The Worst Church Advertisement

A post for Good Letters blog


I don’t mean to brag, but I attend your ideal church.

If you’re a millennial or a 30-something interested in social justice and dissatisfied with your tradition, your suburban congregation, or your mega-church, and feeling a bit None-ish, then I have the church for you.

What’s on your list of descriptors for the perfect congregation, you social justice-y-leaning, about-to-give-up-on-church looker?

Local community oriented?

Guess, what? I walk to church. And we are hyper-community oriented; we are an intentional community. I think you might like that we’re a little bit radical. We actually live on the same property together!

Authentic?

We provide a space where people allow themselves and others to be vulnerable. There are no fakers here. Just real folks sharing their lives and showing you who they really are.

We are an intergenerational group from ages one to eighty.

Socially concerned?

Yep, most Sundays, we pray for peace in the world, for refugees, for both sides in war-torn regions. We even pray for our enemies!

Kid-friendly?

My seven-year-old daughter reads scripture during worship. My one-year-old toddles through the middle of the circled gathering. It’s not unusual for one of the younger kids to shout out commentary of the scripture or a song. We aren’t fussy and we expect that children will clap their hands and make noise. Sometimes—gulp—we even choreograph a dance for them.

A different kind of leadership and worship style?

We are a lay-led congregation. There are no microphones or stages. Our circular gathering makes it less important who is leading; we don’t mind if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re single or married, young or old, just as long as you are willing to serve. Until recently we used an overhead projector from the nineties for song lyrics. The sheen of worship doesn’t overpower the realness of people. And even with all of this, we still follow the lectionary. We’re kind of a low church with a dash of high church.

Doesn’t it sound great? You’re more than welcome to come for a visit. But just a word of caution: Once you get here, you might want to leave.

Keep reading over at Good Letters

The banging gong: a contribution to Second Simplicity

Recently, I got to participate in my friend Amy Peterson's blog series called Second Simplicity. For Amy's description of the series, head over here. I decided to write about one of many theology/life-altering times in my life: this one was particularly scary at the time. As Amy described it, "How do you welcome the stranger when the stranger is a pathological liar?" This was the beginning of a realization for me: I don't know how to love the way I should.

The banging gong 

James* came bounding through the heavy wooden door of the common building right before church one Sunday morning in the middle of the growing season. With his stained teeth, bleached hair, and funky floral shirt, he appeared to be an ex-hippie, a recovering addict, or both. He had the personality of an enthusiast, one who loves people, loves storytelling, and seems to love it when people love him back. In our small Mennonite intentional community, where we are nourished by hospitality to the stranger, one extra was noticeable and welcome.

That first Sunday, James felt free to chime in during teaching, offering up examples from his own life of working with the homeless and growing up in an Amish community. His stories were fascinating and foreign: divorced parents who left the Amish, several siblings who had ended up in strange messianic cults, a son from a previous relationship, a radio show where he interviewed the likes of Jennifer Knapp.

James spent his days helping on the farm with my husband.  We welcomed him into our home for meals. My husband lent James his old computer to use in the apartment he was staying in up the hill.  He read to our children and talked about his own young son from a divorce.  He talked about his upbringing in an Amish community and answered our questions about the quirks of such a life.

A few things were odd. James said he was keeping a blog about his time here and when I found it online, he had posted pictures of actual Amish folks, claiming he was ministering to the folks at our community (the folks in our community do not dress like the Amish or Old Order Mennonites). When my husband confronted him about the lie, James was quick to say that he and his editor had miscommunicated and it would be fixed. I didn’t believe him but we’d become so accustomed to odd ducks in this intentional community that we forgave a few white lies...

Read the rest at Amy's blog.

Texas and Oil Paintings: I Am From

My grandmother's painting I am from Nana’s oil paintings imitating the Impressionist masters from Russian matryoshka nested dolls and Great Aunt Laverne’s tea cup collection

I am from a house atop Cat Mountain with the best sunsets and the sound of cars on the highway below lulling me to sleep at night

I am from the Hill Country and roads cut through limestone populated with cedar trees whose bark peels off like an old skin

I’m from eccentric introverts and too many gifts at Christmas from Heatherly and Elena who made me the middle sister from dad traveling overseas too much doing lots of good things for other people.

