Celebrating Christmas When My Faith is Full of Doubt

I'm not sure why you clicked on this story, but I feel like it should come with a disclaimer. The goal of this article is not to get you to say "Happy Holidays."  I'm not a soldier in the "War on Christmas." Leave the baby Jesus in the manger and say "Merry Christmas" to whomever you choose. Go for it. I am not looking to pick a fight. I’m writing this because I’m struggling with the whole concept of Christmas for the first time in my life, and this blog has always been my safe place to air some of my inner-dialogue.

Christmas in the Grey Area

In most of the circles where I hang these days, people are actively deconstructing their Christian faith. It's humbling to hear the stories of lifelong Christians who have either walked entirely away from the faith of their childhood or much like me, feel trapped somewhere in the grey area.

A phrase I've been using to describe my current stop along the journey of faith is a Christian Agnostic - I just don't know anymore.

But people - it's Christmas! And for me, Christmas has never existed outside the Biblical story of the baby Jesus. Christmas has always been about that little Nativity scene my Mama stitched together when I was just a toddler. It's about memories of my Dad singing "Mary, Did You Know" and remembering how my Grandfather would gather us around the fireplace on Christmas morning to read the Biblical account from the Gospel of Luke, no matter how long it took, or how much his grandchildren squirmed.

During my earliest years, we were pretty close to poor. As such, it was never about the big presents or lots of money. We didn't go to movies on Christmas Day like other families or take elaborate vacations. For us, Christmas was about the miracle in the manger, the Star over Bethlehem, and a stocking full of my favorite candies.

This is the first year in a long time that I haven't written an Advent devotional or visited a local church to watch a Christmas play. I haven't even participated as my wife continues to light the candles each night, celebrating with our children and teaching them about the long-awaited birth of the Christ child.

There's a part of me that wants my kids to have the same experiences I had with a Christian kind of Christmas, but where does Christmas fit for the lifelong cultural Christian who suspects they may no longer buy it?

Did the Wise Men have their doubts? Did they question each other along the way, growing weary with each mile of the journey? Had Joseph faced a theological crisis of his own? After offering the Magnificat, did Mary still lack certainty?

Or should I just shut up and participate in the Advent story and light the damn candles and sing “Away in a Manger” even though my brain can’t quite figure it all out?

Christmas is full of red and greens, and for many people, an American Evangelical Christmas is also very black and white. But what about a Christmas in the grey area? Does it still matter when you no longer feel connected to the story?

I think what I’m really asking is this: can we live a life, full of doubts, while also being intrigued by (and even seeking) genuine faith?

This year, the Nativity speaks to me in a way like never before. I am not a deeply theological person, and I could be flat wrong, but I wonder if this picture of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus is the perfect metaphor to my life? An image of the marriage of uncertainty and faith, but right in the middle of it all...is God.

No matter what name you give it, or what religion it's attributed to, for me, Christmas is ultimately about Hope being birthed in the dark. It's about Joy coming in the midst of despair. Christmas has never been about big presents or lots of money. And maybe my friend Ed Bacon is right, the magic of the Christmas story “is about our hearts savoring what our minds cannot comprehend”. Christmas is the story of wondrous, unconditional love that continues to choose humanity, even 2,000 Decembers later.

For more great discussion on the magic and mystery of Christmas, listen to this week's special Christmas edition of The #AskSteveAustin Podcast.

The Rev. Ed Bacon joins me for this one, plus Christmas carols with my kids and listener stories! Click the "play" button below, or listen at AskSteveAustin.com or on your favorite podcasting app!

Something For Everyone: My 10 Favorite Gifts of 2017

Your Christmas shopping just got a whole lot easier. Okay, Okay, I know you don't know me as a professional shopper, but if I was, these are the things that would make it on my must-have list for the year. There's something for everyone. Here's my favorite gifts of 2017.

If you're looking for a great way to support my work with graceismessy.com and the #AskSteveAustin Podcast, please click the links below when you're ready to purchase. As an Amazon affiliate, each purchase helps spread the message of messy grace!

If you're looking for great gift ideas, this list has something for everyone. Here's my 10 favorite gifts of 2017...

10. A Pentatonix Christmas (Deluxe)

I can't get enough of this album! Do you have it? What's your favorite song? One of my biggest reasons for loving this one so much is because anyone, at any age, can appreciate these amazing Christmas songs. Click here to purchase your copy today.

My friend JJ gifted me this bad boy a few months ago and I love to use it as my run jam. If you're a history buff, a musical theater nerd, or just enjoy a good story - download this one today. Just click here.

