Tag Archive | church

The Ugly Bride

img_4876I heard it again last week. A Christian blogger proudly announced that his focus was Jesus, and since the church was a broken mess, this person was going to honor Jesus alone. Just Me and Jesus, he said. Church isn’t for me.

I found myself imagining a conversation between two men, where one guy wants to warn the other about a bad choice for a wife. And being a novelist, imagining conversations isn’t hard. For this one, blogger dude is named Dude. And Jesus–well, he’s named Jesus. And the conversation might go something like this…

“So, man, I love you. You know that, right? I’d take a bullet for you, man. But I need to talk to you about this bride of yours. I mean, I hate to say this, but knowing who you are, and how you could have anyone you want, why would you want this bride? She’s kind of… well, she’s kind of ugly.”

“My bride is ugly?” Jesus asks. “Tell me what’s ugly about her.”

“Well,” Dude says. He’s warming up to this. Jesus wants his opinion. “Okay, sometimes she comes out with her hair a mess. Her clothes don’t always match. I mean, how simple would it be just to keep herself looking good, you know? She’s the bride of one impressive guy, right? And the way she acts… Sometimes she laughs way too loud. Her jokes can be crude. She doesn’t always say the most politically correct things.” He lowers his voice. “I’ve even noticed her scratching in public. That’s just not done. I’m just saying it might be better for you to keep looking. There are plenty of brides out there.”

“But I love this one.”

“Okay. I mean, you’re a fair guy. She must have something special, but why doesn’t she show it? People would like you a lot more if your bride wasn’t so difficult. Unpredictable. That cackling laugh, the wild hair, her inability to behave right in public…I don’t get it.”

“Have you seen her feed the poor?”

“Well, sure. And that’s good and all. But she doesn’t always feed the poor. There are still a lot of poor.”

“And have you seen her take in the orphans?”

“Of course. But there are still orphans. I’ve also seen her turn her back on orphans and poor. I’ve seen her do a lot of things I don’t agree with. You just never know what she’s going to do.”

“Regardless, she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.”

“Man, you need to get out more,” Dude says, frustrated. Jesus just isn’t seeing it. “She can be rigid and fanatical. Or she can turn around and be blase. I don’t know how you find that beautiful.”

“Have you heard her sing?”

“Sing?” Dude is perplexed. “So what if she can sing? A lot of people can sing.”

“She sings to me. Sometimes with an organ, sometimes just with her voice, and sometimes with flutes or drums. Beautiful love songs.”

“I hate to break it, but she doesn’t have that great a voice. Nothing about this woman is spectacular in any way. I just don’t want her to hold you back or bring you down. You have a mission, right? She’s in the way.”

“Her voice is angelic. And she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” Dude asks. He’s angry now. He loves this guy, but wow. Like talking to a brick. “She’s not beautiful. You asked me, so maybe I’ll ask you. What makes her beautiful?”

“You mean other than feeding the poor and holding the orphans and singing to me with the voice of an angel?”

“Um,” Dude says. This isn’t going well. “Yes. Other than that.”

“My father made her just for me.”

“What? Your father made her?”

“He put together all her parts, exactly for me. Everything I need for my mission. Everything I love. Everything I find beautiful. Her vocal cords are just for me. Her hair is for me. Her clothes are for me. And crooked toes and each finger and every part of her. In every part of her I see my father’s love for me. And he sees my love for him when I woo her, when I sing back to her, when I hold her in my arms and we dream of our future together.”

Dude coughs. This guy has it bad, and he realizes he might have said the wrong thing here. It probably isn’t a great idea to anger someone so powerful.

“Fine,” he says, panic giving way to anger. “Fine. Your father gave you a gift that’s average at best. You want everyone to know you through that woman? Really? It’s the best either of you can do? That’s fine, but I don’t want any part of it. You and I can be friends, but she has to stay out of it.”

“I don’t think that will work,” Jesus says. He shrugs. “She’s everything. I don’t have room left for anyone else. But if you talk to her, spend time with her, get to know her, I think you’ll see. Look at her the way I do. See my father in her, when she feeds a homeless man a sandwich, when she holds a door for an elderly man, when she sings a song off key with a sparkle in her eye. See my love for my father when she compliments a harried waitress or holds a victim of violence or mows her neighbor’s grass when he’s ill.”

