What Do You Look For In a Church?

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Not long ago someone who was moving to a new city asked  a group of us what we looked for in a church.

Some people said they valued good preaching, or good worship music, or a good children’s program. Some wanted a place that offered the old time religion and salvation message that was good enough for Grandma. Some wanted something deeper or fresher or more relevant. Some wanted standards. Some wanted to be open to everyone and everything. Some wanted a place where they could take an active part and others wanted a service that ended on time with easy access to the exit and the parking lot.

When they asked me I said I don’t know anymore.

I’ve been in rooms with brilliant teachers teaching brilliant thoughts to eager learners.

I’ve been in open fields with people willing to lay down their lives for the nations,

in kitchens where folks fed the poor,

in safe houses with two or three friends who understood my brokeness patiently worked toward my emotional healing,

in giant cathedrals with choirs and organ music that carried the echoes of a thousand years of faithfulness,

on patios around the barbecue where people talk about the love of Christ and things that matter,

in backrooms where street people loved each other with the deepest sincerity,

in quiet sanctuaries where the sacraments repeated the promises I needed to hear,

in rented spaces with music and dance so enthusiastic I could feel the beat in my chest,

in accepting ethnic communities where I was the only white person,

in gyms where children laughed and played and recited memory verses,

in creaky old pews where multi-generational families prayed together and stayed together

in halls and airport hangars where the power of the Holy Spirit was so strong people were thrown out of their chairs or fell on the floor with laughter or were healed of incurable diseases on the spot,

and in wood paneled sanctuaries where the elderly found comfort in hymns about heaven.

I have known the safety of basement classrooms with friends who desire to hear the Lord and are willing to graciously speak truth into my life.

I’ve known the church of the internet where spirit to spirit connection rides the air waves.

I’ve known the reverent and the raucous, the richly furnished and the barely maintained, the well-staffed and the unstaffed, the steadfast and the risk-taking.

It’s hard to choose which one I will reject if I cling solely to one and forsake the others.
I love them all.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

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All Saints & All Souls

I’ll never forget a TV show I saw which asked the question, “What do people who live very long lives have in common?” The answer surprised me. It was not their diets, or their lifestyles. They knew how to grieve well and had a reason to get up in the morning.

The church should be the safest place in the world, and yet again I recently heard a person suggest that a grieving mother shouldn’t come back to the group until she had finished mourning. Grief is part of life and we need to demonstrate, in a loving community, how to grieve well — with real emotions and with a real sense of hope, surrounded by loving acceptance.

When I read this blog by Ryan Matchett on the heart of All Saints and All Souls Day when the Church acknowledged those who mourn, I knew he understood the season. A loving community can weep with those who weep, but also help encourage each other to find a reason to get up and keep going. This is a beautiful post. Thank you, Ryan.

Convergent Christianity

When we lost our first child to miscarriage I was stunned. It was never something that I considered to even be in the realm of possibility. I remember just sitting there, watching as my wife wept, not knowing what to do or feel. Death had been just a theory and grief was a total stranger to me. By the time we buried our son (our fifth and only late term miscarriage), grief had become more like a winter rain; it was now in my bones.

It begin with what was supposed to be a romantic get away for just the two of us but, instead of romance it had this strange weight of dread over it. We didn’t know why until we returned home to discover that our unborn sons heart had stopped beating. Very quickly we found ourselves in the emergency room wrestling with the doctors recommendation that the baby…

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Out of the Box, Out of the Phone

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I remember my aunt’s Kodak box camera that required her to look in the top at just the right angle or she would decapitate the heads off her subjects in the image. She kept her brownie box camera long after others had moved on to other cameras that used colour film. Photos were precious in her time – and expensive and time-consuming to make. Making up her photo album required my aunt to mail the whole camera away to have the film extracted and developed and then sent back. Kodak obliged.

This past weekend, my young granddaughter used my phone camera to produce a video of her little cousins sliding down the curved stairs at my uncle’s house. The same day I posted it on Facebook and friends across the country commented on it.

Changes.

