On The Pain of Going to Church and How Community Orchestra Helped

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It was hard to be in church yesterday.

Trump won the US presidential election, and it is no secret to readers of this blog that I was sad about that (although I will respect him and pray for his government). But I was sadder still that pollsters said more than 80% of evangelical Christians voted for him, and so it was hard to go to worship in an American evangelical church on Sunday morning. With a US flag up front. Even though the prayer was tender, and the sermon spoke so directly and kindly about loving our Muslim neighbors. It was hard to be there.

I was sad about how divided the church is.

I was sad about how much damage we’ve done to each other and the witness of the Gospel in the world by presuming to speak for God with “endorsements as Christians.”

I was sad about what felt like a win for fear and divisiveness, when the church is supposed to be about mercy, radical welcome, the kingdom of God, and love.

hate feeling this way. I feel a bone-deep grief for the church and our community, and I’m wrestling with my own attitudes and judgments towards other believers who are just as loved by God but who seem to come to such different conclusions about life. “What a mess we are. What a mess I am,” I wailed as I drove alone in my car yesterday afternoon. “What do you think of this, God?” I challenged.

He didn’t say anything.

I had to cut my prayer rant short and find parking: I’d arrived at the community hall where a local chamber orchestra was giving a recital. I brushed the tears off my face and slipped into the back row. They had just started the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th: a well-known and well-loved piece if ever there was one.

And friends, it was…. how shall I put this? It was…. not the best rendition of Beethoven I’ve ever heard. I confess I winced more than once in the first few minutes, particularly when the cellos sounded discordant (I’m not sure if that’s because the strings section was weaker or because I am particularly aware of cellos since it’s the only orchestra instrument I’ve ever played.)

But it wasn’t long before my wincing was replaced by more tears as God gently walked me through a series of thoughts:

“This doesn’t sound very good, but I couldn’t play any better than this.”

“The skill level of each of these individuals is pretty high, but getting people to play music together is so much harder than playing alone.”

“A player’s individual weaknesses are sometimes disguised by the sound of the group, but each person’s weakness also lowers the overall quality of sound.”

“And when they’re not listening to each other or the conductor, it sounds particularly messy.”

And then,

“Each one of these musicians knows how this piece is supposed to sound. And each of them knows that it doesn’t sound like they wish it did. Perhaps they’re tempted to quit because they don’t want to be a part of something that sounds so awkward. And yet they keep playing. It doesn’t sound as it should but it’s better than it did when they first started rehearsing. And so, they keep playing, and doing their best. Measure by measure. Movement by movement.

“If the cellists were to realize they were the weakest in the group and simply stopped playing, the whole thing would fall apart. All the parts matter. Rather like 1 Corinthians 12. Who are we to honor one part above another, or say to any one else “I don’t need you?”

“And, still, they are making music. Listen, that part with the pizzicato was lovely. Listen, your heart beat faster in that section. Listen, awkward as it is at times, they are making music together and look: it is finished, and you are clapping, and you mean it.”

God showed me a glimpse of the church as his little community orchestra, filled with faithful-and-far-from-perfect musicians. Each person with their skills. Each person with their weaknesses. All of us letting the others down at times, and yet all of us soldiering on together at the conductor’s urging. Sometimes the combined sound makes us wince, but what shall we do? We’re not where we should be yet, but God knows: we have to keep playing.

So I’ll go back to church on Sunday, and I will focus my efforts on playing as faithfully as I can and keeping my eyes trained on the Great Conductor. We all will. And one day, we will look back, and we will have muddled through and made music together, and we will be glad.

The Ministry of The Happy Chicken

Not long ago, I met with a vivacious young woman who is just entering into vocational ministry. We shared parts of our stories as the ice clinked encouragingly in our lemonade glasses. Towards the end of our time together—which had started out with the awkwardness of strangers but then blended into story-telling and a host of “me too” moments—she seemed to remember herself and why she was here and, squaring her shoulders and getting back into “ministry-mode”, she asked me how I’d seen God at work through me recently.

It wasn’t so much the wording of the question as the timing and the tone of it, but I laughed (I can be rude that way). I told her that it had been a long time since I felt like I needed to give an accounting for my ministry. There was a time when I sat down at a computer and labored over a monthly report back to those who were supporting me financially and in prayer, and while I know none of them expected a graph chart with numbers of students converted and bibles distributed, in truth I did feel that I needed to give an account. Which sometimes might include numbers.