Dude hangs his head. Jesus’ bride embarrasses him. She might have Jesus duped, but he knows the truth, that she’s not classy enough for Jesus, not sophisticated, prone to fits of anger. But what can he say?

Jesus smiles. “I know what you’re thinking. But if I only accepted perfection, I couldn’t be your friend, either. I love her. She is and always will be the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. And I would easily take a bullet for her. Already have, in fact. And the scars I wear–they just remind me that while her songs are off key and her hair can be wild and sometimes she makes no sense to the world, she is mine. And I am hers, all she needs, all she wants, all she loves.”

—-

I feel sad for the blogger who thinks he’s doing Jesus and Christianity a favor by maligning the bride Jesus loves, the bride for whom Jesus wears scars, the bride that signifies such eternal, omnipotent love. I hope that man spends some time getting to know the bride, even with her unpredictable behavior and mismatched clothes. Even when she scratches in public.

Because regardless of anything else, Jesus loves her. She is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. One day all will see her vibrant beauty, and the flaws of this world will fall away. And wow, that’s a scene I can’t wait to see.

 

 

 

Defeating the Isms

soup_kitchenFor the past few months, I’ve been helping to feed people in my downtown. Once a month I bring food to a local food ministry, and other people from my church bring food, and we heat it up in a big, giant kitchen. Then we open the doors, and anyone who wants to come and eat gets to come in and eat.

I have a confession here. I am not entirely comfortable with some  kinds of people. Like the mentally ill. The homeless. Those who never bathe. Those without teeth. I tend to gravitate toward people who have more in common with me. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.

And I know that’s not right. I have shown up to feed people because I KNOW I am supposed to love these people. And by these people I mean anyone–there are no requirements to eat at our ministry. But I find myself dealing with the little isms–some ageism, maybe some racism or sexism. Is there an ism about finances? If so, I sometimes struggle with that one. The little ways I define someone as part of a group that’s very different from me.

During these months, something has happened. I didn’t expect it. I accidentally found the cure to my personal case of isms. And you want to know the secret? I served.

I didn’t show up to fix anything. I’m not changing anyone. There are no sermons involved here. I simply pour coffee. I pass out cookies. I take special orders when I can.

And suddenly, it isn’t a room of people who are different and maybe scary. It’s a woman who likes coffee. And one who only wants water. It’s a man who doesn’t want rice on his plate. One who wants his food mixed together, and one who doesn’t want his food to touch.

It’s a table of people who are laughing, and a table of strangers giving each other the evil eye. It’s a man who says thank you and one who doesn’t make eye contact. It’s a woman who asks me to watch her backpack–which holds her every life possession–while she goes to the bathroom. It’s a man who lives in an apartment close by and one staying at a shelter. A woman who always wears a flower in her hair, a woman in a wheelchair, and a vegetarian.

It’s individuals. They’re people. And they have their own wants and needs and likes and dislikes and agendas. And the longer I serve, the more I see them that way, and the less I can apply an ism. Isms are about groups and the idea that every person in that group is identical to every other one. After people are grouped, sweeping judgments can be made. But really, nobody entirely fits in any group. People of different races or religions are not clones of each other. People with mental illness, the homeless, the underemployed–none of them are clones. I have to take each as what they are–unique people.

Somehow I am now in charge of our church’s monthly meal at the ministry. Yeah, I went from being wary to jumping in with both feet. I’m sort of hooked. I spend more time in the kitchen than out with people, because that’s who I am. But that doesn’t matter, because the change is still there. When I get a crazy special request, I smile, because it’s a new way to serve a human being, one with likes and dislikes and his or her own unique, God-given personality. Helps remind me that this is about individuals. Always.

We imagine we’re feeding people and somehow saving the world.

We’re feeding people. That’s true. But the saving part? I think I’m the one being saved.

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.

 

The Pizza Sign Man

There is a man in my city I pass very often.  I don’t know him–not his name, his family, nothing whatsoever.  All I see is a single action of his, but it’s enough to make me admire him.  I call him the pizza sign man.