We bought an earlier version of this super fun camera a couple of years ago and we still love it! It's even easy enough for our kids to use. This is a super fun way to create a collage or other fun photo project. If you love the feel of an old school Polaroid, get this camera today!

7. Canon 50mm f/1.8 Lens

Wondering how I capture those beautiful family portraits for my photography business? The secret is out! If you're a photographer and don't have a "fixed 50", add this one to your arsenal today! Just click here.

6. Humans of New York: Stories (Hardcover)

The only thing more beautiful than the portraits are the personal stories of triumph and tragedy. If you've been a fan of Humans of New York on Facebook as long as I have, you need this book. This one also makes an amazing gift! Get it right here.

5. LeapTV: Educational Gaming System

Lord, don't let my kids see this (they're getting one)! LeapTV is "the only active video gaming system made exclusively for kids ages 3-8 yeas old". Y'all - it's so cool. And they aren't making any more! So snag yours before they sell out! Just click here.

4. Kombucha Brewing Kit

If you're tired of paying $3.50 per bottle for kombucha at the store, make your own! This is the kit we use at our house, and it's fun and easy! The kids feel like we're doing a science experiment every day, and I love being able to test out new and interesting flavors. The best part? It tastes good and is GREAT for your health! Order your kombucha brewing kit today. Just click here.

3. 8 Habits of Love: Overcome Fear and Transform Your Life

Now y'all know the Rev. Ed Bacon is my IRL friend and mentor, whom I adore. Want to know more about Ed's heart? Check out our conversation on my podcast:

My precious friend, Doris, sent me a copy of this amazing book recently. HOLY MOLEY. If you're a fan of Brene' Brown's book, Daring Greatly, this one is even better. Brene's raw honesty makes this deeply spiritual journey of finding the courage to stand alone one powerful book. Lindsey and I are reading a chapter a night together and it gives us much to talk about. Get your copy here.

  1. Lies We Believe about God

If you love The Shack by William Paul Young, you're going to love his first non-fiction book. The one that spoke to me most is this: God loves me, but God doesn't like me. It's amazing just how many lies we believe about God. This is my favorite book of the year. I promise, you'll love it, too. Get your copy today.And buy one for a friend!Just click here.

Honorable Mention: Lindsey's Must-Have for All the Runners Out There: Polar A370 Fitness Tracker

Lindsey loves the Polar A370 because it consistently monitors her heart rate, provides GPS assistance, sleep monitoring, and more activity data (including average pace/mile) than you can imagine! Get yours today by clicking right here.

Following Jesus Out of the Evangelical Church

In Episode 41 of the #AskSteveAustin Podcast, Steve Austin talks with David P. Gushee, author of the brand-new book, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism. Tony Campolo says, “Still Christian takes us on the journey of a Christian leader who endeavors to maintain his integrity while navigating his way from a rigid fundamentalism with its right-wing political agenda into a progressive worldview.” Listen now at AskSteveAustin.com or on your favorite podcasting app!

A piece of my journal from March of 2016 says this:

I’m too liberal for the Republicans and too conservative for the Democrats. I’m a 30-something Southerner, born and raised in the buckle of the Bible Belt. I was dunked by the Baptists, spoke in tongues in the Assemblies of God, went to a Church of God college, returned to my Baptist roots as a youth pastor, became a Methodist, and now agree with about 80 percent of the Catholic Church’s teachings. I attended George W. Bush’s first inauguration as a senior in high school but have voted Democrat in the last election. I study the King James Bible with a concordance but I read The Message on my iPhone for enjoyment, while having a glass of wine and smoking a cigar.

I’m a walking contradiction.

Maybe there was once room for people like me. Maybe everyone is like me, if we’re all honest with each other. But our culture no longer allows contradictions. I run from discussions with other Christians because it almost always ends poorly. A loss of friendship, a loss of faith, a loss of fervor. I’m tired of being burned.

When many people of faith force it to be an either/or battle of choosing sides, how do you find your voice without losing your soul? This is what today’s episode with David Gushee, author of Still Christian, is all about.

