When you wake up with “This is ground control to major Tom” bouncing between your ears you know it’s going to be a strange day. I made my way to the kitchen in the dark, grabbed a stein of coffee-yes, a stein…they are awesome-and analyzed why on earth this song would be my waking thought. I haven’t heard the song in years, didn’t go to sleep thinking about anything Bowie, alien or other worldly. Why, then, would something that has no connection to my waking world haunt my thoughts? I think God has a sense of humor, yes, I think that’s what it is.
I have had this post on my mind for a while and have quibbled with God about whether or not I should put it out there. There are a lot of those, but this particular one could pose a challenge that I am not sure I am up to just yet! The other thing I might add is that I had a come to Jesus moment in my car the other day-OK, so, maybe it was a crying out to Jesus moment about what in the world I should be doing. Speak. This was all that came. And with that one word an otherworldly (see what I did there??) peace came over me-I literally had no other anxiety and nothing else to say.
So, here goes-and it’s going to be a long one folks so bear with me. I do want this to be a conversation. It may offend some (for which I apologize in advance-it’s not my intent), challenge some but ultimately for me to be truthful, open and vulnerable I need to be able to trust my readers as much as I trust the motivation behind my words.
I was trying to do the math and decided it must have been about 15 years ago that I threw out, trashed and vowed never again to read a Christian book (I have since reneged that vow). I was so sick of all the self-help advice that I was trying to (unsuccessfully) model my life after. I had made myself and my family miserable in an attempt to really learn how to live a Christian life. After so many years I can honestly say that the only thing I remember about those books is the pain I suffered with each failure and the fact that James Dobson’s mom threw a girdle at him. Love that by the way. He wasn’t hurt so it’s ok.
Over the course of the years my relationship with the Lord has grown while my relationship with the church has diminished. After tossing all those books I had turned my focus to the Word, and only the word. I pursued God in new ways and He met me each time, full on and challenged my thinking, my actions and my reasoning. I wrestled with him on occasions and, at times, tried to mold Him to fit my life. The only thing I succeeded in doing was a pushing away-not in an aggressive fashion, but just enough that I was still on speaking terms with God, though I had really just let a genuine relationship lay fallow.
While pursuing my master’s degree in 2009, I worked with a great instructor who allowed me to audit a couple of seminary classes to support an independent study I had proposed (whole ‘nother topic for a whole ‘nother time). Those two classes got under my skin. Philosophy for Theology and Fundamental Apologetics…hmm, good stuff there and the kind of ‘stuff’ that challenged my mind and has left me wanting more ever since. By the way, should anyone come up with a scholarship for an older women(ahem, clearing throat sound) that would allow her to go to seminary would you put them in touch with me please?? Anyway, not only did it get under my skin, God burrowed deeper into my heart.
He is patient-thank goodness-because it took me quite a while to finally just throw my arms up, scatter all my pursuits to the winds and just let Him take over. I let it all go. Work, house, control, future, aspirations, desires, goals, dreams, hopes…you name it, I gave it up. It was really quiet in my headspace once it was all gone. The whirlwind of pursuit was over and the waiting began.
Life continued and I went through the motions so that on the surface it all looked good. On the inside there was an echo chamber hollowed out in that place where dreams use to live. If I were to say that letting go and just sitting there waiting on God was easy, I would be a bald faced liar. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. For someone who is goal oriented and project driven-and just driven in general-once you take all those things away that make them tick things can get a little nuts.
Maybe this was the beginning of a mid-life crisis-though I seriously doubt it-I think it was more of a spiritual renewal. Only, God hadn’t filled me in on the details yet so, let’s just say I had a little bit of a struggle on my hands. An I can’t sleep in the middle of the night kind of thing. An I’ve lost my mind kind of thing. A what am I going to do next kind of thing. Get the picture? Restless doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.
I am not sure when it happened, exactly, but I know that somewhere along the way there was a shift. Obviously it wasn’t a grand revelation but more like a slow turning. Coincidences (don’t really believe in them but this word captures it) or convergences began happening and I started to find potential in my surroundings again. I was beginning new conversations with God, and this time it was different. I was more fully present, more able to listen into that strange echo chamber and hear a whisper of something.
This was a years long process-the laying down, the waiting, the strain of listening deep into darkness. I confess, there were times when I thought that maybe I was done. That my one chance at purpose had passed and I was expected to resign myself to the new nothingness of my (what was visible to me) future. Grace in the waiting was a gift I struggled to accept. But, even in my deepest doubt for what was to come, there was never a moment when I felt alone or deserted; His presence was always right there like a hand resting on my shoulder.
Throughout the process I would wobble and list my way through opportunities that come along but never felt a deep draw towards any particular one. One thing I have always felt deeply was when God was telling me, or prompting me to do/not do something. I can remember distinct moments-especially in my last two career path jobs.
