The Goth At The Pep Assembly

It was all RAH-RAH and pom-poms and school colors and loudness.  A high school pep assembly.  Looking through the lens of time it’s easy to wonder what the point of it all really was.  Something to the effect of stating:  We are this school!  We are a-w-e-s-o-m-e!  Other schools (shouted shrilly) are less awesome and we’ll eat them for breakfast!  Accompanied, as it was, by the almost-provocative routines of the cheerleaders and the more conservative twirls of the color guard and the strident blasts of trumpets and trombones, it was like a circus of self-aggrandizement.  And I always pitied the goths.

How on earth do you survive such a pep fest?  When your muse is wearing black and looking dour and avoiding sunlight and all things cheerful?  When all around your peers are standing up, stomping their feet, waving their arms, hollering themselves hoarse, and there you are, sitting, quiet, wishing for all the world to be in a corner of the library, reading Poe.

I’m not a goth, but I do have an attitude problem.

It struck me during a service at a local evangelical church.  Our burgeoning family filed into a pew, the worship being already in full swing.  The words to the songs were displayed on large flat screens, with nature scenes as backgrounds.  I ground my teeth.

Why do the songs need to look like obnoxious motivational posters?

Oh my word, this song is idiotic.  Worst of all, it’s theologically untrue.  

That woman over there is actually going to punch the air with her fist every time that lyric is repeated.  Yep, there she goes again.

Stop it, stop it.  Sorry, God.  I’m having a hard time worshiping You today, this way.

By this time I usually have sat down with one of the babies, bowed my head, and under my breath, began to pray.  Sometimes one of the ancient songs will fill my heart and I’ll sing that “..for His mercy endureth forever, alleluia”.  All around me people are swaying and singing, hands lifted up in the air, joy in their smiles and cheer all bunched up in the creases ’round their eyes.  And I’m like a goth at a pep assembly; I couldn’t possibly feel more out of place.

It isn’t right to mock or disdain, that I know and I regularly confess with sincere grief.  But there’s more to my reaction than just pride.  I am mourning and I am angry.

I am mourning because I’ve come to know the beauty, warmth, truth, and joy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but I cannot be a part of it.  I honor my husband’s leading of our family, and have had to lay my desires down.  It is one of the few areas in our married life that push came to shove and he had the final say.  Most of the time we reach an accord naturally.  Not with this.  But though we attend evangelical churches (as we are yet in-process of finding a church home), I have his blessing to continue my studies of Eastern Orthodoxy and occasionally we attend services at St John’s.  Dustin regularly comes home to me listening to ancient chants and hymns or absorbed in a theological work with a pencil at hand.  I partake of the feast by crawling under the table for crumbs.  Some is better than none, I remind myself, when tears flow and the sorrow sticks in my throat.  Some is better than none.

I am angry because so many churches are singing nonsense.  And heresy.  Seriously, who is writing this crap?  It feels like a narcissistic romp through my own emotions with Jesus thrown in.  Music is a powerful medium for informing our beliefs; are we singing our theology?  Are we singing true things?

I have to be fair; not all the songs are bad.  Maybe even Byzantine chants would look cheesy overlaying some picture of a waterfall.

When the final prayer has been said, to the background accompaniment of soft guitar strummings, I keep my head low.  I gather our things and hope no one talks to me.  Because, though I am a believer and a sister in Christ, and though this was all once as familiar to me as sliced bread, I am painfully out of place.  I cannot put on a false and brave smile and speak Christianese with the cheerful strangers around me.  I’ve never been good at pretending, so I’m afraid this would happen:

Good morning!  I haven’t met you yet!  Are you folks from around here?”

“Morning.  Yep.”

These all your kids?  Are you just visiting or….?”

I don’t want to be here.  I don’t like evangelicalism anymore.  I think I’m burnt out on everything that’s happened in the Western church since the Byzantine times.  I’m tired of the autonomy, the lack of authority, the sola scriptura-touting denominational sectarianism. I’m only here because my husband likes this.  I’m a mess.  I’m sorry I’m so rude.  I’m going to go to the car and cry now”.

I don’t want to do that to someone on a Sunday morning.  I am getting to know the patterns in the carpet well.

