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)

Five Things I Have Learned about Doing that Scary Thing

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Since my kidney transplant eight years ago, I have tried a lot of new adventures. So when I saw the Mrs. Disciple linkup for this week of Five New Experiences, I thought this would be easy. Having survived a disease that had killed several members of my family gave me a feeling of empowerment to tackle other scary things. It also made me wonder why I had wasted so much time not trying.

So from those tries,

Five Things I Have Learned about Doing that Scary Thing

1. Have rules to live by

When I’m faced with backing down or trying something new that scares me, I resort to two decision-making rules—two questions I ask myself.

1—Am I likely to ever get this chance again?

2—Will I regret not doing this?

These two questions have propelled me into all kinds of adventures.

Some years ago, on a vacation to Nova Scotia, we discovered a zipline company. It was pretty simple—one long line down a mountain. The girls were eager to try. I was . . . not so much. When we arrived, we discovered that they only accepted cash, and wouldn’t you know, we had only enough Canadian dollars for four. Not five.

We probably could have negotiated a group rate, or offered him American cash, which he certainly would have taken. But instead, I looked at the loooong zipline running to the ground and said, “Um, I’ll make the sacrifice. You guys go.” I wasn’t chickening out. We didn’t have the cash, right?

I was totally chickening out.

And I regretted that decision for years.

They had a glorious time doing something they’d never tried, and I just had to hear about it and wish I had decided differently.

Now, when I look at something like the art museum in the meaner streets of Pittsburgh and wonder, Should I get out of my safe locked car and go in?, I know that I will regret not seeing this thing I will probably never see again. And it gives me courage.

IMG_6099Now, when I am standing at the start of a ropes course that did not look at all scary from the ground, I know I will regret not trying. (And, because I did this two days ago, I also know I don’t need to do it again.)

Now, when I wonder if I should take a random road trip to Austin on the spur of the moment, I understand that this opportunity will not come again, and what’s to be lost?

In my experience there, that drive friendly thing? Delusional.

These two questions have been some of the best two things I’ve ever asked myself.

Am I likely to ever get this chance again?

Will I regret not doing this?

Which adventure leads to lesson #2–

2. Use the Buddy System

When we had another chance in Costa Rica, this time on a course of six lines, I took it. The first line was terrifying. I wobbled off it, feeling unwell and woozy. I considered calling it a day and saying I tried. When the guide saw me tilting a bit, he said, “This next one is the mile-long line. We’re going tandem, you and me.” It was stunning–and fun. I managed the other four lines just fine.

If he had not seen my need and offered me his borrowed strength to get through the next tough spot? I would never have been able to negotiate a mile-long zipline. I’d have been dangling there somewhere above the rain forest canopy praying for God to take me quickly before I died of terror. But with someone else to offer expertise, encouragement, and strong arms for the task? I saw the waterfalls, treetops, and blue skies I otherwise would have missed. I felt the freedom of soaring into the wind and the rush of planting my feet firmly on the platform having done the job.

When a new experience frightens us, we need a buddy. We need someone to tell us we can do it, to threaten us if need be, to remind us that with God and with the gifts he has given, we do not have to be afraid. Grab a friend and do that scary thing together.

3. Don’t underestimate yourself

IMG_4894.JPGOn our “grand tour” to Europe five years ago, after my husband left to go back home, the four of us ladies (three daughters and I) were left to navigate the continent on our own. In the first few days, we were stalled by a transportation strike in Italy. Stranded in Venice, we hauled suitcases up and down stairs, managed to locate the Grand Canal, hopped aboard the only moving train with no reservations and no real idea of how we would get where we needed to go, and eventually got there.