I’m from “this too shall pass” and “we have not earned any of the things we have” and "if the Lord wills and you see me again" before every parting From “Where are you going my little one” sung every night by Mama before bed til I cried from the grief of leaving her one day.

I’m from every song, even commercial jingles, sung together in tight harmonies

I’m from Connecticut and Scotland but not really because I’m from Texas Texas Texas down to great and greater grandparents  who gave birth in one room houses in Cleburne and made sweet potato biscuits and black eyed peas at New Years.

From Anna Christie’s drowned husband and Otis from Sweden whom she raised as her own when his mother died in childbirth From Papa who left home at fourteen, spent three years as a POW in Java and went back to Japan after the war to be a missionary

From diaries written with pre-teen tears about how I'm too fat, fears of death, glass miniature bric-a-brac, rock and shell collections displayed in wooden cubby shelves on my bedroom wall, from the only time I ignore Mama’s call for dinner or food on any kind is when I’m reading in bed

Now I am from uncaulked baseboards, grimy from years of bringing the outside in from the smell of fertilizer and fish immulsion mixed with cooking tomatoes Now I am from the maple trees tapped every year for syrup and boiled down in a black cauldron in the white winter woods from poems written at the narrow creek that bends round from here to the wider streams

Now I am from a tanned farmer whose tender loving hands are often cracked and running with dirt, blood and rain from a fairy who feeds the chickens in her princess dress and muck boots from a cuddly Tom Sawyer who waves at Daddy driving by in the tractor while holding his dinosaur to his chest

Now I am from a community of idealists, hippies, peace-loving Mennonites And I am not one of them but I am because I am also from Jesus. And he has been there from the beginning.

I am synchroblogging with SheLoves Magazine today with their series on "I am From." You can read more or link up here.

Celebrating Remarkable Women

"Hope" by George Fredric Watts Today is International Women's Day.

Historically, this has been a day dedicated to advancing the human rights of women and children.  It was inspired by an 1857 protest in New York City by garment workers who were decrying appalling work conditions and low wages.  Over the years, this has been a day to celebrate advances for women.

But sometimes it seems as if there's very little to celebrate.*

Women and children are still trafficked for sex not only around the world but in the US as well. Children are homeless lacking a safe home or basic necessities.  Single mothers struggle to make ends meet, all the while facing a system that either shames them for needing assistance or allows them to fall through the cracks.

Today, I want to acknowledge women that lament the sadness of the not-yet.

That mourn with the women and children who aren't yet safe or free from abuse and pain.

I want to celebrate women who love and serve.  Who hope for future abundance.  Who struggle and juggle the demands of daily life to love as Christ does. Who hope for the someday and work for the right-now.

They are:

My family women, my sisters, life-giving mothers and creators. They give out song and laughter. They are deeply committed to the church with all its joy and baggage.

They are foster mothers, wives and students. They are single mothers or single.

They are church leaders, ministers, neighbors and friends. They are businesswomen and homemakers.

They are teachers, deep thinkers and book lovers who invest in intentional community and hospitality.

They volunteer and serve the marginalized.  They live in inner cities and open their homes to children who don't have a safe place.

They give their heart to friends in many African countries. They live in Thailand, Texas, Russia, the Midwest, Canada, Scotland, Colorado, and Italy. They share the gospel, homeschool, educate, and parent children while managing the challenges and joys of autism, health concerns and numerous surgeries.

They are creative and loving, wise and kind.

They grow their own food and cook, work full-time, mend and darn and knit like fiends.  They know everything about gardening.

They are many: amazing grandmothers, aunts, friends. They are highly educated. They didn't go to college. They are women whose writing and work inspire.

They are women who've quietly and faithfully sailed through the pain of years in community. Who have stayed because of a desperate but abiding hope.

