Light Your Lamps

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I have some words written in my journal from an Advent Retreat I attended at the start of December.

Awake.

Ready for action.

Lamps Lit.

Watchful.

Work clothes.

They are not the words I was expecting.

Even my purple pen and black inky hearts can’t really make them look beautiful, although I try my best.

Wasn’t I here for a deep breath, for rest for my soul?  What am I doing in this beautiful space scribbling down words like action and work? Why do I feel excited, like I’m hearing something new?

*

I am the girl who got so tired of rally-cries, altar-calls and persuasive sermons  that she got ‘Be Still’ tattooed on her foot.

I am the girl who ended up very sensitive to many words, many phrases, many hymns and many, many parts of the Bible.

I took refuge away from them.  I took refuge for a time far away from church and I took refuge, sometimes, in the loo at church.

I still do, to be honest, but not so much.  I found a practice that helped me.

Addie Zierman calls it ‘Sermon Notes for Cynics’.  She writes:

I began jotting down things that rubbed me wrong. If something troubled my spirit or caused my cynic voice to holler, I wrote it down in my notebook. When a worship song lyric made me cringe and shiver, I’d sit and note it, right then.
In time, I began to take it a step further. Instead of just noting the cringe-worthy phrase, I took a moment to sit with it. Could I pinpoint what about that line hit me wrong? Did it bring up a memory or hook some old painful theological wound? Did it seem to oversimplify or overcomplicate? Did it strike me as being at odds with the God I know?

I continued to do this … and the most surprising thing happened.

By honoring the questions and concerns that rose up, by giving them a very physical space to “live,” a new space opened up in me too.

I had worried that if I began to write down the things that made me cranky, I might never stop. Instead, the opposite happened. When I honored my cynic voice and noted what she had to say, she stopped shouting so loudly, and I could hear those other things.

Beauty. Hope. Maybe even the voice of God.

I have found this to be true.  I have gathered my own trigger-words, noted them, sat with them, wondered about them.  They sound different to me now.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of that preacher.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of the girl I once was.

Some words I picked up wrong, that’s all.  I made them try-hard and anxious and then simmered in anger at them later.

*

My husband is the type of man who, when his wife gets a tattoo that says ‘Be Still’, will get a black sharpie and script ‘Keep Going’ on his own foot in his best cursive, waiting nonchalantly beside her to be noticed.

It was funny.

It was also wiser, perhaps, than intended.

You can’t make a phrase like ‘Keep Going’  beautiful, I thought.  Not as a tattoo, not with a black sharpie or a purple pen or inky hearts.  It’s a word about strain and striving, isn’t it?

But we need both, of course – to be still, to keep going – I picked it up wrong, that’s all.

*

And so back to my chair in Pilgrim Cottage, to the Advent essay I am reading from Luke 12.

We are to have our work clothes on and our lamps lit.  We are to be awake and ready and watchful.

I am surprised that there is space inside me for these words, that I can’t wait to write them down and mull them over.  I do not imagine that I will carry them with me into January, that they will shape my phrase for the year.

I had heard this story all my life with panic.  I heard the rousing preacher.  I heard the over-zealous teenage girl.  The heading in the NIV for this passage is ‘Watchfulness’ but the heading in my mind was ‘Watch out!’.

But what about being watchful as an act of faithfulness, instead of panic? I am drawn to that.

I think about how I wake up every night in a sweat about half an hour after I first fall asleep.  There is something I have not done and someone is dead, or sick or missing or something is very wrong.  Until I realise it is not.  I was dreaming, that’s all.

Sometimes it feels like our high-alert switch is stuck and it is such a stressful way to parent or live but we cannot seem to help it.  I’d like to be watchful instead.  Ready.  Available.  Present.  Not waking up in a sweat.

*

‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ it says in Luke 9:26.

