When I Pray, and How I Pray, and Why I Pray

I tried to become an atheist once. I was 18 years old and a participant in an Honors theology/philosophy/literature class called “Logos.” The teacher, a Lutheran pastor turned professor, had managed to decimate my faith in a matter of weeks. That wouldn’t be a surprise for most young adolescents, but considering that I was voted as one of four students that were “most likely to enter a convent” out of high school, it sure-shocked me.

While that professors teachings have become essential to my walk of faith — and one of the best experiences of my spiritual formation — I wan’t ready for them at the time. And so, as a college freshman, I sat on my bed and determined that I would give up the faith.

And God laughed at me.

In an inaudible voice, I remember Jesus following the chuckle with a lighthearted, “Let’s see how that works out.”

It was going to be hard to be an atheist when I could sense God’s presence in my rebellion, and when I could “hear” His voice the same way that one “feels” their own heart beat and “hears” their own thoughts.

But that experience pretty much sums up my life experience with prayer. I go to pray, and I feel like God says, “I’ve already heard you, let’s continue the conversation.” Prayer is relationship; and that’s what relationship does. It invites the conversation to happen.

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People ask me to pray for them all the time. I’m not sure why. Some have suggested that God listens to my prayers more than others. (I don’t take any stock in that.) Others tell me that the other gifts I use in prayer encourage them. (I’m grateful that my words do something beneficial.) But I must admit that my first reaction when people ask me to pray is fear.

I am afraid because I know that this invitation for conversation is open. There might be questions that need to be asked. There might be healing that needs to happen. There might be a need for humility or physical touch, or change. And I don’t know if that’s what others really want. Do they want to grow? Do they want Someone walking through the eye of the storm with them? Do they want breadcrumbs to follow? Or do they just want God to be in the circle so they can be mad at Him when things go awry? It makes me uneasy — this uncertainty of what we’re really doing when we go to prayer.

Unfortunately for me, my God can handle Himself, and He rather enjoys His creation coming to Him — no matter why or how they come. And He has a penchant for knowing how to serve beautifully. And so, often, when people ask me to pray, I end up feeling like Judas or like the disciples, trying to keep the children from getting to Jesus.

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The irony in all this, of course, is that when I go to prayer, I go armed with one thing: honesty. I was taught from a very early age that if you’re going to be anything with God, the very least you can do is to be honest.

Sometimes I go with tears, and nothing else. Sometimes I go with curses and frustrations, flailing my arms all about. Sometimes I go with emptiness and disbelief. And sometimes, when He calls me to prayer, I go with obedience only, feeling guilty because I know that He’s actually offering something pretty great, and I’m treating it as if it were a chore.

But I pray because I don’t know what else to do. I pray because I love to talk to someone that I don’t have to filter myself for. I pray because I like questions, and I like thinking. I pray because He keeps me from being an idiot (at least some of the time.) I pray because I can’t stop. I’ve tried. And it didn’t work out well. I missed my friend.

What Happens After the Prayers Don’t Come Anymore

It came about three years ago — The day when I couldn’t find words to pray. I opened my mouth to allow the spirit to blow life into the lifeless, but there was no breath behind it. I shoved my lips together to form words – scriptural passages and memorized stanzas — but I found that I didn’t have the strength to even think the words, let alone say them.

That was the hardest spiritual season of my life. It was worse than doubt. At least when doubt descends upon your mind, you have replacement options. You can choose science. Or belief in yourself. Or, if all else fails, you can be angry. Very, very angry. No, this was something so much more soul crushing than that. This was silence. Forced silence.

Jesus was there. But He wasn’t going to talk. And I had nothing left to say. We sat there like a marriage couple who couldn’t divorce, but couldn’t even make our hands or feet accidentally rub together, either.

There was shame on my part. Maybe I had given a false prophecy. Maybe I hadn’t cared for the poor. Maybe my pride was too great. Where had I gone wrong? And maybe…maybe…maybe I just wasn’t His girl any more? In the faint shadow of the night the truth hid — that I had fallen. The blows in life had actually knocked me out.

