When I was a freshman at Westmont College (the only year I would spend there), second semester I found myself in the little white chapel next to the pond almost every night (even though it was quite a hike from my dorm), and at other times as well. I was homesick (okay, lovesick, too - pining for a good friend that I hoped would become more - he didn't), lonely, and grieving the absence of my roommate (and kindred spirit) who had left after our first semester (to be with the boyfriend she thought she would marry - she didn't).
I felt such an aching that I longed for God to soothe. I didn't want to be where I was, but I had to for a few more months, so I sought solace in that prayer chapel, a place free of distractions, quiet and peaceful, where I could be alone with my Creator and Savior. It had a prayer notebook where chapel comers could write to God, which is what I did. And I read what others wrote. In fact, I even made some friends that way, because we sometimes wrote encouraging responses, thus beginning a dialogue. But my main purpose for going to the prayer chapel was to seek God, to be consoled by his presence, and to hear him speak life to me through his Word.
I also liked the security in the ritual of "escaping" to this private place. I knew I could go there at any time and that I would be refreshed. That I had a secret space to pour out my heart and to come undone with no one but God watching, and holding me next to his heart, even if I couldn't always feel that with my emotions. I would come away with that peace that passes all understanding, which Jesus promised his followers. I might be romanticizing it a bit, but whatever happened during that season of my life, I always remember it as the time when I experienced the deepest intimacy with God.
When I left Westmont, I sorely missed that sacred place. The heartache of unrequited love (actually more of a crush but I still felt devastatingly disappointed), the confusion of navigating my educational and career path, and many more challenging circumstances made me pine this time not for a guy or even a friend, but for a special meeting place with God. Anytime I would go on a retreat, if there was a place of prayer - be it a chapel or garden - I would gravitate there. I even started a flickr group specifically for people to post pictures of such small sacred spaces. I made up my mind that one day when I was married and had my own home, my husband would build a prayer chapel in the backyard.
Fast forward twenty years from my twenty year-old self, and now this forty year-old has finally entered the promised land. It doesn't quite look the way I imagined. It's not even a building, but then again, I have no backyard to put one in. And no one built it for me - it started with a simple thought I had one day while freshening up in the bathroom (funny how my best ideas often originate there). Our closet is attached to the master bath, so I began thinking...wouldn't it be nice if instead of using this tiny room for clothing storage, I turned it into a little spa where I could give people facials? Then I remembered that I wasn't an aesthetician but a homeschooling mom who couldn't even wash her own face on a regular basis, let alone provide pampering to others.
Another idea emerged. It was true that if I moved the clothes out, the approximate four foot by (just under ) six foot closet could actually be converted to a room. And if not an actual spa, wouldn't it be nice to have a restful room, a sanctuary of sorts? Thus was began the project of repurposing our master bedroom closet into a prayer closet (alternate names: upper room, secret place, sabbath chamber, sacred space, rest spot, quiet nook, hidden sanctuary).
Once everything was cleared out (I moved our clothes into the kids' closets - we may eventually get a wardrobe, in which case this idea will have birthed two magical places!), it was just a question of what to put in it. When I thought about seating, I kept picturing a moon chair. That ended up being the one extravagance of our humble prayer closet, but it was totally worth the splurge, as it has turned out to be exactly the right chair - I feel hugged whenever I sit in it! After taking one child at a time into the prayer closet, I realized it was a space where two or less could gather, so I wanted comfy, inviting seating for a child as well. That turned out to be a makeshift "lounger" I created out of throw pillows and a comforter (our winter one right now). When I'm alone (which is most common), it serves as a foot rest.
I didn't want to clutter up the place with stuff, and it's tight quarters, so I decided on one small, narrow bookshelf we already had. The shelves are for the Bible, my journal, and books to aid in prayer and worship. I started with just the basics, so as not overcomplicate things, but gradually I will add others we have that are helpful for practicing liturgy, sabbath, and the contemplative life.