I heard this last April in church.  Addie hadn’t yet suggested her Sermon Notes for Cynics, and I still had few tools to deal with these words.  Words that made me feel tired and judged and boxed in and angry and ashamed.  My instinct, as always: to take refuge away from them.  But I didn’t.  I wrote them in my Bullet Journal (see, now, the particularly jagged handwriting? I was a little cross).  I hid in a corner at coffee time (which is progress from the loo) and when my friend Joan asked me how I was I said that my field was all wobbly and she said hers was too and we sat with it.

I am still sitting with those words, I realise now, as I am thinking about what it means to light your lamps and put your work clothes on.

Whose field did I think I was ploughing in? The field of the scaremonger preacher?

When I think of that field as the one that is mine to tend, doesn’t it become a beautiful thing?  The field of my calling and my gifting and my place in the world.  The plough that needs my temperament, my creativity, my good work, my effort.  And, honestly, when it comes to those things isn’t it hard to keep going?  Isn’t it a challenge? Don’t we need a warning that it’s going to be tough?

*

It’s 2018 and my phrase for the year is Light your Lamps.

You can strike a match and stay in your post out of fear, I know (I’m not sleeping, Lord.  I’ll never sleep!).  It can be a performance.  It can be a thing that will not last.

But I want to light mine with intention and expectation.

I find it hard to keep burning.

‘I have edited my own soul many times,’ Erin Loechner says, ‘and each time I’ve done so in the name of kindness.  Good intentions.  Passivity.’

I find it hard not to edit, not to diminish what I thought mattered, not to downplay the words I was starting to say.  I find it hard to keep burning.

Light your Lamps is a reminder.  Maybe it’s a quiet rebellion, too.

Can you be a slow, meandering kind of girl and also be ready, lamps lit, work clothes on, hand to the plough?  I am hoping you can.

I am not fit for the Kingdom of God, I think, but I am being made fit.  I need to be still.  I need to keep going.

 

 

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Belonging

‘I think we were made free to live like we belong to the household of God.’

[Lessons in Belonging – Erin S. Lane]

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There’s this episode of The Good Wife when Alisha is running for State’s Attorney and in an effort to damage control a previous admission that she’s an atheist, she is advised to describe herself as “struggling” in a TV interview.

“Struggling” – the word she could use.  The word we can all use.  I certainly do.

I say I struggle with faith. I say I struggle with church.

I can say those words, and people can hear them.  They thank me for my honesty.

But these words have been annoying me lately.  They feel a little like the “TV interview” version of my soul story.

I can be hyperaware of expectation, presumption and reaction when I give a version of my story in a blog post or at the pub, over coffee or to my minister.  Even though they are all kind audiences, I default to the lines that I think people can hear.

One of the things I am doing about this is to start to meet with a therapist for Spiritual Direction.  It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I feel like I need to actually explore “my struggles”, explore my wilderness and my rebellion.  I need to talk out the long version without fear.

Another thing that is helping me is the book Lessons in Belonging by Erin S. Lane.  It was one of those well-judged “saw this and thought of you” recommendations.

For a long time now I have cringed about my association with ‘the household of God’.  What does it even mean?!  So much room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation!  What if people misjudge my views, and my heart?  Every time I heard a “Christian” view that was not my own it seemed that my only choice was to distance myself further and further away.

But I have found myself, over the past year and a half, in church – welcomed, noticed, blessed – and I have experienced what, for me, is the push and pull of Christian Belonging.  I want to belong here.  I want to run for the hills.

I laugh out loud when Erin Lane describes the panic she felt with the sneaking realisation that she was on ‘a path’.  I know this feeling.  “I don’t want to be on a path”, she says, “I want to zigzag”.

This is me.  I want to zigzag – between my books and my podcasts and some small pockets of people.  I want to be in my own house or in the forest or on the other side of the world.  So I panic a little to find myself, week after week, in the same pew of a country Presbyterian church.

Lane says that by showing up at church like this my body begs a witness greater than its own two eyes can see. It says, “I cannot do this alone, even though I try.”

Doing it alone, for me, has not so much been a declaration of independence, as a protection mechanism against the messiness of belonging. Maybe I haven’t so much ‘struggled’ with church, as tried to avoid the struggle.

