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When the Bible is too Real

bible is too realAt the beginning of the year I challenged people to join me in daily Bible reading, specifically reading the Bible in a year. I am here, halfway through the year, to admit I’m behind. And it’s for the strangest reason. I’m behind because I’ve been reading the books of Samuel and Kings, and it’s been depressing me.

Part of this is that I’m a writer. I love stories. But I get too involved in my imaginary tales, and I can’t handle writing anything but a happy ending. (Yep, that’s a spoiler for my entire book list. Sorry. Or, if you’re like me, you’re welcome.) I love it when everything works out well. Wounds are healed, love conquers all, and there’s a good deal of joyful walking off into the sunset.

But you know what? The Old Testament has some seriously unhappy endings. David’s prayer over the loss of his dear friend Jonathan. Solomon’s disappointing turn from being a wise man of God to a man who helps his wives build idols. Everyone’s children. Samuel, Eli, David, Solomon–nobody turned out good kids. Depresses me to death. If all these great men of God are parenting failures, what hope do I have?

Years and years of Israel turning away and turning away and turning away. I watch the building of the tabernacle, the building of the temple, all the people promising to follow God, all the celebrations, and then two pages later they’ve forgotten every word and are sacrificing their children to evil gods. The temple is destroyed, cities fall, and people wander into darkness.

It makes me sad. Really, truly sad. I know in my head that it’s over. David is happy now. Same with Jonathan. Jesus was the ultimate goal of  the Bible, and he successfully came to save us. The words are there to help me learn and understand the nature and character of God, but I get so involved with the story and the characters that I can’t quite untangle myself from them.

When we get to heaven, I want to meet King David. I think he is the most fascinating character–non-divine character–in the entire Bible. This is a man who lives big. He dances so big that his wife hates him. He drools on his beard to make someone think he’s insane. When a man dies touching the Ark, he wants the Ark far away. As soon as someone is blessed by the Ark, he wants it close again. He’ll do anything for a blessing from God. But he sins big, too, and he mourns those sins with poetry and song that speak to hearts even now. He lives out emotion in a way I’ve never been able to do.

This guy was real. Sometimes I can’t wrap my head around that. And sometimes I can’t unwrap my head from around that. The history of this planet is real, and God engineered all of it. The sheer size of God and the scope of his plan can be too much to comprehend, so he gives us stories of men and women, stories of real people with much too real good and bad qualities, and through those God makes himself more real to us.

If you’re reading your Bible this year, hooray. I hope you don’t get stuck like I have. I spent a long time today working toward catching up, and I feel good about that. I don’t like to be behind, not when it’s because I’m hiding from the reality that we, humans, are a sinful mess. I’d have to say that’s one of the main themes in the Bible, and it’s really clear in the history of the Israelite nation.

If you’re not reading, it’s not too late to start. Just read it without worrying about how much or how fast. Let it be real to you. It’s history. It’s God calling us to participate in all He did from day one. It’s about broken people, failure, betrayal, anger, tears, joys, birth, life, and ultimately the One Person who takes all that chaos and shines a bright light into it bringing it all into focus.

I need to toughen up a little bit to keep reading the Old Testament. Or the New Testament-we all know hard stuff happens there, too. But maybe it needs to be that real to me. Maybe until I weep with David and fear over Israel and feel the horror of the crucifixion at the end of each gospel, I can’t really understand what this is all about. God chose to give us stories. He chose to unite the past and the present in one long narrative, exposing Himself along the way in the only way we’d truly understand.

It’s not an easy read. But it’s worth it. And yeah, sometimes I wish for more happy endings. Until I remember that the happiest ending is still to come, where I can chat with all the heroes of old and laugh and smile and feast, and the hard parts will be forever behind us. Maybe I’ll be a little more outgoing there, and David and I can share a wild dance out of love and excitement for this great big God who made us.