The top of the bookshelf is mainly for the oil lamp, which allows me to adjust the brightness, unlike the large overhead light. Its only drawbacks are a faint odor and that it gives off a fair amount of heat, especially with the door closed (I sometimes leave it ajar) and if I have it turned up, so I also bought an aromatherapy diffuser plug-in halogen nightlight that has a dimmer switch. I put a few drops of essential oil - usually lavender - in the glass dish and its fragrance fills the room. I also keep some strongly scented candles on the overhead shelf (where I store memorabilia - pictures, journals, etc.), so that the room always has a distinct, gently floral aroma. Sometimes when I come upstairs to go to the bathroom in the middle of our school day, I'll splash water on my face, a spritz of rosewater toner, and then open the prayer closet door, inhale the sweetness, reminding me that in a little while I'll be able to retreat here. Just a glimpse of the room and a breath of its scent is soothing and calming.
Walls. Not the emotional kind. I'm talking white space. I knew I wanted imagery to evoke beauty and serenity in this special space, so I finally put to good use those old calendar pages I had saved - of Greece, the Mediterranean, whimsical garden scenes, waterfalls, Scriptures - and put them up, but not too too many, mind you. It's kind of funny because we've lived in our house seven years and I've still not hung our pictures on the walls!
Another thing about the lighting and the windowless space that occurred to me is that it's similar to what it would have been like it the catacombs, those underground passageways in Rome where the early church met in secret to worship (we were just studying that in our homeschool history). Ironic that their light shone brighter in those dark caves than out in the sun where the worship of of Christ was forbidden.
For the past year, my husband and I have been reading books about Sabbath keeping, and we've been trying to practice that in our family. Keeping the sabbath is a tangible way of seeking the rest and peace of God. By setting aside one day each week to cease from labor, consumerism, social media, etc., and to actively pursue the things of the spirit - in body, mind, and heart - it trains and empowers us to live that way in the midst of whatever pressures might surround us during the week.
I had the epiphany that this prayer closet symbolizes, and actually is a vehicle for that sabbath rest. It's a tangible expression of stopping and breathing and focusing on what really matters, and giving all my cares over to Jesus, and receiving his love, grace, truth, and whatever "word" he might speak to me for encouragement and growth.
A place. A day. These are actual solid tools, props if you will, to take all our good intentions and actually apply them. Illuminating the candles to start the sabbath. Lighting the oil lamp to begin a "quiet time." Saying blessings over the bread and the wine to remind ourselves of why we're at the Lord's Table and what we're entering into. Opening the Word to feast on God's goodness as I come to him alone, hungry and thirsty. These spaces, these ceremonies, these objects - they are examples of how our senses can be a gateway into what we cannot physically touch or taste or smell or hear or see. Liturgy - patterns that are repeated - engage all parts of who God made us. Through repetition, we go deeper and deeper into the knowledge of our Lord, becoming more intimate with him, just as our routines and traditions build closeness and strengthen the bonds in families - between husband and wife, between parents and children.
I'm only just beginning to use the prayer closet, and not nearly as often or as consistently as I want to, but already it has affected me deeply, and not just me. I have had very special times in it with each of my children. Quiet cuddling. Heart to heart talks. Prayerful problem solving. And each of them feels special when they get their alone time in it with me. Even just a few minutes, because usually that's all it is. Our middle child (age 8) set up her own prayer space underneath her desk! I nearly cried when she showed me. It brought home the truth that we lead by example more than words.
One last thing - for now - about this special space. I find that spending private time with God enhances the my experience of him in community. When I come to church on Sunday morning, the worship is that much sweeter when I have prepared my heart for it...or rather, God has. It also helps fill me with his grace and love, so that I have more of that to give to others. I'm not just in church desperate to be ministered to, but instead, I can minister from a full heart. Admittedly, I'm not totally there yet, but just like having a place for church helps motivate us to gather with the Body of Christ, so does the presence of a prayer closet invite me to come and meet with my Lord.
So for Lent this year, I'm giving up alcohol, white sugar, and white flour...except on Sundays...which my dear orthodox friend thinks is cheating. I told her and I'll tell you (in case you don't already know - I didn't, being newish to all things liturgical) that in the Catholic and Protestant traditions, there are actually 46 days of Lent - 40 days of fasting and six Sundays, which are feast days, because they represent Resurrection Day, so they are thought of as little Easters. When I've fasted from things before (food or the internet usually), it's always been for a whole season, so that's made me either more timid in my fasting (i.e. giving up less hard things) or I've failed (tried to go gluten-free last Lent, lasted two weeks). Getting the seventh day reprieve feels doable, and if it goes well, it may even extend past this season, becoming a way of life, because it's sustainable.
