Thursday, September 16, 2010

No Excuses!

I’ve been asked why. Why would I share some of the painful details of my life and the church’s role in both the good and the bad? Well, allow me to answer that here and now.

Church is, and always has been, a huge part of our life. Of the many and varied paths our road has taken we have seen the worst and the best in human nature. We’ve met people from all walks of life—some have been helpful and kind, others were selfish and cruel.

I would love to say that every good person we’ve had the pleasure of knowing is a God-fearing, Jesus-with-skin-on kind of Christian. And, I’m sure some of you would feel better if you knew that all the “bad” people in the world are not Christ followers.

But, as a pastor friend of mine likes to say, “people are no damn good”.

This is what I want all of you to know—I have never, ever allowed the bad behavior of a few to influence my love for God or my understanding of who God is. Tom and I have always trusted God to work in and through our circumstances. As I’ve said again and again, we’ve had a front row seat to some serious miracles!

I hear people tell me all the time that they don’t want anything to do with a God whose kids are so mean to one another. But I know that people are human beings who make stupid and careless mistakes all the time. I wish we were perfect, but on this side of heaven perfection will forever elude us.

A few weeks ago I sat in a church service where the pastor asked the congregation to tell him who Jesus is. People said words like, “kind”, “miracle worker”, “unconditional love”, “grace”, “forgiveness”, and many more. The pastor then removed his jacket and revealed a t-shirt with the word CHRISTIAN on it.

What, he inquired of the congregation, do you think of when you see this word?

It took a few minutes for people to begin, and they started quietly, but soon the words came. “Hypocrite”, “judgmental”, “haters”, etc… The number one adjective used by unbelievers to describe Christians is “hypocrite”. There’s a disconnect between who Jesus is and who we are.

We’re all hypocrites—every human one of us! We all say we stand for things, but when push comes to shove, we fold under the pressure. We say we don’t lie, but we tell our boss we’re sick on a day we want to go to the beach. We say we don’t steal, but we use the copy machine at work to make those posters for the weekend garage sale. We gossip, we judge, we covet, and we keep angry accounts.

While I've come through the fire with my faith in God still intact, I sometimes find it difficult to have faith in the people who make up the body of the church.

I struggle because we’re so busy checkin’ out the speck in one another’s eye, that we neglect the tree trunk protruding from the middle of our own head. We do this. I do this. Come on people, let’s acknowledge this truth and hold one another accountable with love and gentleness. That’s what we’re supposed to do. If you don’t know how to do this, please read Matthew, chapter 18.

There are days when I can’t stand the thought of ever walking into a church again. But then I remember the words of the author of the book of Hebrews, Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25

Did you catch the word in the middle of that passage? Look again. Encourage. We are to encourage one another.

You wanna know why people aren’t coming to church, why they aren’t being drawn to Jesus? We fail to encourage one another—not always, but too often. In addition, we are called upon to sharpen one another, to hold the pew sitter next to us accountable, to love, to carry, and to grow each other up in the light of Christ’s teaching. We are supposed to meet the needs of the hurting and hungry. We are SUPPOSED to be Jesus with skin on!

I have NEVER, nor will I EVER use the bad behavior of a few as an excuse to not serve God. I’ve made mistakes, errors in judgment, and I’ve flat out sinned. I don’t excuse my behavior and I don’t blame anyone else for my choices.

Further, I know you’ve sinned. How do I know this? It’s the human condition. I don't know what, when, or how, and I don't want to know. But guess what? I love you. If I don’t show it, call me on it. I’m not asking the church to water down The Gospel or to compromise Truth. I’m asking God’s kids to seek first to understand, then to be understood. I’m asking the church to love.

The other day I wrote about an article I came across in the January, 1962 edition of LOOK Magazine. Several thinkers of the day predicted what life would be like in 25 years. Martin Luther King, Jr. said he expected the world to “blush with shame” at the way we treated people of color.

The history of the church is peppered with embarrassing atrocities—traditions we no longer hold to. We are still growing and learning. I trust one day we will “blush with shame” at some of our ugliness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

No Reconciliation for you!

Today's Wild Ride Wednesday is a hard one. I want you to know...I still pray for reconciliation.

I called and asked for a meeting with the pastor. It’d been several years since we’d attended the church, but the emotions were still raw and the pain was still real. My child encouraged me to once again seek reconciliation.

I’d always been open to restoration with the staff pastor who had booted me out of ministry, and I’d sought it on a couple of other occasions. He, however, wasn’t interested. So, I went directly to the big guy—the man who’d been leading the church for well over 40 years.

I walked in the office and sat down in the overstuffed chair. It seemed like I was 25 feet from the pastor. He had the biggest desk I’d ever seen in my life. A lot of granite had to die for that desk.

The pastor was familiar with my story. He knew we’d been forced to leave the church, but he wasn’t aware of all the nuts and bolts.

I had no interest in recounting all the ugly details—I only hoped for reconciliation and restoration. I’d do whatever it took to forgive and be forgiven.