For the past several years, this man has stood in all kinds of weather, from snowstorms to heat waves, and held a pizza sign at the edge of a busy road near a pizza place.  If I drive past his corner in the middle of the day, he’s there.  Day in, day out, always on his corner holding his sign.

I doubt many people grow up with the desire to hold a pizza sign.  It’s not a glamorous job.  It’s not terribly challenging, can’t possibly pay well, and to spend hours in one’s head with nobody to talk to surely gets difficult at times, but the pizza sign man continues on.

I spent a lot of years in an upper middle class world.  I worshiped there, have friends there, and am influenced by that world, even though I no longer belong there.  And the upper middle class world is no place for a pizza sign man.  In that world, kids go to college and get good jobs and become successful, those inside the church and out.  And in most churches there, those with more clout in the world have more clout in the church.  The idea, I think, is that a Christian with power and success can reach the world and change the world for Christ in a way a pizza sign man cannot.  Big, beautiful churches are not built by congregations of pizza sign men.  Modern church life and programs take resources pizza men simply can’t muster.

During our marriage my husband has had all kinds of jobs, including a stint making and delivering pizza.  People treat pizza men differently than engineers, but God doesn’t.  When the pizza sign man stands on his corner in the pouring rain, God notices, and I suspect he smiles.

My father is a PhD in Civil Engineering who supported his family for the past decade as a security guard because he lost a job too near retirement age.  Another PhD I know works at Lowes. Doing a job well is all God asks.  Unfortunately, it’s not all the world asks.  And even more unfortunately, the church doesn’t always see the value in the pizza sign man, either.

I don’t know what people think about the pizza sign man when they drive past.  Maybe they feel pity.  Maybe they feel superior.  Maybe they admire him.  I suspect most no longer see him.  I don’t always notice him, but when I do,  I pray for him.  Jesus came for the pizza sign men as much as anyone else, and he loves them and wants to see them in his kingdom someday.  When he first started I would point him out to my children. That man is doing a wonderful thing.  He’s working hard, and he always shows up.  I hope you can be an employee like that someday.

Yes, my friends with kids on scholarship at prestigious schools might think I’m setting too low a bar, but God just grins and hopes my kids grow up to be employees like that, too.  Even more, he hopes my kids will love the pizza sign men and embrace them should they walk through the church doors, because there were times we were living the pizza life, too, and we didn’t always feel the love.

I now attend a church that meets in a ministry building where homeless people are fed every day. I hope we’re welcoming, to doctors and pizza sign men and disabled people on welfare. I hope my youngest, who attends church with us, will never think twice about the status of those he worships with, because I admit there were times in my life when I did. Shameful but true.

And hey, if we could get a pizza sign man to worship with us, maybe our church events would get discounted prices for pizza.

One of Those Sundays

one of those sundaysIf you’ve attended church for any length of time, you’ve had one of those Sundays, when it seems getting out the door is the most difficult task of the week. Kids lose shoes, a pacifier hopelessly disappears from the diaper bag, arguments erupt about trivial things–some mornings everything seems to work against it.

I had one of those Sundays this week. I didn’t get to bed until late the night before. Then two hours later someone on our street shot a handgun. Not far from our house, I would say. We don’t live in a dangerous neighborhood, so it didn’t scare me as much as startle me awake. Adrenaline kicked in, and sleep was hopelessly over. I lay there planning the next few chapters of my newest novel while waiting to get tired. But I never quite dropped into deep sleep again.

Also, when I shot awake, I managed to get something in my eye. It hurt. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and it still hurts. Whatever is in there isn’t going anywhere. The act of squinting all morning gave me the worst headache, which combined with a lack-of-sleep headache until I felt sick to my stomach.

However, I showered and made it to church. I was tired.  My eye was hurting and running all over the place. Head was aching. When I get too tired, my heart races, so I was listening to that and hoping I didn’t die before church let out. Right–fatigue is my number one trigger for anxiety attacks. Pain is number two. So between the lack of sleep and the pain in my eye… It was hopeless.

But I was there. I sat through it. I spent most of it hoping it would be over soon. I wanted to go home, rinse my eye out again, maybe try a nap, take an Excedrin, and not do the friendly fellowship thing while I felt like I was dying.

