people and say it is for Christ, even though Jesus never once modeled this behavior.

The true Church is dependent on our relationship with God. The moment we get that turned around, by making our relationship with God dependent on the church, we step out of Christianity and into an idolatrous relationship with an organization rather than an eternal relationship with an abiding and loving God.

Someone I respect recently wrote, “The church exists because there is a mission.” That person is unfortunately incorrect. Wherever you find someone dependent on God, you find the Church. Not because it has been labeled that, because of what anyone does, or because of any service that has been put together, but because that’s how Jesus defined it. The Church is not defined by responsibility, but by unity with Christ and one another. This is why you can feel the Church is so often absent at churches.

The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.
– Jesus, Luke 17.20/21

NOTE: I am not saying Sunday Church has no significance, but I am saying that it has to refocus, from serving the service to serving the servants.