March 2, 2023

Intimacy with God through Unanswered Prayers with Strahan Coleman

Inside This Episode

All the way from New Zealand, award-winning musician, poet, writer, and spiritual director Strahan Coleman opens up about the chronic illness that ended his music career and led him into a deeper union with God. After years of pursuing God's approval through his music, ministry, and other measurable goals, Strahan shares in his new book called “Beholding: Deepening Our Experience in God” the most important lesson he's learned since falling ill: that the real meaning of life is simply being with God.

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[00:00:00] <music>

Announcer: On today's episode of Maybe God.

Strahan Coleman: I think in that moment it was like a concrete stadium just lifted from my shoulders and joy came in. What this was wasn't becoming free of the sickness, but what happened was the power of my sickness evaporated. Sickness no longer could say to me, your life is worthless, or you're worthless.

Announcer: All the way from New Zealand, award-winning musician, poet, writer, and spiritual director, Strahan Coleman, opens up about the chronic illness that ended his music career and led him into a deeper union with God. After years of pursuing God's approval through his music and ministry, Strahan shares, in his new book called Beholding, the most important lesson he's learned since falling ill: that the real meaning of life is simply being with God.

[00:01:02] <music>

Eric Huffman: So I just want to welcome to the Maybe God Podcast Strahan Coleman. Welcome, Strahan.

Strahan Coleman: Kia ora, Eric. Thanks for having me on the show, man. It's a pleasure to be here.

Eric Huffman: Thank you for joining us, especially given everything that you guys have been dealing with on the ground there in New Zealand in recent weeks. Just kind of fill our listeners in on what's been going on there and what you've been up against.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah, so we've had this weird summer of cyclones. We're almost finished summer and we've had about nine days of sun. So the peak of which was a week or so ago we had a historic cyclone that hit New Zealand and absolutely wreaked havoc. Especially on my town, we flooded out sort of waist deep, the whole way pretty much through town there and downtown trees and lost power for almost a week. And further south, much worse still. Still people missing to this day, two weeks later. So pretty full-on sort of moment for us in New Zealand.

But we've also had... it's probably our sixth or seventh cyclone and a couple of months. So definitely not the summer we'd hoped for but we were okay. You know, our family is okay, our house is okay. We're just grateful that we made it through. But it has caused some disruption to catch-ups like this one, so thanks for your grace.

Eric Huffman: Oh, yeah. Sure. And you have a book release and all that going on at the same time, bro.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: Wow, that's a lot. You mentioned your family. Just tell us a little bit about your family and who that consists of?

Strahan Coleman: So I have a family of five. I've got three young boys, a 10-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 3-year-old. And my wife and I, Katie, we've been together 15 years this year. And we live down by the beach. She got a little house on the beach in the beautiful Coromandel in New Zealand.

So if you're listening, and you know New Zealand very well, if you've ever traveled there, you might have gone to the sort of beautiful white sand beaches of Coromandel. We moved down there about three years ago and absolutely loving it.

Eric Huffman: Wow. Boy, three kiddos, all at home going through, everything you've gone through, it just adds more stress. I do pray that you and your family are managing to cope with all of this.

Strahan Coleman: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Eric Huffman: Of course. Tell me about Beholding, and how this beautiful book, very cool book on prayer and intimacy with God, how this came about. Just the backstory.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. Beholding, I mean, it is a long backstory. I'll try and truncate it a little bit.

Eric Huffman: It's okay. Take your time.

Strahan Coleman: I mean, Beholding is my story really of... I mean, I was a musician in my 20s traveling a lot through the world doing shows and all kinds of places and really living a pretty adventurous life we lived as musicianaries. So we just kind of pray and go where we felt led. And that was exciting. We lived by faith. It was living off the smell of an oily rag. I don't know if you got that saying in the states. And sort of involved in ministry involved in prayer ministry, passionate prayer.

And sort of in the midst of that process, something was wrong. Something was wrong with my body, something was wrong with my physical health and I ended up basically crashing. The doctors couldn't figure out why or how. There was some genetics involved there, probably something I picked up on travel as well. But I ended up spending a couple of years very much incapacitated, you know, spending all my money on doctors and vitamins and nothing working and the sort of undiagnosable disease.

In that process, that basically just my life turned upside down. I mean, the thing about something like that is first of all, there's the mental and physical battle of getting through chronic sickness: Being unable to play with your kids or work or do any of that kind of stuff, the mystery of it.

But there's also real spiritual dynamic, which is, God, where are you and why won't you heal me and what's going on? And hang on a second, I've just spent the last eight years giving my life to your work and not saving money up for something like this and here you sort of just ignoring me as I go through this crisis.

I think for me it was a very real kind of physical, mental, emotional, relational, economic crisis all at once. And a real reckoning of my faith, because I think up until that point I'd really enjoyed lots of answers to prayer. My experience of God was that He always comes through even if it's in the final hour. And suddenly, you know, rent’s folding and we can't afford groceries and I'm not being healed years and years later.

So what I had to do in my faith was re-asked the question, what is the goodness of God or is God? You know, what does it mean to say, God, you're good, and I trust you? And the result was this learning to be with God beyond the sort of what I call like a working relationship that I had, where it was like, God, we're going to do this together. And so we're talking about it and praying about it, you know, we're on the move together doing stuff, to this being stuff which is more like, "God, I'm spending 18 hours in bed today, I got nothing to say, nothing to do, would you just be with me?"

And also this embrace of like, God's mystery in terms of, man, God, if you're good in this stage of my life, then you're a kind of good then I've never experienced before. So I need to understand that, how I can say you're good and I trust you when you are all powerful and not sort of answering my questions? So the book is that story and sort of the journey from there and how it changed my life.

Eric Huffman: So it sounds like your body started breaking down several years ago, and you were dealing with that for quite some time before you started actually writing this book, Beholding. And just curious, what led you to or inspired you to actually start putting pen to paper, and when did that actually start happening?