I turned to the church we had been sent to. But it seemed that He had left her to abusive men a long time ago. Maybe somewhere He still communicated with one of the tribes, but I didn’t know where or who to trust. And it didn’t seem like I had permission to go seek Him out, anyway. Because again, He was right there with me. Just silent and still.

Like a kid who had been tomato staked to a parent, I waited. And whined. And let my body go limp.

And so that became my prayer. Holding my breath. Waiting in hesitation. Until I broke. And cried deep and painful tears.

“I miss Him. I miss Him so much.  …    ….” And then, acknowledging that He was still there,  “I miss us.”

While Jesus had taken me through seasons of understanding Him as Lord and Savior and King; lover, and comforter, and friend, He was now teaching me brother. Because a brother doesn’t always talk, and a brother doesn’t always tease. But a brother knows when it’s time to sit in the mud, silent and still. A brother knows how to sit there until you’re ready, without complaining about it, and without provoking you to move too early. A brother knows how to earn your trust again, even when it wasn’t Him that broke you. And a brother knows how to stand by your side as you try to rise again and get your posture back.

A brother walks you back out of the wilderness again, helping you to dream again. A brother watches as you are reminded of who you are. And a brother knows how to lead you back to your family who loves you.

So you know — The words did come back. And the prayers did come back. The hope in the family of God even came back. But the bond is deeper than it ever has been. Because there’s some bonds that can only be forged in the places when words stop. When you can’t even look anybody in the eye. When all you can do is know that there’s somebody there, waiting until you’re really ready.

 

Why I’ll be attending #Praxis14 today

Christian conferences have become a dime a dozen; each tribe, each church movement creating one to energize their base. In Tulsa, Oklahoma today, though, I think there’s going to be one for the record books. Praxis

Why is Praxis different? The short answer is: I don’t know. And I don’t think they do perfectly, either. And that is what makes them different.

Praxis isn’t about moving away from other denominations; it’s a movement forward, together, in respect and admiration. It isn’t about “getting everyone on the same page,” as much as it is an opportunity to learn from one another. It isn’t going to be a power surge, but I think God is going to show up and reveal a part of Himself that is beautiful and holy and sacred.  And that might just be more powerful than anything the Church has seen in awhile. 

I fully believe what happens today in this small town on the edge of the heartland is going to be felt in the church for years to come. It’s certainly not the first move God made for this new creation to happen, but it is a significant part of the beginning. Something beautiful is about to occur. And I’m about to witness it. Pray for us today. Pray that we are still long enough to let it change us.

The Heretic, the Believer, and the Accuser

I still remember the first time I heard a Christian slandering another group of Christians. I was 8 years old, and a family friend started slamming the “New Age” churches.

In the Roman Catholic church in the 1990s, the “New Age” was a movement of people who committed two “heinous” errors in the sight of Orthodox Catholics. Namely, these churches moved the tabernacle* to the back of the church and moved the pews and chairs in the sanctuary. Instead of long rows of cathedral style seating, the congregation now sat in a semi-circle around the altar.

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(To be fair to orthodox believers, there were also fears of “too much spiritualism” and a genderless God. For example, instead of saying “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” some New Age members would say “In the name of the Creator, the sanctifier, and the redeemer.” These fears often were not grounded in actual experience of hearing or seeing these events, but the speculative belief that congregations would eventually be led that way.)

Unfortunately, this slandering has not been an isolated incident in my life. Once converting to Protestantism, I’ve found that the Evangelical church also has this cold, civil war. It’s the perpetual fight between the Emergent and conservative believers. The theological left and right, so to speak. It’s Mars Hill Seattle vs. Mars Hill Michigan. And there are sides. Oh boy, are there sides.

In either case, there is the eventual outcry of “HERETIC!” In other words, “You are not one of us!”