Avoidance often seems like wisdom to me – the wisdom of limiting who I listen to, what I read and who I spend time with; the wisdom of choosing stillness and quiet.  As an introvert this seems so important to me.  I safe guard my time, I seek out podcasts, books and articles that resonate with me, I spend time with soul chums.  I seek a rhythm that is healthy for me, and my family. I write about this kind of thing.

And yet, what I could end up with is a very narrow, crafted life, that indulges just one way of being.

Parker Palmer says: ‘As our privacy deepens and our distance from the public increases, we pay a terrible price. We lose our sense of relatedness to those strangers with whom we must share the earth; we lose our sense of comfort and at-homeness in the world.’

My privacy can run deep.  It makes me want to close my front door and retreat from the struggles of faith and church, or at least from the struggle of articulating them.  It is a sure sign that I have lost my sense of comfort and at-homeness if I don’t trust you with more than the “TV interview” version of my life, if I presuppose that we won’t connect, or that you’ll tire of the real me.

My life, in recent years, has been concerned with how to spend time wisely.  And spiritually – I have been looking for comfort and rest.  I have been looking to feel known.  So THESE are the words from Lane’s book that I have underlined, written out, read and re-read:

‘This is the paradoxical mission of the church, to comfort and disrupt, to give rest and rile up, to make us feel known and make us feel small in the wake of what we cannot know.

Sabbath freedom is not the freedom to spend our time wisely.  Instead sabbath freedom is the freedom to live large. To live large on the sabbath day means choosing to live larger than our own rhythm. When so much of modern life is spent crafting our home, filling it with belongings and guarding it from interruption, going to church is a countercultural practice. Going to church teaches us how to craft a home in the world.’

This is what I am trying to be open to these days, instead of using the “I’m struggling” line as a door that I shut, or using the “introvert” line as permission to stay home. I turn up with my thin skin and my relentless thoughts, I turn up with the fear that I might not be able to be or do what people want. I let my guard down, a little. And like Erin Lane, I am learning to linger and I am learning to approach life’s unknowns (and the person beside me) with humility and curiosity.

This is how belonging happens. Not by waiting for permission or holding out for perfect conditions. Not by cherry-picking people just like us or nitpicking people who don’t get us. Belonging happens when we choose to give ourselves away, saying, “Take. Eat. If you’ll have me, I belong to you.”

[Erin S. Lane]

Faith in the Dark

“She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who could not make sense of things.”

[Lila, Marilynne Robinson]

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

I stood at the kitchen window recently, washing up the breakfast dishes, listening to Martyn Joseph, looking out at a familiar (gloomy and mizzley) kind of Northern Irish morning.

And I felt so at home.

Literally, figuratively.

If my husband had been about his ears would have picked up at the gravelly tones of the Welsh man.  He goes on ‘pensive alert’ when he hears me listening to Martyn Joseph.  (What is she thinking about NOW?)

The rain is a strange kind of friend, he sings.  Lost my soul in the sound of the rain again.  My strange friend.

I stood at the kitchen window, feeling at home.  Pensive.  A little melancholy, even.  And I thought that THIS is what faith feels like to me now.  And I realised that maybe it always will.

*

There is a verse in Jeremiah that reads like this in the Message:

“The light you always took for granted will go out and the world will turn black.”

The light you always took for granted.

Doesn’t that line resonate deeply with any of us who grew up careless in our certain faith, whose favourite songs were about light, about letting it shine?

I once danced in a conga line around an Eastern European university campus singing “We are marching in the light of God.”  I know, now, that a novelty dance paired with a protest song (true meaning then lost on me) wasn’t an expression of true faith, or light.  But still, it’s easy to look back and say my faith then was strong, and my pensive, rainy-day faith is not.

*

A few years ago, when my children were at their tiniest and I couldn’t find a place for my tiredness and neediness at church on a Sunday morning, I found it on a Thursday night in a Belfast pub.

We got a last minute babysitter, drove through the November dark and rain, to slip in to a gig that was half over, just in time to hear Martyn Joseph sing “are you down to your last ray of hope?”.

