Unlearning

Last week, I found an old journal at the bottom of a stack of books. It’s holding together with packing tape, and I realize now how hard I was on that black faux Moleskin in the two years I used it.

I took that black faux Moleskin with me when I still went to the small church, and I took it with me when I started attending the big church. And scanning the pages front to back, I can see the ways God was working on me, sometimes even at me, changing me and maturing my faith.

Somewhere in the early part of 2011, I stopped taking sermon notes for awhile. Or I’d start taking sermon notes, get distracted by a question I had about what was being taught, and wrestle on the rest of the page about what wasn’t sitting so well with me.

Looking back, I know that God was leading me away from the way I had always done things and prompting me to open myself up to the greater ways He could work and maneuver and move in the world. He was guiding me into deeper faith, into greater knowledge of who He is, and into better ways of loving.

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I told one of my Bible study girls not too long ago that I feel like I’m in a season of un-learning. I told her that I think this way we were raised in church with the sense of “right-ness” hadn’t opened me up to experiencing people who were different than me, because I was so concerned that they were “wrong” in their sin and needed to get back on the “right” path. I told her that what I know now is that those were never really my calls to make, and that probably all Jesus wants me to do is listen to them, and extend a little love, and let them know they aren’t alone.

I told her that I can’t get the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman out of my head, and that I think maybe I should follow His example a bit more. She said that following Jesus’ example is probably always going to be the right call.

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'Rat Hunting - Kalasin drinking = shot + water' photo (c) 2007, Marshall Astor - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

This is what keeps sticking with me about the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman – He never calls her a sinner. He never once tells her that she’s going down the “wrong” road, and He never tells her that if she doesn’t start doing things the “right” way that she’s going to Hell. What He does instead, it seems to me, is listen and offer another way of doing things:

You can keep pulling water from this well that you’ve always been pulling from and you can keep being thirsty, or you can let me give you living water.

The woman, of course, knows that her life could be counted by her failed relationships. She knows that she’s marked as an outsider by her race and her gender, and she knows that she’s connecting to men in a desperate attempt to feel not so alone in the world. She knows what’s up, and she doesn’t need another man on his religious high-horse telling her how screwed up she is. It seems that what she needs is someone to sit down and recognize her pain. What she needs is someone to get that she gets that she’s a mess, and she needs someone to look her in the eye and offer real help. What she needs is someone to give her a drink.

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I was raised in church and I wouldn’t want to change that, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I told my dad the other day that being in youth group in high school saved me, that having friends probably kept me from making a lot of reckless decisions in a desperate attempt to feel not so alone in the world. And for that I will always be grateful.

But…

I’ve spent most of my life in the church and I’ve spent most of my life feeling small, and those aren’t two things you want anyone to experience at the same time. So, I’m thinking that there’s got to be a better way, a more Jesus-like way of being in the world. And I’m thinking that probably starts with letting Jesus be Jesus and giving myself permission to just be me, and then getting on with the work He’s called me to do.

And that work, I think, starts with sitting down, listening to people, hearing their pain, and offering them a drink of water.

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” –John 4:13-14

A thankful heart and a Mexican beach

'Mexican beach' photo (c) 2010, drtreypennington - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Today has been nutso-crazy, and tomorrow and Thursday will be much more of the same. I’m trying to cram the million ordinary things I do with my week into three days because Thursday morning I’m boarding a plane and heading for a beach with three girlfriends, and we’re going to celebrate having all survived our thirtieth birthdays.

Of course, this assumes that the major snowstorm we’re supposed to get on the East Coast Wednesday night into Thursday morning doesn’t ground my plane.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now, writing and reading, as has become my Tuesday custom.  My professor friend sits across from me preparing lectures for her classes, and interrupting every so often to deliver some tidbit about the Habsburgs I probably won’t remember by the time we get up from the table.

I tell her that I think this is the most ridiculous I have ever been, as I rant about the weather I can’t control and the shampoo I still need to buy, and she just looks at me. Twenty years of knowing me communicating in the slightest raise of an eyebrow that this is, in fact, not the most ridiculous I have ever been.

