Church stuff


Sue Monk Kidd is such an inspiration, and a reminder of a recently flickering passion of mine– that is to say, writing. I have neglected this passion, in general, and certainly in the past few weeks, but I was listening to SMK read Firstlight, and I am compelled to write.

I have no shortage of subjects, or words, for that matter. Like SMK, I am drawn to writing out my spiritual journey, in all of its madness, for the eyes of anyone interested in following, walking in, or sneaking a peak at my existence. Sundays usually spark some inner thinking for me.

I continue to venture to a familiar church for a spiritual fix, and I see myself still struggling with the idea of church. I’m looking for something more than just a church experience. I’m still wandering, really, and while I do not enjoy being without a church, my heart, mind, spirit, and sensibilities cannot handle being a part of another farce. I’ve forgiven the people at that other place because 1) God told me to, and 2) expectations of decency have to be abandoned where character is shunned. Still, as much as I long to have that part of my past ripped from my mind, it unfortunately affects how I view the Christian community or what purports to be some faction of the Christian community.

What is most disappointing about the whole tragic experience is to see how little truth and honesty are valued among supposed Christ followers. I’ve come to understand and expect that the words that come from the mouths of most people are not to be trusted at all. This is not a pleasant way to live, to expect that pastors will be predators, friends will fail, and loves will lose their minds and morals. I have been surprised, in both good and terribly disappointing ways, but what I want is to believe again in “the Jesus in the people” that cross my spiritual path.

That idea, “the Jesus in people,” is one that my estranged LKW introduced me to. I believe with every fiber of my being that the Jesus in anyone can do incredible and surprising things. I cannot believe, however, that Jesus or the spirit of Jesus is in everyone that claims Him. Nor do I believe that the spirit of Jesus is always accessed by those of us who call Him “Lord.” I know in my own life, the spirit of Jesus is sometimes hard to find, depending on the day and the circumstance, so I don’t suppose I should be as unsettled as I am. After all, we are all fallible, we all fall short of the glory of God, we all suck sometimes. I guess I’m just looking to be around people that don’t enjoy sucking, who aren’t satisfied with always falling short, who have a clear understanding that the grace of God does not mean we (or He) turn a blind eye to our failures, but instead that we seek to love Him with our whole heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when we inevitably fail to do all of that, He loves us anyway.

I recently had an unpleasant experience with one of my “church” neighbors. I have to admit, I was shocked by what I termed caustic behavior,  and I was disappointed in her unneighborly way because it was not at all characteristic of my past experience with her.  I crave truth, and however disappointing an experience it was, I was grateful that the blinders have been removed from my eyes. But I have come to understand, by the grace of God, that it is not she who is being unneighborly at all. I am the one who was not loving my neighbor appropriately. It is my job, my obligation to see that, regardless of what is done to me,  I am to care for those around me with the same love I pray God showers on me. That’s what neighbors (in the Biblical sense) do. What’s more, that is what the Jesus in me expects.

This recent experience was necessary for me at just this time. Crappy behavior is everywhere, at every church, so if I’m looking for the crapless church with the crapless people (with the crapless commute?), my search will be long and arduous. What has to be different, this time and from now on, is how I react, how I understand, and how I deal with what is presented to me. So for now, I’ll keep venturing to the church, but I’ll carry with me the idea, the goal, of being a good neighbor, of loving what I think is unlovely, and of trying not to suck as much as I did yesterday.  That’s where I am…today.

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The sun is emerging again. I’ve been on this ebbing and flowing journey for what seems like have mercy too long, and so much of it has seemed to take place in a murky, winding tunnel, requiring me to learn to feel my way through a dark space for longer than I thought I could manage. Much of that darkness was detailed in my last blog, and sharing that level of detail was a struggle for me.

As a writer, words are my life’s breath, and self-expression makes my heart beat. Writing gives me energy, is my purpose, but it had been over 30 days since I had posted prior to Recon or not. Essentially, I didn’t want to put down on paper (or screen) the pain that I’ve alluded to elsewhere, for a host of reasons. I figured that I would heal by distancing myself as much as possible from the source (or the largest part of the source) of my pain, praying not quite deliberately enough to my Lord, regularly visiting with my therapist, and candidly sharing with those around me… and most of that helped.