And I thought how hard it could feel, when you slip in to the back row of church, but how good it felt, here.

I thought how, maybe, if those were always the opening lines we heard in church, then more of us would stay.

*

In Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Jeremiah he explains how in a time when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, Jeremiah was in the middle of it all, writing it out.  He says:

“Anyone who lives in disruptive times looks for companions who have been through them earlier, wanting to know how they went through it, how they made it, what it was like.  In looking for a companion who has lived through catastrophic disruption and survived with grace, biblical people more often than not come upon Jeremiah and receive him as a true, honest, and God-revealing companion for the worst of times.”

Today Addie Zierman’s book Night Driving releases, and people are writing out their stories of faith in the dark for her synchroblog.  I first stumbled across Addie Zierman one tired morning when my youngest was a newborn and her post, Come Weary, was simply the best thing I could have read. Then I discovered she was writing about cynicism like it mattered, that she was de-constructing Christian clichés and reclaiming a faith that had been oversimplified.  From then on I read everything she wrote. For me, reading Addie provides company, breathing space and a way forward in this faith journey.

Addie says that one of her least favourite things about Christian culture is how quickly we skip over the dark spaces of our stories to get to the redemption and beauty and light.  And so she is telling the truth about her own darkness (most often Depression) in her new book, and holding space for others in her synchroblog.

Darkness, for me, comes from not being able to make sense of things, it comes when I think I am ‘the only one’, it comes from the world outside our stained glass windows, and, some days, it just comes from the ‘tired thirities’.

Faith in the dark, though, is a hopeful phrase to me.  It sounds right. Stubborn.  Persisting anyway – scouring sponge in hand.  It’s not a faith that dances the conga, but it’s listening and looking, and it has found companions.

When I think of faith in the dark I think of those companions.  Jeremiah, MJ, Addie, my friend Rachel.  And if the hardest thing about seeing the light you always took for granted grow dim is that you feel you are somehow letting the team down, well then the best thing is that you become the companion when others find themselves in the dark.  I am not going to be leading any revivals, but I am the girl people text when they’ve fled to the church foyer choking back tears or shaking with anger, and I think I’ve learnt that’s important, too.

 

Now the clowns and clairvoyants are aiming at true
In the babble, the rabble, I’m still headed for you
Those masters of war never did go away
And though the bleak sky is burdened I’ll pray anyway
And though irony’s drained me I’ll now try sincere
Cause whoever it was that brought me here
Will have to take me home…

Martyn Joseph

 

 

 


 

PS! These are some of my favourite posts from Addie: More Than You Can Handle, God-Shaped Hole, Anywhere, Anything: On Worship and Hyperbole, Making Your Faith Your Own, An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics and The Church & The Cynics: Some Final Thoughts.

I didn’t know

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I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. It was just the sort of film I loved – cynical, funny, sad, strangely hopeful. I loved it for its call to lead more meaningful lives.  A call shared by Fight Club and Magnolia, also 1999 films, also beloved by me.

I was 19 and I didn’t know anything about having a house or a spouse or a career or children, but I certainly wasn’t going to let those things define, or trap, me.  I rolled my eyes at Carolyn Burnham and shook my tiny fist at the system.  I felt total disbelief at the things people cared about.  I didn’t know how hard it gets not to.

There’s that scene on the couch, the one where Lester and Carolyn almost share an intimate moment until she realises he is about to pour beer on the sofa.  “This isn’t life,” he rages, “it’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.”

“IT’S JUST STUFF.” I loved that line.  That’s the one I talked about.  This is the life I ran from.  Carolyn – the uptight, highly-strung kind of woman that scared me.

16 years later I don’t have an expensive sofa, one that’s more important than sex.  But still, I didn’t know how one more spill of anything, anywhere could matter so much to me.  And I didn’t know what mundane concerns could prevent me from letting my husband seduce me.

I didn’t know I could have 2 spirited, hilarious children and find myself wondering how the **** to dilute that spirit? I didn’t know my sense of humour would fail.  I didn’t know I had it in me to feel bored and trapped and maybe a little angry.

