The Middle Space

“There has to be a middle. Without it, nothing can ever truly be a whole. Because it is not just a space between, but also what holds everything together.”
                                                                           – Sarah Dessen,  Just Listen

There’s a prevalent lie today in Christian circles that we have to be “okay.” That we can’t doubt God or question him. That we can’t be mad at him. We can struggle, yes, ask a few whys but it should never get to a fist-shaking and faith-rattling brawl with God.

I tend to disagree. Some of us need to go through that fight as part of our journey. In fact it’s integral to it. It’s working out our faith and relationship with God.

Paul writes to the church in Philippians 2:12:
[ Do Everything Without Grumbling ] Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling

Wrestling with God is one way to work out your salvation.

Journeys have a beginning and an ending. Usually, we are in a hurry to begin, to get going on the adventure. Equally so with the arrival at our destination. No one really likes the middle part, after a bit.

It starts out okay but then someone has to go to the bathroom, gets car sick or lost. Tempers start to flare as boredom or anxiety sets in. “Are we there yet? How much more time?” It’s accompanied by a whine. This is the middle part of a journey. It’s ugly and messy and painful. I know you’ve been there in your mini-van which has started to feel like a clown car with one too many clowns in it. It’s getting uncomfortable. Who hasn’t been there?

Our spiritual journeys aren’t much different for some of us. We go through bursts of enthusiasm and vision at the start, only to stumble through the middle part. The waiting. The boredom. The fear and frustration. The feeling lost and directionless. The anger. We struggle with the suffocation of questions and doubts. The feeling that we can’t take One.More.Thing.

We’re spoiling for a fight. We start to wrestle with God.

Sometimes the church and followers of Jesus have a hard time with those of us who fight with God. There’s a slight air of disapproval. A purse of the lips. That’s a human perspective. I believe God can handle our grappling with Him. There’s nothing we throw at Him that He hasn’t already seen coming. He is our safest “opponent.”

Jeremiah certainly doesn’t make any bones about his complaint with God in Jeremiah 15:18.
Why then does my suffering continue?
    Why is my wound so incurable?
Your help seems as uncertain as a seasonal brook,
    like a spring that has gone dry.”

He echoes my own lament. He’s not the only one.

In Genesis chapter 32, starting at verse 22, Jacob physically wrestled all night with God. He came away from that fight with a blessing and a limp. And a new identity. No longer Jacob, but Israel, which means “God fights”. Interesting that, isn’t it?

I’ve always felt like I was less of a Christian because I was a fighter. Feisty. Not sure I would have survived if I hadn’t been. I have battled with God. Many times. I understand where these guys are coming from and I’m thankful their matches are right there in ink on the pages of the Bible.

If you find yourself locking horns with God today, don’t back down. He has the answers and He is truth. There are times we struggle with God and who He is to figure out the truth – about Him, about ourselves. It might take all night but don’t give up because someone gave you a disapproving “hrumph”. Seriously.

Jacob came away from that night better than he was before it. He met God face to face. We do too when we engage in combat with God. You can’t fight blindfolded or if you are hiding. For some of us, it’s the only way we let Him in close enough that He can grab hold of us.

Struggle, wrestle, fight, call it whatever, but it’s a part of our middle.
Not the entirety. The journey is full of ups and downs and good and bad. All those things combined, including the wrestling, make us who we are. Moulds us into the whole. It is the middle part that strengthens and deepens our relationship with God. James says it in his book in the first chapter.

Dear brothers and sisters,[a] when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. James 1:2-4 NLT

So when testing and trials come and you find yourself wrestling with God, remember you are in good company. Don’t pretend it’s not happening or you’re too spiritual for that kind of thing. God can take it. He’ll see you through.

Don’t give up and believe the lies that keep you from the truth. That takes the fight right out of you before the battle begins. It’s what the enemy wants. For you to give up. So don’t. Fight. Fight to get to the other side. Fight for the truth and fight for your relationship with God.

When we get to our eternal destination, it’s our middle that holds the beginning and the end together and it has God’s fingerprints all over it, glueing it together, creating our whole.

Why Go To Church?

A few days ago, I read a blog by a woman whose husband died last month from cancer. She writes that as a widow, she doesn’t care if her church is trendy or if it has a coffee bar. She is hurting and she needs Jesus.  You can read it here. It’s worth the time. I happen to agree with her.  Even if you don’t, she makes some very good points.  (BTW this is not a rebuttal blog at all.  She got me thinking, that’s all.)