This article from Holy Soup  by Thom Schulz on “The Church’s Frightful Kodak Moment” fits with what I am sensing. Photography has taken off in the last few years. More people have better access (even on phones) and quality has improved enormously. It’s not left just to the professionals anymore. There is freedom to make mistakes and forgive ourselves by hitting delete or re-framing and re-lighting the experience with a photo editing program. It’s about seeing worth in the moment and making meaningful images we can enjoy and share in the future.

But Kodak missed it because it saw only one expression of photography. Nothing wrong with print. I still use Kodak paper but 99% of what I do is digital photography and artistic expressions using those photos on the computer now.

I feel something like this is happening to the church – something out-of-the-box is about to take off, improve in quality, be more accessible, offer greater grace to grow, and thrive in ways we never imagined, but we can miss it if we measure success in terms of sales of traditional product (aka bums in seats on Sunday morning.) I am meeting more and more people who love the Lord deeply but who are finding the current structures and expectations of the institutional denominational church-in-the-building are limiting their ability to pursue the desires God has placed in their hearts to know Christ, and to know who He created them to be, and to be placed in true family. There is more. I know it.

It’s about worshiping God, enjoying Him forever, making disciples – and loving one another.

I have not read the author’s books, nor have I seen his documentary (although I will probably be checking them out). We may disagree on what this out-of-the-box thing looks like. I don’t know. My attention was just grabbed by the comparison to Kodak and rather than feeling despair that church attendance is falling in North America, I am filled with hope that soon all the promises in Christ will become more accessible to the ordinary folks He loves – and they will know they are the church.

Tea Time: When Meaning Matters More Than Words

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I eagerly responded to the invitation to tea with a new acquaintance I met at a classical music event and the elderly friend she described as a fascinating scholar with many interests. I was new in town and finding it hard to make friends. His home was like I imagined C.S. Lewis’ to be with solid well-used antique furniture surrounded by over-stuffed floor to ceiling book cases and the scent of pipe tobacco. He poured me a proper cup of tea from a proper tea-pot. No dangling bags on a string in a chipped pottery mug for these people.

Both of them asked me many questions about myself. They leaned forward attentively and encouraged me often.

“Yes, yes. Go on,” they urged, smiling.

I had an audience and I was on a roll. I told them some of my best anecdotes and they paid rapt attention.

Then the gentleman and scholar turned to my new friend and said (quite excitedly) “Yes, yes! You are completely right! Northwest Pacific mixed with British public school. I believe I hear some Dublin Irish occasionally as well,” He turned to me for a moment, “Do you have relatives from Ireland?” but without waiting for my response said to the woman, “No matter. There is Dublin influence in there somewhere. But it is quite unusual for this area.”

“I told you,” the woman said.

“I watched an Irish movie last night,” I offered, trying to get back into the conversation. “I pick up accents very easily.”

It’s true. I do pick up accents, often unintentionally. It’s embarrassing sometimes. People think I am mocking them when I respond with the same vowel shifts they are using. When I am in performance mode the years of training as a singer slip in their influence as well. I unconsciously raise my soft palate, elongate the vowels and enunciate consonants. The result is that my accent changes slightly and sounds a bit like theatrical British posh.

Flashback: I’m doing a singing exam with an examiner sent to Calgary all the way from Trinity College of London: She apparently has been misinformed about Canadian weather and is sweltering in the June heat under her multilayered wool suit and hat with the bobbing pheasant feather. Suddenly she stops me in the middle of a song and tells me she can’t bear my atrocious accent a moment longer. “The word is ond, OND! Not aaand! Now sing it properly or I shall dismiss you immediately.”

I’m not aware that I’m changing my accent when I feel I’m being scrutinized, but people tell me I do. I thought I was the only one until I heard another classically trained singer speak. After listening to an interview of a famous woman I wondered where on earth a black girl from Georgia picked up that accent. Then I realized she did it too.

