Archive for March 2011
Our church is in the early stages of a major renovation of our basement, transforming it into a ministry center for community and church programs for the future. One Saturday, we spent the day going through all our old stuff, deciding what to keep, what to trash, and what to label “free to a good home.” By the end of the day, we had a great big pile of old chairs, empty filing cabinets, a coat rack, a baby changing table and assorted other stuff. Many of the church members looked over the pile and said, “That came from my house! I gave it to church when I didn’t need it anymore.”
I have often questioned why churches inherit so much of people’s old junk. Why should we think our leftovers, cast-offs and no-longer-good-enoughs are fine for God’s house? Do our mismatched, outdated sofas and beat-up armchairs send the message that God’s church is important and valuable in people’s lives? While we might enjoy seeing familiar pieces from our homes in the church, how does it look to an outsider who doesn’t recognize them, and just sees a bunch of old stuff no one wanted anymore?
It was a hard process for our church to get rid of this stuff. We did not want to devalue the gifts of old furniture and equipment over the years, or show disrespect to those who gave them. Nor did we want something that is perfectly functional to go to a landfill, simply because it will not look right or function well in our redesigned space. As good stewards, we did not want to be wasteful, and delight in giving a second life to things that might have otherwise gone into the trash. We did not want to reject something just because it was old, or worn, or didn’t match–which is probably why we ended up with so much stuff in the first place.
And yet, it is important that our new space look, well, new. We want to communicate to the next generation that we are building for them, and speak to their tastes and technologies. We want to invest our best, so that the vibrancy of our facility matches the vitality of our ministry. We have placed a high priority on doing things the right way (rather than the cheapest or easiest way), so that they are built to last. The beauty, newness and contemporary feel of the plans for the redesigned space speaks to our belief that God has a future for us, and a generous spirit that proclaims a sense of new life. We want our renovated space to communicate God’s abundant and warm welcome, and give us spaces that are beautiful and functional to serve the community. We want everything to be the best we can make it, because God deserves the best we have to offer.
Both those desires—the steward’s desire to reuse and make do, and the builder’s desire to make all things new—are good and godly, and they live in tension with one another in the church. The church of Christ is a bunch of mismatched, broken people, a community where cast-offs and not-good-enoughs are welcomed and loved and made whole again. Christ’s love can be made known no matter how old or unstylish our furnishings, and perhaps our collection of old stuff matches our collection of quirky, battered people coming together to serve God and love others.
And yet, I think of the heavenly banquet Jesus describes. For the outcast and forgotten, the people that others have considered trash and old junk, God has prepared a beautiful meal and a beautiful table. The food and wine are luxurious and abundant, table set with silver and gold befitting a king and queen. Unlike the world’s table, this table of plenty and beauty is set for all–whether or not you deserve it, or can afford it, or qualify as “polite company.” Why should we not offer the same care and beauty in creating the church space? Not to build a club for ourselves or people like us, but to invite people to taste and see the glorious abundance and new life of God.
I think we in the church live within this tension all the time, in all kinds of ways. At its best, the church is a collection of broken, mismatched, imperfect people who are loving and giving our best for God, to create a place of beauty and hope so the rest of the world’s broken, mismatched, imperfect souls might come to know God’s abundant love.
What do you think?
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan, 2006, 367 pp.
I need to read books like this on a regular basis, even though they trouble me. I actually finished reading this book over a week ago, but I have had trouble writing about it, because it challenges me to wrestle with serious life questions. This post is less a review of the book, and more an account of my personal journey with the book.
Shane Claiborne is noted as one of the leaders of the “new monasticism,” Christ-followers who take seriously Jesus’ call to sell all you have and give it to the poor. He is one of the founders of The Simple Way, a community in Philadelphia that lives among the poor and works to practice love and hope in the way of Jesus.