It was the sharing, though, that tripped me up a bit. The uncensored sharing of still tender feelings can often help the healing process. The challenge arises when the hearing of my experience contrasts and even contradicts the living of another’s own experiences at the same source. It seems that speaking my pain netted me sympathetic, unbelieving, or apathetic looks, but not the spiritual direction and encouragement that my broken spirit craved. The truth is that people — friends, family, etc. – either don’t want to hear about your pain or they have no idea how to help you through your pain, regardless of any religious, familial, cultural, or gender-related connection you think you share. And retelling pain transforms pure brokenness into perpetual bitterness and a heart of unforgiveness in the minds of others and in some case in the reality of life. I was concerned about my tone and how it made me feel to really have those feelings.

But after writing and, more importantly, posting that entry, the burden I’ve been carrying became just that much lighter, and some of what has been clouding my mind started to clear a bit. I’m grateful because the clarity pushed me to resume daily Bible study, and the Word is steeped in the spiritual direction and encouragement that I, sad to say, had hoped to get from others. And I saw something sort of ironic in the Word, specifically in Job and in the book of Psalms.

Okay, so I’d actually read Psalms in the past, and for a while there, I was living off Psalm 37. Holla! But it wasn’t until I read Psalm 40 recently that I understood why I need to write down the raw truth of what I’ve gone through and am going through. Psalm 40 is like a pre-Wordpress blog from David. In it, he writes about

  • his pain and regrets (v12 “For innumerable evils have compassed me about; my iniquities have taken such hold on me that I am not able to look up. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart has failed me and forsaken me.”)
  • his enemies (v14 Let them be put to shame and confounded together who seek and require my life to destroy it; let them be driven backward and brought to dishonor who wish me evil and delight in my hurt!”)

as well as

  • his adoration for his God (v5 “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonderful works which You have done, and Your thoughts toward us; no one can compare with You! If I should declare and speak of them, they are too many to be numbered.”)
  • and God’s faithfulness (v2 “He drew me up out of a horrible pit [a pit of tumult and of destruction], out of the miry clay (froth and slime), and set my feet upon a rock, steadying my steps and establishing my goings.”) AMP

Similarly, Job speaks freely:

  • of his pain (Job 7:11 — “I cannot keep from speaking. I must express my anguish. My bitter soul must complain.”)
  • of his wish that he’d never been born (Job 14:13 – “I wish you would hide me in the grave and forget me there until your anger has passed. But mark your calendar to think of me again.”)
  • and his useless friends (Job 16:2-6:

 2 What miserable comforters you are!
 3 Won’t you ever stop blowing hot air?
      What makes you keep on talking?
 4 I could say the same things if you were in my place.
      I could spout off criticism and shake my head at you.
 5 But if it were me, I would encourage you.
      I would try to take away your grief.
 6 Instead, I suffer if I defend myself,
      and I suffer no less if I refuse to speak.”) NLT

The entire book details Job’s anguish in the midst of living in the space God allowed, his acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God, dialogues with curious friends, God’s eventual response that reiterates His overall authority, power, and will, and ends with Job’s subsequent retraction of all his complaints.

Neither Job nor David holds anything back because their God — my God – is willing to hear our raw emotion, the heart of our pain, the truth of our experience. It’s not like God can’t already hear what’s in our minds. It’s not like He’s sitting around wondering, “How’s Reese doing after leaving that church? I wonder how she’s handling the loss of those friendships. I wonder if her heart is healing at all. Oh look, she got a great deal on those Mary Janes at Loehmann’s.” God knows my heart just as He knew David’s and Job’s and yours, and it seems to me that if He didn’t want us to feel freedom to express all aspects of our hearts, He wouldn’t have given us the capacity to experience them.

Now, I don’t actually presume that Job, David and I are on the same spiritual level. And clearly, they spent more time praising God than complaining about those who hurt or wanted to hurt them. But Job got an entire book, and David got to hurl stones at the giant that was his source of contention, and watch him die, so all things considered, we’re not exactly equal. I am, however, still learning to walk with the same character that these men of God possessed, and I understand that any space away from God and that posture He instructs me to assume is not a space I need to spend a whole lot of time in.