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A year ago, our family left a church that we had only been a part of for a short time. In that short time, we saw a lot of unhealthy behavior. If the goal of the church is to be like Jesus, and Jesus was sent to bind up the broken-hearted and set the captives free, then this church was as far from the goal as possible. The legalism and religiosity of the church was overwhelming. And in the time we spent there, my husband and I encountered shattered lives: people who had been hurt by this church but couldn’t leave because they had been led to believe that it was their fault. One lay leader even told me one day that God allowed her perpetual pain because it was needed to keep her character in check. In other words, Jesus couldn’t possibly change her heart with His love. He needed to hurt her, like an abusive husband or father, in order for her to be obedient. Yikes!

In a fit of anger during prayer one day, I asked Jesus why He let it go on — Why He let this church keep hurting people. As He usually does, He asked a question back, “What would you do? Do you want me to just destroy them?”

I thought about the mandate given in Matthew 18: If your brother has (actually) sinned against you….. The last part of that mandate is “And then, if they still don’t listen, then wipe your hands.” In essence, I was trying to decide if they were my brother. Because if they were, I needed to pray for them. But if they are not my brother, if they were just a cult misusing the name of Christ, then I should pray for their destruction.

I thought about all the harm this church had done. How they misrepresent Jesus, and His tone, and His people. I thought about their forcefulness and abuse. My anger bubbled to boiling.

And in a moment of complete rage, I said “YES! Yes, Jesus. Please destroy them.”

Pause.

And then He said, “I’m not going to do that, but we do need to deal with your heart.”

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It’s easy to lob accusation at each other. It’s easy to see each other’s sins. It’s easy to see gross misrepresentation of the gospel – whether by people who have been led into myths, or those who have used the Christian model as a method of control and manipulation.

It is easy to see. But what’s not easy to see is each other as equal. As image bearers of Christ.

When we’re frustrated by each other’s sins, it’s almost impossible to see clearly. But to not see each other clearly leads to disastrous results. It leads us to be like Satan — accusers of one another — and to be destroyers.

I’m not 8 anymore, but it still hurts to hear one Christian accuse another of not being in Christ. There’s something horrendously sad about it all. It’s like watching your family being torn apart, and feeling powerless to do anything about it. You want to scream, “Don’t you know we need each other?” 

Heresy is an important thing. Doctrine is an important thing. But as my husband always reminds my son, insisting on demanding your rights always is going to cost you something. As he teaches our boy, “You need to think: is this worth the cost before demanding that you are right and your way should be law?”

The cost of the accusation is that you alienate your brother. The cost of the fight is you start a war in God’s family. Are you sure it’s worth the fight? 

 

 

 

 

Find Your Voice Again

Most people wish that God would speak to them at least once in their life. They hope and they pray that they’ll be directed to exactly WHAT they are supposed to do, WHEN they are supposed to do it. But what if God spoke, and you interpreted it wrong? What would that look like? What if God breathed life into you about something, and you walked away from that creation without even knowing it? How could you get back to being in the breath of God again? Because you can. You really can.

I’ll give you an example.

When we moved out to the suburbs years ago, we knew what church we had been sent to, but we didn’t like it. In an act of rebellion, I started looking for other churches. I found one that was INCREDIBLE. If I were a scout for looking for churches that would one day be the most influential in our nation, I would have put money on this one. They were a lone source of truly gracious hospitality in a very withdrawn, isolated place. They cared for the things that millennials cared for (namely the poor, authenticity, community, and direct trade coffee), giving them half a shot of maintaining their congregation’s numbers as they grew. They understood the value of the Holy Spirit’s place in prayer without becoming kooky. And most of all, they had one hot-shot of a pastor. The guy was 30 and was better than anybody else I had ever seen in the pulpit. And believe me, I’ve seen a lot.

On one of our first Sundays with that congregation, he shared how the church came to be. At the time, he was on staff at another church. He was sitting in a meeting with a lead pastor that he would have followed into the grave. When, all of a sudden, he heard God speak in a non-audible, but definitively God voice:

“I did not make you to follow another man. I meant for you to lead.” (Or something like that.)