I can recall, almost down to the clothes I was wearing, when He made it clear I had accomplished what I was there to accomplish and that it was time to move on. The first time felt right, except for the fact that I was in the back hall walking towards my office and had just thought to myself “I could do this forever”. Wrong. The second time it was walking down a carpeted hall leading to my classroom. I loved my job. Adored my job. It was what I had always wanted to do; I had completed my degrees to get to this point, and He told me to stop. I really questioned Him this time but I listened, sort of. I lingered, continuing to teach, slogging through the adjunct junk, going to the meetings that made it appear that I was going to be offered a job until they didn’t. I lingered long enough for God to make it perfectly clear that, no, I was not to stay there. They gave the job I had custom designed to someone else (I was crushed), they took away one of my sections and I couldn’t even afford to teach (figure that one out) and there was no reason for me to stay. So I quit. I walked away from the job of my dreams.
Here is where I would like to insert that I retreated into the word, prayed relentlessly and committed more scripture to memory than ever before. I can’t do that. I didn’t go the opposite way either. There was no gnashing of teeth or blaming God. I was hurt, yes. I reeled for awhile and then faced the reality of having no job, no career and (at my age) no real hope of going into something else. The only thing I did was obey. I stopped. I waited. And, while I did question, I believed that I had done what I was supposed to do. Some of the ramifications complicated matters but if I knew His prompting to be true I had to trust that he was in control of what would come next.
During this period my first grandchild was born. To tell you how dedicated I was to building my career, I was present during the labor and home delivery of this baby, helped get them settled, went home to sleep for 3 hours and then got up, got cleaned up and showed up to an early morning meeting…early. I wanted this job badly. Maybe they sensed how badly I wanted it and used that to get what they wanted. And maybe that’s why it hurt all the more when they didn’t offer me the position. Now that I am re-reading this paragraph I am feeling that same feeling of betrayal all over again so, perhaps I am not quite over it no matter how right I know it is.
One of the positive things to come out of this was that I was now available to care for my new granddaughter in a way I wouldn’t have been able to if I had continued to work. This was, and still is, one of the best things I have ever done. To grow a relationship with that baby has been a gift beyond measure. Since then two more granddaughters have been added to the mix and I care for them as often as possible. Ask me on any given day why I sacrifice my free time when I could be doing all the other things I love to do and I will tell you that my role is an ordained one.
I heard a great sermon on the ‘low Sunday’ after Easter last year. I am lousy with names so I don’t remember who preached but it was clear he was a teacher, no, a professor because his methods taught the message in such a way that it is ingrained in me. I seldom weep in church (self preservation thing that will require a chapter or more so I’ll skip it) but I sat in that stiff, uncomfortable pew and quietly wept. He told stories of going to Israel, and of legacy. He also charged us to do one of the most important things we can do to grow the church, to grow each other and to touch the world.
I thought he would say do missions, volunteer, and donate blood-basically anything outwardly obvious. What he said was to pour ourselves into others. If we were parents-to pour ourselves and the word into our children, not the spoiling kind of pouring but the sort that grows their souls. If we were grandparents-pour ourselves into our grandchildren because we have the wisdom and influence that comes with a love separate from the authority of their parents that opens their hearts to what we can provide. Again, don’t spoil them with stuff but fill them with the stories of God’s presence in your life and God’s love for them. Teach them. Grow them. Love them. Lead them. He went on to say that the examples we provide as parents and grandparents will show them the way to live. He went so far as to say that if we didn’t quite hit the mark with our own children that our grandchildren needed us even more. This last one made me weep all over again.
I think I mentioned that I did a lot of reading to learn how to live a Christian life. I wasn’t raised in a Christian family and while I can look back and see the marks of God on my life along the way, I didn’t really get a model of how to live a biblical existence. I have always been a chronic learner. In fact, I think I would stay in school until I die if I had the opportunity. I am pretty sure I thought if I could read about being a Christian wife, mom, person in general that I would be able to figure it out and make it work. What most of these books never divulged is that if you were in any sort of a relationship, chances are it was with another human and they probably didn’t follow the same outline you did. Can you spell failure?
One of the things that I learned from the volumes and volumes of well meaning advice was that I wasn’t good enough. I followed all the ‘rules’ that were laid out, parented according to the books, did all the workbooks, made checklists and read Christian fiction, listened to Christian music so that everything was ‘as it should be’. Can you guess what happened? Here’s your first clue: my husband refused to read any of the books I would ask him to share with me. Next clue: my children didn’t respond the way the kids in the books did. Figure it out? Yup. They were human. Since I could never find a book titled “What to do if Your Family is Human” I figured it was just me. I was doing it all wrong. Then one day I looked at my stack of books and may have thrown one of them against the wall. It also may have had the word ‘boys’ in the title and I may have referenced the author earlier on in this post. We’ll leave it at that.
Over the years the trajectory of my life took me places I hadn’t anticipated. It also affected how I saw my Christian self in the world at large. The more I disengaged from Christian materials the more I engaged directly with the ‘world’ according to the label ascribed via traditional Christian channels. Oddly enough I found amazing things out there in the world. I found great art, great books, great music and-above all-great people. These were people who were inclusive even if I didn’t agree with their politics, lifestyle or taste. I could relax and be myself in the presence of sincere hospitality and fellowship. I didn’t have to find a ‘small group’ to be a part of in order to be acknowledged or accepted and the only thing that was expected of me was to be myself.