I didn’t know.

*

My husband and I talk about some sharp-tongued, tightly-wound older women we have come across.  I think I get it now, I say.  I didn’t use to get it at all, but I think I get it now.

Imagine doing this day after day, year after year without friends who help you laugh, or writers who help you breathe, without a husband who is home much or other mums blogging truth into your kitchen.

Imagine having nobody, really, to cheer you on or change your perspective, to say “me too” or tell you it doesn’t matter.

Wouldn’t we all end up impossibly wound up by the end of it – snapping and stressing at seemingly innocuous behaviour and requests?

*

Before American Beauty there was Dead Poet’s Society.  There was Captain my Captain and standing on tables.  There were determined little idealists like me, pledging ourselves to Carpe Diem every day of our lives.

I thought, then, that the good stuff was all ‘standing on tables’ stuff.  I thought that was courage right there. I didn’t know that the good stuff is often mundane and boring and time and again.  I didn’t know that courage might look like tired chat with your husband, drying towel or iron in hand, trying to figure out how not to become sharp-tongued, tightly-wound women. (or men).

I didn’t know how long a Diem could be, or how spills and tantrums and mischief and neediness could thwart my ability to seize it.

I didn’t know how much I would need that Glennon Doyle Melton essay telling me to carpe the moments, not the whole diem.

*

I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. I was full of pseudo-profound opinions on the human condition, convinced I was a million miles away from Lester Burnham who was mad at the system, yet part of it.

I was 19 and I used to pray dramatic prayers, sometimes, apologising to God for trying to do things “in my own strength.”

I didn’t know how committed I would continue to be to my own strength, to the try-hard life, to running the well dry.

I didn’t know how much help I would continue to need as the decades turn.  I thought the meaningful, joyful life would be more intuitive.

*

Here’s what I do, what I have always done: I watch the people who live life the way I want to, the people whose sofas welcome, not oppress.  The whole-hearted, as Brené Brown would call them. The free.

I watch. I ask them questions. I pester them a bit.

I read their books and watch their TED talks and listen to their podcasts. I talk about it and write about it, and with a little less drama, I pray about it.

Eugene Peterson says he would want to be remembered in terms of the people he lived with.  Me too.  He also says we’re never past recovery.  Phew.

 

“Create in me a clean, clean heart.  Create in me a work of art.  Create in me a miracle.  Something real and something beautiful.”

[Rend Collective]

Build Your Kingdom Here: On f-bombs and worship music in the kitchen

I’m not really one for listening to worship music. I struggle enough with it in church sometimes. I like to put the tunes on when I’m clearing up the kitchen in the evening. I like beautiful and raw. I like husky men and women who drop the f-bomb with style. I like to sing along, the girls asleep and out of earshot.

The theme in church on Sunday was ‘light’ and I braced myself, as I do sometimes, for it to trigger one of my church-land-mines. I braced myself for bright and shiny, for calls to Shine for Jesus. I reached for my armour to protect my often fragile faith.

I’m not really one for listening to worship music. But, somehow, Rend Collective have worked their way into my kitchen. ‘My Lighthouse’ has played so many times recently that even my husband knows the words, no f-bombs among them.

The theme in church on Sunday was ‘light’, and that is what they played. My Lighthouse. My song. “In my wrestling and in my doubts, In my failures You won’t walk out.” And I didn’t need the armour.

*

Rend Collective have been playing in my kitchen this morning.“Build your kingdom here” they sing and I wonder about that. Here? In the kitchen? I wonder about kingdom building in this house.

This house has been a little fraught recently. Breakfast time has become unfathomably fraught and it’s hard to start each day like this. Something shifts inside me with the music in the background. Something like a prayer, build your kingdom here, reorients my insides.

It’s a long time since I have been one for the Kingdom Building songs. I think about that. If I’m honest I act like God is lucky to have me. I’m the reluctant kid at the back of the class, daring him to impress me. Isn’t it commendation enough just to have me on his team? Cynical, left-of-the-centre me, voice for the misfits, made for the margins.

