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Searching for a Soulful Christianity

In my early forties, I experienced a crisis of faith.  For years I’d felt like I was just going through the motions of life.  On the surface, I was a good wife, good mother, good Christian, but there was something missing.  That “something missing” left a hole in the thin membrane holding me together.  Energy, vitality, passion slowly seeped out, and I moved gradually from exhaustion to emptiness to despair.  I eventually sought help and healing from a Christian therapist who helped me understand certain emotional and relational dynamics that had contributed to the pain in my life.  But there was still that “something missing,” still that steady leak.  And I sensed it had something to do with God.    

The Christianity I grew up in was about doing, acting, performing, working, being effective, knowing the rules, doing the right things.  The emphasis was on productivity and efficiency and practicality.  It was about being a soldier and an athlete and attacking the work of the Kingdom. 

Those are good, biblical things.  They’re legitimate dimensions of God’s calling on our lives.  God wants to use us to help transform this broken world, and that demands our diligence and discipline.

But the longer I journeyed on the healing pathway, the more I longed for something besides diligence and discipline—in every dimension of life.  I longed for something softer, gentler.  I craved beauty—art and music and fragrant teas.  And intimacy—in human conversation and in prayer.  I wanted to be known and loved for more than how I performed.  I wanted to lean into a space where sometimes it was okay to simply be.  To slow down.  To rest.  And I wanted to feel deeply.  To laugh heartily and weep freely.  I wanted a more…soulful…life.

I don’t know how to define soulfulness.  You know it when you hear it in music; when something moves you deeply, you say it “touched my soul.”  When a person probes gently into the secrets of our lives and helps us sink beneath our carefully crafted image, we say we connected at a soul level. 

Alan Jones describes soul as “the metaphor for the meeting place between body and spirit.” I like that.  Soul is the part of us we can’t see mingled with what we can see.  It’s the totality of who we are, the truest place in us.  Or something like that.  At any rate, soul is good.  Dallas Willard says it’s “the deepest level of life and power in the human being.”  Soul is lively and passionate and colorful and deep and beautiful.  When we feed soul, we come to life ourselves, and we give life to others.  When we dishonor soul, we choke. 

I think that much of the weariness, loneliness, and emptiness that many of us feel comes from living in a world—and all too often in a church—that largely ignores the deep needs of our souls. 

We’re soul-weary. 

And so I had a crisis of faith, for there was nothing soulful in Christianity as I had known it.  There was no place in Christianity to rest, to be. There was nothing in Christianity that awakened me, touched me, filled me, satisfied my desire for intimacy, for connection.

“Just read Jesus,” my counselor and spiritual mentor suggested.  “For the moment, forget the Old Testament, forget Paul, forget everything you’ve ever known about Christianity.  Just read Jesus.”

So I began reading just the stories and the words of Jesus, focusing on his interactions with individuals.  As I read, I was profoundly moved.  Time after time, he responded with such amazing tenderness and sensitivity.

I was moved by many stories, but three of Jesus’ actions gripped me particularly: the way he honored the woman who anointed his head with perfume, the way he touched the woman suffering from an issue of blood, and the way he responded to the sisters, Martha and Mary.

The first story is recorded in Mark 14:3-9.  It’s a passage I read over and over again during that era, and every time I read, it I wept.

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.  She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.”  And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus.  “Why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them anytime you want.  But you will not always have me.  She did what she could.  She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  

I wept because that woman’s action came straight from her soul.  It wasn’t about logic or practicality.  It wasn’t a strategic move.  It was pure passion, love, and adoration.  It was the most tender act of intimacy the situation allowed.  It flowed straight from an intuitive understanding of what was needful in the moment.  I doubt she understood in her head that Jesus was going to die.  And yet he saw her intuitive act as preparation for his burial. 

I wept when I read this because I realized that Jesus understood the human soul—and especially the unique soul of a woman.  He understood that place inside a woman that wants to express itself in tender and affectionate ways and wants to connect with others on a very deep and intimate level.

So he accepted that gift of love she offered with her whole being and with all the feeling and emotion in her soul.  In response to those who criticized her act, Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing for me.”  Furthermore, “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  I don’t know how there could be a greater affirmation of the soul of a woman than that.

I love that story because I know that if Jesus understood, valued, and honored the tender soul of a woman, then God the Creator understands and values and honors that, too.  We can have confidence when we enter God’s presence that God will draw us close and gently touch our souls.

The second story is in Mark 5:24-34.

A large crowd followed and pressed around him.  And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years.  She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better, she grew worse.  When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”  Immediately her bleeding stopped, and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. 