The pastor’s words shocked me, although I’m not sure why. You’d think by that point I would have understood that the condemnation and judgmental finger pointing was a part of the church’s DNA.

The minister folded his hands, leaned slightly forward, and in his finest Southern gentleman drawl said, “We don’t have to reconcile with you. You work in the theatre and therefore, you are a danger to our reputation.”

And, there it is.

I don’t even know what to say to that. All I know is the pastor needs to step out from behind the behemoth that is his desk, step outside of the church, and see that Christians live in the real world. We have many and varied talents, and sometimes Christians dare to work in film, television, and the theatre!

There are times when I seriously can’t figure out what it is about Christians that draw people to God. That day, sitting in the pristine office of an old Southern pastor, was one of those times. I didn’t see Jesus in his eyes. I saw a Pharisee who effectively said, “Thank you God that I’m not like this person.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hope for Tomorrow

I have on my coffee table a LOOK Magazine dated January 16, 1962. The publication is a special issue titled, “The Next 25 Years”. In it, several scientists, specialists, and other notables give their predictions for what life will be like in 1987.

Here are a few of the thoughts and expectations for the future:

“I hope that world peace will have become secure… I would expect the world to blush with shame to recall that, three decades earlier, a human being was graded by the color of his skin and degraded if that color was not white. I would expect the Christian era to begin.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“In 25 years, either our lovely earth will be a charred lump of rubble circling the sun, or we shall all be well on the way to universal peace. I believe it will be peace. There is no room for anything else; certainly no room for war…Asia and Africa will become equal partners in the work of the world…Class and race distinction will have disappeared.” Sean O’Casey—Irish Playwright

“The quality of music in the smallest hamlet of the United States will equal that in the world’s capitals. Every library will have facilities for playing recorded music, plays, novels, and poetry—the sounds of living history and voices of the great men of our time…The separation between music of the theatre and music of the opera will become less apparent over the next 25 years.” Richard Rodgers—composer

“As a cautious optimist, I believe the world will be at peace in 1987. But the pessimist in me suggests that this peace may be preceded by conflict. If war occurs, I trust that it will at last give us a true perspective on its futility as a means of settling disagreements between nations.” Frank Ellis—Director, U.S. Office of Emergency Planning

It has been nearly 50 years since the above quoted predictions were made. I believe human beings are optimists at heart. We believe—really believe that the world will be a better place tomorrow than it is today.

One of Fresno’s native sons was not so optimistic. Read the words of William Saroyan:

“What our world is at this time, it is likely to be a quarter of a century form now. Why isn’t the world better? Why is the human experience profoundly violent, psychotic and deathly, and only superficially and occasionally fun, true, or meaningful? Briefly, the world isn’t better because it is an invention of man’s—because man apparently needs a couple of million years more.”

Remember, these predictions were made in 1962.

The magazine is fascinating. The fashionistas of the day made prognostications about what we’d all be wearing in 1987—they were way wrong! Did any of you ever see the episode of the original Star Trek called, “Mudd’s Women”? Well, it was the style of dress worn by the beautiful women in that show that most resembles the way we were expected to dress by the late ‘80’s. They underestimated the power of neon!

It was expected we’d be living in homes largely made of plastic, aluminum, porcelain-enameled steel, and reinforced concrete. As far as space exploration was concerned, scientists believed there would be manned expeditions to and from Mars by 1985.

In many ways life has not moved as quickly as it was once expected it would. In other ways, however, we have leapt over tall buildings. We’re living with AIDS, terrorism, computers, and an out of control drug culture.

On page 17 of the January 16, 1962 issue of LOOK Magazine, then president John F. Kennedy wrote encouraging words of hope for his country’s future. It does me good to read those words today:

“While I possess few flat predictions of life on this planet 25 years hence, I possess many hopes. I hope that we will have made the peace more nearly secure—that tranquility will have replaced terror in the intercourse of nations. I hope that our people will be richer and more secure—that the anxieties of unemployment and illness will be greatly reduced—that our national output will have vastly increased—and, equally important, that we will have learned to use our wealth wisely.”

Hope. Today, tomorrow, and always, we have hope.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cries of a Strong Woman

For today’s Wild Ride Wednesday, I submit the most difficult and personal words I ever wrote. If you’ve never read my blog, I urge you to read it today.

Allow me to set the scene. Two of our kids were on drugs and I was fighting desperately for the lives they seemed determined to throw away. My extended family had said and done things that not only slowed, but also in some cases, reversed the work we had done to restore our children to wholeness.

Those same family members were making demands on my time and energies. I was, after all, the “strong one”.

We’d been asked to leave the church we loved—the place where our gifts and talents had been nurtured, where our children had been dedicated to the Lord, and where we’d been faithful members for thirteen years. I was accused of saying things I didn’t say and thinking things I didn’t think. It’s a shame when jealousy, selfishness, and pride ruin relationships—especially when it involves God’s kids.

