When church hurts

My sister is nearing the home stretch in her third pregnancy, I guess I could certainly count on her to give me a good description of uncomfortable.  But I’ve been mulling over a different sort of uncomfortable.

It has been close to four years (gasp, really?  is that possible?) since our decade long stint serving and working full time in the church setting came to a close.  Our family and friends, our whole life truly was wrapped up in a place that we loved.  We were known.  We belonged and it felt good.

Dealing with the grief and loss in and after that season was very onion-like, we would deal with one thing only to realize there was still more.  Some of it I hated because my heart hurt so bad I couldn’t see straight and some was so sacred, so holy that I relished it for what it was.  After a hiatus from church altogether, we visited a dozen church one summer anticipating ‘fun’ and ‘variety’.  Hmmmm, there would be many words to describe it but fun it was not.  We were strangers, visitors, unknown nobodies.  Sometimes we were welcomed and directed and sometimes we were chastised for sitting in the wrong spot.

When we left our long time church home, our place of comfort and community, one of the whispers that God kept speaking to my heart was this:

You will never again be as comfortable as you were here.

I was tempted to be bitter and angry.  But I had done bitter and angry plenty already and the fruit was sour.  I refused to sign up for more on purpose.  I let the words sit in my heart and simply waited.  As the months passed and the fog of sadness lifted a bit I began to see the down side of being comfortable…

  • it was special and felt good to walk into a place and know that everyone knew who I was but somehow I forgot that not everyone felt that way
  • it was hard to find the courage to try new things or dream different dreams because the draw of stability when you have kids in your life is a very strong draw
  • staying put is (often) easier than stepping out
  • living in a nest-like cocoon of community can be a bubble that leaves you out of touch with the world around you

I began to understand that my comfort had often brought along with it complacency.  In order for me to realize that a change was imperative, my world needed to fall apart.

And it did.  What first felt like I-can’t-breathe gave way to maybe-I-can-get-dressed-today which later led to we-all-might-survive-this-just-possibly.  But the sense that we were headed for a different walk, a different sort of path was something I could not shake as we moved forward.

In the past two years we’ve been part of a new place of fellowship.  It has felt like home.  It’s been precious and encouraging and has built us up.  We know we are supposed to be there.  But like any place where a bunch of imperfect people get together, there is hard stuff.  There are challenges that are uncomfortable.

This time however, I am determined to do better at living in that middle place where I can “take my shoes off” but I’m not so at ease that I don’t see the needs all around me.  I have been gifted with children who don’t all perfectly fit in with their peers and this is indeed a monumental gift.  It forces me to be sensitive and aware in ways I would not normally be.  I am learning to welcome the feeling that things aren’t quite right because that means there is room for improvement and that means that I get to watch things happen that are beyond my ability.  I love that.

Testify

Twelve years ago today we walked down the aisle to these words:

For as long as I shall live
I will testify to love
I’ll be a witness in the silences when words are not enough
With every breath I take I will give thanks to God above
For as long as I shall live
I will testify to love
(Avalon “Testify”)

We didn’t give it much thought, love was easy and simple.  We’d waited 4 years to marry, dated through our last two years of high school, been through lots of ups and downs and at the time our very union was testimony to God’s faithfulness.  It really was.

We were idealistic and hope-filled 21 year olds.  All of life spanned before us and it seemed so very grand.  We made plans, dreamed dreams and forged ahead together.  We paid $427 a month to rent a tiny campus apartment that overlooked a lake while we finished college.  I think I threatened once or twice to go back to my parents.  Oh how young I was.   I made coffee and he made disciples as he led the youth group at our church.  He thrived and I watched his passion explode.  We studied hard and graduated together.

While on a missions trip to El Salvador using pit toilets and doing manual labor every day, a pink line rocked our world and we grinned all week as we kept our little secret.  We bought a tiny pair of brown sandals there and flew home on our own cloud as we pondered the parenthood journey we were about to embark on.

Years passed, more babies entered our world and the thriving, passion-filled man faced a lot of challenges and work became something different.  I filled my heart and my life with a job that I loved.  Church life wasn’t all sunshine and roses.  People weren’t perfect, we weren’t perfect.

We walked out our days and our lives in the best ways we could.  But we hurt each other.  A lot.  At the bottom of a spiral that seemed to last forever, we realized a choice had to be made and we chose each other.