Strahan Coleman: So I started working on the book in the quiet months of 2020. As you know, everything shut down around us as I'm sure many people experienced. I had since that initial journey with chronic illness like 10 years ago. About five years ago, I started writing prayers and devotions and contemplations that were kind of my prayerful reflection on the soul work that God had done in me over those years.

So when I sat down and 200 to write, it was really like me saying, I think there's another way to be. I think there's another way to experience God, not only individually, but that can actually transform our relationships, can transform our churches, and may even transform our world. And it's so contrasting to the noise and the chaos and the opinion and divisiveness of our times that I do think it really is an invitation to renewal.

So I actually sat down just to write a couple of essays. And it was made just to say, Guys, there is another way and it's a beautiful way, and here's how I've experienced it in my life. And by the grace of God through kind of happy accident, it ended up getting in front of a publisher and becoming a book. So I'm really grateful for that.

Eric Huffman: Wow. And it's a much-needed book. You know, interestingly enough, it's much needed, especially post-2020 when everyone's world got turned upside down and you know, Christians, people of faith were not immune to that, to molt. And if ever we needed a refresher on the real purpose of prayer and our need for deep intimacy with God, it's the last few years it feels like, at least here in the States. And I'm sure you guys have felt it as well.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. I think everyone just feels that general water level of noise has just gone from a bearable sort of knee-high to like almost up to the chin. And it's a sense of just people feel like how can I find a sense of rest and peace and gentleness and kindness and all of those attributes of God in a world that is just crazy, yelling all the time?

And I don't mean just opinions. I mean, just the saturation of social media and information and just the whole lot of it. And I think that we need a new robust approach to daily living and God that can respond, that can create the sort of spiritual infrastructure to say, No, I'm not going to have all of my existence determined by the sort of volume and intensity and hurry and noise of the world.

I think it's an important time for the church to kind of go, Well, how do we do this? Not just how do we do life but how do we actually live in God in this moment and practice that and enjoy that, not as an intellectual exercise but as a relational one? To me, that's what beholding is.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. It really does. It reads like a prayer therapy session. It's calming. It brings peace. And it is instructional on prayer without being preachy. And it's a south. It's a healing thing. It's a bomb. And grateful, very grateful that you were obedient unto that inspiration from God to write this book. I know, it's no small thing to sit down, especially when you're stuck at home and locked down with three little kids. How did that even happen, bro? Maybe it's just out of your own desperation for some peace you wrote a book about it.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. Miracles. Miracles. I mean, the thing is, for me, writing and music have always been a very prayerful experience for me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I had the same experience sitting and writing this book as I did singing to God in the worship context on a Sunday morning. It very much felt like a fluid, invitational, engulfing space.

So writing actually became my way of reconnecting with God and sort of calming down which is so strange, because for most of the time writers talk about just how it can be a very, very difficult exercise. But purely honestly, by the grace of God, this was actually a place of escape into God for me. So it actually worked out perfect in the chaos of the kids and all the rest of it.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, it's beautiful, beautiful. I'm really curious. As I was reading parts of your book, I really got even more curious about your background and your sort of upbringing in and around the church and what your sort of Christian tribe was growing up and becoming of age, and how that has developed. So could you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and experience in the church or as a believer?

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. My experience in the church is quite diverse. In my very, very early years when my parents were just kind of starting in that journey, I went to quite a strong faithful kind of Presbyterian Church. And then when I was about 10, my mother actually... She was a radiographer and worked in a dark room that had no ventilation and was once locked in there and became very, very sick-

Eric Huffman: Oh my gosh!

Strahan Coleman: ...from some kind of chemical poisoning. And during that time... It was pretty severe. We started learning sign language as a family because it was thought that she would lose her hearing. She was very sick every day. It was quite traumatic for her.

And somewhere along the line, she went along to a Baptist healing meeting and someone prayed for her, and she had a very, very powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, fell over backwards and just felt like she met God. I think that experience sort of took our family from, "Yeah, God exists and the Bible is great" to "Whoa, God is involved and He can be known and He's powerful."

So we started going a lo... We were already maybe going along to this Baptist church at the time. I think that sort of took us in a new direction really. I think there was a sense of, we got to figure this thing out. This is real. This isn't just sort of a moral construct that we're going to bring our kids up with. We've encountered God.

So I spent the majority of my spiritual formation in a Baptist church for 13 years. And as a family, we went long there. My parents were very kind of fundamentalist in their theology. So I spent my teen years watching Chuck Missler's Prophecy 101 DVDs, you know, the whole thing.

But in my early 20s... I think by the time I got to the end of my teens, I felt like, Man, I love life too much. I'm not very good at this Christian thing. I can't seem to get it right. So I basically said to God, "I can't believe in you. You're either impossible to please or you don't exist." So I went off and just partied basically at uni.

And it wasn't long in that journey before I was just empty, and God kind of interrupted me one morning just said to me, "Strahan, I love you. I want you to come home to me." And at first I was like, "Okay, too much Jim Beam. I don't know what's going on? I'm hearing voices." The next day, "I love you. I want you to come home to me." And after a week, I did. I just said, "Okay, I relent? I say yes."

But I think for me that was my sort of personal encounter. So I found myself then surrounded by a Pentecostal communities that were I guess sort of... I mean, God's voice to me was like, "Come home to me and this time, trust me, believe me, give me everything, give up all the party and give everything and follow me." And I did. And I found myself, like I said, in these Pentecostal communities.

In my 20s I kind of moved from this Baptist background into this charismatic background and ended up spending a lot of time in intercessory prayer groups and charismatic churches. And now, by pure strangeness, we moved out of our main city three years ago down to a small town, and the only church there is a high Anglican church.

So you know, not wanting to just not go to church, we've been going along to this high Anglican church for the last three years. I've been mentored by an Anglican bishop. So I've got a very, very unique background that was by no intention just hopping around. It's just by circumstance. So I'm kind of a strange mix of I love scripture, I love the spirit and I have a passion now for church history and an understanding of the early church, and it's sort of made me who I am.