These days, I told her, when it comes to seeing God at work, I’m taking a longer view. Like moving from the narrative arc of a Pixar short movie to epic full-length features. “I have no idea whether what I’m doing is successful or fruitful,” I confessed, “it’s really hard to take an account of that when you’re in the day-in and day-out of it with kids, and when you have no idea who reads your stuff and whether it makes any difference. So I’m aiming for faithfulness. To be kind today. To tell the truth today. To show my neighbor the gospel today, perhaps by taking their trash bin in or watching someone’s kids while they are at the doctor. That’s about all. I really wouldn’t have much to put in a monthly ministry newsletter.”

Friends, even to me this answer sounds a little like a cop-out: should I not be more strategic? intentional? make the most of every opportunity? Maybe. I have certainly trained others in ministry to be strategic in their goals over the years. But then again: I myself have been under the tutelage of the Happy Chicken.the ministry of the

Meet my Happy Chicken.

This hot water bottle was a gift from my sister nearly twenty years ago. I think it was a birthday present, but I can’t be sure. But I remember thinking it was hilarious. My sister and I had joked for years about a Far Side Cartoon in which a forlorn man sits on a bed while a chicken looks on from the window sill. The caption read: “the bluebird of happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the chicken of depression.”

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Of COURSE when my sister saw the hot water bottle chicken, she had to have it. (She’s always been one excellent gift-giver.) And so, the chicken of depression made its way into my home. Within a few years, I was finding my way into ministry, and found an increasing number of people sitting on my couch sharing their stories with me. Some were very, very sad; and armed as I was my newly-minted-theological-education, sometimes I tried to help with comforting explanations. But as we all know, this was almost never the right thing to say or do. For even if the hurting person’s lips are asking why did this happen, their hearts are asking who will be with me in this? And so, slowly, I learned to shut up and listen. It became something of a formula: tears would spring up, and I would offer tea, a pair of socks, and the chicken… because it helps to have something warm to hold, and the kettle was boiled anyway. (It didn’t seem appropriate, somehow to tell people that this was the Chicken of Depression, after all.)serious_chicken_by_sandra_boynton_canvas_print-r1f5f44ee6a7b480d9bf43daad7546afa_wt7_8byvr_324

Over time, friends who got to know my chicken re-named it: the Happy Chicken. And years later, when I discovered the wonder of all things Sandra Boynton and met her happy chicken characters who bore a striking resemblance to mine, the name was formalized.

I think, in some in-my-bones kind of way, the Happy Chicken taught me that the simplicity of listening and welcome offers Christian comfort in a way that even my best theology does not. Jesus did teach many truths about God, and God had been speaking comforting, true words for a long, long time before that. But Jesus came. He sat in the mess. He touched the unlovely. He listened. He ate with people. He ate dinner with the heartbroken and received their tears without needing to fix it right there and then.

But still, sitting quietly while people weep and marriages end and children starve and girls are sold and refugees drown in the Mediterranean feels desperately ineffective. And despite the fact that the quiet ministry of neighbors has brought me comfort more times than I can count, I still occasionally panic and think I should be doing more. We should have a plan here. If, after all, I was still writing a hypothetical newsletter updating people on God’s activity in and through my life, what on earth what I say? And if all I had to say was “I made tea and introduced people to the Happy Chicken”, would it make God look bad? Or Christianity insipid?

517SjSiMdxLIt was this taproot of fear that made D.L. Mayfield’s new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith such a gift to me. Mayfield has such a writing gift: she crafts simple sentences with simple words—so easy to read—and yet the result is breathtaking. Reading her is like marveling at Leonardo daVinci’s finest work done on an etch-a-sketch.

But more than her beautiful writing, the message of this book spoke to me, and will speak to anyone who’s earnestly wanted to do great and beautiful things for God but then floundered when real life and messy relationships happened, making the monthly newsletter which was meant to sing of all God’s glory seemed so hard to write.

In a series of short, highly readable essays, Mayfield tells of her teenage zeal—holiday clubs! short term missions! seminary!—and her deep love for the displaced refugee communities in North America. And then she writes about what really happened next. She writes about failure: her awkward attempts to Jesus-ify conversations, and the skepticism with which her goodwill was sometimes (rightfully) regarded. She writes about the deep humbling of realizing people don’t change on our timeline or according to our well-intentioned western ways, and of learning that God has made something beautiful in every person and every culture – no matter how different and broken- and she tells of how, after all was said and done, she re-found (is re-finding!) faith in learning to sit and be a witness to all that God is doing, and to just love as she has an opportunity. She writes:

“I used to want to witness to people, to tell them the story of God in digestible pieces, to win them over to my side. But more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life… To plant myself in a place where I am forced to confront the fact that my reality is not the reality of my neighbors. And to realize that nothing is how it should be, the ultimate true reality of what God’s dream for the world is.

