Church

Meeting the Church

Several months ago I began waking up early, before everyone else in my house, and sneaking off to Starbucks. After a few weeks of arriving five days a week at the same time, I became a regular. Baristas knew my name and order. And the other regulars welcomed me with nods and “good mornings”. 

The truth is, I was there to be alone. There is a sensitive balance, as a stay at home mom of toddlers, between your need to be alone and your desire to be with other adults (both of which happen rarely). So Starbucks trips allowed me to start the day apart from being needed, apart from the piled responsibilities and laundry, surrounded by familiar adults, and alone with books, writing, and the Holy Spirit. 

One morning I noticed that Craig, a semi-regular, was reading the Bible, and I commented something insignificant about us studying from the same source side by side. This struck up a conversation about faith that caught me by surprize. I was intrigued by what he mentioned so I asked if I could sit down with him and interview him some time. We set a day and got back to our studies. 

Little did I know, my Starbucks experience was about to change. Eventually, I got to sit down with not only Craig, but also Howard (another regular) and discuss the work of God in each of their lives. They are so very different, but they possess a similar mission: pursuing God. 

Here is what I learned:

Craig had his life turned completely around at age 25. He lived a pretty rough life, but didn’t know a better way. Soon after repenting and dedicating his life to God he attempted to surround himself with friends and roommates that shared his new-found mission. Then something happened.

He found that this new “church culture” was nothing like the Jesus who had saved him. Instead, they refused to associate with him at meals after discovering that he ordered the occasional beer. This rattled him in a severe way. Why is it that they fixated on self-defined markers of moral correctness rather than the work of God in his life? He decided that they didn’t really know the same God.

From that point on he made this commitment to himself and to God: No Golden Calves. 
He would not accept bowing before anything or anyone other than God. This meant carefully praying over and studying any new teaching he heard about God before acquiring it as a belief. 

As Craig shared his different experiences with church congregations he told me of many upsetting experiences in the process of learning what it meant to be a Kingdom Person. What baffled me, as someone who has served on a church staff, was that some of these experiences seemed harmless, if not helpful. For example, it offended him that upon visiting a church a man, not much older than him, approached him after the service and introduced himself as the Discipleship Pastor. The pastor then offered to get him “set up” with someone to disciple him. Craig never went back. Why? Because before getting to know Craig, someone assumed that because of a job title, he was to act as mentor to all that entered, not mentee. “What if God sent me to that church to teach him something?” Craig exclaimed!

I paused. 

I felt myself wanting to judge Craig, at first, as unteachable. But then, as I continued to listen I realized how wrong I was. He went to church to listen and learn. He found the sermon valuable for his own life. But the Church was only there to “serve” not be served. 

I know, I know, “It is better to give than receive.” But if you take a moment and think that through, you will find that in order to love someone, you have to both receive and give. You have to allow others the gift of giving by receiving. And to disciple someone in how to receive teaching, you have to be willing to demonstrate a listening stance. 

Craig could find no home in a place where he was not seen as valuable, where God’s work in his life had no weight against a man-given title. 

I asked him, “So what is Church to you? Where do you find community?”

“Here.” He said. “Here, and at that Smoothie King right there. At work, and at the grocery store.” 

He continued to explain that once he realized he was part of a the Monarchy of God and just a sojourner in this place, he discovered that there are fellow sojourners all around. He talked about his Kingdom citizenship the way a recently arrived immigrant may find themselves saying, “In my country…”

Breaking from his previous allegiances wasn’t and isn’t easy for Craig. He explained that a crucial part of learning to live as a citizen of the Kingdom is the need to unlearn the former commitments to political party and the “golden calf” of country.

He said that regularly hears himself saying or thinking something then catches himself with, “Wait. Why do I believe that? Who taught me that? This is the old me repeating something without really knowing it’s true.”

“No Golden Calves” meant not allowing others to become idols, but also not returning to old ways of thinking without bringing those thoughts before King Jesus. 

This intentional repentance of former worldview was empowered by prayer. 

Prayer was perhaps the most recurring topic in our hour-long conversation. I was convicted when he told me how frequently, intentionally, privately, and openly he prayed. He invited others to pray with him in many different settings. He brought all of his desires before God in prayer and witnessed miraculous provision and correction. 

Prayer was also a common theme with my other Starbucks friend, Howard. Howard could not be more different than Craig. Howard is a mystic. He embraces the unknown of God and in return has found that God will meet him to comfort his worries, and challenge him to trust fully in God’s love for him. 

