Embraced: Why I Love My Church

Reading Time: 2 minutes

 

It was another busy week after follow-up doctor’s visits, an MRI, and another biopsy, not to mention the regular hectic swing of life. I had come to our Bible study group to unwind and laugh with folks—oh, and to do a Bible study, too (we are definitely talkers!). Afterward, one of the members came to me clutching something furry in her arms. “Here you go—it’s a prayer shawl. It’s to put around your shoulders when you pray. Merry made this one for you.” I was so overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift, both for the time it took to make it, and the thoughtful spirit it with which it was made.

 

It is one of the most lovely things I have ever touched—light as a whisper, yet warm and snuggly. The colors are earth tones and muted grays; colors of earth, sand, stone. On the ends are silky tassles that twirl lightly around my fingers. It is a perfect size, as it can be a lap blanket, or it can drape across my shoulders, as it was originally intended. Even when I am not wearing it, I like to sit beside it and rest my hand on it, rubbing its softly between my fingers, or stroking it with my hand. I am unable to put into coherent words the comfort this beautiful shawl represents for me.

 

When I wrap it around me, it is dense, yet not heavy, as if someone were gently putting an arm around my shoulders. Many church members have already done this for me. Every week, they smile at me, and they reach out their arms and clasp me firmly. Several women whom I know, but not especially closely, have sought me out to encourage me. They take my hands and look me straight in the eye and say, “I had breast cancer, and I am just fine. You will be, too.” I receive cards in the mail that are humorous to make me laugh, or are sentimental and make me teary. I receive e-mails and phone calls from church members, volunteering to help me and my family in whatever way we need.

 

Believe me, I already know how generous my church family is. When my husband had colon cancer in 2010, they were there for us in every possible way. There were days where I thought, “I have nothing for dinner, and I am exhausted,” and someone would suddenly knock on my door with a meal. These people can walk through Sheol with you, and let me tell you—they are not afraid, and they thrive on bolstering folks up during a crisis.

 

Perhaps when going through personal difficulties, people who don’t go to church are able to find support and community in other ways. All I know is that I have two families: the one that I am physically related to, and the one that I am spiritually related to. Every morning when I breathe my first breath, I say a prayer of thanks for both of my families, and the fact that they continue to wrap me in their sweet embrace.

Philippians 1: 3-6 [NIV]

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

 

Continue Reading

Remembering Audrey

Reading Time: 3 minutes

 

While perusing our church’s library, I found a compilation of daily devotions by C. S. Lewis. Called A Year With C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), the book features snippets from some of Lewis’s most famous works, including Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, and others. Also included at the bottom of some of the entries is a fact about Lewis’s life. For example, at the bottom of p. 87 on the devotion for 19 March, this phrase appears: “1956: The Last Battle (the final volume of The Chronicles of Narnia) is published by The Bodley Head, London.” It is an interesting way to both read some of Lewis’s most famous “quotable quotes” while also seeing a sort of time-line of his life.

I admire C. S. Lewis’s work so much, and felt I could use a healthy dose of his no-nonsense approach to God. With every paragraph I read, I have to pause, re-read it, and shake my head in astonishment. I cannot imagine having a mind like C. S. Lewis. He can break down intangible Christian theological concepts into simple, relatable ideas like no one else. Take the “mystical limpet” analogy (I know, I know, bear with me here). This is the idea that a limpet (a type of marine snail or mollusk) could never hope to understand or describe to another limpet what a man looks like. A limpet relates only to what a limpet can see and understand; so, to describe a man, a limpet must describe what a man is not. Lewis’s point is that we often run into the same problem as humans. We try to determine who, what, and how God is and are usually led astray by our limited viewpoint (a brilliant analogy to my “limpet-like” brain).

As I continued reading the devotions, I noticed some underlining, writing, and check marks doodled here and there. Someone else had read this book and wanted to highlight some of the memorable ideas; this was a donated book from someone’s personal library. Intrigued, I looked in the front cover, and noticed the name written in a bold hand: Audrey Sprenger, July ’06. I froze. I did not know Audrey that well, but I did know that she had had cancer, too. I decided to take it home take note of some of the other passages that had appealed to her. Two were particularly compelling.

The first is under the heading “Blurry Visions of God” from Mere Christianity (p. 16). The under-lining is Audrey’s.

“When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others—not because He has favorites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”

The idea here is being open and receptive, and to set oneself up for listening. This requires raising our antennae and waiting. It requires sitting down and quieting the voices, activities, and thoughts that are always vying for our attention. It is a “condition,” as Lewis says—a state of being. God won’t throw a ball at us if we aren’t ready to catch it.

The second passage is also from Mere Christianity, and appears on p. 29 in the devotions book. Again, the underlining is Audrey’s:

“A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.”

This statement to me is a deep, bone-warming truth. It is the idea of a tiny spark of a “Christ-life” burning inside me that gives me strength to persevere. And, yes, sometimes, getting through a difficult time in life feels like a “voluntary death,” but one that we do because we must, and because we trust our source of energy will be further strengthened—and encouraged—by adversity.

