31 July 2018

From the Girl Who Didn't Go to Church

One morning last weekend, I was shopping at Bi-Lo for ice and Gatorade. I asked the man refilling the ice machine if I could step around him to retrieve a couple bags of ice.

"Shore thang, sweetheart," he replied. (This is one aspect of southern culture that still gives me pause on a regular basis: being called sweetheart and darling and baby by people I don't know.) He watched as I lugged the bags of ice into my grocery cart, and then remarked: "Gaw nah bo?"

"Er... sorry, what was that?"

He repeated: "Gaw nah bo?"

This was embarrassing. "I'm sorry, sir, I still don't think I caught what you said."

Again, louder this time: "GAW NAH BO?"

Then he nodded at the ice in the cart, and by some combination of context, intuition, and sheer luck I discerned that he was asking: Are you going on a boat? He added: "It's a beautiful day."

And then I realized. It was Sunday, and I wasn't in church, and he figured it must be because I was going sailing, and I must be buying ice for the drinks I'd be having while sailing. Because that's what you do in a waterfront community in the South on a Sunday morning -- if you're not in church, then you're out on the water.

I shook my head regretfully. "I wish! Actually, I'm ripping out the insulation from under my house today." I needed ice and drinks for everyone who was helping, because it was hot as blazes under there, and we were on a tight deadline before selling the house, so we were working as fast as we could. Fun times, yeah.

He threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, GAWSH! That is AWFUL! I am SO sorry for you, sweetheart!"

"Me too," I assured him, before making a hasty exit.

A vague sense of uneasiness followed me all the way home. This was because
(1.) It was Sunday, and I was skipping church, but
(2.) for various reasons -- none of which may be disclosed here -- I knew my presence at church would be of no benefit to myself or anyone else, and besides,
(3.) I no longer believed I was obligated to just appear at church and fill a seat anyway. But old habits die hard. "Sunday = church" is deeply, deeply ingrained in me.

I've presented my reasons for thinking this way many times. Right about now is when someone breaks out Hebrews 10:25: "Do not neglect meeting together." I wholeheartedly agree. And yet... personal difficulties in present circumstances aside, I don't believe our modern church service bears much resemblance to the "meeting together" Hebrews 10:25 calls us to. I don't believe most of us are truly fulfilling that command even if we're in attendance at our local church every week without fail.

I believe that being the church (which is what Scripture actually teaches, as opposed to merely going to church) requires us to live in real, everyday community with one another. It's much more relational, much less program-driven. In some ways, it actually requires more commitment than our current way of doing things. It's up close and personal and doesn't fit neatly into a schedule with established start and end times. It's not obsessed with who's in charge and who must submit to whom. It has no room for fake smiles and facades and sweeping the real issues of life under the rug. It's usually not endorsed by church leadership. It's not what we're accustomed to.

And so it's out of the question for most of us.

I shared all of this with a friend once. He got very upset with me. "But we have to go to church. Church is where we worship the Lord!"

Of course we're able to worship the Lord anywhere, anytime. But for the sake of argument, let's run with this idea: Church is where we worship the Lord, so it's our duty to be there.

Well, in that case, it seems we had better know what worship actually is if we're going to prioritize it. We need to know if there's more to the whole idea than just following along with the printed order of service... don't we?

“Our English word means worthship,’ denoting the worthiness of an individual to receive special honor in accordance with that worth... Worship is pure adoration, the lifting up of the redeemed spirit toward God in contemplation of His holy perfection.”

(That's from Baker's Dictionary of Theology.)

I look at what goes on during the average Sunday service and I can't help but wonder: When are we worshiping -- in the true sense of the word? I'm not even thinking of the huge, rock-n-roll concert megachurches or the prosperity gospel churches, who are obvious candidates for critique. I'm talking about our very average, ordinary, evangelical churches. The ones we dutifully show up at every Sunday and never bother to question what we're actually doing, and why.

I say it's time we start asking those questions.

What part of this church service is for the Lord? What, exactly, is He getting out of it?

I am dead serious. Think through this with me.

Are we worshiping during the singing time? It seems pretty common these days to equate "worship" with "music." This is no doubt why we have a worship leader, who in reality is more of a song leader. As helpful as a song leader's role can be, I don't believe he or she leads "the lifting up the of the redeemed spirit toward God in contemplation of His holy perfection." I believe the Holy Spirit is the only one who can do that.

On a less lofty note, I personally run into problems trying to worship during the singing time anyway. I just can't get all the questions off my mind: Why are we looking at a screen? Can't anybody in this church read music? Wouldn't this sound better if everyone knew their part and could sing in harmony? Why are we repeating this line for the 26th time? Is anyone else realizing that some of these lyrics are creepy and the rest just plain don't make sense?

How much longer until this is over?

(I know I'm not the only one thinking some of these things.)

