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How Do I Keep My Kids from Hating Church?

drum-church-music

Our son E, who is two years old, ran in front of the church’s stage at top speed, giggling and clapping his hands. He chased his friends, crawled across the floor, and even gave one friend a high five at the end of a song. We meet in a school auditorium where the stage sits about three feet about the seats and spacious front area that is left open for energetic children. This particular Sunday the worship team chose energetic songs for a service focused on children.

When the band transitioned to the “Happy Song” by Delirious, which is a kind of anthem that celebrates God’s love, I lost it. Tears welled in my eyes as he jumped and galloped to the music. I remembered the first time I heard that song in college. It was a bit weird and off-beat, but it also tapped into a powerful sense of joy and freedom in celebrating God’s love. I’d come from a fairly conservative church, so clapping and shouting and moving anything other than my mouth during worship felt a bit different.

If there was ever a high point in my days as a church attending Christian, it had to be those days in college. I was still learning about my faith and tiptoeing around more charismatic forms of worship. I envied my roommate who came from a Vineyard church. He had this sense of peace that came over him during worship that I couldn’t quite imagine for myself. As we sang “The Happy Song” and some Hillsong numbers in my Christian college’s chapel, I began to sense there may be something to this.

Worship was where my faith really took root in my early 20’s. My theology fell apart in seminary, and while I put the pieces back together, worship sustained me. Then again, worship was also the cause of my greatest conflicts within the church as generations divided over musical styles and song choices.

Seeing my generally quiet and reserved son literally jump for joy at a song that sparked my own discovery of freedom and joy in worship, I also remembered how bitter I’d become throughout my 20’s. I’d been so critical of the church, and I was especially critical of the music. In fact, the most important step in my healing from church was hanging up my guitar and taking my hands off music completely. I just couldn’t be that guy any more. I didn’t want to have an opinion. I just wanted to participate in whatever my church offered and leave things at that.

I’d been a part of the worship wars, and the thing about a war is there’s never one side with clean hands. I was critical, and I was criticized. I treated people like problems to be solved or dismissed, rather than as members of the same body of Christ. And many did the same to me. I don’t know who fired the first shot in the different churches I’d attended, but I do know there was a lot of “shooting” in other churches during those years as well.

As I saw E’s joy during worship and remembered the way I’d fallen out of love with the church throughout a series of conflicts and bad experiences, I wanted to shield him from that same crash. He’s only 2, but he already loves church. He loves the music. He thanks God for the drums at night… along with corncobs and playgrounds. He loves going to the two-year-old room with his friends. How can I make sure that joy for gathering with God’s people for worship keeps happening?

I’m not sure that my approach to church is the best option for him. I’ve basically chosen to disengage from the mechanics of the church service because it had been a source of toxic experiences in the past. However, E doesn’t have that history. He can pursue his own path, and I want to guide him as he makes his own decisions and discovers God for himself.

So much of his future seems to hinge on the course chosen by myself and my generation:

Will we welcome his priorities and the ways he worships God?

Can I advocate for ALL generations in the church, not just the ones that pay the bills?

Can I walk the fine line between giving him things to do at church so that he feels involved without turning him into a minion that serves the whims of the older leaders?

Can I give him positions of responsibility that come with enough oversight to help him take ownership for the community without shutting down his original ideas?

While we have many denominations and traditions, church has to change, at least a little bit, for each generation. It needs to feel sacred and holy and “right” to each generation. And this balance is not easily held.

You may notice that I’m addressing these questions to myself and really to us, the people who go to church today. We are the people who are preparing the church for the next generation. Will the next generation find a place where they can belong and worship God or will church strike them as a foreign place that caters only to the spiritual preferences of Generation X and Millennials?

There are things our leaders can do, but in my experience, the leaders were often willing to listen to me throughout my 20’s. They did try to bring in young leaders and train them. Some churches did this better than others, but for the most part the leaders were at the mercy of the congregation.

While some leaders asked too much of me or didn’t really want to take me seriously, things wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for all of the crap they were taking and all of the crap I was taking from the church attendees and members. I received criticism directly and others directed their criticism at the leaders. It was a huge power play. And I understand the desire for church to look a certain way. It was ironic actually. While fighting to preserve their particular form of church they accused me of trying to remake church in my own image.

It will be really easy to repeat that mistake again with E’s generation. Anecdotally speaking, so many people in my own generation had to fight for our places in the church. Others started their own churches. And still others opted out altogether. The first two, who had to fight or start from scratch, are the ones who will be deeply invested in their churches. Change for the next generation won’t be easy. And it’s not like we can plan ahead for this. Who knows what spirituality and worship will look like in the next twenty to thirty years?

As I watch E run and jump for joy in church, I want to shield him from all of the criticism and petty arguments that could come his way in the future. But even more than that, I want to tell his story and hold him up for everyone to see.

Do you see this raw joy and wonder? This is what it means to be childlike. This is what we should aim for too.

The tragedy of church isn’t that the young people have failed to conform to the standards and plans set up by the adults. The tragedy of church is that the adults have failed to become childlike. We’ve neglected the amazing gifts right in our presence that our children have been offering us. We’ve pushed and pulled and squeezed the younger generations so hard to shape them into our own images that they’ve been shot right out of the church.

Then the older generations point fingers at the worldly young people who don’t care about church and the Barna Group releases an alarming survey about the coming downfall of the church so that pastors can wag fingers and authors can write books offering the solution…

I confess, most days, it’s hard to become childlike when cynicism appears to be perfectly valid.

I don’t know what becoming childlike will look like, but for today, I want to say to my son that I’ll always make room for him to experience God’s joy and presence in church. I’ll always welcome his perspective and the ways that he learns about God. And I’ll do what I can honor the lessons his joy has to teach us all.