Trust me, I know, I know my attitude is bent and snarly.  But I’m also in pain.  Deep pain and grief.  Measure me some grace on that account.

And pray, I beg you, that God would give me His peace about where I can be and where I can’t, where I can feast and where I can’t.  And may the crumbs from His table satisfy and nourish me as I seek Him.

 

 

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Tomatoes, Church, and Sorrow

I tucked the tomato plants into the earth.  They were soggy messes after all this rain, and I bid them enjoy drier feet and all the manure I dug into the soil weeks ago.  The potato plants are peeking up above the leaf mulch.  The large chestnut tree we had felled last week lies forlorn across the yard, the leaves slowly curling and dying.  The bees have settled nicely, no longer sounding testy so I’m guessing that they’ve got their queen and all is well.

There’s a lot of good here.  Friendly neighbors, clean air, huge towering trees, birds, squirrels, flowers, life.  It seems flagrantly inappropriate to be sad, to behold all the beauty and feel heartsick.

See, church isn’t merely a social club, nor a solace, nor a support or crutch.  It’s not just getting together with like-minded people.  It’s standing together with God’s people, worshipping Him, and in the sacraments, standing at the place where heaven and earth mingle, where eternal touches temporal, Creator touches created, and the veil between the two is lifted just a bit.  Where Heaven becomes a bit immediate and less obscure.

We don’t belong to a church yet, though we’e visited quite a few.  I can’t remember the last time I had communion.  My son wants to be baptized.  We don’t know what to tell him.  My heart wants to run with him down to the stream and simply do it.  But our understanding is that this is something you do within a context of your church family, not solo.  I ask him to be patient; to give Daddy and I time to figure this out.

But this is wearing on me; we aren’t meant to live the Christian life alone.  How I long for Heaven, where we will worship together without the painful disunity of denominational differences, without our haranguing sins tainting every joy.  No more suffering and no more tears.

He who does not choose to suffer for the sake of truth will be chastened more painfully by suffering he has not chosen.

-St Mark the Ascetic

We in no way regret our decision to leave our home church, though we deeply miss our friends there, our community there, our family there.  The suffering we’re undergoing now is hard, but continuing on in that place would have been harder yet in a soul-numbing way.

So beauty is all around me and my eyes swim with tears.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  -Psalm 34:18

Lord have mercy.

On a Sabbath Made Strange

The song played as we drove.  We laced our fingers together, which was way too warm and just right.  Tears rolled freely down my face as the passing landscape smeared by.

We’d been invited to lunch with dear friends; we had looked forward to sharing of their warm hospitality and always-wonderful food, but we had to cancel.  The raging waves of grief were breaking hard on our first Sunday as “homeless” Christians.  We needed to drive, so we drove.

We let the song break right over us, let it pull the grief open for us, and we sang along, downright belting it out.  Not sure what the kids thought.

We pulled into the Baltimore Museum of Art; it was free and I needed beauty.  Maybe some won’t understand that.  Beauty has a way of pulling my soul up from my feet and feeding it.  It speaks to that soul laid-low in the language of color and line and strokes of cadmium red.

Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Matisse, Raphael, Klimt; they all showed up and did my soul a service.  1,700 year-old Antiochian mosaics helped too.  And “The Thinker”, stooped over in thought; at least I’m not the only one stumped.

I might be grieving a bit hard.  But that is because I love hard.  Mildness is not my modus operandi.  If you have once worked your way into my heart, it is highly probable that you shall always have a residence there.

The day winds down to a wash of grays growing darker.  But I see green coming up, I see green.

Broken

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We stood in the remnants of Juan’s home in Concepcion, Chile.  The walls tilted in wildly.  Tears ran down his cheeks; he had built this home with his own two hands.  Raised his children here.  The earthquake took all that away within minutes.  Unlike his neighbors who were crushed by debris, his family survived; they would live another day and make a new home elsewhere.  But, for now, there was just a lot of loss, a lot of grieving to be done.  How do you gather up the fragments, leave your beloved neighborhood, where people know your name and whose children played with yours, where the banter at day’s end was familiar and comforting as old slippers, broken-in just right?  How do you start over?  “Are you afraid to be in here?”, I asked Juan, because I certainly was afraid; the walls and ceilings bulged and sagged threateningly.  “Yes, I am afraid.  This could collapse at any second”.  Staying wasn’t an option.