Each of them has left her mark on the world, showing God's grace, provision and goodness.

I want to celebrate what these women have done to love people in this broken world.

I want to thank them.

*Read Jocelyn's essay at renew and sustain about her journey of finding hope in the "small" efforts to address the hurts of the world. She is also a woman to be celebrated!

Unstoppable joy: the tension of ashes and piano keys

DSC_0053 Ash Wednesday services are usually solemn times when we reflect on our own mortality, the death of Jesus and our need for repentance.

But at our Wednesday gathering, we experienced a different aspect of the service: young children running across the linoleum floors, totally oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion.  While the rest of us were receiving the ashes on our foreheads, my son ran to the piano and plunked at the keys before anyone could stop him.  The black ribbons we tied together as a symbol of our unity in brokenness, my daughter was attempting to use as a jump rope.

As a mother, I was just a little bit horrified and all I wanted them to be was quiet and well-behaved.

But then someone stopped me.  A friend with older children (who usually knows just what to say) approached me after the service.

She loved that our children were oblivious to the soberness of the service.  She loved that nothing would stop their joy.  She loved that we are supposed to have faith and hearts like theirs...full and lively.

So here is this tension of Lent and our lives in Christ. Our faith does and should include the darker things.  We will mourn and grieve and be penitent.  But we should also share in the joy of celebration, just like our children.  Just as we celebrate death on Ash Wednesday, joyful that death will take us to new life, we can acknowledge that death is very very sad.  That though Jesus has overcome it, we still feel death's sting.

I'd like to live in this tension of death-grieving and mortality celebration.  I'd like to be joyful in sorrow and patient in solemnity.

And I'd like to be a little more observant of the way my children approach worship and prayer, with unstoppable joy.

Longing for light

IMG_3073 My friend Ang and I are planning the first monthly community-wide worship service this Friday.  We are also involved in a small church but many people who are our neighbors on the property don't attend church with us.  This has been heartbreaking for many reasons.

But as we ask God to help us reconcile with him, with one another and with creation, we are moved to see that our community is growing in unexpected ways.  The church itself is not growing.  But our community meal-times are nearly bursting with life.

I don't presume to know what God is doing in our church or in this community or beyond us because I believe his glory isn't often visible by our narrow sight.  But we must try to follow where He leads.  So we hope that all of our neighbors will join us in worship this Friday in a time of reflection and longing for the light of Christ, the light that is coming.

In preparation, I've been moved by the hymn Christ be our Light, one that I've sung before but hadn't listened to in the time of Advent.  It is a song of hope and lament, that the world is not yet new, that people still suffer and despair, that the kingdom has not yet come.  In my best days, I believe the church is a mystical place where God is glorified in ways we don't understand and often don't see.  There is God's power and love in our gathering, and I pray that he shines in our hearts and that he moves among us with his light.

1. Longing for light, we wait in darkness. Longing for truth, we turn to you. Make us your own, your holy people, light for the world to see.

Refrain Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today.

2. Longing for peace, our world is troubled. Longing for hope, many despair. Your word alone has pow’r to save us. Make us your living voice.

3. Longing for food, many are hungry. Longing for water, many still thirst. Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all are fed.

4. Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone.

5. Many the gifts, many the people, many the hearts that yearn to belong. Let us be servants to one another, making your kingdom come.

Advent traditions and resources

Celebrating Advent is fairly new to me as I grew up in a tradition that was decidedly un-liturgical.  While I love my lay-led tradition, both the Church of Christ and the Mennonite denominations, there is a richness and mystery to this time of waiting. We're creating our own traditions in our family and congregation and the root of both seems to be a tree.  Ann Voscamp has an excellent (and free) Jesse Tree resource.  You can download and print ornaments for every day of Advent, each with an accompanying scripture and meditation.  That's what we'll do in our worship services this year.

In our home, I've sewn a simple Advent calendar with twenty-five pockets, each holding a tiny bell inside.

