Our 30 year old retaining wall had come tumbling down, and the stone masons were tasked with rebuilding it. They would reuse the rocks, but they’d have to shape them to fit the new design. The old wall had looked a lot like a pile of rocks stuck together with some mortar. The new wall would be superior to the old one and not just because of its advanced construction technique either. It would be a real work of art: aesthetically appealing as well as structurally sound.
The work was tedious. Each mason chose a stone and with chisel and mallet, began sculpting it to fit the wall. Gloved hands turned the rock this way then that. Decades-old dirt clods fell away easily; old mortar took a bit more work. Eventually though, the mason would have to knock off parts of the stone itself. He would pound away, turning round rocks into square ones. Once he had placed a reformed stone in place, he’d choose another one and start again. The wall began to take shape. And it is beautiful.
Kind of like a church.
Think about it: we come together to build something beautiful and strong. Like the masons working on the wall, God shapes us into living stones. God holds us tenderly in gentle but firm hands, knowing we have everything we need to be the building block needed in this place at this time. Yet we’ve covered ourselves with the concealing mud of shame or conceit, vanity or self-loathing. As we are placed together to form church, God carefully, slowly, and with great love, removes as much of our muck as we will allow.
Sure enough, it takes no time for our ugly parts, the ones we wouldn’t release, to scratch against the residue of The Others. It’s uncomfortable, even painful, to have to make space for them. It would be such a beautiful church, if The Others weren’t so muddy and jagged.
“They should have let God shape that mess off of them before they came here. They just aren’t going to fit in here like that.” We wince and grumble, making a show of accommodating their faults. Meanwhile, we have forgotten our own smudges and imperfections, concentrating as we are on the defects of The Others. Too often, we leave or The Others leave, seeking a place in a different church, a different community.
And the story repeats itself: because no matter where we go, the living stones are imperfect, dirty, and broken. At least that’s what it looks like to human eyes.
But what does God see? To divine eyes, do we look like rare gems, uniquely shaped to form this particular church? Do our imperfections look like godly opportunities to grow into who we were created to be?
God calls to us saying, “Come to Jesus, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-6)
*This post originally appeared at baptistnews.com as "A ragged wall that looks a lot like the Church," on March 27, 2016. "Baptist News Global is a reader-supported, independent news organization providing original and curated news, opinion and analysis about matters of faith." Visit them regularly at baptistnews.com.
That night 18 years or so ago, I had just about reached the end of my proverbial rope.
Our children were nearly 4, 2, and 3 months when my husband got a job in a town 4 hours away. He began working there during the week and coming home on the weekends; the kids and I stayed local, trying to sell our house so we could all move to our new city together. Weekdays, I was basically a single parent with three children under four, a part time job, and house that needed to be tidy and ready to show potential buyers at a moment’s notice.
That was hard enough but the 2-year-old, Baker, was chronically sick. He'd been diagnosed with asthma when he was 15 months old and often had week-long bouts of wheezing during which he had multiple breathing treatments every day. Many times, I would be nursing my infant (Margaret), with Baker cuddled up right beside me, holding the nebulizer mask to his face.
One of the most difficult issues I faced with my asthmatic son was that he didn't like to take oral medication. And when I say he didn’t like it, I don’t mean he was mildly disinclined. I mean he would run screaming and crying through the house as if I’d just threatened to remove his tongue. No kidding: there was no oral medication he would abide. Those bubblegum flavored pain relievers that kids beg to take because they are so sweet? No deal. Delsym? The delicious cough syrup that tastes like a gourmet orange sauce you'd add to a fancy desert? He spat it out like poison.
So that night, Baker was in the midst of an asthma crisis for which the pediatrician (who we’d seen earlier that day) prescribed oral steroids. At the time—I hear it’s better now—liquid prednisone tasted about how I suspect motor oil would taste if you added a touch of raspberry flavoring. Getting prednisone in that child required the kind of good cop/bad cop pairing that police officers might use to soften the most unrepentant offenders.