The Bride on Her Own Terms

bride on her own termsI read an article recently about young people turning from church and pursuing God alone. They don’t trust the Bible. They don’t trust the church. They want to find a spirituality that’s strictly individual and doesn’t ask for more than they want to give. They want a spiritual life fully on their terms, and they have no patience with people who get in their way or inconvenience them.

I don’t think young people are alone in this. Spiritual community isn’t easy, because community in general isn’t easy. We don’t live in a culture where community is a thing, so in the church it feels forced and strange and unnatural.

I attend a church with very few programs. If I’m going to live in community with my worship family, I have to do it on my own. I have to search out the pregnant mom and offer her a meal. There is no meal committee to make it happen. If someone needs help moving furniture, someone has to learn it the old fashioned way, through talking and relationship. There is no moving committee.

We do have a couple programs. A simple children’s program, although nothing for older kids. As of a couple days ago, my son is the only high school student in our church, so I tease him about having youth group when he’s hanging out alone. We have teams to get things done, like setting up the worship space (we meet in a building with multiple uses) or praying during worship. But even there, there’s a lot of freedom as to how we interact.

In other words, we have to decide to live in community and then do it. Nobody’s going to make it easier. Programs are fine, as long as they don’t become a substitute for community, but I’ve discovered I kind of like the informality of a non-programmed church. It means when someone in the body shows me love, it’s spontaneous, not scripted. It’s heartfelt. Often it’s creative and out of the blue. No, we don’t always do it well. We still get caught up in the busyness of our individual lives and miss huge needs in our corporate life, but we’re working on it. Community is happening.

I spent some time in Mexico, and a tiny body of believers there met every night in someone’s house. Every night. Can you imagine? Community completely trumped individual, independent spirituality. They were all connected and united. They learned and lived and died as a group. Part of it had to do with this being a small village that already understood community. They lived it daily, working together to survive. But here, community is foreign, so we struggle to live as a body, since our spiritual life is the only place we do it.

A body. Yeah, Jesus used that term, didn’t he? I feel like we use the word without thinking about it. Each us of want to be a whole body. Our (MY!) math is Me+God=Healthy spiritual life.  But God says we each have a role, and without some of us, the whole thing is broken. God’s math is this: God+me+you+you+you+you…=healthy spiritual life. We rely on each other. God didn’t give any of us all the answers (not even the super-rich authors and megachurch pastors who make the news. Yep, they need you and me. We all need each other.). He did that on purpose. For some reason, from the beginning, he wanted us in groups. Families. Churches. Nations. He made us to need groups.

This is coming from an introvert who sometimes has words with God about this whole group thing. Trust me, I’d like to be a whole body. Some days I want nothing to do with community. I want Christianity on my terms, and my terms include words like solitude and peace and convenience. Which are fine sometimes. But his terms include words like body, sacrifice, and unity. It can be rough.

What if Jesus had used our logic on earth? First, he and God had a really good thing going. Morning prayers, sinlessness–it was good. What if Jesus had looked at the Israelites–and everyone else– and said Wow. These sinners are dampening my spiritual fervor. God loves a bunch of irritating people. They bring me down. Plus, I hate all the rituals and commandments. I’m just going to head back to God and forget this whole sacrifice thing. This isn’t about them. It’s just me and God. And we’re good.

The crucifixion wouldn’t have happened, because that’s as far from individual spirituality as possible. But Jesus lived in community. He lived for community. He was here to rescue that community, clean it up, build it up, and then offer it to God. A single bride. A single body.

I hope the young people realize individual spirituality needs to be lived out in a body. I hope all of us realize we aren’t our own, myself included. Jesus loves us each as individuals, sure. But he didn’t mean for us to live our spiritual lives that way. We have to put aside all the frustrations of dealing with people–just like he did–and find community again. On his terms.

It’s not easy. Or at least it isn’t for me. In this culture it’s awkward and takes thought and work. It means  rearranging life to accommodate the needs that arise within the body. Time. Patience. But Jesus says it’s worth it. He wants to present his beautiful bride to God.  One single bride. I look forward to that wedding day, and that means I have to be part of that beautiful bride’s body.