Though I didn’t know Audrey that well, I do remember speaking to her daughter many times, especially when Audrey was in the last part of her illness. I feel that it was not happenstance that I found this book right when I needed it, and I want to believe that Audrey was re-reading it with me, pointing to the really good parts.

 

Psalm 139 [NIV, from Bible Hub]

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

You have searched me, Lord,

 and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

 you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

4

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

5

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

6

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

 

 

 

 

Continue Reading

Weeds

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Finally, an achingly gorgeous day outside….the sky, a crisp blue with snowy clouds, a gentle breeze, the smell of hyacinths in the air. I love spring-time, especially when the days get longer and longer and the sun shines high in the sky, well into the evening. More sun means more plants, too–it’s time to get the garden ready. I am not a gifted gardener, though I do enjoy having some flowers and a small vegetable garden.

 

Perhaps you’ll think I’m strange (if you don’t already), but one thing I enjoy when preparing my garden is pulling weeds. There’s something so satisfying about grabbing a weed and hearing that little pop! as it releases its hold on the earth. Reveling in the progress at the end of a long weed-pulling session is so wonderful—to finally see clear ground again that becomes a canvas for new plants.

 

Though I confess I like being the weed “puller”, I am now experiencing what it is like to be the “pullee” as well. I am realizing more and more that being a B-Flat Christian can also be synonymous with being a Comfortable Christian. I was planted here in my garden and, over the years, have pushed my roots gradually into the warm soil of safety. I have had the sunshine of good health and have been watered with blessings of family, personal success, and daily bread.

 

I am now noticing as I have been luxuriating in my soil that some weeds are beginning to be pulled from around me, and frankly, it is a scary feeling. These weeds have surrounded me and have made me feel secure. They shield me from the elements and they encircle me in their leafy comfort. Nevertheless, they are weeds. I am finding myself saying, “Wait a minute, Lord, you brought me here! I’m doing good things—the things I thought you wanted me to do! Why are you pulling up that weed? It was a nice weed! It was pretty! It was green and even had a sweet little flower!” That’s when I hear the pop! and in an instant, that weed is gone, and I am left, staring at the newly-opened spaces around me, startled, bereft, and vulnerable.

 

Now that some of those weeds are gone, however, I am noticing that I am able to stretch out the leaves of my spirit and grow into the spots that were once held by those weeds. I am growing inward and outward in ways that I am only just beginning to comprehend. Maybe the weeds were protecting me, but they may have also been sheltering me from being more than B-Flat. They may have even been hindering me, even if they were pretty and green.

 

I am learning that I am becoming tired of being secure in my B-Flat garden. Every day, God is pulling away more and more of my security, but is surrounding me by other plants—people—who are nurturing and feeding me. They are spurring me on, creating buds of inspiration I never could have imagined.

 

I have much to face in the next few weeks. Here is the truly worrisome thing: I think that though God is done with pulling for now, He may now be in the process of getting a shovel. Some of those weeds do not want to come out and a stronger tool might be used to force them to release their hold. I am ready.

 

Jeremiah 17:7-9

New International Version (NIV)

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,

whose confidence is in him.

They will be like a tree planted by the water

that sends out its roots by the stream.

It does not fear when heat comes;

its leaves are always green.

It has no worries in a year of drought

and never fails to bear fruit.”

 

 

 

 

 

Continue Reading

Endings and Beginnings

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Luke 2:

6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

 

John19:

41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 

The bookends of a life—birth, death—two states of being we humans all experience. At some point, all of us (I wish, though I know it’s not true for everyone) were lovingly placed in a crib by our parents for a nap. Later on, we will all be prepared for burial and our remains will be put in an urn or in a coffin, to be returned once again to the earth.

 

Being placed, being laid down, is not a common occurrence when we are able-bodied, healthy adults. Usually, it happens only when you are not able to do it for yourself. It is a sign of total surrender, of ultimate trust, when you are gathered up in someone else’s arms and put to rest.

 

I had the chance to be gathered and put to rest yesterday in an MRI machine. A week ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I needed an MRI to get a better look at what’s happening. The sweet nurses gently helped me lie down on the sliding bed-pad on my stomach and get situated comfortably. After putting in an IV line and strapping on my headphones (I needed some of U2’s Unforgettable Fire to give me courage through this process), my body slid into the MRI tube.

 

Not to be maudlin about it, but it was a bit like being in a tomb; a wave of claustrophobia washed over me initially, and I had to concentrate on breathing low and deeply. To help myself stay calm, I began to focus on the words of U2’s haunting ballad “Bad”:

 

Let it go

This desperation

Dislocation

Separation, condemnation

Revelation in temptation

Isolation, desolation

Let it go

And so fade away

To let it go

And so fade away

I’m wide awake

Wide awake

I’m not sleeping

Oh, no, no, no.

 

Other than my arms falling asleep, my panic was manageable and I was able to stay centered and relaxed through that exceedingly long half hour. When it was over, the nurses came back in and, taking my arms, gently helped me sit up. They were wonderful. It is incredibly sobering to be at someone else’s mercy and in their care.

