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

Listening to Simone

A post for Good Letters


The woman stands in the entryway of our common building just before Sunday worship begins. It’s not a sightly place, but it has every necessity for common intentional community life: a kitchen, a large meeting space, tables and chairs for worship and meals, a bathroom and a prayer room.

At first, the woman seems to fit right in with our unfussy crew: round spectacles, hair in a frizzy bob, a shapeless dress, oversized shoes. I immediately feel an affinity with her.

But I am also wary of her. Something tells me that she has intentionally obliterated anything outwardly lovely in her appearance. This both draws me in and annoys me.

Because I think I know her type. They come through intentional community sometimes: idealistic, stringent in their belief system, radically unusual in their dress. Community hoppers who bounce from church to church, intentional community to community, never satisfied with what they find and always criticizing. Not one of those again, I sigh.

Read the rest at Good Letters--an Image Journal blog

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.

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.

Music and theology

My spirit is moved by the frenzy of a good Mumford and Sons song.  Though their lyrics are quirky and literary, it's not the words that necessarily that move me (frankly, Mumford's mixed metaphors and topic switching in the middle of the song irritate me just a bit).  In Winter Winds, the song announces itself with trumpets, banjos and other instruments.  It quiets during the first verse, accompanied at first by just a voice and a guitar.  Then, it builds to a swaying chorus, both with various voices and musical instruments.  It seems rather like a worship service.  And in fact, the Mumford of the group grew up as a minister's kid in the Vineyard church. A recent article on NPR pointed on just this, that the sound of Mumford and Sons comes from years of cutting their teeth on religious music. The music of  Mumford and other bands like it, the writer says, have "unmistakably churchy overtones... Many pop fans are or have been churchgoers, and the comfortable feeling of singing along, nurtured in many during childhoods spent in the pews, allows for a form of release that's edifying without proving too scary."

It's certainly possible although the writer's claim that rock music and and a search for goodness have nothing in common seems really cynical to me: "How can anyone who's dedicated to loud, raucous music — the stuff that's supposed to rip through life's dull normality — employ it in the service of such commonplace, even orthodox, hopes and dreams?"

I'm not making any assumptions about the group's religious affiliation (as they've said publicly that they aren't making religious statements with their music).  But what I do find interesting is the feeling that music itself, apart from the lyrics, can be moving in theological and even worshipful ways.

My childhood church tradition tends to be wary of heavily emotive Praise music.  Such music is sometimes viewed as emotionally manipulative rather than spiritually rich.  The words, the words, the words, we say.

And while I do agree that the lyrics to a song are very important, a well-written piece of music can give us something apart from the words. And sometimes the emotion we feel from a piece of music is part of the worship.

Take Bach, for instance.  His purely musical pieces were all written for the glory of God.

In his book "Theology Music and Time," Jeremy Begbie, both a fine musician and a theologian, writes that "Hearing music can mean the 're-ordering of our sympathies...The great triumphs of music...involve this synthesis, whereby a musical structure, moving according to its own logic, compels our feelings to move along with it, and so leads us rehearse a feeling at which we would not otherwise arrive.' Music can therefore not only reflect an emotional disposition already experienced...but can also enrich, nuance and even re-shape our emotion, affecting subsequent emotional experience."

Begbie goes on to say that this emotional response allows us to enjoy the same piece of music repeatedly.  This kind of reaction to music actually allows us to be "emotionally exercised and educated."

I think this idea is fascinating, that music (and Begbie's book focuses mostly on the structure of instrumental music) educates our emotions, that it helps us experience and reshape feelings by its structure.  No wonder music is such an integral part of worship.  But it's more than just the lyrics that teach us and move us.  A really good musician has the power to guide us into new experiences of eschatology, the eucharist, temporality and much much more.*

*see Begbie's book for discussions of these topics

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

The child coming

Ang and I are conspiring to wait.

We are gathering the symbols of life,

sewing pockets for the pictures and language of truth,

lighting candles, measuring words,

grasping onto any sparks from the vibrancy of incarnation.

We need color.

We need fire and flame.

We need new time and ancient in this mystic practice.

We need the song of children and infants, praising the baby King.

We are Adventing.

*This is the Advent wreath we're trying to create for our worship service.  The picture is from http://www.southernliving.com/home-garden/holidays-occasions/christmas-decorating-ideas-00400000059442/page15.html

Committing small acts of art

Recently, a newly formed artist's collective/group (we're not sure yet exactly what we are) that I'm involved in had a discussion about art in the life of a Christian.  When we began discussing our personal goals for our art, I shared a goal of mine that has remained unmet for many years (something common among many kinds of artists, I'm told): Publication.

But, as I told the group, I've recently accepted that publication might not be my highest goal.  I've taken up writing music again in the past year and I've found great satisfaction in sharing that music with my small church group and community.  I still have grandiose and mostly unrealistic desires of future success but I'm trying to remain focused on creating for the church, being open to something beyond didactic or formulaic writing, hoping to be a vessel for art that shows the truth and beauty of God.

I have many artist friends who, while some having had commercial success, are committing seemingly small acts of art in their homes and communities.

I am so moved by their visual art, their music, their poetry and essays.  There are streams of light and color that are released into the world of my mind's eye when I encounter such true art.

And so I wonder.

Is there something just as significant in works of art that are only seen by a few if any at all?