As I talked with Howard and we shared with each other about the painful seasons in our life, during which God always came near, there was an ease about our conversation. 

I kept thinking back to Craig’s response to my question about where he finds community and where he gathers with Church. “Here.” 

The beauty of the Body of Christ is that we need both Howard and Craig. We need those who will seek God relentlessly for truth, and those who will sit in wonder of God’s mystery. We need them in our coffee shops, construction companies, hospitals, AA Meetings, and library story times. We have to be ready to “go to Church” wherever we are, learning from those who are seeking God along side of us, without paying mind to status or longevity of membership. 

God is at work in the lives of those around us, and if we listen and look, we will see Him and be changed. I now know this to be true first hand. 
 

It Takes a Village

This Lent has been new for me.

Not in the stories or rhythm, rather it has been a different sort of dance. It’s a dance, not born of my desires or even best qualities, but a dance that is built upon some of my greatest weaknesses and insecurities.

Too many times I lead with my dominant foot. But, this year, I found myself swaying and stumbling far removed from my life of old, from the movements that normally make me comfortable, trusting that this new dance I am learning will make sense in the long road.  

Truth be told, I limit myself based on faulty notions about who I am and who I am not. That self induced truth strips me of many opportunities to serve God. Very rarely do I branch out to invest in things that cause me to feel like, maybe, just maybe, I don’t have ALL that is needed.

Every human activity can be put at the service of the divine and of love. We should all exercise our gift to build community.
— John Vanier

This weekend, me and my people, were blessed with the opportunity to watch two sweet baby boys so that two of our other people could finally get some well deserved rest. I found myself holding lots of babies. My role as Aunt Cookie is pretty secure. The jovial, delightfully overweight one of my friend group, I often find myself with babies and toddlers on my lap. I am truly, madly, deeply a comfortable person from my thighs to my giggle.  

Because of that, I struggle with discipline. Not one for rules either, I find it hard to enforce things and, to make it worse, it’s very rarely that I’m taken seriously when I do try.  

So as Kate and I watched these dear boys, we fell into a rhythm. She, a seasoned mom. I, a fun-loving aunt.

I know little about babies or children. I don’t even know that much about being an adult. Not surprisingly halfway through the day, I started feeling insecure about what I had to offer. What do toddlers even eat? (Answer: everything and yet nothing.) What am I doing? (Answer: I don’t know.) Which way does this dang diaper go? (Answer: Not that way.) How much poop is too much poop? (Answer: You’ll find out fast.) Can you OD on apples?  (Answer: TBD). On and on, I questioned myself and my ability. If I can’t be ALL things to these boys and my friends, what am I even doing?

Later that night, as I took it upon myself to put big brother to bed, I found myself at another hard place of not knowing if I was enough for what he needed. As the rain started pouring and I stared out the window pondering my next step, he came and crawled in my lap. We rocked in the squeaking rocking chair recounting the day as I laughed and jabbered on about my favorite parts. The park, O THE PARK, was great! The walk, O THE WALK, was great! Do you remember when we played in the sand? O that was great too. What a day, sweet boy, what a day!  

Pretty soon he was fast asleep in my arms.

That moment was humbling and beautiful for me. I can’t do a lot. There’s so much that I don’t know. There’s so much that I can’t offer. But I can rock that sweet baby to sleep.

When I think about the body of Christ, and what it means to live in the here-and-now of Lent and our salvation story, I will think of that rocking chair and that sweet boy. In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t have a lot to offer him. But I had willingness and presence.

Those boys didn’t need the best of me. They needed all of me. They needed all of us as a community of aunts and uncles. We needed to be all in it together, trusting each other to fill in when the moment called for, our strengths and weaknesses melding together in perfect unity.

Isn’t that what the church is to look like? Isn’t that what community is all about?

When I look at our journey towards Lent, I can’t help but be struck by this truth.

We are all wounded. We are all broken puzzle pieces trying to fit together in the grand narrative of faith. We are all desperately seeking community. We are all wounded, faulty pilgrims dancing to a song we don’t entirely know and can’t fully comprehend.

As we continue on this road to Easter, may we be filled with the assurance that all of us is enough for Christ our Lord. All of us is enough for our community.  

This weekend we lived out the truth that it takes a village to raise a baby. But, even more so, it take a village to be human.

We need each other. And God needs us as we are- fully human.  Faults, insecurities, flaws, and falls, every aspect of ourselves on full display with willingness and presence.

To God be the glory.

