Friday, April 4, 2014

On the Survival of a Church

Our church is at a crossroads. We have studied our past, evaluated our present, and contemplated our future. Like many long-established, small-town churches, our membership has declined as our community has changed, and the bottom line seems to be: Something has to give.

The answer, after prayerful consideration on the part of the committee assigned to do the aforementioned study, evaluation, and contemplation, seems to lie not in downgrading to a smaller, more affordable, more visible location nor in altering our style of worship to attract young, hip worshippers, but in service, in going out into our community with the love of Jesus Christ.

What does this mean and how will it keep our church alive for another fifty, hundred, two hundred years?

I don't know.

But this I do know:

The Son of Man did not come to be served, 
but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Mark 10:45 

We can find no more biblical model of church than service sprung from a desire to make Jesus known to our neighbors and our world. Our spiritual forefathers, indeed the Author and Finisher of our faith himself, died for the sake of bringing God's love to a broken world. Should we balk at hosting a soup kitchen?

I expect it will be messy at times, if we truly seek the broken and needy, if we truly love and welcome them into our fellowship. Looking to Christ, though, I don't see how we can follow any other course.

As for how a more focussed effort to serve our community will help our church, I have to believe that when we are faithful to God and to his calling to go out into all the world, he will be faithful to provide and bless us beyond our imaginations, not only in the physical, material realm, but to the very depths of our souls.

He is, after all, God.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Praying for Trouble

As a homeschooling mom, I realize my opinion on prayer in school may seem somewhat irrelevant. On the other hand, I am a mother and a Christian and an American, and I have opinions - opinions which may earn me a bit of wrath.

I believe in prayer, and I support a student's right to practice her faith publicly in an appropriate manner. By this I mean I could not support a student standing up in the middle of a standardized test and praying aloud for God's help, but I fully support a student's right to assemble with other believing students for prayer during non-class time and to speak of faith before and after class and as it pertains to class discussion (e.g. "As a Christian, I see Character X as a bit of a Christ figure in his willing sacrifice of his life for another.") I believe in prayer. I believe in freedom of speech, even religious speech, and I cringe whenever I hear any of these rights have been infringed upon.

But I have a real problem with the "I support prayer in school" movement, and not just because I'm asked to "share if you agree." I assume, perhaps erroneously, that this movement is calling for a return of prayer at the beginning of the school day. If I'm wrong - if "I support prayer in school," really means "I support individuals' rights to practice faith openly in public places," please forgive me for seeming so harsh. Also, please change your slogan to reflect your actual views.

Here is the problem: We live in an increasingly un-Christian nation. There is no guarantee that the person leading a school prayer over the morning announcements will believe in the same deity you believe in, and an increasing likelihood that they will not. Given the religious diversity of our culture, even within Christianity, the "best" prayer I can imagine a principal or teacher getting away with, even if they could find a way to pray without lawsuit, would have to be to some nebulous divinity that looks nothing like the God in whom I believe. No thank you. I'd rather my children not be schooled in watered-down, heretical universalism. Honestly, to lobby for prayer in school, especially given changing religious views, is to lobby for our children to be, more likely than not, trained in views contrary to our own.

Of equal importance is the fact that prayer cannot be legislated away. It's really that simple, and to suggest otherwise is to completely miss the point of prayer. Those who are going to pray cannot be stopped by legislation forbidding prayer, because prayer is a matter of the heart, a one-on-one conversation with God that begins and ends in the heart, whether or not it takes a detour through the mouth. I could add a few notes on Jesus's instructions not to pray on the street corners and in the market, to be seen by men, but to lock oneself away in private to pray, but that might be taking my argument too far. Perhaps, rather than wasting our breath calling for a return of prayer to schools, we ought to invest our time in training our youth and families to pray with their hearts in all circumstances and, taking it a step further, to live lives worthy of the calling they have received.

Because we don't need sanitized prayer by an institution. We need raw, honest prayer and faithful living by followers of Jesus Christ.

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Honest Book Reports - The Iron Ring

The Iron Ring is an impossible to follow book by Lloyd Alexander. In it, the main character, Tamar, loses his kingdom, riches and life, which is symbolized by an iron ring, which is worthless since he finds out he can throw it away halfway through the book. He fights a snake underwater to save a talking monkey, meets a crazy girl, a talking eagle, which acts like a self-pitying three-year-old, and a wise bear, which smashes crockery, all while lugging along a worthless old man. All around, this book is boring with a twist ending that makes no sense. If you bought it thinking it would be half as good as the Chronicles of Prydain, I hope you kept your receipt. ~ Boy, almost 12

Truth time. I love Lloyd Alexander. I mean, I seriously love Lloyd Alexander - with the kind of love that drives a reader to check out every single one of his books her library holds and even request that they purchase one or two missing volumes. Get it? I love Lloyd Alexander.