Claiborne shares his spiritual journey from mega-church evangelicalism into The Simple Way. He is radicalized by the love and example of Jesus–especially the story of the rich young ruler, which serves as a guiding light throughout his journey. He camps out with homeless people in Philadelphia, journeys to work with Mother Teresa, and returns to find a way to “do small things with great love.” His indictments of Christianity are powerful and convicting, as he critiques Christianity as entertainment and support for the (particularly economic) status quo.
I agree with Claiborne about the radical nature of Jesus’ call, about the demand that the church be a way to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, about the way that a relationship with Jesus should impact the daily living of our lives in ways large and small, about the way following Jesus should set us apart in a dramatic way from the predominant culture of empire and accumulation, about living in relationship with our neighbors. And yet, I do not live up to those beliefs on a daily basis. I need to read these kinds of books on a regular basis to challenge and convict me again with the radical love and radical demands of Jesus. Reading Claiborne’s story reminded me of all the ways in which my own practice of faith has grown lazy and indulgent, and challenges me to get back on course again.
For my whole life, I have felt the pull of a monastic or missionary life, which Claiborne and his community combine in The Simple Way. In college and after, I seriously considered limiting my possessions to a few suitcases and traveling around the world in service. Instead, I moved back home to be near my family as my grandparents were aging, thinking that I would take up a missionary life after I had helped them. God had other plans. I met my husband and we got married. J does not share my missionary zeal (or even my Christian faith), so our life together took a different shape. Four years ago, we had a child, forever ending my plans to become like Mother Teresa.
Having prayed deeply over both of those decisions (and in consideration of that monastic pull both times), I know that God is in them. J and B are the best things that have ever happened to me. My love for my husband and child far exceed any love I have ever known or experienced. I would sacrifice anything for my child. That fierce love I feel has taught me so much about the fierceness and sacrifice of God’s love for us, a depth I doubt I would have known if my life had taken a different path. However, I still feel the pull sometimes for that other way, especially when I read books like this one. Is my lifestyle (home ownership, car payment, eating out at restaurants) really what Jesus wants, or am I fooling myself? Am I doing enough to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
I look over the Gospels for help, and remember that not everyone was called to be a disciple who drops everything, carries nothing but the clothes on your back and follows Jesus. Some are called to provide shelter and food for those disciples. Elders are left behind by Paul to guide the newly-forming churches. Wealth (not that we are wealthy by American standards, but by Jesus standards we are) can be used for the building up of Christ’s way. Yet the story of the rich young ruler, which pervades Claiborne’s book, haunts over me–“sell all that you have and give it to the poor.”
I live with that tension all the time. And I should. We all should. Especially we who call ourselves Christians yet live in the privileged American way. We should all, always be examining our lives, our choices, our habits, our budgets to determine if they are following the way of Jesus. Claiborne’s book and his example puts that tension right before us, and demands we make an account of our lives before God.
Thankfully, there is grace. The spirit that pervades Claiborne’s book is one of love–experiencing God as lover, falling in love with God, pursuing the love of our neighbors. I concluded the book not simply convicted, guilty and wrought with sin, but confident of God’s grace and abounding love, and ready to try again to follow more faithfully. The title is “The Irresistible Revolution,” because it is God’s love that draws us in, a love that will not let us go.
Over the last few months, these words have come as a whisper to me in quiet moments of prayer and harried hours. They have been a summons and an invitation, a demand and a relief.
I recognized their source in scripture immediately, from the traditional Ash Wednesday reading in the book of Joel:
Return to me with all your heart… blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
After busy and exciting 150th anniversary year, culminating in a climactic Foundations capital campaign in the Epiphany season, our church has been changing, acting, growing, giving, sacrificing, leading, learning, doing, working and serving God at an almost frenetic pace. It’s time to call a fast.
Not because we’ve lost our way, or been pursuing the wrong things, or because we have lapsed into sin and indulgence. Not because God demands that we deprive ourselves in order to prove our love to God. It’s time to call a fast because we have been faithful, and we are tired. We have followed the vision God put before us, and we have experienced great things and amazing transformation. It’s time to call a fast so that we remember our success is not due to our own efforts, but to God’s grace. We know that there is more work to be done, more sacrifices to be made, more change and growth to undertake. But it’s time to remember that we are God’s, that this church is God’s, and that it’s not all about us. It’s time to call a fast.