That one line caused this young pastor to plant a church in an area that desperately needed it, despite the fact that there were mega churches and long established denominational churches close-by. The area needed a young pastor who would win back the hearts of rebellious twenty somethings who had been hurt by legalism, and those who had been shunned by stringent standards. And he was the guy to do it. He had quick wit, a couple of tattoos, and one hell of a gutsy wife to stand by him.

They set out, with two or three other couples, and the church just shined. Everybody knew that they had something special. Something that they just couldn’t put their finger on, but something nonetheless.

But then, this horrible thing happened. The young pastor became infatuated with two prominent pastors voices: one locally and one nationally. He started preaching like them, mimicking their jokes and even their ticks — and then started preaching their messages. Their congregations didn’t know that he was plagiarizing, but because we were still in the church of the man he idolized, we knew. We had heard that same sermon two months ago.

The young pastor became best friends with that older prominent pastor. He defended him. He followed him. He treated him like a father. And eventually, he started taking his church down the road of becoming like this mega-church instead of fostering the unique identity that Jesus wanted to give them.

I don’t know how many times I have wondered what that church would look like today if the young man would have made friends with the prominent pastor, but also would have insisted on following the vision that Jesus gave him for that young church. I wonder how many people could have seen something truly unique — a move of God. I even wonder how the prominent pastor’s church could have been motivated by this young church plant if he had held his ground.

This pastor’s story isn’t unique though. I see beautiful voices on social media channels that succumb to this error every day. They re-tweet other voices instead of fearlessly preaching what God gave them. Or  they create content that they think will get them published. Or just say something that “fits” but they’re not even sure if they really believe it.

Can I encourage you to walk away from that today?

Can I encourage you to go to prayer and ask the question:

What would I say if didn’t fear? What would I co-create with God if I really believed that He was behind me? What would I avoid if I really believe that I could be a unique creation of God, uniquely creating for His good?

I pray that you find your voice again. And that you stand in that voice with unwavering fear. That you create something useful and applicable and different. That you allow God to flow through you like you’ve never seen — and that you would be unapologetic when He does.

 

Love,

Pam

When HERO is spelled LOVE WELL

The images of my childhood are of women. They are of women kneeling. They are beautiful, holy, consecrated memories of laughter and gossip and teasing. They are beautiful reminders that the best things in life are souls committed to being real with one another. In an effort to inspire you to beauty, I’d like to paint the pictures of my memories with you.

The church I grew up in was built in the late 1950s. It was a large sanctuary of mismatching items: mustard seats on the altar, jade green and white marble, puke brown carpeting, and white stone statues. Walking into the church could give you the hibbie jibbies. Almost all the windows in the building were stained glass, most of them with the stations of the cross. If you were to sit in this sanctuary, you would think that the congregants were the saddest sort of bunch. But downstairs, in an equally ugly space, there was community like you couldn’t imagine. Because downstairs were a steady stream of tough cookie women who were always brewing up some sort of gathering. Whether it be a soup kitchen to raise money for the struggling families in our communities, or a pancake breakfast to support the neighborhood watch program; whether it be to set up chairs for stay-at-home moms to come and gather and share their stories of rough marriages at the Mass for Moms, or to try to turn this dry, drab space into a banquet hall for kindergarteners to feel like they were graduating a prestigious university, these women, in their holiday inspired sweaters, khaki slacks, white gyms shoes, and identical curled and Aqua Net hairspray would come. Their laughter and good-hearted teasing rings through my ears at night as I long for women who will share in the little things of life with me like that one day. Image

 

But it wasn’t just the older women who worked in this beautiful communion. The moms of our church were in-and-out of our school, always bringing, always encouraging, always giving … something. Our teachers were their friends, and they knew how hard it was to deal with our lil’ old selves. And so, in this ranch style layout of painted tan bricks and speckled, sawdust-over-puke-smelly floors, the moms would come. They would create elaborate scenes for Christmas and Easter and Valentines day: Santa on a sleigh, holding a list of names that just so happened to have every child’s name in the school on it. They would sew quilts with every family in the parish having a square and a way to express themselves. They would volunteer as lunch moms to make sure our gym stayed clean for the class that would come and use it in the next period. They would bring flowers and sell candy bars. And it wasn’t to raise money. It was to provide an atmosphere where kids knew that there was more than just a mom and a dad behind them. There was a community — cheering them forward and helping them to make a difference — from the days of boy scouts, to having their own son, to raising up the next generation when they would be grandparents one day, too. They were laying a foundation, and it was on the backs of moms who gave what they had.