Being in church leadership, I understand why churches are resorting to cafes and hipster tactics. As leadership, we are told again and again how the millennials and everyone else is leaving the church en masse or not entering it in the first place. People think church is archaic and irrelevant in today’s world. They don’t have time for church. People have been wounded by the church and people professing to be Jesus followers. There are all sorts of reasons why people don’t go to church. But hey, Starbucks is full on a Sunday morning. So I get why churches are deciding to incorporate the trendy into Sunday morning tradition. Sometimes you just want to get people to come out because they have to be inside to hear about Jesus. To meet Him.

Thankfully we have the freedom to choose the church we attend. Some of us are visual learners so a video or drama helps us learn better. Some of us learn by writing notes during the sermon. Some of us learn by doodling through the sermon – our hands busy while our minds take in the words. Churches don’t all need to be the exact replica of one type of church. We were all created unique by a very big God. It’s okay if our churches are different from each other.  As long as Jesus is our priority.

Some will argue that no, they don’t need to be in church. They can learn about Jesus elsewhere. In nature. In other relationships. I would agree but just like church, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Our relationship with God is not one dimensional. We need it all; nature, godly relationships and church.

There’s one other thing. I know it’s hard to believe but some people encounter Jesus for the first time ever in a church!!! I know, right?

The one thing that must happen in church is Jesus is preached. The Word of God must be taught and then lived out. Especially by those in leadership. Jesus must be present in order to be experienced.

To be honest though, I’m like everyone else. I don’t always want to go to church. Sometimes it’s just a single Sunday. Other times it’s been for a season. There are a number of reasons why. But after reading this blog, I have to ask myself, Why am I going to church? As a pastor’s wife, I kinda have to. That’s one reason. But that really isn’t good enough for me.

Why do I go to church? That question coincided with my Lent reading from Margaret Feinberg’s #Beloved study of John. I was a day behind so the passage was from John 5. It’s about the man who sits beside the pool waiting for the water to be stirred. He can’t get himself in because he is paralyzed. Jesus comes to him and asks him a bizarre question. “Do you want to get well again?” (John 5:6 Phillips) Really? Of course he wants to get well!

 

Jesus’ question had nagged at me throughout the day. It was a main point in Margaret’s blog about the reading too. After reading the widow’s blog about church, I put the two questions together. Why am I even going to church? Do I want to get well again?  I think the two are very connected.

Even though the church has many faults, God still wants us there. It is a place of fellowship and community that is centred around Him. There is healing and hope in hearing about other’s people’s journeys. It’s one of the widow’s main points about church. She wants to hear about people’s own stories of God not what the flavour of coffee is. She’s absolutely right. It’s through our stories that we get to know God better. That it becomes personal. One of the places this should happen is our churches. (Sometimes the leadership gets their priorities mixed up.)

It also is a place of learning. The pastor has been taught to teach the bible. More than one message I have heard in a lifetime of sermons has cut me to the close. Changed me.

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Do I want to be healed? Do I really? Or would I rather just sit by the pool and make excuses? Put up my walls and shrug, “Oh well, guess that’s not for me?”

Do you want to get well again?  He’s asking us today that very same question.

Yes I do. I think that’s why I don’t leave church. It’s not perfect but at the moment it’s what we’ve got.

It’s also a place I have encountered Jesus more than once. Like in ancient times,when Jesus taught in the Temple, His presence is still in our churches today when we invite Him to come, bringing healing and power. It comes through His Word, through people acting as His hands and feet and through the testimony of His people.  As I head out to church, a part deep inside hopes to meet Jesus there as I stop and sit. I probably will have to surrender my own will. I may have to let people help me, carrying me to the pool. I may have to take down my protective walls, but He’s there waiting.

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Me. You. We just need to come.

Do you want to get well again?

What We Should Be Fighting For

Dear Bride of Christ (aka the North American Church),

The church is the beloved Bride of Christ.  God’s plan to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Yet here in North America, you make me sad. As the world continues to get more confounding, I find you do too.
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I don’t understand all the fighting. In case you aren’t active on social media, with Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year, there has been a growing disagreement amongst believers in North America over going to church on Christmas Day.  In one corner, we have the Go To Church or You are Bad. In the other corner are the If You Don’t Go to Church You Love Your Family More. Does it really matter?