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I’m reading Ann Voskamp’s 1,000 Gifts today.  As I read, I think about the six other women who are reading the same book, stealing moments to get one chapter in this week, and I can’t wait to see them tonight to talk about the ways that God is using Ann’s words to meet with us, to help us feel not quite so alone in the world.

Today, this:

All those years thinking I was saved and had yes to my God, but was really living the no. Was it because I had never fully experienced the whole of my salvation? Had never lived out the fullest expression of my salvation in Christ? Because I wasn’t taking everything in my life and returning to Jesus, falling at His feet and thanking Him. I sit still, blinded. This is why I sat all those years in church but my soul holes had never fully healed.

All those years in church and my soul holes had never fully healed – this makes sense to me.

I think I’ve spent much of my life, the last couple of years in particular, wanting to blame it on the Church, or a church, but….this is on me.

I’ve missed the part of really and truly being thankful.

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Today might be the most ridiculous I’ve ever been; or it might not. It might blizzard on Wednesday; or it might not. I might make my flight on Thursday; or I might not.  I might cross all of my week’s to-dos off my list before I leave; or I might not.

Whatever happens, here in this moment, in this coffee shop, I choose to be grateful. And I choose to find joy.

I have books to read that remind me of who God is, penned by authors who are willing to be vulnerable as they share their stories.  I have women to meet with every week to talk about these books, an odd sisterhood that eats and prays and laughs together.  I have friends who know me well, who can still me with a look, and who like having me on vacations. I have parents who are willing to drive me to the airport 2 hours away so that I can go de-stress on a Mexican beach for a week with my friends. And I have a guy who’s going to miss me when I’m gone.

The point, I think, is that there is much to be thankful for.

And perhaps today, with all of its ridiculous that will bleed into tomorrow and Thursday, I needed to be reminded of that.

Because when I get to that Mexican beach and I’m laughing with my girlfriends, I’m not going to care how I got there or if I have my shampoo. I’m just going to be really thankful to be there.

Six years of BS

'Bible Study 2' photo (c) 2008, George Bannister - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Jesse, Liz, Nickie, Melissa, Maggie, and I have been meeting for Bible study on Tuesday night pretty much forever.   In September, we’ll celebrate six years together, which isn’t forever but I hope we have an anniversary party anyway.  It just seems like the right thing to do.

Half of the group is married, half of us are single.  Half of the group is moms, half of us are kid-less. And at least one of us has learned to be a kid person because of this group and because of their kids, which just goes to show how God can change a person when she’s engaged in community.  (I may or may not be speaking about myself on that one.)

My mom reminds me all the time how rare it is to find a group like ours. She says that for the fifty plus years that she’s been involved in church life that she’s never come close to having what we six have together.  She tells me that I need to treasure it, and that I need to keep sending the emails for prayer and reading the books even when I don’t like them, because this thing we have is a place of belonging that most people ache for.

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I am not always the most gracious of people, which I know will come as a shock to some, but when I take issue with things I really take issue and I get…um…snarky.  So when something popped up in our latest Bible study book that struck me the wrong way, I got belligerent with the fill in the blanks:

The question: What are some possible situations in your day ahead where you need to practice positive thinking and behaving?

My answer: Finishing this Bible study.

So, I sent Nickie a text message,

In other news, I’m having trouble getting into this Bible study.  I know people are all stoked and all, “This is exactly what I need!” but…this is not what I need and I’m suffering thru this woman’s fluffy writing. And I just needed to say it out loud.

I think perhaps one of the things I value most about our group is having people with whom to say it out loud.

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Nickie reminded me quickly that our group has always been about taking care of each other, and that probably no one would object if I chose to pick up another book in addition to the one we were working through as a group.

Enter Jen Hatmaker’s 7: An experimental mutiny against excess.

I’ve been Jen-obsessed since a friend of mine linked to her blog and I realized that she is a writer who loves Jesus and has a wrist tattoo.  In my world that’s about all it takes to make someone a sister of my soul, so I immediately bumped her book up to the top of my must-read list.