Besides the Sunday exemption, I am creating another modification - let me pause for a brief aside: none of this is mentioned, let alone mandated in Scripture - it's all manmade tradition, so it should especially be bathed in grace, without any hint of legalism. The point of following the church year and using these kinds of liturgies is to draw us closer to Jesus, to help us grow spiritually, and to be more like Him. It's not about shoulds and oughts and rules and regulations - that was the old covenant...so it's kind of ironic what I'm going to say next...
In recent months, we've been studying the fourth commandment, to honor the sabbath and keep it holy. My husband and I have been reading books on the subject and trying to implement sabbath keeping. We decided to begin our sabbath on Saturday nights and conclude them on Sunday nights. There is an opening ceremony in which we light candles and say blessings over the bread and the fruit of the vine and the children and each other (our sabbath table is pictured above). So...if Sundays are the exemption days to our fasting, that would mean no challah (unless I make it whole grain) and no wine (unless it's grape juice), so my idea is that to make sabbath keeping and Lent work together, "Sunday" will actually be the duration of our sabbath, so Saturday night to Sunday night, meaning we can have wine, bread, sweets, etc. from Saturday dinner until Sunday dinner (not including it).
In addition to the fasting and feasting of this Lenten season, I want to add something to this time, to make the fasting meaningful by replacing those comfort foods with soul food. And not just to feed myself, but others. The way I've always done that best is through writing. I've been hoarding my insights in my private journal or squandering them through social media. As I am more intentional in spending time with God and consistently reading his word (I'm beginning the daily office of the lectionary in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer
), I want to share what he gives me with you. I also want to post some of the things I've already written, both in recent times and from the past. My plan is to post at least once per week - I'd say more but I don't want to set myself up for failure or feel pressured.
I'm excited...and honestly, desperate....for the new thing(s) the Lord will do in the next six weeks. I'm not expecting any kind of emotional thrills - I just want to hear that still, small voice instead of all my noisy self-centered thoughts. My prayer is to earnestly seek to follow what Jesus said were the two greatest commands - to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself, to live 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
because I believe and receive 1 John 4:7-19
Why is that during the most serious part of the church service, I feel the most silly? Well, it came to an embarrassing crescendo last Sunday...
It started months ago with the big pieces of crackers. I didn't mean to grab the one the size of Texas, but there I was crunching away for what seemed like an eternity. The generous portions of matzo continued, and my husband and I started noticing that not only were they the size of large states, they were the shape of them also. So naturally we had to show to each other - "I got Florida." "Mine looks like Utah." "Giggle, giggle, quack" (okay, there were no duck voices - I just know way too many children's book titles). Sometimes we played it safe and had small half moons of gluten-free rice wafers.
Then there was the wine - ruby port actually - encircled by its non-alcoholic counterpart. Having only ever experienced Baptist flavored churches where all we got was Welch's grape juice, and only once a month at that, as soon as we joined a Presbyterian church last year, I knew I would always choose the real deal, just like Jesus drank at the last supper (don't let the teetotalers fool you). Probably because it's still new, it makes me a slightly giddy, like tee hee, I'm drinking *real* wine in church. Silly, I know, but I'm that girl.
My husband, who is funny ninety percent of the time, mentioned to me that he likes taking the communion cup in the exact center of the tray. So I began noticing whether it was there or not when we would get up to the front, and every so often, I would take it just for fun. We'd have a silent chuckle over that - or if he got it, he would give me those smiling eyes and nod of victory.
As if it weren't enough with all the whispers and stifled giggles between us, my mom and stepdad started sitting next to us during the service. They volunteer to prepare communion, so she has the inside scoop on details I would have been better off not knowing. For example, when I showed her the ginormous piece of cracker I ended up with one morning, she told me that it's really hard to break up the matzo. This is funny in itself, but moreso because we're Jewish by birth. She's also the one who told me that it's not kosher wine (I had thought it was Manischewitz) but port that they pour into the tiny plastic cups.
