Thursday, February 25, 2016

Reasons to Drag Myself to Church Today, part 2: Church Stalker

I never know which of my blog posts will resonate with readers, but my “Reasons to Drag Myself to Church Today” (July 2012) post has always been among my most visited (It’s actually my second highest post ever). Here’s a continuation of it on a slightly different, more humorous, theme.

[This story is too funny not to share, though I doubt I can capture the utter absurdity of it.]

We are in the process of looking for a church closer to home, and visited a local Southern Baptist church (maybe 250-300 members). We talked to the youth leader about what’s available for our kids and she said she would mail out some info on upcoming events if we filled out a connect card. I don’t usually fill out those things on the first visit, not until we’ve had more than one visit and are seriously considering it, but I thought, “Sure, why not. What could happen?”

Well, the DAY AFTER we visited, right before we sat down to dinner, an older couple showed up at our door from this church. It’s about 25 degrees outside and they’re asking questions like, “so you’ve been to church before?” - questions that can never be adequately answered quickly or with any justice. Um, yes; I’ve got some experience with church. No, I’m not about to invite you in.


I was polite, but ended the conversation pretty quickly, mildly annoyed. I was willing to overlook this as we considered the church for a “fit” for our family. In the meantime, we visited several other churches in the area. This became a benchmark for me though - the churches that were not likely to visit us uninvited received higher “ratings.” I was on the lookout for “pressure levels.” How much pressure do they put on people to show up and make things happen?

Cue this past Monday night; two weeks have passed since that initial home visit and we haven’t been back. Not one, but TWO separate visits at our door over the course of an hour or so, one before dinner and one after. These were higher caliber visitors this time, leaders involved in the youth ministry. You see, they had already taken our kids’ information and put them into classes! Holy Frick! Monday must be psycho-church visit night.


I started laughing even before I closed the door on the last visit, though I tried to hide it with a cough. I just couldn’t believe it! I went a bit loopy for about 30-45 minutes (to which my family can attest), laughing wildly and occasionally cornering random family members and aggressively saying, “Hi! I’m from _______ Church! Will you be my friend?!” I started to wonder, how many visits would it take before I consider filing a restraining order?

These were nice people, I’m sure, but what kind of church requires their members to do stuff like this? I felt sorry for these people, the pressure they must be under to “bring people in.” Surely we have a better vision for church than this? Though most churches wouldn’t practice this kind of “visitation” anymore, at least this one was consistent with the “A” part of the ABC’s of church growth – Attendance (the others being Buildings & Cash). They were determined and committed to a vision of church life that required us to be a part of it. Wow, that feels cult-like.

Thus, I continue to be gun-shy about connect cards, and churches in general. I hold out hope though, because Jesus lives and he loves his people so I’m going to try and love them too. Most Christians are better than this, but once in a while, BAM!  - Church Stalkers. Time to install turrets or at least start breaking out my “Baptist Beatin’ Stick.”

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Let Me Ash You Something - Some Thoughts on Lent

Tomorrow (Wednesday, February 10) is Ash Wednesday which means the liturgical season of Epiphany is ending and Lent is beginning. Ruth Haley Barton writes
"Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season—six weeks that are set apart for the purpose of drawing closer to God and seeking him with greater intensity. Unfortunately, the Lenten season often gets reduced to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This is a fine question, but it can only take us so far. The real question of the Lenten season is, “How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?”
This begs an even deeper question: “Where in my life have I gotten away from God, and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?” 
. . . As God gives us wisdom and insight about our true condition, we can choose spiritual practices that are uniquely suited to help us return to God in the places where we have strayed or to renew our passion where our hearts have grown cold."
Are there places where you have gone cold? When you're alone and quiet, do you sense places where you have strayed from trusting in God's love? Where are you still living as an orphan and not as God's beloved? I can think of two or three such places in my own life, places where God's reign has little traction, places where I still rely on my own strategies for living. Lent helps us remember that we are in need not only of learning to say "yes" to God in surrender, but "no" to things that keep us from that surrender. This is what grace is and does.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14 NIV)
Dallas Willard wisely observed two objectives for any disciple seeking to live as Jesus did. These correspond to the "yes" of surrender and the "no" to the things that get in the way of that surrender.
"The first objective is to bring apprentices to the point where they dearly love and constantly delight in that “heavenly Father” made real to earth in Jesus and are quite certain that there is no “catch,” no limit, to the goodness of his intentions or to his power to carry them out.
. . . The second primary objective of a curriculum for Christlikeness is to remove our automatic responses against the kingdom of God, to free the apprentices of domination, of “enslavement” (John 8:34; Rom. 6:6), to their old habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and action. These are the “automatic” patterns of response that were ground into the embodied social self during its long life outside The Kingdom Among Us. They make up “the sin that is in my members” which, as Paul so brilliantly understood, brings it about that “wishing to do the good is mine, but the doing of it is not” (Rom. 7:18)." (Divine Conspiracy, 321-22).
 As we think of these two objectives, Lent clearly focuses on the second - the removal of "automatic responses against the kingdom of God." These are the orphan practices we learned while living "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). Think of what you rely on to get by when you're afraid and alone. Do these things bring life or death?

Take time and space to search your hearts this week. As you listen, ask your loving Heavenly Father what hindrances might exist that prevent you from freely, naturally and easily delighting in His love for you. In his presence, talk to him about these things. Receive his forgiveness and his vision for what your life could look like with him.

Don't lose heart - this process takes a lifetime! God is in no hurry. As Teilhard de Chardin reminds us, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God." He is not impatient or frustrated with you or your lack of progress. He is delighted with every movement you make in his direction! Soak in his lenten love, and let that transform whatever "no" you need to engage in as an act of a lover responding to the summons of a jealously tender God.