 

A Tale of Two Visions

If you’ve been in churches for long, I bet you’ve experienced a church building program. You know, the way a small church adds physical space to become a bigger church. If not, it goes something like this:

First, the pastor announces that he, or a group of leaders, has had a vision. You know, a great idea about how the congregation can reach the world. And it completely depends on space. And money. This vision encompasses loving the unlovable, reaching the lost, and saving the world.

Next, there are brochures, catch phrases, bulletin boards, and pledge cards scattered through the congregation for a few weeks. Talk of stepping out in faith, digging deep, trusting God with finances, etc. Again, there is talk of the vision, how God is behind this, and if everyone simply sacrifices, God’s works can continue.

Often, there is a subtle threat that if the congregation can’t pull off the funds, God’s kingdom will come to a screeching halt.

After this, regardless of how deep anyone has dug, loans are procured, paint swatches are shared, and the new building happens. It’s beautiful. Now the church can reach the lost. Whew. Thought we almost lost our purpose there. Good thing we have this new building, because we know without the best of everything, Christianity will simply fail.

You might think I’m opposed to building programs. I’m not. Honest. But Christians all over the world meet in packed, crowded, dumpy places, sometimes hiding their very existence, and the Kingdom thrives. Just sayin’.

I currently attend a very tiny church that doesn’t have a building. As a quick aside, I want to say that property-free church bodies rock. I never realized that most of the fighting among church members has to do with paint colors and pew fabric. Take away the building, and everything changes.

However, that’s not the point. A couple years ago, the pastor of this tiny church said he wanted us to find space of our own. We couldn’t purchase–he never asked us to sell our houses or children to fund a building of our own, because even that wouldn’t have done it. We are not a wealthy body. However, he wanted us to have a morning service, since we have a lot of kids, and our afternoon service (required because we shared space with a church) was hard for parents. Also, he wanted space we could use 24/7 for Bible studies, meetings, things of that sort.

He pointed out we would likely end up with a storefront or other non-churchy space, because there are no rental churches out there in the world. And then he did something I have never, ever, in my many years of church attendance, heard a pastor/leader do.

Our pastor asked us to pray. Okay, that’s not weird. But he asked us to share with him the results of those prayers. If God gave us ideas or answers to the building dilemma, he wanted us to share it with him. And he would listen to us.

In other words, in case you missed it, he wasn’t offering his vision and then forcing us to pay for it. He wanted God’s vision, and he figured God was going to give clues to someone. He didn’t think it had to be him. The least person in our body might have had the answer. And he wanted the answer more than the power of seeing his vision happen.

So happens, God looked at our list of building requirements and tossed them straight out the window. No clear answers came, and we waited. We waited a long time. And then, the answer came from left field one day. I don’t know the details, but someone in our body was talking with someone who runs a meals program downtown. And they wanted to be linked with a church.

For some unknown reason, God seemed to think our white, middle class, suburban body might be the church to partner with them. Made no sense, although usually that’s a good sign God is involved in something.

We would get to use the building Sunday morning. But that was it. No evenings or weekdays. We would have a small closet for our equipment. Almost everything on our wishlist was axed.

Nobody in our body had the vision for what we have now. Nobody. But we waited. The pastor gave up power and waited with us. And when this opportunity came, he again asked our opinion. Again he asked us to let him know if God was giving any of us words of discernment or wisdom over this decision.

Long story short, we now meet in a building that serves meals to needy people six lunches and three(four?) dinners per week. It’s not a wealthy area, so we don’t attract wealthy, middle class families to our services. And we love that. (Okay, the other day when I was caught in a conversation with a schizophrenic guy who thought we should all be locked up for not being vegan, I wasn’t feeling the warmest, fuzziest love. It was educational, though, and I did my best to be kind and friendly.) After that,  I can safely say we open our arms to anyone who comes through our doors. I may have nothing in common with some of the people who enter, but we’re all learning that loving someone doesn’t require common ground. A smile, a kind word, and listening with compassion can close a lot of gaps.