It was frustrating. It was exhausting. I may or may not have said words a pastor doesn’t say. But you know what else it was? Empowering. We did it. We got where we needed to go, in a strange country with a strange language, and we did it with a sense of humor. When I would normally have leaned on my husband to do the scary hard things, I had to do them myself. And I learned that I could.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg notes that “Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is.” Isn’t that the truth in your experience? I know it is in mine. I detest performance self-evaluations. I just don’t want to talk about how well I think I’m doing. Most of us feel more comfortable talking about how much we think we’re failing than how we think we’re crushing it. That’s sad.

Trying new experiences can be a chance for us to say, I can do hard thing. I can do this. And it feels good. Especially when you’re finally on the train and you can put those suitcases down.

Most of us feel more comfortable talking about how much we think we’re failing than how we think we’re crushing it.

4. Not trying is the only failure

Another latest new experience has been becoming a friendship partner to a refugee family. This is so out of my comfort zone. I don’t do strangers. I don’t do small talk. I don’t do situations where I don’t know what my job is supposed to be. I definitely don’t do sit on a couch awkwardly not knowing what to say and not even knowing how to say it in a way a non-English speaker will understand. But it seemed suddenly so minute to worry about my discomfort when faced with masses of people for whom discomfort was quite the relative term.

Honestly? It’s not going well. I keep sending text messages, calling, trying to set up appointments. And I don’t get answers. I’m frustrated. I want to quit. I won’t, not until I know that it’s just not going to work.

Even if I do end up quitting though, there is value in the trying. Learning something from a new experience that didn’t work is not failing. It’s obedience. I hope I works out, and I will continue to work with the organization in other capacities if it doesn’t. But if that happens, I will have tried. I won’t regret not trying. And I will have learned.


5. Listen to the call, not the catcall

I did something brand new this week that is possibly the most terrifying thing ever. I applied to be a senior pastor. I never thought that was something I would do, and I have no idea if it will end up happening. Surprisingly, I am at complete peace with the whole thing. Also surprisingly, I have been having recurring bad dreams about the whole thing. Apparently, my subconscious is not nearly as unafraid as my conscious.

Dreams like, I am asked to preach and find myself in front of a Willow-Creek-size sort of crowd. With my sermon slides projected in Disneyworld-like 360-surround and a giant spotlight on . . . me. I’m not particularly frightened of speaking to crowds, so this has not yet reached nightmare proportions. Until I go to pull out my trusty new iPad with sermon notes, and I find that instead I have a pocket full of crumpled up receipts, paper scraps, and napkins on which those notes are scratched. I am standing there trying to uncrumple twenty papers, put them in order, and read the tiny bad handwriting. In front of thousands of critical people.

Yep, this is where it turns Chucky Doll scary. I do have recurring bad dreams of not being prepared for things. They have escalated.

But see, this is also where I have to pull back and remember a few things. I am called. God has asked, “Yes or no?” And I have answered. I don’t have to listen to the voices that tell me I’m not enough or I will surely fail. I only have to listen to His voice. If He says walk right into this new scary thing, it means He will walk with me. That little word “with”? A tiny preposition in English. You know what it means in Hebrew? Alongside me, behind me, before me, above and below and all around me. Enveloped by God. That’s pretty good assurance to head into that scary thing.

What’s your next scary thing? Maybe it might be a good thing to try.

It’s Your Party and I’ll Come if I Want To

I am a party failure. True story. In this month of talking about community, I’ve got to come clean. I cannot throw a party. Other than unicorn/princess/Harry Potter themed birthday parties that have long since seen their day. My baby is almost twenty. She is not so into letting me plan gift bags with glitter tattoos and a rainbow cake anymore. But at those kinds of parties—I was a boss. Just so you know.
But now? Friends, neighbors, coworkers—all those people you want to have over and just kick back and have fun around the backyard fire? Fail. I have them, and no one comes.