Is there a right or wrong here? You do what’s best for your family. If you’ve got twenty dinners to attend on Christmas Day and going to church is going to wipe you out, is it sinful to skip it? If going to church will make the day even better, does that mean you love your family less?

I admit, I started to get swept up in it too. It’s so easy to make swift judgements and proclamations. But why does it matter what someone else is doing? Why are we fighting about this? Is it really going to matter when we stand before God whether we went to church on Christmas?

It got me to thinking as I thought about this more…The fighting might be an issue. It’s a stupid thing to fight about and the joke’s on us. There are people who look at the church and chalk it up to one more thing Christians do that makes absolutely no sense. Especially at Christmas! Why would they want to come among a group of people to celebrate love and peace when those same people can’t seem to get along and aren’t very nice in the process? It makes me sad because the church was meant to be so much more. We are the Bride of Christ. Instead it seems in North America we tend to fight and judge and turn on each other too much of the time.

Now I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that this is not every church or every Christian. Some are doing it really well. But others….

If we are in a fighting mood then here’s what I think we as the church should be fighting for:

– all the children who are starving in the world. The children who forage in the dumps for a crust of bread. It might be the only meal for the day. If they’re lucky.
– the widows and orphans who are fighting to stay alive. Every. Single. Day.
– those who are alone, depressed, alienated and lost.
– those who are suffering because someone they loved is no longer here.
– those who are sick and hurting.
– all the people who live in nursing homes and never have a visitor.
– those who have so much stuff they can’t see what they really need.

Who’s fighting for them?

Beloved, we are the ones who have been given the task of bringing the Good News of God’s love for his people, to those around us. It’s inside us to give that gift not in a pushy, self-righteous, I’m right you’re wrong way. It’s inside us to give that gift in love, in relationship, in humility.

Christ left his Father in Heaven to come down and be here with us. This is astoundingly good news and yet we are fighting about whether it’s right or wrong to go to church on Christmas Day, among other things?

We are given the task to be the hands and feet of Christ. What would happen if we as the church actually did that on Christmas Day and on into the new year?

It doesn’t have to be much. Maybe it’s a kind smile along with helping to shovel snow for an elderly neighbour. Or some extra cash given without strings or a tax receipt to someone who needs it more than we do. What if it’s being kind to someone who doesn’t deserve it but probably needs a good dose of love right about now? Or putting down our phones, or work or books, and being engaged with our children? How ‘bout seeing someone who feels invisible?

Maybe, just maybe, could we set aside ourselves for a minute, and go, be the Bride of Christ to those around us? Mirror Jesus to those who are begging for just a glimpse of hope this Christmas and new year.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8 NIV

When Church is Imperfect and Feels Unsafe

Sunday, my husband, the pastor, was talking about how we are the living stones of the church, built on the cornerstone. Part of being that living wall of believers, of being the church, is discovering how we fit together through relationship. I was getting slightly uncomfortable. And then it happened. A line in a song or maybe my husband said it, about church being a safe place.

My hackles went up. Honestly, as a pastor’s wife, I haven’t found the church to be the safest place. Not by a long shot. And as a pastor’s wife, should I really be admitting that?

In reality, there are a lot of people who have not found the church to be a safe haven. Both those in ministry and those who attend services have been wounded.

I think what makes it worse, we’re blindsided by it. We think that all Christians are good people who always behave like Jesus did. That’s a very unrealistic expectation on our part since no one is perfect. Including pastoral staff, board members and Sunday school teachers. But because we slap the label Christian on everyone and everything in a ten mile radius of a church, when people are rude, unkind, and downright malicious, the cut is even deeper and bloodier. It hurts. A.Lot.

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We need to ask ourselves, why are we surprised? In a perfect world, the church should be very different. People should behave a lot better! The church should stand out from the crowd, and the world. It should be a refuge for all. Don’t get me wrong. There are churches out there who do it well. But no place is perfect. Every church has it’s faults as well as its silver linings. I’ve been and served in enough of them, to know.

You don’t have to look very far into the New Testament, to see that the ancient church wasn’t much different. Jesus dealt firsthand with pharisees, religious rulers who felt they belonged in an elite crowd, those who doubted His calling or His God-given vision. Even one of his own inner circle betrayed him. Ouch. Betrayal is one bitter pill that cuts all the way down. Jesus understands. As the apostles went out and built the New Testament church, they also encountered difficult people, issues and problems.  So why are we surprised by what goes down in the church today?