Eric Huffman: That's really cool. No, it is. And it's refreshing because I get a little, I don't know, a little jaded or bored whenever I talk to a bunch of Christians that they "I have only lived in one tribe really their whole life, or their whole time as a Christian.

I really appreciate when someone has a deep appreciation and understanding of other ways and means of being a follower of Jesus and different denominations, churches, tribes, whatever, because it really adds richness and depth, I think, to experience growth in different ways.

Strahan Coleman: There's just so much to God. It's so exciting. He's so not one-dimensional. And every time I visit a new church, if I'm traveling or something, or every time I've been in part of a different community, I'm just blown away at how God can be so found amidst such different cultures and different people.

I mean, I understand why there's denominations. I get it. I'm not naive to it. But I just have never not discovered something incredible about going by opening myself up to another tribe and saying, "Surely God is here. How do I find Him?" I just think, "Wow, wouldn't it be amazing if we could just learn that as we go from one another?" It would be such a gift, I think.

Eric Huffman: It really would. So in your 20s when you're discovering the Pentecostals, were you making music?

Strahan Coleman: I was. I was. I ended up at a church that, in the midst of all of this, that is probably more classically defined as an emerging church, which I realize is less common language. But I guess they were experimenting with what church was and looking at a little bit of Eastern Orthodoxy and prayer and stuff like that.

But what it did is it attracted this massive amount of artists. I mean, in our church it was maybe a couple of 100 people when it was. There was 60 people on the worship team. So it would have been maybe one in four people in the church were musicians, there were people in the fine arts and designers. So it was just this hub for songwriting and music.

And the worship leader there was one of New Zealand's top producers and engineers. So it was a great environment for me as a musician. And I ended up going solo and writing. And that's really when I started to release my first solo music and explore Samick music really. It was a real gift, actually. Sort of a real nest for creativity.

Eric Huffman: Sure. I went back and looked at some of your lyrics of the earliest music I could find of yours and it was very Samick. It was personal. Most of them were first person, like, written from a first-person perspective and written as prayers.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: Was that just kind of a reflection of where you were at at that point in time?

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.. It took me years to realize that all my lyrics were prayers. I mean, it's so weird. I mean, songwriting is so weird. It is like this feeling in which you open yourself up and something comes out of you. And it is rational, but it's not so rational. It's like the Spirit within you just leaps out and you start saying things that are your words, but you know that it's not you alone. So there's the sense when I look back on my lyrics, and I go, I could see what God was doing.

But in my life, I have always... You know, I read back in journals and images from when I was in my early teens and as a young man, and I just have always had this existential thirst. I need to know God. I need to know... There's got to be meaning here. I have to get deeper under the surface. I have to discover.

And I think when I look back at my early lyrics, it's just this constant yearning of, I don't want this surface-level protected performative Christianity. I have to have this honest, raw, vulnerable, seen faith. And if it's not there, I'm out because I just can't believe that if God exists He wants us to be, you know, good little minions. I think he wants children. I think he wants friends.

So I think my lyrics are these prayers of ache and desire, my own brokenness, but also to touch the Beauty, the capital B Beauty, and to really engage with goodness and wonder. I think there's such a tension there for us as human beings, this living in this mess that we create and feel within ourselves. And yet, it's impossible not to look at another person and say, "What a stunning creation!"

To see their vulnerability and just their life and what they make is just... And this tension between our discord and our beauty. And I think when I look back in my lyrics, I see this yearning to make sense of that, and to kind of reach out from my own discord into the wonder of God. I think art gives us space to do that, because art isn't so prescriptive. No one listens to a song, say, "Oh, I wonder what science or education is doing at the moment."

People listen to a song because they want to touch the beauty, they want to experience something transcendent. And so it's a perfect place to explore the unlanguagable. So I think my songwriting was always some kind of expression of that.

Eric Huffman: To explore the unlanguagable. I love it. I also love your comments earlier about the Emergent Church Movement. A lot of our listeners aren't going to know or remember what that was. And it kind of evolved and became something else, I guess, over time. But it kind of has a little bit of a bad rap among some Christians now.

And I think it's easy to forget the great benefits that it brought with it, which not least of which was that it brought hordes and hordes of artists and it invited the artists in to speak the, what you say, the unlanguagable with their art. That is something that people have gotten should always be striving for. And it's something that we prevent when we make religion the main thing and just everything's rote and ritualistic and, you know, boring, especially to creatives.

So I sensed that sort of angst in your early work as well, just wanting to break free from that and wanting others to know that there's a better way to experience God. And sounds like from a very young age, you had that deep desire to just get to the heart of the matter and experience God.

Now, at some point, I mean, things seem to have been going really great with music and your career and everything, and touring and writing and recording. At some point, you started just feeling really bad physically. And you mentioned it earlier but could you just tell us a little bit more specifically what you experienced and how bad it was?

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. So you know, the doctors still don't really know what's wrong 10 years on, and I'm still doing tests and diets and scans and all the rest of it. But there's just something in my body that doesn't function correctly.

I imagine it's like a car. If you just started putting in, you know, olive oil instead of petrol, you know, it's going to work its way through the engine, and everything just breaks down. And you can kind of pull one part out and pull another part out and fix it but you basically just got a car that's not running right. And that's sort of what my body started to do. And the symptoms are basically nausea, extreme fatigue, just constant viruses and illnesses, migraines, muscle aches, osteoporosis, which is a bone disease, and all this kind of stuff.

I really ended up in a place in which I wasn't able to go out with people very often. You know, I might go out for like one coffee or two coffees a week, and that would cause... I just go back to bed for the day. I couldn't play with my children. I couldn't sing. I couldn't work. I could hardly think.

It's an interesting thing about the mind. I mean, we've discovered now just through exploring the gut and the brain that you know if you get nervous... So the mind can tell the gut what to do. So if you get nervous, you'll get that feeling in your stomach, right? Your nervous system, it'll affect your digestion.

Well, it goes the other way too. So if your gut is out of whack and it's not processing food, it will send messages to your brain of anxiety and things like that. So what happens with chronic sickness is once your body starts to break down, it starts rewiring your brain to empty spaces of anxiety and depression and sorrow.