Isn’t it enough that I show up, cringing, as we stand to sing Shine Jesus Shine? God doesn’t need me belting out the chorus.

Maybe not, but the verses catch me off guard. “From the shadows into your radiance”. Maybe I’m made for the margins, and that’s ok, but I think I’m tired of the shadows. I try to sing.

*

I realise, this morning, that these worship songs make most sense to me here in the kitchen, here in my current place in the world.

In church I have that tendency to think they require big, wide promises that relate to going to other places, and I’m not sure about them. Honestly , I’m not sure how to pray for our streets and land and nation, I’m not sure what I mean if I try to sing that. But while I’m figuring it out, I let the song play and replace those places, with my places – this kitchen, this house, this small family. We need healing and peace this morning. “Build your Kingdom here, change the atmosphere”. Yes. All the yes’s.

 

Church Stories

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As children most of us went to church.  Some of us were raised in non-demoninational churches.  Some of us were brought up in devout, fundamentalist families – baptist, or brethern.  Some of us grew up surrounded by catholic families with strong faith.  Several of us were daughters of pastors, or missionaries.  A few of us didn’t go to church and, later, we would feel like the rebels in our families when we did.

Some of us were from large families and went to church 3 times on a Sunday.  We remember scenes of highly stressed parents frantically “getting us out for church” – shoes polished, make-up vigorously rubbed of us by our mothers at the door.  One of us remembers the journey to church at breakneck speed in the cream Cortina – 5 disgruntled children being disciplined from the front seat.  One of us remembers being embarrassed that our family was too big for one row and when we had to sit in front we remember our mother’s knuckle boring into our backs during the prayer.

Some of us went to Mass throughout our childhood and do not remember it ever being a chore or a hassle.  One of us was collected every morning by our Granda, the two of us going to chapel by foot, then on to school.  It is a fond memory, still.

Some of us had no God in our family. One of us heard about Jesus for the first time when we were eight years old at GB, it was pure joy. Wow, we thought, this is great! To be loved, by God. It captured our imagination, and gave us something bigger to live in than just what we could see. We drank it in, we couldn’t get enough of it. We asked to go to Sunday school.

For many of us church was home. Church was safe.  People knew us and we knew them.  We felt cared for.

Some of us  went to Youth Fellowship on a Saturday night.  We sang choruses and ate at the tuck shop after the epilogue was over.  At church camps we would snog in the big brown bus to the sound of “I want to break free” on someone’s cool radio.  We prayed in the ‘quiet times’  and underlined verses in our Bible with red pen.

One of us still gets tearful remembering that Christmas we ran through the building after a carol service leaving our mess of glitter and candy canes, but then were struck by the sight of the old elder quietly vacuuming up behind us.

Many of us benefited from mentors who invested in young people, passing down their wisdom.  One of us was taken under the wing of the young adults group who let us sneak into their conversations and learn about faith and life.

One of us has never forgotten the prayers passed on by our granny. Every morning: holy Mary guide my footsteps home from school every day.  Every evening: as I lay me down to sleep I pray to God my soul to keep, but if I die before I wake I pray to God my soul to take.  One of us has never forgotten the hymns on the old Hammond organ at tent missions- ‘Just as I am’ and ‘Almost persuaded’.  We hated the damp smell and grass underfoot but loved seeing who got up to get ‘saved’ during the long appeal.

The church one of us went to is full of ordinary people who love God and love people, and keep showing up when they are tired and don’t feel like it. These people were there when we were eight years old. Singing songs, telling stories, making juice, wiping noses, listening,noticing, caring. They are still there now. They think they are nothing special. But they are saints and heroes, and we wish we could be like them.

Some of us queued double round the Ulster Hall on Saturday nights for Manifest.  We pitched our tents in Gosford in the summer.  We sang our hearts out in the mosh pit to DC Talk.  We took earnest notes with sparkly gel pen in our journals.  We wore tie-dye and Jesus Freak t-shirts and carried the weight of the world’s salvation on our determined little shoulders.