So God and I are working together to move on to the next space. And He’s using some special people and situations for His overall glory. For instance, I went to church for the first time in a month, and the sermon presented was all about … Forgiveness. Coincidence… I think not.

Then, after the service, my friend Jon’s lovely bride Steph stopped me for a chat, and she mentioned that she had read one of my blogs. I cringed and sort of alluded to the fact that I’m working some things out on the blog and in my head, and she smiled warmly, motioned to the pulpit, and said, “Ooh … forgiveness…” and I got it.

See, sometimes you need someone to stand beside you in the mirror when you’re wearing those crazi pink Crocs to help you see how they are not working for you and you need to get something new. You don’t need people to sit by and quietly let you keep wearing them while they’re talking behind your back, and you don’t need people to tell you how good they look on you,  and you don’t need people to tell you to defy fashion and to keep wearing them, and you don’t need people who will shun you for owning pink Crocs. You need someone who will say, “Naw, sweetheart. Let me show you something different.”

I recently entered my late 30’s, and a milestone like 37 sparked me to look back at the past couple of years to analyze where I am these days. I now like where I am and where I’m going, especially since a little over a year ago, I was almost completely unrecognizable. I had lost my fire after falling way too deep into a “church” that was once a haven for me. I had been pulled into the fold because of my willingness to serve (God) and my ability to manage my finances well enough to give. But I was unceremoniously discarded and badmouthed when the muckity muck of the lives of others cluttered and denigrated my own. And my attempts to reach out for help and support were disregarded and ignored. I finally left after it was clear that the organization’s ability to “build into” one of its own was contingent upon something other than Jesus’ call to love.

I’ll admit there’s more than a hint of bitterness when I speak of that place and most of the relationships formed there that I once believed in, but given what I experienced, I’ll not apologize for showing the scars from the wounds I have survived, and I will continue to keep it real. It is truly a terribly thing to stand up as a friend with people through court cases, painting parties (shameful name for slave labor), house purchases, financial crises, marital discord, untimely deaths, etc. only to find that those friendships and the connections weren’t substantive enough to weather life’s difficult moments when things came to me.

I was completely surprised and broken, but after some time, I’ve come to understand that oral expressions of friendship and loyalty because of a shared allegiance to Christ are often just scripts that people have memorized; they are recitations that sound convincing but actually lack the substantive application to life that being a sister or brother in Christ assumes. Ultimately it comes down to being a Christian rather than acting like one. Needless to say, my experience with those people has taught me that connections are tricky and not to be trusted solely on the merits of like religious beliefs.

The question comes up, though, about forgiveness and reconnection. I am aware that my inability to thoroughly forgive spotlights my own deficiencies in following Christ. The problem for me is that forgiveness without an acknowledgement of wrongdoing is difficult although not completely beyond my ability. I’m told by third parties about how much I’m missed and loved… can never forget the love… but not a word to me directly. As a matter of fact, in the 5 months since I left, not one of my former ministry leaders has contacted me or responded to my attempts to contact them, and more surprisingly, not one of the pastors that I assisted almost every Sunday for 3 years and 3 services has bothered to shepherd this sheep. The connections have been broken.

Recently, I have received correspondence from some of those people, and I view them with skepticism and cynicism. The truth is that in the case of most adults, mistreatment occurs because it is permitted, even subconsciously welcomed, despite being undeserved and deplorable. I was treated like crap, but that was due in part to the allowances I made for people. There is some level of foolish thought that says, “Even though I don’t like how I feel or who you are when I’m in your presence, I will continue to stand in that space.” I don’t want the lesson to be lost on me… but I also don’t want the lesson to inhibit my desire to live in fact, as Christ called me to live. Don’t I owe Him the chance to work through possible reconnection to change and improve me?

Oddly enough, I have experienced some wonderfully surprising reconnections in recent months. For years I have thought of people from my undergraduate school — 5 specifically — that I would love to be in contact with that are not already in my life. (Thank goodness my Nikki and the Diva never left my side or heart.) Through the wonders of Facebook, I have reconnected with 4 of those fellas (I never was much a girl’s girl), and those reconnections reminded me of a wonderful time in my life when literature was life and my passion was full of fire. I thought that I could conquer the world, live my dreams, and stay up all night writing an A paper. I’m grateful that The Goodeness, Vincent Tardy as in late for class, Coop (because of Twin Peaks), and Joel Micah Nahum Habakkuk dropped in to say hello. And it’s so not the quantity of time that matters, as there has been only a bit, but is, instead, the substance of the people and the value of the connection itself, which, by the way, is priceless. I wonder if we all knew back then that there was something of worth to be held even in the far recesses of our minds about one another.

