The Grace of Disruption

I read them slowly from the cocoon of my sick bed, spoke them into the room as one might swipe at cobwebs. They are truth and I held them like a stop sign against the dark and renegade thoughts that traveled the neuropathways of my brain. The declaration offered hope and reassurance.

This I declare about the LORD; He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God and I trust him.   – Psalm 91:2

He is my God and I trust Him!

Trust isn’t instant. It’s learned over time and through experience. Blind trust in God is sometimes called for in life but trust we have cultivated through experiencing Him is more personal; not easily shaken.

I learned to trust God with finances more deeply in my mid-twenties. I had three children and a precariously fragile marriage. One tense October Sunday morning my husband backed the car out of the driveway and headed in the direction of church.

Halfway down our block I irritatedly uttered: Would you please wait until I’m fully in the car before you start backing out? At the end of the block my husband wordlessly turned the car around, sped back to the house, pulled into our driveway and said flatly, “Get out! Get the kids and get out.”

In stunned silence I peeled three bewildered children from the back seat.

He didn’t come home that night.

Or the next.

It was four months of hand-to-mouth living before divorce proceedings were stopped. It was a season of divine provision.

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Life disruptions. 

They have a way of challenging our theology and reshaping our life’s essential meaning.

Some life disruptions can seem like the end of the world. They appear like a betrayal of God. They attack our spiritual equilibrium, confront our identity and uproot our sense of security.

The difficult months following that rainy morning thirty-five years ago became a canvas of grace, painted by the hand of God in vivid colors of loving faithfulness.

Through the grace of disruption I was given the privilege of renewed dependence upon God. I experienced His provision in very tangible ways and solidly experienced God as Jehovah Jireh–my provider.

I eventually remarried and though my financial position became more comfortable, other aspects of my relationship with and trust in God would be clarified.

Thirty-five years of life disruptions since have shaped my relationship with God, working a maturation and sanctification process in me.

That process continues.

I am prone to forget my vital need for utter dependence upon Him. I can unwittingly drift into the waters of pride and self-reliance.

We make plans and God laughs. 

Those sentiments have no biblical basis but they remind me of James 4:13-16

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil.

We sometimes slip behind the veil of parroted expressions of faith without realizing we’re really just robed in rhetoric. The familiar scriptures we quote, the one-liners we repeat from sermons and best sellers can lull us into believing we have a stronger dependence upon God than we actually do.

The Christianese we speak doesn’t always equal the caliber of our surrender to God or His Lordship in our lives.

Life disruptions. 

My husband, along with two of our sons, recently received a blindsiding email that left us all standing like deer in the headlights. A family business decision separated them from their dreams and their jobs.

It looked like betrayal and felt like shame.

That email effectively wiped away the plans of a father and two sons to farm together. It redlined the identities of these men who had always been farmers.

It was a business decision made by brothers for the benefit of some, but not all.

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It took days before the shock wore off–before we were able to identify the blindside as a tool in the hand of God.

It was God’s eraser to the drawing board of our carefully laid plans.

On the white board of God’s sovereignty we were reminded:

I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD. — Jer. 29:11

Our plans had been abruptly disrupted.

His plan is still unknown to us.

Throughout the last year we had prayed fervently: Lord, this is our desire, this seems wise and prudent…we ask you for wisdom, direction and favor but above all,  if this isn’t your plan, please close the door.

And He did. Though late in the process, it was definitely closed.

The reality of it all is slowly sinking in, especially for my husband whose been forced to  prematurely walk away from a third generation farming operation he’s spent forty years growing. It’s all he’s ever know. And it’s a major blow to our sons who thought farming was their heritage and future as well.

As we pray for love and forgiving hearts, we thank God for His better plan and we voice our praise.

We would rather be caught in the scary unknown than with foolish confidence pursuing our own will.

We humbly and gladly echo the words of Jesus, Not my will but yours be done!

In the messy mingling of fear and faith, we are becoming more keenly aware of the privilege we have been given to be stripped of any vestige of independence from God–any reliance upon ourselves.

There is refuge and safety in none but God alone! He is our future, our hope. The grace of disruption can return us there.

 

(Author’s note: I share events in my life only to illustrate a point–not with the slightest intention to disparage anyone. My former husband is today a very humble and gracious follower of Christ. I have tremendous respect and admiration for both he and his wife.  My husband’s brothers are also God-fearing men making difficult decisions. We love them and will continue to do so.)

My Red Letter Words

Stigma |stig•manoun :a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something; a mark of shame or discredit; (archaic: a scar left by a hot iron: a brand.)

Invalidation. | in•val•i•da•ion | noun :to discredit; emotional invalidation is when a person’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged; it disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance.

Alienation. | ālyəˈnāSH(ə)n noun :the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong, desires to belong or in which one should be involved.

Misunderstanding. |mis•un•der•stand•ing| noun :a failure to understand something correctly

sad1I’m writing today from my bed.

I’m writing this post for myself but I’m publishing it for those who find themselves in a similar place.

We don’t have the flu.

We haven’t broken a leg.

And we’re not recovering from surgery or a chemo treatment.

 None the less, we are in legitimate pain. And we suffer.

We have varying degrees of mental illness. 

We’re not crazies, psychos, nut jobs, whackos, Looney Tunes or straight jacket models.

We are more than the slang that labels us. Much more. 

We’re not pretending, manipulating or lying. We’re suffering.

It has been almost three weeks since I have been able to leave my house. I’ve cycled through all my pajamas and visited the shower less than I’m willing to admit.

To be clear, I don’t choose this and neither does anyone else whose lives are abducted by imbalance brain chemistry. We have no more control over our illness than a cancer patient has over theirs.

