Friday, April 30, 2010

Being church

This post began back in 2008 on the day my husband and I joined the church that we are happy to now call home. As I got ready for church that morning I began reflecting on what makes a church 'good' and why we were drawn to this particular church after nearly three years of fruitless searching. I've re-written a bit, but most of my musings from that day remain consistent with what I feel today.

Photo by Brian Paff

Every Wednesday morning from early fall until the end of spring I meet in the kitchen of our church with Anne and Betty. When I arrive the countertop is loaded with the fruits of Anne's trip to Sam's Club and occasionally the grocery store as well. Giant cans of tomato sauce, packs of ground beef, fresh fruit or salad, flour, sugar, maybe some cream cheese, eggs, butter, milk...the list varies depending on the menu of the day. We pull out the roasters, each one labeled with its peculiarities: "I run cold," "I burn edges," "I have no temp control," "I work fine." Having the right roaster is essential when you are cooking for over sixty people. One edge-burned batch of scrambled eggs can be a disaster.

And so we cook; measuring, scooping, filling, testing, recalculating in our heads just how to turn a recipe for eight into a recipe for seventy. (Unless it's an online recipe...most of those magically recalculate for us.) We cook because we love to feed people and we love to see the people of the church as well as guests bonding over a good meal before meeting for our Wednesday night Growth Groups. (And when I say good, I mean GOOD; Anne is the mastermind of our operation and what she does with two ancient stoves and a few roasters is a delight to all but the pickiest of eaters.)

I feel at home in this place, surrounded by people I love, people who love me. I look forward to the time we spend cooking together and I look forward to the joy of serving the meal. (OK, lets get real, what mom doesn't want the chance to feed a bunch of people who all say "Oh this looks delicious!" and "Thank you, that was SO GOOD!" and "Can I have some more, please?") I have been a member of several other churches in my lifetime, but this one has a place in my heart that no other church has held.

There are several things that drew us to this church, things that bind us here. I believe they are some of the essentials that many people are looking for in their search for a church to call home, things that are sadly lacking in some churches. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think they are a start to what it means to really be the church, the bride of Christ.

1. I've been in churches and movements where it was subtly or not so subtly proposed that somehow we knew a truth that all of those other churches 'out there' didn't get. Being church means cutting across those lines. It means going past the rhetoric, past the talking points of your particular denomination and seeking to show the identity of Christ reflected on Earth, not as the holy 'church of those who really get it.' No one denomination, worship style, etc. has a lock on all that is true and holy and biblical. In fact, we probably all get it wrong in some places some of the time. But from the stately organs and orchestras to the drums and guitars, from four part harmony to African chant we are all expressing our worship to the same God.
Give me a church that realizes it is a part of something bigger, that we are part of the body of Christ and we aren't going to let names separate or define us anymore.

2. Being church means allowing others to question without slapping them with the label of 'doubter' or 'weaker in the faith'. It means allowing ourselves to question as well, knowing that as we search for answers we will receive both guidance and patience. As humans we are going to struggle to understand the mind of God, to understand the word He left behind for us, to understand how and why He works the way He does in the world both in the past and in the present. Didn't it always irritate you as a kid when you asked your parent a tough question and their answer was "Because I'm the parent and I said so, you don't get to ask the questions." (Well, ok, maybe you were lucky enough to have parents that let you question with freedom.) But it is frustrating to be told you shouldn't have a question because that doesn't take the question away, it just makes you feel guilty for having it. What better place to struggle with the big questions than in a church, where we can learn together? I appreciate the fact that while cooking yesterday I could chat with my pastor about my prior post regarding decision theology and my doubts about it and he didn't call me heretic or toss me out of the church. (Although that may have been because we were cooking his favorite meal and because Anne is his wife and would not be happy if he got rid of her helper.)

3. Being church means accepting people as they come to you. You shouldn't have to be a 'certain way' to belong to a church. Yes, different churches will often ultimately draw different types of people through their worship style, outreach ministries, etc. But as the body of Christ on earth it's our job to show His acceptance to everyone who walks through our doors. I don't believe cliques have any place in the body of Christ. Nothing makes it harder on a newcomer than to realize that everyone has their own little 'group' already and that they are so content with who they relate with that they don't want anyone else coming in and messing up their dynamic. We visited a few churches like that. If new people stick around for a few months and then leave you might want to take another look at how well your church is handling this. Everyone who walks through the doors should be treated as an honored guest and a friend, tattoos, dreads, three-piece suits and all.