Fasting traditionally refers to going without food. Catholics fast from meat on Fridays during Lent. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan. Jews fast from sunup to sundown on Yom Kippur. Many Christians “give up” something for Lent—usually an indulgence, like chocolate or beer or sweets or fast food. But fasting does not need to be limited to food. I have several friends this year who are fasting from Facebook, and a church member who shared via Facebook that she is fasting from elevators.
This kind of a fast has its place—it is a nice reminder of the holiness of Lent, it can correct bad habits and indulgences, it is a daily practice of giving something up for God. But I think the fast we need, the fast my heart yearns for, is deeper and more significant than putting down a favorite luxury only to pick it up again after Easter. I am hungry for God. I am lonely for the luxury of spending time with the Holy One. Ignoring my craving for chocolate will not satisfy my craving for connection with God. Making more room in the waistline of my clothes will not necessarily make more room in my life for God.
Joel says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” I need grace and mercy. I need to slow my own anger, and return my love to abundant proportions. I have not relented from punishing myself and others. I have not shown grace to them or to myself. It is time to fast from busyness, from judgment, from complaining, from worry, from harried hours, from control. It is time to spend time with the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
Fasting is making room for God. We say “no” to the things that bind us to ourselves and this world, so that we can make room to say “yes” to God. It’s time to call a fast.
Watch this beautiful, moving version of the story of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the wilderness. Think about the ways Jesus says “no.” (Hint: It’s not just to the Tempter). Notice the ways Jesus says “yes” as well—the way time alone with God is joy as well as struggle.
“For my thirtieth birthday,” it begins, “I gave myself some time away from it all.” Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. “And now,” he says at the end, “I’m back.”
My friends, for the coming 40 days of Lent, I’m joining the prophet Joel in calling a fast. I want time in the wilderness with Jesus. Will you join me? Will you wrestle with saying “no” to a stronger, more competent and productive you, in order to make room for the strength of God to carry you? Will you slow down, let go, give up, forego in order that you might be blessed by the birds, moved by the moon, enamored of the spring flowers? Will you show your weakness, let go of your busyness, give up some control, that you might come to know the ministrations of angels? “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Come, let us enter the fast together.
Our family enjoyed a vacation to visit family in Florida a few weeks back, including one morning at the beach. J was building a master sandcastle, I was sticking my feet in the cold water, and B was playing in the sand and chasing seagulls. The beach was mostly empty. His fear of the water kept him far away from danger, so we let him wander freely as we all enjoyed the sun and sand and ocean spray. He generally stayed within a 10-15 yard radius. We kept an eye out, but trusted him to stay close. For over an hour, he ran and returned, up and down the beach. The tie-dyed blue and yellow bulls-eye on his shirt made him easy to spot, no matter what.
Then I looked up one time and decided he had strayed a little too far. I called out to him, but he couldn’t hear over the sound of the waves. I figured he was running over to investigate some fishermen just down the beach, and he would turn around after he checked them out. When he kept running past their poles and buckets, I started out after him, calling his name again and again. He just kept running down the beach. I started to get angry, quickened my pace to try to close the distance, and waited for him to turn around. He just kept running. He was getting faster, and farther away. I started to run—and I don’t run—and called out to him louder and louder. I started to contemplate what kind of consequences to apply to a child who runs away. He just kept running and running, and I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t getting tired, stopping, looking back. I ran and ran, but I couldn’t catch up to him.
Finally, an older gentleman noticed a young child running alone and looked back for a parent. I gestured that I was trying to catch him, and the man jogged to catch up to B and stop him. He touched him on the shoulder, bent down and turned him around to face me, pointing me out running along behind him. B took off running again, but this time toward me.
It was only then that I realized what had happened. He had gotten confused and thought he was lost. He panicked, and just started running faster and faster. By the time I caught up to him he was red-faced, crying and shaking with fear. All the harsh words I’d been planning vanished, and I simply embraced him in the sand.
