Shaking Things Up

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When I went off to college, they (whoever they is) told us to expect an earthquake anytime. The New Madrid fault hadn’t gone in well over a hundred years. It was due. “They” had all of us midwesterners ready to build quake proof shelters all over campus, except being from Illinois, we had no idea what that even was. Tornadoes we know. Earthquakes, not so much.

Needless to say, we never experienced an earthquake. Missourians haven’t since that time, either. St. Louis remains safe from teetering into the abyss in the foreseeable future, though it remains an active fault.

On a family trip to San Francisco, we stood in an earthquake simulator, however, to see what it would be like. Dizzying, confusing, and yes, terrifying had it been real.

In doing some research on the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, I discovered an interesting detail. The quake measured an (assumed) 7.9 on the Richter scale and the maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). Shock waves traveled at a rate of 8300 miles per hour.  Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire.The event displaced over 75% of the population and killed between 700-3000 people. It permanently removed San Francisco as the leading city of the west, replacing it with Los Angeles.

We assume the most destructive element of that quake was the fire or the falling buildings. Nope.

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Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

Most earthquake damage results from strong shaking. Damage caused by landslides, ground failure, or fire account for a small portion of the total. We remember the 1906 earthquake mainly for the fire damage, yet in most places, it was the shaking on already shaky ground that caused the trouble.

You know what area sustained the worst damage? The Bay Area where ground had been reclaimed from the water. Already soft and easily malleable because of its water and sand content, the ground beneath the bay dissolved during the shaking. Bedrock areas held fast. Unstable ground rocked the buildings above it with ferocity.

In other words, bedrock holds. Shifting ground, soft foundations, things humans created and didn’t use for their intended purpose—all these fall away in an intense shaking. What survived the earthquake? Steel buildings on solid ground.

And that is the message of Hebrews 12.

“You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’

No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.

When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”

God tells the Hebrews—I’m going to shake things up. In fact, I’m going to shake all of creation until it’s shaken back into order. I’ll shake until all the unintended, soft shifting mess is taken away and only the solid, perfect rock remains.

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Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

I remember the giant braided rugs my mom used to have in our living room. Occasionally, we had to take the behemoths outside and give them a good shaking. It took two of us. Dirt had gotten in all the crevices of the braid, and it had to be shaken and beat until the seams released all the mess that shouldn’t have been there. It was a job.

Sometimes things need to be shaken into order. They’ve lost their function. Impurities have gotten in the cracks. They need a good clothesline moment with a broom and a strong arm.

In one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs he suggests that:

“The Lord takes by its corners this old world

And shakes us forward and shakes us free

To run wild with the hope.”

I love that image. One day, the entire world will be set right. Shaken free of its evil and freed with wild hope. I can’t wait for that day.

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But here’s the thing—sometimes He will do the same to you and me, here and now. What needs to be shaken free in our lives so we can run wild with hope?

God’s shaking in our lives signals his desire for us to be what we were meant to be, unencumbered by dust and dirt.

We don’t often perceive a good shaking up in as joyful freedom and hope. We see it through a lens of fear, assuming the worst of anything that upsets our comfortable status quo.

But the Hebrews writer sets us straight on that. S/he explains that we have come to Mount Zion—not Mount Sinai. We’ve come to a joyful gathering. We’ve come as God’s own heirs. We “have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people.”

We have come to hope. To no more fear. To the one who is love and casts out fear. To joy, to the community of his people, to Jesus’ himself speaking for you.

“At the centre of the contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, in fact, is the contrast between a holiness which is terrifying and unapproachable and a holiness which is welcoming, cleansing and healing.” NT Wright

If we think of God’s shaking as scary, we’re thinking in the wrong covenant, living in the wrong testament. We need to reframe the shaking up as a restoration of what was lost. It’s more like panning for gold than tearing us apart.

Holiness on the new mountain no longer a terrifying thing. It’s a new way, a better way, a healing, restoring activity. We should welcome it, be excited about it, work toward it not as if we were afraid but as if we rejoice to belong in that city.

The lesson we learn from San Francisco is that shaking doesn’t harm things that are built on bedrock. It destroys only thing that are built where they shouldn’t have been. Only foundations that are unsound. It’s Jesus’ parable about the house on the rock all over again.

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The warning of Hebrews 12 and the warning of 1906 are the same—be mindful of your foundation. What are you building on? What is the bedrock of your faith? What will happen to that faith when the shaking starts?

Many people who have lost their faith in recent years have stated that it happened because a celebrity pastor, worship leader, or other person whom they trusted turned out to be unworthy of that trust. Their faith rested on a person, and that person wasn’t Jesus. When holiness shook it out, it crumbled.