So you can get this feedback loop where your gut is making your brain incapable of dealing with normal life events, and then that's then sending messages down to your gut that you're in danger and so your gut won't heal. And I just got stuck in the cycle for a really long time.

So I was having panic attacks, you know, I was thinking, Am I dying? Am I going to have to play with my kids ever again? Is this it? If I left my family in destitution by doing music and spending all our money on this stuff?" It was a really, really hard time. And then when I cried out to God, I heard nothing. Just nothing.

That was a real surprise because in my heart, there was the sense of "I fully trust you, God, to do the most incredible things. And yet, in this season, for whatever reason, that's not happening." And I think that probably for me, you know, I mentioned as a kid I had this existential thirst for just knowing God and meaning. I think that was the big crisis of this moment for me. It wasn't actually that I was sick, it was that I couldn't make sense of why this was happening in my life and how to relate to God in that space.

Eric Huffman: You had seen Him come through before so many times in your life and others. Did you start to look back and question whether that was real?

Strahan Coleman: Well, I didn't, because I mean the stuff we'd seen was crazy. I mean, how do I even describe it? I remember one trip we're praying and God said, "I want you to go to Germany and do a tour there." And we were like, "Germany, "How on earth?"

I mean, we had a one-and-a-half-year-old at the time. Basically, we'd wake up in the morning, and we would only have enough money to get through the end of the day. We'd lived like that for two years. So met this guy randomly, planned a tour, still no money, not $1. We need $12,000 for flights. And I went down to the beach six weeks out from the tour and was like, "God, I don't know what to do. I booked this tour, you told us to go, we've got $0." Basically just kind of almost just said, "That's it, God. I need money" and drove off.

An hour later, someone gave me two and a half thousand just saying, "God told me to give this to you months ago and I never did. Here's some money. Two hours after that, I was talking to someone on the phone who just said, "You're not going to believe this but God told me to give you $11,000." And the end of the day, I had $13,000, we went bought flights. I mean, that kind of stuff just happened all the time. Just really, really crazy. So it was hard to deny that.

And I think that's what made it so hard. It was like God, "There's no way of denying the evidence of your existence in our life. There's no way of denying your miraculous intervention time after time, seeing people healed at shows or delivered or set free from stuff. So I know you can do it. The question is—it felt personal to me—why won't you do that for me, Father? Am I hiding something from you? Have I not pleased you?

Eric Huffman: Literally like Job.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. I mean, everyone left, right, and center is trying to cast out a Masonic spirit or something, repenting for our ancestors 6,000 years ago. I don't know. You know, you're doing everything trying to figure it out.

Eric Huffman: I remember a quote from your book that I have in my notes. I mean, I'm smiling, but it's just so hard-hitting. It's like, "It was hard to love a God who stood by as my life fell apart." And that's what you're describing, a God who came through before, you know this God to be capable. He's capable. He was willing before, so the only thing that's changed is His will toward me, and He's no longer willing. That can be really arresting.

Strahan Coleman: Oh, man. Terrifying.

Eric Huffman: What do you say to someone today, like somebody that's watching? What do you say to someone who feels the exact same way that you were feeling when you wrote these words, it was hard to love a God who stood by as my life fell apart?

Strahan Coleman: Man, I would only have one thing to say, which is what got me through it, which is just be utterly honest with God. Tell Him about it. Turn it toward Him and let Him have it. Just let Him have you everything. Because I think the greatest danger in our deepest suffering is that we don't fully feel it, is that we don't fully grieve it, and that we don't fully feel and grieve it with God.

And I think sometimes we're so afraid. In our Christianity, sometimes we make God out to be so holy, and He is so holy and so majestic and good. But He's also quite able to deal with us. You know what I mean? I have children that, you know, sometimes... I mean, my 3-year-old, I don't know where he's got it from. If he doesn't get what he wants, he turns to me and say, "I don't love you, Dad. You're not my favorite dad anymore. I don't care about you." That's what he says. "I don't care about you, dad," and he walks off.

And in that moment, his words they hurt to a degree because obviously I love my son. But I'm also a bit like, "You know what? I get it, man, you're a three year old, you're having a tantrum. I know you love me, I'll see you in five minutes, you know."

And I think in that moment of my life, I either had to let God know how disappointed I was, how angry I was. I had to let my language be honest and allow Him to be that same Father that can say, "Strahan, I hear. You know, what you're saying is pretty rough but I get it. You're suffering and you don't understand. And I'm okay. I'm going to sit here with you. I'm going to listen and we're going to get through this, we're going to be honest with each other."

And I think if you're going through that season in your own life, don't buy the lie that God can't handle your honesty. Feel the pain. Cry about it. Feel the anguish like the psalmist, like lamentations like Job, and be honest with God. Dignify God enough to be loving enough to sit there and just essentially cuddle you while you weep. Which is what every good parent does, and which is, I believe, what God wants to do. And ultimately, it was years of that that began to transform my life.

Eric Huffman: And we dignify God with our honesty, trusting Him with the truth about what we are experiencing. And the opposite or alternative to that is to sort of disrespect or dishonor Him with our empty words of praise at church or our distance. I mean, every parent wants their kid to be honest with them, with us, right, as parents?

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: Nothing breaks our hearts more than when they start keeping things from us, especially deep emotional stuff they're dealing with. And perhaps God on a much bigger scale is the same way with all of us. And that seems to be what you experienced.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah, I think so. I mean, why would God create us just so that we could perform for Him? I mean, that's not true love. That's not relationship. And I think so much of our prayer lives are performance. We hide our shame, we hide our most, deepest, darkest, guilts and shames as if He can't see it.

And when we're in anguish, we praise Him in a way that's shallow and meaningless because we're afraid that if we really tell Him what we think that He can't handle it. And I think when we do that, we belittle God and we say, You're big, but not big enough to handle my mess.

