Plain Old Church

It’s April. Easter is over, Pentecost is on the horizon, and soon Jesus will begin to create his church.

IMG_5849Church. It can be a hard word. It can even stick in your throat a bit, if you’ve eve sucked back the bile of hurtful words and judgmental glances when you weren’t doing the church thing right, or you asked too many questions in Bible class, or your children did not behave like the pastor’s kids. (My unruly children were the pastor’s kids. Oh well.)

Or maybe you’ve seen too many TV preachers to trust anyone who stands in authority and tells you what the Bible says and doesn’t say and what that all means for your day-to-day. Does it mean anything, really, for my carpool duty or cubicle sitting or soccer sidelining?

Maybe you’ve seen too many Christians.

I’ve met enough of you to know that “church” evokes different reactions from different people. Some love it. Some hate it. Most falter somewhere in between, unsure, if they would admit it, they know why they get up very week (or two), dress the kids, and sing songs with a bunch of other pilgrims.

Some of us have been hurt. Some have done the hurting Some have no idea what the fuss is all about. But “church” is a loaded word, fraught with emotion. Let’s spend some time exploring the why of church. The meaning of church. The possibilities of church. I would love to hear your experiences. Here’s mine.

According to the Bible, the church is supposed to be a family. Sometimes, families are hard. Addiction to self-righteousness runs as strongly in some churches as addiction to alcohol runs in my genetic inheritance. Inability to remove masks and be honest with one another is as common in church as my mother’s inability to go without her salon appointment to be rolled, starched, and blonded once a week.

IMG_5687For most of my childhood, I had no idea my mother was not blonde. Until I saw a photo of her at fifteen, I was unaware she had beautiful brown, wavy locks. But that was not the look prized in the 60’s; hence, weekly beauty salon appointments.

Our real selves are often not the prized look in church. Hence, hiding behind perfect, plastic expressions that guard everything and mean nothing. And who can blame anyone for deciding that a weekly dose of that impeccable unreality is not necessary, or helpful?

Maybe you’re afraid church, and maybe that’s why.

IMG_5796You may be a weekly-attending dotted-line-signed member of an actual church, one with a venerable name like First Something-or-other of the Apostles, or a cool, hipster name like Journey Place. You may come every so often, whenever the mood strikes or the kids ask or it’s raining so there’s nothing to do outside. You may have walked away, hurt or confused or both.

I don’t know. Once, I left the megachurch my husband and I had ben attending for a few months to find a smaller church, one where we could feel known and needed. Once, I left my small church to attend a megachurch for a season, a place where I could be anonymous and unseen and unhurt by the things that had wounded me in our old congregation. You just never know.

I don’t make a habit of leaving. I’ve never not gone to church since giving my life to Jesus at sixteen. (Unless you count freshman year of college when I didn’t have a car, didn’t want to commit and hey, did want to sleep in. OK, I guess you have to count that.)

If anything, I am fiercely loyal to a fault. I won’t quit on anything until everyone else has gone home and all the lights are out. When I did walk away from the one bad church experience, it took someone else close to me to state the obvious—“Why are you still there? They are treating you terribly and you are miserable!” Even then, I didn’t leave. I just mentally checked out. The church had to actually close for me to leave.

I can be stubborn. Was it Churchill who said “never, never, never give up”? I am Churchill when it comes to quitting.

Leaving is a last resort. But sometimes, last resorts become the only things that keep us sane.

When Rachel Held Evans writes about driving away from her church, knowing she would not be back, she says that she wept, wondering who would bring her casseroles if one day she had a baby? She didn’t cry for casseroles. She cried for community.

IMG_4707We need community. We need family. We need a tribe. We need it locally, not on the internet, although those people are lovely and quite needed when our “in real life” gets rough and no one completely understands.

We need a church. But church gives us a nervous tic.

I could spend a long time on the whys of going to church. It’s been a constant for me, when much of my life was in upheaval. Church was always there, in its imperfection, calling me to one thing certain, one sure peace.

For now, I’ll just say I get it. I get why you are wherever you are. I want to talk about what it should look like. I want to explore how we get past the ticks and the scars. I want to learn how to find our tribe. For now, I’ll leave you with Sarah Bessey’s words, words that echo my feelings about why I, too, show up in a school gym once a week. (Besides the fact that I am the pastor, and not showing up would be a little unacceptable.)

