Thursday, June 30, 2011

What is Church Anyway?

Recently I watched a documentary on PBS about drive-in movie theaters.  I was sentimentally remembering going to the movies in my pajamas with my mom and dad and a big paper sack full of popcorn when, just before the end of the program, they started talking about Robert Schuller conducting drive-in worship services out in California.  It all came flooding back: going to drive-in church with my grandparents and my little sister in Watertown, SD in the early 1960s.  We went to church in our summer shorts and tops instead of dresses and frilly socks, and Laurie and I thought it was the best idea ever!  We sat in the back seat of Grandpa's giant car.  There wasn't much to see, just some very small figures in front of a huge screen.  The speaker hung on the driver side window and was scratchy sounding but plenty loud.  I know we had coloring books and crayons and probably a few snacks in the back seat but we were in "church"!  We knew we were in church because there were familiar words: "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and there was music (Holy, Holy, Holy and other songs we could sing without hymnals). There were readings from the Bible.  And every so often Grandma's hand would reach back from the front seat and gently settle us because it was time to pray.  And we stopped what we were doing, bowed our heads, and waited for it to be time to say Amen. 

There weren't any candles, stained glass windows, hymnals, altar, communion, organ, or flowers. There wasn't a baptismal font. We weren't dressed in our Sunday best.  It didn't smell like church. (It smelled like Grandpa, like pipe tobacco and peppermints.) Still, it was "church."

So what makes something "church"?  I've been to worship services where I left feeling like I had been to a concert, but not "church."  I've been to churches where I've felt like I'd been at a political rally.  I've also been to church at a campsite with kids wearing face paint and attended worship in a library where we sat on the floor and shared the Lord's Supper. Why was it church at the campsite but a political rally at the church building?

What makes church feel like "church"?  Most of us probably define the "church" experience in fairly specific terms.  For me, church is kind of like a birthday party.  I go and gather with people I know, and people I don't know, to celebrate the One we all love.  We say familiar things and sing familiar songs - sometimes in a park, sometimes in a restaurant.  At the center is the One we all know (some of us have known the Guest of Honor all our lives and some have only recently met, some of us are hoping to curry favor, and some are just fans; but we are all gathered around the same table to eat the same food!)

What has to be there to make it "church" for you?  This is a great question to explore with your kids.  What did your kids say? Tell me your stories - I really want to know.

I've changed the settings to make it easier for people to comment.  I hope you will - we can all learn from each other!

Thursday, June 23, 2011


This week, in some devotional reading, I came across a sentence that I have been rolling over in my mind for several days: "I realized that, when it comes to faith, I spend most of my energy trying to make God fit into my life, rather than making room in my life for God to take root and grow." (Jeremy Langford in Seeds of Faith)

AS IF!!! As if I could somehow shape and mold God into something that would fit into my helter-skelter-never-stopping-to-smell-the roses-life!Talk about wasted energy. God can morph into any shape God wishes but I have no power to control that whatsoever. Yet this is what we all try to do - we want to domesticate God . We want to reduce God to an item on our to-do list: “OK, said my prayers at bedtime and wrote a check to the church. I'm good to go and nice of you to stop by, Lord!”

This approach to God is akin to the "Quality Time" parenting myths that were so pervasive when my children were small. The theory was that if you made the time you spent with your child meaningful, a little bit would go a long way. The problem (well, ONE of the problems) was, children weren't always in the mood for meaningful activities when you had them in your Daytimer. The fact that a parent had scheduled a 4-hour block to take a child to the zoo didn't mean the child was going to be in the mood ,or feeling well, or that the weather would cooperate. Parenting by the calendar - the most efficient way raise your child. Are you laughing? I know you are - nothing is less efficient than hanging out with a child, except maybe hanging out with God. . .

God doesn't want your quality time either. Like your child, God wants all of you: the good, the bad, the inefficient. Efficiency is a human priority. God created plants that would be pollinated at the whim of bees and butterflies. Plants proliferated everywhere: vines climbing up the trees, birds pecking at the fruit, flowers and weeds indistinguishable. Humans created fields with straight rows of corn or cotton, carefully weeded and watered when the rain doesn't come.

God comes in like a child and fills up your life. You can try to limit the space you give to God, but if you share your space, you will find that faith and love expand and take root.  Faith and love will last through all the bumps along the way; all the joys and sorrows of being a parent, a child, a person. . . I'm sure you had ideas of how you would fit a child into your life, or another child into your family. I am equally sure it didn't work quite the way you had planned. Along the way you let go of a lot of things to make space for your children – and I'll bet most of them seemed like small sacrifices, in retrospect. Look around for the not-so-important thing that is occupying space that God could use; as God grows in your life, you won't miss it!