Already (yuck alert!) my boy had been throwing up mucus, massive amounts too. It was vile. I explained to Baker that either he had to take the medicine or we’d have to go to the hospital. (I wasn’t exaggerating.) Much to my surprise and relief, he summoned the intestinal fortitude and swallowed the dose.
Victory! A fleeting one.
A few minutes later, while I carried baby Margaret in her sling as I held Baker, perched on my hip, my boy lost the dose, throwing up at least as much as he had earlier, only this time it was tinged an undeniable raspberry color. He’d aimed for the floor, and mostly made it, except for the 1/4 cup or so that landed in my hair and down my back.
Naturally, his wheezing spiked immediately, as did Margaret’s discomfort and therefore her screaming.
Before I even realized it, Trellace, always the helpful child, went to get something to help clean up the mess. Oh look! There’s a refill jug of soft soap! Let’s use that! You guessed it: while trying to get some soap on a cloth to clean up the mess, my four-year-old spilled the ENTIRE jug of soft soap.
(Pause. Have you ever tried to clean up soap? What do you use? Soap is out. And you can’t use water ‘cause that just makes it worse. A trowel maybe? I’m asking, you see, because I don’t know the answer.)
Somehow, in the midst of that disaster of an evening, I found myself on the phone asking for help. I don’t remember now if the phone rang in a Holy Spirit kind of way or if—perhaps even more miraculously—I found the strength to reach out. I couldn’t tell you.
I just know this. When I asked Becky Garrett for help, she came. I think maybe her teen-aged daughter was with her; I’m not sure. But when she left, my hair and my clothes were vomit free, Trellace was in her pj’s, Baker’s breathing sounded less like whistling (thanks to a successful second attempt with the medication), and Margaret was content. Not a trace of soap remained on my floor, my dishes were clean, and my laundry was folded. The cacophony had quieted; harmony was restored.
That’s Becky. She’s the kind of person who brings peace with her. I think chaos just shuts down when she appears. I don’t know how she does it. No idea. But I know that when I was holding on—barely—to the frayed ends of my rope, Becky arrived, gently took the rope from my hands, and gave me a net instead. She looked just like Jesus.
In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday on 7-22-2015, I’m writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks. This is number 14. Click on the tag "50 Thank You Notes" to read the others.
Earlier this year, I preached a sermon called "Shining in the Darkness," from John 1:1-18 and Jeremiah 31:1-7. Today, I was getting so down about all the fussy, contentious election news, that I reread some of that sermon to remind myself that we do, in fact, have hope. I thought I'd pull out a portion of that to share with you.
(I've linked the audio below for my mother, and for anyone else who might want to listen to the whole thing.)
Have you ever experienced dark times? Times when you longed for light? Just a little light, you think. A flashlight. A cellphone. Even a match.
Indeed, darkness abounds in this world. And sometimes we find ourselves crying out to God saying, Look God, these times are dark! I’ve lost my job; my kid’s struggling in school. My house has been on the market for a year and doesn’t show any signs of selling; my parents are growing old and showing the signs of age. I’m estranged from a family member; I’m a single parent. My job makes me miserable but I can’t quit because I need the money; I suffer from chronic pain, crippling depression, heart-breaking loneliness. My marriage is over; my loved one has cancer; my child is terminally ill. This is dark stuff.
And the problem is, even we as the Body of Christ don’t seem to know how to access the Light. I know a teenager charged with a crime he did not commit and a woman who has dealt with difficult, life threatening complications from an intricate and delicate surgery. Both of them have said to me, “I know this is part of God’s plan or it would not have happened.” They say this, shrugging shoulders, weeping, baffled by a God who would plan such things.
And I say, NO!
God put on flesh! God gets it. God is upset right along with you! Now, I do believe God will redeem all things and is always in the process of regeneration, reformation, renewal. But just because something happens doesn’t mean God designed it that way.