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him.  He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’”

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it.  Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.  He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” 

How embarrassed this poor woman must have been.  How much abuse, rejection, and ridicule she must have suffered throughout the years.  She had done everything to find healing, but had found none.  Finally, she pushed her way through the crowd, probably fearing Jesus wouldn’t touch her if he knew the truth about her.  So she just squeezed through the crowd for a quick, healing touch.

But Jesus stopped.  He wouldn’t let her remain anonymous.  Wouldn’t let her slip away with her secret and hide in shame.  That’s not how his system works.  Jesus’ power flows to particular people, particular stories, particular needs.  He felt power flow from him, and he wanted to know the person to whom it flowed—not to demand why she stole his power but to praise her faith and acknowledge her healing.  Personally, I don’t think what he said is all that important.  What moves me is that he wanted her to know that he saw her, felt her, knew her, cared about her—as an individual.  

Jesus singled her out not because she was extraordinary, highly accomplished, or impressive, but because she needed what he had to offer: to be seen with a loving eye, lifted with a gentle touch, honored with an affirming word.  She was a despised woman in a jostling, careless crowd, pushing her wounded body through a human maze.  In the noise and dust and confusion, Jesus felt the interaction between his power and her need.  He wanted her to know that he treasured that moment.  He treasured her.

I love the beautiful intimacy in that encounter.  I love Jesus’ willingness to enter the realm of what is fully female and heal and honor a single, human woman.  In this encounter, I find the assurance that in my times of distress, shame, or desperate need I will be similarly singled out and loved.  

The third story is recorded in Luke 10:38-42.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.  She came to him and asked,” Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” 

For most of us, the external forces in our lives call us to be Marthas.  And of course, there is much to do.  We want to serve, to give, to make a difference.

But there is a time to stop our giving, a time to receive.  A time to admit how desperately we need Jesus to comfort us, touch us, love us.  Mary realized that, so she sat down and let him minister to her. 

Can you imagine what it was like to be ministered to by this Holy, Perfect, Wise, Tender Man?  I don’t know if Mary had a husband; it doesn’t appear she did at that point.  But even if she did, there’s no way he could have touched her soul as deeply as Jesus did—this Man who could see her every unshed tear and hear each unspoken word—this Man who offered her all the time in the world—who seemed to say, “It’s your turn now.  Your turn to be served.  Your turn to rest, receive, take in, fill up.”  I don’t know a person who doesn’t need to hear that invitation, which is why I turn to it again and again.  

I believe the greatest challenge of our lives is learning to let God love us.  I believe God is trying to embrace us and heal us and transform us with Love constantly, but too many of us don’t know how to receive it, so we move from birth to death with our most fundamental need unmet. 

If Christianity were just a good philosophy to live by, there would be great value in it, but nothing to truly and mysteriously touch our souls.  But we claim that Christianity is about a relationship with a living Person. 

If that is true, if Jesus really lives today, in some fantastically mystical way that we can’t possibly understand, then I believe he comes to us in our real lives just as he came to Mary and says, “Let me be with you.  Let me touch your soul.  Let me love you.” 

That is where the true spiritual life begins—with us listening to God’s Voice, the Voice of Love.  A voice that says…

Come away with me. Yes, you, come away and sit with me.  Come and let me give you the gift of my presence.  I want to share the stillness of this moment with you.  I want to whisper words of kindness to you.  I want to pour my infinitely rich and deep love into your very soul.

So come, let me love you.  Let me love that part of you that believes you are valuable only while you are serving others.  You are valuable for just who you are. 

You don’t have to keep running. You don’t have to prove your worth through frantic action.

Let me love that part of you that is weary and needs to rest.  Listen, listen as I tell you to drop your burdens right now, and rest like a child in the presence of a loving Father.

Let me love that lonely part of you that craves an intimate touch. Listen as I whisper words of love to your woman’s soul.  Listen as I tell you that I adore that part of you that is filled with passion and emotion and tenderness.  In my eyes and in my heart, you are lovely and pure.  You are my soul’s desire. 

You, woman that you are, are precious to me beyond words.  You, woman that you are, are worthy of my time and my attention.  And so I give myself to you.  Right now.

So come.  Sit with me.  Let me love you.

Let Me Love You.  

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In 1974 Lynne married Bill Hybels, a youth pastor. A year later they started Willow Creek Community Church. Though Lynne had intended to become a social worker, she did not hesitate to commit her life to church ministry, convinced that God has given the local church a clear mandate to address the needs of “the whole person in the whole world.” For years she has been involved in Willow Creek’s ministry partnerships in under-resourced communities in Latin America and Africa.