This, to me, personified the role of the church but so many of the folks I was finding a deeper connection with had eschewed the church and its trappings and, though not hostile, were negative at worst and indifferent at most. It left me wondering what is it that fosters that gap between the great folks out ‘there’ and the church ‘over there’? Some of the answers? Bias, hypocrisy, judgment, self-righteousness…hmm, sounds a bit pharisaical, no? It was hard to have real conversations about faith and its intersection with culture because so many don’t take the church seriously anymore. They see many Christians as caricatures. Their vision of ‘us’ is a saccharine sweet, praising Jesus naiveté that is so immersed in the Sallman version of Jesus, flannel board religiosity that they are spooked by real people. This bothers me.
Separate is never equal. We are called to be in the world not of it but instead of being invested in the world we isolate ourselves. We create our own world cordoned off, special, elite. We have our own language, our own music, our own writing, our own stores-because a bible bought at a Christian store will be more effective than one bought at Walmart. Truth be told I would much rather buy scripture from my local Wally world because the opportunity to share, to show, to love-percentage wise-might just be higher. It’s not wrong to support Christian stores but there is no ‘in the world’ experience there other than the fact that someone would see you going in and suspect you ‘just might be a Christian’ (my apologies to Jeff Foxworthy but I could see an entire show based on this…). That and the commercialization of Christianity becomes so painfully, heart achingly evident.
Because it is important to label or be categorized, I identify as a culturally secular Christian. This can be a sticky statement to make but is the best way I can think of to describe how I function. I frequently find God in the secular world way more than in the Christian world. I see the conversations we should be having in secular art more than in Christian art. I hear poetry and truth being spoken in secular music more than the sterilized repetition of worn out words used so often in Christian music. I hear words of calling and challenge in secular writing more so than in Christian writing. I need to be very, very careful here because I know that in saying this I will lose followers and loose criticism on my words. I am not saying that everything about Christian arts is all bad-it isn’t. There is a lot of sincere work out there and you can’t argue with sincerity-what I am arguing is that, as Christians, we are much more willing to accept a lower standard because we choose sincerity over quality in many instances. In art-all of its forms-we have told the old, old story so many times that it has become pasteurized-almost neutered and we are unable to separate the good from the bad because if it has all the right words, the right images, the right whatever- then it has to be called good. Pretty doesn’t mean better, safe doesn’t mean right.
There is a collective wailing that takes place in the secular. The images and words and music cry out for God, cry out for conversation; cry out to be seen, to be heard, to be felt and understood in a way that Christian works do not. We limp along with our endless praise on repeat and have become deaf beyond the sanctioned language of the church. The old hymns have more dynamic theology and power than their contemporary counterparts but because they lack a swayable beat we, in our infinite impatience, cannot bear to sing them. We live in times that cry out for a dirge, for a soul draining call to God in collective/catholic voice as opposed to one more verse of light hearted, feel good praise. We are called to praise but we are also called to mourn, to weep, to cry out to God-something, I believe, we have lost touch with.
What will it take to bridge the gap-to erase the us and them mentality and become ‘we’? I am a firm believer in the idea that God has dominion over all creation. Not some, all. For this to be true it means that the unpleasant, the non-believer, the dirty, the un-reached, the arts, the church, the politicians, the nations-every last nitty gritty bit of it is His. That person we find repugnant? His. The unruly child in the supermarket? His. The foul mouthed neighbor? His. The homeless? His. The (fill in the blank)? H.I.S. And, if what I believe is true then none of it is beyond redemption. Why is it so hard to see value in all that God sees value in? How do we get past being human and live into becoming Christ Like without falling into the ‘Christian’ stereotype. We have to start with looking closely at ourselves-and that is never an easy task.
I am going to be clear here-I am not above this, not even a little bit. I battle judgment daily. I look at someone who doesn’t do things the way I do and judge. I see people around me and make comparisons and pass judgment as a form of protection. I am not kind to my neighbors. I don’t invite people over the way Christ would. I don’t know scripture the way I would like to. I am afraid to speak out. Even writing this out is terrifying. I am a fallen, weak failure of a person but if God can see in me all those things I cannot I can have hope. I also believe that He has the capacity to change me-because that’s what it will take to have an impact. I don’t need to pray to make everyone else different-I need to pray that He breaks my heart so that I can see them the way he does. All of the ‘they’s’ out there aren’t the problem, I am. I need to love, without reserve or condition in order to take one step closer to the Christ like nature God would have me live out.
I’ll close with that. I acknowledge that I am the problem. I can’t seek to change others so that they fit a certain format-anymore than I could read a book to create the perfect Christian family. What I can do is make work of my heart-to pray deeply into the darkness that lurks in the edges-to rely on that otherworldly nature of God to guide me into making the right choices and then let Him do it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.