Well, one week ago today, the humorous energy that had been gradually intensifying reached critical mass, and the amusing details combusted into utterly uncontrollable hilarity. I went up to receive the elements, and as I always do, I made eye contact when the person holding the "bread" tray said "His body broken for you," but as I grasped the cracker, I realized I had two pieces. For a split second, I thought of putting one back, but they felt stuck together, and I had already touched them...and I couldn't hold up the line, so concealed my double portion and my amusement, took the cup and looked up for "his blood shed for you," and made my way back to my seat, grinning widely.
I couldn't help but show my husband and my mom the extra cracker, which they also found funny. My mom then mentioned that there are always lots of leftovers, so not to worry, and that my stepdad drinks the extra wine. So there I got this ridiculous visual of him guzzling these tiny glasses of port in the church kitchen, and I could feel the laughter welling up in me. I tried to suppress it but suddenly I noticed all these white crumbs on my black pants, which I battled to brush off of me. A few seconds later, I saw my mom doing the same thing - dusting her lap with her hands.
It was all just too much. My body began heaving and I had to bury my quivering face in my hands, my head shaking and tears beginning to escape the corners of my eyes (later I was to discover I had raccoon eyes from my smearing my mascara). My stomach suppressed the hysterics, but I faintly emitted a sound like sobbing, which is what I sheepishly wished people would think I was doing instead of laughing!
It took me the rest of the communion time to pull myself together, and only just barely. I wish I could say it was holy laughter, but on the surface at least, it sure seemed carnal. I had, week by week, let my mind wander into these trivial details - the literal aspect of the ritual - rather than staying focused on the symbolic significance of the Eucharist. Not that I hadn't tried, mind you, to shut out these distractions (and, in fact, they occur throughout the whole service), but I had not forced myself into submission. In a way, I see what happened as evidence of grace. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I also felt a sense of release and relief - both emotionally and in terms of not being able to project any sort of pious image. That's me, people, showing you that I don't have it all together, not even in the moment when I "should" be closest to the throne of God. Then again, who's to say that in his presence, in the fullest experience of the most important release of all - from sin to freedom - there wouldn't be uninhibited rejoicing? Tears and laughter are made of the same stuff, I've heard it said, or if I didn't, I'm saying it now.
Afterwards, a lovely woman (who happens to be the director of children's ministry) came up to me and said she just had to ask what made me crack up. I told her the whole story (well, not as detailed as this) and we couldn't help but laugh together. Apparently joy is contagious - I almost wish I had let it all out and that the whole room had burst into laughter, but that will probably have to wait until heaven..."therefore, let us keep the feast"...and our sense of humor.
Did you know your church has a personality type
? Chances are, it's similar to yours. Also, some of you missed the memo from way back about the Transformations videos being debunked
. What you should be showing your congregation is Lord, Save Us from Your Followers
(it's also currently on Netflix instant play). If you really want to see revival, then find out what it means to be missional. It's not just another Christian buzz word.
Some weird and dangerous stuff has been creeping into your church via well meaning but misguided homeschooling families who have been influenced by "family" ministries like Vision Forum
, No Greater Joy
, the Duggars, Bill Gothard
(yeah, he's still around) and others who subscribe to a hyper-patriarchal theology (a.k.a. patriocentricity
) that teaches legalism, authoritarianism, and the quiverfull philosophy
of limitless childbearing.
And another thing--please leave politics out of church. We're not all republicans (or democrats). We're certainly not all fans of Sarah Palin.
I may elaborate on these and other church-related topics in the future, but in case it's a while, I needed to get it off my chest now...and get the word out. So pastors, please do your homework and encourage your flock to do the same. It's an uncomfortable place sorting through truth and error within the larger church world (and there are those who are overzealous and hyperjudgemental - I'm not advocating that), but please let's not turn a blind eye to, or unwittingly promote theologies which are unscriptural and abusive. Let's examine our own hearts - as leaders, as churches, as individual Christians who are, as the old saying goes, the only Bible some people will ever read
One last thing...let your people go, and even tell them to leave
, when necessary. After all, they're not really yours anyway. They're God's. And where they go, they are still part of the body of Christ, so please don't act like changing churches is akin to spiritual adultery. That's not Biblical. It also divides and wounds. Wouldn't you rather have them growing elsewhere than withering in your care?
