Sunday, February 23

Called Together

The togetherness of the Christian community... grows from a deep sense of being called together to make God's compassion visible in the concreteness of everyday life. -- Henri Nouwen

It's a Sunday rhythm that's old and yet new.  When he pulls the sheets aside and pushes into the morning cold, he prepares himself for his weekly practice of solitude.  These are the mornings, coffee and journal and table by the window, that do the strong work of letting him listen and bend and become.

For years he's played this rhythm, this quiet practice that forms him; sometimes sermons and scripture, sometimes writing what his dyslexic, studied mind puts in order.  But a year ago he set the practice aside, using that time instead to take a group of friends deeper into expressing gospel-lives.  And still, he came home full.

Today, those friends now sent to do for others what was done for them, he goes alone again to his place by the window, his coffee and computer, his Christ calling him to come away.  And I wonder what he will miss the most.

Going it alone in our spiritual development has a place. At times the silence is when the Voice is loudest.  But going with others is the epitome of church, of body, of Trinity.  I love the passionate cry I hear from so many today, "I don't want to go to church. I want to BE the church." Amen and amen to that.  But being is not exclusive of gathering because the gathering is what shapes our being.

In this season for us, which is both post-church and pre-church, we personally don't gather often.  Oh, we do community, team build, share meals, dream -- yes.  But we don't sit worshipful and reverent, symbols and song, no table or word or testimony.  We don't enter into sacred, or send with a blessing.  Not yet.  What we do is good.  But it's not everything.  And I can't decide if I miss the rest.  The Spirit evader in me says, "No. Not yet."

But I know that when it seems that community binds, in those same moments it also builds. The church is a people we become, and that becoming can only fully happen in messy unity, not controlled individuality. When we focus on what makes us different -- what we like and don't like, how we learn or don't learn -- we push away from body, away from community.  We essentially say 'but' instead of 'and' which is, of course, the point where all dialogues come to an end.

We do not gather for our own purposes, even for our own learning. We gather to create a picture for God of a people moved and changed by him into oneness. And we gather to create a picture for the world that unity in diversity does have a place.  Together we put hands and feet to the renewing work that Christ is already doing.

Gathering as a church in worship is a spiritual practice, like prayer and confession and fasting and service. Practices are habits and rhythms that conform us more closely to the image of Christ. We are challenged to express God's worth in ways that are not comfortable to us; sing when it's not our gifting, be still when we'd rather wander, use language that is not our mother tongue. And we also learn to be forgiving with how others squirm and wrestle and balk.  It's less about us than we think.

Growth is personal but never private.  That big word, sanctification, happens in the context of community --  that state that only exists when we make known our most monstrous ways, our failures and fears and fallacies. The church should call good things out of us, and salve the shame.  As a body it offers the legs for the journey, the voice for the call, arms for lifting, new eyes to see.  Corporately we become what we cannot become on our own. 

A person dedicated to God should move in ways consistent with his character. His character is love, truth, generosity, grace, patience.  These are not traits that can be lived in isolation.  Love is relational; grace needs a recipient; patience can only abound in a crowd of diverse and growing "others."  When we walk away from the community of the church, we walk away from the practice of God.

So, today we'll find a way, he and I, to go and gather.  And while it's not the same -- the people unknown, the culture foreign -- we do speak the language.  We do know the Christ that calls us all together.  And while it's not the community I knew or the community I'm building, it's still the very rhythm -- old and yet new.

Wednesday, February 12


When we were preparing to be married, eyes full of hope and idealism, we divvied up the tasks of life.  Like trying to even out backpacks for a journey, I took the bills and the bank accounts; he took insurance.  He'd take care of the cars and the retirement; I'd do the groceries and the taxes.  He'd do the lawn, I'd care for the plants.  We smiled sweetly at one another, satisfied that we each held a fair share, then grasped hands and started out.

Every February the task of taxes emerges like a mountain after an earthquake, large and bullying and aggressive. Breath held tight, every muscle clenched, I power up the pile of receipts that prove our life of ministry to the powers that be. In this occupation we track everything:  living expenses, ministry meals, charitable giving, books, gifts, cleaning supplies.  It's a mountain I dutifully climb every winter overturning rocks and poking into every crevasse.  "If you can't get around it, get in it."  This is nothing I can maneuver around.  Every year I travel through and still reach the high top.

But this year is so very different.

The pack is heavier this year because midyear there was that bridge that gave out.  And, at times, I still stand at cliff's edge watching the suspension cables dangle in the wind through the insurmountable canyon. I left a beloved life on the other side of the gap.  And this year as my journey into tax season began I had to revisit it again. From a distance.