Hard work.  So much of it.  So many words and tears.  We found little things to love together.  Like music.  And somehow these words came to be true…

And I don’t care if everyone knows what we’re going through
‘Cause all the roads lead back to you

On and on and on we pray, we can break into a brighter day
Nothing worth anything ever goes down easy
On and on and on we go, I don’t understand this windy road
Nothing worth anything ever goes down easy

And we’ll keep on, keep on climbing on down this narrow line
So we can see the other side, the other side
(Mat Kearney “On and On”)

Weeks, months passed and the ‘other side’ ever so slowly found its way onto the horizon.  We vowed without words really, that what we had was worth it.  And we walked the hard road of healing.

Now we testify to something different.  Not just to an ideal we call love.  Not just to a dreamy something that is nice to sing about.  To the ultimate, radical power of God to change lives and the most stubborn, broken hearts into something beautiful.  To the unchanging, unceasing grace that He gives when we can’t even muster up the ability to ask for it.  To the reality of restoration and the gift of forgiveness.

We testify to love.  But not to our own imperfect, never-enough kind of love.  To the Love Giver Himself and the way He makes all things new.

Godly Play

A couple of months ago, as a couple, we’d been talking a great deal about the way we teach children the message of the Bible within the church.  Over the years we’d wearied of flashy, hip, expensive curricula that seemed more geared toward entertaining children than helping them encounter God.  Some kids programs seemed watered down, others focused on having awesome toys or handouts, loud videos on fancy TV screens, some were haphazard and felt thrown together.  On our long summer visiting churches last year we experienced all sorts of things.  What struck us most was that some places our kids were treasured and some places they weren’t even allowed in the main meeting area.

So when I received a random email from my mom with a link to a young church in our area that was implementing something called Godly Play into their children’s ministry, it immediately caught my attention.  The heart behind it can be summed up but the logistics of how it plays out is a bit long to explain:

Godly Play is based upon the recognition that children have an innate sense of the presence of God. All they lack is the appropriate language to help them identify and express it so it can be explored and strengthened. The Godly Play approach teaches classical Christian language in a way that enhances the child’s authentic experience of God so it can contribute to the creative life of the child and the world.

I loved that it acknowledged a child’s capacity to experience God.  I believe that to be true.  I think it’s easy to put children in a box, try to keep them busy,  give them a printed coloring sheet and hope they turn out okay.  It’s easy to read a kid-version of the story of Adam and Eve and make a quick moral lesson of it…”They sinned, things went bad for them, so you see you should obey God and not sin”.  That is oversimplified obviously, but at the core, that is usually the way church teaches the Bible to children.  I don’t believe it is tremendously effective or holds much meaning.

Godly Play draws children in to experience the incredible story of God through a very deliberate, intentional time together.  Truly, I can’t put words to what it felt like to experience a whole Godly Play session this past weekend at a training event I attended.  I was enraptured as the storyteller smoothed out a pile of sand on the floor and talked about the dessert and then told the story of Abraham and Sarah and all that took place in their life in beautiful, captivating story form.  She used little wooden people to represent them, built rock altars with pebbles, blue yarn for rivers…simple.  But when I got home and replayed the whole thing with Chris, I was almost embarrassed.  I retold the story of Abraham with more knowledge, more passion and more detail than ever and from a lesson intended for a 5 year old.

In the fostering of discovery learning children are welcomed into a room that has been deemed and designed to be a sacred space.  They are welcomed by name, brought into a circle time and then drawn into a great story.  Walls are free of bright, garish decor.  The place is meant to inspire and allow children a chance to hear from God.  They even have moments of silence.  On shelves there are simple but beautiful trays that hold sets of elements to all the great stories of the Bible.  Children learn respect of these lovely things and at a set time they can interact with the stories.  They are also offered an artistic response time after the story and offered all sorts of art supplies and their own tray to do this.

If you are familiar with Montessori, this way of engaging children is similar in many ways to that.  But it obviously brings in the spiritual dynamic as central.  There are some fairly significant ways our team agreed we would have to change things to fit our own beliefs but in general the method is rich with so much that we were thrilled about.