Some of us joined committees and clocked up summer trips trying to be useful for God.  A few of us tried to alter our personalities and didn’t know the damage we were doing to ourselves.  Sometimes we said things we hadn’t worked out yet, and it would all unravel later.

Some of us felt objectified at Church.  We felt one-dimensional.   We led worship and the boys made bets about who would get a date with us first.

Some of us started to realise that church wasn’t all good. We became hyper-aware of politics.  One of us fled from the sanctuary one day when the band started singing about unity.

Many of us stopped attending church in our twenties.  Some of us stopped feeling safe and felt hurt by politics that hurt our family.    We struggled to not let our experience of Christians affect our view of Christ.  Some of us didn’t feel we could fit into a certain mould and did not feel accepted by people our own age.  Some of us questioned the doctrine.  Some of us got fed up hiding our hangover on a Sunday morning.  Some of us needed to shed our Evangelical Hero Complex.

One of us carried guilt through our twenties about not attending Mass every Sunday and on holy days.  One of us carried our mother’s cautionary words ringing in our ears – not to grieve the Holy Spirit.  Many of us felt, or feel, terrible guilt.

Some of us healed in a church from not being in the spotlight.  Some of us healed in our families.  Some of us healed in the wilderness.  Some of us are still healing.

Some of us have reconciled our guilt.  The faith passed down to us was cemented in childhood.  It supports us during challenging times.  We find solace in going to the chapel when we need it.  We just sit for a few minutes.  We light candles and offer God our intentions through prayers.

Several of us feel loosely at home in a church.  We don’t go regularly. We have belief issues that prevent us from committing as members – women’s roles, social justice, equality, biblical literacy.  Christians in the country we live in can scare and frustrate us.  We have a ‘faith community’ of friends who are a lifeline in their friendship and acceptance.

A few of us have huge doubts about Christianity, but that isn’t why we haven’t gone back to church.  Somehow, we still don’t feel we can be honest in church.  We tried to be but the church people thought we were too intense and boring.

Some of us can’t escape the expectations of others.  We feel our genuine struggles are misunderstood as rebellion and selfishness.

Many of us still value church as a time and place and find a peace there.  We see value in gathering with people of different ages and stages in life with whom we are united in faith.  A few of us benefit from helpful teaching.

Some of us have no connection left, we think we probably want to go back, but we haven’t been able to face it yet.

For one of us it’s been seven years now. We feel like a tightly reeled coil, and we need time to unwind. We miss our childhood church, so much.  We miss it for our children. These days our church is a meal with friends who are as confused as we are. It’s stories about Jesus before bed. It’s praying thanks for our food, and pleading with Jesus when there is sickness, and fear, and death. It’s being amazed by the shy deers who tiptoe out of the forest behind our house. It’s learning from the bees who live in the hives in our garden, they work hard and they work together, and they dance when they find good food! It’s asking questions, and accepting we will never have an answer. It’s loving people , listening to them, seeing them freely without trying to push an agenda. We know it isn’t enough, and we hope that someday we will come to the other side of this desert, but it is like this for now.

One of us is going to a church that has been studying Revelation. We wonder if this is a good idea.  But the churches of revelation give us room to breathe. Talk about ‘church stories’. We hear a quote from Eugene Peterson describing the churches of revelation as messy family rooms and pointing out that St. John does not apologise. “Things are out of order, to be sure – but that is what happens to churches that are lived in. They are not show rooms.”

As children most of us went to church.  In our twenties most of us left.  None of us are yet in a concluded place about church.  Our thoughts are not tied-up.  Some of us are going.  Some of us are not going.  But – we are asking each other our stories, and the telling of them helps.


Thank you to everyone who shared their story with me for this post. 

Ask for the Ancient Paths

‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’

[Jeremiah 6:16]

crossroads

I can’t quite seem to swallow the lump in my throat when it comes to church. I can’t seem to sing, at the end of church, without feeling the burn of how weary I am. I stand there, not singing, heavy with disappointment in my tired, needy, letting-the-team-down-self.

This is not a criticism of the particular church I have been going to. It’s just, I tell my husband, I have to work really hard to feel like my faith matters.