It was Sunday, a day I had dreaded.  For the last time as a member, we slid into our pew and opened the hymnal.  Words stuck in my throat and I just found my eyes wandering to faces, to backs of heads.  I counted our losses, person by person.

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We left our church yesterday.  We didn’t sneak out the back door (though it was tempting).  We didn’t storm out either.  We got up front with our pastor and we shared a short letter:

Dearest Friends and Family,

We have a hard thing to share this morning.  We are leaving Landisville.  This has not been an easy nor a light decision to make.  You have been our community for many years.  You have nurtured us, you have sent us.  When I think of all that God did in Chile during our time there, I just thank Him for you; without you we could not have gone and made disciples.  We thank you so much for your generosity and support.  

There are issues being debated here and in the broader Mennonite Church that we do not believe are debatable.  Melodie Smith, now Melodie Dum, said recently that within the church there is room for diversity of belief on homosexuality.  There certainly may be room; the church may be like a large bus with a seat available for everyone, but if the bus is headed to New York and God has called you to Miami, it doesn’t matter if there’s a seat for you, it is not going the way you must go.  

Getting off the bus has all the pain and sting of a separation.  Please forgive us if we have offended or hurt you in our journeys together.  Our sincerest aim was to be a part of you, not to part from you.  We love you and will miss you.

Our assignment in Honduras has been postponed indefinitely as EMM does not send “homeless” missionaries.  If we find another church family who, after we have been rooted-in with them and knit together, agrees to send us, then we will have that hope of going.  If not, the monies you’ve invested into this vision will go toward sending others, but it will not be wasted, that we can be sure of.  Please pray for a family to be sent to fulfill the role in Honduras, one that could bring such blessing to so many.

In closing, I ask for your prayers; our family weeps at the loss of you.  Please pray for God’s Spirit to direct and guide us.  Please pray for our children, for whom transition has been the default of their young lives, that God would be their firm place which never shifts nor changes.  Please pray that God would give us hope in this time of trial. 

I was too afraid to look up as Dustin read.  My eyes blurred and I examined the wood grain of the podium.  I didn’t want to see the hurt, confusion, or ambivalence on those beloved faces.  Some would be glad to see us go.  Some would be offended, as if our leaving were a judgment on their staying.  Some would be quite sad.

We were outspoken, see, on both our love for people with homosexual dispositions AND our love of God’s Word.  We didn’t believe that stepping towards anyone in love involved a stepping away from the Bible and it’s teachings.  We believe that practicing homosexuality is a sin, just as adultery is, just as lying is.  We don’t vilify it as the worst, nor ignore it as unimportant.  We don’t want our own sins to be accepted, neither do we do anyone else that injury.

Maybe we weren’t in the minority, but we were quite alone in speaking openly.  It is odd to feel like a radical when you’re simply agreeing with orthodox Christian beliefs, which have been held true for millennia.  It is strange for the Bible to be treated as so pliable a thing and for human sympathy to be heralded over love.

We tried for three years.  We met with leaders, we prayed, we shared.  We waited semi-patiently.  Then it seems, our decision was drastically hurried up by several important turning points in the Mennonite church.  Eastern Mennonite University announced a listening/discerning time to see whether they would allow practicing homosexual professors.  One of the conferences ordained a practicing lesbian.  Our own church hosted a play about a man and his son who has just come out as gay, inviting viewers to laugh, to cry, to be confused.  Sure, it was a story, but it was clearly a platform; to continue this “dialogue” which so often has felt like a dogged monologue.

Our pastor helped us through the leaving process and we so valued his wisdom.  In emails back and forth, he asked if this was the only reason we were leaving.  I responded:

About cause for leaving; the debate about homosexuality is the surface manifestation (and to us a particularly disturbing one) of a deeper issue; sort of like the blue coloring of a bruise, the injury being actually under the skin.  How pliable we think scripture is is under there.  How we interpret scripture and whether we take into account two millennia of the church’s conclusions on sexuality, immorality, gender, and suffering.  Sometimes I imagine pre-schism unity as a thick trunk, then branching off into Rome, then branching again smaller yet post-Reformation, and then splintering yet more into denominations and then tiny twigs where we keep extending out our particular interpretations ad nauseum, are we not near to breaking in this persistent, growing, uniqueness?  Are our beliefs to be so very shifting and transient, like the culture’s?  I feel the strength of the tree so very much less under my feet each year it seems, the farther out on the twig we go.  But these are harder things yet to share on a Sunday morning with a shocked congregation taking it in that we are leaving them.  Roots are more tangled than the plants above them.  So, yes, it is too simplistic to say that disagreement over homosexuality is the reason we’re leaving, but it is the most tangible present reason; it’s the coloring over the injury that marks the spot of distress.  If the knot of contention were switched to questioning whether the miracles of the Bible actually happened, I dare say the bruise would be much the same; it questions the same thing, the veracity of scripture and whether we are compelled to take it plainly.

Juan and my teammate Bekii Kisamore and I bowed our heads in prayer.  Tears made wet trails down Juan’s face and hit the rubble-strewn floor.  “This, this is what people need”.  He then led us to his yard and showed us his “hope”.  A beautiful copihue vine with full, generous blooms, snaking up the crumbling wall of his neighbor’s home, where the couple died clutching their small child in their arms.  It was a “sign of life” for him, and he brought it water from the countryside to keep it going while all else was in ruin.  He shared cuttings with us, he shared his hope with us.

broken3We nurtured our little copihue cuttings, kept them in water and planted them in our yards in southern Chile, a constant reminder that God invites us to hope in the midst of ruin.

Our decision to leave our church meant that we had lost not only our community, but our vocation as well.  To be sent, you need a sending body.  Our beautiful dream came crashing down and I am still reeling from that.  I don’t know how to live without a dream.  I feel like I’m flailing, like the floor has given way beneath me.  If not for the peace that God has given us that we are obeying His voice, I do not know how I would go on.

There is just enough light to know that a path is before us.  I cling to this verse from Isaiah 30:20,21:

Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

broken4Please pray for us as we grieve.

On Being a Particular Pack Mule

God fits the back for the burden.

-Irish proverb

There is the weight of the everyday. The irksome crumbs all splayed over the counters where lunches were packed with all sorts of fits and starts.  The treadmill of laundry and the marathon of assigning dust to it’s place.  Imposing shalom on jumbles and smudges and the trailing remains from where one child read, or took off shoes, or cut paper, or such and such.

That is part of the burden, but not the bulk weight of it.

How is it that the invisible burdens are so much heavier than the ones in plain and frequent sight?  The inner fight of, and fondness for, sin.  The niggling question mark in my mother heart; do my children see God?  Do they long for Him at all?  Will they respond to His love with a life-long faith?  The agonizing examines at day’s end:  Oh, God, are you pleased with me at all?  Am I meeting Your expectations?  Am I hearing you right?

That is part of the burden, a large part.

There is also the corporate bit, the deep concern over the Church, that it shine with the gospel’s pure light, that it offer sound teaching and true water to thirsty souls.  That it not mash-up with the pervading culture’s mores to make the good news more round and less definite.  To smudge the stark lines and make of the Word a sea of gray.

That feels like the straw too many and my knees tremble under the load.

Fortunately, God “fits the back for the burden”.  He strengthens trembling knees and shores up the sagging spine.  He smiles into the face of the mule bent low and whispers, “Arise, strong one, I give you my strength”.

What can I say to Him?

When He who so lovingly burdens me, so lovingly encourages me, so lovingly shores me up?  What but, “Oh!  Amen!”

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It Can All Rage And Yet…

It can all rage ugly and hurt and rending,

And yet,

Here and there, pockets of deep peace,

And glory,

And joy.

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Dipping candles yesterday.  What a peaceful, contemplative craft.  Talk about slowing down.  The barely susceptible progress made with each deliberate dip made me think of spiritual progress; that I should not despair when it looks as though I am not growing spiritually.  If God has promised to complete His work within me, He will do it, He is doing it, though I see the changes only through the lens of years.ImageImage

A morning spent drawing with my son.  Gregorian chants and the fifteenth century choral music wrapping us in beauty as we deliberately sketched and colored, slowly.  A thousand thoughts pinged through my mind, on heresies currently rending the patchwork quilt of our church family, leaving my eyes reddened and my stomach hurting, on Ukraine, the tumult and the suffering and my prayers seeming so small against all that.  But for all that inner noise and clang, I had to apply pencil to paper, and eye the lay of the feathers, and the attention brought a borrowed peace.Image