One of my favorite things is that instead of forming the lesson principle for the whole group, the storyteller asks them “I wonder what you think about this story” or “I wonder what you love most about this story”.  This allows for children to experience and enter in to the great Story for themselves, to process and ponder deep things (even though they may not realize they’re doing just that!).

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface!  For those of you who were curious, I hope this is helpful.  I’m by no means an expert and don’t want to make it sound like this is the only way/best way.  It is simply one of many wonderful ways that can be useful in helping children understand the great mystery of God and the incredible story of the Bible.

Crazy Love – a book review

I picked up Crazy Love, by Francis Chan, almost two years ago.  It was a time of great transition and great trial.  I tried to read it but couldn’t really read anything at the time.  It was a survival-mode season.

Around Christmas last year I picked it up again finally.  I dug right in and read a couple of chapters.  It felt like a friend had written it to me, it was so readable – and it made me ask some great questions.

Then I got to the chapter called “Profile of the Lukewarm”.  Just the name of the chapter made my heart sink.  I knew what was coming.  Or I thought I did.  But I didn’t.  I read it.  Read it again.  Then I put the book away.

Reading Chan’s long and spot on list of all the characteristics of ‘lukewarm’ left me feeling sick.  Honest.  It described most of the ‘church going folk’ I’d ever known.  What was far worse?  It described me.  Of course not in every instance and I could rationalize all I wanted to make myself feel better.  But I didn’t want to feel better.  That’s why I’d picked up the book in the first place. I wanted my thinking to be challenged…to be changed really.

In the last year and a half, stepping out of full time ministry and also out of regular church attendance (gasp!) I have spent so much time in some serious, sometimes very uncomfortable reflection on God and church and what it really means to follow Jesus.  Growing up in church then serving in a church setting for ten years, I had plenty of exposure to all sorts of ‘religion’.  Much of it was life-shaping and very good.  And of course there was your run-of-the-mill hypocrisy and church politics.

After I stalled out on my Crazy Love reading (I quit reading the book for two months!), I tried again.  But I was not the same.  I had wrestled and argued and thought through some really hard things.  If you read my blog and know our story, this of course coincided with the very tragic loss of my husband’s father this January.

I was ripe for a crisis of faith.

And maybe that sounds bad, which is okay with me.  But really, if we never have a crisis, never question what we believe, never look inward and take some serious inventory…then maybe we don’t even know what we believe or why.  When we are shaken to the core, we are forced to find out what we really hold on to – who we hold on to.  And if it will keep us afloat or not.

God’s overwhelming, relentless love that this book speaks of, that love is the only thing that has carried me through this past season and every other desert I’ve walked through.  It has shown itself in hundreds of ways.  God’s unmistakable, unwavering love.

Joy intermingled

As always, when life seems to stand still in the midst of heartache and loss, it keeps on moving and there is forever joy mixed in with the pain.

For instance,  my kids have been loved on and cared for more in the last 3 days by other members of our family than me and they think it’s pretty cool.  They are aware of what has happened but cannot process much of the reality of it.

Rylee tells me “Mama, are you sure this really happened?  It doesn’t seem like it could be real. Is Grampy really gone?”

Her words take my breath away and I respond on my knees at her level…”I feel exactly the same way.”

The boys still think it’s funny when someone farts at the dinner table.

Or when Kyler comes out of the bathroom having taken all his clothes off.

Or when they see Audrey pick up the cat by her tail.

The smiles will return for us.  The laughter that fills this home will come again.

But for the moment grief lives here and I know that is okay.

I thought I would faint with heartbreak as I watched my mother-in-law wring out and hang her her husbands clothing on the line to dry.

We don’t know how to walk this road.

How does one summarize the life of someone so dear in a couple of paragraphs?

Aren’t we too young to know how to do this?

Are we ever old enough to know how to do this?

Probably not.

The news that long time friends of my parents after 12 years of trying to get pregnant and two successful adoptions, are pregnant brought joy-filled tears today.

Finding an appropriate dress to wear to a funeral in a few short minutes of looking off the clearance rack  was one pleasant little gift of the day.

Abundant food, enough to cover our kitchen counters and table and two chairs left me sobbing in the kitchen yesterday.  I’m pretty sure food=love.  In a very complicated way actually, that food was like a piece of healing to my heart.  After a less than wonderful departure from our 10 years in ministry at church last fall, it was hands from that community that brought food to nourish us on this incredibly painful road.  It is so like God to bring things full circle….and rarely in the way I expect.