Taxes have frustrated me and stretched my patience, but they've never pushed me to tears until now.  Every receipt reminds me of that wedding. That homegroup meal.  That mentoring coffee.  This year preparing taxes is breaking my heart all over again. Tell me again why I was made to leave that life I cultured and cared for? What did I do that merited this great humiliation and loss? I despair as I sort my two piles of receipts: everything before August, which counts in all the old familiar ways -- toward housing or ministry expenses -- but everything after that time is scribbled with question marks like the questions still unanswered and rotting away in my gut. And as the tears come again I say, as I said back in August, "I never wanted this."

The entire first year after great loss hurts. It's a death -- a divorce -- where every scent and song and celebration reminds you of that love you're loathe to let go of.  At this late date I've nearly convinced myself that moving on from grief may never actually happen. That it will just inhabit me forever and hopefully be the decayed loam from which something new and beautiful can sprout. That is my hope.

This is the silent burden of the pastor's wife: when things fall and shatter we're not included in the movement that precipitated the tipping. We're left to piece together a new picture without understanding the last. So, it might take us longer to define beauty and justice again.  Please understand.

Maybe people think in their self-comforting ways, "They seem to be doing fine so we can all move on." And some days I convince myself that's true of me. But why then do these receipts taunt me so quickly? This paper contrast of life in ministry and life in displacement?

The year presses on and still the old story comes back in so many faces and traditions and rhythms, echos bouncing off the canyon walls. With whom will I practice the silence before Easter?  Who will spread ashes on my forehead next month?  Maybe I can burn these receipts and do it myself in a mirror dimly lit. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, February 2

What January Did to for Me

I was afraid for the month to come.  Knowing I wouldn't be working, when I wouldn't have the happy distraction of preparing to teach and discuss missional engagement, when I wouldn't have the papers to read and grade. For the first time in over three years, I wouldn't be prepping to teach women another book of the Bible.  These were all the things that had kept my heart pumping, my purpose at the helm.

After eleven years writing out the second semesters' lesson plans, I spent our winter break bracing for the quiet.  When I thought about how the boys would all return to school again, I felt the fear that comes when one must enter what Parker Palmer calls 'unbidden solitude.'

In January we took another step -- do things ever stop shifting? -- and gave full mental assent to our now reality.  The '66 Mustang, that representation of whimsy and joy, was replaced with construction tools and a truck to haul them.  It is a daily reminder that vocational ministry too has been towed away.  For now.  And daily he goes to do the work that exhausts his body but leaves room in his heart for a new thing to grow.

And so I filled up January with anything that would make use of the silence.  I made (and kept) routine doctor appointments, doubled up on classes at the gym, stacked all the books to read in a satisfying tower. I worked through photos, auditioned for a job, and ventured into a new community of activist women.  I invited friends to my birthday brunch, the zoo, cooking club, to coffee, the play place, to lunch out and to dinner here. 

I also did things for my son who, in all honesty, just kept breaking.  First it was his glasses, snapped in two while wrestling with his brother.  Then it was a fall one day that induced a mild concussion and a sprained knee.  But largely it was his heart and in a courageous act of maturity we all began the weekly practice of family counseling.  So many things have transpired and he's taken the brunt of it all.  We want to be better helpers.  Wounded healers, all.

What January did was calibrate what is now regular: his daily work, prayer group, core group, Cub Scouts, youth group -- the regular steps we take each week.  This is the shape of our family now.  Even if this is all there is, can I consider it enough?  January appraised the value of my relationships, tweeked my expectations, fine tuned our existence.

But more profoundly, what January did was carry me more deeply into disillusionment -- which sounds sad and gloomy but isn't.  While there were a few days where the melancholy hovered, January took my hand and led me to real truths about myself, my faults, my family, my past.

There began a stripping away of things I thought to be true:  the family system that doesn't encourage nearly enough, my listening skills that were found lacking, the partners that are really consultants, the sweet boys that have their own emerging faults, the missional endeavor that was really attractional. I learned to respond to disillusionment with joy, knowing that what was happening was what was right.

January was a needed stripping away in which I let illusions die.  I re-examined who could input into my life, relaxed when false motives came to light, reviewed systems and re-entered a sphere where I was just a woman with a nametag.  There was the direction change that needed to happen though I didn't want to admit it. There was the marriage coaching with friends who appear fine on the surface.  And even the bathroom scale reports the 'grief diet' is no longer effective.
"As our illusions are removed, like barriers on a road, we have a chance to take that road farther toward truth." -- Parker J. Palmer
I am grateful for January. For its reminders that this present moment is always grace.  Always gift.  That discovering truth doesn't equal catastrophe.  It just reveals the direction in which to travel.