Some questions from today’s conversation:

  • What’s it like to become a born-again Christian in 1978, during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter and the formation of the Religious Right?
  • How has stepping away from American Evangelicalism impacted the way you pastor and parent?
  • What is life like for you, as a pastor or Christian leader, when church life in America seems to be on the decline?
  • Do you have any advice for folks like me, who are in the midst of a personal deconstruction of faith…on how to hold onto their faith, while not abandoning their intellect or ignoring the questions?
  • Is the Bible literally true?
  • How similar were the religious wars of the 1980’s to whatever we’re experiencing today with the marriage of President Trump and the Religious Right?
  • If we look at life through the lens of American Christianity, politics, and culture in 2017 – when do we compromise, and when we do we stand our ground?
  • Do you have any advice for Evangelical Christian pastors who feel stuck, Sunday after Sunday, with the obligation to support their family pressing right up against their secret affirmation of the LGBT community, or their support of women, or their disdain of the President?
  • You have been described as “every liberal’s favorite evangelical” and you have also been described as “every liberal’s least-favorite evangelical”. Which one would you rather be, and why?
  • You are an anti-torture, pro-environment, LGBTQ-affirming, academic…and yet you seem to still consider yourself a Baptist? If so, how and why?
  • After all that you’ve been through, how is this not just a book about a disillusioned ex-Christian?

Favorite quote? “I’m disillusioned. But I’m not an ex-Christian.”

Music: BenSound.com

“Hey Jesus” by Trey Pearson

You can also listen on iTunes.

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STEVE AUSTIN IS A LIFE COACH, SPEAKER, AND AUTHOR OFSELF-CARE FOR THE WOUNDED SOUL. STEVE’S GOAL IS TO HELP YOU CREATE A LIFESTYLE OF FOCUSED EMOTIONAL HEALTH AND CLARITY. LOOKING FOR MORE WAYS TO CREATE SPACE? SUBSCRIBE TO STEVE AUSTIN’S FREE WEEKLY NEWSLETTER BY CLICKING RIGHT HERE.

Mental Health and Violence: The Truth

I cohost the CXMH Podcast, along with my friend and fellow mental health advocate, Robert Vore. This week, we've had the honor of sharing our perspective on mental health and violence with Charisma News and Relevant Magazine.

Mental Health and Violence: The Truth

“This is a mental health problem.”

Every time another tragic act of violence sweeps our country, some variation of this statement gets tossed around. In 2017 alone, there have been 385 shootings in which at least four people were injured or killed. In response, politicians and faith leaders alike shift the conversation toward mental health. Pat Robertson, for example, announced on his popular television programThe 700 Club that we need to investigate links between antidepressants and violence:

There’s got to be a thorough investigation into the effect of antidepressants … There’ve been so many of these mass killings and almost every one, as I said before, has had some nexus to antidepressants. So, we need to see what we are giving people.

The problem with statements like this? They’re wrong.

Doctors, psychiatrists and researchers have repeatedly stated there’s no evidence of a link between mental health medications and higher rates of violence.

Other statements from politicians and leaders are less specific, linking mental illness with violence and mass shootings overall. Again, the problem here is that there’s simply no basis for these claims.

The truth is, there are many people in church with you every week who are faithful followers of Christ and who also have a mental illness. People with mental illnesses are singing in your choir, teaching Sunday School, keeping your children in the nursery, sitting in the pew next to you and even preaching from your pulpits.

People with mental illness are real people with needs and burdens, as well as gifts and talents and love to offer God and church community. Most of us aren't violent. Like you, we're just looking for a safe space to lay down our burdens and find rest for our souls.

To read, "People Need to Stop Using Mental Illness as a Scapegoat for Violence," click here.

And to read our article, "Dear Church, Stop Saying Violence Is a Mental Health Problem," just click here.

For more on this very important topic, check out the latest episode of CXMH: A Podcast at the Intersection of Christianity and Mental Health.

Want to Be a Bridge-Builder? Get Ready for the Trolls.

I’m a social media fanatic because it supports my goal of being a bridge-builder. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have connected me with amazing people from diverse walks of life. I have formed incredible relationships with people from around the globe. From where I stand, the internet is a gift. I connect with many of these internet friends on a daily basis, but there are also folks I only hear from after I share a post about social justice, racial inequality, or affirming the LGBTQ community. My recent blog post, in response to the hateful Nashville Statement, brought the internet trolls out of the woodwork. I muted some, ignored many, and even blocked a few. Being a bridge-builder isn't easy.

I’m not talking about people who simply disagree with my views. There are plenty of those. When you’re a progressive Christian and a Southern Democrat, it comes with the territory. As long as someone wants to disagree respectfully, instead of turning it into a personal attack, I’m glad to continue to engage.

What is an internet troll?

According to Wikipedia, an internet troll is, “a person who sows discord on the Internet with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response”.