Finding Family

Today would have been my dad’s 60th birthday.

It’s been a painful but enlightening five years since his death. The time has been full of mysterious joy and overwhelming sorrow. Walking through the grieving process of a parent’s early death is a perilous journey. It’s full of minefields of trauma and grenades of pain. Your hair falls out. Your body gives in. You can’t sleep and, when you do, you’re plagued by nightmares. It’s inescapable, unavoidable pain.

The months following my dad’s death were horrifying. I found myself without a job, without roommates, and without a purpose. My entire existence crashed down at my feet like an avalanche. Like Job, I lost everything. I couldn’t even keep the hair on my head.

But then the miraculous happened…

 

Friends slowed down enough to see my avalanche.

Looking past my facade of “I’m okay”, they saw the rubble I kicked under my shoe and the devastation I so desperately hid from the world, the rebuilding of my life that was going nowhere. They saw past my ‘Christianese’ insistence that “I can do all things through Christ” and my faulty theology that there’s no room for grief in God’s Kingdom.  

Seeing my desperate, sad state, they did what no one had done before. They sat amongst the rubble with me. Brick by brick they helped build back up my life, strengthening me through the process as I learned to have faith and life again.

For me this looked like moving closer to me. It looked like insisting I meet every week for pizza and beer (a tradition we still keep after 5 years) and handing me cookies and chores and hugs. It looked like praying over me but also being the active hands of God sowing hope into my soul when I was empty. It looked like insisting I go to therapy when I was, again, “just fine” and listening to my near constant state of confusion about life. It looked like hard truths and kind words.

It looked like family.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. - 1 Cor 14:4-7

In my early years of faith, church was relegated to a brick and mortar building. It was a place where I went on Sundays and Wednesdays to wrap my head around this ‘Big Guy in the Sky”. It was an idea.

It wasn’t until I walked this lonely road of grief that I finally knew what church was designed to be.

When Jesus says “Go and make disciples”, he’s not asking us to bring more people through the doors of a church. He’s asking us to be THE CHURCH- to sit amongst the rubble of the avalanches and to love well. To leave behind our denominations and our squabbles, our differences and our fear and… love well.

When I think of the Kingdom of God, I see Thursday nights of pizza and kindness. I see chunky baby arms reaching out to hold you and warm apple cider simmering on the stove. I see holding hands as we cry in prayer and laughter that could fill a thousand cathedrals. I see sacrifices both small and wide that show God’s vast, insurmountable love even in the midst of our deepest pain. I see unlikely friendships forged through toil, pain, and perseverance.

When I think about church, I finally understand it's not just a hobby or a building, but a family of love that looks like this:

The family of God is patient.

The family of God is kind.

It doesn't boast.

It isn't proud.

It doesn’t dishonor others.

It isn’t self-seeking.

It isn't easily angered.

It doesn’t keep record of wrong.

The family of God doesn’t delight in evil.

It rejoices with truth.

It protects, trusts, hopes…

It perseveres.

What do they see?

When those who don't know about the Kingdom of God see Christians, what do they see? 

This question has been sitting in our house for a while, about three years, actually. 

At first, you might respond:

1) We need to please God, not man, right?

2) We need to be "above reproach" by abstaining from anything questionable. Shouldn't we show them that there is a very different way? 

If those questions settle okay with you, I would like to counter with two more questions:

1) What did those far from God think of Jesus (the one and only man whose life was pleasing to God)?

2) Whose reproach? Have you received criticism from people far from God about the way Christians dress, what we eat or drink, our use of four letter words, or what establishments we hang out in?

For us, these questions became crucial to answer. Somehow, amidst sincere desire to live our lives for Jesus and his Kingdom, we could no longer keep up with trying to please God AND other Christians. 

Jesus threw caution to the wind when it came to pleasing everyone. And who did he disappoint? Two groups for sure: the religious folk and those who called for unquestioned allegiance. 

So we decided to do the same. As it turns out, the narrow path feels a lot more like a rickety rope bridge hanging over the cliffs of arrogance, heresy, and loneliness. Without the Spirit of God himself, it is impossibly dangerous. But he is faithful. We can trust that he will not allow us to wander past the fences of his love, and even more so, find that this way is actually better. 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.
— Psalm 23, ESV

I used to think this Psalm was for those darn valleys that I sometimes found myself in. Ol' David was going through a hard time. Sometimes life sucks. People die. We get sick. We get stressed. 

Lately though, my worldview has changed.