Redemption? YES. Intention? NO!
Think about it. God does not always get God’s way. Do you think God planned the Holocaust? Did God plan the attacks in Paris recently? Does God carefully lay out a plan for childhood cancer? I cannot believe these tragedies are God’s intention. What I know, though, is that not even darkness this extreme is beyond God’s redemptive love.
Scripture says in 1 John 1:5, "God is light and in God is no darkness at all." I cannot believe that God ordained the Holocaust. But I stake my life on the assurance that even in the dark, horror-filled days of the Holocaust, God's redemptive love found divine entrance. Almost immediately following the devastation of the Paris attacks, people found hope in unexpected places and encouragement from new friends. In the midst of countless chemotherapy appointments, the mom of a child with cancer comes home to a fresh cooked meal and a lawn freshly mowed. That’s light! That is God.
“It’s like real-life Tetris,” Josh said, laughing.
“Every time we load stuff, it’s hilarious,” Sarah said. “We have to sit around the drums. And the microphones are, like, here,” she said holding her hands on either side of her head and gesturing forward and back. Josh pivoted on the restaurant bench and leaned back. “One time Andy had to sit like this,” he said, lifting his legs to place his feet on an imaginary drum.
“And there was always something wrong with that car,” Sarah said, shaking her head, somehow frowning and giggling at the same time.
“The Jeep Liberty! That was fun!” Josh said, meaning it.
Sarah looked at me, making eye contact. “It wasn’t fun.”
“It was!” Josh laughed as he ticked off the crises they faced. “We ran out of gas once; the breaks went out one time. And it would just start smoking for one reason or the other. It was great.”
“Josh enjoyed it. I didn’t.”
We were having lunch at White Duck Taco Shop in Asheville, talking about Josh Linhart and Sarah McCoy’s new music venture. These two have been performing together since 2011 when they were college sophomores majoring in music at Mars Hill University. Now, five years later, they are two of the four musicians in the newly formed group, WHYM. Sarah is the vocalist and plays keyboard and guitar; Josh plays percussion; Andy Little, also a MHU grad, plays bass; and Nathan Culberson, a graduate of University of North Carolina in Asheville, plays electric guitar.
“Why the new name?” I asked them. (For the previous 3-4 years, the musicians of WHYM were known as The Friendly Beasts.)
“Mainly because our sound is so different now.” They spoke as much to each other as to me, so it’s hard to remember who said what. “Back then, we were college students who wanted to jam together. We did things as cheaply as possible; we were amateurs.”
“Now we are taking it up a notch. We’ve hired technicians to help us with production and we’re doing things professionally.”
“So even though the four of us were together as The Friendly Beasts, WHYM is really a whole new band.”
“WHYM.’ I’ve been trying to figure out what it means,” I said as Sarah and Josh seemed to wait for my answer—as if it was up to me to come to my own conclusion. “Is it initials for something? Is it from another language? Is it a play on the word ‘whim?’”
Silence. We sat there, thinking, not talking, about those four little letters. Sarah was the one to respond.
“It’s not any of those things. It’s really about the sound of the word. We wanted a single syllable that had a soft sound. We brainstormed a lot of different sounding words, and this one just seemed to fit. But we don’t really know what it means exactly. It’s a mystery.”
“The meaning will work itself out,” Josh added. “Kind of like our faith.”
“When we were younger, we saw things as more black and white. Now we have questions and we allow room for those questions, for the mystery, in our music.” (Their words began to merge again.)
“And not just in the lyrics, but also in the actual music.”
“We have been wanting to think about uncertainty.”
“Not to worry about it . . . “
“To leave space for it. And to be okay with uncertainty.”
“We think it’s more authentic.”