I was very moved by just such an act of art done by a neighbor, a visual artist who spent hours taking apart his small store-bought sketchbook, dyeing it with tea and reassembling it into a beautiful aged-looking book of his card-sized sketches and drawings.

No one but his wife and the rest of us have seen such a book.

And yet, there is something important in that creation.

Madeleine L'Engle speaks about this act of art in her book Walking on Water.  For L'Engle, the true artist must be willing to be one thing primarily:

Obedient.

For L'Engle, the artist becomes a birth-giver, a vessel for the work of God or the work of God in the world.  And here L'Engle's picture of obedience is like Mary, the mother of Jesus in her obedience to the Spirit of God, who asked her to be his bearer of the Messiah.

When the "work of art...says, "'Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.' And the artist either says, 'My soul doth magnify the Lord.' and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses."

L'Engle says the artist should be "obedient to the work...whether it is a work of great genius or something very small."**

And so in these seemingly small acts of creation, obedience is a worthier goal.  For if obedience is our job, the rest is up to God.

If we have publication, adulation and awards in our future, God help us through it.

And if smallness is His goal then maybe His are the only eyes and ears we need to worry about.

*The painting at the top was done by my grandmother, who took up painting in her sixties.  Though never sold or seen by an audience, her works of art are priceless to her family

**quotes from Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, 2001, Waterbrook Press, pg 9-10.

Old Love

Before I married Farmer, I didn't know any songs by Mary Chapin Carpenter except "Shut up and Kiss Me." I thought she was a silly country singer.  Then one day he played "The Age of Miracles" for me and it made me cry. Her voice is like a strummed cello, vibrations deep and melancholy.  Her lyrics are like Psalms of lament: searching, sometimes hopeful, the poetry of pain to words. Her newest album is one of Farmer's favorites, Ashes and Roses.

One song called "Old Love" is just such a psalm-like poem of longing in sadness and hope, for a love that lasts. Knowing that Chapin Carpenter had herself recently gone through a divorce when she made the album, gives the song an even greater connection to a lament.

This song, of course, makes me think about my relationship with Farmer.  But it also makes me think of the church, the longing we have for reconciled relationships with our brothers and sisters.  The hope that we have that God will connect us in those moments so that love "holds on/ when it's told, love, that all hope is gone."

I want old love, the kind that holds on When it’s told, love, that all hope is gone Against all odds, wagers and prayers To the wall love, to the furthest somewhere

I want old love, the kind that takes years To turn to gold, love, burnished and seared On the high wire, by rain, wind and sun With the hard times forgiven and done*

lyrics from http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/marychapincarpenter/oldlove.html

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.

Loving the church

I've never been much of a big picture person.  It is the details that engage me, that I write about, that make the bigger pictures make sense to me.

But there is one big "issue" I feel I can talk about with great love.

The church.

I know that calling the church an "issue" is odd but from the reading I do on internet blogs and articles, in books about and against Christianity, in poetry and the conversations I have and hear with neighbors, friends and family, the church (and the way it fails) has become a popular issue to discuss.

I have tried to enter this conversation.  But I find myself at a loss to speak about the church in such a general way.

But here, in my heart, I have a feeling about the smallness, the details, the minutuae of the church that I would like to give voice to.

And here is what I want to say.

Sometimes, it hurts to love this church.

It hurts when people criticize. When they are angry or in pain and my congregation becomes collateral damage.

Yes, indeed, people in this church and other churches have caused each other pain.  Sometimes while pounding their fists on the Bible.

But the words from those who have left, they hurt.  They tear at our hearts.  And when you hear their anger, even though it might be justified, there is always another side to the story.

And that doesn't mean our congregations shouldn't be criticized or that people should stay quiet when something needs to change.  But it hurts.

This Mennonite church is very small.  But that has forced me to be involved more than I ever have.

People who know me well or the tradition I grew up in would laugh or perhaps be appalled that I help lead worship.  I teach adult Bible classes.

This is not something I sought out but it has opened my eyes to the love and beauty that I was so quick to dismiss when I was younger.  Being on the other side of worship makes me realize how difficult it is to hear people verbally abuse the thing you love.

I know my parents' generation fought against the "hellfire and brimstone" theology they grew up with.  And in many ways, my generation is trying to differentiate itself from the lack of compassion and social justice we think we see in the churches we grew up in.

Each generation must do this.

But.

It hurts when it is something you cherish.  I have criticized arrogantly and I hear the same judgement from others, not just here but all over the place.

It is easy to forget that, in many ways, the churches we grew up in have benefitted from the change our parents fought for.  We forget that we are young, that we have a short past behind us, that we are not as wise as we think we are.

All of us as Christians, as members of a congregation, have failed others.  But we have also failed our churches.

My friend Angela led me to a quote recently:

"Yes, the Church is a whore; but that whore is the bride of Christ and your mother, and you have no right to abandon her."*

So please, let's yell at the church.  Let's tell about how the church has failed us.  Let's reform the hell out of her if we must (literally).

But how 'bout we keep our mouths shut a little longer before we do. And do a little less yelling and a little more loving.

Let's find the beauty in the moments the church cared for us, when she encouraged us, held us up, served us.

Forgive the church because she is Christ's church.  He knew she'd be unfaithful.  But he loves her anyway.  

Let us forgive the church because we are the church and we have needed forgiveness too. 

*I couldn't find a definite answer about the author of this quote.  Some say it was Augustine.  Regardless, I go the quote from: http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/2007/05/church-is-whore.html