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It was that call, in fact, to give what you have, that led my mother to break her long-term promise to me to send me to a prestigious Jesuit College Prep. Instead, she sent me 45 minutes away to a school I had never heard of, because, in her words, “she’d be sending me to a family.” How did she know? Well, because the mothers of this high school hand-baked cookies for the open house. Thousands and thousands of homemade, from scratch, you-can-smell-the-vanilla-in-every-hall cookies. And before you assume anything, these were not submissive women who thought their place was in the kitchen. These were moms who ruled the world — CEOs and lawyers and doctors — and they still knew how to take out the flour and sugar and create something warm for something else.

That visit day is as fresh in my mind today as any other day in my life. The gal touring us around the building boasted of their blue ribbon status and their AP classes, but that’s not what my mom focused on — even with her valedictorian daughter standing beside her. She looked at the other women. She watched their confidence and their strong love for their kids. She saw the pride in a school that was created to raise a generation, and in that moment, she taught me what to value in a school, in a community, and in partners. She could care less about the brand new computer lab. She saw women who walked with dignity and integrity, always looking behind them to make sure that no one was lost, no one was ignored, and no one was hurt. Not on their watch anyway.

When everyone moved out of the neighborhood and out of the suburbs surrounding those schools, I thought I’d never find those communities again. That is to say, communities of service and devotion — communities of character that really defined what that word is supposed to mean. And I can’t say that I haven’t been saddened when I think of what I was given and how my children don’t see those same things. But we have been able to glimpse pockets here and there. Grandmas who babysit children during a MOPS groups so that moms can share the burdens of raising kids in this generation. Homeschooling mommas, who are already pushing on all cylinders, who chose to take on my special needs kid so that I can have bible study like other mommas do (without worry). A couple who have spent 19 years of their life building an free, annual community Easter Egg hurt, complete with climbing walls and bouncy houses, so that underprivileged families without support nearby can have an exciting, memory building activity to go to on Easter morning. These women, these people are my heroes. The people who don’t necessarily have a whole church or school of volunteers behind them, but who create pockets of life anyway. They love. And they love. And they love.

And I want to be like them. Always.

These are my heroes. These are my women. These are the women who taught me what it was like to follow Jesus.

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Love,

pam

 

So You Want Your Church to Be Multi-Ethnic?

Three months ago, Matt Chandler’s Village Church (Tx) put out a video about racial reconciliation. Perhaps because I don’t follow Chandler, I didn’t see the video until today. And after watching, I felt a bit sick.

On the forefront, I want to say that I honestly believe that the Village is waking up to the horrendous sin in their own hearts. They really do want racial reconciliation. And for that, I’m grateful. But this video clearly displays their implicit ignorance and racism, rather than revealing a change of heart and change of vision, and for that, my heart breaks.

Rather than hash through all their mistakes, though, I want to lead you in a different direction. I want to ask you a question. Do you want your church to be multi-ethnic? If the answer is yes, then I beg you to keep reading and sincerely listen to just a few things that God has broken me about in a lifetime of trying to be a part of what He’s doing in reconciling us together in a church setting.

1) Racial reconciliation is not about banning a “white sound” or a “black sound.” And it’s FOR SURE not about blending the two together to have something “we all can enjoy.” Racial reconciliation happens before a note is played or a key is struck. It happens before we can actually speak to each other. It starts in our own homes, in our own bedrooms, in our own hearts. It starts with asking ourselves the dangerous questions. Questions like: Is there any racism in me at all? And don’t wimp out by blaming your environment for some lingering illusions. Be honest about what you agree with and what you disagree with, and why. And then ask yourself what it would take for you to admit you’re wrong. Because you are wrong.

