The Church

On Sunday our associate pastor John Navarro spoke about growing bitter over the loss of the old ways of being the people of God, aka the church. I was more than a little uncomfortable in my seat as he spoke.

He was talking about people who get caught up in using the Bible alone as a means to approaching God and the Christian life. They throw out the Holy Spirit, and interaction with our Lord, and only soak themselves in the printed word. It’s all about knowing the right thing, believing the right thing, saying the right thing, demanding the right thing. But walking with God through his spirit, centering our lives around and through him, letting him move in and have his being within us, all are discarded as extras, or even as dangers.

I did not get to the place of yearning for the early church ways in that way at all, but I did get there. Am here today. Years ago, I had a Matrix moment in which I was offered two pills. One would open my eyes to a far different reality than I had known, and one would keep me seeing the world the way I currently saw it. I shouldn’t have eaten the eye-opener. But I did. And I saw that the church had come a long way.

John said that the early church was an infant, that she has come a long way in maturing into what she is today. He said that to want for infancy (ie, the early church ways) would cause us to be stubborn and religious, which would birth in us bitterness and resentment.

I don’t see it that way at all. I think the church is more like the church at Laodecia than a mature bride. I think the “American” church in general, with exceptions I’ll quickly admit to, has replaced son/daughter-ship for a business model, and love for law. I think she’s lost the potential for deep community through the routines she’s established, and replaced being the family of God for being a group of like-minded gatherers in the name of a God the people don’t necessarily fellowship with outside of Sunday’s four walls.

However, I am bitter and resentful. I didn’t get here the way he described in his sermon, and “here” isn’t exactly the “here” he was referring to, but I am so bitter, so resentful.

I just erased several paragraphs I wrote in the last half hour detailing all I mourn over, because I know the cost of thinking the way I do. Not just the cost which is the pain that comes from my screwed up way of seeing things, but also the cost that comes from people who are the exception, or else just wish to be, who are angry at me for thinking the church has grown lukewarm and disconnected.

So, what should I do? I am trying to form deeper connections and be the change I want to see. Unfortunately, I have suffered a major blow this summer. I am working through it, and what it has revealed to me about myself, in therapy. (My previous, and very hip, pastor used to praise therapy so often, like a cheerleader for the cause, I can’t help but feel a little cool admitting I’m getting help.) I cannot be the change I wish to be, except for in small bursts here and there, which is exactly what I complain the church is doing.

For heaven’s sake, perhaps the bride of Christ has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxious/Ambivalent Reactive Attachment Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder like I do, and I just need to lighten up and give her the same grace I need for myself. Get over what’s missing because even I can’t bring it to the table.

I’ve been spending more time in silence and solitude with God, with and without the printed word, with and without song, with and without prayer, with and without listening for who-knows-what he might say to me, if anything at all. I have been loving my family better. I have been a better school teacher. I have been a better home-maker. And thank God, I have been a better wife, perhaps the hardest task I put myself to, even though my husband’s love apparently knows no bounds.

When people say, “we are the church,” they aren’t kidding. Really, like it or lump it….

I am the church.

The Old Man… Again

A few years ago (when this blog was full of posts that have since been deleted due to a major turn-around in my life), I wrote a post about the “Old Man.” I was stunned at that time to find myself in a position of having to lay down a toxic self, and become renewed once again by God. It wasn’t my first turn-around, and I hadn’t expected to ever make one again after the one that was my first.

In my youth I had had many small turn-arounds, but it wasn’t until I found myself pregnant and abandoned at age 18 that my life took a complete turn from one way of living to another. Naively, I had the feeling at that time that that turn-around was going to be the only one in my life. I never anticipated having to stop in my tracks again, and go through a serious overhaul of my life. I believed that walking with God fervently would prevent such a thing in the future. But it hadn’t. I discovered that walking fervently with God isn’t as easy as I thought it would be when I first set out to do it.

So, back to a few years ago when I first blogged about the “Old Man.” I had thought I was on fire for God and moving along steadily in his will for me, when suddenly I had to turn around and face what my life had become… and a lot of it wasn’t very pretty.

Today, thankfully, I am not making another such overhaul. Yet I am reflecting on the idea of laying down part of myself, the “Old Woman” as it were, as I adjust to some recent changes in my life.

I really thought, when I was young and unseasoned, that unless a person completely backslid away from God and into a life of worldly, or otherwise selfish pursuit, they wouldn’t again have an “Old Man” to lay down. I really thought there was a black and a white, an on and an off, a with-God and a without-God, so that if I chose to walk away from him I’d develop a self to lay down, but otherwise, I wouldn’t.