4. Related to point 3; church shouldn't be a place of plastic perfection. Church comes with real people and real people come with hurts and baggage and some Sundays we can barely drag ourselves through the door. But we come, and there we find other people with struggles, some the same, some different, but ALL with struggles. It is in watching other people struggle that we can sometimes find grace for our own battles. How frustrating it would be for me to walk into church and feel that everyone there had it together except me, that I was the only one falling apart on the inside? I don't think I'd be back. No, we don't all walk around wearing our weaknesses on our sleeve, but there's something in the air of a church that is genuine, something we sensed when we first entered the church we are a part of now. I still struggle with trying to put on that mask of perfection, but God is gently prying it from my hands and I don't think I want it back.

There are so many other points I could make, but ultimately I like the way the vision statement for our church lays it out:


Go out and be church. Be house-church, small church, big church, mega church. Just find some way to actually BE the body of Christ.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Faith of a child

For his eighth birthday he wants a heart shaped cake with white frosting and "I Love God" written on it in red letters. He wanted red frosting, but I put my foot down when it comes to red food dye in large quantities. So we compromised with the white frosting and red letters. The "I Love God" was not negotiable.

Why did he decide that's what he wanted on his cake? I don't know. For the past 6 months or so he has been exploring what faith means and what it is to be a Christian; I think this is just one of his ways of stating something that is occupying his thoughts.

When we first started to notice the language delays, when it progressed into realizing that Gates would never see the world in the same way that most of us do I wondered what effect it would have on his ability to develop a strong core of faith. Would he be able to understand what it means to make a decision for Christ? Where does God fit in the mind of someone who is wired to think in logical fact patterns?

Since those early questions I have come to several conclusions. One is that I am no longer comfortable being a proponent of strict decision theology. Are there people who have radical, defining salvation moments? Sure. But for many of us, adults and children alike, the path of faith is a winding one and we can never say exactly when we stepped on the path, only that we know for certain we are on it. If I were to stick to the strictest of decision theology moments I would say that I stepped on that path in third grade when the traveling revival show came to town and scared me with their illustrations of mice, bear traps and pencils snapped in half. OH MY GOODNESS I HAVE TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN RIGHT NOW OR I AM GOING TO HELL!!!!! Or perhaps I could pick the moment in my college years when I decided that my initial decision meant nothing because it happened out of fear, so I was going to choose to believe in God as a loving Father. I am not sure that either of those moments was THE defining moment. Rather, God has slowly drawn me onto the path, with each simple prayer prayed, with each step of faith, with each dawning realization of the depth of His grace.

And so I am comforted by this, by the idea that even if he does not dot all the i's and cross all the t's demanded by many churches, even if he never follows an altar call, even if he never prays the specific prayer of salvation, Gates is learning what it means to love God as evidenced by his desire to declare it on his birthday cake. As he matures he will begin to understand it with more depth. He will understand what sacrifice means and he will understand the grace that has been given to him.

We serve a God of immense and powerful grace, grace that defies the boxes we try to put it in. Maybe that makes me a heretic, or maybe it makes me the mother of a child who will experience God in ways I can't begin to understand.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Broken Things

This post was originally written in April of 2008, a time when I was struggling deeply with clinical depression. I am happy to say that my struggles these days are not as great...but there are still days. Perhaps they are here to remind me that I am, and always will be, broken. But by the grace of God, broken does not mean useless, it doesn't consign me to the trash heap. In that I find incredible joy.

My children believe that their father can fix anything. This is probably due to the fact that I am about as far from the mechanical engineering side of the spectrum as it is possible for a person to be. So anytime they bring me a broken toy, or want me to build a Lego something, or put together their Hot Wheels track my standard response is, “Maybe Daddy can do it when he gets home.” As mother to two small boys I suppose I ought to get over my aversion to building and putting things together, but so far I haven’t. And so, the standard refrain now in our house when anything breaks is, “Maybe Daddy can fix it.”

And such unwavering faith in his abilities. Is the toy completely in shambles, stepped on and crushed beyond recognition? “Maybe Daddy can fix it.” Have the batteries in the world’s most annoying noisemaking toy finally run down, rendering it harmless? “Maybe Daddy can fix it!” This extends beyond our own home. While sitting in our car at the gas station my three-year old noticed that some of the bulbs in the station’s canopy were burned out, or flickering sickly. “Oh no! Maybe Daddy can fix those.” They are still at that wonderful age where Daddy is omnipotent, all-powerful, the ruler of their little world. Daddy can do anything.