After three days of my Facebook page being overtaken by trolls, my stomach was in knots, and I was exhausted. That’s when I posted this on Twitter:

[clickToTweet tweet="I do not have to respond to trolls. I do not have to respond to trolls. I do not have to respond to trolls." quote="I do not have to respond to trolls. I do not have to respond to trolls. I do not have to respond to trolls." theme="style3"]

Josh Powers responded with this great reminder:

[clickToTweet tweet="'Jesus even had trolls.' @powersj_tx" quote="'Jesus even had trolls.'" theme="style3"]

#mindblown

I think my friend Charlie, from The Neighborhood Liturgies, said it best:

[clickToTweet tweet="Wherever somebody's trying to build bridges it's bound to attract trolls. @charlieporterr" quote="'Wherever somebody's trying to build bridges it's bound to attract trolls.'" theme="style3"]

140 characters of love and goodness.Thanks, Charlie.

Even Jesus had Trolls

Each time Jesus stood up against the social and political norms of his day, the Pharisees were there to call him on it. If he healed on the Sabbath or embraced someone caught in “sin”, it further ignited the fires of fear and hatred from the other side.

Jesus defined the trolls of his day like this, “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” He goes on to warn against legalistic, closed-minded religious people who focus on small matters like tithe and religious titles, but neglect, “the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.”

If you’re focused on being a bridge builder, just remember that there have been trolls since the days of Jesus. It can be exhausting. To be honest, there are times when everything in me wants to fight back. I want to defend myself, my views, and my friends against mean-spirited, angry people. But Paul challenges my human nature when it comes to dealing with trolls:

Bless your persecutors; never curse them, bless them...

Never pay back evil with evil...

Never try to get revenge...

If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink...

Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good.

My friend Ed Bacon describes it in contemporary language, as living in the House of Fear or the House of Love. Ed says, "The opposite of Love is not Hate, but Fear. Love and Fear are two competing energies in the wisdom and life of Jesus."

I think Jesus recognized how powerful Fear had become as he grieved Jerusalem, saying:

How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.  And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.

The House of Fear seems to control much of social media these days, and sometimes it feels like the House of Love is more abandoned and desolate than ever. This just means we have to keep doing our part to build bridges and invite people over.

We know that Love casts out Fear, so don't give up! Even in the face of adversity and senseless anger, don’t stop sharing conversations like #EmptyThePews. Be persistent in telling everyone you know that there is room at God’s table for them, exactly as they are, no matter what the trolls say.

Steve Austin is a life coach, speaker, author, and host of the #AskSteveAustin Podcast. Steve's goal is to help clients and audiences create a lifestyle of focused emotional health and clarity. Subscribe to the free weekly newsletter and get Steve's Amazon best-seller, From Pastor to a Psych Ward, absolutely free!

A Promise of Hope and Healing in the Next Generation

Last week, I had the distinct honor of speaking to two groups of high school students in New York. My friend and colleague, Sarah Fader, and I talked about mental health, stress, self-care, bullying, and panic disorder. At the end of each session, we answered questions from the class (always my favorite part of any talk). The experience was good for my soul. A Promise of Hope and Healing in the Next Generation

It was the first time I’ve spoken to a group of teenagers in nearly 5 years. I was apprehensive, walking the streets of Brooklyn, entering the albatross of a school, walking down their halls. I didn’t know if I still had it. I wasn’t sure if I could muster the courage to tell my truth again.

But the words of William Paul Young came to mind. Paul once told me something like this, “We are wounded in relationship. And it is in relationship where we find healing.” As I stepped behind the podium yesterday morning to deliver an inspirational message, God was taking me back to the place of my deepest wounding.

In the darkest days before and after my suicide attempt, shame and desperation told me I wasn’t good enough. I believed I would never speak again. That I would never sing again. That this dream I had of “messy grace” was all a big sham, a fake, just like me. But yesterday morning, I stood and told those kids that I was once right where they are. I was once an honor roll student who seemed to have everything going my way, but I’d been dying inside.

I told them about my first panic attack, and how I used to cry into my pillow. We talked about how I would cry in the shower because I knew no one would hear me. I owned my story, shared my truth, told them I remembered the pressure to perform, to be the very best at everything, and yet, I still remember feeling worthless at the end of the day.

I begged them not to be like me - holding onto secrets and pain for 28 years and nearly dying as a result. I urged them to find an adult they could confide in or a friend they could trust. Someone who would have their back, no matter what.

[clickToTweet tweet="We are wounded and healed inside relationship. #stigmafighters #graceismessy #AskSteveAustin #MondayBlogs" quote="We are wounded and healed inside relationship." theme="style3"]

We talked about the word “peace” and I told them that things come our way that we never asked for - people and institutions cause us harm and distress. We’ll be disappointed a countless number of times, but peace is this idea that really bad days come, and we press on.