Now that that's out of the way, I can't say I entirely disagree with my son's assessment of The Iron Ring posted above. Being based on Indian folklore, with which I am not at all familiar, it was hard to follow. On the positive side, I found it intriguing to read something from a non-Western tradition. Beyond the cultural differences, there were some strange, difficult to follow goings-on. But Lloyd Alexander, outside of Prydain and Westmark, has a habit of being a little... weird. (Check out The Rope Trick, for a prime example). Sometimes, he borders on bizarre, and I totally understand how that could be off-putting. On the other hand, there is a depth to his weirdness - especially in that "twist that makes no sense" - that struck me as beautiful and made me want to read the story over, even though I did struggle at times to get through it.

My son's descriptions of the characters are pretty spot-on, as well, though by no means complete. Most significantly, I would argue that Merri is not "a crazy girl," but rather a smart, perceptive, courageous one. Okay, so maybe she is a wee bit crazy, but whatever... Alexander's characters, here as in all of his books, are real, relatable, and complex.

Thematically, Alexander does not disappoint. Honor - true, sacrificial honor - trumps false human concepts of honor, as seen in several characters' breaking their long-revered dharma for the sake of aiding their companions.

All in all, The Iron Ring was a hard read, but a worthwhile one. While my son may shudder to look at it, sitting on my shelf with all my pretty Lloyd Alexander books, I reserve the right to read it again in search of deeper understanding of the beautiful secrets Alexander whispers through his tale of Tamar and Merri and all of their friends.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Week I Was Going To Have It All Together

Saturday: With the husband and the oldest two at camp, the girl at the grandparents' house, and the littlest entertaining himself with Lego and lightsabers, I spend the day cleaning and rearranging. Papers are filed or discarded and homeschool books are sorted into crates for each child. The floors are vacuumed and mopped, and I go to bed feeling ready to embrace a new week with joyous, focused energy.

Sunday: I wake to find our sweet boxer sleeping in a lake of her own urine. Her continence and hips have been failing for a couple months now. When our campers return, I notice the pile of laundry they dump in the hallway only long enough to schedule it for Monday morning's first load of launch.

Monday: Again, I wake to a dog in a puddle, and it feels like the proverbial last straw. I just can't bear to wash the dog's blanket and the floor every morning or so. I tell Geoff, rather firmly, that it is time for him to take the dog to the vet. I've already taken her twice, to no avail. She's old, and despite medication and special diet, she's not improving. When he agrees to take her the next morning, I fall apart. She's our dog. I don't want this to be the end. I don't want to have to make this decision. But her health is unmistakeably failing... and as I watch her sleep that night, I see her tensing in her sleep and know that she is ready to rest.

Tuesday: We say goodbye to Sara, the dog who has been so perfect for our family for almost seven years. As on Monday, we work through our school lessons in a jagged sort of way - a little of this, a bit of that, with breaks now and then when the tears won't stay where they belong. I don't think I can look at another boxer again.

Wednesday: Geoff sends me a link to a boxer mix at the Humane Society of Charlotte. He's cute. And when I call, they tell me he's sweet.

Thursday: With a prayer for wisdom, I lead my four children into the humane society shelter and ask to see Simba. They send me out to the kennel. I walk between rows of cages, cold air nipping at my cheeks while dogs jump and bark on either side of me. I'm a little nervous that one of the kids will get too close to the wrong dog and lose a finger. And then we see him, sitting in his kennel, quietly looking at us. One of the kennel workers leads us to an interaction pen while another brings Simba. He walks around, sniffing along the edge of the fence, then stops to investigate us. He's beautiful. He's sweet. He's big. He's gentle. Geoff and I are texting back and forth. He suggests sleeping on it. I'm terrified someone else will adopt this dog. He comes home with us.

He tries to look out the windshield. He steps on a kid or two, trying to look out a side window. When we arrive home, he chases the cats. He strains to get to the guinea pigs. I keep him on the leash until Geoff gets home and sets up the crate we'd used for the Great Dane we had many, many years ago. When we put him in the crate, he whines every time we leave the room. He even escapes the crate once.

I can't sleep. There's a knot in my stomach. I'm sure I've done the wrong thing, and I wish I could go back and undo the whole crazy day. I miss Sara. This new dog... He's going to be a lot more work than I had expected. If only I'd listened to Geoff... If only I'd listened to that tiny voice telling me to wait... I hadn't realized how unready I was for a new dog. All the things that had swayed me into adopting him - his beauty, his gentleness, his sweetness - none of them seem to matter much anymore.