Some days I long for that unwavering faith in a Daddy who will fix anything. I long for a faith that even believes that the broken is fixable. Right now I feel broken. Depression has a strangle-hold on my emotions and after years of trying with all my might I know I can’t fix it. All-powerful as he is, my husband can’t fix it. I have cried out to my Father in heaven. And He hasn’t fixed it. Not in the ways I expect, anyhow.

My boys don’t always understand that Daddy can’t fix everything. Sometimes there are tears and pouting. They mourn the loss of something that was precious to them. In my heart I believe that God can fix everything, but I don’t understand why sometimes He chooses not to, or why He makes us take the hard road when it would be so easy for Him to just speak the word. And so I mourn. I mourn for the fact that there may never be a day here on earth where I truly understand what it is to be whole in both mind and spirit. But God hasn’t written the end of the story yet. And unlike a broken toy, God has a use for broken people. It’s called the church, and bigger still, the world. The place where, broken as we are, God works through us to bring strength to each other.

I could have a testimony like this (I'm sure it will sound familiar). “I heard this song and prayed this prayer and God healed me of my depression and it’s been great ever since.” And if that is truly the case, I am happy for you. But to those of us who have tried so many spiritual remedies, who have worn out our knees with prayer, it will be empty words. It will leave us wondering where we have failed, why our faith was not strong enough. But what if my testimony was “I struggle. I struggle to keep it together some days. I struggle to understand love. I struggle to understand the big questions in life. I struggle just to get up and get moving some days. But in that struggle, God is there. In that struggle I am finding grace at each step. And slowly, slowly I am finding joy in the God whose love is unfailing enough to trust me with the big challenges.” It is a hard thing to admit, but I think I know which testimony I would choose. Sometimes grace comes like a flood. Sometimes it trickles in so slowly we don’t even notice until we are submerged in it.

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  2 Cor. 12:9 (NIV)

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I think that Gates was almost three when I truly began to realize that something was not quite right. He'd hit all of the normal developmental milestones right up until it came to talking. And there he stuck. Our communication consisted of one word statements. Tractor. Ball. Milk. I waited and waited for the burst of language to come. I blamed myself for not talking to him more, for putting him in an infant daycare where the husband was partially deaf, for not being proactive enough in developing language. Car. Truck. Book.

He had amazed us shortly after turning two by being able to name every letter of the alphabet. "My child is a genious!" I thought. Juice. Grandpa. Kitty. Slowly his vocabulary grew and he expanded to short sentences of several words. But he wasn't communicating with me. There was no give and take.

His vocabulary continued to grow, but so did my sadness at not being able to truly communicate with him. I talked to him and it was as if he didn't understand at all. At age four I finally took him to be evaluated.

"He meets the criteria for being developmentally delayed in receptive language," they said. "He is also significantly delayed in his gross motor skills."

"No," I thought, "not my child. He could say the alphabet when he was two. He has a great vocabulary." Did he really need special services to help him? Sometimes as parents we beach our boat on the vanishing sandbar of denial, knowing it is eroding beneath us, but not willing to launch ourselves into a sea of desperation.

Eventually I accepted it; I enrolled him in the early childhood education program, speech and occupational therapy. And one day we had a conversation. Not just me talking at him, but him responding as well. Four years later we know he has Aspergers Syndrome, we know that social communication will always be a struggle for him. He can fill your ears with incredible repetitions of facts, questions, rambling while failing to really connect as a person. But for every step he takes in learning to connect, we are right there, waiting, delighted, rejoicing at his efforts.

Sometimes we approach God as if we had Aspergers. We have memorized incredible amounts of facts about him, we can talk about him ad nauseum, we can talk AT him. But we stop short of the give and take of true communication. Communication. Communion. Combined.

And God waits. He waits through the developmental stages of our early faith, when we are exploring this world of "Christianity". He waits as we mature, as we develop a bigger vocabulary to talk about him. He waits as we learn words like "Exegisis," "Dispensationalism," "Calvinism."

Sometimes we stay there, content with our impressive knowledge, our ability to talk about God, even our ability to ask the deep theological questions which we rarely have the patience to wait for the answers on.