B learned an important lesson that day: if you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction. You might just be making it harder for your mother to find you. We had talked about this a few times, but he said he just forgot when he got frightened.
What has been on my mind ever since, though, was the difference in our experiences that day. B was panicked, probably afraid he’d lost his parents forever, that he’d never get home from this faraway place. I remember that fear as a child, the fear of being lost and separated and unable to find your way home. His heart must have been racing as fast as his little legs. I can’t recall another experience in his short lifetime that would have been so frightening or traumatic. Had he even paused to look back over his shoulder, he would have seen me and ceased to fear. But the more fear he felt, the harder he ran—and the farther away he got from me.
While I was annoyed with him at first, I was never afraid. I was never lost, nor was he ever lost to me. I could see where he was the whole time, that electric t-shirt standing out against the pale sand. I knew he was safe. I knew he would not be harmed. I knew I would not stop running until I caught up with him. I knew the way back home. I had nothing to fear.
The whole experience makes me pause and reflect on our relationship with God. How often do we think we are lost, and so we panic and just start running? The more frightened we get, the harder we run. The less we recognize our surroundings, the faster we blow through them trying to recover familiar territory. Like B, we forget the rules when we get frightened. If you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction.
God knows where we are. We may feel lost, but we are never lost to God. Like any watchful mother, She knows exactly where we are and will not let us out of Her sight. When we stray too far, She is in active pursuit. Our reunion with the Beloved does not depend on our ability to find our way home again all by ourselves. All we have to do is stop the running, and She will find us. Sometimes, it takes intercession, direction from another soul who can see our fear, turn us around, and show us God is coming after us. No matter what, God will not stop chasing us until we are safe in Her arms again.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
“Be still and know that I am God.” —From Psalm 46
I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 1998, 901 pp.
This novel held me captive in its spell. Although I started it last week, for the last two days I have spent hours and hours just trying to complete it. It had such a firm grip on my mind that I could not think of anything else, and such a grip on my emotions that it set me in a melancholy mood. If, like me, you can easily be sucked in to an empathetic emotional state by a good novel, I will warn you ahead of time about this one. Because of its length and the rawness of the emotional story it tells, I Know This Much Is True can hold sway over you in a deeper and more prolonged way than most novels that explore human feelings and relationships.
I Know This Much Is True is both epic and intimate. Dominick Birdsey, the first-person narrator, journeys through his family’s multi-generational history of secrets, violence and madness in an attempt to save the life of his twin Thomas, who is a paranoid schizophrenic. Instead, he ends up unpacking his own anger, arrogance, defensiveness, loneliness, rejection and brokenness. He cannot heal his brother, but he can find healing for himself.
Dominick’s deep anger and despair made this a difficult novel to read. We read in Dominick’s voice, which means the reader is subjected to all of Dominick’s diatribes, self-loathing and futile frustration. This book is a study in anger, especially male anger—which is sanctioned and supported as a protective strategy for boys and men to make their way in the world. It details the ways that righteous anger protects Dominick, but also the way it holds him hostage and the way it damages him. He is justifiably angry about his abusive stepfather, his weak mother, his sick brother, his wife who left him, the death of his daughter and more. His anger is destroying him, even as it seems like the only thing that is keeping him together.
Lamb’s novel combs through the depths of a true, messy, imperfect, never-finished journey of emotional healing for Dominick. As a reader, I traveled to those ugly depths with him, which tapped into my own places of pain and anger. Lamb does not provide quick or easy moments of insight. Every ounce of healing Dominick finds is hard-earned and slow. (There’s a reason it takes 900 pages to tell this story.) In imitation of life, real healing is not easy.
Be prepared for that long and painful journey if you read this story. But also know that it’s worth it. This is no shallow happy ending. It is a true-to-life portrait of grace, redemption, forgiveness and healing—that which is broken slowly becoming whole. I was captive to the journey, but the novel’s end left me a sense of peace and hope.