My best friend told me “God closed the window of opportunity” to defend me and minister to my accuser.

Through it all I was working two jobs and I never missed a day. I was also singing in the choir at our new church and was helping the drama ministry.

I felt as if I was a failure as a mother, a friend, and a wife.

It was almost exactly six years ago to the day that I penned these thoughts. Here are the words just as I wrote them on September 10, 2004—raw and unedited.


This is a page full of thoughts and words that I need to send out into the air and hope they come back less scrambled.

I feel so trapped. I want out, but to what? To where? To whom? Who do I want to be? To what end? I have been made promises that will never be fulfilled; I have been judged too harshly and not harshly enough; I have lied and have been lied to and the lies continue with the hope that if I repeat them enough they will become real and true. They are not bad lies, I tell myself, but rather kind lies. I say, "I love you", "Yes", and "That sounds great", but I don't mean it. I don't mean it. I hate myself more everyday for the "kind" lies I tell, the horrible truths that I hide, and the sadness I work so hard to disguise.

I'm afraid of the desperation that is closing in on me. I'm deeply disturbed by the thoughts I entertain, the world I escape to, and the joy I'm missing. I believe there is joy out there, even in here, but it feels so unattainable. It is sometimes just barely beyond my reach, but unattainable still. I think, "If I could just go there, I'd like it there". But I don't know where "there" is, and worse, I'm not entirely sure that "there" even exists.

The words I’ve written here are so jumbled and my thoughts are confused. Will they return to me in the form of answers and with clarity?


These words are the cries of a strong woman. Look around. Chances are you are working with someone, living with someone, or sitting in a church pew next to someone whose heart is breaking and whose spirit is weak. Reach out.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Father's Gift

What is a gift?

It is the rain and the sun washing over the face
of a prisoner freed from a windowless cell.

It is the clean blanket and new socks that bring warmth
to the body and soul of a homeless child.

It is the opening of a door and the thunder of laughter
signaling the homecoming of a prodigal son.

What is a gift?

It is the chatter and giggles that come dancing from the bedroom
of a happy little girl who once was lost.

It is the music that rattles the windows and shakes the walls
of the house where a family really lives.

What is a gift?

It is every “I’m sorry”, “I love you”, “I need you”,
“You’re special”, and “I forgive you”.

And the greatest gift?
It is grace—unmerited, undeserved, unwarranted,
unearned, and unjustifiable.
It is the very same grace that is given willingly, freely, eagerly,
voluntarily, and enthusiastically.

Thank you Father.

Elizabeth Stoeckel
November 28, 2005

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Faith and the Thermometer

More from the wild ride that is our life. Today I’ll share another high—a time when our needs were met in unexpected ways.

It was around 1998. A little more than a year earlier Tom had been laid off from the well-loved job he’d had for nearly a decade. He’d dreamed of being an independent software developer and the unexpected and abrupt loss of employment put us on the fast track to self-employment.

It was a scary and exciting time.

An independent software developer doesn’t have a lot of over-head costs. We needed a computer. Check. A phone. Check. Talented software developer. Check. The most expensive part of the operation was the printing costs for the installation disks and product manual. We took a leap of faith and hired a local printer to do the job.

Now we owed $1,500 and the money was due in full in 30 days. I’m not gonna lie…I was worried. That was a huge amount of money and we had absolutely no idea where the funds for groceries were coming from, let alone the monies needed to fund a business.

I decided this would be a great opportunity to teach my kids something about prayer and God’s faithfulness. So, I drew a five-foot tall thermometer on a six-foot banner and hung it on our kitchen wall. We were going to pray, wait for the money to come in, and keep track of it with my elementary-school-inspired artwork.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret—this was a gigantic risk for me. I was not sure God could do this thing. We had gotten used to living on very little money. We needed every single penny for gas, food, rent, and utilities. I couldn’t imagine where an “extra” $1,500 would come from.

We prayed. We prayed some more.

We decided that any unexpected money would go towards moving the mercury up the thermometer. One day a card came in the mail and inside was a check for $25. The enclosed note said, “Hi Tom and Liz. Thought you might be able to use this. Have a great day.”

Wow! I used a fat red marker and filled in the rounded bottom of the gauge on the wall. The money started coming in. I had a birthday—money. Tom’s mom had a bit of a windfall and she shared it with us—money. We sold a record number of software packages that month—more money. Amazing.

I can’t recall here and now just exactly where every penny came from, but I can tell you that on the 30th day, the last few pennies trickled in and the entire thermometer was completely bright red!

I’d put the crude drawing on the kitchen wall to teach my kids about God’s faithfulness in times of need, but it was I who needed to learn that lesson!

As our life got harder and harder and spun farther out of control, God’s faithfulness wasn’t always easy to see. But then I’d remember the thermometer and I knew that even when my faith was small, His faithfulness was never failing.

He always shows up in the nick of time. He still does.