Playmobile ships, stuffed animals dressed as soccer players, presidents, and babies, riding “the train” (a.k.a. the couch).  All his little conversations and sound effects and stories.  I feel the joy of childhood filling up the room and my grown-up worries have to retreat for a while.Image

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It can all rage and yet the seeds still germinate and the nasturtiums still reach for the sun.  And my God is sovereign and good.  And I’ll praise Him in the pockets of peace and in the turbulent places too.  For Christ is our peace, and Christ is portable.

 

One Molecule Away

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I am a great fan of butter.  And lard.  I have some unnecessary zeal about these.  That is a fault line running through me, that I cannot care about anything mildly; only passionately and fervently and deeply.  If I ever seem balanced about an issue, it is only because I am stuffing half my soul into a filing cabinet and turning the music on so no one hears it banging about and hollering.

Butter and lard.  Heavy whipping cream in my morning coffee.  I affectionately call it “butter coffee”, though perhaps I should call it “frosting coffee” because I’ve got the butterfat and two ample spoonfuls of evaporated cane juice sugar in there (notice that I couldn’t just leave it at “sugar”, it had to be “healthy sugar”, shameful zealousness).

Not surprisingly, I identify with Peter; that vitriolic fisherman that Jesus called a friend and disciple.  Impulsive, rash, zealous, and so very full of errors and false bravado.  I bet he’d appreciate certain verses that I do, like:  “So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”, Revelation 3:16, because we figure that we’re at least safe on that one.  We’re so extreme that mildness would be nigh painful.

I read it one day, that margarine was one molecule away from plastic.  It looks like butter, behaves pretty much like butter, tastes similar to butter.  It’s certainly easier to spread on bread for making grilled cheese sandwiches; no balled-up wads of torn bread there.  But if you leave it out for the bugs and bacteria to eat, nothing happens to it.  It doesn’t have life in it.  It’s like those eternal french fries you find when vacuuming out your car, eerily unchanged by the usual culprits of mold and decay.

Worst of all, the body doesn’t know what to do with it; it isn’t living food.  On top of that, for decades well-meaning dietitians and nutritionists have been promoting it as the healthy alternative to good old animal fats.  We thought we were making a good choice for our dear bodies.

Where did I hear it, when did it stick to my soul that a truth combined with a lie is more powerful than a lie by itself?

I am a Mennonite Christian; we’re a lot like the baptists, but take Jesus literally when he says all that “love your enemy” stuff, so we don’t engage in wars and have historically eschewed political involvement, believing in changing the world in a more grassroots way, rather than by reaching for power and clout.

I love our church; I love sliding into the pew on a Sunday morning and singing acapella hymns.  I love it when we are told that we’re learning a “new song” today and I realize it was written in the mid 1700’s.  There are beautiful stories in our history of martyrs paying the ultimate price to love their neighbor more than themselves.  I liked best the one about a family whose thatch roof was being lit on fire by a mob.  They walked out of their home and offered refreshments to the mob, who they saw to be working so hard.  The mob felt ashamed by the love poured out to them and saved the home from burning.

Tears pour from my eyes, you see, my church, the Mennonite faith, is neck-deep in danger.  Orthodox beliefs are tottering.  The Gospel, which is full of life and soul-nourishing like butter to the body, is being replaced with soul-deadening dissipation, margarine, plastic, lifeless heresies.  Those that believe these things are not malicious, they truly think that this margarine is the new cure, the new thing that God is doing, that it will make us better.  New and improved.  Never mind that it has nothing to do with clear Biblical exegesis.

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Most of the older generation, in their plain suits and delicate floral homemade dresses, with their long hair bundled up under lace head coverings, they don’t know what is happening.  They don’t know that their daily bread is being spread with false butter.

Only God gives life, only His Word is living and active; only by drawing ever closer to Him can we minister in any meaningful way to the hurting and lost among us.  When your denomination ceases to honor that Word, do you stand like a despised prophet, calling it away from the pull of cultural gravity?  Do you leave it for another denomination which more clearly stands under the authority of God’s Word?  What do we do?

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