 

This is the first step in my journey with breast cancer. I know that sounds like an overused cliché, but it is going to be a journey. I’m going to a place I’ve never been, though I have ridden on the Cancer Highway before with my husband in 2010. Can’t say I liked the ride, and probably won’t enjoy this one much, either, but my exit number came up. It’s time to go.

 

I will be honest and say I had no idea where I got the idea to begin this blog. I have never blogged before, never really read anyone else’s blogs on a regular basis. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve tried to start a diary; I’ve never been able to be consistent and follow through with it. I’ve never thought what I had to say was particularly important or memorable. I’m B-Flat, after all.

 

Now I know that God has been reading my blog, too, and even is writing it for me, in a way. He read that part where I said I was a boring, ordinary, B-Flat Christian who had a boring, ordinary, B-Flat life. I am sure He chuckled quite a bit, rubbing His hands, saying, “Hmmmmm, really? Okey dokey, let’s see how we can fix that.” I don’t mean to say He decided to “smite” me, per se; rather, I think He decided to begin a new way of life for me. God already knew I had breast cancer, and that my blog would be a way of working through my feelings about it—and about other things I’ve been thinking about, too. Sometimes beginnings have to start with a big push, and then, with lying down in submission and surrender.

 

Cancer affects millions of other B-Flat people. I look forward to hearing their Cancer Journeys and determining what it is I’m supposed to absorb from this. I am going to try to allow myself to be gathered up, drawn in, hugged tightly, and trust that I will be laid down where I can rest and learn.

 

 

Continue Reading

A Walk In the Dark

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This morning, I was awakened at 5:15am by the voice of a determined little bird. His tiny voice pierced the darkness outside my window, throbbing with joy as he tried to appeal to his brethren birds to join his operatic solo. I sighed as I lay there in bed, slowly unfurling the activities of the upcoming day, hoping to fall back asleep. My mind continued to wander, no matter how much I tried to settle down. Eventually, I started thinking about the Holy week to come, with its busy rehearsals and preparations for our church services on Thursday, Friday, and finally, Sunday. So much to do.

 

I finally got up, lifted the shade, and peeped out the window. I couldn’t see my little bird, but I could hear some other birds adding their lusty voices to the chorus outside in the darkness. As I looked out in the yard still draped in stars and shadows, I began to think about how bleak it would have been when Mary Magdalene picked her way through the darkness on her way to visit Jesus’s tomb. Perhaps it was a morning just like this.

 

The gospels differ in their account of who was walking with Mary to share in the agonizing process of anointing Jesus’s body, but to me, it doesn’t really matter; it was a group of devoted followers, and they were women, not one of the disciples. Hope was not even remotely on the horizon for Mary Magdalene and these other women; hope had died with Jesus. They weren’t even sure if they’d be able to get into the tomb in the first place since the tomb was to have been sealed, both by a large stone, and by the Emperor’s seal (you can see pictures of tombs and how they were sealed in this manner through the wonders of google).

 

My guess is, these B-flat women had no idea how it was going to happen, but they were going to do everything in their power to do what needed to be done. They had no game plan about how that stone was going to be moved, or how to get past any guards who might be stationed there keeping watch. Still, no matter how tired, no matter how frightened, no matter how desolate they were, they were going to anoint Jesus’s body, not just because it was following Jewish law, but because they were determined. They desperately longed to return some small ounce of dignity to one who had suffered and died in an unthinkably brutal way. Additionally, preparing his body might aid in accepting the irrevocable fact that Jesus was indeed dead. When they arrive, however, the open tomb awaits them, and the resurrection story begins. It begins with angels dressed in white, with linen that no longer clings to a dead body, and with the joyous shouts of women.

 

I had never thought of this on a deeper level until after reading Lee Strobel’s The Case for Easter recently in my church’s book study group. In it, Strobel uses his skills as a journalist and editor for the Chicago Tribune to determine if the resurrection could possibly be proven based on facts and evidence. In an interview, renowned theologian, William Lane Craig, asserts that one of the key points proving the authenticity of the resurrection is that the gospel writers report openly that women found the empty tomb.

 

“Any later legendary account would have certainly portrayed male disciples as discovering the tomb—Peter or John, for example. The fact that women are the first witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly explained by the reality that—like it or not—they were the discoverers of the empty tomb! This shows that the gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened, even if it was embarrassing. This bespeaks the historicity of this tradition rather than its legendary status.” (p. 50)

 

What is humorous, and annoying, I suppose, is that immediately after the women rush back to explain what they had seen, the disciples don’t believe them, according to Luke 24:11. I understand why they wouldn’t; everyone had seen Jesus’s very public trial, torture, and death. It’s no surprise that the women would be viewed as being hysterical and maybe even a little nuts. Angels? An unsealed and empty tomb? Jesus walking and talking? To even remotely acknowledge such claims could bring much unwanted attention to the disciples and might even warrant some Roman guards dropping by for a fairly uncomfortable little “chat.” This news needed to be kept quiet; these women needed to keep their mouths shut.