And for the last few days, I’ve been reading 7 and my not-favorite Bible study book at the same time. And it’s better this way because I realize that Jen’s book is meeting me where I am and the other book is meeting my friends where they are, and there’s no room for me to be judgey when it’s helping my friends, and isn’t that what I have always wanted for them over the last six years?

Yes. Yes, it is.

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Jen Hatmaker wrote 7 in the company of a group of friends that she calls The Council.  She shares emails and text messages and conversations that they had, and in every piece I hear the exchanges that I’ve had with the women of my Tuesday Night Bible Study.  I hear echoes of accountability and encouragement and even admonishment, but mostly I hear echoes of what it’s like to have a place you belong.

Every Tuesday night.  For the last six years.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of a cool nickname as a part of our anniversary celebration.  Because it’s starting to get awkward talking about BS all the time.

Manifested grace: Ephesians 4:29 and why our words matter

Too many of'Miss A Writes a Song' photo (c) 2012, Denise Krebs - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ us live forgetting that the words we use carry weight, that there is power in what we say and what we write.

We throw out pithy Christian sayings and Bible verses out of context, and we cheat each other out of an authentic encounter with the Living Word of God.  We may quote Ephesians 4:29, encouraging each other to watch what we say and to honor God with our words, but in the next sentence we recklessly recount a man’s sins and cast judgment on the state of someone else’s faith.  And such a thing breeds confusion because there is no edification in condemnation.

And I’m not sure how to see Jesus in this kind of thing.

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Perhaps it’s a sign of getting older and I hope it’s a sign of maturity, of having learned something from the difficult season I’ve found myself in over the last six months, but I’m finding I have less patience for this kind of thing.  Because what I’m craving most these days from my Christian brothers and sisters is consistency. 

I want to know that the person I’m sitting in church with on Sunday is also the same person I’m eating dinner with on Wednesday or having coffee with on Friday.  I want to know that when you say you’re praying for me, it’s because your experience has taught you that prayer changes things.   I want to know that when you quote a verse in a conversation with me, it’s not because you think you need to, but because your own story of faith has shown you its truth.

Because ultimately I need to know that you’re not full of it.

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Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.  -Ephesians 4:29

Ephesians 4:29 is a verse that reminds us that our words carry weight. It reminds us that conversations that happen in a moment can have lasting ramifications that are either discouraging or encouraging.  It reminds us that we should be aimed at edification and at building each other up.  And it reminds us that the way we talk to one another can manifest grace.

And grace manifests when what we say reflects the heart of who we are.

Grace manifests when we refrain from statements loaded with judgment; when we quit talking out of both sides of our mouths; when we stop hurling insults and calling each other names; when we tell each other the truth, even when it’s scary and vulnerable; when we invite one another to share our stories; when we pray for each other; and when we say outright, “I love you.”

And in these kinds of things, I see Jesus.

Group hug and enveloping grace

I’m wearing out.

I know I’m not supposed to say that because I’m a Christian and I’m supposed to have all the strength of Jesus, and I know I do, but each day is getting a little bit harder to manage, a little bit harder to pretend everything is okay.

What does that even mean – “okay?”

Someone asks me how things are going at church and I say “Oh, you know, there are hard days, but things are generally okay.”  Someone asks me how I’m doing and I say, “Oh, you know, it’s not easy, but I’m hanging in there and I’m okay.”

But, okay is a cop-out.

It’s a way to wiggle around the truth.  It pacifies the question, but it doesn’t actually answer it. Okay is a way to say something without actually saying anything.

And I’m wearing out from the weight of okay and all that’s not being said.

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(c) JL Outdoor Photography // Flickr

It seems to me that church should be a place to go where the weight of things get shared and carried a little bit.  I mean, I think we’re told that much in Paul’s letters to the Galatians , chapter 6.

But, my church has taken a major blow and I’m not sure that we know what “carrying” looks like anymore.  We know what chaos and confusion and blame look like, but we’ve gotten bad about being quick to see God and grace and kindness in one other.