Thursday, June 16, 2011


We’re having Vacation Bible School at my church this week.  Around 240 kids and volunteers are in the building every day.  We serve breakfast to about a third of them and snacks to all of them.  Yesterday we made snow cones for every single one of them and the whole staff too.  Things are getting a little messy.  Some of our crafts are using sand, so there’s a little bit of gritty stuff here and there.  One group was beading and left lots of little snips of string behind.  Every glass door is festooned with fingerprints and on any flat surface you should be prepared to find a nametag, a newsletter, a used band-aid or an empty cup.  All our regular weeknight meetings have been moved to different spaces to accommodate the fun.  In short – it’s really messy.
It’s messy, and it’s real.  Life is not something to be watched; it should be experienced. And experience is generally messy.  Learning to ride a bike almost always draws a little blood.  Getting experience in the kitchen means having to wash some dishes.  Most new drivers have to have a fender bender.  Real is messy.
Being a parent is messy too. I remember seeing a family getting their pictures taken for the church’s photo directory a few years ago.  They were dressed to perfection and dad was wearing a white shirt so clean it nearly shimmered in the light.  As they waited their turn with the photographer the youngest child, a boy of about 2, threw up over dad’s shoulder and down the back of the perfect white shirt.  The photo turned out fine but I laugh every time I see it, knowing what the back of the shirt looked like.
Vomit over the shoulder is easily cleaned up.  Another family might have two perfect children nearly ready to leave home when a surprise pregnancy delivers a child with Down’s syndrome.  Still other families survive divorces, deaths, job losses, arrests, failing grades and a host of other unplanned events.  These messes aren’t so easily cleaned up.
Today at Bible School we asked the big question: “How can Jesus help me when I mess up?” And we answered it:  “Jesus forgives me and helps me make a fresh start.”    So parents, when you mess up (and you will), take it to the Lord.  Let forgiveness clean up the mess between you and your child. Recognize the lessons in the mess.  When your child messes up, do the same: forgive and make a fresh start.  Like riding that bike or cooking that meal, you’ll probably have both blood and laundry messes as you experience parenthood.  It’s ok – love is messy.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Surf's Up!

At church we’re getting ready for that time-worn summer tradition: Vacation Bible School.  This year’s theme is Son Surf and we are learning a whole new lingo of surfing words and lots of stuff we didn’t know about surfing.  It occurred to me that being a parent is a lot like surfing.  Once you bring that little one home from the hospital, you suddenly start to acquire a whole new vocabulary:      
  • Baby sign 
  • Vaccination protocol 
  • Preschool accreditation
  • Fifth’s Disease
  • Licenex
And you are forced to learn a whole new balancing routine:
  • Who stays home from work if the child is sick?        
  • How many ice packs are required to keep breast milk cool all day?        
  • How far apart in age can they be and still share a bedroom?        
  • How are you supposed to be at open house at two schools on the same night?        
  • Should you buy them a car or make them earn it?
Like a surfer riding the waves, every parent will be forced to contort into a wide variety of poses just to stay on the board.  And every one of us will fall off from time to time, get thoroughly soaked, and even fear that we may drown.  And like surfing, no two days will ever be the same.  No two kids will ever be the same. Some kids will hardly make a ripple in the routine of your life.  Other kids will enter your life like tsunamis, and you will have no power to prevail against them.   Most kids will roll in and out like waves, some big, some small.  You will have to crouch low or lean into the wave and continuously adjust to keep your balance.

Some surfing advice: Don’t forget to breath.  Get back on the board if you fall off.  Remember that little adjustments can have big results.  It’s supposed to be fun – don’t miss the fun of surfing today because you are worrying about tomorrow’s waves.  This is the only time you will ever get to surf these particular waves. 

God has called you for this child and will equip you for this task.  You will find help in places you least expect and allies among people you might have avoided in other chapters of your life. You will respond to your children in inspired ways. You have the capacity to keep adjusting your balance for the rest of your life.  You are made of stuff that can get wet without melting.  And every now and then you will catch a bodacious wave and ride it for what seems like a year.  There’s nothing like it – and when the waves get rough you can remember that!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Love in the Questions

This week an acquaintance posted to Facebook "So today I had my first negative comment about my son's behavior. I was putting him in the carseat and he was screaming bloody murder and a woman next to me in the parking lot says: 'Oh is that you abusing that child?' to which I said 'I'm not abusing my child, he is autistic and he doesn't wants to sit in his carseat!'" 

You can't imagine the Facebook dialogue that followed. . . The mother in question is a native Spanish speaker  and the conversation continued, passionately, in both Spanish and English.  I had to use Google translate to keep up.

I couldn't help myself.  I had to comment.  So I added my two cents:  "[Friend] this woman was advocating for your son, just as you do every day. People like this are your friends, not enemies. She is passionate about his welfare just like you. Does that make sense?"  To which she responded "Not really! Why would she come to me and say that? I don't think she is my enemy or hate her, I just think she needed to mind her own business!"  

"I don't think she is my enemy or hate her" - but she certainly didn't think the woman was her friend either. My heart breaks for the people in this little vignette.  My friend carries a heavy burden with this child.  He is deeply locked away within the confines of his condition.  The other woman must also have a story, an experience that makes her protective even of children she doesn't know.  She was so brave to speak up for the child;  I'm sure she second-guessed that decision many times after it happened.

This is a classic love-your-neighbor moment.  Sometimes we know what our neighbor needs because we've walked the same path. Sometimes we recognize the feelings and think we know what is needed.  Often, like the woman in the parking lot and yours-truly on the Facebook wall, we don't recognize the feelings or know what is needed; we only know that there is a need. 

How differently this incident might have played out had the neighbor-lover simply said "Do you need any help?"  or "Can I help you?"  My friend might still have told her to mind her own business, but she wouldn't have felt her motherhood attacked.  My friend might have burst into tears; I don't know.  I think it's a safe bet that had the neighbor-lover asked this question, she would have left knowing that the child was autistic and the mother was stretched to the breaking point.  She might have even been able to help. Instead, two good women parted, both feeling savaged by the encounter.

How differently the Facebook conversation might have gone had I understood that my neighbor needed to be reassured of her skill as a mother instead of thinking I needed to help her understand the other woman.  My neighbor blessed me by continuing the conversation until we understood one another.  On Sundays, people of my tradition confess that "we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves." Building on the lesson learned in this encounter, I want to try to be a better neighbor-lover. I want to ask more questions, and truly listen for the answers.  What's going on with you, my friend, my neighbor?  And what's going on with you, my child?