That has so not been the case with me. I suspect it’s not the case with anyone. After all, they don’t say the church is full of hypocrites for nothing. We know the most gracious, merciful, loving entity in the world, we fill our hearts with him and sing his praises and seek to spend our lives with and for him, and yet we continue to fall on our faces in sin and shame. We hurt people, we say mean things, we drink too much, we swear, we lie, cheat and steal, and we watch rated-R movies (my husband and I rarely do that, but we have seen many… we just watched Gladiator with the kids last month for educational purposes, and we’re not ashamed!).

So, today, as I wonder aloud at having to lay down some pretty large parts of myself, I am thinking about that “Old Woman.” May she rest in peace, and never return. May her corpse fertilize the field she lies in, and bring about beautiful flowers and grasses and seed-bearing fruits to grace all who come near. May the memory of her bring spring rain upon the field, making it grow stronger and more beautiful, even if it is in the form of shed tears. May her memory bring renewed humility and sensitivity to this heart of mine, enabling me to love more carefully and genuinely from here out. And may her sacrifice prove to be the oil that flows over me, anointing me further unto the Lord than ever before, cleansing me and healing me, as I become a more whole woman, and human being in general.

Thank you, God, for never leaving nor forsaking me. You truly have my back, even as you live in my heart. How beautiful are you.

The Bible in Order

I’ve been reading the Bible Chronologically for the past several months. I began with a list that I found online, which was one of many which generally followed the same rough order as one another. I read the Message and the Archaeological NIV. In the NIV, I have access to historic notes and timelines that I haven’t found in other Bibles (though I’m sure they’re out there to be found).

Anyway, I’ve had to make several adjustments to the list, because it’s not really chronological. None I have found online are. For instance, Ezekiel doesn’t begin after Jeremiah ends. It’s just not reality. And Jeremiah is far from chronological within itself. It zizgags and jumps forward and backward all through time.

So, does anybody have a good reading plan worked out? I just got to Ezekiel and realized I need to go back and plug it in to the timeline in earlier places. I’m tired. I’m just not sure I’m up to it anymore.

Dangerous

I was told today that left unchecked I would be dangerous. At first I was angry, but then I realized it’s true.

Eugene Peterson said

Expect hostility when God is at work. And expect it to come from where you least expect it–among the leadership of the religious status quo.

I recently became disheartened and prematurely ended my planned “Much Like the Life Jesus Led” series. Ironically, the thoughts on my heart today are precisely what I had in mind when I set out to write the series.

What would it be like to live much the way Jesus did? It would be dangerous.

Jesus put others before himself, even loving people who were dead-set against him.

He shared freely with those in need.

He even shared freely with Romans who had legal authority to humiliate the nations in submission to them by demanding they carry their packs for a mile, even if the Roman had a donkey to do it for them (in other words, people who weren’t really in need). “Turn the other cheek” and “Walk the extra mile,” according to Erwin McManus, were radical statements made by Jesus to his followers, encouraging them to go beyond what was asked because in this way they remained truly free even in a country oppressed by a foreign ruler.

Jesus relied on God to provide for his needs. He was a skilled worker, yet even with careers we need God. Jesus was in tune with that need and relied on God whole-heartedly, making conversation with God foundational to the direction his life went.

He didn’t store up for himself many material possessions. He lived simply, close to the earth, and close to God and people.

He was loyal to God even before his own family.

He was humble and generous, and served freely. From washing his disciples’ feet after they had entered a house with dusty feet to providing wine for a wedding which had prematurely run out, he blessed people by serving them.

He taught us how to forgive, and to care deeply for others. He said we would be known as his followers if we loved one another.

He lived and taught the laws of love and grace; lived and taught the ways of the God of love and grace.

He reveled a good story, and told many. He enjoyed good food and taught us how to throw a feast in his honor, in order to remember the joy set before us. And he taught us that what we do matters, in this life and the next. That he will return to renew all things, not fry them and make everything in the here and now suddenly meaningless.

He was known as the friend of sinners because he actually lived and moved and had his being in community with hookers and thieves and others the religious community would have nothing to do with. He didn’t just go to a meeting hall once a month and ladle soup out for them, although I imagine that would not be beneath him to do. He actually lived with them. Ate in their homes, assumedly invited them into his own. They were his people, and by that fact they became the best people they were capable of being. In his presence, they could become who God had created them to be, even if outside of his presence they had a lot of baggage that would make them seem unworthy of his company.

He lived and died sacrificially.

He was bold and daring.

And he was dangerous.

None of this is safe. None of this is prestigious or without risk. He loved Judas Iscariot, trusted him as part of his inner circle. Look where that got him. He was ostracized by the religious leaders of his day because of his radical grace. His family thought he was bonkers. He was hated, scorned, and eventually beaten and hung, denied and abandoned by most of his closest companions. And he has the audacity to ask us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Left unchecked, I would be dangerous. It wasn’t said as a compliment. And I’m not sure I deserve to take it as one, because it was said about my potential, not my reality. Left unchecked I do gravitate toward this kind of life, and when I do I find myself blocked in some way or another because of the great danger of it all.