And I think at an intellectual level we know that's not true. But in the natural, practical level, I think it takes a lot of practice to be able to say, "You know what, God? I'm disappointed. You've let me down. I'm not happy." And I think in that moment, He excels and He goes, "Finally, we can deal with the true you, we can start to get at some of the root issues of your sin and of your anguish. I'm here for this. Let's sit down and talk."

Eric Huffman: That's so good. So good. I can just hear your heart and how it came through in this book according to what you just said. Now, you dealt with this and are dealing with this mystery illness for years. You were bedridden, you know, stuck in your bed and basically feeling useless, unable to make music, unable to sing. You had this terrible brain fog and other kinds of mental symptoms, depression, anxiety. When did any kind of turning point come in? What did that turning point look like for you?

Strahan Coleman: So one of the practices that I had during that season was to get up and prayer journal. And that was my practice of honesty. So for some reason, when I prayer journal, which for me is just getting up and writing the date and saying, "Good morning, Father..." and pouring my heart out to Him.

When I prayer journal, I'm able to just almost talk with God as a friend and say, "Hey, this is where I'm at. Here's my joy, my questions." So as a practice, I would wake up every morning, even though I wasn't well, I'd sort of... I found if I'd stayed in bed and just mucked around home I'd get really sad and lethargic.

So I'd get up, I'd almost pretend like I was going to work for the kids to give them some kind of hope. And I'd go down to a cafe or order a coffee, I'd sit in the window and I'd pray. And on this particular morning, the light was just kind of heading, reflecting off the cars or going to work and dropping their kids off. It was autumn and so it was crisp in the air. I love that. It was sunny and cold.

And I just looked out and I had this feeling of like, Man, you know what? I have a nose. I have ears. I have functioning legs. I have two beautiful children at that time, I have my wife who has stood by me with all. I can breathe oxygen and I can see the sun. There is so much to be thankful for."

And I just started thanking Him. "I thank you, God, for my left pinky. Thank you God for my left index finger and my thumb. Thank you God for the hair on my face and the hair on my head." The sense of basically saying, "God, if this is my life, if I'm going to be chronically sick forever, but I have you, and I have this world, that's okay. I thank you and I praise you. This is good. This is enough."

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Strahan Coleman: And I think in that moment, it was like a concrete stadium just lifted from my shoulders and joy came in. What this was wasn't becoming free of the sickness. Freedom came, but I've remained sick. I've been sick now 10 years. And in fact, the last couple of years have been worse for me than they were back then. Been more sick.

But what happened was the power of my sickness evaporated. Sickness no longer could say to me, Your life is worthless, or You're worthless, or There's no hope. And I think this is what it means when it says Christ has power over death. It's not that suddenly there's no death. I don't know if you've noticed, but the last 2,000 years haven't been idle for humanity. You know what I mean?

Eric Huffman: People keep dropping, man.

Strahan Coleman: So He did something. So what does it mean that He has power over death. Clearly not that there's no sickness or suffering in the world. But what it is is it has no power. It cannot tell me it cannot reach out from the grave and say, Strahan, I am winning. Only God can do that. Only beauty can do that.

So I began to see that even in a life much more restricted and little than I longed to live, just existing with God in and of itself is the meaning of life. And that became an adventure to go, Okay, well, what does that look like? Because I was a workaholic. I was driven by work. I'm a very ambitious person. My natural bend is to just work hard, go hard.

So for me to come to that place was a revelation. And suddenly it was like, how do I be with God? How do I make God my single, most desire? How do I make Him the water that my thirst longs for? How do I, as David says in Psalm 27, long to spend all my days gazing at the beauty of God? And that's what changed. And that's where my beholding life really started to begin and make sense was when that clicked for me.

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Strahan Coleman: Again, it's not like I got better the next day. You know, I still have very many years of struggle, but that struggle no longer defined my inner state.

Eric Huffman: Say the thing that David wrote again, that you just quoted from the Psalms, if you wouldn't mind.

Strahan Coleman: In Psalm 27, David says this, "One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty."

Eric Huffman: I mean, I don't know at what stage he wrote this particularly, but this was the king. He had more to do than anyone and he had more on his to-do list, more to accomplish, and he was a very accomplished king. And all he wanted more than any of that was to dwell with God. That is a major shift in paradigm, especially as far as prayer is concerned, to have that as the goal.

After this experience in the coffee shop, and the days that followed, how did you see practically your prayers changing?

Strahan Coleman: Well, I mean, up until that point, prayer... and I wouldn't have said it like this, but prayer was largely work. Do you know what I mean? And I think a lot of people feel this way about prayer. If you say, "Let's go and pray to most people," there's a sense within them of like, "Oh, I know I have to because I'm a Christian, but also-

Eric Huffman: Absolutely.

Strahan Coleman: Like, I would rather go and have a beer with you or something like that." You know what I mean? In my experience, I would say 97% of the people in the churches I've been a part of don't pray. And if they do pray, it's tiring, they feel belittled, they feel stupid, or it creates anguish. I wasn't like that before this point. But before this point, prayer was about intercession, it was about petition. It was a performative place.

And I think what the invitation of Psalm 27 is, is prayer is just simply abiding adoration. You know what I mean? I mean, Jesus said in John 15, He's like, "If you love me and obey my commands, my Father and I, we will come to you and we will make our home in you."

He says, "Abide in Me and I will abide in you." And this language is actually kind of time-wasting in some ways. It's the sense of like homedness in God, this intermingling, this coexistence. I don't really know how else to... maybe even consummation is a good word, although I realized we're sort of not in the final stages of the epoch yet. But there is the same-

Eric Huffman: I liked your floating analogy.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah, floating. Floating in the river of God.

Eric Huffman: Instead of paddling.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. I think for me the sense of me thinking prayer should be a place of pleasure, it should be a place that after engaging with God I should come away more rested, more loving, more full. It should be a place that when I sit down and go, "What should I do? Should I watch Netflix? Should I go to a party? Should I go for run?" I should go, "Oh, my gosh, I should pray. I just want to just sit in God's presence." That's what I should want, you know?