( And not for nothing, it’s refreshing to be in the company of people who get that an understanding of Black culture does not necessarily have anything to do with the in depth knowledge of who sung what song and the dance we did when we heard it. JayZ and Kanye aren’t the only voices of the Black community that should be heard. Pick up a flippin’ book, people, and learn a little something about Black culture! ) But I digress…

One difference, of course, is that time and circumstance precipitated the loss of connection rather than anything overt on anyone’s part. Also, I know the core of the people I’m dealing with, and it’s a core of decency and authenticity, so I like the core of the college friends. And it’s easier when things aren’t so serious, and aren’t necessarily connected with any religious affiliation, which for me assumes some sort of you-me-and-Jesus union that binds us tighter than perhaps the actual connection warrants. Keeping expectations low isn’t one of my strongpoints.

So reconnection can be wonderful, and has been, relatively speaking. Some lovely people have surprised me on my journey with connection and reconnection. Still, there are those that, despite anyone’s best efforts, can be nothing but destructive. It comes down to navigating the waters cautiously but opening up to the possibility of even (just) glimpses of goodness. Sometimes the most dangerous thing we can do is not welcome the Son peeking through the clouds.

“The church is there for support and guidance. It’s not about the person beside you. It’s about the conversation between you and God. You can be in your office and that can be your church.”

These words came from the administrative assistant in the department in which I work. She stops by my office periodically for a laugh, which, for some reason, she always manages to get from me. Recently she brought up the Papal visit at the National’s Stadium in DC. Like me, she doesn’t understand why Mass in a baseball stadium is necessary, but we both understand that one’s religion, and religious beliefs and practices are personal and, therefore, valuable. However, unlike her, I struggle with the purpose of church in general. She is Muslim, and I have, up until recently, termed myself as Christian, and she was well aware of my intense involvement in my former church. She was quite shocked to hear that I no longer had a church, and that I was unsure of the merits of church at all. That is the context of her words.

I consider myself a Christ-follower rather than a Christian, mainly because the term Christian has been bastardized and cannibalized in the main, and I don’t like the current connotations of the word. It seems to me, now, a word tossed about by idiot politicians, philandering preachers and athletes, and aspiring writers, actors, talk show hosts, etc. eagerly attempting to manipulate those whose eyes may or may not ever be on them. I just want to follow Christ with fervor and not with flippancy.

Anyway, I’m trying to figure out what church is supposed to be for me. I like the idea that it’s a place of support and guidance. Certainly in the past I have attempted, with limited success, perhaps, to lend support and encourage guidance, but I think that may be where things went awry in my understanding and experience of church. Even though my motives were pure, and the desire of my heart was truly to serve first My Heavenly Father, and then, at a close second, the people in whose path He placed me, there was, perhaps, too much of me in the mix of things. After all, from my childhood, I have attempted to be, have been and have accepted the role of caretaker. I have always wanted to care for people, and I have always done just that. There’s no doubt that God created in me both the heart to care and the ability to care. But perhaps there’s more to this whole following Christ business than me and what my role in church is. Could it possibly be that church is about Him working in His people…including but — wait for it — not just me?!

Maybe there are those whom God has designed to pour out His love, and those whom He has designed as receivers at the same time (who, theoretically, pour out that love on others when they are able to). Maybe it’s a cycle. Maybe it’s my time to step aside, and let Him pour into me through others, and maybe I’m fighting that a bit. I don’t know what it’s like to step aside, to not serve in an “organized” ministry, and as much as I love sleeping in, I don’t actually do it. He’s showing me the green pastures, and directing me to lie down, and clearing a path for the restoration of my soul. This I know, but where does the church fit into His plan for me?