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Like other sufferers, sometimes I hide. Other times I just need to shout from the hole:

I’m really, really scared. I feel desperately alone in here and I’m in excruciating pain and I wish that it mattered to those who are afraid of me, who keep me at arms length–who don’t understand.

Most of the time I can rise to the occasion and do regular life–enjoy it even. I smile, entertain, and care. Sometimes it’s a mask. The price of pretending is less costly than the price of alienation or abandonment, judgment or rejection. But other times it is genuine–hopefully nobody knows the difference. 

People with illnesses like bipolar, major  depression, complex post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder are said to have invisible disabilities. They often feel and experience emotions much more intensely than neurotypical people. We also experience tremendous social stigma and too often our disabilities shadow our beautiful abilities.

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Tears, Talking & Time

It turns out that one of the things that most helps people dealing with mental illness is to be invited to talk and be given the gift of attentive listening and empathy.

On the other hand, the most emotionally dystregulating and hurtful experiences for us is when our vulnerability is met with dismissal, invalidation or criticism. Being misunderstood magnifies the battle.

My husband is amazingly supportive; he’s taken the initiative to learn, given time to listen and exercised loving patience. He’s virtually my only support. I tell him regularly that he is God with skin on but I worry my illness will wear him out–that his love for me will slip into resentment and detachment.

Today is his birthday  but I’m unable to throw the family party I had planned. Someone else is doing my gift shopping. I hope to shower, fix my hair and put on makeup before he gets home from work–after he stops at the pharmacy, the grocery store and picks up take out. You have no idea how strong my feelings of shame and self-loathing actually are.

My doctor added another medication and I can barely keep my eyes open. The side effects will pass, he says. 

This week my husband and I have spent our evenings researching, reading, crying, praying–and holding each other.

Research statistics reveal 26.2% of Americans 18 and older suffer from some form of diagnosable mental illness. That’s a staggering 57.7 million (based on the 2004 census–how much higher it is now), which means 1 out of every 4 people you know could have mental illness. 

……. 1 out of 4 …….

The following letter echoes some general sentiments of those suffering with mental illness.

Dear Family Member, Friend or Church Leader,

When our invisible disability takes us out of commission or away from our commitments, please don’t assume we’re undependable–our illness is unpredictable

When depression sucks joy from our lives, please don’t refer to us as Debby Downer or Bob Bummer. Please don’t tell me to put on a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness or that I’m just under spiritual attack.

When anxiety cripples us and it is all we can do to keep our breathing regulated, it doesn’t help when you tell us to chill out or quote the Psalms.

It isn’t helpful when you tell us to just think positively. Contrary to popular belief, for us happiness is NOT a choice.

We know you sincerely mean well. You may believe we actually have a choice in whether or not to experience our illness. What you may not understand is that to us this feels like judgment, coercion and invalidation. It pours salt in our wounds.

It hurts when those with visible illnesses are offered meals while those with mental disorders are offered avoidance–when we are accused of manipulation, self-pity or attention-seeking. 

We with mental illness diagnoses are real people with valid struggles-we need your patience, understanding, kindness and love.

We feel guilty for the burden our illness places upon those we love. We don’t want to need your support. 

We are more than our illness. And when we forget that we are also bright, caring, collaborative, generous, sensitive, creative, and insightful people, we need you to remind us!

Even when it looks like we aren’t trying, we need you to believe we are doing the best we can. 

Thank you for trying to understand. We’re not looking to you for a solution–we just need your kindness and validation. 


Friends, it was not an easy decision to post this. The ramifications could be brutal but as I have said from the onset of this blog, I write with honest vulnerability and transparency–not for self-focus but for the impact on those who tell me how much  my words resonate with them.

My hope is that if you suffer from mental illness, you will gain more courage to come out of hiding. If you know someone who is afflicted that you would have more understanding.

If you have a  family member who suffers, consider taking the time to offer the gift of inquiry and attentive listening.

Be Still…

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We had borrowed the van from our friends.

It was quite a lot to ask considering we took it round trip from Seattle to Los Angeles. It was our first real vacation and though it was an extremely tight-budgeted trip it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of my three little ones. I’m sure they still hold the record for number of times Disneyland was squealed in a twenty-four hour period.

To save money, I made our family matching clothes from a bolt of fabric I bought for 25¢ a yard. The Von Trapp Family likeness was not lost on me. The comical similarity stopped at the collars and hems of our blue and yellow plaid apparel– the hills were not alive with the sound of music and I definitely wasn’t singing.

I had pneumonia, strep throat and a kidney infection the week before our trip. I also had three ecstatic children I couldn’t let down so I kept pushing through, despite my husband’s repeated suggestion I stay home.

That should have been my first clue.

The short trip can only be described as emotionally cold and confusing. For me, our visit to The Happiest Place on Earth was more like Alice in Wonderland.

On our way home we stopped at a gas station somewhere in Oregon. My husband reached for the door and stated coolly, “When we get home I’m leaving you and the kids. It’s over.” He didn’t even look in my direction, nor did he acknowledge the weight of his words.

Those words sucked the air out of my lungs. Time stood still while our tumultuous marriage flashed before me. The previous nine years had included two separations but I had hoped Disneyland marked the turning of a new page in our lives.

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The opened van door felt like a portal into a black hole.

He used the men’s room while I sat frozen in the van with three little cherubs who didn’t have a clue. Had Thelma and Louise come out three years earlier I may have had the courage to get behind the wheel and in true country western song fashion I would have kicked up a plume of dust or lay squealing rubber or spray gravel like a Gatling gun–anything to mimic some control.

Instead I made a collect call to our pastor.

I stood in a dirty phone booth confronted with the surreal details of someone else’s nightmare. I couldn’t think straight. I can’t remember my exact words to him that afternoon because the intense emotions convulsing within were both unspeakable and deafening.