I am thankful to belong to a body whose pastor isn’t the source of all power. I am happy to be part of a body willing to let God toss the wishlist. I am happy to belong to a body that never threatens to stop the kingdom because it doesn’t meet our expectations. I wish everyone could do that.

So. This started as a mini rant and ended as a PR piece for a church I love. I don’t know if this has any universal lesson, but if I had to sum up my feelings on our church move, I would have to say I’m thankful. I wouldn’t have chosen this. I’m glad God chose for us. I’m glad we let him do it. And if he asks us to move again or points us in some other direction, I suspect we’ll go. We’ve grown in trust. And that’s a very cool thing.

The Information Swamp

Information swampNone of my grandparents are living, and I regret that I didn’t have closer relationships with them. I don’t remember hearing their stories about growing up, getting married, what it meant to be a mother in the thirties, forties, fifties.

My parents are alive, and I know more of their tales. My dad is in his mid-seventies, and I’ve heard stories of killing chickens for dinner, his old dog, his life in another era, another time. Being a storyteller myself, I love stories.

I am now in a place where, biblically, I’m the older woman. Titus 2 tells older women to help the younger ones love their husbands and children. These older women, like all of the people in Titus’ church, likely were new believers. They might have raised their children while following pagan gods. They got married in societies with no godliness. And yet, Paul says their current love for God, along with the experience of age, makes them valuable mentors.

Flash forward.

A few years ago, a group of experienced moms and I held a luncheon for pregnant moms in my church. Between us, we moms had well over fifty years of parenting experience. Probably closer to a hundred. We’d seen it all. We asked the moms-to-be if they had questions for us, if they wanted to talk about anything. Their answer? Please recommend some good parenting books for us.

Ouch.

Information. It’s the god of our generation. Everyone has internet access at their fingertips all the time. People, especially young people, are swamped with information. And it looks pretty, written by people with lots of letters behind their names. Experts. We are also a generation that worships expertise. Expertise on the internet–even better. It’s impersonal, never corrects us, and lets us feel like experts ourselves. And it feels like a guarantee. Follow the experts and the result will always be a happy, adjusted, perfect life.

But what about wisdom? I’m pretty savvy with the internet. I can find the same information. But I process it differently. I have experience. Many years of life experience. When I see new information, I weigh it against the experience, fit it into different grooves, discard more of it, treasure it differently.

Having been a parent for more than a quarter century, I can safely say parenting and even marriage advice swings on a pendulum. Wide swings. Every five years or so a new expert applies a new twist to parenting, and the pendulum goes. Let a child console himself sometimes becomes entertain a child every second. Demand obedience becomes never wound a child with a harsh word. And then back again. It swings, and young parents swing along. And I want to say something. I want to help the struggling parent who finds the edges of the pendulum hard to navigate. I want to share my experience so they can settle closer to the middle, balanced and less nauseous from the wild ride.

But I pale compared to the bright, shining information on the internet and in books. I’m a relic. Old fashioned ideas. Not an expert. I might ruin a child because I don’t know the new rules. I haven’t read today’s shiny expert.

It’s hard to be a Titus 2 woman in an information swamp. I sink and slog around in the mush, and I don’t know how to be useful. And I watch others sink and slog, too, and I feel so powerless to help.

Maybe we can take hands and form a chain. It would mean all of us giving up the desire to do it alone, going solo with the information out there on screens. It means sometimes admitting we did things wrong–or are doing things wrong–because life isn’t foolproof. Nobody has all the answers. That’s what mentoring is about. It’s truly a two-way street.