Are we worshiping during the 17.8 seconds of "turn around and greet your neighbor" time? Call me a cynic, but I highly doubt that anything other than "Let's get this over with" is on the mind of either you or the stranger you just swapped germs with via brotherly handshake. (Thank goodness we don't give holy kisses anymore.)

Are we worshiping during the sermon? If we were to think of the Sunday morning service like a multi-course meal, the sermon would, without a doubt, be the main entree. It's pretty much the reason we're there. If you're present for every other event of the morning, but you miss the sermon, then you've "missed church."

So, seeing as how the sermon occupies the place of supreme importance in terms of time and emphasis, I'd ask how much worship does God get then? Well, probably not much. That block of time, you see, is for us. It's when we're getting spiritually fed learning about how to be better Christians. In a best-case scenario, we get some helpful, Biblically-based points to mull over and try to apply during the week. In a worst-case scenario, we get berated for our failure to measure up to a standard that even Jesus Himself likely wouldn't hold us to.

It's a mixed bag.

Are we worshiping during the maybe-ten-minute Communion service that (sometimes) gets tacked on to the end of the sermon? We probably come closer here than anywhere else. But most of the time, we stop short. If you'll notice, we have very little to say during this time about Christ Himself, or even about what He's done. We don't have time for that. We have a formula. We read 1 Corinthians 11:28: "Let a man examine himself", and we talk about the tragedy of our sin, and how it separates us from God, and how if we have anything between us and the Lord, we had better confess it now, or else.

And it's not that sin isn't horrible and doesn't need to be confessed; it's that we give so little attention to God's goodness compared with how much we give to our own badness. Especially when you consider that Jesus didn't say, "Do this in remembrance of your sin." He said, "Do this in remembrance of Me."

Are we worshiping during the offertory? If the answer is yes, and the worth of your wor$hip, I mean worship, is determined by how much you put in the plate, then does that mean that worship is a privileged reserved for the economically advantaged? Or, to put it another way, are we not worshiping if we take a pass on donating to the church's new sound system because our car needs new brakes, or because we won't be able to afford to see a doctor if we get sick? Is it possible Jesus just might come in and tip over our tables? I wonder.

Are we worshiping during the plug for getting involved in more ministries and programs and outreaches and service projects? Or are we just getting more over-scheduled, more obligated, more guilt-ridden, and more burnt out? "Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you..." Wait, wait, that sounds familiar. Who said that again? I could swear I've heard this somewhere before. I just can't remember where. Or why. Man, I'm tired.

I pose these questions facetiously, perhaps, though not flippantly. These are earnest wonderings, all of them, and I am open to earnest answers. Okay, except maybe for the "greet your neighbor" one. I'm pretty sure we could ditch that, oh, yesterday -- and neither Jesus nor we would be any worse off for it!

18 July 2018

On God's Will and Spousal Disagreement

Consider, if you will, a popular bit of Christian advice often given to married couples:

"God won't call you to anything your spouse isn't on board with. Until you and your spouse are on the same page about something, it isn't the right decision for you and your family."

This sounds reasonable enough on the face of it. Certainly, we need mutuality in our decision-making. But this statement is sneaking in several dubious assumptions that many people never pick up on.

For one thing, it assumes that the spouse who disagrees has some kind of insight into God's will that the first spouse doesn't have. It also assumes that disagreement is a sign that God isn't calling. Further, it implies that mutual agreement is not only a necessary, but a sufficient condition for moving ahead with something. (Let's not ask Ananias and Sapphira how that last one worked out for them.)

There is, of course, a grain of truth. God doesn't want us to push forward with something in disregard of our spouse's feelings about it. That isn't loving the way He loves, and it evidences a failure to consider the other person's interests above our own. A spouse's hesitation about something is most certainly an indication that we have to do some more thinking and praying and working through things before we move ahead.

However. Spousal disagreement is not the final word on whether a conviction is from God or not.

Consider this scenario: Mr. and Mrs. Joe and Mary Schmoe live in Tampa, Florida. Joe Schmoe wants to move to New York for a ministry opportunity at a new church. His wife, Mary, wants to stay in their current location because the kids are doing well in school there.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Mary will be told to just go along with her husband's idea despite her misgivings, and that God will bless her for her submission. This happens all the time in the church, and it's a travesty.

However, it's equally likely that well-meaning friends will tell Joe, "God wouldn't call you to move to do ministry unless your wife was in full agreement. And she's not at peace about moving, so God isn't calling you to move."

Here's the problem. Mary disagrees with moving. Joe disagrees with not moving. If God wouldn't call someone to something his or her spouse isn't on board with, and both spouses want opposite things, how do we know which "side" God is on?

Imagine the statement above directed at Mary instead of Joe: "God wouldn't call you to stay where you are unless your husband was in full agreement. And he's not at peace about staying, so God isn't calling you to stay."