My pastor’s words were a branding iron on my cerebral cortex–not because of their comforting effect but because of their absolute absurdity.

“Be still and know that I am God.” He seemed to yawn the words.

Be still?

Are you kidding me? How does anyone even do that?

I was expecting something much more substantive–more directive. I was hoping the man of God would put the fear of God in my husband. I was hanging on  to spider silk with one hand and holding my kids’ future in the other–I needed something stronger than Hallmark sentiments.

There were a lot of s-words in my life then–not to mention the four-letter one–but the biggest s-word in my vocabulary was survival. There’s one thing I know about survival, it has no friendship with still. Survival takes hyper-vigilance. Survival requires water treading skills–there’s no room for kickin’ back in the gondola of life.

To me, the best picture of stillness is seen with Jesus in a storm-thrashed boat. It was dark. Loud. Wet. Cold. The crew and passengers were frantic.

But not Jesus.

He wasn’t just resting or chilling out, he was actually asleep! Sometimes our Sunday School version of this story keeps us from seeing the how to and what for of stillness.

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God has meticulously guided me through some soul-crushing terrain in the thirty years since I missed my scene in a Carrie Underwood music video. He has given me the opportunity to experience His exquisite grace. In the process I have learned something about the stillness Pastor Easterly spoke of in the phone booth that day.

My ability to come to stillness is found in the context of intimacy and identity.

Intimacy with God cultivates trust while identity fosters security.

This happens over time. It happens in the dark of night and in the countless ways God reveals His love and character through faithfulness and compassion.

My identity in Christ is unshakable. Intimacy with him develops my understanding of that identity and supports my willingness to trust that I am in his hands and he is good. The ability to come to stillness begins right here.

Knowing God’s word plays a big role in my coming to stillness but I can’t just know the scripture –I must know the God of scripture.

The ability to rest in the back of a sinking boat requires that I have already surrendered my life–in fact, that I have died to myself. Even daily. I can’t be still if I’m thrashing to save myself.

In closing, let me say that I think a big piece of Be still and know, is found in humility. Humility says, “Lord, I don’t need to inform you about this storm–this situation, this economy, this global humanity crisis, this political nightmare, the media-driven fear mongering and trauma triggering news feeds. You are my God and I trust you. My life is in your hands and it belongs to you. It’s yours not mine.”

We might not always be able to sleep soundly in the back of our sinking ships but we can always be stilled there in His embrace!

 

Despair grows in the darkness of half-truth and silence

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“From the depths of despair, O LORD, I call for your help.”  Psalm 130:1

These heartfelt words of David are voiced with unedited emotional honesty. I think David’s unfiltered expression of soul is one of the things that makes him a man after God’s own heart.

The depths of despair?

We all experience them.

I recently gathered with thirty-some women at a cozy mountain retreat to participate in a conversation about hope: Hope as an Anchor for the Soul. Some of the stories I heard were deeply painful and seemingly hopeless— hard journeys visibly etched on sad faces.  Other women were on the rejoicing side of a long and soul-rendering season of suffering, their faith in God, thankfully, renewed, strengthened and contagious.

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One woman quoted a line from Anne of Green Gables, “To despair is to turn your back on God.”

I would add:

Despair comes from believing God has turned His back on you.

Many times I have found myself crumpled on the shores of despair. I’ve been so distraught and overcome that enduring one more day seemed impossible.

I am tempted to throw up my hands and quit when I’ve concluded my situation is hopeless–when relief is not even a spot on the horizon.

Despair knocks on the door when my incurable diagnosis seems to have disqualified me from my purpose or leaves me less than who I was meant to be, no matter my effort.

When my mind darts around and I can’t focus or remember what’s truer than my swirling emotions; when imbalanced brain chemistry hijacks my personality and pelts me with lies; when I’m confused about who I am and where I belong–despair sneaks in.

But despair moves in when successive storms leave me bone weary and void of any hope for relief. When I’m daily faced with the collateral damage of childhood traumas and the resulting grief suffocates me. When life piles up, as life does, PTSD launches a synaptic wild-fire inside, robbing me of sleep and subjecting me to an adrenalized fight with myself. It squelches peace of mind along with the joyful ease of simply being myself.

Throughout my complex set of issues I feel unrelenting guilt for letting God and others down, for not being able to control it or, after all these years, failed to overcome it.

“From the depths of despair, O LORD, I call for your help.”

I have a deep reservoir of empathy for people in suffering and affliction. One thing I’ve learned in my blind journey through heartache is that it helps to tell your story. I think too many people feel invisible and insignificant, in part, because their stories aren’t heard.

If your story isn’t known, can you be known? Maybe if your story remains hidden you are hidden as well.

Could a portion of despair stem from not being seen or known or heard?

There is a woman in my town. I see her regularly sitting criss-cross-applesauce under a tree or on a random sidewalk. When she’s not sitting and staring from haze, she’s walking in a staggering jerky motion along Main Street.

She’s pretty, or used to be. Light blue eyes pop from the ruddy canvas of her weathered face—her hair is sun-streaked but matted and stringy.  I don’t know her story, though it’s not hard to imagine the trail that led her to where she is now.

To me she is a picture of a life void of hope.

Despair doesn’t generally spring from one isolated event—though for some it can. The complete loss or absence of hope usually comes from a years-long, life-consuming, hard-fought series of battles where loss piles upon loss and grief layers upon grief. It comes when defeats far outnumber victories and circumstances repeatedly cycle from bad to worse.

Remember Naomi? She lost her husband and then both sons–the equivalent of destitution for a woman in those days. When she returned to Bethlehem with Ruth she said to the welcomers,

“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

Despair is found when the promises God spoke to your soul feel like mocking empty memories of a time you dared to hope at all.