By my 7 yr-old (click pic for whole art poem)
I was tempted to title this "Surprised by Grace" but didn't want it be confused with the new book of the same title, (which I am curious to read). "Changing Churches" sounded too flat, but this is also the story of that.
We spent the past school year immersed in the Middle Ages and I didn't think history could get any better, but then we entered the Renaissance, which literally means "rebirth". It was spring (my favorite season) and we were on the verge of Pentecost, which marks the birth of the first church. Without my realizing it, in his infinite creativity, God was setting the stage for my own rebirth. Something had been growing inside me for a long time and it wasn't another baby.
It was my conception (pun intended) of grace. I had experienced grace from a very young age, but my understanding of it was incomplete. God's grace had always been a form of protection against other people, but not from myself. It took becoming a wife and a mother for me to recognize how inherently selfish and need of grace I was, both to help me accept myself and to give it to others, especially those closest to me - my husband and children.
In the spring of 2009 I re-read Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel. I went through it with a group of women and it invoked a desire in me to grow in the knowledge of grace, so that I could more fully receive and impart it. I pulled every book off our shelves that had the word "grace" in the title. I started to read several of them and liked them, but like so many other ambitious reading projects, this one fell to the wayside. Still, I wanted to "get" grace and I sensed that my desire alone was a prayer that God was answering. He wanted me to get it also, even more than I did. Which is exactly how God's grace works.
And so this spring, as I witnessed rebirths in nature, history, and the church, I too, was born again...again. Like any birth, there was struggle, pain, and fear. But what had been growing inside me needed to come out. I could no longer be part of a church which did not fully illuminate grace, and even muddied it with traces of legalism. Works and service were emphasized and explained more than the person of Jesus and intimacy with him. Fear-based (albeit subtle) turn or burn) invitations to say the "magic prayer" (of salvation) and an authoritarian interpretation of Scripture that refused to consider any other theological position had turned Sunday mornings into cringe sessions for me. Not every week, but increasingly more often. I had long ago lost any desire to invite anyone there, but it had gotten to the point that I didn't want to be there either. Later, when I finally hashed it all out on paper (much more than I've included in this paragraph), the writing was on the wall.
We had been there six years, since we were practically newlyweds and new parents as well. Our previous church had folded and our young unstable family craved security...or at least I did. That church had been the right place for us during those early unsteady years. They had welcomed us and fed us the Word and given us opportunities to serve and be served. And yet as we got to know the church more, and to shape our identity as a family and individuals, I began to sense we were less and less compatible. I started to feel trapped in what felt like an unhealthy relationship. I had defended "us" for a long time, even against older, wiser people who loved me and saw what I wasn't willing to look at for fear of hurting my family. I thought that if only I was struggling, it wouldn't be fair to rip them from our church home, so for several years I was determined to make it work.
The tension was growing inside me, right alongside the grace, and one of them had to go. It was a thistle threatening to strangle the rosebush about to be birthed. The labor of pulling weeds began with communicating with my husband. His resistance was admirable (loyalty, friendship, optimism) until it turned ugly on both our parts (shouting match), but God's grace got us through it and out the other side, though with loss and grief that was more profound for him than for me.
It was in this morose and disillusioned state that we visited a new church - not just new to us but to the area - a church plant of five years (which I had researched online over the previous months), which just happened to have "grace" in its name. As it turned out, it wasn't in name only. Our entire family was captivated that first Sunday. It was like coming home to some place we had never been. It seemingly effortlessly harmonized these paradoxes: reverence and relevance, beauty and grit, tradition and variety, grace and truth (a number of Sundays later, that is still true - I'll share details of the service in another post).
We knew we had to end things the right way at our former church. We met with the pastors and both the angst and understanding of that conversation were confirmation that our time there was over - the associate pastor didn't say a word but he prayed a beautiful and grace-filled blessing for us that felt like God releasing us into a new season.