Others build their foundation on God blessing them—giving them the abundant life He promised. When circumstances reverse and they don’t feel blessed, they no longer feel God, either.

Some build on doctrine, certain that if their answers are right, their faith is solid. Ditto “right behavior.” They go over their mental checklist daily, ensuring that they haven’t missed or compromised anything. Like Javert, their life becomes undone when someone suggests that grace and mercy matter more to a human soul.

Shaking terrifies those who live on foundations they have built themselves with unsteady hands and insufficient knowledge. It doesn’t faze those who know a master craftsman built their foundation, and it will hold.

Our foundation?

“You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.”

That’s it. That’s enough. That will hold.

When God shakes up our world, he wants us to know that only unshakable things will remain. Our response, so difficult and against the human grain, is “so let us be thankful.”

What Are We Teaching Our Kids?

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

In early April, we started a discussion between me and my daughter on the church, the generational divide, and world peace.

Not really that last one. But it sounded good. In a good lead-in to Mother’s Day, we then talked about what we appreciate about one another’s generation. Now, the saga continues.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids???

Jill: Let’s talk about the idea that we don’t really have to worry about the next generation returning to church. You will, as every generation has done before you, come back after a requisite season of rebellion. 

I’m a little concerned about that laissez-faire attitude for a few reasons.

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First of all, church is increasingly not a core value in our society, or in your generation. Being a good person and showing love are what it’s all about. Unfortunately, those values are divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. We’ve told you that Jesus wants you to be good, when really Jesus wants you to be his.

Rules versus relationship.

According to that flawed theology, “praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, younger generations have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.

Will you really, like the Terminator, will be back?

Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School in the modern sense become a thing? I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on. 

That’s where your “do good” stems from. “Be good for mommy, and daddy, and Jesus, too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots.

So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for. It leaves us in control over how we use our resources.

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Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel.

According to Christian History, the original philanthropic Sunday Schools always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also imported moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.

Given that Rational Theory (i.e., human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church’s veins at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.

Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:

“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. . . . When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.” –Sally Lloyd-Jones

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So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now.

Emily: I mean, I wouldn’t recommend certain stories from the Bible told straight up to four year olds (Jezebel comes to mind). But when the Bible becomes a tool or vehicle with which to deliver a human-devised moral, it not only puts God in a box, it puts us into a box too. And that box can get kind of constricting as we grow, until finally we break out and, believing the box itself is religion, we walk away, refusing to ever be constrained again.

Jill: There’s this book by some lady where she says something like this.

“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point. 

What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.” –Jill Richardson, Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids

Emily: Blatant self-promotion.

Jill: Yeah. But I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.

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Photo by dimas aditya on Unsplash

Emily: But the box isn’t God. I think we worry that if we try to teach kids God as God is, that their heads are going to explode. Or maybe our heads will explode if we have to start thinking of God as God is.

Jill: So if we want future generations to stay in church, we need to start connecting them to the whole gospel, and the whole God. We need to teach them how being Christian isn’t about rules and being good but about the entire creation to redemption story of why we are trying to do good things and what our role is in the story.

Emily:

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Don’t Settle

So what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak? (Hebrews 2:3 NLT)

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Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

I first saw the dress on a mannequin in the shop’s window. Its skirt shimmered despite the February gloom outside, and the subdued sparkles on its lace top matched perfectly as the lace descended, imperceptibly tapering off into the skirt. It had a gorgeous open back with just enough detail to suit my daughter’s classic taste.

A few minutes later, she saw it, too,  and asked the bridal shop attendant to add it to her growing pile. We were on a whirlwind one-day quest, my youngest child and I, to find her wedding dress. We rarely had the same day off from work, and with a four-hour drive separating us, we chose to seize our day.

To discover the result of our quest, and what on earth Hebrews has to do with a wedding dress, pop over the The Glorious Table, where I’m featured here!

(Wish I could show you a picture of the actual dress, but . . . . spoilers.)

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Learning to Believe

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Apologetics was fashionable in the 80’s, and I was nothing if not fashionable. OK, I was never fashionable. Not one day of my college career, most likely. But when you’re surrounded by Izods and boat shoes, and you’re a Laura Ashley kind of girl, it’s just never going to happen.

Trained as a high school debater, I found my psychological home in apologetics. I soaked in the books handed to me by InterVarsity leaders like Know What You Believe and it’s younger brother, Know Why You Believe.

But One Remained

The one that caught and kept me, though, could only have come from the pen of CS Lewis. Mere Christianity.