When was the last time you cried out to God with that voice of anguish trying to outpace despair? Psalm 130 continues:

Hear my cry, O Lord! Pay attention to my prayer.

Emotionally translated it sounds something like this: Aren’t you listening to me, Lord? Why don’t you answer me? It’s too much…Your hand has been too heavy upon me. I can’t go on. 

It’s a cry of anguish—an honest prayer that comes from the heart of one whose circumstances have wrung faith and hope right out of the heart.

David models the value in identifying our despair–calling it what it is. Nothing is gained in feigning otherwise. But identifying our hopelessness is only half the equation.

Despair grows in the darkness of half-truth and silence.

The apostle Paul reveals the hope side of our hardships:

We are experiencing trouble on every side, but we are not crushed; 

We are perplexed, but we are not driven to despair; 

We are persecuted, but we are not abandoned; 

We are knocked down, but we are not destroyed.  (2 Cor. 4:8-9)

Paul admits the trouble yet he caps the lesser truth with the greater one…the incorruptible truth of But God!

He continues.

“So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now: rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (2 Cor. 4:18)

Despair is like the water Peter dared to walk upon. When I look at my problems, I succumb to the depths of despair. When I willfully lift my eyes from the temporariness of this life and fix my gaze on the eternal glory I’ll share with Him, I am able to turn my back on despair.

“I am counting on the LORD,” David says; “Yes, I am counting on Him. I have put my hope in His word.” 

My emotions may be a rudder-less ship at times, I may succumb to the currents that drive me hard into the storms BUT GOD has kept His hand upon me. I could easily have become that woman I see around town.

No matter my thrashing, God’s love has been an anchor for my soul. His promise to care for me has been proven over and over and over again in my life. I call it to memory.

Today, I’m hunkered down. My bible and journal sit on my lap. I’m choosing to lift my eyes. I have determined to blindly, inexplicably fix my gaze above and place my hope in Him.

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Can I encourage you, my friend, to lift your eyes from all that beats upon your soul? For a moment, look instead upon the Christ of the cross? He knows your suffering and He’s purchased the price of your hope.

Would you consider going a step further and remind yourself of a time when God came through for you?

Will you let those words tumble past your gritted teeth? Will you speak it out loud and let your heart be reminded to hope?

Will you echo the Psalmist with me?

 “I am counting on the LORD, yes…I have put my hope in His Word.”

About the Church and Thinking Outside the Steeple

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I was browsing a thrift store recently when I spotted a pair of ceramic geese. I had a visceral response—part embarrassment, part nausea. Those geese brought back memories of a time when my kitchen was saturated in them. Theme decorating was a trend then like burlap, barn wood and chalkboard paint are today.

My geese years coincided with the breakup of my marriage and a tough walk raising my three children.  The memory of geese canisters and geese candle holders and geese napkin rings and geese salt and pepper shakers and geese curtains and geese dish towels and the geese welcome sign on my front porch also mark a time of disillusionment in my Jesus-following.

I had adhered to and been sorely disillusioned with certain dogmatic church trends and practices that, like decorating fads, came and went. I wish I could take space to describe them here.

As I throw down the words to this post I realize I have an unintentional series going on—it’s this thing about church that I’m wrestling with and trying to figure out. I suppose we could consider this Part 3 in a series of Who-knows-how-many-and-hopefully-this-is-it-for-awhile!

Speaking of throwing down words, there are numerous experts on the subject of church reformation. One of the beauties of not being an expert myself is that I get to offer ideas for discussion. If those ideas happen to spark curiosity in you, Google could be your best friend!

Speaking of friends, a good friend commented recently that she wished she could find a faith community like the one I am part of.  I’ve been there. Her comment started me thinking and questioning:

  • Why can’t we start an organic faith community simply by meeting with a few like-minded believers?
  • Has the traditional church model conditioned us to be spectators, leaving us needing  permission to function as the body of Christ portrayed in Acts?
  • Have we developed a false-notion that only certain people can plant communities of faith—that only credentialed people can grow the church?
  • Have we become a little consumer-minded with regard to how we view faith gatherings—that we have to go somewhere to get what we are shopping for?
  • Are we intimidated by Church, Inc. and fearful of its criticism?
  • Are we afraid we’ll be labeled radical, rebellious, deceived, or contentious?
  • Are we too lazy, too private, too afraid to go all-in for what our souls really desire and just so happens to be what God has called us to?
  • Are we terrified of failure? Are we steeped in apathy?

It’s commonly known in Christendom that the church in China has flourished in the house church setting. Persecution and government controls drove them underground, out of the building and into homes. Years ago I remember hearing stories from missional visitors to China  that went something like this:

“They don’t have Bibles, only pages of scripture they conceal and later copy by hand—which are then passed to the next house church. They memorize whole books of the Bible for fear what little scripture they do possess will be confiscated. They don’t have musical accompaniment in their worship or convenient church schedules. They gather, often after long work days, and crowd into small spaces, choosing fellowship with other believers over food and rest. They have no freedom to assemble and when discovered are beaten, fined, tortured and imprisoned.”

Fortunately, government controls in China are relaxing. In some places believers are allowed to gather outside the confines of the governmentally controlled registered church system. Though not available for purchase in the open market, Bibles are more accessible now—many obtained electronically.

You’ve heard stories about the way the church is expressed in other parts of the world. The church is flourishing among believers who have substantially less freedom, significantly less wealth and selectively fewer educated church leaders.

Can we North American Christians think outside the steeple

and be the sent-out ones? 

Can we shift our paradigm? Can we follow the Spirit’s lead as the life and will of Christ are expressed through us, His body?