The church will never be the perfect place we long for it to be. It cannot meet all our needs. Can it do better? Um, yes. It absolutely can. Every church has room for improvement. Some more than others.

I believe in the local church. We served under a pastor who instilled in us that the local church was God’s plan to bring redemption to the world. Period. I’m a believer. I just don’t always want to engage. But it’s to my detriment. If its God’s will but I’m refusing to be a part of it, then I lose out. I know this but I still struggle with it. This is a conversation God has been having with me for a better part of I’m not sure how long. Some days I choose to walk away from said conversation. He hasn’t let it go. I don’t think He will until I choose to engage.

What about you? Is this something you are struggling with, thinking about? If it is, know you are not the only one.

The only place that will be perfect is Heaven. And only Jesus can meet all our needs. He is the cornerstone. The one we need to keep our lives lined up with as my husband reminded us on the weekend. Maybe, just maybe, if all of us who set foot in a church, both staff and congregants alike, focused only on Christ, and following His example and His call on our lives, the church could move forward and become the place of His love, His care, His peace, His refuge. It is His House after all. No one else can lay claim to it, no matter how much they put in the offering plate or how many years they’ve served there. Maybe instead of being His House in theory, it could be His House in practice. Because the people who make up the church are committed to only Jesus, His teachings and His commandments.

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It might be time to engage in that conversation…and if that’s too hard at the moment, at least to open our minds and hearts to the possibility of having that conversation in the near future.

The Corner of Grosvenor and Sunnyside: Why I’m So Thankful for You

October is pastor appreciation month and I was thinking about the many pastors I’ve enjoyed sitting under over the years.  We have been blessed.

While attending Carleton University in Ottawa, I got involved in a church near the university.  I had attended it briefly my first year but wasn’t ready yet to carve out my own faith.  Over the next three years that church called out to me every time I passed it.  Finally in my last year of school, I went back.  It was a decision I will never regret.  I loved this church and still do, even though it’s been years since we’ve been back.  It will always hold a special place in my heart.

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Here’s why:

1. At the time, almost three quarters of the people attending were university students.  The rest of the congregation was made up of older adults and seniors.  There were a very few young families.  I remember feeling welcome by many of these other members.  Walking home with an elderly gentleman week after week, chatting away about this and that.  Being invited to dinner and enjoying many potlucks as starving students.  We were all part of the same family.  I hope as I get older I am like those people who made the students feel welcomed.  Who embraced God first even if it made them uncomfortable.  Who transferred the baton of leadership so well.

2. I sat engaged in relevant teaching and being part of a service that was full of the Spirit.  The church at the corner of Sunnyside and Grosvenor, had long ago decided to let go of their own agenda and fill the almost empty pews with kids from the university down the street.  That decision made the difference in my life.  I saw a faith that was vibrant.  Kids who actually worshipped on Sunday and then walked their faith out through the week.  I had never witnessed anything like it.  It wasn’t about rules and regulations.  It was about a personal relationship with Jesus.  THAT made all the difference.

3. It began in me, the exploration of worshipping through the arts.  Growing up with only the organ and hymns, I had never seen drums, guitars and singers up front leading some really great songs.  People were excited to be there!  I was instantly hooked.  It was the first tentative step out of the standard box of worship.  Since then, I have taught workshops on dance as worship, as well as danced and choreographed for services and productions in the church.  I don’t think I would have gotten here, if I hadn’t seen the beginnings in that church.

4. The young staff opened up new ideas of leadership for me.  They were engaged and approachable.  I saw pastors and their wives, invested in others.  I saw imperfections and flaws but along with that I saw an authenticity I hadn’t seen before.  It was the beginning of a life-long lesson that following Jesus has nothing to do with perfectionism.

5. For maybe the first time at church, I felt I belonged.  I was building on the strong biblical knowledge I had learned growing up and now in my early twenties, making it my own.  One of the best things about leaving home and going to another city far away, was coming into my own relationship with Jesus.  I could no longer rest on my parents’ faith or the reputation of my family.  I had to decide for myself that Jesus was my own personal saviour and friend.  They let me make that journey and accepted me for who I was.