2) Racial reconciliation isn’t about a quota. It’s not about magically hitting that number of more than 20% “other” in our church sanctuary so that we can declare on some Web site somewhere that we are “multi-ethnic.” It’s about understanding that brothers have been locked in war with other brothers for decades, and you’re not going to change it in a 5 step-plan. You’re not even going to change it with 5 intentional relationships. You’re going to change it when you realize that despite all our progress, you’re probably still just a trail blazer. So if you’re willing to strap on your boots and be disillusioned at just how big this fight is, join the rest of us.

3) You cannot, I repeat, CANNOT, advocate for racial reconciliation while still maintaining how awesome your ministry is and how well you have reached out to other ethnic groups. What you can do is admit that you want to love, and you don’t know how to do it exactly. But that you’re going to try. Any successes you get are not to feel like victories. They are to be somber reminders that there is so much more reconciling that can be done. There’s not time for celebration. There’s time to keep living it out. That’s it.

4) Don’t you DARE try to use doctrine to convince others that they should want racial reconciliation. You can make the mind believe it, but the heart never will. When you’re talking about reconciliation, you’re talking about surrender. You’re talking about both sides (or multiple sides) leaving their claims behind to meet at another destination. To try to use doctrine to be the ultimate summation of the goal of racial reconciliation is to be woefully ignorant of how that language created the problem to begin with. Racial segregation always begins with intellectual idolatry: We think about this better than you. And to use doctrine, especially if your a mostly white congregation, is to come into the meeting with your weapon still loaded.

Instead, ask the character questions of your own tribe. Ask your congregations if they can say the Holy Spirit is totally unhindered in love, joy, and self control when they encounter different tribes and nations of people. And when they bow their heads, knowing that the answer is no, invite apologies to be given. Not excuses. Apologies.

5) And the last and hardest piece of advice I have to give is this: Don’t try to make everybody look good or holy or like they’re trying to “make the peace.” There is nothing good or holy in the way that we ignored, shut down, condemned, criticized, and separated from one another. The way back is a path of walking through the muck. We’re all going to look messy as we go through it. So don’t publicize it. Don’t be proud of it. Don’t hold it up as a template for others to follow. Be grateful that God is allowing you to be a part of a miracle and that He’s offering grace upon grace to you. Let Him do the work. Let Him change you. Let Him grow something in your church without you needed to put your own “touch” on it. And stand in awe and reverence. You’re on Holy Ground.

 

 

Pam

A Call To Benediction: A Call To Accept Benediction

There’s only 40 days in Lent. Forty days to deeply meditate about who exactly Jesus was declaring Himself to be and what He really came to do in this world. And just forty days to grapple with the reality of humanity and how barbarian we can be. This last idea is the one that seizes my heart continuously. Maybe that’s why the concept of benediction has been weighing on me so heavily lately.  Let me explain.

By definition, a benediction is a short prayer asking for divine blessing, grace, or intervention at the end of a church service. But I’m not talking about that kind of benediction. I’m thinking about the concept of Benediction. The idea that after we have wrestled with the pain and suffering; after we have submitted to  the accusations about how wretched we really are; after we have accepted death and tasted its bitter end; that there would be a new life to resurrect to. Because benediction doesn’t dismiss our sin, but blesses us in spite of it, offering us something completely new. Let me give you a visual of this, borrowing from the Roman Catholics.

All throughout the year, and especially during lent, Catholics have a special time of submitting to Jesus. During what’s known as “adoration,” Catholics expose the Eucharist  — the wafer that has been consecrated to God to be the physical representation of the Body of Christ — so that their congregation can come into a sacred space. In this space, the congregants sit in, what they believe to be, the presence of Jesus (picture below). For those who have participated in this sacrament, you know it’s power. The silence and space to sit and repent — quite literally to lament over one’s sins — is soul melting. Despite the value of this rite, Catholics regard the Eucharist so highly that they don’t leave the Host out like this all the time, though. After a time, during what is known as Benediction, the priest must remove the host and place it into a tabernacle until the mass can be said with an entire congregation, and they can partake of the bread together.