It’s dangerous and terribly unproductive to enter into an excessive debate about how to be the church. (2 Tim. 2:23) The moment we think we’ve ironed out enough theological wrinkles to assert a definitive conclusion and formulate a recipe, another shift appears on the horizon—a new move is on the wind.

Debate, schisms and polarization have always plagued the church. Two thousand years ago the apostles adamantly opposed Gentile inclusion—they were rigidly stuck in the law of Moses, unable to recognize what God was doing among them. The Roman Catholic church considers itself to be the only true church, stuck in piety, power and control. Throughout the centuries countless denominations have sprung up, composed of people lost in dogmatic zeal, fear and rigidity.

After the geese came the cow decor. After the cows came my Americana era, Country followed, then Shabby Chic, then…. You get my meaning, right?

I have included scripture references at the end of this post that describe some aspect of the church, either in form or function. Let me offer this reminder about the church:

The church is God’s possession —

“…Which He obtained by His own blood?”  (Acts:20:28)

The Lord builds His church 

“…I will build my church and the gates of hell with not prevail against it.”  (Matt 16:18)

We are the temple (building) God dwells within 

“…For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  (1 Cor.. 3:17)

As we humble ourselves in this search to understand what God is doing in and through His church, can we cultivate a motivation and response born of love for Him rather than our love of being right?

Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it!                   Ps. 127:1

If I am pursuing depth in God and submission to His headship, then my main concern about the church should be whether or not I am contributing my part, in love and faithfulness, with intention of bringing glory to Him and furthering His kingdom.

As long as we have a biblical world view, we never need the permission or parameters of another human or human institution to dictate if or how we are allowed to be the church.

Grace and peace!


• Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV • And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

• 1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV • What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

• Ephesians 2:21 ESV • In whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

• Colossians 3:16 ESV • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

• Romans 12:5 ESV • So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

• Ephesians 4:16  ESV •  From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

• 2 Timothy 2:22 ESV •  But keep away from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faithfulness, love, and peace, in company with others who call on the Lord from a pure heart.


I’m Not Close to God!

Closeness to God isn’t measured in proximity that increases or decreases depending on spiritual activity.

In my early years as a Jesus-follower, I operated under the notion that closeness to God was based on my actions. It wasn’t an altogether faulty notion. James 4:16 says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” I reasoned that if I engaged in daily devotions, if I read my Bible, prayed fervently, avoided sin and carbs I would then be close to God.

My unspoken illusion played out something like this: If I got close enough to God He would let me do stuff for Him and onlookers might say, “Wow, she must be super close to God.” (Smelling a stinky motive?)

closer-to-god

A few women in my family laugh about it now, but for us being close to God involved ritual and paraphernalia. When we felt close to God there was always equipment involved: a new Bible, cool Bible cover, highlighters, bookmarks, a few devotionals and a journal written in uniform handwriting. These items sat smartly in a chic basket next to our quiet time chairs where we faithfully met Jesus each morning—and make no mistake, it had to be morning or it wasn’t quite as effective!  It also didn’t hurt that visitors would notice the basket and the devotion and our closeness to God.

If our rituals lost momentum, became intermittent or even abandoned for a season, we no longer felt close to God and acted like defeated minions, hanging our heads like kids avoiding an angry parent.

I’ll never forget when a 20s something beach-tanned Jesus Freak walked into our little community church back in the 70s. He was literally barefoot, his long hair held back by strips of leather. He packed a Bible encased in a well-worn leather cover. Hand tooled on the front was the now iconic Maranatha Dove. His Bible had notes scribbled in the margins and verses underlined throughout.

marked_up_bible

I had no idea we were allowed to write in our Bibles!

I also had no idea how much my observation of Mr. Maranatha’s Bible influenced some ridiculous behaviors and notions. I emulated other indicators of what identified a person walking closely to God. Most of it was a bunch of soulish activity that only served to make me feel good about my closeness to Jesus.

You guessed it. I got a Bible and began underlining and marking. Beginning with John 3:16 I indiscriminately underlined verses and added incredibly meaningful marginal notes like Very Cool!  Sooo Good!  I love Jesus! (The exclamation points marked with hearts of course.) It suddenly seems important that I mention I was thirteen-years-old at the time.

Years passed and things were great when I felt close to God but when I didn’t, I sheepishly retreated, distancing myself from Him. My closeness ebbed and flowed as I rallied and retreated, rallied and retreated. The rallies were preceded by fervent prayers asking Him to draw me closer. My routines were often self-fueled. My retreats were sojourns in sheepish defeat propelled by an underlying belief that God was upset with me.

The thing is, I really wanted to be used by Him.

I wanted to serve Him and the only ones who were chosen to serve were really, really close to Him— evidenced by the things people close to God say and do. Think part nun, part wild honey and locust eater.

What I didn’t know in those early years was my desire to serve God was impacted by brokenness and motivated out of need to remain in good stead with Him rather than by love for Him. My heart seemed to be saying See how faithful I’m being? Are you pleased with me?

The Lord has been so patient with me. He’s led me gently down a healing path which has enabled me to better understand and trust His love for me. I have since come to know that He didn’t just love me because He was obligated by some rash public declaration or because of an assignment His father gave Him.

He loves me willingly and completely.

(Even as I write this, the joy of that realization overwhelms me to tears.)

In John 14 Jesus is preparing His followers for his death and departure. In verse 10 He asks, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

It was imperative that they understood this because Jesus urges again in verse 11, “Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

He goes on to encourage and explain. Look, I have to go away or you can’t be with me and you can’t be in me and I can’t be in you.

Jesus said,

When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

Did you get that?

“I am in you.”

in-us

When I realized that Jesus didn’t come just to atone for sins and to reveal the Father but that His life, death and resurrection made available to me the same union that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share…

IT COMPLETELY CHANGED THE WAY I VIEW MY RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM! 