DSC_0014

I've ordered a few kid-oriented Advent books and I plan to read a story and let the kids put a bell on the tree that day.

Patience is the spiritual discipline of the season.  My habit of starting a Christmas playlist on Thanksgiving Day is being challenged because most of the songs we sing during this time aren't actually Advent songs, but Christmas Day songs, celebrating the end to waiting.

Amy Grant's Breath Of Heaven (Mary's Song) and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (this version by Enya) are notable exceptions.

Do you wonder as you watch my face, If a wiser one should have had my place, But i offer all i am For the mercy of your plan. Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me.

When I listen to this song, I can see this girl Mary, burdened by the physical and spiritual weight of an unborn baby, weary on a donkey on a dusty road, only half-knowing that she carries a King.

Some days

I love this song.*  I like the beat, the unapologetically full-voiced declarations and the many-voiced chorus.  But I also like this song because I understand the angst of being pulled between two parts of myself. Some days I'm caught between the beauty of a this recent global vision, where those without voices can finally be heard, and between the voices of those next door.

Some days the words on the screen are a cacophony and I feel my spirit shrinking a little into the sense that I'm not doing enough.  I'm not serving enough. I'm not writing enough. I'm not loving my children enough.  I'm not disciplining them enough.  I'm not strong enough.  I'm not meek enough.

Some days I listen to those I don't know and I ignore the knock at my door.

That's the pity of my excess.  Why can't I love where I'm needed and support those who love where I cannot? Why can't I weep for the women and children in the Congo and care for my hurting neighbor?

Some days I cannot do both.  Somedays I don't have the heart for it.  Maybe my spirit is too selfish.  Maybe no one has the heart.

Some days I do.  When I let go of that which I cannot control.  When I dig deep and turn to face my church, my neighbor, my community, my family, the widow, the orphan and the stranger down the street. When I seek to know where God is creating new things in me rather than wishing He'd do it a little more like He does it in someone else.

But those days are covered with intentional prayer, with action, and with the force of my own will, all the while hoping for a will that's not my own.  Thy will be done.

Some days I know what I stand for.  Those are the days that God and those around me keep my legs strong.

*there is strong language in this song

Hospitality

Jen was doing a PhD about her work with refugees and the churches that hosted them when they arrived in the US.  She spoke about hospitality, one of those vague Christian-ese words unconnected with my way of living.

Jen's brand of hospitality filled the space of the flat we rented together: she whipped up dinner parties, creating occasions with food and costumes and holidays that breathed hospitality. One night we had a medieval dinner party. Tables were placed in a circle, medieval games were adopted, large dishes were prepared and I sang an old English ballad in my flowy-sleeved dress. It was a night to remember.

Surely hospitality is a joy as much as it is a spiritual discipline.

On a Sunday in summer, he came into our place of worship. He had the yellowed gapped teeth of one who had lived through pain but the bleached hair and funky shirt of a surfer. He spoke with charisma and openness, sharing his stories of helping the homeless, of pilgrimages across Hawaii and of his childhood with the Amish.

He helped Farmer weed and mulch, making conversation, never complaining, pinpointing with great accuracy the struggles of our community. We had him in our home, involving our children in meals with this stranger who was becoming a friend.

But as we listened more closely, the details of his stories began to change.  A date or a place here, a name there. We overlooked it for a time.

Then he lied a big, strange, cruel lie. And we felt violated.

Surely hospitality is denying the bitterness that comes when you've been hurt.

We have meetings. We struggle in our church and relationships. We spend many free hours together in meals and worship. We look for unity and live in the tiring tension of opposing ideals and lifestyles. We long to serve others but we are not strong as a body.  Even so, more people come to stay and eat and visit and search.

Surely hospitality is a spiritual discipline as much as it is a joy.

Intentional community is hard. Church is hard. Loving your neighbors is sometimes more difficult than loving the stranger.

"On this rock, you will build my church." Peter. Petros. Petra. Small stone. Large rock.