Being a witness is harder than anything I have ever done. And he is asking all of us to do this task, to simultaneously see the realities of our broken world and testify to the truth that all is not well. To be a witness to the tragedy, to be a witness to the beauty. Jesus, the ultimate witness of the love of the Father heart of God, shows us the way…

He is asking us to drop everything and run, run in the direction of the world’s brokenness. And he is asking us to bring cake.”

He is asking us to bring cake. Mayfield’s love language is cake. And I’m thinking mine might be the Happy Chicken. Today I’m facing the broken world with eyes wide open and ears perked up. Who will God send my way today? I’m ready. The Happy Chicken and I are as ready as we can be.

 

I’ll be a Mermaid for Jesus

The cashier was bagging the final groceries before she asked me the question: “So, how come you have glitter all over you? Are you a preschool teacher? Did a craft go wrong?”

MermaidBron

Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from me…

Nope.

Not a preschool teacher (oh the horror!) Not doing crafts. The real reason for my high state of sparkle this week is that, together with two friends, I am spending this week dressed as a mermaid.

With a tail.

And long, impossibly-bright-colored hair.

And a whole lotta glitter.

My two mermaid friends (who are GORGEOUS, but cropped from the picture because they’re very private sea-people) and I have the task of teaching the Bible story at our church’s annual Vacation Bible Camp, and since the theme is “Deepsea Discovery” and the whole plaice is decked out with underwater decor, we decided to suit up for the task. Fintastic.

[Apologies for the puns, friends, but lame jokes are my coping mechanism and I. am. tired.]

We have 252 kids (and 80 junior and adult kelpers) swimming around campus this week (they’re in school…) learning that God is with them wherever they go. The theme of the days are that God knows us (like he knew Noah!), he hears us (like he heard Jonah in the belly of a big fish), he strengthens us (like he helped Peter walk on water), and he loves and sends us (as he did his disciples). Five days. Five lessons. Five days of brightly colored-themed-and-still-nutritious snacks.

It’s a high energy week, and even though I’m an extrovert, this week still leaves me flounder-ing. Working with kids is not my strong suit, but as I’ve written before, I keep signing up because I know what a difference it made in my own life to have adult volunteers tell me about Jesus at VBS and in Sunday School. It changed my life.

And so here I am: standing on campus in a highly-glittered state, wearing a thick wig in triple-digit heat, with a lycra suit outlining EVERY contour of the lower half of my body…. and in this moment I am so grateful for the words the Apostle Paul penned in 1 Corinthians 4:10: We are fools for Christ. We are madmen. (or mermen, as the case may be). And just a few paragraphs later in 1 Corinthians 9:22: To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

Or, as the case may be: to the little fish, I become a fish, in order to win the fishies for Christ.

For one week, I’m one of a sea of volunteers who are laying aside our preferences: singing louder than we’re comfortable with, doing dance moves that make the Macarena look choreographed by comparison, playing water games and wearing outfits. Why? Because there are 252 little people here who are DEEPLY loved by Jesus and need to know that. And if I keep my eye on them—rather than the itch of the wig or the sweat of the suit—it makes all the difference. For if they find and keep the treasure this week—the truth that they are known, heard, helped and wildly loved by God—they are rich beyond all counting of it.

Pray with us that they’ll find it 🙂

 

To the Brave Volunteers at VBS (or Holiday Club, or Vacation Bible Club, or whatever you call it)

to the brave volunteers at

I signed up to help with our church’s annual Vacation Bible School this year. Again.

And—just like I do every year—I’m wondering why the dickens I volunteered for the madness. Again.

But as I think about it—again—I can tell you why. It’s not because I’m great with kids: I am not the Pied Piper of Hamlin by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not because I love songs-with-dance-moves and themed snacks: trust me. And—perhaps this might surprise you—it’s not because I have three kids that will be participating and I feel the need to watch them and participate with them. It’s definitely not because I have nothing better to do.

The reason I sign up… for the tenth year in a row now… is because of the difference one volunteer made in my life, over thirty years ago. My parents were newly divorced and as is the custom for many kids-of-divorce, we spent alternate weekends and holidays with each parent. My Dad had started going to a church, and during one of the first holiday times we were with him, he signed us up for Holiday Club (as it was known there). It was next-to-free-childcare; it seemed fun, and he had to work. So, we went.