Today I  was also supposed to bring a book for a friend. She offered to beta read a novel coming out in July, and I had that ready to go. Only she didn’t make it–car trouble. I wasn’t the only one fighting a battle concerning church today.

Clearly I survived. My eye will eventually shed whatever’s in it or heal if something scratched it. I will eventually catch up on sleep. Nobody will hold it against me that I wasn’t the friendliest person in church today. It’s all fine, even though it didn’t feel fine in the midst of it.

I forget sometimes that worship invites battle. It seems so easy to get up and go to a building and sit there. But so much more happens. God speaks and draws us close when we worship with our church families. We hear about needs we can fill. We sing praises to the one who made the universe. We hear from scriptures practical ways to live for God and invite others to live for him, too. Spiritual battle is very real, and those Sundays when it’s hard to get there–I don’t think those are coincidence.

The hard Sundays I tend to listen a little harder, look a little deeper. I don’t know if the attacks are random or if the enemy truly tries to keep me out on weeks when I most need to be there. But just to be safe, I want to make sure if there’s a message for me on the hard Sundays, I don’t miss it.

This Sunday, the message was one I can’t hear enough, the reminder that God is pleased with me because of Jesus, not because of anything I do. I can always use that reminder. I talk myself out of believing that on a daily basis. I can’t make God happy with me by doing good. I do good because I’m thankful God is happy with me. My head knows that’s true. But my heart can doubt. I need to hear it over and over until my heart finally believes it for good.

Today, while my eye was running and my head was pounding and anxiety about took me to the ground, God wanted to remind me of that. He’s happy with me. I’m a wreck sometimes, but that’s okay. He loves me. I obey because that truth is so important to me, but that truth stands regardless of how big a mess I am.

I truly hope next Sunday morning is easier than this Sunday was. But if not, I will do my best to show up to worship and listen to what God has to say. It is an honor and a privilege to worship with the people in my church, and I don’t ever want to take it for granted.

Fire, Maracas, and Life

fire maracas and lifeOn Holy Saturday, I went to an Easter Vigil for the first time. I’m embarrassed to admit that, because I’ve attended a church with an annual Easter Vigil for a long time, but I’ve never attended. I had no idea what it was. Honestly, the name doesn’t make it sound too wonderful, and I used to belong to a denomination that never used that term, so… Anyway. I finally attended.

On Friday I spent time with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. All day Saturday I felt the stirrings of sadness and grief that Jesus had to die, but also the anticipation that Easter was about to arrive and I knew the end of the story. It had a happy ending, even though that middle part was awful. It was a strange day. But the Easter Vigil spoke to that, the between space from Friday night to Sunday morning.

Since I’ve only attended one Easter Vigil, I can’t tell you if my church does it anything like other churches. We started outside lighting a fire. A deacon lit a candle with that fire and took it inside. We prayed and sang with lit candles. For some reason, singing praise songs with a candle in hand is way cooler than any other method, so that felt special. We heard Old Testament passages that spoke of Jesus’ future sacrifice, prayed, and sang. We remembered our baptisms and rejoiced with someone renewing his baptismal vows.

At one point, I watched two female musicians leading the songs. I don’t remember what we were singing, but one musician was in tears, and the other was beaming with the brightest smile, and I had to laugh. And cry. Those reactions, so different and yet both so honest, both so acceptable, completely summed up my emotions that day as well as the feel of the service.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t react like I should. Should I cry more? Rejoice more? What if I’m not doing this right? When I react strangely, does that mean I’m not taking things seriously? Do I not understand what was done for me? Is there something wrong with me?

But the reality is that what Jesus did was hard and sad. My sin is awful. But He went of his own accord, not hating me for making him go, but loving me and excited and rejoicing in the chance to bring me home. So. Tears are good. Smiles are good. And both at once–that’s certainly a possibility.

An Easter Vigil ends with the return of light, the return of life. In our church, the children–and a good many adults– grabbed instruments from a basket on the way in. During the last songs, the room filled with the sounds of maracas, tambourines, even a triangle struck by a very excited little boy. By the time we left, my ears were ringing. I was reminded of Jesus’ words a week before, when he said that if his people didn’t rejoice when he entered Jerusalem, the rocks themselves would cry out. The night of our vigil, it sounded like the entire world was rejoicing, with voices and drums and maracas and stomping feet and twirling children with instruments in hand.