It took only a few minutes of hanging around the edge of the tea time people’s linguistic analysis conversation to realize they had not heard a word I said, only how I said it. I left shortly after, feeling very awkward, as they continued to discuss my phonation, and frankly, I felt lonelier than ever. Not only did they not hear my stories, they did not hear my heart. I longed for connection, for friends, but they were totally oblivious to that expression. It’s like the teacup mattered more than the tea.

This memory surfaced today in the context of a discussion of a blog suggesting that certain popular worship songs ought to be expunged from praise leaders’ repertoire. The complaints about the songs were that they were shallow, repetitive, theologically weak, or had uncomfortable imagery. To be honest, with little effort I could easily condemn them for more reasons than that – don’t get me started – oh what the heck –  the main one being that many corporate worship songs are written for a musically illiterate audience and have to be easy enough for anyone to learn by rote after three repetitions of the words on a screen – in other words they have the lyrical and musical complexity of a commercial or nursery song. For many musicians, asking them to confine themselves to current expressions of contemporary Christian music is like asking a person who has trained all their lives to be an Olympic swimmer to be happy within the confines of a hot tub.  There is nothing wrong with hot tubs, but they are not Olympic pools.

But then I see a crayon drawing my grandson made for me. It’s a bunch of semi-organized scribbles really, but to me it is right up there with the Mona Lisa, because he did the best he could in his efforts to honour me. I don’t see the colouring out of the lines; I see the little lad’s loving heart, and it thrills me. I hug him and plant a kiss on the top of his sweet head.

I believe in excellence and that those who can compose and play skillfully need to offer the Lord their best (Is there room in the Church for the Bachs and Brahms and Jenny Linds of today where they will not be accused of “showing off?”) But I also realize that praise and worship is all about the heart and not performance. When we worship together the Holy Spirit in me connects with the Holy Spirit in you and we unite to express our love to God. If that means extending grace to choose a simple repetitive song we can all join in, so be it. He is listening to more than the way we sing our words. He hears our hearts, our longing for connection, and He draws us in for a big  kiss, sloppy or theologically tidy – He picks.

Let the Fire and Cloudy Pillar Lead

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Have you ever wished God would show up in a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night to show you which direction to go? We like to say, “Just tell me what you want me to do and I will do it.”

Have you ever heard God’s promises through scripture verses that stand out, practically in neon, and are repeated by every book you pick up or every podcast you listen to or in casual conversation with friends you haven’t seen in ten years or on advertisements on the sides of a bus or even in dreams or visions or an audible voice?

Wow! You say “Yes, Lord! I will follow you to the Promised Land!”

And then he leads you in the opposite direction.

“What?” you say.

The thing about clear direction from heaven is that it takes you in directions your mind can’t follow – otherwise you would not need it. I’ve seen this so often now, I’m finally beginning to see that it’s a pretty normal in the Christian life when the opposite of a promise shows up first.

The cloudy/fiery pillar led the Children of Israel back out into the desert – not their expected destination. But the Lord had some work to do on them before they were ready to leave slavery behind. Not all shackles are on the outside of a person. Some of them are in the mind.

I feel like I’ve had a promise of seeing a restoration/revival/reformation whatever you want to call it, in church as we know it. I keep hearing and seeing pictures of a reconciled, united Body of Christ, a joining of streams, a habitation of God made of living stones, a place where love is more than a theory and entire cultures change as result of its influence. I keep hearing the “one another” passages that talk about identifying followers of Jesus by their love for each other and not for the walls they have built around their “distinctives.” I see the promise. I know it is coming. I have said, “Yes, Lord.” I have followed his voice.

Then he led me in the opposite direction.

So here I am, a lover of the saints, not attending a church, following a cloud in the desert. One temporary camping spot at a time. Amazingly I’m meeting a different kind of church out here, one based more on spirit connection than proximity of pews. I’m not without fellow travellers with discernment willing to offer much-needed encouragement and correction; in fact there are a few people in my life now with whom I have a deeper, more honest, more faith-building relationship than I’ve had in years. I am learning to feed on the bread Jesus provides, but sometimes I miss the savoury familiar and predictable flavours I have known.