 

I think it is troubling that some women’s voices continue to be ignored or silenced all together in some churches even now. I was reminded recently of a friend of mine, Cheryl, who was a pastor in my home church. After she attended seminary, she was ready to be ordained to begin her pastoral career. The church Cheryl had grown up in, who had fostered her burgeoning belief, who had inspired her call to seek a career in the church, refused to ordain her, simply because she was a woman. In their minds, it was not “biblical” that women serve in church leadership roles.

 

When viewing the facts of the resurrection, however, I simply don’t see how one can draw this conclusion. In all the gospel accounts, women were there. Women, too, were constantly in the company of Jesus and the disciples. From all accounts, Jesus treated women (and many people considered to be unclean or unworthy according to Jewish law) with respect that was uncharacteristic for most males of the time. While the disciples certainly began the process of disseminating Christianity into the world at large, other women are mentioned in the Bible as having taken leadership roles in the early church as well (such as Priscilla, who is mentioned several times by Paul).

 

I have no doubt that one of the main goals of Jesus’s ministry was to include everyone in sharing in God’s loving plan, and that meant that everyone had a shot, no exclusions. Over and over, Jesus warns of how Samaritans, poor widows, and even little children are just as worthy of a place at God’s table—maybe even more so—than the strict keepers of the law. Later on, even Gentiles took their rightful place in proclaiming the good news and furthering the mission.

 

And remember, that city of debauchery and hedonism, whose leaders put Jesus to death—ROME—is now the very heart of the Catholic Church. Who could ever have imagined THAT on the first Easter? Certainly not Caesar, and certainly not the disciples.

 

Let us all take that walk with Mary Magdalene, a lowly but fierce B-Flat woman, at 5:15am on that Easter morning. Let us be astonished, whispering “Rabboni!” in total shock; and with sudden awareness, believe.

 

 

Continue Reading

I HAVE A MOSQUE IN MY BACKYARD

    I have a mosque in my backyard.

    Not an imposing, be-domed stone edifice with spindly minarets—it actually looks like a small, utilitarian, B-Flat type of building. If you didn’t know it was a mosque, you might think it was someone’s home or a private office of some type.

    You can imagine the sidelong looks I get when I say that I have a mosque in my backyard. You can perhaps also imagine the interesting comments and questions, too.

“REALLY? Creepy.”

 

“Isn’t that weird?”

 

“How did they manage to get that past zoning requirements?”

 

“Are you going to move?”

    I tell everyone that is it not “creepy” at all, as the people I’ve met have been quite friendly. To be honest, I’d rather have a mosque in my backyard than any other type of business, like a Turkey Hill or Target. Every Friday, the streets around the mosque fill with cars as the people gather for prayer. Some wear casual clothing while others wear more traditional clothing, such as long robes and hijabs. Saturdays must be youth group day, as the open yard fills with kids shouting joyfully as they play soccer or chase a Frisbee. Their parents join in the game, or sit and watch, chatting in the afternoon sun. It is like any other gathering of folks enjoying a beautiful afternoon of fellowship.

    Ramadan is coming soon in May, and the mosque becomes an even more active gathering place in the evening. One night, my daughter called me in her room shortly after I’d turned out the light. “Mom, what is that “mooing” sound I hear?” I stopped and listened, then opened her window. Floating on the warm breeze came a low, humming murmur from the mosque, not unlike the gently lowing of a cow.

    I smiled. “It’s the mosque. The people are worshipping tonight. Should I close the window?”

    “No, leave it open for a while. Sometimes it keeps me up, but I like the sound.”

    I like it, too. I will say one night around midnight, again during Ramadan, I was awakened by loud yelling out in front of the mosque. It looked as if people were in the parking lot, talking and joking with each other at their cars after the worship service. Children were cavorting in the alleyway, and I had a hard time getting back to sleep.

    I was grumpy about this, and mentioned it to my husband the next morning. The next day, my husband went over to the mosque and talked to the imam, saying that we didn’t want to complain, but that it had been quite noisy the previous night. The imam was extremely apologetic and assured us it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t. I think they know they are in a precarious position in our current tense political climate and don’t want to disrupt anyone in our neighborhood. They knew any little infraction could bring them much unwanted attention.

    This makes me sad, and makes me question the carte blanche we receive as Christians in small-town America. For example, my own church is two blocks away from me (and therefore, from the mosque). Our church has had many loud celebrations or gatherings outside on our grounds, yet no one in our neighborhood has complained about the noise level (at least, not to my knowledge). We are allowed to be outside freely, playing loud music, shooting basketball, riding bikes, barbecuing, and creating a general raucous without worrying if our neighborhood community might get offended and call the police on us. The difference is that we’re not Muslims; we’re Presbyterians. We get extra grace.

    As a B-Flat Christian, I want to try to be a grace-giving neighbor to my Muslim neighbors. I want to be empathetic to their situation and imagine how intimidating it would be to be the only Muslim place of worship in an area surrounded by a myriad of Christian churches. I want them to know that they are welcome to worship in peace, and I will do my best to assure others in our neighborhood that it is our duty to “3 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews, NIV). That’s the funny thing about angels—you never know if they might be wearing a crucifix or a hijab.