Two years ago, I bought a copy of it, older than the one I still had from college, at an Antiquarian Book Sale. It’s eggshell cover, sheathed in plastic so that it did not become as brittle as shell, bore no modern photoshop or multi-color printing, only blue pin-striping and a title. It was austere. Plain. Speaking to me of a faith that Lewis didn’t embellish either but embraced for its straightforward truth to him, not its smoke and mirrors.

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Magdalen College, Oxford

I didn’t know what I had subscribed to when I walked that church aisle two years prior. Lewis told me. Logically. Honestly. The way I liked to be told things that mattered.

My new faith could coexist with my intellect. One of the greatest minds of the century knew this, so why should I doubt it? I devoured Lewis’ arguments for belief, digesting them like the meat Paul says our souls were made to crave.

You Can Be Smart and Still Believe

Lewis confronted me with the honest reality of my willfulness and the stunning equal reality of God’s intent for me.

“..fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”

He wrestled with me over the ways my culture told me the horrible truth about humans could be “fixed.”

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

He explained Jesus in a way that appeared utterly sensible to my logic-craving mind.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

He told me of the yearning I thought only I knew, the ache to belong somewhere I had never known.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

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The pulpit from which Lewis preached “The Weight of Glory” in Oxford.

And There Were Others

It wouldn’t be the only time Lewis challenged my assumptions. The Great Divorce forced new thoughts on hell and heaven and all that might fall in the grey space in between. If God’s time isn’t linear, perhaps Lewis’ notions of busses and second chances between the afterlife zones wasn’t so far-fetched.

Of course it was story, meant to convince us to make the right decision, get on the right bus so to speak, now. Yet his imaginary exploration did something for me that would be invaluable later in life. It made me understand that sometimes, I could be wrong.

_There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it._

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a book I didn’t open until after college, eclipsed the other Chronicles for me. I know, the first book is the favorite. But the story of Eustace, with its greatest of first lines in literature, taught me the value of perseverance and the beauty of a King who would adore me so much he would come tear off my dragon scales.

I may have been young, but I knew there were many dragon scales. Those layers of defensive, self-protecting coarse skin don’t slough off easily. They’re still coming, I think.

The Screwtape Letters would give me one of my favorite quotes of all time:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

In my darkest of days, and there have been some, I would turn back to Wormwood and declare that his master would never win, no matter the lonely universe.

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And Now

Years later, I stand around on Sunday and Tuesday nights, directing a cast of twenty in an assuredly non-professional version of The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. The other night, one of the children pondered Aslan’s death and coming back to life as we worried about how to create a stone table that would hold a grown man on a tiny stage and a tinier budget.

“It’s like Jesus!” he exclaimed in a moment of relative quiet.

Another generation finds the great lion, and a great author, still unfolding the Author of All, in ways only he can.

A Long Obedience, and Other Lessons Learned at Nineteen

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Photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash

Running, Galloping, or Anything with Horses

I didn’t want to run with the horses. A neighbor’s horse had once run under a tree branch in our back field, with me on his back, full intending to knock me off. I’d hit the branch. I had not fallen.

Another horse, a supposedly docile being on a trail ride, had been bitten by the beast behind him and reared up, again, with me on his back. The height of it is probably greatly exaggerated in my ten-year-old memory, but I remember the fear.

Our cousins’ ponies tried to bite me. Leaders of Girl Scout rides believed, erroneously, that we would all love to gallop. My best friend inducted me into typical elementary-schoolgirl horse fever, and I created an elaborate ranch on my bedroom wall of paper horses, all different, with names and histories. I loved my horses. I just didn’t love real ones.

My history with the equine family is sketchy.

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Photo by Florin-Alin Beudean on Unsplash

But Eugene Peterson said that Jeremiah said that God said—I had to run with the horses. At that point in my life, I trusted all three, although I remained a little unclear on who Jeremiah was.

Halls of Fame

An author rarely makes it into my mental Hall of Literary Fame. It takes excellence of storytelling, language, argument, depth, and truth to attain that level. Like a preacher who sits in the pews and can’t listen for unintentionally  critiquing (that is who I am), I admit only authors who take hold of my literary imagination. Pushing me theologically earns bonus points.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, who is certainly well-ensconced near the apex of my Hall, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished writers. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” 

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We lost Eugene Peterson in October. We lost—he gained. He is said to have passed with joy in his heart and greeting on his lips for the One he was going to meet but already knew well.

I met Peterson (through his work) at a crucial time in my development, literarily and theologically. A new freshman at Washington University, I was also a new Christian, stumbling and uncertain exactly what I had signed up for and if it had been the great idea I believed at the time.