Not only is He my dwelling place but I am His. I’d say that’s pretty close, wouldn’t you?

“For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”  – Ephesians 5:30-32 

What is true of my marriage union applies to my union with Christ. You see, I’m no less united to my husband in marriage when we’ve had a disagreement or if we are separated by miles. The reality is:

  • We are united. 
  • It impacts my identity. 
  • It impacts my priorities. 
  • It impacts the way I live. 
  • It impacts my emotional security. 
  • It impacts how I spend my time. 
  • It impacts who I share my time with.

These things don’t prove I have union with my husband, they are a result of that union.

Our union with God is a union of love and we love God because He first loved us. Love is what drives the union of the Godhead and love is what drives my union with God—His for me and mine for Him.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, God does not move away if I mess up or fail to reach the bar—whatever that is.

My friends, God is not far off. He makes His home in us!

Let union, rather than proximity, depict your relationship with God!

Let love, not duty be the motivator in that union!

Why I Stopped Going to Church

church

I was in the seventh grade, sitting on a hard wooden pew in a small country church.

It was my first or second visit and to be honest five minutes after the service I couldn’t have told you what the sermon was about. I was too preoccupied with the awkwardness of my foreign surroundings, navigating my adolescent insecurities and managing the shame of what was going on at home.

An invitation was made for the unsaved to come to the altar, confess their sins, and invite Jesus into their hearts. My classmate Susan leaned in close, her vanilla musk oil momentarily replacing the sacred mustiness of old wood, old hymnals and old people. She whisper-shouted over the pianist playing Just As I Am, “You need to get saved or you’ll go to hell.”

That day was the beginning of what would become nearly five decades of church attendance. I’d be hard-pressed now to list all the churches I’ve joined in that time—everything from Little Country Churches to Prosperity Mega-Churches, Christian Missionary Alliance, and Pentecostal Freewill Baptist. Foursquare. Church of God. Baptist. Assemblies of God. Vineyard. Presbyterian. Independent. You can imagine how many church “membership” classes I’ve taken.

In it all I found that church going was often confused with Christ-following. There was a disconnect between the church I observed in scripture and church I experienced as a gathering place.

Before I lose you, I need to say that most of the churches I joined were populated by authentic Jesus-followers and led by sincere leaders following their God-calling to the best of their abilities. Many of them contributed to my growth as a believer and some provided a taste of the faith community my soul desired.

Others were unquestionably exploitive and even abusive.

Like the boyfriend everyone thought you should marry but your heart could never fully trust, Church and I broke up several times. Guilt and hope always pushed me back to try again.

With all that church hopping I came to know a lot of bunnies. I discovered a remarkable number of them had also stopped going to church. That was in the days before a demographic was identified and labeled the Doners—Christ-followers done with traditional church.

Discussions ensued. Stories unfolded. Hurts were laid bare and resentments unveiled. Sadly, some had abandoned their belief in God all together while others just simmered in a stew of disillusionment and indecision.

I remember asking a good friend, “Is this God’s doing or are we being led into deception?”

Some railed against traditional church practices while others simply wanted an environment that supported a deeper walk with Jesus and a fuller expression of body life–one-anothering as some identified it.

I’m not going to kid you, there was a conflicted and significant interval between leaving the institutional church setting and discovering a faith community that invited the kind of participation we desired. Until then, I dreaded the where-are-you-going-to-church inquiries that popped up in conversations at Costco and Safeway.

Not surprisingly, in that season we didn’t feel any less Christian. We found ourselves detoxing from some of our religious thinking and challenging long held practices. We  laid hold of Acts and read newly discovered books addressing this church debate and the ineffectiveness of some traditional churches. We recognized a migration of Christ-followers from institutional church settings to a deeper, less structured expression of church-being.

I desired a living, interactive faith community of authentic Jesus-followers pursuing what it means to be the church–the functioning body of Christ. Unfortunately, as someone has said, that’s harder to find then hens teeth.

That said; let me quote one of the thinkers in this church debate. Frank Viola asserts,

Body life is PROFOUNDLY costly….face-to-face community exposes everyone’s flesh, so it’s not an easy ride. It’s a marriage of glory and gore. And that’s where the transformation occurs. That is, if you can learn the cross and not skirt it. When it comes to authentic body life, many are called, but few can stand it.

Nonetheless, we have aligned with a group of unconventional Jesus-followers near our home. We’re identified as Simple Church and we’re learning what it is to go deeper with Jesus and be church.

  • We come together, no one more important than the other.
  • We greet and visit like family members.
  • We worship acoustically.
  • We read significant portions of scripture.
  • Each one freely participates in the gathering.
  • We each operate in our individual gifting and contribute accordingly.
  • We lovingly challenge as well as affirm one other.
  • We help each other in practical ways outside the weekly gathering.
  • We’re missional in our scope and mutually ministerial in our function.
  • Most importantly though, we allow the Holy Spirit to express Himself in and through us, for His glory and our good—to achieve His kingdom purposes.

Do we have it all figured out? No way! Are we still growing in our understanding of what it means to be the church? Absolutely! Do we have the capability of inflicting wounds and hindrances every bit at crippling as those we’ve received in traditional church settings? Yes. Yes, we do.

It never stops being scary. This endeavor requires spiritual maturity and great love to embark on and succeed at something as intimate and vulnerable as Simple Church.

This image may raise fear of a petri dish environment that could breed heresy and cult-spawning. That possibility exists I suppose. The health of such a faith community isn’t based on where it meets or its non-traditional-non-structure. The health of this type of faith community succeeds on the transformational journey of its parts.

Just because we’re a house church does not mean we’re on the fast track to emulating a biblical first century church.