If WHYM is anything, it’s authentic. These musicians have been raised in the church; all four came to know Christ early in life. (Three of them are actually pastors’ kids!) They have lived their faith, wrestled with it, questioned it, and have kept believing. Their music draws listeners into a safe space where followers of Christ don’t have all the answers, where mystery is expected and therefore is not nearly so scary. As a youth minister, a parent to teens, and a friend to many college students, I can attest that this is the kind of safe place our students are seeking: a place where Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit moves in the most mysterious of ways, and humanity is beloved by God, even when they are uncertain.
WHYM started a Kickstarter campaign that lasts until March 3. Every donation—from $1-$5000—grants free music and additional rewards. (Just $5 gets you their new release, coming out in May!) Would you consider supporting them? If you do, down the road, you and I can both say, “You know that amazing band WHYM? I helped them get their start!”
I grew up Southern Baptist, so if it weren't for my Lutheran best friend giving up sweets every year around this time, I'd probably not have thought too much about the Lenten Season. I mean, I'm sure my Dad mentioned something about it in his sermons along the way, and he even held Maundy Thursday services way back in the seventies (radical for the time). Still, I didn't really practice Lent until about a decade ago when we joined a Baptist church that had reached back to its early Christian roots and resurrected the practice of Lent.
There are lots of different reasons that observance of Lent is important to all who follow Christ. (I recommend this article for more information and opinions on the season.) One reason I've heard is that Lent can be a sort of New Year's Resolutions re-boot, a time to get back on track with the life goals you set for yourself a couple of months ago. While I definitely agree that Lent is a time to reflect on our own brokeness, I don't actually think we should use this ancient practice as a self-improvement exercise. Not that Lent doesn't actually have that outcome, because naturally we do become more fully alive when we are more focused on God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But, in my opinion, self-improvement should not be the ultimate objective.
According to the liturgical (church) calendar, Lent marks the weeks leading up to the church's observance of Easter. Thus, it is a time of contemplation, a time to renew the commitment to follow Christ into the difficult spaces where darkness reigns and light is rare. Thus, for my Lenten discipline, I try to select something t0 add or eliminate that will remind me frequently of Christ's deep love for all of creation and my responsibility to reflect that love in my daily life. Want some examples? Here you go.
Whatever you choose for your Lenten discipline, my prayer is that you will remember daily that you are beloved beyond measure.
What about you? What Lenten commitments have you made?
I preach from time to time at First Baptist Church of Weaverville. Here are my most recent sermons.
December 6, 2015, "Let There Be Peace," Luke 3:1-6, Psalm 126.
October 11, 2015, "From Affliction to Proclamation," Hebrews 4:12-16, Psalm 22:1-15.
In my family, we call it cocoa butter advice. It’s the advice that no one needs, but everyone
offers. You know what I mean, right? It’s like when my sister suffered from a rare disorder called obstetric cholestasis which caused severe itching from the inside out. Some dear soul would hear she was pregnant and itching and would suggest, enlightened and eager, “Have you tried cocoa butter? That really soothed my itchy skin when I was pregnant.” My sister’s liver was malfunctioning and her obstetricians were consulting with specialists across the globe. It wasn’t cocoa butter that she needed.
Most of us have offered our share of this kind of not-so-helpful advice. We hear someone has a fever and we can hardly keep ourselves from reminding them to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration. Someone mentions computer problems and we ask way too quickly if they’ve tried restarting it. We mean well, bless our hearts, but this kind of advice is anything but helpful.
As the Body of Christ, we can easily become too generous with cocoa butter advice. It comes from a good place; we don’t want someone to suffer when we might suggest something that could alleviate their pain. So we jump in with solutions even before we have any idea what is truly needed.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my mother. You see, after years of unrelenting pain, Mother decided last fall to undergo a knee replacement. The risk of infection was minimal and extremely rare, but my mother fell into that dreaded one percent. The infection in her knee required a second surgery a year after the first. This surgery meant removing the first knee replacement and inserting an antibiotic prosthetic. After three or four months of immobility and daily IV antibiotics, she’ll have yet another knee replacement and hope to be in the 99% this time.