    Some day, we may indeed move, but I can assure you, it won’t be because there is a mosque in my backyard.

Continue Reading

The B-Flat Shepherd Boy Who Would Be King

 

Reading Time: 2 minutes

A few weeks ago, I was deeply moved by the lectionary reading from I Samuel 16:1-13. It recounts the story of the prophet Samuel and his search for a new king for Israel. It is such an interesting story in that Samuel has been sent by the Lord knowing just about everything necessary for the task: where to go (to the house of a well-off sheep-herder, Jesse, in Bethlehem), what to take (a heifer for a sacrifice, and a horn full of oil for the anointee), and what to say (“I come in peace to sacrifice for the Lord”). What was missing? The Lord hadn’t happened to mention exactly whom the lucky anointee was going to be. Turns out, it was going to be a B-Flat shepherd boy named David.

 

[My sisters and family should skip this next part. I’d really like to get Christmas gifts next year, and you might have second thoughts if you read it. Ahem.]

 

I can relate to David a bit in that I’m the youngest of four daughters. Being the youngest certainly has its advantages—your parents have already dealt with the drama of three other girls, so they’re exhausted and pliant by the time they get to you (kidding). Furthermore, you’ve watched all your older siblings, seen the stupid mistakes they’ve made, and resolved to be not more obedient per se, but smarter than they were (not really kidding here). I have no doubt that’s how David was. He knew he was the youngest son of seven and had to make his own way in the world without the help of an inheritance. He was, nevertheless, a faithful son, and was determined to learn the family business by keeping the flocks like all his brothers had before him.

 

As the youngest child, it can be a little lonely, too; you are forever known as “the baby,” and often, you play by yourself because you are too little to participate in the games of older siblings. I was four years younger than my next oldest sister, and nine years younger than my oldest sister. I learned to entertain myself, and I’m sure David did, too. When you’re a shepherd camping out in the wilderness for days at a time, you must learn not only to entertain yourself, but to be responsible for others who are utterly dependent upon your intelligence and skill. Shepherding is hard, smelly, dangerous work, especially for a young boy like David. David would, by most standards of the day, be the absolute, last choice considered for king.

 

The Bible story is engaging and quite “Cinderalla-esque” in nature, in that Jesse parades each one of his fine older sons before Samuel, each one certain to win the Lord’s favor and to be anointed as the next king of Israel. It is verse 7 that is so compelling here:

 

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (NRSV)

 

In other words, verse 7 says: “Someone who has the physical characteristics of being a strong leader may not have the yielding spirit needed for My work. Yet, someone who looks young and inexperienced (maybe even someone considered to be “B-Flat”) might have the resilience and willingness to do the job better. ” While confidence is an attractive trait, it can trick us into a false sense of thinking we are as smart as God is. Samuel certainly thought he could predict God’s choice, and was astonished to find himself anointing the handsome yet seemingly unremarkable B-Flat son, David, instead.

 

I fervently believe that God has an ingenious sense of humor. God is utterly predictable in that He is totally unpredictable, which is how He likes it. He is the God, after all, whose Son was born in a stable. He is also the God who watched that same Son die on the cross. No one could have predicted that choice.

 

As a B-Flat Christian, I want to be astonished and overwhelmed by the things I cannot possibly imagine or predict that God will do. As Gerard W. Hughes states in his book, The God of Surprises, “Because we are all liable to self-deception and tend to use God and Christ to justify and support our own narrow ways of thinking and acting, we need the institutional and the critical elements of the Church as a check to our self-deception, but ultimately it is Christ himself who is our teacher. Christ is a mystery. We can never possess the truth of Christ: all we can do is beg to be possessed by him, his truth and his love ‘which is beyond all knowledge.'” (p. 110)

https://www.facebook.com/beck.lister.9

 

 

Continue Reading

Being more than B-Flat Through Christ, Connection, and Correction

 

Reading Time:  2 minutes

In previous posts, I’ve shared that I need Jesus Christ as my DIY video to guide my way; that I need Connection with others who are sharing in these struggles with me; and finally, I need Correction.

From Matthew:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I can feel my chest and throat constrict when I read those verses because I know they are about and for me. It doesn’t matter that Jesus spoke them centuries ago. Jesus is looking straight at me as he says them, with that “don’t you get it?” look, and I am ashamed. Reading the Bible does that; some passages pluck a chord deep within, and this is one of them for me. I need to read this passage every day to remind me why I am attempting to be a Christian, not just a “good person of moral fiber.” As a Christian, I am supposed to be more loving, forgiving, and uplifting than those who aren’t. It is natural for us to love the people who love us in return—that’s easy! No, this passage is more about judging who is worthy of my love and forgiveness, and Jesus says here “EVERYONE.” He doesn’t say under his breath “but not that rapist over there, ” or “but not that person who says rude things to you,” or “but not that person who just gave you the middle finger.” If he really meant what he said, he means even people who, in my mind, are undeserving.