As a new believer in a highly unbelieving university, it seemed the thing to join InterVarsity, and there I learned of an entire publishing house devoted to making me a smarter Christian. You can assume by the alma mater that I enjoyed being smarter. This has not changed.

A Long Obedience

Peterson stayed with me while others faded. He taught me early in my faith about a long obedience in the same direction and how to run with horses. He taught me what most nineteen-year-olds need to learn yet rarely can—how to allow for failure, to expect slowness rather than instant effectiveness. He taught me that discipleship was a hard road that required perseverance, not five-point plans.

Of course, I didn’t know I needed to know all that.

You can see how old the book is by the photo. I no longer go by that name. Haven’t for decades. I no longer mark my belongings with unicorn stamps either, although given the magic of books, it’s not amiss.

There are arrows and asterisks and a few underlines in the text of A Long Obedience. Not many. I was still at an age where I believed books were not to be written in, sacred pages that should remain virgin white because someone in a library had told me that probably.

I didn’t know that a book is made more sacred by its highlighting, underlining, exclamation points, and creases. I bet Peterson could have taught me that, too.

The chapter that contains most all the underlining is called “Joy: Our Mouth Was Filled with Laughter.” I clearly felt the need for joy at that point. Not surprising, since my college years were flooded with grief at my mother’s passing a few weeks before high school graduation, my dad’s descent into alcoholism, and a close friend’s suicide. Peterson met me when I needed joy, and I didn’t know how to acquire it on my own.

“One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find. We come to God because none of us has it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. We try to get it through entertainment. Society is a bored, gluttonous king, employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal.

But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing.”

Did Peterson pave the way in my soul to be one of those who would not rest without excavating what God was doing? Did he play a role in my decision not to pursue law school but ministry instead?

I know, from my note-taking, that he offered me a way to find the joy that had evaporated from my heart. Choosing joy is a decision I would have to make over and over, given my propensity to be more negative than the average bear. Somewhere in that long obedience, the joy stuck, and the negativity is what evaporated, though it’s always a beast that requires patrolling of the borders.

Peterson found me when I needed a wise pastor, and that he was. I hope he helped make me a wise pastor in return. Thank you, good brother, for being who you were and for speaking words that will not die with you.

Is Friendly Enough?

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Welcoming isn’t the same as “you belong here.”

Everyone welcomes you when you’re the new one in the group exercise room. Are they friendly, or are they just grateful that someone in the room is going to look dorkier than they do now? Time will tell, especially when they all politely turn aside when you lose your balance doing side kicks.

Whatever the reason, people welcomed me to the three exercise classes I started attending a couple weeks ago. They smiled, pushed mats over the accommodate me, and asked about my morning. I was going to fit in with this group, despite the fact that they all have grey hair and talk about their grandkids. Who cares? We’re all nice people enjoying our morning together.

But Really . . .

Halfway through the class, we walked out onto the track, and I noticed right away that my celebration had been premature. People paired up. They walked together in twos or threes, talking about whatever concerns life had brought them that day. I’m sure they knew one another’s concerns. I’m certain they walked with the people they were accustomed to pairing with—people who had spent time with them and knew them enough to be used to one another.

No one hung back to walk with me. No one chatted with me about silly nothings or major somethings, either one. I walked alone, while the other twelve enjoyed one another’s company.

Is Our Church “Friendly?”

That’s when i realized the difference that many churches never recognize. There is friendly, and there is welcoming someone into belonging. You can welcome someone to church, but are you welcoming them into the life of the church?

It’s so easy to smile and welcome a person but then turn to those we are used to, the ones who know us, and spend our actual interaction time there. A new person is genuinely greeted with friendliness. We sincerely want him or her there. But then we turn to our accustomed habits. We talk to our comfortable friends. We leave the welcomed person to feel on the outside, finding a friendly people but not finding access to their circle of friendship. 

Being Access Givers

A lot of churches need to work on being access-givers. Often we’ve put a lot of emphasis on ensuring that new people find the process of coming to church seamless and simple, but how much work have we put into making sure they feel like they’ve been to a community rather than an IKEA? How often do we open our small circles and invite someone in who’s standing on the outside?

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Photo courtesy of Emptyplatefullheart

I’ve been that person on the outside more times than I like to remember. I can tell you—that person is dying for more than a smile and directions to children’s ministry. Here are five ways to make someone feel like she belongs, not like she’s just welcomed.