Eric Huffman: Yeah.

Strahan Coleman: Not that you can't do both at the same time. So I think for me-

Eric Huffman: I have trouble watching Netflix and praying at the same time.

Strahan Coleman: Well, yeah. Maybe this is The Chosen or something, you know.

Eric Huffman: There you go.

Strahan Coleman: You know, I talk in the book about floating and kayaking or canoeing in the sense that, you know, there's two kinds of prayer. One is the intercession, the petition, the repentance, the other, you know, all of that stuff is amazing. And that's kind of like going into the river.

You know, if we imagine the river as God or the Holy Spirit, it's like going in with your kayak, you're paddling the eddies, you're co-laboring with... You know, you're sort of one with the river but also you're doing stuff, you're exerting energy, you're moving, you're co-creating with God.

But this abiding prayers is more like just putting down the paddle, wading into the river, lying on your back, and letting it carry you as you look up at the sky and the leaves and just listen to the sound. It's this full-body experience of how am I experiencing the beauty of God.

And I would like to say, and I think what I argue in the book is that that should be the primary experience of every human being on earth. That is what we're created for, primarily to stand and admire and enjoy the beauty of God. Everything else is downriver from that. That's the core that is the purpose of the gospel. Jesus came to restore that kind of union with God. Everything else flows out of that and it's good and it's wonderful.

In the book, I use the language of "we need to restore the great commandment to the center over and above the Great Commission."  And I would argue that Western Protestantism and especially evangelicalism probably puts the Great Commission over and above the great commandment. You know we're very active. And that's a great thing to be active.

Eric Huffman: For our listeners, let's flesh that out. Great Commission versus Great Commandment. So great commission is go and make disciples of all nations. But you're speaking of elevating the great commandment, which is love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength and love your neighbor as yourself at least to the same status as the Great Commission, if not above it.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah, absolutely. Because if the message is constantly we have to go, we have to go, we have to go, you can equip people with the skills to do that but you can't transform them into the kind of nature of God that makes that beautiful. And if all you're doing is going, when people finally come in the doors, all they're gonna find is a bunch of workaholics, let's be honest.

There's a sense in which we have to at least hold this in balance. But I would argue primarily remember that our fundamental posture is a posture of adoration and love to God. And that's not going to come by someone preaching theological truth. That has to be experienced in the body through personal communion with God.

And that's not going to happen by spitting out prayers all the time. We're going to have to sit, we're gonna have to receive the love of God, we're gonna have to welcome that love into our minds and bodies. We're going to have to inhabit that.

And I would argue that the result is that when we do the Great Commission, when we go out, people are just going to see human being saturated in the kindness and gentleness and love and power of God. And we'll have to do less, you know. We're gonna sit down, and they're gonna say, what about this argument or that? We're just simply going to say, Man, I've experienced an amazing love, and I want you to experience that too. And their thirst will meet our thirst and God will be found.

So I think that there is a natural... If you work all the time, you're not going to become more loving. But if you become more loving, I can guarantee you your work will be more powerful. And that's what prayer does.

Eric Huffman: It's a long road. It's a long game. And it's harder. Because I know how to do the other thing. I know how to have a five-year plan and strategize and work and have goals and tasks and tell people the main thing is to bring more people and that's the end all be all. It's this other stuff I don't know how to do that freaks me out. That's why I both love and hate your work at the same time.

Strahan Coleman: Me too, man. Me too. Because the truth is we have control over all that former stuff you're talking about, right? When it comes to five-year plans and getting work done and being missionary, we are all in control of that. That feels good. But when it comes to transformation and waiting on God and prayer, we are way out of control. And as human beings, we hate being... I hate being out of control. So it is. And it's a long, slow game. And that's also not very attractive.

Eric Huffman: That's right. And I was stunned when you said it. I wrote it down. You said, "Simply existing with God is the meaning of life." And I think like 30 minutes ago, I told a roomful of men at Bible study that their purpose in life was, of course, to serve God and work for His kingdom. And here you come along-

Strahan Coleman: Oh, no.

Eric Huffman: ...making a liar out of me.

Strahan Coleman: Sorry.

Eric Huffman: No, it's true. It's like part of it. Serving and working is part of it. But must be downriver from genuine intimacy in our experience of God.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. And that is so important. We're a pendulum swing, aren't we? We go from one extreme to the other. And I certainly am not advocating that we all just become sort of stargazers at any time.

I mean, it's impossible to look at Jesus' life and to see... You know. But also it was at the beginning of Jesus' ministry where God says, "This is my son in whom I'm well pleased." And I think when we go back to the garden, our existence, God breathes life into us. And we're there. What are we doing? There's no evangelization to be done.

I mean, essentially, we're there to take dominion over the world, which means to bring it into order. But we're to do that with God. So I think this returning to our essential meaning being to experience and know and love God is important. But that doesn't mean we just sit around doing nothing.

Eric Huffman: Maybe we should sit around a little more.

Strahan Coleman: Well, I think in our culture that we're more in danger of not sitting around than sitting around. I think-

Eric Huffman: And just dwelling with Him.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah. I think we are in danger of over-intellectualizing our faith than we are in over-experiencing it in terms of that peripheral relationship with God.

Eric Huffman: It reminds me of romantic relationships, let's say, husband or wife, or whatever, when you're just nice to the person to get something in return. Like every wife knows when a husband's being a little more affectionate than normal, flowers and stuff like that. We know what it really was. And it's a very consumeristic model of relationship, right?

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: You know, there's something totally different and better about a husband who just wants to be with his wife because of who she is. And he just wants to be in her presence. That's a different kind of love. It's a next level.

Strahan Coleman: It is. It is. And marriage is such a great metaphor, because when we think about it, no one really when they wake up in the morning is, I want to get married so that the dishes take less time to do and I can run a tight household budget and possibly pay my mortgage off earlier.

We want to get married because we want to feel adored, and we want to adore someone. We want to experience love. We want to, you know, at least in some degree, although we don't really know how to do that when we get married.