It begs the question: what’s more dangerous? Living Much Like the Life Jesus Led, or choosing not to so as to keep the peace with those who find security in the safety of the system?

The Have-Nots

Actually, I have to say one more thing about living Much Like Jesus Led. And again I’m quoting Brennan Manning. It’s been a good season reading his books, including “A Glimpse of Jesus” which I quote below.

In any society, secular or sacred, where the haves don’t share with the have-nots, the Kingdom of Satan reigns. The presence, the Word, and the dream of Jesus Christ are neither real nor operative. They simply do not exist….

The etymology of the word compassion lies in two Latin words, cum and patior, meaning “to suffer with,” to endure with, to struggle with, and to partake of the hunger, nakedness, loneliness, pain, and broken dreams of our brothers and sisters in the human family. Commitment to Jesus Christ without compassion for his people is a lie. “The life of Jesus suggests that godlikeness means to attain a compassionate life since God’s heart is apparently thought by Jesus to be compassionate,” argues Donald Gray. “To show compassion is to be like God, like Abba. To show compassion is to be like Abba’s son.”

Something to think about is a podcast I heard from Wayne Jacobsen some time back, about the Keeper and the Kept. He stressed the importance of giving in such a way as to not keep the receivers down, while keeping the givers elevated. The kind of giving that perpetuates a feeling of inferiority, of dependence, isn’t what what Jesus had in mind, and isn’t some beautiful design for human living by God.

As I take up my paintbrush and make my life into something beautiful, as I lend paint to others in order to help them do the same, may I ever strive to help them on the path to becoming more, not staying less.

The Risk-Takers

This will probably be my last post in the Much Like the Life Jesus Led series. I didn’t take it where I had intended, because my own life is frustrated right now in this very sense (and has been for a few years now). Brennan Manning writes in “A Glimpse of Jesus,”

The risk-taking disciple, who dares to listen to his feelings rather than to the pontifications of authority or the clamor of the majority, may quickly find that his inner convictions do not resonate with the vox populi. He finds the situation unnerving to himself and disturbing to the palace guard. Though Abraham Maslow might describe him as “unique and idiosyncratic, alive and creative rather than phony,” the nervous disciple finds little solace in the eulogy. He is pretty damned frightened about swimming upstream–his security blanket of respectability has been snatched away….

The risk-takers who listen to the Spirit speaking through “the intelligence of their emotions” are ready to chance something, fully aware that the history of Christian spirituality is not consistently one of obedient conformity, however much some savants choose to view it that way…. Their dream, insofar as it comes from the passionate uncertainty of the Spirit, is contagious for some and delusional for the vociferous, lockstepping majority. The Scriptures testify that the innovator invites trouble…. Heads shake, hallowed traditions are invoked, nonhistorical orthodoxy is extolled, and the guilt-tripping begins….

Soon the risk-takers find that they are traveling in bad company. The historical Jesus was no outlaw, and nothing in the gospel lends support to the notion that he was a maverick harboring a grudge against the world, the law, or the authorities. Still… Jesus listened to another voice, sought his spiritual direction elsewhere, and seemed unafraid of what people might say about him or what people might do to him.

For the last few years I’ve enjoyed relative safety in the tight cocoon of risk-less Christianity. The company I’ve kept has been nearly 100% Christian. The parties and other social events I’ve gone to have been nearly 100% Christian-sponsored and Christian-filled.

And it’s been bothering me.

I miss getting the same criticism as Jesus did for the company I keep. I miss sitting in my old friend Sanie’s living room and talking to a room full of gay teens and young adults about my experiences with the Spirit of God. I can still see their engaged faces, listening to me as I spoke from my heart about a God who does not hate them after all. The criticism I received from others in the church hurt, but Jesus didn’t tell us to take up our miniature golden crosses on fine chains around our necks and follow him. That’s not the cross, but merely a symbolic reminder of it. Yet, it’s far easier to heft only the imitation, which is so weightless and pain-free we put it on and largely forget we’re even wearing it.

In today’s reading of “Reflections for Ragamuffins,” Brennan Manning says, “Compassion, the ability to suffer with the hurt of another, is an essential Christian quality.” I miss taking time to sit with hurting people and listen to them, offering little to no advice other than specific ways I’ve found helpful for drawing near to Jesus.

I miss the words of a dear friend who was once something of a father figure to me, when he said,

You are a pioneer and a radical.

I’m not a pioneer or a radical anymore.