Our whole life on earth is in the valley of the shadow of death. Our enemy is always pursuing. We can invest our best effort to making life pleasant, but that is only a mirage because in this world, the pain doesn't stop. Even with our headphones in and the Contemporary Christian Pandora station blaring, no amount of distraction will stop the suffering in and around us. Thankfully, there is hope. In the midst of this bleak life, God has chosen to BE WITH his people. And in His presence, peace is found. 

Right here. In the same body that is shaking with anger, grief, or stress, God can grow a green pasture. He can guide us to the still water.

"But how?" we ask.

Pointing, "Look there, my enemy is rushing toward me!"

He knows.

But He does not fear.

"Sit." God says, commanding, "Eat." 

"Let me comfort you with oil and quench your thirst, for I am not afraid of your enemy, and I am not leaving you. I know the way through this valley, and I will guide you to the other side. See that mountain top? I have prepared a place for you. Trust me."

But the story is not over with that. 

"Go get the others." He calls out. 

"Teach them to follow me."

If suffering pursues us, than establishing our own houses and neighborhoods of propriety is foolishness. When an assailant has targeted you, there are two good options: fight, or flight. Throughout history, God's people have been set apart by The God Who Fights For Us. He has led his people to do seemingly moronic things, with only one explanation for victory: God himself. Are we seen that way now? People who do daring, crazy, radical acts: pushing back the darkness in a way that leaves God Himself as the only explanation for our success?

 

The life that matters

This broken-turned-beautiful life matters. So what should those far from God see and hear from us?

Our life should tell the story:

I see the brokenness and feel the pain.

But God has shown me the way to peace.

Turmoil may be around every corner, but I know my future is secure.

I am not afraid to meet you wherever you are.

Your mess isn't too messy for me, because the King of all Kings is with me and his holiness and forgiveness are cleansing.

He will be with you too, if you want him. Would you follow him with me?

 

 

 

Exposed for the Body

It is unfortunate how we have let the performance-based culture we live in make its home within the walls of church buildings.  A repercussion of that indwelling is the adoption of moralism as a standard with which we measure each other’s spirituality. When the misfits and outcasts walk in our doors, they should not feel the same pressure to fit in that the world places on them; but I am afraid they do. I am afraid my hands can be found red in trying to put my best foot forward at church, as if I was in a constant interview for the most-inspirational-member award.

 

If I am guilty, then likely my words that proclaim, “Everyone should come as they are to the foot of the cross,” are not convincing.

 

Testimonies

Most Christians are aware of the power of sharing a testimony of salvation. Some of us have another’s story to thank for its use in our own eternal salvation narrative. Shouldn’t the practice of sharing stories of sanctification hold a similar importance?

If you want to change the world, let the world see how you have been changed.

And if you want to change the Church, let the Church see how you are being changed.

We are quick to share what God teaches us, but rarely find the words to express the state of disobedience that originated the need to be taught. Regrettably though, leaving out confession and vulnerability does little to reach those who look at the mess in their life, and wonder if they will ever be free from it. There is a reason why people with extreme stories of conversion are frequently asked to share- it gives people confidence that if someone who was that far away could be accepted, loved, and saved by Jesus, so can they.

The same could be true if those who others see as "perfect" were to share that they too still need the Lord to “clean them up.” We need more vulnerability in order for the confidence found in salvation to also be found in sanctification. Believers must become more transparent about the dark places in their life, not only so they can be transformed by the light of the Gospel of grace, but also so others can have the courage to come and be cleaned.  

 

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

And sinners will return to you.”
— Psalm 51:12-13

 

The Call

As people, who have all been called to live our life with the mission of making disciples, we need to abandon the performance-based mentality. We need to not see admitting failure as weakness; instead, we need to encourage it as a product of understanding grace.

We do not need to be dishonest in order to “protect” God’s reputation. He is the King of Kings and his fame is unstoppable. We need not be afraid that if we share how messed up we are, that we will discredit the power of the Cross. Instead, it is the denying of our need for redemption that dishonors the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice.

 

What’s the hardest thing about all of this?

It is going to take you. It is going to have to be your life that runs exposed through the church halls. It is going to be your sin, your brokenness, and your fear that others will see. While you may not win the outstanding-Christian award, remember that Jesus himself wouldn’t have either. He would have been too busy hanging out with you, a sinner who was hopeless on your own.

 

Think:

How has someone’s vulnerability encouraged you?

How can you choose to be more vulnerable in your community?

What is holding you back?