In or Out?

        I had just finished telling her why I would NOT be coming back to this church.

The people were nice enough. The worship was good. The kids seemed to like the children’s church stuff well enough. But one thing had turned me off and turned me off entirely. So I thanked her kindly for her time and consideration, but I was outta there.

When we first moved here, she had taken time out of her busy days a number of times to sit and talk with me. She had more important things to do, and that’s not me being humble. She legitimately had more important things to do than sit and talk to some random girl who came to her place of work unannounced. But for some reason, she took the time.

We had similar interests. Both in early childhood education. Both with big thoughts about the issues and experiences surrounding that field. We talked probably more intensely about theological issues than one should when you just barely know someone, but that is my way and she indulged me.

She had walked me around the church, giving me the updated tour. I hadn’t seen it since I was in college, when Kermit and I had come to this church a few times at the end of my senior year when the building was just being plastered on the overhead screen as blueprints and dreams.

She took time to invest in me and I told her thanks, but no thanks. All the same, she smiled and gave me another moment to listen about what had upset me. As I made my way to the door, she walked with me, wrapping up our conversation.

I put my hand on the door, trying to push myself out of that church and on to whatever lay on the other side of “anywhere but this place.”

She said “So what’s next?
“Well,” I began, certain of the answer, “My plan is to get my master’s and teach Head Start, but I wouldn’t be surprised if God didn’t have a completely different plan for me.
“I guess we’ll see.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “We will.”

And with that, I left.
I had no intention of returning.
I was Jonah, having been told to go to Ninevah, turned and booked it to Tarshish,  the most remote place in the other direction I could think of. No doubt, it would take a giant fish and an act of God to get me back in the doors of that church.

Thankfully, mercifully, God acts.

         I have put pieces of the rest of the story throughout my blog in the past, and so I won’t retell the whole story of the storm and the ship and the whale that God used to bring this Jonah back to where He intended me to be in the first place.

This piece of the story though, I tell and retell, because even when I was running to the remote parts of the Valley to escape where I felt He had pointed me, I knew, my plan was not going to win out. His plan would.

Not only that. The part that is most tender to me, which melts me in front of the glorious redemptive love that my God has for me, is that in the VERY conversation which I intended to reject this church, God placed my hand on the building and put these words in my mouth “I wouldn’t be surprised if God didn’t have something completely different planned for me.”

There are often times that I feel like God sighs before He says things to me, wondering at my amazing ability to miss a point, but there is no sigh in that moment. Only this sense that God may have thought, “Watch this. Watch what I’m going to do here. Watch me knit my plan into her hand so that she will not ever forget the hard coolness of this door and those words which I am about to unfold in her life. Just watch.”

This morning I put my hand on that door again and pressed it open. Certainly one of the greatest evidences of redemption I have in my life is that when I rejected “that church,” God brought me back and over and over placed my hand back on the hard coolness of that door until that place became “my church.”

Today, my first official day of working for my church, this story came out again in conversation, drawing me back to those same words of the unknown plan of God in my future and hitting me hard with the magnitude of just how much higher His thoughts and His ways are than my own.

Closely behind this story came a verse to my mind, a verse that was shared in the sermon given the day I put words to the calling I felt God was laying in front of me. The sermon talked about considering the cost of following Christ and was full of commentary that felt so made for me.

Jesus speaks to a man who wants to follow Him, but wants to put it off for a little while, til he can enact his own plans and settle things his way. In Luke 9:62  “Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Here is my plow and my hand is upon it. How gracious was He who did not turn away from me when I ran from my plow. How kind is He who called me back to it. Each day that my hand presses open that door, I pray that the hard coolness under my hand will serve as a constant reminder of the day I spoke those words, and press into my heart which side of those doors I will choose to be on.

May I never look back from my plow or my door.

Pray For The Church

       I took a break from my own thoughts tonight to listen to someone else’s. A search result brought me to David Platt’s Secret Church simulcast speaking on the Holy Spirit. This is my first time watching one of these. Barely 5 minutes in and he lays down this admonishment.

I have come face to face with my self sufficiency that plagues me, and along the way face to face with the frightening realization - I am a part - and I think I would be safe to say we a

Wow, y’all.

He follows it by pointing at how we have marketing and publicity to do what the Holy Spirit should be doing and the danger of mistaking the physical presence of people in a building for the existence of spiritual life.

       May that never be the story of my church, my leaders, or myself. May we never rely on ourselves and our modern means and methods to do the work of the Holy Spirit of the abundantly able God of the universe. May those who have experienced the holiness of God never fall silent on the subject and may we never fall reliant on any other.
      Today someone spoke word of advice to me, directing me that as I move forward to “embrace, believe and minister out of” three verses he referenced, each of which pointed out that in all that we do, making him known, fulfilling God’s purpose, even simply being, the foundation of this is Christ in me. Not my power, not my ability, not my purposes and plans. His alone.
       I hear this word of warning. I give ear to this advice. I stand ready to work not in my own strength, but in His. I have been so blessed both in Virginia and Ohio to be a part of churches where I believe we are led by people truly infatuated by His Spirit. Shining examples of standing back and letting God work though they are, I am committed to praying for their protection against this kind of apathy, pride and self sufficiency, because how it would break my heart to see them ask forgiveness for those.