I’ve used the term organic church in the past attempting to describe this community but it has become overused and misapplied. The faith communities I describe vary like families; each are uniquely representative of and responsive to their community, culture and demographic.

There appears to be a good bit of church reformation taking place but it doesn’t mean someone can’t be the church while going to the church! It doesn’t mean house churches are the only answer.

Consider this, wherever you express yourself as a member of the body of Christ, keep in mind that there is an entire population of pre-Christians who will not encounter Jesus in the organized church setting because they refuse the building and loath the politics.

Some will only meet Jesus as He’s expressed through the church–His sincere followers fleshing out the life and mission of Jesus.

Grace and peace!

An Organic Conversation! Pt. 1 of 2

Mystery copy

We like answers. We need to make sense of things. We like tidy explanations, reasonable timelines and unlimited resources. We don’t like delays or inconvenience or disappointment. And if I can be candid, Western Christianity can be perceived as entitled, narcissistic and fickle.

That’s the hard bit.

The heart bit?

God longs for us!

He desires us–He desires our love.

He is saying to us what He was saying to Jerusalem as He wept over her:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”

So when I was asked to share the things God had been placing on my heart, I felt a willing reluctance. What I had to say felt too much like a reprimand that I had no right to deliver. So I meandered for two weeks down rosier paths trying to collect a pleasing bouquet. In the end I agreed to let God use me, come what may.

We assembled that Friday night in a state of expectancy but without the burden of over-expectation or the knowledge of each other’s history, hurts or hangups. We gathered amid vulnerable greetings, jagged dreams and epic weariness. Five generations of sisterhood took seats and settled into the evening with smiles and unvoiced burdens resting in our laps like swollen wombs filled with the awkward combination of hope and disappointment.

The Holy Spirit was welcomed in prayer as the worship leader asked that the Presence of God would draw us into intimacy with Him and prepare our hearts to hear and finally, that He would be glorified in all that was said and done. Amen!

Holy Spirit.

Presence of God.

Intimacy.

My head tingled. Those were the only words I had in my mind when I arrived as their guest speaker. It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared. The Lord knows how much I had prepared. And when two weeks of prep hadn’t yielded a satisfying package I had begun to wonder if my Yes, I’d love to! should have been an I’m sorry, I’m not available that night!

After a time of mingling we eased ourselves into the rich melodic chords that resonated from a lone acoustic guitar. We lent our unrehearsed voices to God in heartfelt worship. We lingered. There was no rush to get through the set, no digital numbers pushing us through to the next segment. There was no platform, no performer and no push to keep a tight schedule. As the last note settled into silence I felt breathless in The Presence. (That’s  what I’ve been calling the Holy Spirit lately!)

And then all eyes were on me.

Those who gathered waited for something worthwhile, I’m guessing, to come out of my mouth–something that might fuel hope. I had been praying for them, praying that each one would come away with just one something that they knew came from His heart to theirs. Yet I literally had no idea what was going to exit my mouth when my lips parted. I uttered another silent prayer of faith, fully trusting that God’s pre-emptive promise would not disappoint:

“Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and will teach you what you shall say.”

You see, things have been stirring in my heart. Unconventional things. Ideas that seem abstract and countercultural. I’ve spent much of my life orienting to the norm and the status quo because my lack of identity and my sense of wellbeing depended upon it. When these inklings and ideas began percolating in my soul, I batted them away in deference to insecure conformance. Who was I to speak for God?

I opened up with the Cliff Notes of my testimony. They deserved to know a little about the woman they had come to hear. I shared what brought me, after decades of self-assisted Christianity, to the absolute end of myself. I shared the arduous shame-journey that depleted me of all self and ushered in a revelation of His love.  The familiar I once was blind but now I see had become I once was caught in deceptive self-loathing but now I know His love. 

After I had talked about the person of the Holy Spirit and the role He desires to fill in our lives,

after I shared that there is absolutely no substitute for intimacy with God,

after I talked about the overlooked need for Jesus-modeled solitude in our daily lives,

after I shared some of the ways Jesus’ life demonstrated an organic relationship/ministry model to follow,

after I urged us to take a look at the idolatrous photo filters we have placed over our lacluster lives,

after I expressed the ways we embrace friendship with the world and enmity with God,

after I talked about spectatorship assembly and Church, Inc.

after I urged consideration of the many distractions that keep our attention divided and our devotion diminished,

after I had challenged an examination of our worship, and

after I observed how so many of us have unwittingly substituted time in the bible for a quick read in Jesus Calling–I closed me lips and looked into the penetrating eyes of the women who gathered to sit with God.

And then the conversation that I had come to begin had indeed begun.

To be continued in Part 2 of 2

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Thank you for reading today! Please take a moment to share your thoughts. And do, please, feel free to share Grace Grips with your friends! 

 

Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus

Hole Up

Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus. 

The lines of that song came flooding into my head this morning, resurrected–I think–from a gray matter vault listed MEMORIES OF YOUTH GROUP circa 1974. I don’t think I’ve heard the song again since I sat in the Armory in Medford, Oregon with my gawky peers listening to Andre Crouch and the Disciples.

Last week I sat with puffy eyes and a pulverized heart, surrounded by a pile of wadded tissues in the corner of my bedroom. I repeated one prayer: “I can’t do this again, Lord!”

Let me lay down just enough background so that when I tell you what God did you will be encouraged in your heartache too. You will glimpse the nurturing heart of Father God like I did, and you will understand why my spirit regurgitated these lyrics:

Can’t nobody

    do me like Jesus

Can’t nobody

     do me like the Lord

Can’t nobody

     do me like Jesus

(Refrain) He’s my friend.