Although I missed the girls getaway with 3 of my best friends in Denver this weekend, I was blessed beyond measure to know that many there including my favorite author Sally Clarkson (who put on the conference) were praying for our family to get through these days.  Sally even sent me her latest book, signed by herself, which again was a sweet gift in the midst of it all.

God is good, all the time.  There is a constant swirling together of joy and pain.  In these moments of deep sadness its easy under the weight of it all to miss the good.

But it is here.

A little seedling

seedling

When Pastor Jonathan,  prayed for Karissa and I on our last day at Northshore, he used an image of a seedling to describe the church that we feel God has called us to plant. In church planting lingo, the seedling image is often used. I actually like the imagery because I believe it accurately reflects the initial startup of an organic church. Our hope and prayer is that this little seedling that we lovingly refer to as Sojourn, will not just grow into any old tree, but that will be “planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” – Jeremiah 17:8. This has become one of my prayers for our little church. Feel free to join with me in this prayer.

Karissa and I are praying for a lead team of about 20 adults. We are asking God to reveal to us people who are feeling called by God to be a part of a missional church. Missional is one of those words that gets tossed around a lot in “churchese”, but for me it means a group of people gathering together in an organic way to actively express the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word, deed, and power (Matt. 9:35). For our little seedling this will look like meeting together as a large gathering twice a month for corporate prayer, worship, teaching, and a meal. The other two weeks will be spent in smaller communities we will call missional communities. COMMUNITIES – because the church will be made up of a collection of communities that will each have 10-15 adults plus kids. These communities will each have a community pastor and will have “church” together every other week in someone’s home. This will be the place where people will know others and where they will be known by others. These communities will be the heartbeat of the church. Whether the whole church is gathered or scattered, we are the church. MISSIONAL – because each community will adopt a mission, something that they can regularly do to bless their local community through the Word, deed, and power. For instance, if a group is located in Bothell, they may adopt the mission of taking care of the widows in their community. This might be yard care, housework, carpools, shopping, praying for, hospital visits, and more for the widows in their neighborhood.

As we get closer to planting this seedling, we will keep you all informed not only so you could pray for us, but also because you might want to join us in this adventure we are embarking upon. By the way, we came to the name Sojourn primarily because of the two definitions: 1. a temporary dwelling place, 2. a journey. We felt both of these definitions describe uniquely what it is like to follow Jesus. If you are wanting to know more about Sojourn, let Karissa and I know. There are many ways you can partner with us in this venture. Soon, we will be releasing a prayer letter of sorts to not only let people know about what we feel God is leading us in, but also to build a team of people committed to praying for Sojourn. If you know of someone looking for a community of followers of Jesus who would be interested in something like this, send them our way. Thanks so much for your prayers as we step out in faith.

-Chris

More than a meal

baby_foot_in_hand

Karissa has worked with Step by Step, on organization that brings hope and health to mothers, babies, and families for many years originally as a Behavior Health Specialist and now as a volunteer. This last Friday night, Karissa and I had the privilege to volunteer at the annual Step by Step Christmas Party. What a treat this was for us. Karissa was able to reconnect with many of her past clients, hold their babies, and share stories about life. These mothers and their families came for a wonderful dinner which was served to them at their table. Along with dinner, came gift basket style door prizes, activities for the kids (face painting, balloon art, a cupcake walk, advent rings, cookie decorations, and even pictures with santa. For all of these families, this was an evening to be rememembered. Perhaps the best part of the night was the Toy Shoppe. Here each mother was given the opportunity to pick out one toy for each child in their family. These toys were donated by many different people and all were brand new. Not only did they get a toy for each kid (and they were some really good toys) but then there was a team of gift wrappers. Paper, scissors, and tape was flying furious, but you could not believe the relief and joy in so many mom’s eyes. I couldn’t stay out of this room, because you could tell that this was a room that brought so much hope to people who did not think they were going to get anything but dollar store items for their kids this year. There were many tears shed that night, as stories of desperation were shared by moms who for at least one night this Christmas season had much to be hopeful about.

Karissa and I love the organization Step by Step and if you were looking for a place to donate extra this year, maybe this is the organization you could give your time or your money towards.

december-2008-080

-Chris