This, my friends, is an incredibly sobering thought, and this is my daily struggle: that I do not get to decide who is worthy or deserving. For me, it is my greatest weakness, because I like to think I know who does warrant grace. Every day, I have to claw my way back up that slippery slope of forgiveness and take a hard look at the embarrassing part of me who wouldn’t mind pushing someone else down that slope, instead of reaching out my hand in forgiveness. I’d rather watch them tumble to the bottom, saying with a self-satisfied tone, “that’s what you get!”

That is when I turn that DIY video back on and watch Jesus heal the ear of the soldier who is there to take him to his torture and death. That is when I go to church and sit with others who are waging their own battles, and who comfort me in my own battles without even knowing it. That is when I make myself pray for those people who are nasty, mean-spirited, and hateful, because I HAVE to. They need my help, my understanding…because I’m a B-Flat Christian, but I want to be better.

Continue Reading

Why go to church? It’s about CONNECTION

Why go to church? It’s about CONNECTION

March 27, 2017

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In previous posts, I discussed how Jesus and his DIY videos in the Bible provide a life pattern for us as B-Flat Christians. This isn’t something we experience alone, however; we need to connect with others along the way.

Why go to church?

As a B-Flat Christian, it’s possible that you don’t even go to church. In fact, it’s more likely that you don’t go to church. You believe in God, you try to do the “love your neighbor as yourself” thing, you even say a blessing before you eat dinner. Isn’t that enough? Why does church matter?

According to multiple on-line articles, recent research states that most millennials don’t attend church because they feel it is irrelevant to them and not speaking to their needs (recklesslyalive.com, thesaltcollective.com, discuss this issue). As a result of this, there is a narrative that the Church is in a coma and the prognosis is that the Church isn’t going to make it. Perhaps I am clueless, but I don’t believe this, and we as B-Flat Christians should collectively dispute this narrative. I will not deny there are kernels of truth here and there, but let’s drill a bit deeper.

Below are some statements I’ve heard or read lately about why Church is losing membership today. I’ve added some thoughts to “ponder in your heart,” as Mary did after the whirlwind of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:19). I love that word—ponder—because it suggests more than just thinking about something. It indicates a fond, intimate look at something, holding it up to the light, looking at it from all angles, again and again.

1) You can go to church by watching TV on Sunday morning, or even by listening to gospel on the radio (according to Maren Morris, anyway), right? Church can be anywhere you happen to be, and frankly, anywhere is pretty much where you’d rather be.

PONDER THIS:

You can think you’re going to church by watching TV, listening to a podcast, listening to the radio, whatever, but it’s not church.

So if Jesus is our DIY model, then why didn’t He just do it all on his own? He could have, you know—God can do anything. Instead, Jesus found others to help him, and without those others, the New Law of the Gospel wouldn’t have gotten very far.

Church is about community, which means it’s about being with others. It’s about sharing thoughts, burdens, dreams, sorrows. You can’t share these things with an inanimate object—a TV, a computer screen, an iPod. Writing a comment on someone’s Facebook feed is not a conversation.

I’m not saying watching a religious show isn’t a fine thing to do, but it should not replace walking with others, making discoveries together, and being a source of hope for your community by lifting up the poor and disadvantaged.

Church is about time, a very precious commodity, and is another reason why many B-Flat Christians don’t feel like going to church. If you are allergic to committees, then don’t serve on one. If you don’t want to be responsible for Sunday School, or provide flowers for the altar, or be an usher, tithing, or any of the other duties you equate with “going to church,” fine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “I want to go to church, but don’t make me do anything.” Okay. If that’s what you can handle, then do it. I cannot imagine you will not absorb something your soul needs on the days you do go to church.

2) There are a lot of things to get done on Sundays. Your kids probably have soccer practice; the house is a wreck and needs cleaning; and it’s the only day you have time to go see a movie. Why waste it going to church?

PONDER THIS:

Most churches have many choices of when you go to church, and often, will include more than one service on a Sunday.  Some churches offer services throughout the week, so you can take advantage of one of those, can’t you? And if a formal church service isn’t what you’re after, then find a Bible Study, or small group, to be part of. Small groups often do other things outside of the meeting time. Others need to hear you, to get to know you, and in our society today, it’s CRUCIAL that people continue trying to find ways to come together and just talk.

 3) Why go to church and force yourself to listen to what a bad person you are? All that confession stuff—what is that really about? Your self-esteem takes a beating every day as it is, whether it’s your kids rolling their eyes at the comment you just said that, to you, sounded quite hip; or your boss, who tells you once again that your latest project demonstrates the innovation of a toenail. On Sunday, you need to be lifted up, not told how you need to fix yourself.

 PONDER THIS:

Confession is not fun, nor is admitting the fact that you can be a jerk. You know you are. I sure am. Church provides a time for self-reflection, a thing our culture tends to do only on the surface. Not that we aren’t involved in ourselves, heavens, no—how many selfies do YOU take a day, by the way? How many times do you update your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts? How often do you count how many “likes” you have on a recent post? We can refer to ourselves as “our culture,” or “millennials,” or “Gen X-ers” or “Baby Boomers” (please take your pick, or insert something else) but WHOEVER want all things personalized.  We are so self-involved, believing that all things that are not dedicated to our own needs and self-gratification are not valuable.