Six years ago I was dealt a heavy, life-altering blow by a loved one. I worked through it and worked hard to forgive and move on. Then last week I was blindsided with it’s sequel; the same gut-wrenching rejection and betrayal, the same heart-pulverizing crush that took over my thoughts and excavated the landfill of my life’s wounds. It triggered an avalanche of self-loathing and a running dialogue to run away–for good!

Perhaps you can understand that kind of hardwired pain with its large taproots that you’ve spent a lifetime hacking at. Sometimes current hurts can act like a key that opens the vault on terrible wounds. The pain of it can suck the breath–and rational thinking–right out of you.

I was pacing and praying and crying out in anguish and fear and confusion–cleaning and dusting when I stumbled upon a little piece of paper with a scripture reference I’d written. As I prepared to toss it, the Still Small Voice said, “Look it up.” I reached for my phone and looked up Psalm 46:10-11:

Be still and know that I am God…

I read it a couple times and let God’s voice settle into my thoughts and redirect my focus. As I was closing my Bible App, I received a Facebook notification. I clicked on the video  link. 

A newborn baby was crying and distressed, but when her daddy speaks her name and says, “I am here, it’s okay.” The baby immediately calms. A second time the baby is upset and crying her lungs out, once again she is soothed by her daddy’s voice. He repeats, “I am here…it’s okay, Daddy’s here…”—but this time the daddy adds, “…I love you.” The infant cranes her head in the direction of her daddy’s voice and then…

 …she opens her eyes 

Comedian Michael Jr. uses the video to illustrate an encouragement to those who are hurting:

“The key thing to do in the moment is to be still and listen to the Father’s voice….”

I became wrapped in the love and comfort of my Father. My prayer turned from “I can’t do this again, Lord! to “O Father….thank you for seeing me, for loving me.” I was so grateful that my Daddy heard my tears of pain and fear; that He stepped into the middle of it and spoke my name. I was calmed, ready to trust that same Love to lead me through wherever this will lead.

And then, as if on cue, the Andre Crouch throw back hymn played in my head. It was as if the Lord was saying, “Sherrie, I am the only one who understands your pain. I am the only one who sees you, truly sees you.

I’m you’re Father, let me soothe you—let me be your friend. 

Jesus knows the fiery burn of rejection. He knows what it feels like when your blessing is trampled underfoot. He sees the vulnerable efforts we make to love when our hearts want to run lock down. And he also sees how the enemy scoops up our pain and inflates it with lies and distortions and vivid remembrances of past hurts.

All of that, Jesus knows! He knows people will hurt us deeply…that we will hurt others.

But as He reached into my wailing room and spoke my name, calmed my fears and reminded me that He loves me, O, my friends He speaks your name as well.

Be still…your Father wants to soothe you with His love.

The Settling

God of All GraceWe sit in a misshapen circle of chairs in the prayer room at church. We’re an eclectically beautiful group of women with hearts hungry for more of God–needing to be known and connect.

We share the highs and lows of our faith-walk and our humanity. It’s a safe place that invites vulnerability and imparts validation. So we circle up and open up. We offer ourselves, the best of it and the worst of it.

The high points bring praise to our lips–the hard things suck the breath right out of us.

One of us admits that bitterness and anger are rooted in her heart, how she doesn’t want it there but how she feels powerless to remove it. A few of us offer tidbits of our forgiveness journeys and encourage her to keep moving toward it.

Another testifies of the phenomenal faithfulness of God to save her son from addiction and certain death–how he now serves in his church and boldly shares his faith. There is a collective voice of praise.

The joy is followed by the pain-laden words of a mother who recently discovered her son’s lifeless body. His accidental overdose followed on the heels of a hopeful run of clean recovery. Through her barely controlled anguish she reveals his overdose may have been the end punctuation to his life ravaged by the pain of addiction but it wasn’t the end of the story or the final commentary on her son.

With bravery born of desperate faith, she confesses that she doesn’t question God in any of it.

No words are offered–what can be spoken in the face of this loss? Yet, the deep sighing groans of motherhood escape our faces etched in empathy and they lay as validation of her pain.

Amid the collective needs of provision, healing, restoration of messy relationships and salve for broken hearts we turn our hearts to the gospels and revisit Jesus’ post-ressurrection encounter with his followers.

Nail CrossAnd then it hits me all over again and I want to get on my knees and weep in adoration of Him.

He didn’t have to come back after the resurrection.

The penalty of our sin was satisfied and Jesus could have remained in Heaven with His Father. After all he’d already suffered the indignities of our humanity, traversed the mocking unbelief, extreme suffering and vile hatred. He’d encountered the betrayal of friends, survived the flesh-tearing scourge, endured an excruciating crucifixion and descended to face Satan and take the keys of hell, death and the grave.

IT WAS FINISHED! From a contractual standpoint every was dotted and every t was crossed. He was off the hook–so to speak.

We revisit the account of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters with his bewildered and bedraggled followers recorded in Luke 24.

Is anyone feeling this with me?

Yes. The words he spoke during that time are powerful and pivotal.

“Behold my hands, my feet…it is I Myself.”

But the thing that pulls me into the swoon of this passage is that his love for us compelled Him to return and search us out.

I just imagine that extra mile walk with his followers. He returns to prove, not only that he is the Risen Savior–as he promised–but that He will forever be the one who walks beside us.

The thing that really gets me?

He returns in the reassuring form of flesh, checks up on us, settles our hearts and boosts our lagging confidence with his unfailing promise before he sends us out.

It is, to me, the equivalent of him tucking us back in and kissing us goodnight after our fears have rattled our faith and robbed our peace.

He settles us.

His parting action, as recorded in Luke 24:50, is to raise his hands and bless them–to bless us.

We then gather ourselves and our belongings and we exit the prayer room infused with a fresh reminder of God’s nearness. It bolsters our faith as we walk out the hard places.

“Behold! It is I Myself. Trust me!”