Peace is a calmness in the raging sea. Peace is a decision. “No point in losing my shit today. It won’t do me or anyone else any good.” Peace believes that the promise of a better tomorrow outweighs the difficulty in this particular moment.

Peace is a wide-angle lens in a world of tunnel vision. Peace believes there’s more to the story. Peace doesn’t ignore the gnarly details, but is confident in our own resourcefulness, so peace chooses to ride the wave. Peace knows there’s a big difference between stress and distress. Peace is stubbornness with a wild-eyed smile.

[clickToTweet tweet="Peace is a wide-angle lens in a world full of tunnel vision. #graceismessy #AskSteveAustin #MondayBlogs" quote="Peace is a wide-angle lens in a world full of tunnel vision." theme="style3"]

I was so encouraged during the Q&A portion of our time together yesterday. I introduced a coaching technique called “The Wheel of Life” and some of the students shared the highs and lows from their particular wheel. One student said his sense of happiness comes from eating right and exercising, another student talked about how it’s always been his dream to do something great with his life, and a young lady on the front row confessed that she could never speak to her parents if she did ever face a mental health crisis.

The kids were honest and hopeful, vulnerable and wise. They spoke their truth in front of their peers and looked me in the eyes when they spoke. One guy talked about his first panic attack and the way his breath became short and his hands shook for no good reason, but he was thankful he had a friend to call who had been through it before. Another young man said he was raised to believe that we shouldn’t deal with things like anxiety or depression, that we should just toughen up, but that he’s grown enough to no longer believe that lie.

Talking to these students yesterday was healing for my soul and hope for my future. The Light always conquers the darkness. And as we continue to educate, inspire, and empower a younger generation to speak up and be kind to themselves, we persist in shattering the lies of stigma and shame.

Let’s be resolute in constantly telling our children that their lives - pains, joys, traumas, successes, disappointments, and hopes - all matter. Their friendships matter. Their support systems are vital for a healthy and vibrant life. If we continue to do that, they will create their own sources of Light that no one can snuff out.

[clickToTweet tweet="A Promise of Hope and Healing in the Next Generation #graceismessy #stigmafighters #mentalhealth" quote="A Promise of Hope and Healing in the Next Generation" theme="style3"]

More Resources:

  1. Recovery: When Jesus Isn’t Enough (#AskSteveAustin Podcast)
  2. How to Host a Self-Care Sunday
  3. Why I Believe God Works Ordinarily
  4. What You Should Know about "13 Reasons Why"
  5. Why I Believe Kindness is the Antidote for a Cruel World

Why Your Humanity Matters More than Your Christianity

In Episode 010 of the #AskSteveAustin Podcast, I tackle the idea that our humanity matters more than our religious labels.  Why your humanity matters more than your Christianity

More than any other episode, this one is all about messy grace. In conversation, people tend to struggle with the idea that I'm a former pastor. For them, the concept of former means I must have walked away from the faith. The idea that I was once one thing, but now I have no interested in being that any longer means that something must have shifted.

And they are right. In the words of Jon Scott, "shift happens". But the shift hasn't driven me from faith, it's caused me to dive deeper into what truly matters about this faith I once so boldly proclaimed.

So this is a Christian community? Sure. And we’re also atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Catholics, non-religious Jews, mystics, blacks, whites, straights, gays, transgenders, and everyone in-between. We’re not here to argue sacred vs. secular or Sunday vs. Monday. We’re less concerned with theological rightness and far more passionate about kindness. We’re here to encourage everyone who shows up, from all walks of life, to keep on keepin’ on in the constant push and pull of a life that is rarely ever easy.

So you’re listening to this episode of the #AskSteveAustin Podcast and wondering if I have lost my faith or lost my mind….no. But I’m giving myself permission to wrestle. To question. To be human.

I’ve known plenty of people who live a sterilized religious life, can quote the Bible cover-to-cover, but don’t give a damn about their neighbor. People who are more concerned with being outwardly polished than inwardly honest. Those who are more obsessed with following the rules and being approved by Americanized Christian culture, than giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty person. I was that person, too, the first twenty-eight years of my life.

But Jesus was different. Jesus taught us to live our lives, with Love as the motive for everything we do.

That's what this episode is all about. Click here to listen online. Or you can head on over to iTunes and listen there.

When you're done, would you do me a massive favor and leave a 5-star review and a comment on iTunes? It really helps me spread the message!

Listen to Episode 010 of the #AskSteveAustin Podcast (just click here).