Well, now what are we supposed to think? "God's will" changes depending on whomever the statement is addressed to! So what can it tell us about which course of action God wants us to take? Absolutely nothing. It also paralyzes us: If either partner has to assume that the other's reluctance automatically means an idea is outside of God's will, then they are (and will remain) at an impasse.

But in this case, Joe and Mary have to do something. "You do your thing and I'll do mine" won't work here -- they have to either stay or move, and the kids will have to come with them. Either choice involves the whole family and will have a huge impact on them all. So, what should they do?

A good start would be for both of them to dig deeper -- first with themselves, and then with each other -- about their respective reasons for wanting to go or stay. (Just learning how to do this step well will probably take a lot of time and patience.) They should, of course, be praying. It could be that God is speaking to both of them, and one or both aren't hearing Him clearly. They might stay, and get involved with ministry opportunities locally in Tampa. Or they might go, and find a good school for the kids in New York. They could wait until the kids have graduated from school, and then move. Or they might go somewhere else altogether. Any of these options might be something God would bless, but neither Joe nor Mary will ever get that from simply assuming that "lack of agreement = lack of calling."

The big takeaway from all this, I think, is that where claims about God's will are concerned, tread carefully. There's almost always more than meets the eye.

05 July 2018

When Being Egal Simplifies Your Life

1. You can use whatever gifts you have. Your designated areas of service and ministry are no longer dictated by "the bits between your legs." You no longer have to consider yourself automatically disqualified, by virtue of your womanhood, from leadership positions or pursuing a full-time career. You're free to explore and develop whatever gifts, abilities, and opportunities you sense God has granted you and is calling you to make use of.

Don't be taken aback when others fail to embrace your new convictions with open arms, however. In fact, since the vast majority of today's churches don't affirm women's equality, you can fully expect to be outnumbered when you take your stand. And yet "If God is for us, who can be against us?" still holds true, and may mean more to you now than it ever has before.

2. You're responsible for your decisions now. Your life choices no longer hang on other people being in the right place at the right time. You don't have to hope a man comes along and marries you so that you can "fulfill your God-given role as wife and homemaker." You can have children (or not) because you want them (or not), not because you feel obligated to "be fruitful and multiply." You don't have to place yourself under a man's authority -- you answer to no one but God. You don't have to cede control to others, and then feel helpless when they don't hold up their end of things.

3. You can know exactly what you have control over and what you don't. This concept is otherwise known as "boundaries", i.e., knowing what falls within your area of responsibility and what doesn't (and then refusing to shoulder the burden of others' responsibilities). Complementarianism encourages women either to take up tasks that don't belong to them (such as picking up after their husbands), or else engage in manipulation tactics to get their way. (If you've ever heard "The husband is the head, but the wife is the neck", or "Respect him so that he'll love you", or "Give him sex so that he'll give you affection", then you know exactly what I'm talking about!) Egalitarianism says you can only control yourself and your own choices, and that you're fully within your rights to expect others to do the same.

4. You worry less. There are far fewer "what ifs" about those aspects of life that you can't control (which are a lot). Here are some worries egalitarianism allows you to cross off your list: (1) how you can experience "God's best plan for your life" if you're not married, (2) or if something happens to your husband, (3) or if you don't have children, (4) or if you don't fit the traditional housewife stereotype, (5) or if your husband earns less money than you do. You no longer have to wonder how you'll get by if your husband isn't "being a spiritual leader", or if you're supposed to just shut up and take it if he's being abusive or unfaithful. (The answer to that is no, by the way.)

5. You can finally take God out of the box. Since you no longer see yourself as confined to a rigid, limiting box, it will become harder to treat God this way as well (and that's a wonderful thing). You may even find Him to be a completely different person than you had previously thought. The change will be a surprise, a relief, a breath of fresh air.

6. You become more open to self-care. Complementarianism conditions us to be suspicious of -- and sometimes downright hostile to -- the idea of self-care. We're taught that the need for regular rest and replenishment is selfish, unreasonable, indulging our flesh, a sign that we aren't fully surrendered to God, or any number of other hurtful and untrue statements. Ironic, when you consider that one of the greatest commandments is "Love your neighbor as yourself": It's pretty darn hard to do that when you have no idea how to love yourself!

7. You're more compassionate. This is the one I find the most amazing when looking at my own life. You know the verse that says, "Blessed are the merciful"? Well, that is not me. Not by nature. I'm ashamed to say that more than once when I've encountered someone in a difficult place, my first thought has been something along the lines of: Well, if they had (or hadn't) done X, they wouldn't have gotten themselves into this mess in the first place!

I still have a long way to go, but I have more compassion for them now than I used to. Compassion for people who have believed lies for way too long -- because I was one of those people. Compassion for those who are silenced and marginalized. Compassion for the ones who don't "fit the mold." Because far too many of us know what it's like to be despised, not for anything we've done, but just for who we are.