I’m willing to extend my hand. I’ve been there. But I haven’t read the latest books. I don’t know the newest terms. I won’t recommend the best experts. All I can offer is what I know, both victories and failures. I can process new information through a different perspective. I’d love for younger women to take me up on it, knowing sometimes I have failed. They will fail. All of us fail. I would love to be part of a chain of people dragging through the swamps to the higher, drier ground. And I still latch on to older hands, because I’m not done yet, either. The chain goes on.

When God led Paul to write Titus 2, I doubt he made a mistake. I ache to be valued because of the things I’ve seen and heard and learned along the way. My hand is out there. Wherever you are, there are probably old hands who would grab you, too. Latch on. Some truths and wisdom are timeless, and I think God wants us to keep it and pass it down. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have put Titus 2 in that big old book of his.

 

 

 

Prayer for the Wandering Child

This is a treasure I bring to you, asking you to love and cherish it more than even I do.Before my child took a breath, I prayed for you to love him. As he grew, safe beneath my ribs, I called on you for his future, his life, his soul. When he was too little to care I read to him of your love, prayed over his crib, brought him to your throne time and again.

As he grew, I did my best. His education included your name in every subject. He spent time in church. He understands theology and doctrine. He had friends who cared for you as well as those who didn’t, so he could see the world for what it was. In some ways, he was sheltered. In others, he was free to make his own way. He attended youth group, which some days I regret to the depths of my core, and some days I remember with fondness.

And yet, he wanders. My prayer is for him to settle in your bosom, to love you first and foremost. I don’t care if he succeeds in the world. I don’t care if he buys a house or owns a nice car or lives in the suburbs. I’ve only ever had one goal for him, and yet it’s the one goal he hasn’t settled on, not with any passion.

This is where my theology falls by the wayside. This is where I don’t pray as I’ve been taught to pray. I don’t have the faith of a mustard seed. I bargain: If you’ll just draw him to you, I’ll do anything… As though I have some kind of leverage. I scour your Word for a guarantee, a three-step program that will ensure that everyone I love will walk with you when the final curtains are drawn.  I’m looking for a spell, truth be told.  A few magic words, an eye of newt, and clicking my heels three times, and I won’t have to wait on you. I plot, imagining ways to lure him to worship, lure him toward truths, make this happen, as though changing the state of a soul is within my power. Patience is difficult, moments of exquisite pain where I don’t display any fruit. In this matter, I am fear. I am doubt. Was I a bad parent? Where did I go wrong? Should I pray more? Do more? I tremble as I wait for your final word on the matter.

Because this is one where an answer of no isn’t acceptable. My stomach heaves to imagine it.  My head spins, and the world grows dim. This means everything. This is a treasure I bring to you, asking you to heal it, love it, enfold it in your palm and cherish it more than even I do. And in the face of that, I lose all sense, all doctrine, all discipline, all dignity. Faith goes quiet. Hope flickers. Darkness curls from the depths and my heart stutters.

In that darkness Satan sings songs of victory. Remember the sons of David, he chortles. Or the sons of Eli. Men of God who saw their children wander off the edges entirely, no last-minute saves. This could be you.

I have no answers. I have tears. I cast my cares and fears on the one who cares for me. God says if I love him I will love his son.  I hope the flip will prove to be true, that He will love the sons and daughters because He loves the parent.  Perhaps I will learn patience after all.  Perhaps today is the day the angels will rejoice over the lamb restored.  Perhaps the coin will appear through the cracks of the house, and the neighbors will hear the victory cry.

Mothers brought their children to Jesus, and he said to let it happen, that he wanted to bless them.  The leper said If you are willing, cleanse me. I ask the same words, hoping your answer then will be your answer now, even though I ask by proxy. I am willing. Say them to my child, Jesus. I am willing.

I am not alone, Lord.  For all of us waiting, for all of us craving the victory cry over lost lambs and missing coins, whether they be children or spouses or parents or friends, I ask from my knees, please be willing.  And come quickly, but not before you heal the souls of those we love, our treasures in jars of clay we wish to see shine forever in your presence.

Break their hearts. Pierce their darkness. Guide their steps. Bring them home.

Amen