And over time, when you think about it, the majority... you know, when you think, "Ah, I don't want to be one of those married couples that goes out to a restaurant and sits in silence and never talks to each other." But then over time, you realize, actually, that is deep, mature love. Because what you're doing, there becomes this sort of being withness that you're able to just be in the same room quietly together and enjoying each other's presence. There's like this experience that transcends everything else.

And I think if that's how we are with marriage, if our desire isn't to get married to be productive, then why not carry it to our faith? Why not see our marriage to God as this opportunity to be adored and to adore God and to actually take pleasure and meaning and wonder and rest?

But I feel like we've sold the gospel a little bit less than that. I feel a lot of our gospel preaching doesn't say it explicitly but ultimately ends in "You're a bad person and you need salvation. And once God saves you, He can use you." There's elements of truth to that. But if that's where our Gospel ends, there's no vitality, there's nowhere to go other than to just keep working for God and to keep asking for forgiveness because that's what matters most to Him.

Eric Huffman: There's no beauty and wonder and mystery for that.

Strahan Coleman: No. There's no essential relationship either. There's no vulnerability. There's no danger and risk. There's no adoration. I think the language New Testament uses is Jesus came to reconcile. So yes, He forgives... Forgiveness had to be sorted out, sin had to be worked through and overcome.

But the gospel isn't that God forgive about sin. That's not where it ends. The Gospel is that God forgave us our sense so we could be restored to friendship and union with Him. And that message, I think, in our times needs to become primary again.

Eric Huffman: Oh, it's really sold short. In my preaching and a lot of other people's preaching, I think, is like we just overemphasize... I mean, it can't be overemphasized. But the wondrous miracle of the atoning act of forgiveness of all sin on the cross. That's a wonder. It's a miracle. It absolutely should be preached. But it was to an even greater end than mere forgiveness. It was reconciliation that was the goal. And reconciliation that looks like intimacy ultimately, and like a father with his kids reconciled at home together.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: I think we're missing that.

Strahan Coleman: It's one thing to say God forgives you. It's another thing to say God longs for you, God takes pleasure in you, God adores you. And I think that makes a lot of us uncomfortable, you know? I think we find it hard to wake up in the morning and think, God, you're so excited for me to wake up so that we can talk, you know. It's hard to go there because I think we've been so strong on the sin message that we've convinced ourselves that we have no inherent beauty and value anymore.

Eric Huffman: That's right.

Strahan Coleman: So we come to God and we just feel like, "Are you really interested in me, God?" You know, I remember how astounded I was. When I first started prayer journaling, the very first time I was terrified. "Good morning, Father..." I expected, "Oh, finally, Strahan. I got about 10 years of backed up sin, we got to process that. You're a mess. I want you to do..."

No, the first thing that He said to me was, "Strahan, I love you so much. I'm so proud of you." And it almost knocked me right back off my seat because that's not the voice of God that I had in my head. I didn't expect Him to start there. And I knew it was God because I didn't have any paradigm for that. And I thought, wow. And now I look back on it and Why was it so hard to believe? I mean, He died for me, you know.

I think that if we just keep preaching the sin, the lone message in this, you know, you're forgiven now go out and do stuff, it's effectively the same as someone getting through a massive court case where they thought they were going to be bankrupted or sent to prison, they get set free, and yet they've got no life to live, no vitality. And I think we can be like that with God, and yet He longs for us, not with the same kind of insecure longing we have. It's a secure longing, which makes it even more powerful that He doesn't need us. But He longs for us.

I want to say yes to that. I want to say, "Yes, God, you can have me. You can have all of my soul in my life. I just want to give it to you. And let's do it. Let's do this life together."

Eric Huffman: That's amazing.

Strahan Coleman: And I want people to walk into a church and to hear that message and to go, Whoa, that's both holy and terrifying, but also exciting.

Eric Huffman: Oh, man!

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: So when you realize it, your eyes are open to it. It's like, How did I miss this?

Strahan Coleman: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: It's like, how did I miss the fact that God what He really wants all along has been more of me, more of us, intimacy with us? And that's why the events we are about to remember at Holy Week, that's why it happened. It wasn't just to clean us up. It was to have us again and be reconciled with us. It's a more beautiful message than even the gospel that is sort of a limited gospel that we preach when we overemphasize just the forgiveness at the expense of the reconciliation God wants with us.

Now, your answer to some of these issues of sort of reducing prayer down to a consumeristic exchange is what you've called beholding prayer. I mean, obviously, the book is titled as such. Can you give us a definition or explanation of what beholding prayer is?

Strahan Coleman: Yes. So I define in the book beholding prayer as our gazing lovingly into God as He gazes lovingly back into us. So it's essentially eye contact. Maybe the best way to understand that is, if you think about how you engulf a beautiful piece of art or an astounding sunset, or, you know, that moment where you walk to a beautiful beach and you're just like, Whoa, this is... You know, that euphoria, you feel?

Eric Huffman: Yes.

Strahan Coleman: And it's not intellectual, and it's not, you know... No one sort of tells you how to feel. It's just a natural response to the beauty and the wonder of that thing. Beholding prayer is really learning to practice that with God in our lives. It's sort of this disposition of just going, "Wow, God, you're beautiful. I don't want to see you in all things. I want to receive your gaze. You're always looking at me, you're always caring."

And what's important is that looking at one another is a loving, compassionate, and empathetic gaze, it's not a judgmental or critical gaze. That's why I do some work in the book explaining how we get there. So it's seeing prayer not as an exchange of information or of work, it's not as conscious mental dialogue. It's a disposition of gazing upon God in the soul toward Him as He gazes at us in our life.

Eric Huffman: It's beautiful. I also admit it's a little bit threatening to hear about it if you've never experienced it, or if intimacy just doesn't come, let's say, easily to you, you know, for whatever reason. Maybe you've got trauma in your past or maybe you're just like me, a dramatic workaholic, and you'd rather not stop and go deep. But whatever the case, it's an exercise in a way. I mean, you wouldn't call it work, and I understand why. But it's a discipline. Would you agree with that?