Maybe the church itself isn't one large rock but many small ones, tumbling over one another as the water rolls in, this attrition in the grief and pain of a tumultuous life together on the edge of the sea.

But pick us up and feel the soft loveliness that can come of such a life.

Surely practicing the hospitality of Christ can unite our disparate motives and beliefs, turning us into those sea pebbles eroded down so that they sparkle under the shallow water.  

Surely hospitality is a gift, not from us but to us.  Surely sharing our lives with neighbors and strangers will open us up to sorrow, yes, but also to the arduous splendor of real love.  

*picture from http://www.jesusradicals.com/revolutionary-hospitality-radical-hospitality-part-four/

An open letter to small town America

Please don't be offended rural/small town America.  You see, I have fallen in love with you and I don't know if I ever want to go back.

Having been weaned on big city life, I had no idea of your charms.  And I want to share them.

Do you remember the first time I went to your bank to deposit a check and take out cash and no one asked to see my ID?  Yes, that was unexpected and a bit wonderful.

What about the time when your librarian called me at home to tell me my books were overdue and did I want her to renew them?  That was truly awesome.

Didn't we laugh together when I first said I was "going to town" and that meant the place where Walmart had spread out its talons, where the population is 7,000?

I can still recall the first time I went to a children's tractor pull on the weekend, not because it was the only thing to do but because it was an exciting thing thing to do.

And oh, what about your children's rodeos?  Where everyone from every small town in the county congregates to thumb their noses at PETA, to watch little kids chase greased pigs, unsuspecting chickens, calfs with ribbons tied to their tails and ride muttons.  Yes, the mutton rides, where heavily armored 6-8 year olds attach their bodies to terrified sheep that are let out of the gate at breakneck speed until said and sad child can no longer hold on.  Didn't we watch with joviality as the child ran crying from the mutton to her parents?

I feel the rhythm of the seasons in your life, where everyone knows the weather because their livelihood or their neighbor's livelihood depends upon it.   Your people gather together with gusto at festivals year-round.  And some would say it's because there's nothing to do in a small town.  But really, it's because your people know how to have fun without all of that big-city hullabaloo. They know how to fight isolation and commit to community.

Small town, I love you.  Farm life, I don't ever want to leave.

My children love you too.  Right now, they're watching their Daddy load hay into the barn.

Who needs television?

Visitor fatigue

When you live in intentional community and you are open to people visiting, both for a meal and for longer visits, at some point you will suffer from what is known as visitor fatigue. I will explain why.

In my experience (albeit limited), excluding personal visitors like family or friends, there are a few different kinds of visitors to a community like ours.

1.  The visitor who is has lived here before or who has close ties to the community, ie, they grew up here or they live in a sister community.

2. The visitor who is interested in joining this particular community.

3.  The visitor who has come to make connections or volunteer or (in past years) intern at a specific business in the community

4.  The visitor who wants to meet like-minded people and share interests.

5. The visitor who has strong ideals and wants to talk to people here about those ideals

The first four visitors though perhaps tiring at times, in some way or another usually enrich the community with their gifts.  They long to share their lives, both long-term and short-term and they long for this community to succeed, to grow, to be challenged, to find ways to better love God and show others a Christ-like love. They ask questions of us, they want to know us and encourage us and build relationships.

The fifth group is often the cause of visitor fatigue and unfortunately, they are (in some years) the most numerous type of guest.

Intentional community, because it is typically counter-cultural, attracts lots of different kinds of people.  What most of them have in common is strong ideals.  They often have radical ways of living their life, and in the case of Christian communities, they have diverse ways of viewing the Bible. They believe in these views very strongly and though mild-mannered they may seem at first, they become solid and stubborn as bricks when their strongly held ideals are challenged.

During recent meals with these kind of visitors, it wasn't long before the conversation became more of a platform for them to preach at us.  While trying to serve food and corral two young children, we've been criticized, talked-down to, told what our theology should be, told why we aren't quite radical enough and in one case, left without a thank you.