  • Open the circle. Literally. Look away from your group of friends and find someone who needs to be pulled in. Go to her. She won’t come to you.
  • Ask questions. She isn’t likely to offer a lot of information. She’s nervous. So make her feel you care by asking about her life. What brought you here? What’s your family look like? How long have you lived here?
  • Find a common denominator. Do you have the same age kids, the same work field, equally annoying relatives? Hobbies/ TV shows? You’ll have to talk a while to find out. There is likely to be something you share that forms a bond.
  • Introduce her to someone. Does she crochet? Introduce her to someone else who does. Is she a mechanical engineer? You might know someone with whom she can talk about those things (I would not be that person. Introduce me to the person who can quote Shakespeare or Dr. Who. Doesn’t matter which.)
  • If it seems right and not pushy, invite her to something else. Lunch after church would be marvelous. A MOPS group. Your Bible study or your planned night out for Margaritas. Whatever. 
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Going for coffee is always good.

Being friendly is something you can get from a Walmart greeter. Making someone feel they belong is the art and the work of Christian community. Let’s do it to his glory.

“May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory.” — Romans 15.5-7

Level One

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I look just like this in class. Exactly this.

The class is called Strictly Strength. The title and description intimidated me right off. I am not strong, strictly or otherwise.I imagined kettle bells and giant weights and me, collapsed on the floor, begging for the water bottle I inevitably forgot to bring.  Being sick a couple years back took all the muscle I had away, and strength has been a bit elusive since that point.

So while the sound of it was terrifying, the promise was worth the risk. I jumped in as the class newbie.

Level Up?

Surprise—there are levels to being strong. For just about any move the instructor taught us, she explained that there was a level one and a level two—or even three. There are options! There are large weights, and there are small ones. There are heavier bars and lighter bars. (And now I know I have to get there earlier if I want a lighter bar.) There are moves that test your further than other, easier possibilities. I did not have to walk in the room and lift a kettle bell above my head on the first day. Thank you, sweet eight-pound baby Jesus. That would have been ugly.

The most important thing I learned right away though—

There is no shame in staying at Level One.

Oh, I want to be at Level Two. I want to do the harder twists, the longer planks, the tighter crunches. But the part of me that is tired of injury remembers that is why I am doing this—to avoid hurting those parts of me that have gotten bruised, pulled, and pained by doing too much.

So I keep it slow. And steady.

Other people can do the full planks. I stick to the hands and knees ones. Someone else may be able to do double leg lifts. I will happily do them one at a time. Maybe one day I will do those harder things, but right now, I’m at Level One. And that’s an OK place to be.

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Church Has Levels, Too

Some of us show up to church at Level One. We don’t know the songs. We aren’t comfortable singing in public, anyway. We get part of what the pastor’s talking about, but some of the things are fuzzy, and we’re not sure how they apply to our situation. We don’t want to volunteer, because we’ve been burned out, and we’ve been called out by the person who felt we just couldn’t get it right. We don’t understand the unspoken cadence of the service that informs everyone else to stand up, sit down, or dip the bread in that cup rather than drink the juice.

Everyone else seems to be at Level Three, at least.

We want to be. We want to pretend we know the lingo, act like we’ve got our life together. But then we remember why we’re there—because we want to stop the hurt that happens when we are fake. We hate the bruises, pains, and sprains in our hearts over trying to be what we’re not.

Maybe church is a place where it’s OK to be at Level One. At least, we hope so. We long for grace for those who aren’t quite ready for the heavier lifting. We pray there is kindness for the ones who need the lighter weights, and we wish for others who can bear more to offer us their shoulders and their lighter burdens. We hope that, if anyone notices we can’t do what the seasoned attenders can do, they will not point that out but treat us as if there were no differences at all.

There is no shame in staying at Level One.

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Searching for Sunday

Church should always welcome the Level One folks. Partly, because Jesus told us to. Partly, because we were all Level One at some point. Party, because they have something to teach us.

If you’re trying church for the first time, or if you’re back for the first time since something there hurt you immeasurably, don’t push it. Don’t expect to be lifting the 25-pounders your second day. Don’t think you have to know all the moves in order to fit in. Embrace awkward. Know that you don’t know and that it’s OK. Know that sometimes you can’t manage whatever task it seems everyone else is taking on, and that’s OK, too.

Level Two will come.

It doesn’t really matter how long it takes. I makes not one bit of difference how long you have to keep doing one leg lifts. You’ll get there. You’ll grow stronger. Maybe one day you’ll see that person who doesn’t seem to know the steps and you’ll say to yourself, “Oh—I remember that. I’m stronger than I thought. I think I can be a shoulder for her.” That day, you’ll be the grace someone else needs to poke her head in the door and say, “Maybe I’ll try this. It’s scary, but maybe it’s just what I need.”