Looking at yourself in the mirror isn’t really looking at yourself. You need to look in an internal mirror. If you don’t like something you see, then you need to determine how you will make it right. Whether it’s praying, apologizing to someone for something you’ve said or done, whatever, self-reflection and bringing about change in yourself is part of confession. We don’t tend to do this much on our own at home or at work; if you do it at church, you feel more accountable some how. It becomes a shared experience, too, where everyone is confessing together, as one united voice. There is undeniable power in hearing a group of voices in a chorus, whether it’s confessing short-comings, reading the Psalms, praying, or reciting the Creed.

Yes, Christians can be hypocrites.  News flash: Christians are not perfect and have tons of short-comings.  You are also a hypocrite, about things you probably do not even realize.  It is still not a reason to deny that church could be a place to help you discover, and even improve things about yourself

4) And then there’s the music. If you go to church, you’ll have to listen to those stuffy hymns like “Bringing In the Sheaves” (insert “obnoxious contemporary Christian music,” or “dumb liturgical chant stuff that you don’t know” as needed instead). The choir is less than stellar, and the organist spends half of his time trying to sound like “The Phantom of the Opera” or something.

PONDER THIS:

This is a centuries old argument, but the fact is that music is still being used in creative ways to enhance worship, no matter what type. Perhaps the number one thing that churches argue about is what type of music should be in the service. My own church has had this discussion for years, and while we now have a contemporary service, there are still some residual negative feelings about it.

As a young sophomore in college, I had to take Music History for two semesters. I was astonished to discover that this disagreement about music has gone on for literally CENTURIES. During the Renaissance, the musical aesthetic was balance, symmetry, predictable and resolved dissonances, and utter beauty. Palestrina is probably the composer who personified this style. Cut to the 1600’s, and suddenly, you hear a totally new aesthetic in the concert hall—monody (a single voice accompanied by a chordal instrument), stile recitativo (having the emotional expression of the text be the main point of focus in all musical compositions) and opera (telling stories through music using monody and stile recitativo together). Claudio Monteverdi, one of the most cutting-edge and monolithic composers of this time, composed amazing pieces that utilized liturgical texts, and portions of the Mass, but in a way like no one had heard before, because he also composed operas. It seems natural that some of that new secular style would begin bleeding into his new sacred style.

Guess what? People hated it. They said, “Wait, that’s what we hear at the opera during the week, not what we’re supposed to hear in church. This Monteverdi guy breaks all of the rules of what appropriate music to worship the Lord is supposed to be like.” Sound familiar?

I feel very strongly that music is a personal expression, and therefore, is experienced by each person differently. To account for this difference, Church needs to provide a variety of styles that will appeal to the congregation. Congregations must understand that the Holy Spirit speaks to everyone, and how the Spirit speaks to you is not how it speaks to me. That is really OK. It must be OK. We must stop making value judgments about music—calling it “good” or “bad”—because it does not help unite us, does not further our cause, and basically, is unnecessary.

5) Why go to church when all there are is old people anyway? You need to go to a church where there are youth, young adults, children. You don’t have anything in common with old people, and everyone says churches who have no young people are dying. If you don’t see any youth in the church, you should turn right around and walk back out.

 PONDER THIS:

I think we all realize that the hair in our congregations looks grayer than it used to. Most people would admit that older folks were brought up to go to church on a more regular basis than those in subsequent generations.  Going to church is more habitual, as a result, for older folks. Now, explain to me, why is that a bad thing? Why do millennials (or 80’s people like me, or Gen X-ers, or whomever) think that going to church with old people is uncool? I know, church should be full of people from all walks of life and all ages, but if my church has more older folks, when did that become a bad thing? When did going to church with people who “look just like me” become the desired norm?

The way our culture treats the older generation is, in my opinion, pretty awful. Often, people don’t live near their grandparents and don’t have a strong relationship with them. The new “thing” for older folks is to go live together in retirement communities, away from young people, away from children. Worse yet, when old folks become infirm, they go into nursing homes, “the last bus-stop before glory.”   This separation of old people from the rest of society is alarming to me.

I feel Church provides a wonderful opportunity for young people to mix with and get to know older folks. My children have “adopted” some of our older church members as second grandparents, as my parents don’t live close by. My daughter in particular loves to make her Sunday morning rounds in church, hugging tons of older folks who look forward to her hugs every week. If we went to a mega-church full of screaming youth, I can’t imagine how she would feel comfortable doing that. For our family, it works.

Furthermore, my church provides numerous social activities for our older folks. Frankly, many of the older folks in my church put me to shame with the amount of community organizing they do through my church, whether it’s making quilts for newborn babies, providing a free noon meal for the homeless on Saturdays, or just getting together to go see a musical show. Our older folks are active, and what’s more, they’re retired. They’re hungry to get out and do things, and have no plans to slow down any time soon. I am speechless and awed by these folks and can only hope to be as active as they are now. We younger generations have a ton to learn from these wise, gracious, and funny people.  Church is a great place to do this.