For years I struggled with conflicting desires to be a mother and to be something greater, more world-impacting. I couldn’t reconcile the two images of life I had in my head, the two dreams that competed for priority. Now that I’ve stepped out of danger for so long, and had time to evaluate my life past and present, and re-imagine my future, I’ve come to realize they aren’t conflicting dreams. I’m not just a parent who raises good people, to hopefully raise other good people, and so on. I’m a woman of God who is raising a new generation of Jesus-followers, and as such I’m not just here for them, but we’re here for us and others. They’re integrated ideas. Integrated dreams.

And it’s kinda perfect that I recently began listening to the Mosaic Podcast series by Erwin McManus and his co-pilot Hank Fortener. McManus just wrote a book called “The Artisan Soul,” which is all about being purposeful in what kind of life we’re living, because as created beings by a creative God, we’re not only artwork, but also artists ourselves.

I’ve had on my nightstand a quote I picked up in a book several months ago. I didn’t quote the author of the book, I simply typed this:

Be poets. Make something of these words I’ve spoken to you. Make a life, epic and poetic. And make it beautiful. Make it a work of art.
–Jesus

That’s what I want. I want to be the artisan of my life, together with the Artisan of my life. It’s a little oxymoronic, and I think I like it better because it is.

It’s funny, I had in mind a fairly organized, regularly-updated blog series about the life of Jesus and how to live much like he did. It surely didn’t turn out that way. Then again, I never have been able to successfully keep my resurrected savior all wrapped up neat and tidy within my limited capacity. For that I’m truly thankful.

The Abba Experience

Today I am reading in the book of Micah, in The Message translation of the Bible.

But for right now, they’re ganged up against you,
many godless peoples, saying,
“Kick her when she’s down! Violate her!
We want to see Zion gravel in the dirt.”
These blasphemers have no idea
what God is thinking and doing in this.
They don’t know that this is the making of God’s people,
that they are wheat being threshed, gold being refined.
(Micah 4:11-12, MSG)

Eugene Peterson writes in a commentary about this passage that judgment is painful, yet purposeful. There’s something to show for it when it’s over. “After the pain,” he writes, “you’re able to cradle new life in your arms.”

This passage also reminds me of Jesus’ experience at the cross. The people who were ganged up against Jesus had no idea what God was thinking and doing either. They didn’t know his suffering was the making of a people, opening the way to their refinement.

The author of Hebrews, in chapter 10, is ruminating on the cross. One thing he writes is,

But instead of removing awareness of sin, when those animal sacrifices were repeated over and over they actually heightened awareness of sin and guilt.
(Hebrews 10:2-3, MSG)

They certainly didn’t know when they were scorning Jesus that God was about all that business.

In the March 18 entry of Reflections for Ragamuffins by Brennan Manning, he writes: “The greatest gift I have ever received from Jesus Christ has been the Abba experience.” (Abba is a Hebrew word for Dad. Father is a bit too formal, Daddy a bit too immature, for the well-rounded, mature connotation of the “dad” we have in God.) Jesus gave us that gift at the cross. We don’t have to reject the possibility of an open, loving relationship with God because of our baggage. He’s claimed them already. He’s carrying them. It’s not a license to sin further, which is discussed by other Biblical authors, but it is a way to allow ourselves to live loved by God and love him and others as a result of that living loved.

Not only is our guilt removed, but our awareness of it can be removed, too, if we let it, opening the way for intimate relationship.

So, friends, we can now–without hesitation–walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body.
(Hebrews 10:19-21, MSG)

That ties right into what I read in Micah today, about judgment refining us. Not only does judgment in our lives refine us, such as when the Israelites were unfaithful so long and hard and ended up in long-term exile, but the judgment that Jesus endured in our place has the power to refine us if we choose to enter into the relationship with God that has been opened up to us through that sacrifice.

Noah Stepro said recently in a sermon called “Giving Up: Expectations,”

We can’t know the father, you can’t follow Jesus, you can’t experience the Spirit through logic, hard work, or moral behavior. You can only know God through a renewal, or a rebirth, of your spirit. And we’re called to be a community of renewal. That’s our vision. That we’re joining God in the renewal of all things. And that’s really hard to do if we’re old and decrepit and dying inside, and we’re living off the faith of last week, or a year ago, or our childhood…. We’re called to be present with the Lord today.

I’m certain I’ll gain no popularity for saying it, but there is great renewal to be had through judgments as discussed above. It’s through trials I’ve been refined. When I was radically steeped in my own pride a few years ago, God humbled me. I honestly believe there was some judgment taking place in my life at that time. The judgment of some of God’s people at that time, I admit, only hurt me and propelled me further into my rebellion and pride. Yet, the perfect, gracious judgment of God brought with it a radical reformation of my character. And none of that would be possible were it not for the judgment Christ received on our behalf at the cross, opening the way for open, loving communion with our creator.

I’m certain my ramblings are a bit cyclic today. But that’s okay. The Bible is cyclic, too. I’m just glad I have my Abba to hold my hand and twirl me in this dance called life.