Farmer and I spend lots of energy trying to live and love in ways that Christ taught us. We agonize over our failures and question ourselves.  We seek to love our neighbors, to share our lives with them, to live in community, to support and encourage the church.  We are wrong a lot.  But we are trying.

But all it takes are a few couples who are wandering aimlessly around the country, 'following the spirit,' living without families or jobs (in some cases leaving children behind for others to care for), and their hyped-up ideals to lay us flat.

Because you know what?  It's really easy to stick to your ideals when you won't let others question them.  It's easy to judge and point the finger when you shut away community and the world and your families, buffering yourself against any doubts that the way you believe is the only way to believe. The more I'm in community and church, the less sure I am of most things. And the more I invest myself in community, the more certain I am that I'm in great need of forgiveness and of the God who offers it.  The more I try love my neighbor, the more I am sure that the most important thing is true: that God is good, that he loves us and that we should love each other with a Christlike love.

I don't want to become jaded. I don't want to default to the cynical, bitter part of me.

I want to offer hospitality, lovingly and without asking for anything in return.  Even (and maybe especially) to the unpleasant, the patronizing, the rude guest who takes it all out of me.  Is that what's required of me?

All I know is that I'm unprepared.  God help me, I'm not ready to love them properly.  I'm not ready to not be defensive. I'm not ready to be okay with being misunderstood, to respond always in gentleness, to love them with compassion.

The gifts of the mundane

I recently read an article by a woman who wouldn't allow anyone to call her 'wife' for the first few years of marriage.  She says, "A wife for me meant a woman who cooked and cleaned for her man -- A wife was a secondary complement to the man. A wife had no other identity. I mean what happened to my name... now I am just wife. I don't think so." I don't know how cooking and cleaning have become such a set of degrading tasks.  Certainly, they aren't always fun.  They take work and effort. But I see them as a service both to my husband who works crazy hours during the growing season, and to my children, to ensure their bodies have a healthy start in life.  What I suspect the author of the article was getting at was the idea that a woman shouldn't be forced into certain roles in marriage.  I hope we can come to a point in our churches, communities and societies when wives and husbands can feel okay about dividing the labor according to their gifts rather than by what is expected of them.

But even if the routines and work of our lives are mostly divided up evenly, those of us who are living truly adult lives know that we are often required to do tasks we don't particularly enjoy.  I don't always love cooking.  I don't like getting up early in the morning. I hate doing dishes and don't get me started on the seven loads of laundry I do every week.

But I don't feel forced into them and I don't find them degrading (I know some women are in dire situations without the luxury of choice).  Instead, in my best moments, I find them to be gifts I try to give to not only my family, but to the kingdom of God.  I recently read a post from Art House Blog in which the author of the book Real Love for Real Life, Andi Ashworth, was interviewed (incidentally, Andi and her husband Charlie Peacock are the driving force behind Art House America).  In the article, she talks about a time when she began recognize the gifts God had given her to serve and love others.  She realized that she could leave other gifts and tasks to other people.  In other words, she didn't have to force herself to be something she wasn't because God had made her who she was.  She talks about caregiving and how it is a wide term that encompasses caring for your family, providing hospitality and caring for the sick (among other things).  She said in reference to this caregiving that, "You’re creating all the time — creating a mood, creating a meal, making a sick person comfortable, creating a celebration, nurturing compassion, creating a welcome — you’re always making. When our imaginations are captured by the idea of creating good stories in the lives of the people we’ve been given to love, a world of possibility opens up."

I often look at my friends who seem to be giving so much to the kingdom (and they are) and I feel my own lack.  This interview gives me such hope as I struggle to find the ways in which God has equipped and prepared me to give to the church and his kingdom.

And I also hope that instead of maligning wives who cook and clean or judging those who don't stay home with their children, we, in the church, can be examples of people who are able rejoice in our differences.  That the church can be a place where we encourage women who are single, women who are wives or mothers in their gifts and talents and that our churches can be places where we bond over essential tasks that we all find unpleasant...because that's part of being grown-up.