I don’t remember much about that week. I vaguely remember a gaudily decorated hall, and I’m fairly sure there were games that involved screaming as we chased beach balls. I don’t remember a single person’s name, but I do remember this: not long after Holiday Club, I got a letter in the mail from one of the leaders. A real letter. With my name on it. In the mail. With a stamp. For me.

I remember pacing my room as I read, and re-read, it. I remember crying, because she remembered what I’d told her the week before: that my parents were divorced, that it was hard, that adjusting to step-parents and juggled weekends and school stress was difficult. That I was lonely. That I was scared. She remembered and acknowledged those details; she reminded me to trust in God because he cared about me; she said she was praying for me. Her letter was less than a page long, her name signed with a flourish in the bottom right hand corner. It wasn’t much and yet it was everything.

Her care showed me God’s care in a way I’d never seen before. Her seeing me and noticing me in the middle of a crazy week with screaming games and wild distractions made me feel profoundly seen and noticed. She offered me a glimpse of the welcome of heaven, and I was desperate for it.

I wrote back, and I think she wrote me again two or three times before our correspondence dwindled.

But it didn’t have to be a lifetime of correspondence to have made a longlong impact. That first letter was enough. She was a volunteer—possibly a high school kid—and she took the time to show love to a know-it-all kid who was really hurting beneath her sassy exterior.

It’s been more than thirty years, but I think of that Volunteer every year. I think what a difference it made—and how she’ll never know—and when that sign-up clip board gets passed around asking who wants to help out with VBS, I write my name on it. Even though I’m not fabulous with kids. And even though themed snacks and decorating are not my thing.

I sign up because children are people, and I was a hurting little person once and a volunteer saw me as a person and loved me. I may not be great at children’s ministry, but I can love a little people for a couple of hours once a year. And who knows what difference it may make?

To all you brave, wonderful people who signed up on that clip board and who will be playing the games, serving the snacks, sitting in small groups, and talking with kids this holiday: I wanted to say thank you in advance. And Bless You. Yours is Holy Work, although you may never know what difference you made.

But I just wanted to say: you do make a difference.

And,

Thank You.

 

Photo credit: cbcphotos (Flickr Creative Commons) / edited by BL using Canva.

Better Than a Rolling Jail

minivan

My kids say some pretty-dang-hilarious things, and I was reminded yesterday of one of the funniest quips yet.

We had spent the afternoon with fun friends on their farm (the same friends who took a mislaid stripey sweater on the adventure of its life), and it was time to leave. Of course, the kids didn’t want to go, and the effort of corralling them to the car felt a bit like trying to catch that one piece of egg shell that slipped into the cake mix. After several kind requests, I upped my Mom-game: “GET. INTO. THE. CAR.” I hissed as I strong-armed him into his buckles.

My son didn’t miss a beat: “This isn’t a car,” he yelled, “It’s a ROLLING JAIL!”

I laughed the whole drive home.

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I’ve been slowly making my way through the one year devotional based on Dallas Willard’s Hearing God. Yesterday’s entry was based on Colossians 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your heart to God.

As if often the case when reading in the morning, my eldest had slipped under my arm and was reading the Bible with me. I read the verse out loud and thought a moment, before saying to her: “I think we do this most regularly in the car, don’t you think? I think that’s the place we most often talk about what we’re learning, and it’s definitely the place where we do the most singing.” (Note to the reader: we’ve had Seeds Family Worship albums playing on repeat for pretty much five years continually now. And I’m still not sick of them.) My daughter agreed: yes, the minivan probably was the place where we heard and sang Scripture most regularly, and after more than five hundred repeats of those CD’s… the words are carved deep into our subconscious… which sounds like letting it “dwell in us richly”, don’t you think?

And all of a sudden my son’s hilarious words from the farm flew back into my memory, and I thought a new thought about our minivan and its unexpectedly prominent role in our spiritual formation:

It isn’t a car… it’s a Rolling Church.

And that thought kept me laughing the rest of the day.

Running Like an Inflated Drunkard

It is no secret that it is Tim Fall’s fault encouragement that got me blogging. I always enjoy Tim’s words, and am delighted to welcome him here today with his usual blend of funny, warm and robustly encouraging insight.

Running Like an Inflated Drunkard

Contrary to the impression I might have given with posts on running a 6 mile obstacle course and a half-marathon in the Happiest Place on Earth, I am not wont to join a few thousand strangers in order to traverse long distances in company.