“In a fractured and mobile and hypercustomized world, intentional community—plain old church—feels like a radical act of faith and sometimes like a spiritual discipline. We show up at a rented school and drink a cup of tea with the people of God. And we remember together who we are and why we live this life, and we figure out all over again how to be disciples of the Way.” (Sarah Bessey, Out of Sorts)

Too Whatever (Being Real, and Grateful, about Our Bodies)

It’s been a year. A year and a half, actually. Eighteen months since I began a health odyssey that started as an innocent stomach bug and ended much later. Well, it hasn’t really ended, but I can see the finish line from here.
 

Long Story Sort of Short

The stomach bug didn’t end in 24 hours like it’s MO says it should. It didn’t end at all. To summarize, for over a year, I could not eat much, had constant abdominal pain, could not get up and do anything for more than fifteen minutes before exhaustion set in, had a body temperature like I was floating on an iceberg, and had to stay in immediate proximity to a bathroom at all times. TMI? My friend, you have no idea. I will never again underestimate the value of normal bowels. Just saying.

 
I lost over 50 pounds involuntarily. That’s not as awesome as many women assume. Because it was so fast and unhealthy, all the muscle mass has gone bye-bye with the fat. Do you know there are muscles in places you never even thought of that you need to function? Like even vocal muscles? Yeah, truth.
 
Why am I inflicting this story on you, like you just got stuck in the DMV line behind the old lady who wants to tell you her entire pitiful health history, in graphic detail, just before getting a driver’s license you are quite certain she should not have, given that history?*
 
There is a point.
 
A year and a half ago, I could not imagine uttering phrases like “I really need to gain some weight.” A year and a half ago, I would look in a mirror, or at a photograph, and think, “Eew. Look at that fat stomach and those chubby short legs. I hate the way I look.”
 
I knew this was wrong. I preach all the time about girls owning their bodies and not being ashamed of them. But what we say and know to be true and what we feel in our hearts are not always the same deal, are they?
 
Now I look at photos and think, “Eeew. I look like a poster for a ‘Don’t Do Meth, Kids’ campaign.”
 
My arms and neck are scrawny; they look like I imagine my mom’s would have if she had lived to be 80. I am not 80. Or even orbiting in its proximity. I have bags and creases the size of an elephant’s under my eyes as a result of of chronic dehydration. Half of my hair has gone AWOL. And that famous thigh gap? Yeah, got that, too. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it’s made out to be.
 
Before.
Now. A picture I really hate. I give it to you.

Too fat. Too skinny. Too fill in the blank. Whatever, people.
I am over it. 

Ten Seconds of Awesome

For about ten seconds in the last eighteen months, I looked like we always fantasize—exactly the right weight. Then the scales tipped too far the other direction, and self-criticism set in again. And I realized, how dumb is that? To only feel confident about how you look for ten seconds of your life? What a waste of the other millions of seconds.
 
Is constant self-criticism really a good use of the time God gave me?  . 
 
Is a focus on the unattainable a colossal waste of what I can attain right now, today?  .
 
Do I care too much about what counts too little?  .
 
Have I failed to be grateful for the amazing gift of a body that’s alive, no matter what it looks like? Have I failed to be thankful for a soul that’s alive?
 
So you know what? I’m owning it. At least, I’m trying to. Let’s be real, here, I am a proud creature, as are most of us. I don’t like looking at photos of myself when I look far worse than I want. Yet I wantto want those photos. I want to own them. This is who I am, this is what I look like, and this is where God has brought me.
 
And to deny that and be ashamed of seeing it, looking at it, letting others see the truth and beauty of what it looks like to be deconstructed and revived? Thats a worse kind of pride I don’t want to harbor. It’s a pride that won’t let others in because I only want them to see the image I want to portray. It’s not ministry–it’s just selfish. It’s thinking so much about me I don’t ever look away from the selfie to see the ones who need me to be real for them.
 
I want to spend November being grateful on the blog. You know, because, Thanksgiving.
 

Grateful is Good

Today, I am grateful. I am grateful for where I am. I am grateful for what I’ve learned. I am so grateful to be alive, to be getting healthy, and to see an end to this long tale. I do NOT take for granted that I can get up and have energy to do life anymore. 

 
A year and a half of enforced nothingness has taught me gratitude for just about everything my body can do and did do before without considering what a miracle that is. I am grateful for whatever that body looks like, in whatever stage it is, because it works. It functions. It is capable of doing whatever it needs to do to be what God wants me to be. I have been forcefully reminded that this is really all it needs to be.
 
Grateful.
 