People, myself included, have had lots of suggestions for Mother. The thing is, she has done way more research on her particular situation than any of the rest of us. Plus, she is perfectly willing and capable of asking for information when she needs it. Unrequested advice is just not helpful right now. But those of us who love her want a quick fix. We want to offer some words of wisdom that will help her feel better faster.
As the Body of Christ, I think we are often guilty of over-advising. We love each other. We want to help. We want the pain to go away. But we don’t know how to do that, so we fill the gap with words of dubious relevance. One problem with this tendency is that too often we pronounce our advice and promptly absolve ourselves of responsibility. But instead of spewing out cocoa butter advice, what if we offered some real comfort?
Here are a few things we could try.
Let’s commit to being more intentional in ministering to each other. Let’s listen with open hearts to each other’s stories. And let’s keep the cocoa butter advice to ourselves.
*This piece was first published on November 16, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
I've seen lots of memes lately that say something like, "I just love meetings that last twice as long as they should, says no one ever." So here you go: my very own "Says No One Ever," statements.
That's what I've never heard. What about you? What can you add to this list?
"Be who you needed when you were younger." This meme, trending in social media, offers a great reminder to those of us who may have forgotten the struggles of our younger years; it's also a great suggestion for how to minister across generations.
In the community and in church, I hear so many negative comments about kids, teens, and young adults. "They require technology to have fun!" "They won't commit." "They lack direction." But really, we've all been there haven't we?
When I was in elementary school in the seventies, a certain doll was all the rage. My sister and I each got one for Christmas: she got Crissy, the brunette, and I got Velvet, the blonde. Crissy and Velvet had these magic belly buttons that you pushed to grow their hair; to make it short again, you turned a knob on their backs. With this new-fangled 20th century technology, and their fashionable outfits, they were magnificent! Today the latest technology is certainly advanced from Crissy and Velvet--and even Teddy Ruxpin--for that matter, but kids are very much the same. They are attracted to the newest (and most effectively marketed) toys, just like you and I were.
What I needed as a child was someone who was interested in the things that thrilled me; someone who took the time to get to know and understand me. (Oh how I loved explaining Velvet's fancy features to befuddled adults!) Today's children need that too. Sure, their toys baffle us, but so what? The more confused we are, the more delighted the kids will be to enlighten us.
As a teenager, I was often flummoxed by relationships, high school struggles, and post-graduation options. By grace, loving adults invested in my life. They asked questions, listened to my answers, and sometimes offered advice. Teens from this decade--just like teens from every other time--may not realize how much they long for your company. But think back. You remember how you felt when an adult (other than your profoundly stupid parents) took an interest in you, right? Today's kids need to be valued and appreciated just as much as you did.
Then there's our college and young adult years, heaven help us. Are you proud of every choice you made during your twenties? Yeah, me neither. The good news is our college choices weren't tweeted out to the world as a permanent digital record of adolescent angst. The better news is it's really quite easy to find out what today's young people are doing. Not too long ago, I was talking to a teenage friend and mentioned some picture I'd seen of him. He was shocked and accused me, hands on hips, "You've been stalking me, haven't you?" Equally surprised that he hadn't realized how accessible his antics were, I responded, "Umm, yeah. Daily." Then I talked to him about choices, direction, plans for the future. I needed that kind of intervention when I was his age; I needed real adult guidance. By that time, my parents had grown out of most of the pathetic dorkiness they'd suffered from during my teens, but I still needed other mentors. Young adults today do too.
And when it comes to the church, to ministry, "Be the person you needed when you were younger," has even greater import. Think back. Did you need someone to give you a "Get out of Hell free card," or did you need someone to tell you about the depth of God's love? Did you need people to give you all the answers, or did you really just need a safe place to ask the questions? Did you only need friends your age who were struggling with the same issues of faith as you? Or did you value the companionship of those whose faith had sustained them through a lifetime of trials?