I think that’s why I don’t have permission to go back, nor am I seeing the promise fulfilled yet. I still have shackles around my mind. I have expectations that are defined and limited by my experiences in the old country. What God has planned operates on complete dependence on his ways, not mine.

Guide me, oh thou great Yhwh, I’m a pilgrim in this barren land. I am weak but Thou art mighty. Hold me with Thy powerful hand.

No One Jostles for the Position of Servant

“No one jostles for the position of servant.”

I heard Gayle Erwin say that (or something to that effect) and it stuck with me.

I read a number of blogs on the role of women, some of them arguing for the rights of women to receive titles and be recognized as church leaders, some of them worrying about the eternal repercussions of not defining gender roles properly. The push-back comments to these blogs, amusingly, are usually written by men. Some of them write about the roles of women in the home and in the church as if Adam received the specific command to pick the fruit and Eve’s job was to peel it, slice it, stir constantly over a low heat, and turn it into a nice compote, then clean up the dishes while her partner (did they ever sign a marriage license?) stared at the clouds and thought of names for animals.

There’s a whole bunch of history tied up in which scriptures either side of the debate choose to emphasize or downplay, but I won’t talk about that here, at least not now, because, frankly, I think they are distractions. It’s like the time the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with questions about marriage in the next life (which they didn’t actually believe in. How serious can a question like that be?) His response was basically, “You really don’t get it do you?”

Sometimes I wonder, when we debate these kinds of things endlessly without getting an answer, if it’s because Jesus is still saying, “You really don’t get it, do you?”

Perhaps he is saying, “If you want accolades and public approval and recognition as a leader (male or female) you are missing the point. Don’t squabble over who gets to sit at the head of the table, because it’s embarrassing when you get bumped off the seat of honour because I’m giving it to someone you never even noticed enter the room.”

 

This video shocked me. Many of you may know about Carol Kaye and who she is and what she accomplished. I didn’t. Since her name was often not even included in the credits, most people never knew that so many of the most famous bass guitar solos on hundreds of best-selling pop songs and TV and movie themes were played by an ordinary-looking woman who carried her guitar in and out of the studios right past the crowds waiting to worship “the big names.” She didn’t need the recognition to do what she did. She just loved music. And she created iconic music year after year. Check it out. If you’re older than iTunes I’m sure you’ve heard many of these.

 

Many of the women who followed Christ with their whole hearts (in his lifetime or shortly after his resurrection) didn’t wait for a board to give them a title at an ordination ceremony. They just did what they could. Jesus revealed his true identity for the first time to a Samaritan woman, and she, who had been rejected by five husbands but accepted by the Lord, became the first missionary.  Joanna and Susanna and Mary of Magdala used their means to finance Jesus and his disciples; some like Phoebe carried valuable messages; some like Priscilla taught men like Apollos who would go on to have a higher profile; some like Lydia had the resources to allow a church to be based in their homes; some stayed with Jesus through the worst of his suffering; some prayed in the Upper Room believing for something they could not possibly imagine; some like Dorcas took care of the poor; one Mary was given the privilege of witnessing the greatest event in history and bringing her eye-witness report to the men, even though women then were not permitted to be legal witnesses. And never forget that it was another very famous Mary (the one who burst out in a prophetic utterance that is still set to music by great composers), who physically carried the message of salvation, the Word of God incarnate, and not the man Joseph. Joseph’s job was to protect her. There are many others mentioned who served God, some in roles with titles, but most just quietly going about being who they were called to be and doing the works they were created to do.

Like Carol Kaye just did what she did, because she was good at it.

Carol says this in the video: A note doesn’t have sex to it. You either play it good or don’t play it good. Some people can’t handle that.

Jesus had this to say to people who were discussing who was the most deserving amongst them:  “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22 – the story of his last night with them -and last conversations are always important.)

If you need a title and official recognition of a position with built-in authority and a ready-made group of followers before you can be who God intended you to be, no matter what your gender, you are not ready to lead.

Maybe that’s why Jesus liked women so much and entrusted them with some of the most important tasks in bringing the good news of the Kingdom. Women in those times didn’t have titles to fall in love with. They just loved Him. And He honoured them.