Strahan Coleman: I would agree. I would say it takes work to enter into it, for sure. You know, I mean, I think this whole fallacy that prayer is natural is crazy. There is a work to entering into rest, if that makes sense. I think we've got to own that. But I would also say that Beholding isn't necessarily an emotional experience. I'm certainly not advocating for a constant emotional connection to God. I don't have that.

I love it when God engages my emotions and feelings and there's a sense of felt experience of God. And I think it's important to differentiate between when God is encountering us through our emotions and when he's encouraging us through other means.

So in the book I talk about the sort of ordinariness of God that we can experience Him when we're playing with our children or doing the dishes. What I'm talking about is more of a consciousness and an awareness of God rather than sort of a feeling or an emotional engulfment, if that makes sense.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. No, that takes some of the pressure off, I think. And there's been a lot of people I've come across who have been traumatized by overly emotional expressions of Christianity, I think, where it's so much pressure to perform in that world that it can really create a, I think, distancing between a person and their prayer life.

Strahan Coleman: Yeah, I agree. And God isn't an emotion. I think we have to keep saying that over and over again. God feels His created emotions, they're beautiful and good. But that doesn't mean He is an emotion. He is ultimately much greater than that. So I think if we have this idea of prayer that prayer is only meaningful or we've only encountered God when we've had an emotional experience, we're just going to feel so left out. I gave that up years ago, you know.

I mean, what if you're like me and you're sick, and you're having a mental crisis? Emotions are the hardest thing to access. And the last thing you need to say to someone who's going through depression or anxiety or any of those things is, hey, if you're not feeling, God is not there. I mean, that's nuts.

I think most people are depressed because they think God's not there because they don't feel Him. I disregard that entirely. In the book, I go to great lengths to try and stress that there is another way of seeing this kind of experience of God that's beyond that. Because I think there's-

Eric Huffman: Right. I think it's interesting and I don't know what to do with this. But it seems like a great percentage of people I've heard talk about hearing the voice of God or hearing from God, which frankly, isn't like a ton of people. It's pretty rare in my world that even as a pastor that you hear someone say, I heard the audible voice of God.

It almost always, in my opinion, seems to be when something's happened to open our perceptive senses up. Like out of the ordinary. Like your sickness. One of the few times I've audibly heard the voice of God was when I was deathly sick. Or like traveling. I hear people say, "Well, God spoke to me when I was abroad, when I was on vacation, when I was away from the normal noise of life, from the grind."

And I'm like, When are we going to notice? When are we going to notice the common denominator here that maybe it's not a lack of God's speaking, maybe it's us being devoid of awareness, if that's a way to say it. Maybe it's a matter of our awareness and not a matter of His is speaking or not.

Strahan Coleman: Totally resonate with that. I can just say from experience, even making the decision to prayer journal every day. And when I prayer journal, I always say, "Good morning, Father," and then I allow God to speak back and I write out what I hear in His voice.

If I prayer journal every day, I won't necessarily hear God every day but I'll give them 95% more than if I'm not doing it and not creating space. And I think so often we just don't create space to notice. and life of beholding is about bringing that, noticing into every area of our life. It's about saying, Okay, I'm in this work environment, God is here. And that's all it takes. Just in our hearts to simply turn toward Him and say, God is here. And suddenly we look with different eyes. We don't have to try.

If you are conscious that God is present to all of your life, suddenly, you start noticing things you didn't notice before. And we get trapped in busyness and hurry, and I think what that does is it robs us of the goodness of God in each moment.

And what I try and say in the book is we can have unceasing prayer in our lives, not because we are in conscious mental dialogue all the time but because we're living in a constant openness and awareness to God that makes everything we do a kind of relational dialogue in the depths of us. And I think that's really important.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, amen. So important. I love your comment about the church. And when we perceive a weakness of love in the church, we might as well go ahead and call it what it is. It's a weakness in prayer. I think experientially, that's been the case. I mean, it's almost always traced back to an issue of prayer deficit.

I don't mean that in like not enough people are praying enough at the time. I just mean we're not aiming at the right goal, which is depth of our intimacy and love of God, gazing lovingly into His eyes and seeing Him gaze into ours. I mean, that's what we're going for in prayer. It should be, right?

Strahan Coleman: I think so. But it's certainly not the easiest message to get up on Sunday and preach. Do you know what I mean?

Eric Huffman: That's why we look to you and people like you and your books to help us, man. Because I've been so inspired by it and by this conversation today as well, Strahan.

Strahan Coleman: Thanks, Eric.

Eric Huffman: I'm really grateful for your particular voice at this point in time for the church, for Christians and Christian leaders. I know it's penetrating hearts and minds. It has done that for me and it's going to shape my ministry in ways that I know will bear good fruit and fruit that really looks like people, more people falling more deeply in love with God and not just more butts in the seats on Sunday mornings. So I'm really grateful for that.

Strahan Coleman: That's lovely. Thank you.

Eric Huffman: Now, Strahan, if folks wanted to find your work beyond the book, Beholding, which is available anywhere you look for books right now, and I highly encourage folks to pick it up. But what about your music? Are there any plans to start writing and singing again?

Strahan Coleman: I would love to. At this stage, I'm in a rehabilitation phase with my body and my voice. I have been out of sync for a couple of years. So I'm hoping that-

Eric Huffman: Like, physically?

Strahan Coleman: Yeah, physically just can't sing. I know it sounds crazy. It's essentially a chronic fatigue of the larynx and the muscles around the throat. So I'm rehabilitating. I'd love to sing again. That would be a joy. It's been so long now. It's been so many years. I don't know what it would look like. But for me singing is just part of existence. I miss it. I long for it. Whether I'll release music again, I don't know but I would love to do it again.

Eric Huffman: Well, Strahan, thanks for joining us on the Maybe God Podcast. Hope to have you back again sometime.

Strahan Coleman: My pleasure. Thank you so much for the conversation, Eric. I have loved it. It's been a real pleasure.

Eric Huffman: Thank you.

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