But sometimes within our Aspie little selves is that desire to make a connection, the understanding that communication is more than words. Sometimes we look God square in the face and say "I love you." Sometimes we have the patience to stick around for him to answer back. Sometimes we listen. Sometimes we reach out. Connection. Communion. Worship.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why Intaglio?

When I started my first blog I titled it "Grace Unbound" because it seemed to describe that point of my spiritual journey. I was learning about grace, learning to slowly let go of legalism, of doubting grace. I was learning to let grace begin to lift me out of the pit that I was stuck in.

I'm still learning about grace; I'm not sure that any of us will ever truly understand just how lavish, how beautiful, how amazing it is until the end of our lives. But I'm moving into a different stage, a stage where I want the grace I am learning about to be evident in my life.

When I first started trying to title this blog I kept thinking in terms of crafting. This was probably because I was learning to knit at the time and my inner artist had been unleashed. I like words, and I like words that have a beautiful flow to them. Intaglio (in-tal-yoh) is one of those words. I tentatively set up the blog title, walked away for several months and then came back. Looking at it through fresh eyes I knew that the image of being carved with grace was the one I wanted to convey.

The art of intaglio, also known as etching, involves engraving a design into the surface of a plate. Ink is then applied to the plate and wiped off so that all the remains is the ink in the grooves. When paper is pressed to it the ink transfers to the paper, creating a work of art. As you can see in the example above, extraordinary detail and beauty can be created by this process, detail that defies my ability to understand.

As part of God's workmanship, I want to be so deeply etched with grace that when I come in contact with others they will see the imprint of Christ. I'm a work in progress, still being etched, refined, corrected. Sometimes the etching hurts as the tools press into me in areas that I don't want touched. Sometimes I don't know where this design is going. But I am willing.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  Ephesians 2: 8-10 (NIV)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Empty Places

This post was originally published on 4/3/2008. Sadly, I am still trying to convince myself that my children won't notice their missing Easter candy, even though they are both on to me by now. I still have my empty places, but I am slowly learning to let God fill them. Emphasis on SLOWLY learning. :)

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: (shamefacedly holding out a bag of trail mix that is now about two-thirds empty) "Um, I got you this to snack on for the trip this weekend, know, it's been a rough week with Gates getting detention and me getting all up in the principal's face and everything, so..."

Husband: (shaking his head and smiling so it removes the sting from the words even if the truth remains) "Didn't you learn anything after the Easter candy? Didn't you learn not to buy that stuff too early?"

No, no, clearly I didn't, OK? I didn't learn my lesson, even after having to replace the Easter Candy three times. I didn't learn it after Valentine's Day when I realized that Gates is now old enough to notice that candy is missing from the stash he received at school. I really do ok most of the time, I do this by having almost no palatable food in the house at any time that does not require several hours of preparation prior to consumption. I proudly proclaim myself a food purist, shunning fast food, high fructose corn syrup and scary food dyes. But let a holiday or a special occasion hit and I am shameless.

No, that's not right. I am not shameless because emotional eating carries its own shame with it. The shame that says, "I should know better, I should do better, I am weak, I am not in control." Anyone who has struggled with emotional eating knows the drill, the roaming through the house flinging open cupboards, refrigerator and freezer, certain that somewhere there is something that can be eaten, something to fill that feeling that we can't even identify. And even as we fling open the cupboard we slam shut the door to our heart, to the voice that is calling us to just be still for a moment.

Being still isn't easy. I am learning that the hard way this year. After years of stifling the inner voice by immersing myself in work, in books, and on the internet, I came to a screeching halt when I decided to quit my full time job to stay home with my boys. No, they don't allow a lot of time for literally sitting still, but suddenly my mind became still. I couldn't hide behind busying it with work, my protection was stripped away. Suddenly the empty places became obvious.

We all have empty places in our hearts and our lives, places that we don't know how to fill. And for every woman with an empty place there is a different way of trying to fill it. Some of us even rush desperately from method to method, trying to find the one that works. In high school I tried to fill them with packages of Oreos, hidden under the covers of my bed as I hid from the world inside the fantasy world of books. In college I thought I could fill them by just reaching that magical weight, but the empty places couldn't be filled by the steadily decreasing numbers on the scale. Most athletic, perfect mother, perfect employee. Nothing filled them.

I still have empty places. But slowly I am learning to be still, to quiet the frantic rush of my heart, to hear grace calling "Be still, and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10 NIV) Psalm 46 is a reminder to us, a reminder that God is our refuge and strength, not all the foolish things with which we try to surround  and fill ourselves.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see the works of the Lord,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.

"Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Take time. Be still. Let grace begin to move.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Originally posted on 3/20/2008

"Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'my beloved.' Romans 9:25 (from the Revised Standard Version)

"See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands..." Isaiah 49:16 (RSV)

My mind cannot begin to comprehend the wonder that the God of the universe calls me beloved. Me. Ordinary, insignificant me, with all of my faults, all of my failings. In spite of the fact that I yelled at my kids today, in spite of the fact that my house is a mess, that I'm spending time blogging instead of working, that I blew it in a hundred different ways today, he still calls me beloved. Not only that, but I'm engraved on the palms of his hands. He can't forget me and he's not going to overlook me.

I'll admit, I struggle with understanding this. I struggle with believing that it really is true. There's such a huge gap between God and me, why would he bother with me? Because of love. Because of the longing of a lover's heart to have the object of his affection love him in return. Make no mistake about it, the love God wants from us in return is not the cold and passionless love of rules and regulations. He wants the fires of our heart to burn with a longing to know him. He wants us to rejoice in knowing him, to join him in the dance of life.

I can't comprehend it. But I am still his beloved.

Winter Whining

I'm reposting some of my favorite posts from my previous blog. This was my first 'real' post, published on 3/17/2008.

I knew what was going to happen as soon as I started hearing the weather forecast for Sunday night. I hoped the snow would pass us by. I hoped for the sun. Monday morning I stumbled to the window, peeked through the curtains and...not just three, but FIVE inches of new snow lay on the ground that had been nearly laid bare by a week's worth of thawing.

I closed the curtains and went about the morning routine; just waiting for the moment I knew was coming. Gates, my five year old, got up, ate breakfast, got dressed, all without looking out the window. But I knew what was coming. Quietly I started to fold up his snow pants and put them in his backpack. I carried the boots upstairs. I could see it coming.

"No Mommy, I don't want to wear my boots and take my snow pants to school today."

"I'm sorry, Gates, but you really need to today."

"No, Mommy, I don't WANT to. I don't need them today!"

The moment of truth arrived. I walked to the window and pulled aside the curtain. I knew what was coming.

Shock. Disbelief. Then...Drama! Wailing! Crying! Anger! "WHY did the snow come back? I don't WANT the snow to come back! It has been winter for too long! The snow has been on the ground FOREVVVVVERRRR! Arrgh! Spring is NEVER going to get here!" (I'll be honest, I'm right there with him on the whole idea, but there's something less acceptable about a grown woman collapsing to the floor and wailing about the unending gloom of winter.)

And yet, I have my own fits, my own temper tantrums about the winters of my soul. I trudge through my days with the gray clouds always there, always threatening to send the snow and blowing winds that will force me to my knees once again. Even when they clear for a moment I'm waiting, just waiting for them to move back in again. It feels as if winter has been here forever. What if the world has tilted on its axis and spring doesn't come this time?

Then the warming trend starts. Streams that were bound and frozen start to have trickles of life in them again, snow starts to melt exposing what was underneath. Hope creeps in. Spring? Maybe? And then the clouds descend again. The snow falls and the water stops flowing. Drama. Wailing. Crying. Anger. "I don't get it, God! Why is this happening? It feels like I've been frozen here FOREVER! When is spring coming? IS it coming? Why does it have to be winter for SO LONG?"

In his book, "Let Your Life Speak," Parker Palmer talks about seeing life not as a manufacturing model in which we must make things happen ourselves, but as an agrarian model, a cycle of seasons and growing. Winter is the time of dormancy, the time of rest that is essential to all living things.

I'll admit, I don't want to see it as essential. I want the sunshine, the growth. I don't like this state of being frozen. But the thaw will come, eventually. And the stream that is newly unbound after a thaw is not the same stream that runs in the middle of the summer. The summer stream is often placid, peaceful, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the unbound stream? The stream that has burst through the ice and runs with the weight of all the winter's snow? That stream rushes with passion and purpose. It shatters obstacles and prepares the land for growth. It carries the excitement of new life.

Winter will end. Spring will come. And grace will be unbound.

Wait for it...

After nearly a year long absence from blogging I am longing to get back into the game. I'll be migrating my old blog over from Wordpress and hopefully the new look and new format will inspire me to get back into the game. I'll also be starting a companion blog of random stuff, my garden, my life, things I'm learning about being a mom. I'm excited!