6. I met some awesome lifelong friends, who although I don’t get to see very often because we are spread across province and country, are still blessings in my life.  They changed me and made a difference in the direction I was headed.  I will always be grateful that God put them in my path!

7. I met Mark there.  I chose to get married there, making family and friends travel many hours.

Was it a perfect church?  No.  In my opinion, perfection is a mirage, hiding stuff we don’t want to deal with.  Having spent almost twenty years in ministry, I can tell you, it wasn’t perfect.  But God lives in that house of worship and in the people who attend there.  God trumped all else.  The proof? The church has so many young families there today.  Some of us left and pursued ministry callings, including my husband.  Others stayed and they had to build a bigger nursery!  Why?  They were obedient to a call and a vision many years before.  All else fell away.  I may have some rose tinting in my glasses but the results in my life and in others, speak for themselves.

Thank you Dale.  You made me realize that you didn’t always have to be in a good mood to be an authentice follower of Jesus.  LOL!  I laugh but your honest life was more than an example to me.  You went Home too early.  I miss you still.

To Brent and Lynda, Jody and Alex, Darren and Joy: Thank you for following God and making a difference in my life.  Thank you for investing in us as friends and mentors.  May God continue to pour out His blessings on you and your families.

 

 

Why Shovelling Snow is Important

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  James 2:8 NIV

The boys grew up calling her “Neighbour”.  Seriously, I think they thought that was her actual name.  At first we weren’t sure of her name.  So we would say to the boys, “Say hi to neighbour”.  “Neighbour’s flowers are so pretty” or “Neighbour is out working again”.  Eventually the name stuck.  She even starting signing her Christmas cards to us; From “Neighbour”.

She was a widow who lived next door to us in Windsor.  She was a good neighbour.  We did neighbourly things.  Took in each other’s mail when the other was away.  Mark buried a skunk for her, that died in her back yard.  He would do other odd jobs that she couldn’t do.  Sounds weird but moving away from her was hard.  We hoped the new people would be good to her.

Neighbours can make or break where you live.  Our new neighbourhood has some challenges.  Honestly there was a lot I didn’t like at first.  Over the last two years I’ve tried to move past those things and accept the new normal.  Except the barky dogs and the outside lights shining in our rooms all night, I’ve gotten used to most of it.

I didn’t get off to the best start.  For example most of the kids think I’m a really mean mom.  I’ve lost my temper at the bullying and occasionally at my own two as they pounded each other with their fists.

We have rules and boundaries for our children.  It doesn’t always make us popular with our children or our children popular with other kids.

However after studying the book of James last winter and reading a book about being a good neighbour, I was convicted.  I could do a lot better.  How about friendly to start?

I began small.  Praying for neighbours who had lost loved ones.  There were two houses within doors of us who had lost a spouse and a mother.  Taking a minute to talk to the people who live next to us when we are all outside.  It’s baby steps really but they make a difference.

There are four of us on our street now who kind of look out for each other.  Our neighbour right next door is ninety-four and she lives with her daughter.  I really hope I’m like her at ninety-four!  She looks seventy.  She is spry and sharp as a tact.  Feisty as all get out.

The neighbour across the street is a recent widow.  Cancer cut short what appeared to be a great retirement for these two.  They were friendly and had come right over to our house and introduced themselves.  That’s a rarity these days.  I can’t even imagine how hard this year has been for her.

The two of us try to keep our ninety-four year old neighbour from having to shovel.  I shovel when it’s not deep snow.  Jean* has a snowblower and when it’s a big snowfall, she’s over blowing out Eleanor’s* driveway and our combined sidewalk.  Today I was so grateful as she blew out the rest of my drive that I hadn’t finished yet.  The drifts are so big now that I can hardly get the snow up on them.  We didn’t say much other than “Thank you!” but there was a friendly feeling in the air that inspires me to keep getting to know the people around me.

I believe that’s why we were put on earth.  Jesus didn’t just sit in the temple and preach.  He did on occasion.  More frequently he was going out to the people.  Meeting them in their communities, neighbourhoods, even in their wildernesses.  If we really want to be the church shouldn’t we take Jesus to the people?  In our neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools.  Wherever we go.  Whatever we do.  (I’m writing this more to myself than any of you.  I constanly need to be reminded of this!)  If we are there, then so is Jesus because aren’t we supposed to be his hands and feet?  Speak love.  Shovel snow.

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*Names have been changed.