If we are the Body of Christ, it really isn't enough for campus ministers, youth directors, and children's Sunday school leaders to reach out to specific age groups. It's not enough because to be the Body, we need the tendons of relationship to connect young muscle to wise bones. Thus strengthened, the Body of Christ becomes better equipped to build the Kingdom of God. And that . . . that is church.
*This piece was first published on October 19, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
OK, wait. Hear me: I know that we have been blessed to raise our children in a church with sound biblical teaching, qualified adult volunteers and a variety of interesting programs. I truly do understand that sometimes godly community eludes even the most faithful seeker. So, if you are in that agonizing place of longing, please know I get it. I’ve been there and I know it is a dark, dark space. My prayers are with you as you search for a church family.
I’m really talking more to folks who are currently connected to a congregation of believers, to those of us who regularly make choices about whether or not to attend the church we’ve chosen to call our own.
Back in the ’70s when I was a child, I went to church a lot. This was not, I confess, out of a burning desire to draw near to my Heavenly Father. No, I went to church mainly because my earthly father was my pastor, and also because church was my social activity center. Not much happened in the small towns of my childhood beyond the doors of the church. In 2015, things are different. Kids have more options today and church is just one of many places where children can spend their after-school hours.
There is one option though, that rises above all others: sports. Think about it. Let’s say you are a teen with three conflicting obligations on a given Wednesday night. You have a volleyball game; you have to study for an English test; and you have church. Which one are you going to do? There’s no discussion is there? You have to go to the game; your team depends on you! You'll study when you get home — even if you have to stay up late.
Athletic responsibilities also trump family obligations. If you are playing in a tournament the same day as a family reunion, you’ll most likely forgo your Aunt Nell’s homemade macaroni and cheese and suit up for your game. The family will forgive you, but you can’t let down the team!
Athletics. It’s where many of today’s Americans put their time, their money, and their unwavering focus. And I’m not sure why that’s the case. Most of us aren’t thinking our child is going to be the next Mia Hamm or Serena Williams. We might hope they’ll play in high school, maybe get a scholarship to college. But that’s rarely the case. In fact, many student athletes quit long before the recruiters scout them out because … well, because they’ve been playing that sport for a decade and a half!
Maybe it’s all the benefits of sports. Teamwork, sportsmanship, persistence, endurance, integrity: all these things are modeled and formed in athletic settings. Plus, friendships are formed across socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries. All that, and kids get valuable physical exercise too. So what’s my beef? It's this: in this country, too many people make sports — more specifically their children’s sports — their top priority.
When I’ve inquired about kids who missed Bible study, the excuse, “She has a soccer game,” is offered as if there’s no escaping it. The tone could just as easily be applied to the statement, “She’s incarcerated at a maximum security facility in Outer Mongolia.” My response is expected to be something like, “Oh! A soccer game. I didn’t realize! Well, of course she can’t be here.”
Listen, I’m the first to admit that church is not perfect. There will be times you or your kids are bored at church, times you don’t think your family has gotten anything out of the experience, and times one or all of you may leave with hurt feelings. Still, church offers something that is difficult to find elsewhere. It offers connection to the Body of Christ: to the saints who’ve gone before you, those who worship with you now, and those who will come after you.
See, I just wonder sometimes if America has the whole thing upside down. What if for the last 30 years or so, we’ve been prioritizing in the exact opposite order of importance? What if we should be viewing spiritual formation as primary, then family obligations, then academics, and finally athletics? What would that be like in our culture today?
Well, at the very least, we’d have to learn to say things like, “I’m sorry, he can’t play games scheduled for Wednesdays because he has children’s choir at church that night.” Or, “Oh, I wish she could go to that swim meet, but on Sunday mornings, we are with our church family.” And even, “No, my kids won’t be at basketball camp. They have Vacation Bible School that week.” It wouldn’t be easy. But if we are talking about lifelong well-being, what is more important than spiritual formation? What will sustain our children into the adult years, as parents, employees, spouses?
I know one thing. It’s not Little League.
*This piece was first published on September 21, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.