Friday: I wake up tired, with that knot still in my stomach. I apologize to Geoff, and I ask him if we need to take the dog back before the mistake gets any bigger. My husband - the man I love so very much - tells me to give it time. It's not so bad. We've had plenty of emotionally driven decisions turn out for good. We dub the dog Bane, because emotional decisions seem to be the bane of our life, and we might as well embrace that fact, and because the dog never responded to the name he'd come with.

I take Bane for a short walk while Geoff moves the guinea pigs upstairs. When our pastor stops by to welcome Bane to the neighborhood, I try not to cry. I don't want to admit how awfully selfish I've been to bring him home...and then to wonder if we ought to take him back, because I am just not ready for a new dog, no matter how sweet, gentle, and gorgeous he is. And then, as we go about a new day of school and cleaning and letting Bane get comfortable, I kind of, sort of fall in love with this big boxer mix whose daddy, I begin to suspect, may have been a Dane. By evening, when the youth group comes over for a bonfire, I introduce Bane to each visitor with hopefully not too obvious pride. Something has happened, and I think the simplest way to put it is that Bane became mine. He loves his people, and he tries so hard to please us.

And please us he does.

I could write more - about how wisdom isn't always logical, about persevering when one would rather give up, about life's detours not always being nearly as bad as we think they are, about finding grace, amazing grace, in the midst of one's foolishness. Maybe someday I will, but it's late now, and we'll soon have a new Monday to live. I doubt I'll ever have it all together, but that's okay.

I sign off with heartfelt gratitude to all who helped welcome Bane home. He is, without doubt, a keeper.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Simple Philosophy of Family Size

I've read a lot of blog posts on family size lately. Rather, I've seen a lot of blog posts on family size. Some of them are just too long to read while waiting for the toast to pop up. Anyhow, since talking about family size is so in vogue, on this cold Friday morning, with Jake and the Neverland Pirates playing in the background and an adorable girl leaning against me with her hair in every bit as much disarray as my own, I offer my own simple philosophy of family size.

  1. You get what you get, whether you plan it or not, and it's really no one's business why you have the number of children you have. More importantly...
  2. You love what you get. No matter what, you love your children. Every single one of them.
  3. You do what you have to do. With each additional child, some things get easier, some things get harder. Sometimes you hang your head in shame (Jake is a huge step up from some of the shows we watch around here), but sometimes you amaze yourself. But whatever your situation, you do what must be done to keep your family alive and well.
  4. It's hard. Whether you have one or twenty, raising children is a daunting journey, with unforeseen challenges at every turn.
  5. It's worth it. That part about loving what you get... It's true, and it's what makes you unable to imagine life without any one of your children.

That's it. My simple philosophy. No pros and cons of any particular number because I don't attach virtue to the number of times a woman has pushed a baby out of her body. This is not to say that I've never noted a difference between myself and mothers with fewer or more children than I have, or that I've never appreciated posts about largish families. But we speak of mothers coming together and supporting one another, and while I think we can honestly lay out the joys and challenges of life with what society considers "a large number" of children, it's far more important simply to recognize and celebrate the joys and challenges of motherhood and fatherhood, without regard for family size.

Because there's another point I might add, and that's that, as parents, however many children we have, we're all in this together.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

When Celebration Doesn't Come Easily

Tomorrow is Christmas, a time of joy and celebration, yet as I scroll down my Facebook newsfeed, I see article after article about imperfect lives, about loss, about grief. I think of families I know who are navigating this first Christmas without a loved one, awkwardly learning new roles, new traditions, new ways of remembering the person whose absence on this first Christmas without stings so much, and I wonder if more than a Merry Christmas, we need a Real Christmas, a Christmas when we shed the facade of cheerfulness and speak honestly of our imperfections, grief, and even plain, old-fashioned weariness. I'm not saying we shouldn't be happy and joyful and all that... just that maybe it's okay to be still when all the world dances.

Below are some thoughts I shared two-and-a-half years ago on grief and loss as they pertain to Easter celebrations. I think they apply equally at this time of year when we celebrate the birth of Him who came to take away the sting of sin and swallow up Death in victory.


Good Friday typically does not top the list of favorite holidays, probably because it's not really human nature to celebrate Death with warm fuzzies and apple pie.  Deep down, I think we all pretty much despise Death.  I sure do.  Yes, because of Christ's death and resurrection, we have the hope of eternal life in heaven when we die, but until then...

Until then, Death steals from us without remorse.  Though defeated, Death lashes out, like a dying despot trying to destroy as many in his demise as in his reign.  Death takes ones we love and leaves us swimming through a flood of emotions ranging from horror to anger to fear to emptiness and finally to surrender.  A shadow of sorrow remains, even as Life brings new joys to celebrate.  So when Good Friday comes around, and I think about Christ's death on the cross, a bit of my soul rejoices in the knowledge that someone, namely Jesus Christ, took on Death.  And won.  While it may not be entirely reverent, I picture myself on the sidelines of an epic boxing match, shouting, "Yes!  You're going DOWN, Death!"