I wonder if instead of a church, rife with its building funds, prolific speakers, and musical tributes to sometimes even Jesus, He might just use some other entity, organization, idea, place, etc. to share the message that He has in mind for those who are quiet enough to hear Him. I wonder if, given the current state of contemporary churches, His message can be found elsewhere, without distractions — perceived or real. I wonder if His message is in the conversations I have, the blogs I read, the books I enjoy, the music I listen to, the classes I attend, the people in whose company I spend my time, and the experiences to which I am exposed.

I don’t know… anything, really, with regard to this matter, but I’ll be quiet, and listen to the Shepherd’s voice. And prayerfully, I’ll follow… to a building, a congregation, a gathering, and even the privacy of my own home. Church is … still a mystery right now.

 

I am more than just a little annoyed with Eliot Spitzer. Not that he stands alone as a philandering man in a position of power, but his story is particularly annoying to me. His story reminds me of so many other too recent tales of regretfully high profile men that choose to use their positions of power — in churches and in political offices alike — to feed some inexplicable need. It seems that the notion of staying faithful to the one standing with you is an antiquated idea.

I have been a victim of the unfaithfulness epidemic, for sure, and at times have voiced an opinion of the punishments I feel are appropriate for the offenders. The crime of infidelity is not simply the embarrassment or feelings of betrayal experienced by the victims, but more so the memories forever tainted and the dreams lost in the end. There is a level of emotional pain that has no cure, that has the potential to visit itself on every encounter and risk the success of a variety of relationships… friendly, familial, and certainly romantic. So much time is spent wondering how and why it happened, and often very little time is spent working beyond the situation and broken relationship to a place of healing.

Unfaithfulness stinks (stinks!!)! It is abhorrent, and unnecessary, and self-serving, and unforgivable… and the truth is, we are all unfaithful. We are all loved and doted upon by a wonderful, wonderful Lord, and despite the unconditional and attentive love He showers upon us, we glance away and give allegience, attention, and often adoration to something, someone, anything else. And for some reason, I have failed to notice the intensity of my own spiritual unfaithfulness, likely because of the contempt I’ve harbored for the relationally unfaithful that surround me. Shame, thy name is Reese.

It’s too easy to forget the faithfulness of God because it’s something I’ve grown to carelessly expect. And though His faithfulness, to me and others, is not contingent upon my acknowledgement that it does, in fact, exist, it’s omnipresence is something I’m learning to appreciate and value more and more these days. This relatively newfound appreciation became more evident, to some extent, after listening to Selah’s Faithful One.

“I see your wounded hands, I touch your side /With thorns upon your brow you bled and died /But there’s an empty tomb, a love for all who come /And give their hearts to you, the faithful one.

Faithfulness has to be modeled after the One who gave His life, endured ridicule and betrayal, suffered torture in the midst of His family and friends, just to prove His ultimate faithfulness. And all He asks is that we believe the truth of that faithfulness enough to let Him show it even more.

Kind of puts the whole Spitzer stuff into a different light.

Today I wasn’t planning on attending a service…but I did. And today I wasn’t planning on going to the hospital…but I did. Today I wasn’t planning to spend precious moments with 3 of my closest friends…but I did. Today I wasn’t planning on hearing from God…but I did. Today was pretty good.

No, today my plan was to sleep in, have some soup (I make too much soup), go to the church to count the offering, visit my parents and sis, and come home. Instead, I woke to learn that my precious little “nephew” was in the hospital. When I went to the church to count, the team said I should go and experience the service, so I did. It’s funny how things happen in just the right sequence with just the right people sometimes.

The service was really what my spirit needed when I thought I just needed a few extra hours of sleep. The music was reverent and powerful and personal. “A mighty fortress is our God” was the first song, and even though so much has happened since we started singing it, it’s still in my head. The power of that concept isn’t lost on me. His love is like a strong tower where I can run and be safe, his mercy never ends, and I do know that there’s nothing like power of His name.