Maybe the rocks themselves cried out, for Jesus rose from the dead as a true king, and we were there for a wild coronation night. But if they did, we were making way too much noise ourselves to hear them.

That night we walked into our church weeping, lost and alone because we were still in our sins, because the man who would be king had failed and died.

We left with hope and a future, the king ascended to the throne once and for all.

From now on, the Easter Vigil is on the calendar, non-negotiable, every year. And I might have some words with everyone who NEVER TOLD ME what to expect, because I missed a lot of years. But again, God’s timing was perfect, and he met me in the between place and spoke to my spirit with His Spirit at a time he knew I was listening.

I don’t know why that surprises me any more.

Winning Lulu

DSC00960Author’s note: Usually Friday is my simple living blog. Well, it seems I tore a muscle between some ribs in my back, so at the moment I’m doing more whining than decluttering, and my schedule is mostly simple because I’m being lazy until it heals. So, for the next Friday or two I’m throwing in some different posts. Today, meet another one of my pets, who teaches me more about life than I care to admit.

About four years ago, I had to put a kitten to sleep.  She was nine months old, named Salamander, and to this day my heart hurts when I think about losing her.  She was a rescued feral, and I really loved her, but she had an illness that couldn’t be cured.

Salamander had a brother named Cricket, and for six solid weeks after she died, he looked for her and called for her.  My broken heart proceeded to break into still smaller parts, so I went to PetsMart during an adoption weekend and found a five-month old cat to be Cricket’s new sister.  Her name was Lulu.

Lulu was a very pretty cat, bright eyed and full of energy.  When I got her home and opened the paperwork that had come with her, I realized she’d had four names in her short life.  She’d been passed to different families and had even been returned after an adoption.  The result, unknown to us, was that Lulu didn’t really bond with people.

Eventually we renamed her Sprite.  In a few days she and Cricket bonded, and they raced around the house like cats will do.  When Cricket wandered through the house calling for a playmate, she came to play.  Cricket was happy again.

It didn’t take long to realize Sprite barely noticed the people in the house.  We had her over a year before she would make eye contact.  She didn’t like to be petted, and she certainly didn’t like to be held.  Because she’s an incredibly soft, long-haired cat with a small body, it was hard to respect her boundaries, because she just screams to be petted and held.  But, we tried to respect that and loved on her any way she’d let us.

Slowly, Sprite is coming to bond with the people in the house.  Now she looks us right in the eyes.  When she’s hungry, she’ll climb on the table and chirp at us, pawing at us for attention.  She doesn’t yet like to be held, but she’ll tolerate being petted.  Recently, in a shocking move, she sat down on my youngest son’s lap, and I had to laugh at the gentle way he treated her, like a child with a butterfly on his finger he was trying not to frighten away.

Whatever fears came with Sprite are being released.  We didn’t return her, and we didn’t push her.  We try to treat her well, and we didn’t take it personally when she wasn’t the cat we wanted her to be right from the start.  She’ll always be a little off, but that’s okay.  She’s Sprite.  She’s our cat.

I’ve met a few human Sprites in my life.  (In many situations, I’m the human Sprite in the room!!)  There are people with whom I don’t immediately bond.  People who don’t live up to whatever expectations I have for them. Sometimes people who aren’t nice to me. And it’s easier to avoid them than wait for them and care for them. Regardless, I don’t always treat humans as well as my family treated a cat.  And that’s kind of shameful.  If I can wait a year to have a cat look me in the eyes, why do I give up on humans when less time passes?  Maybe if I can accept more people as they are, those who are broken, even if I don’t know anything about what broke them, will feel safer and be able to push through their fears.

I write books, and I once had a character ask what would church be like it if was safe.  What if everyone who belonged in a congregation knew for sure that all trespasses would be forgiven, all mistakes forgotten, that there was nothing but safety within the walls of the church?  It would rock the world.  Just like it rocked the life of one little, lost cat.

Surely I can learn something from Sprite and make the world a safer place for the people God puts in my path. Especially since so often I’m the Sprite, I should understand that sometimes I need to be patient, look deeper, and embrace those God sends to walk with me on this journey.