      The American church needs prayer, now more than ever, and that means that your church needs prayer more than ever. If you don’t know what to pray, pray for a fresh move of the Spirit and pray for protection.

May it not be said of my church or of yours that we think we are bigger than the God we serve.

Lazy Poor People

Last night in class we walked through Moses’s story, start to finish. We talked about the basket and the river and the princess, the nursemaid and the murder, the desert and the burning bush. It is a familiar story even to those who don’t go to church. Every Easter, flip through the channels and you’ll find Charlton Heston holding a staff aloft in front of parting water.

This time through, however, there was a new story inside the old familiar one. I knew the story. I’ve heard it. I’ve colored in the Sunday School coloring sheets about it in my youth. But it didn’t stick out like it did this time.

When most people retell the story, Moses grabs his belongings, ties it to his staff, grabs Aaron and heads off to Egypt to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh says “Tough tookies, cookies!” to Moses and God sends the plagues one after another, nasty vile diseased attacks until Pharaoh could take no more and sends the Israelites out of Egypt.

We skip right over Exodus 5.

Moses doesn’t first request freedom for God’s people….he requests a festival. He and Aaron go to Pharaoh and ask for the Hebrews to be allowed 3 days to go have a festival to God in the wilderness. Pharaoh replies he doesn’t know the Hebrews God and he isn’t going to give them 3 days vacation from slavery to go have a party. They have work to be done.

Moses and Aaron press the point and Pharaoh becomes irritated. He sends word to the slave drivers and overseers that they are not to give the people straw to make the bricks, they are now to require the Hebrews to gather the straw and make the bricks, but they get no more time allotted to carry out double the work. They can’t meet this goal and so the slave drivers beat them. The Israelite overseers go to Pharaoh and asks why he’s done this and how is this fair. Pharaoh calls them lazy and sends him off with the same demands, now covered in insults in the ears of the people Moses came to try and liberate. This sets Israel against Moses and they tell him off for making trouble for them.

Moses then speaks to God and says, in essence, “What are you doing? Did you really send me here to be an annoyance to Pharaoh and for you NOT to rescue your people?” God says, “Look out. I’m about to blow the lid off this joint.” You know, He essentially said that….just in more holy language.

I know we rush through this part of the story if not skip it all together so we can get faster to the blood and locust and boils and death which is far flashier than not making bricks. But last night I couldn’t rush through it. I read it and then reread it and then read it again. I wondered why Moses didn’t ask for freedom from the first go. I wondered why God doesn’t have a voice before the request is made. I wondered what the purpose was in allowing Israel to become put out with the liberating leader. But none of that is what drew my eyes back over the page again and again. It was this starting at verse 6….

“That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies,”

…and then skipping to verse 15…

“Then the Israelite overseers went and appealed to Pharaoh: “Why have you treated your servants this way? Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, ‘Make bricks!’ Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.” Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’  Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”

Ouch, y’all.

Not ouch because Pharaoh was mean to this faceless mass of slaves, but ouch because I recognize what Pharaoh said from our world today. We have people who have less straw, people we’ve taken straw away from and are holding it back from them, and yet we demand they make the same number of bricks as people who got straw delivered to their door. We are a society built on inequity still using inequity as an operating tool.

This is where I need your grace. Because I don’t have a solution. I’ve read article after article from everyone’s vantage point (except those that promote violence, because I can’t stomach the words that encourage violence as a solution from an ideology). I’ve listened to news anchors and commentators and watched as the stories we tell on Netflixz and Hulu have changed in tone guided by Hollywood’s values (positive or negative).

I read these things, watch these things, and no matter the viewpoint I walk away every time with the same response…”Yeah, but….” “Yeah, but she asks the other to see her point of view but makes no effort to see his.” “Yeah, but poverty extends beyond color lines, and I’ve served kids of every shade and seen kids of all colors overcome and kids of all colors fail.” “Yeah, but ignorance and frustration don’t make those behaviors acceptable.” Yeah, but…yeah, but…

I don’t have the liberty of a “yeah, but” here. I can choose to allow the words of the media, social or otherwise to form my opinions for me, or I can choose to allow the word of God to guide me. This is the word of God.

I feel sort of like Moses, who went to solve a problem and suggested something to Pharaoh and it blew up in his face, so he turned back to God and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” And God replies, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.” He took over and took care of it.

If you want an answer on how to fix America, it isn’t here. But let me speak to the church for a minute….

Church,

Don’t be Pharaoh. If all you can be in America is Moses, turning around and saying to God, I tried, but I don’t get what you’re doing?!?!, then be Moses, and be ready to step aside so God can do his thing. But stop being Pharaoh. We need to figure out where we stand, on race relations, on poverty, on refugees, on immigrants, on oppression, social rights and we need to do that not starting with media, but with the word of God. If you have an abundance of straw, hand it over to someone who doesn’t, don’t complain that there is a perfectly good field out there full of straw and those lazy poor people just need to stop thinking about partying and go get straw.  We don’t need to warp scripture to fit changing worldviews, but we can’t ignore scripture to allow us to stay comfortable.