I’m grateful that I see these things in the women I meet with on Tuesday nights.  We do “church” by eating and praying and praising and celebrating and enjoying one another.  We do “church” by being real with one another, and listening for wisdom from one another, and opening our Bibles together.   And last night, they “carried” for me by letting me share my heavy heart and immediately carrying me to the feet of Jesus in prayer in a moment when I lacked the strength to do it for myself.

And then they hugged me, not one by one, but as a group. I let myself fall into them as they wrapped their arms around me, enveloped in their love and support, knowing that they were quite literally taking my weight.

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In this season, I’m letting church take on all kinds of meanings.  Sometimes I’ll find it on Sunday morning sitting in a pew listening to a sermon.  But maybe in this season of brokenness and hurt and chaos, I don’t find church there every Sunday.  Maybe I find it among the women of my Bible study, or at dinners with my parents, or coffee dates with my closest friends.  Maybe I find it with those people of God with whom I can be honest and say that I’m not okay, but who unfailingly point me back to Him.

Maybe we find it in coming together and inviting Jesus quite simply to meet us where we are.  And maybe we find it in His love and grace that envelops each of us.

And maybe, just maybe, that moves us past wearing out and just being okay.

Joseph on the pedestal

Illustrated by Krieg Barrie // from worldmag.com

“Joseph is a guy who kept getting pushed down and who still focused on God.  I look at his life and I think, ‘I could have it so much worse.’”

My friend in Bible study was, of course, talking about Old Testament Joseph, the guy who had a multicolored robe forced upon him by his father, which I can only assume was gaudy because it always looks gaudy on flannelgraph, and who was sold into slavery by his brothers, and who was thrown into prison after being falsely accused of going after his boss’ wife.   Yeah, absolutely, Joseph was a guy who kept getting knocked down.  And yeah, absolutely, he was a guy who walked every step of his journey focused on the Lord.  He took God with him into the pit, and on the road that caravan walked, and through the prison gate.  My friend was absolutely right.

And yet something in her statement unsettled me.

As my friend and another friend went back and forth about their tendency to sing “Potiphar” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat every time that the read Joseph’s story in the book of Genesis, I realized that my knowledge of show tunes is lacking and that I fear that we in the Church might idealize Joseph too much.  And probably Paul too, with all of his New Testament epistles.

I think sometimes that we look at guys like Joseph and Paul and we think that they’re the epitome of the “good” Christian, who learned to be content whatever their circumstances.  I think we put these guys on pedestals and then beat ourselves up for not being able to just be “okay” when our loved ones die, or we fight with our spouses, or someone calls us a dirty name.  I think we let it say that our faith is lacking when our immediate response to a difficult situation isn’t one of unbridled joy.

But, what if we have it wrong?  What if we took Joseph and Paul off their pedestals?

I think we’d find that our faith looks a whole lot more like David’s, who’s said in 1 Samuel and in Acts to be a man after God’s own heart, who wrote multiple Psalms about being abandoned and persecuted and left to suffer.  David’s a guy who literally had his enemies closing in on him, not the least of which is the king who could have killed him, and his first response is often lament – “Woe unto me” and the like.  There’s not a whole lot of unbridled joy rolling off David’s tongue.  What’s there is, I think, is something much more real.  What’s there is authenticity and humility in his relationship with God.

Because here’s the thing:  David didn’t just lament.  David confessed feeling low and lacking, and he was certainly real with God about that.  But, he also expressed deep trust in God’s love for him and didn’t waver in his belief that God would provide for him a way out.  He took God with him too, just like Joseph, only it was into the deepest, ugliest recesses of himself.  And he let God bring him out of the pit with His love and provision.

That’s what I think we’d find our faith looking like if we took Joseph, Paul, and even David off the pedestals we put them on.  I think we’d find men who took God with them into the broken parts of the world and of themselves.  I think we’d find real people who humbled themselves to God’s strength to bring them out of the darkness.  I think we’d find a model we could follow today.

If we’d have the courage to take Joseph off his pedestal.

 

What do you think we’d find if took Joseph or Paul or David off their pedestals?