***

I have been spending some time with Jeremiah’s words since I listened to this podcast (scroll down) a few months ago.

I listened to it again this morning in the quiet of my kitchen, all of it bringing rest to my weary soul. The kitchen is quiet because my daughters and husband are at Church. Truth is, in this season of life, that’s a gift to me. My husband and daughters are at Church. I am also at church – the kitchen, the quiet, the podcast. I hear that criticised, sometimes, those of us who claim church in the quiet, on our own. But this morning I heard Jeremiah say ‘Stand at the crossroads and look’, which is what I’m doing, and it may take some time.

***

I have written before how healing Adam S McHugh’s book Introverts in the Church was for me.  I bear it in mind a lot when I have All the Feelings about church. I remember that I over-think and am overly sensitive.  Reading the book has helped me understand my own reactions and given me tolerance for feeling out of place. It has also given me permission to practice Christian spirituality in ways that fit who am I – like this morning, like the kitchen.

Because I went through a ranty season, toward Church in general, I can struggle, now, to voice my discomfort. I don’t want to be critical! But I couldn’t quite swallow the lump in my throat so I decided to be honest about it, and I have started to feel like I might know which way to go.

***

I love the chapter in Philip Yancey’s book ‘What Good is God?’ about AA where he shares his friend George’s shrewd observation that while people feel uncomfortable to arrive late to church, that in AA if a person shows up late “the meeting comes to a halt and everyone jumps up to greet the latecomer, aware that their tardiness may be a sign that the addict almost didn’t make it.”

It is easy to rant about Church, I know. Church isn’t about finding our ‘perfect fit’ and it does our souls no good to pick and choose and rate like consumers.

Yet. Some of us almost don’t make it. And when we turn up, if there’s choice in the matter, shouldn’t it be somewhere we have room to breathe? And might that look different for me from how it looks for you? Might it be true that the mass of worshippers in the big church are authentic and the decisions they make as they get out of their seats for the Altar Call will change them, but at the same time, I am not called to force myself to worship there, God isn’t asking me to get into the aisle.

***

Yancey writes about how some of George’s church friends tire of his ongoing struggle. ‘Aren’t you done with that issue yet?’ they ask. And this is what George says: ‘I realise that for the rest of my life, I can go to AA meetings and nobody will ask me, “Aren’t you finished with all this talk about your alcoholism?” They will just say, “Keep coming back – glad you could make it.”

The sign at the front of the little Church we have started going to says “Welcome. We’re glad you are here” and I believe it. Who knows why my soul finds more rest here than somewhere else? Maybe it’s the ways in which it (ironically) reminds me of the church I grew up in, maybe it’s the old wooden pews, maybe it’s the winding country roads, maybe it’s the trees. Maybe it’s the people who notice us and the minister who sits in our living room and tells us his own story.

***

I love these words from Galations in the Message: “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”

I think about that a lot. I’m going to think about it more this year. Making a careful exploration of who we are is important. Doing the creative best we can with our lives is important. (These verses are like a biblical recommendation for Myers-Briggs!)

This year I’m trying to take more responsibility for being an INFJ and explore how that impacts my life at the intersections of motherhood, work and faith. I think the creative best can apply to where we worship, too… that exploring who we are also relates to church and allows for differences between us. And let’s not miss this: Don’t compare yourself with others.

***

I started this blog-post many Sunday mornings ago.

After standing at the ‘crossroads’ for some time we started heading for the country roads and sitting on the wooden pews.

Do you remember that old Jewel song we used to love? Life Uncommon? My daddy had it taped repeatedly on an old cassette and we used to belt it out together in the car. Now he has it on his iPhone and every time I’m at the old homestead I hear it floating down the stairs:

“Lend your voices only to sounds of freedom, No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from”.  

To be fair, dad drowns Jewel out and I feel, always, he’s singing it for me.

Stand at the crossroads and look.

Do not compare yourself to others.

Honour the lump in your throat.

No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Find your mega church or your country church or your podcast or your support group. Sink yourself into it. Find rest for your souls.