A few days later, we met with the pastor of the new church and spent a couple hours getting to know each other over Comforts chinese chicken salad, as well as learning all about the church. The phrase "gospel-centered" was a recurring theme, as well as grace, restoration of creation, humans as God's image bearers, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and baseball (I'll save that evidence of God's sense of humor for another post). We talked theology and community and doing away with things like Christian vernacular and an "us vs. them" mentality when it comes to interacting with the culture. His heart was clearly for the people of Marin, and both of us having grown up here, that resonated with us.
An unexpected bonus of this meeting was my husband dispensing with a pre-tribulation post-millenial (a.k.a. Left Behind) eschatology and adopting an amillennial view. Now that he isn't always waiting to cash in his rapture ticket, he can more fully be here, laying down his life to spread God's grace around (and that goes for me too). I'm sure he'll still like John MacArthur but lately he's been more interested in Francis Chan, and we both like that our new pastor calls himself a "winsome Calvinist." Oh, and I apologize for the evangelical-speak - it won't happen again, or if it does, I'll be sure to define the terms, but I'm running out of room here.
And so as we read about the Reformation in our homeschool, entered the season of Pentecost, and watched the first roses bloom in our patio garden, each epiphany of winters past culminated into the spring of my enlightenment. The new things happening in my mind (studying history), my heart (learning grace), my body (experiencing the renewal of God's creation), and my spirit (meditating on seasons of the church year--in part thanks to the Mosaic Bible) all helped to make me grow and step out in faith.
As I closed one door, and God opened another, I felt freedom and joy like never before, as though a weight had been lifted from me. Starting new has its own set of challenges and I'm not naive about that, nor overly idealistic, but I am hopeful, and already encouraged by the vision of our new church home, including what role my giftings can play in realizing it, in harmony with the other members of the church as well as the larger body of Christ (Jesus followers) in our area and beyond.
Her.meneutics blogged about the underrepresentation of women in Christian music. I posted this comment (which will make more sense if you read the post first):Personally, and I don't know why, but I tend to prefer the sound of male vocals - I wonder if there is a scientific explanation (what isn't there one for, these days?) However, I love Plumb's newer songs and I do like some other female artists - Amy Grant was a favorite for years. I also often like couples or other mixed gender bands - can't beat those harmonies. An interesting question would be what is the difference between leading in worship and performing? I know it when I see it, and the times it has felt like the latter, it was always a woman up front...and yet, I have experienced some of the best worship through music with female leaders who were totally worshipful. In both cases, the women had physical beauty, but their countenance was different, and usually their dress as well. Not advocating legalism but a humble heart is reflected in modesty outwardly as well.
It's getting old, people. I'm tired of hearing everyone gripe about "organized religion." What's so wrong with organization? I mean would you like to go to a disorganized hospital (and a church is supposed to be a hospital for the soul, even though I agree that many are a far cry) or have a disorganized government (maybe we already do)? Do you see where I am going with this? Organized or messy, let's at least be consistent...or perhaps we could start by being clear and staying away from hackneyed cliches such as this one.
Structure doesn't have to be bad--after all, whether you believe in God or not, whoever made this universe did it in a very orderly fashion (thus the "laws of science"). Certainly God can't be contained in a building, but would he scoff simply because the ones he created gathered together under one roof to worship him corporately? That sounds about as likely as someone condemning a group of friends who threw a party their honor. (I'm not talking about every party, but simply the idea of the party, i.e. not every church honors God, but many do)
You know what I have a problem with? Organized education. Organized entertainment. Organized media. When people get organized, they become powerful influences on the culture. Did you know that the very first media organization in the U.S. was the church? Sunday mornings were the only times people gathered together in one place, so they got their weekly news from the pulpit. Newspapers were started by religious people also. I wrote a research paper on this for Christopher Hitchens' class during journalism grad school--interesting to see the press has moved so far from its original heritage.
Did I defeat my own argument? No. I just qualified it. Organization in itself is not a bad thing. It all depends on what or who is being organized. Obviously organized crime is bad, but so is crime without rhyme or reason. Random acts of kindess are good, but organizations which help the needy are more efficient. Chaos and order each have their place, so let us not throw out the baby with the baptismal.