Party Fail

I once threw a surprise birthday party. And No. One. Came. Do you know what it’s like to sit around with a big tub of sour cream and onion dip and and pretend to your spouse (the birthday-ee) that no, there was just a good sale so you bought that industrial-sized cheetos bag for only the two of you? I cannot even remember how I explained the Happy Birthday banner. Whatever, people. It’s been over 25 years; I think we’ve moved on.
But it’s not just me. See, I googled it this morning. There are pages of stories of people who have thrown parties to which no one came. Advice columns. Blogs. Humor essays. Ugly crying in latte essays. All over the world, people throw parties and no one comes. I thought it was just me.
In fact, it’s endemic.
No one RSVP’s anymore because everyone is just planning to wait until the day to see if they feel like it or not. 

Guilty as charged. 
And the reality is, on the day, more often than not inertia sets in. No matter how much you think you should go or you know you’d enjoy it, the pull of not changing the status quo is too great. We don’t go. We find better things to do. We find nothing to do, which is often what we need after a hard day/week/year. 
I am one of these people. I know of what I speak.
But while I talk about how important it is to create community, I have to be honest, too. I am a community creating failure. And I know it’s not just me. Lots of us are feeling the same way. How do we create a community in the midst of a culture that won’t commit, needs downtime like we need oxygen, and considers relationships as disposable as hitting the “unfriend”button on facebook? How do we not just quit when no one shows up to our lives?
I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t be a party fail. But I have found some interesting tips. I am terrible at most of the things experts say to do, so there is that. Maybe some of these ideas will stick. But honestly, I don’t know.

Timing Is Everything

In her blog, Conrinna Gordon-Barnes writes, “In my experience, there’s an optimal time frame between too lengthy notice and too short notice. Experiment and find what works for the people you want to invite.” In other words, my method of inviting people to come to an event in approximately ten minutes probably isn’t the best modus operandi. Figure out what the magic window is for your people. They’ll still cancel or not RSVP, but you’ve set yourself up for a better chance.

Personal Touch

I hate rejection. I hate leaving people out. So I don’t invite people personally. I make blanket invitations. Those almost never work, according to professionals (and according to all those would-be party throwers crying into their drink of choice whose blogs I read). With a blanket invite, people feel free, almost empowered, to not show up. Someone else will. It wasn’t meant for me anyway. I’ll come next time. Here’s a big hurdle for me. I need to do better.

Make ‘Em Pay

Not literally. But most experts tell us that having some kind of stake in the commitment makes people keep their word. If someone commits to bringing the flaming pumpkin dessert, he or she is not as likely to flake out on you at the last minute because the ex-boyfriend is back in town and maybe they’ll get back together. That’s good news for you and for the dessert bringer.
This is hard for me, because I prefer low key, casual, come and go. If you can you can, if you can’t, no worries. But more often than not, can’t is what happens.
I don’t know the answer. I really don’t.

But I know this. I need to be a better committer if I want this elusive thing called community.  . Maybe that’s the real answer. Maybe it’s not learning how to throw a better shindig or understanding the exact equation for maximum attendance. Maybe it’s as simple as being a committed friend. Being what I want to see. Because like I said, I am so one of the guilty people.

And the truth is, sometimes, we need to be. Sometimes, we do need to take some stuff off our schedule and say no. But sometimes? I think we overdo that.

The late Chuck Colson writes, “The basic building blocks of society simply erode without commitment. Any sensible society must address this problem by educating people that commitment is the very essence of human relationships. When we refuse to commit, we miss out on one of the great joys of life. When we obsess over ourselves, we lose the meaning of life, which is to know and serve God and love and serve our neighbors.”

If I want to be a better community-maker, I need to serve.  .Not hors-d’oeurvres. People. I need to be the commitment I want to see. Oh, that’s scary. And uncomfortable. And opening myself up right now to anyone who reads this and says, “Hmm. I can guilt her into whatever I want at this point.”

But scary is sometimes the best thing we need to move forward.

Do you have any answers for community building? Anything that’s worked for you? Any failure stories you’d like to share (so I don’t feel so alone)? Start the conversation below!