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During adoration and benediction, Catholics participate in communal prayers, songs, litanies, and other forms of worship. But during the later half (just the Benediction) these prayers aren’t said with gusto or excitement anymore. They are said with the sorrow you would have in saying goodbye to a dear family member on their death-bed. They are said with a bending of the knee and a pleading to stay. The words are said like that because even though the song is one of God’s triumph, faithful Catholics know that the Eucharist is about to be taken from them.

     THAT concept of Benediction — the idea that God needs to impart some sort of blessing even when it feels like He’s walking AWAY from us and not towards us — feels real. That feels ~lenten~. That feels like now.  We need God to bless us — to impart peace and grace to us –when it feels like we’re being separated. When it feels like our enemy has slayed our God and is about to slay us as well. We need God to bless us when it feels like our sin is insurmountable.

    We need God to bless our church as we fail so miserably at being the bride we are supposed to be. When we are so far from who and what we are supposed to stand for.

     We need Benediction as a People. We need to get on our knees and wrestle with our sin. And then wrestle as we worship, knowing that God may distance Himself from us, if only to give us a longing to be ruled and loved by Him again.  Because when death and sorrow and sin have conquered us and yet lay await to slay us again, benediction offers the hope of sovereignty. Of beauty. Of life again. In short, Benediction is part of the path to resurrection

May we pray for God to bless us as we fall so short. May we pray that when we get up, that we are different people. And may we pray that there is a day and a time that we are no longer wretched, but redeemed and resurrected.

 

 

 

 

On Being Gluten Free, God, and Community

It’s all the rage now — gluten free, grain free, dairy free, SUGAR free living. But it hasn’t always been the rage. In fact, eight years ago, a simple blood test revealed that our son was allergic to peanuts, and that was about the most castrophic news that anyone near us had ever heard. Just trying to keep the peanuts out of his diet was a stressful task for family, friends, and teachers.

At first, I was embarrassed by my son’s allergy. I would make separate treats and carry them discreetly in my purse. Bu then, a funny thing happened in our church. There was an explosion of food allergies! And while it may not have been convenient — or cool — to have allergies, we parents started bonding over our kids’ peanut-, dairy-, soy-, and wheat-free lifestyles.

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At first, we got excited and shared recipes and great brands. But then things got a little more serious. We started deeply caring about one another’s kids. We started looking out for each other’s families.

“No, Ben can’t have a cupcake, but he can have the twizzler stick….”

 

We over stepped the boundaries. You know, those nice clear lines that say “Do Not Cross (because I have it covered).” We realized that as much as we watched our kids like hawks, kids will be kids, and we needed more eyes watching them. We knew we weren’t going to catch everything. And we also needed friends that would be willing to speak up and protect our kids, sometimes from themselves. We had to let people in because it was serious and it mattered.

It felt really good to have someone else care, especially about the most precious lil’ things in the world to us. But then, unexpectedly, things went even deeper. Because we cared sometimes, we now cared all the time. In fact, as I write this, six years later(!), I still feel the worry weight of a friend who lives nearly eight hundred miles away. I still worry with her about her son’s allergies. There’s some that would say that’s enmeshed behavior. I call it loving my friend and being willing to bear her burdens with her. But, for sure, that’s a whole ‘nother level of caring right there. That’s like … what … family does. 

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Getting to this final step seems to be really hard for us in western societies. We follow the same pattern over and over. We hide. We share superficially. We bond almost as an accident. And then we have this hesitation built around these questions: Should I really care? Will you let me care? Will you let me love you? Will you care back? We have to consciously tune down our fear filters to experience this explosion of blessing.

But what if community is more than being able to be strong next to someone else who’s strong? What if the only good community really already starts with the assumption that we’ve been hit. If we haven’t been hit by the big ones — disease, financial burdens, divorce, or addiction — then we’ve certainly been hit with disappointment, loneliness, boredom, frustration, anger, and cynicism.