The church had a guest speaker, who quite frankly ought to be invited to speak monthly — Brenda Salter- McNeil. I’m not generally a fan of women preachers, likely because of the relatively strict manner in which I was churched as a child. Still, BSM is unlike most of the preachers I’ve heard of late. She speaks frankly, candidly from her heart, realizing that scripted worship and scripted candor isn’t actually candor at all. She was with us, those in attendance, aware of her humanity and the need for humility, but still certain of the power of the God that has chosen to work through her. Refreshing…

Her message focused on the Samaritan woman at the well, detailed in the Gospel of John chapter 4. It can be challenging to legitimately relate the stories of the Bible to the everyday lives of people today. The Samaritan women, referred to as Sam in BSM’s message, was an outcast in her society. She was a Samaritan in Jerusalem, surrounded by Jews who saw her as unclean and unworthy. She was a bit promiscuous, so she was rejected by her own Samaritan people. It’s a little like having many of your friends and church family disappear when things get a little messy in your life.

She went to the city’s well to draw water in the middle of the day, hoping, expecting that she would be alone and left alone. Instead, she met Jesus. It’s kind of like going to the church building in between services so you can just count the offering and leave, but instead God maneuvers circumstances and situations so that you meet Jesus in the 4th row on the end.

Jesus knew everything about Sam — all of her mistakes, all of her hurts, all of her disappointments, all of her mannerisms, all of her walls, all of her plans — and he took His time with her anyway. He listened to her subject changes and her excuses, and yet He still offered her new life. And why? Because it wasn’t about what she had done or thought or said. It was about what He could and would, can and will do with one soul, one thirsty woman.

The truth is, and today just confirms it for me, in the end, in the beginning, in the now, it’s just Jesus and me, and Jesus and you. The rest just doesn’t matter. Jesus is the God that knows about the junk, and instead of criticizing or rejecting us because of the junk, decides to work through us in spite and sometimes even because of the junk. He offers a simple but truly majestic gift, and requires only that we take it. He opens His arms, cradles and protects, and allows us to rest in the refuge that He provides. He meets us when we are hoping to avoid any sort of change or drama, and gives us a hope for something new, for something unexpected but still divinely planned.

Today was not at all what I expected, but today really was a good day.

I visited Montrose Christian yesterday, at the suggestion of a friend who visited last week. She was excited about the topic, love, and the experience of the service. I have visited Montrose on several occasions, and find that it is absolutely the kind of place I would like to call my church home, but am hindered by two issues of varying importance. First, I have not felt the direct call to leave my current church, and second, that the commute is a bit longer than I’m ready to commit.

While the struggle continues, I can say that I believe in the mission of Montrose, and enjoy the atmosphere of spiritual connection–to others and to Christ–that I have been missing at my home church. Of course, the Word says that I will find God when I seek with my whole heart, and it would be unfair and untrue to say that I have, or have even been able to do that at my home church for a variety of reasons. Still, I enjoyed the experience at Montrose, feeling closer to relationship with God, and touched by the familiar faces whose care and concern stem from their own relationship with Christ, and who see me as sister in the Kingdom.

Pastor Ken spoke on the subject of love, and specifically, on the need for Christians to express that love. He began with the idea, one that I fully embrace, that the characteristics of love detailed in I Corinthians 13:4-7 are, in fact, behavioral characteristics, action words even. Verse 4 reads, Love is patient. Pastor Ken interprets that verse to mean People who love are patient. He spent the bulk of the message on this concept, using a variety of examples, some directed at parents and spouses, but most directed at people of all ages and life stages.

I don’t suppose I’ve ever dealt with the idea of patience at any great length, likely because I lack any real evidence of having any patience. Pastor Ken noted that patience manifests in other ways, including forgiveness. He referenced Proverbs, where patience is described as part of wisdom, and it’s that point that pricked my heart the most. After all, who among us would not choose wisdom? He said that wisdom and patience let us know when it’s time to let something go. That’s a word!

Patience is so important in the expression of true love, real love. Christ demonstrated immense patience with me, and He continues to do so.  If I take the time, as the pastor suggested, to tally up all the time that Christ has spent letting my stuff go, I will find the example of patience by which I should model my life. He has watched me fall, after I’ve struggled from His grip, and He lovingly picked me up after I was broken in pieces. And He’s done that over and over again because I failed to learn from the lessons presented before me.

So maybe that’s what this love thing is all about. Maybe just remembering who Christ is what He has done is enough to affect the behavioral changes that lead to the life changes that lead to loving wholly and purely and authentically.

One thing is certain, the time is now to start living and loving.