Me

I read the passage three full times last night and reread it today. I wrote this blog in three drafts. I don’t know how this entry ends. I don’t know how to wrap this up with some neat little, this fixes everything little Kumbaya bow. I still see room to grow and room to see other’s viewpoints in every perspective I’ve read out in the world. But of all the things I’ve read in the past year about the social issues faces our country, this has been the only one that’s left me with no buts.

So I share it here, and maybe you can find something out of this passage that hits home. Or maybe you can share some other scripture that speaks to you with the rest of us. I want to be involved in a conversation that starts in the Word of God and addresses the concerns of our society. I’ve been involved in a conversation for far to long that starts in the concerns of our society and address the Word of God.

Any passages to share?

Division: Math and the Church

What I remember from learning division is this. After a good year and a half of practicing our multiplication tables, 2×2 is 4, 2×3 is 6, 2×4 is 8, and playing Around The World and doing multiplication color by product sheets, we began division. We took out our plain notebook paper and drew that little diving board and worked and worked. We found remainders. We left room halfway down the page because long division takes up space. We did not play Around The World. We did not do coloring sheets. Division is serious work.

There will be no joy in division.

That was just one of the lessons I learned in 5th grade at the catholic school where I attended. It was during those years that I began to feel very less than. I was not cool. I was not the brightest. I felt left out when the other kids in my class went up to receive communion and I couldn’t. I heard the messages of a certain older priest who had very little compassion for the two kids in the class who weren’t Catholic.

My mother had prayed for me before I was born that I would have Jesus in my heart. I was brought up in a Presbyterian church, very active in anything that was available to me there. When I went to Catholic school I was always top in religion, often receiving marks of over 100 because I did the bonus work.I did all the work to be confirmed into the Catholic church, because it was for the religion grade, but wasn’t confirmed. I loved the work and so I put in the effort, even though I knew I wouldn’t get the reward.

For years, I thought this was a Catholic problem, making me feel like an outsider, and I resented Catholicism as a result.

I went through high school and in my senior year, I decided to make my faith my own. At the time I had walked away from the church of my youth, tried a Catholic youth group, a different Presbyterian youth group and finally found a spot in an Episcopalian youth group led by a Young Life leader filled with kids who wanted to be there of their own accord. I went to college and was involved in a non-denominational campus ministry, went to a PCA church while at JMU and a “bible” church when I was home. I got married, and we went to a Church of Christ and a Methodist church before finding a home in a Church of Christ in Christian Union. Then we picked up and moved and landed in, after quite a bit of church shopping, a Nazarene church.

Through that journey I found that in almost every building I walked into, there was a decidedly us vs. them mentality. I would find that in one church I would never feel like I could wholly grasp where God would lead me, because I was a woman. In another, I would be ineligible for membership because I’d been sprinkled not dunked. In another, I found that grace ruled over the pursuit of holiness, and any encouragement to pursue righteousness would mark you as the next Westboro member. Some more so than others, but in nearly every church I’ve gone to has been hard nosed people so committed to their theology that they’ve lost sight of their first love.

But there sitting in the same pews are people like my mom and my aunt, both Catholic, who though they knew my time in that private school had stung and left me bitter, loved me through it, showed me that their devotion was as true as mine and softened my heart. There was a camp counselor who taught me the quote “in the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; but in all things, charity.” (Which has it’s faults, but is in my estimation, a good starting point). A very dear pastor who answered a frustrated email from me telling me that no, I didn’t have to be dunked to attend or join that church, and that I was welcome to come, as I was, and be as involved or uninvolved as I wished to be and they’d be happy to have me with them.

Those kind of  people have always brought to me the understanding that reconciliation is multiplication. It is coloring and games and joy that spreads.

I’ve been reading Corinthians, which begins speaking about divisions in the church. 1 Corinthians 12 says “What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

As someone who has walked into such a variety of denominations, that I struggle to call myself a title other than just Christian, this is so sweet to me. It allows me to go into any church and listen for the voice of God.

Saturday evening I dressed and went to mass with my mom. The scripture was read and I heard, “In Christ there is no Greek or Jew” and in my mind I added, “no Catholic or protestant.” I listened to a homily delivered by a young deacon who is journeying towards the priesthood on the theology of suffering that was timely and offered nourishment to my spirit. I got up the next morning and went with my dad to his Presbyterian church and sang sweet standard hymns and listened to the preacher encourage his congregation out of dull dry faith. I came home and read a section of The Ragamuffin Gospel and listened to sermons from a preacher from a nondenominational church.

I don’t know that I can encourage anyone to contemplate this passage in Corinthians, but I hope you will. My prayer is that God will bring reconciliation, multiplication, and apply it to our church in America. My hope is that it won’t take each member of our nation’s churches the 20 plus years it took me to understand that our heart should be to preach Christ crucified and resurrected, and not to seek only the intellectual high ground. My hope is that there will be people who are heard when they say “It is not important who does the planting or who does the watering. What is important is the God makes the seed grow.”