What if, in the middle of admitting that you are in the center of that ‘hit,” you HAD to let someone love you? What if you had to let someone provide your gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free dinner because you would be sent into shock from eating just anything on the plate. Could you do it? Could you let someone love you by caring for your body? Could you do it, trusting that they WOULD care for your body? Could you do it without feeling guilty or fearful or controlling about it?

And could you do it with God? Could you do it with the things He provides you?

Sometimes the restrictions in our lives open doors to friendship and support and love like we’ve never received before. Sometimes, gluten-free can just mean wall-free. I can’t keep my wall up around you anymore.

 

Lonliness, Community, and Religious Celebrations

Being born and raised in Chicago, I’m used to cold winters. Really cold winters. I’m used to freeze-your-face-off winds and you-better-wear five-layers days. What I don’t think I’ll ever get used to is the loneliness that I see happens in my life and others’ lives during the brutal winter months. That bitter cold forces us to withdraw into our homes with occasional one-on-one conversations in drafty coffeehouses. It causes a lapse in community, and ultimately a feeling of being unloved and uncared for.

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While generations before us would hope that their friends would still be alive after those long, hard winters, I often find myself wondering if my friends will emotionally make it through the harsh weather and what toll it will take on them.  What bad choices will they make in an attempt to be loved? What lies will they succumb to because no one is by their side to check that lie with the truth? How often will they think that they are alone?

This is the reason I get really excited for early spring celebrations like St. Patrick’s Day and Lenten celebrations. It’s the reason I rejoice in days like Purim and Cinco de Mayo. I may not celebrate all of these holidays. And I may not even celebrate these holidays the way others do (typically, with large quantities of alcohol). But I see this deep desire in people just to connect again — particularly as a community. Because, let’s admit it, parade floats really aren’t that interesting. But laughing and hugging each other without feeling socially awkward is pretty amazing. And feeling like we’re not isolated from society — that we have a place of belonging in the larger scheme of things — is pretty hopeful.

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But what about church? Isn’t that what church is supposed to be?

It is. But I’ve found that despite most churches’ best efforts, we are failing as a body at this. Rachel Held Evans had a incredibly insightful tweet about two weeks ago. She said:

          For all the people who come home from church feeling lonelier than when they left, please know you are not alone today. (March 9, 2014 – 3:33pm)

There are some bodies where this is not true — Where people leave church feeling like everybody goes WITH them as they go out to be salt and light in the world. But, for the large part, I think many people leave Sunday morning service feeling the way Rachel described. They longed to be a part of something, and they’re not quite sure they are. They may know they have friends. They may even know they are loved. But they may not feel invited into something greater. And it causes a deep hurt in the deepest realm of the soul. Over time, it erodes them until they just give up on the body. They leave church every week feeling more drained than they came in until they can’t even convince themselves to come anymore.

Which brings me back to lenten celebrations. Where I grew up, lent was a holy thing. And by that, I don’t just mean quiet. It was a community movement trying to grapple with beauty and love in the midst of suffering and lament. But we did so in the form of gatherings and celebrations. Sometimes they were silly and sometimes they were fun, but they were always profound. It was joy. Joy in the midst of sorrow. Because we were together. We were going to get over the cold and the financial hardship and the hardness that is this life and ultimately, even death, together. And we were going to do it believing God was with us. But we never SAID that. We just did it.

I long for a tribe like this again. I’m very blessed to have some friends and family who have this same longing. But I really LONG for church like this again. And I wonder how we got away from it. What could have been so valuable, or so distracting, that we would have exchanged this glimpse of heaven for the hell of loneliness?

I wish I could end this blog post with an idea to fix it. But I don’t think I can. Because I think the only way this gets fixed is that a couple of people long for it enough that they get together and DO it. And then invite others into it. Not as an evangelistic tool. But just in the context of their own friendships. If you miss it like me, pray that I find it. I’ll be praying for you to find it, too.