But I did it again.

This time it was a 5K through a bunch of bounce houses. Three miles and a dozen inflatable obstacles made for a fun-run in the truest sense. It also made me feel like the folks in this verse:

They reeled and staggered like drunkards … . (Psalm 107:27.)

Tim Drunkard

Me reeling and staggering, but not falling down.

 

We signed up along with a bunch of people from the gym. As the day approached the young guy who owns the gym – and whom we looked to as our fearless leader for the race – went and blew his knee out and ended up having surgery.

That didn’t stop him from taking the course. He said he’d do it, and he did. And we did it with him. He couldn’t run so we all walked with him 3.1 miles from obstacle to obstacle. He hobbled through the obstacles along with the rest of us, laughing and joking around. It wasn’t the way the course was designed to be taken, perhaps, but it was the right way for us to go.

The Right Way to Go

Which reminds me of another verse:

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
(Proverbs 18:24.)

This group of friends stuck together for the sake of the one who could not run full speed. It’s the same with the church, the people of God. We are called to come together, to be with one another, to love each other in the good times and the bad times. In fact, it’s this love for one another that shows people who we belong to.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35.)

How can you love one another so that people will see you belong to Jesus? Good question, and one I hope you’ll help answer in a comment. For me it often means encouraging people. I don’t restrict this to fellow Christians, of course. Jesus’ love is something I can share with everyone God puts in my life.

When we love those outside the body of Christ, we do it without expectation of reciprocation. When we do it with each other, though, it should be a mutual care and love for one another. It is this bond of love – the back and forth, the give and take whether everyone can run at the same speed or not – that shows people who we are.

That’s what Jesus said.


Tim Fall pointsTim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for over 28 years with two grown kids, his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California. He blogs, and can be found on Twitter and Facebook too.

 

 

A Hairy Confession

The sun has come out and the daffodils are peeking through. On Sunday morning, in the scrambled few minutes between “here’s your breakfast,” and “we’re late for church—WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES?”, I pulled on a short skirt. If the daffodils can come out, so can my knees: that seems as good a rule for seasonal dressing as any.

We were nearly at church when I looked down at my knees, highlighted just so by a shaft of sunlight coming through the car window. I squealed at my husband: Oh nooooooo! Look at my hairy legs! With a short skirt! I didn’t even think about that! I can’t even remember the last time I shaved. Better make sure I don’t stand in the sunlight too much.

My level-headed husband, not given to fussing about fashion at the best of times, looked across and assured me: Nobody is going to comment on your legs.

Well, dear reader, let me tell you this. Not fifteen minutes later, SOMEBODY COMMENTED ON MY LEGS. He was wrong.

But actually, so was I. Because the person who commented on my legs did not say “whoa! you should be wearing a hazard sign with those spikes out in public!” In fact, she said, “have you been working out? Your legs look good.” I gaped at her fish-faced. I did not see that coming.

These are not my legs. They belong to Celine Dion. But you'll agree that these legs are GORGEOUS, aren't they? Even though the picture is... fuzzy.

These are not my legs. They belong to Celine Dion. But you’ll agree that these legs are GORGEOUS, aren’t they? Even though the picture is… fuzzy.

My legs were not the only prickly things I brought to church on Sunday. I brought prickly attitudes, sharp opinions, unkempt fears and a whole lot more, and these too went unnoticed by those who were there. Instead, we sang in worship and talked about what it means to be poor in spirit, a quality describes as “blessed” by Jesus.

Here is the truth: I would prefer to come to church all put together, both on the inside and the outside. I would prefer to be less confused, less hurt, less prideful. I would prefer to be less prickly, both in my heart and on my skin. I sometimes hope that the sun (and the Son) won’t highlight these areas of deficiency, otherwise others may notice.

But this is also the truth: my focus is all too often myopic and self-centered. I need others to help me see myself more clearly: to help me see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to trust in the healing work of community and the slow progress of redemption. Being aware of my shortfalls (even if they are as superficial as hairy legs: I concede this is utter vanity) is actually a GOOD thing when we gather as God’s people: it’s one step closer to humility. Sometimes it’s a good thing to come to church with prickly legs, or in the middle of heartbreak, or while you’re fighting with your loved ones, or right after you lost your temper and you haven’t quite been able to recollect your calm face. Maybe people will see our prickles. Maybe the light will highlight the crisis. But maybe… just maybe, our focus will be redirected. We’ll be humbled, and in that moment, find grace.

For those who think they have it all together have no need for Jesus, now do they?