What do you need to be? What are you not owning as yours, as something God can and will use? Look at it. Take a picture. Whatever works. Say thank you. Even if you don’t really mean it just yet. Saying it starts the work of meaning it.

* True funny/slightly terrifying story. I once had a woman hit my car five times with her car door because she could not figure out that she had parked too close to me to be able to get out of her car. (The full parking job is a story unto itself.) She just kept hitting me, perplexed as to why it would not open. I was Sitting. In. the Car. She proceeded to get out of the car (after finally reparking, a half dozen times), grab her walker, and get into line at the DMV. Jesus hold us all if that lady actually got a renewal and is on the roads.

 

(Don’t) Clean up Your Mess

Hey, what’s wrong with messes? We look great, right?

The more I live with people instead of just coexisting in proximity, the more I recognize something—there are a of of messed up people out there. Even more messed up than I am. Yes, true story.

The other thing I’ve come to recognize is that being messed up is not necessarily a bad thing. Neat lives are often a sign of lives so carefully curated that they are museum dioramas, not lives. And the thing about museum dioramas? They’re full of dead things. Stuffed dead things. This is not appealing to most of us as an environment.
A little bit of mess signals a life that’s lived in, like a couch with graham cracker crumbs welded to the underside of the cushions. That life has taken risks, known joy, and has the stains to prove it. Some messes are dangerous, toxic spills that needs to be cleaned up out of our lives. But others? We need them to prove we’re alive.
I never wanted or imagined the mess of a loved one with mental illness and attendant self-destructive behavior. Given the choice, I’d have picked the carefully curated life. Having chosen that, I would have missed out on a lot that has made me alive.
I had no idea I was living amid dead things.
Sometimes messes just mean something better is coming.

Because of that experience, I’ve been able to share a lot with people whose lives are broken in various ways, and similar variations on a theme keep returning. It’s hard. It hurts. But we have learned so much. When you’re in the slime and mud of the mess, though, you really want to know what exactly people have learned. What could possibly make this worthwhile? What could anyone tell me to make me appreciate this wrenching time of uncertainty?

I’m not sure. I suspect that when people are slogging through those times is not always the best opportunity to offer sage advice. Most of us aren’t ready to hear it when the pain is shrieking louder than the wisdom. But people ask. What do you find out about life, and yourself, when your world is a mess? How do you even survive?
The answer to the second question is easy: God’s grace and insistent love. Nothing more or less.
The answer to the first could go on a while. But here are a few thoughts.

I learned that grace was a choice I didn’t make often enough.

I had theoretically believed in grace, but operationally, I extended it mostly to those who didn’t look like they needed it. For those with rough edges and incomprehensible, annoying behavior? Maybe when they got themselves together. My reality of grace was not even close to God’s dream of it for me. I had no idea that grace looked a lot more like hugging a drug addict than praying for lunch at Panera.
“Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday)
I never understood that before. I didn’t really want to. Now, I don’t want anything else.

I learned that love is always a good thing to decide.

You might get hurt. You will be taken advantage of. But love reserved for those who deserve it and won’t tamper with it is not love at all. It’s a calculated investment. CS Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”
I didn’t understand that until I had to choose to love not only my loved one in a mess but the people it brought into our lives. It seemed God put them there despite what I wanted, so the only real choice was to love them. And they did, indeed, break my heart. But broken hearts are the best kind for letting others inside.   . God’s dream for me was to lavish unconditional love, as He did. My reality had been fearful half loving.

I learned to honestly believe that He loves us.

He loves our messes. Really.
He can handle them.

Driving with a loved one to a potential prison sentence is about as messy as it gets. Until in the middle of praying you hear those words on the radio, “If His grace is an ocean we’re all sinking; oh, how He loves us so.” And you realize for perhaps the first, or at least the most profound, time that they are true. Not just for you but for the person sitting next to you. And all those other persons out there who have messes in their lives and need that grace like an ocean. He loves. Beyond our imagination.

 

He takes care of the messes, beyond our imagination. All the worries and terrors and anxieties about them do nothing helpful, while putting the mess in His hands and leaving it there always does. Because He Loves are the most needed and true words you will ever hear, and they are bedrock when life feels more like a mudslide than a picnic.
I don’t know if you’re feeling messy right now, and I don’t know if it helps to be told those things. Maybe you have to learn them yourself in the fire. I think, though, that at least it helps to know someone else has been in that mess, and it has not won.
Something better is still coming.
We still have not finished this mess.

Have you seen the sign some people hang in their kitchen that reads “God Bless This Mess”? Yeah. That’s about right. Ask Him to. He will.