6) Of course, the worst is the pastor. This guy sounds like Ben Stine on downers. He’s intelligent, but good heavens, it is so dull sitting there listening to stories about prophets and people who died centuries ago. Half of that stuff seems irrelevant to us in the twenty-first century.

 PONDER THIS:

A pastor’s vision and leadership for the congregation is, admittedly, important, yet it is not of sole importance. Our church went through a period of around three years where we didn’t have a consistent pastor. Our pastor had become gravely ill, and while he was getting medical help, we had a series of guest pastors. When that pastor decided to not return to our church, we had an interim pastor, and then began the difficult process of finding a new pastor. While we did lose some members, we somehow weathered this time and made it through.

I will admit, I was angry at those who left our church at the time. To me, it was like giving up on a marriage—you don’t just leave, you try to stay and make it better. I realize those people had to leave, and I can only hope they found a church elsewhere. We now have a wonderful pastor who is trying to guide us to what we are supposed to do in our community.

While having a pastor again is encouraging, I feel the pastor should not BE the church; it is the members who compose the body of Christ. No one person does that. A pastor is a shepherd (from the Latin “pastor”), a person who looks out for the sheep and leads them to where they need to sleep, eat, and be safe. The thing to keep in mind is that the sheep will exist without the pastor; so, a pastor should not be synonymous with the Church. A pastor’s sermons should be inspiring, but sermons aren’t what a church is about, either. Church must be more than that—it needs to be what happens on Sunday, but also what happens outside of the sanctuary. Church must happen in, and abide in, people.  Hearing the stories of how the people in the Bible handled their relationships with God really can inform our own relationships with Him today.

Which brings us back full circle to—WHY go to Church? Because Church isn’t a place you go to—it is people. Church is you. Church is your friend; church is also that person you disagree with (otherwise known as your enemy, whom you are supposed to pray for and let slap your other cheek, by the way).

While I feel Church needs to make some radical changes in order to stay relevant, I will also add that if millennials (again, insert here whatever generation you are part of) want to blame their absence on the church itself, they can do that, but that’s too easy. “They just don’t understand me in Church” is a cop out. I do not mean to sound like I am denying the Church has much to occupy it in this difficult time of transition. It is just that I’m tired of hearing about how people feel that church doesn’t cater to a certain generation’s mentality. If you feel that, then you are not going to the church that suits you. Find one that does. Even better, find out ways to change your church to make it suit the population that attends it; but giving up and blaming the church—All Churches–is unfair.

Continue Reading

Christ–the Best DIY Video Ever

Reading Time: 2 minutes 

 I relate better to concrete examples when trying to understand a concept. I think most people would admit they do, too.

For example, Youtube has revolutionized our lives and helped us acquire all types of new skills, from learning to play guitar to knitting a sweater. Watching someone else do a skill makes it much easier to grasp, because we are seeing everything come together on the screen rather than just reading about it or following an instruction manual (most of which are on-line these days anyway).

So, in my mind, Jesus was the greatest Youtube DIY video ever,  come to life. I think it was God’s way of saying, “That’s it, no more talking about the Ten Commandments—it’s time to show them what I mean when I say I love them and that they must love each other. They worry about the stupidest things—not working on the Sabbath, what not to eat, what not to wear, whom they should include or exclude….I need to speak to them directly, to really live with them and get to know them on their level, and get them to know Me. I need to SHOW them.”

So, He did. If you ever want to get a Cliff’s Notes version of Jesus’s belief system, just read the Beatitudes (Matthew 5, NRSV).

1When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For a fun spin on things, I thought I’d make an American version of how some successful people might  think the Beatitudes should look for us today in our country:

[Disclaimer: I know I’m not the first blogger to make a list like this—just google “anti-Beatitudes” and see what you find. ]

–Blessed are those who work really hard, for they will be known as “successful” and make a ton of money.

–Blessed are the powerful, for they will kick everyone’s butts who are weaker than they are.

–Blessed on the driven, for they will definitely come first in all things.

–Blessed are the happy, for they followed the rules and earned all the good things they deserved.

–Blessed are the busy, for they will get so much done every day and gain the recognition they crave.

–Blessed are the Americans, for they deserve everything they want at any cost, because we’re “the good guys.”

Luckily, instead, Jesus’s version preaches to the struggles of the every day person—the B-Flat Jew of that time. Those words are still appealing to us in this century, because they are words and situations to which we can all relate. At some time in our lives, all of us have felt poor in spirit and meek, and are thirsting for righteousness. We are starving for peace and mercy, and yet, we know in the deepest chambers of our hearts that we are not peaceful or merciful to others. We still crave those things. Most people crave those things, too, Christian or not.

The Beatitudes speak to me with simplicity, encircling me in their “illogical logic.”  It is not only reading those words, but by watching Jesus live those words–in a real-life DIY video–that teaches me the complicated steps of acquiring this difficult skill called Life.

 

 

Continue Reading