And then comes Easter, with pastels and bunny rabbits, pretty clothes and special music.  The meaning of Easter sometimes seems a bit hidden under all that clutter, but it is a beautiful day.  Easter is that day when we learn that Good Friday worked.  Jesus won.  We win.  Easter is a day of rejoicing.

For some though, rejoicing may not take the expected form.  Rejoicing may not be a jubilant laugh bursting forth from a glad heart, but a choking cry, wrenching its way from the deepest recesses of a broken heart, for whom Christ's death and resurrection are not only its greatest hope, but its only hope, the fine thread keeping its nose above the flood of grief, sorrow, and agony.  For those acutely suffering Death's dying sting, rejoicing is more gritty, more desperate than a pretty pastel Easter morning.  But this sort of rejoicing is just as beautiful as glad faces raised toward Heaven.

Listening to John's ipod as I ran last night - yes, my child is more technologically blessed than his mother -"He Reigns" by the Newsboys came on.  I like the entire song, but the last verse especially stood out last night:

And all the powers of darkness
Tremble at what they've just heard
'Cause all the powers of darkness
Can't drown out a single word

When all God's children sing out
Glory, glory, hallelujah
He reigns, He reigns
All God's people singing
Glory, glory, hallelujah
He reigns, He reigns

All God's children sing out "Glory, glory.  Hallelujah.  He reigns."  Whether in jubilation or desperation, this song silences the powers of darkness.  It rises above the dying shriek of Death to give glory to Him who defeated Death once for all.  I guess the point I want to make today - besides expressing appreciation for the raw wonder of the cross - is that whether your heart is moved by the softer side of Easter or stinging from the agony of Death, whether you feel more attuned to Easter or to Good Friday, you have a part in the worldwide choir of God's children.  Don't wait till Sunday to sing.


Grief is ugly. It's clumsy and messy and painful. But it is real and it is necessary, and I hope and pray that those enduring it this season will find the grace in the midst of it. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Grace of Living in Community

I don't remember what started it. Maybe it was staying up late last night. Maybe it was the excitement of the local festival. Maybe it was all the candy they'd downed at said festival.

Whatever it was, when my children climbed into the van, they did so with - How shall I say this? -  less grace than I would have liked.

And I, stellar mother that I am, oversaw said loading into van with less grace than I would have liked. Sliding the door shut with more force than necessary, I moved to the front of the van and sat on the hood, thinking that maybe they'd figure out that we weren't going anywhere till they settled down and began behaving like little human beings who have been carefully instructed on proper manners and conduct.

Go ahead. Laugh with me.

As I settled into my hood-top perch, someone behind me and a few cars away said, "I know that feeling." The father chuckled and continued unloading his van, and I laughed, too.

We all know that feeling. Sometimes a reminder that we aren't alone is enough to dispel that feeling.

We were out of the parking lot in moments, and our stop to fill up the van went off without a hitch, but the best was yet to come.

As we tumbled out of our van and into the grocery store parking lot, an elderly lady stopped and looked at my children most wistfully. She remarked on how beautiful they are and asked if they are all mine. She then told me very sweetly that I "have a job,"  and that I'm doing it very well. (If only she'd seen me sitting on the hood a few minutes before!) Maybe I'm a great mom, maybe I'm not, but her words reminded me to be a great mom - or a greater mom - right then and there. Her words - words of love and encouragement - lifted my spirits as I headed into the grocery store with four energetic children.

We were almost to the entrance of the store when the most bizarre, wonderful, tear-inducing thing occurred.

My son, so often prone to keep to himself as much as possible, asked my permission to go help an elderly lady load her groceries into her car. Permission granted, he approached her and pleasantly offered his help. She declined, but my heart soared seeing his desire do something so simple, yet so beautiful for someone in his community.

We live and grow and thrive in community. None of this - not the encouragement I received nor the connection my son made - could have happened in isolation. I had to take my children out into our community. I had to be honest enough to sit on the hood of a van of screaming kids. I had to be humble enough to let an elderly lady see the inside of my van, in all its candy wrapper-dirty socks-towels left after swim practice-glory. And my son had to see a frail woman with a cart of groceries standing at the back of a beat up station wagon. There is amazing grace in living within a community.

We never know when our words or actions may set another's course in an entirely different and vastly superior direction. So be nice. And moms, dads... If you're wondering what happened to all those lessons you've taught your children from the cradle, they're in there, they'll come to the surface when you least expect it, and it will be nigh unto impossible not to cry when they do the beautifully right thing on their own.

These seemingly insignificant events have left me humbled. At the close of a half hour that began with less grace than I would have liked, I found far more grace than I ever would have imagined.