 

My New Guest Post Series: Denomination Derby

Denomination Church Logo

 

At the age of fifteen I’d been living a double life. Every other weekend I’d visit my father and attend Catholic mass on Saturday evening by myself and then join him for his independent Baptist Church on Sunday morning. The two worlds couldn’t have been more different.

When I left the liturgy, muted songs, and a clear chain of command of the Catholic Church for a Baptist congregation at the age of 15, I needed the freedom the Baptists offered to approach God without a priest peering over my shoulder each time I read the Bible. That encouragement to take responsibility for pursuing God is the thing I’m most grateful for when I look back at that season of my life.

However, there were plenty of negative moments among the Baptists along the way. In fact, I met some friends who couldn’t wait to escape the Baptists, even if I’ve met some who have been content all along. A few friends even left their freewheeling Protestant denominations in order to join the order and structure of the Catholic Church.

It’s almost a guarantee that most Christians will switch from one denomination to another at some point or another. Whether moving to a new town prompts a church switch, doctrinal issues prompt a change, or relationships with leaders or members fall apart, it can only benefit us if we know what makes each denomination great. Even if we never join a particular denomination, understanding the best of a denomination will help us become gracious conversation partners who can celebrate what God is doing throughout the church.

I’m grateful that we have all of these different expressions of the faith, and perhaps we spend so much time comparing and contrasting them that we sometimes forget how useful our denominations can be.

These days I worship in a Vineyard Church. I call it Liturgy Lite. There’s a blend of contemporary music and liturgical prayers, communion, a lengthy sermon, and prayer ministry time every week. The theology hits me where I’m at, even if some of the papers at the last Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference soared over my head.

I try to always tell visitors that it’s not a church for everyone, even if I believe my little church is a great church for myself and for many others. I’ve belonged to enough churches that I have a pretty good idea of what’s out there, having attended a fundamentalist Baptist church, a conservative Baptist church (that was quite reformed at times), a Church of God congregation, another fundamentalist Baptist Church, an Anglican Church, an Episcopal Church, a range of other charismatic churches as a visitor, and a progressive independent evangelical church. This is the first time I’ve been in a church that is part a larger movement that I felt I could support.

As I’ve become more established in my Vineyard Church, I thought it would be really awesome if I could invite folks to guest post each Friday about what they love about their own denominations.

We can all find a reason to not join a denomination, but there are plenty of great reasons to either stick with your denomination or to consider checking out a new denomination. I’m launching the series with posts by a few friends, some of whom have been great dialogue partners and representatives of their denominations for me.

Starting next Friday I’m hosting a guest post each Friday by someone with a bit of theology training and ministry experience (staff or volunteer). I have a few denominations slotted with writers, but if you’d like to nominate someone to write for a denomination not listed, please drop me a note in the comments.

Once we’ve got enough denominations listed, I’ll open the series to ministry leaders/volunteers or theologians who want to write about what they love about their denomination.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

 

email-rss-subscribe

 

Tentative Posting Schedule

Next Week: Vineyard
(I know, it’s not a “denomination,” but… close enough!)

November 7: Anglican

November 14: Presbyterian Church USA

November 21: Church of Christ

Stay tuned for more posts! We have a lot of denominations to cover!

You’re an Amazing Writer and I Hate You

fist-hate-writers

When my friend J.R. moved to Texas in order to take a new job as a pastor, he started tagging every related post on social media with the hashtag: #Texodus. I had the simultaneous reaction of absolutely loving that tag and hating myself for not being so fresh, clever, and inventive.

It’s as if all of the creativity in the world had been bottled up and shipped to Texas that week. Creativity had taken its own #Texodus…

And then the other day, author Jen Hatmaker shared that her family had just discovered this parody of hipster parenting on Pinterest, complete with a fictional child named Quinoa. Hatmaker mentioned on Facebook that she both loved it and hated it because it was so clever.

It was basically a transcript of my own thoughts… just with the implied southern drawl that I add to everyone from Texas on social media.

I love how author Anne Lamott writes with bracing honesty about both celebrating and lamenting the success of other authors. This isn’t just about the fear of fellow authors filling up the coveted spots at major publishers—though I’m sure there’s some fear of that too. This is about guilt and comparison and the fear that we’re never doing enough or never writing anything good enough. Fellow writers become our anecdotal evidence.

See! She’s publishing articles in those journals! I’ll never keep up with her!

He just wrote an amazing book for my favorite publisher. I can’t match that!

It’s also really easy to overestimate the success of other writers. Perhaps I see a writer publish a great book, and I’m filled with envy at his talent and notoriety, but he’s on the other end lamenting that the book hasn’t sold enough to earn back an advance and is looking at the writers above him who are getting bestseller stickers slapped on their books left and right.

And let’s not overlook this: it’s hard to sell books—especially if you want to do everything ethically. Some of my favorite books aren’t bestsellers, and some of the books I hate—I mean with a white, hot, passionate hate—are bestsellers that make someone’s list of amazeball books every year. So when you’re struggling as a commercial or indie author, it’s easy to start making comparisons and to start wondering if your book would do a bit better if you had half of the resources available to another author.

I can’t speak definitively on this, but as I try to sort out the state of my own soul with all of this book publishing envy, jealousy, and carefully controlled hatred, I think most of my restlessness is based on a low opinion of myself. I lack confidence most days in my own calling and in my own developing talent. I forget all of the times that I’ve felt God giving me a steady shove to keep at this writing thing.

Perhaps I even begin to envy the gifts or callings of others. I forget that I have my own style, stories, and messages to pass along, and so long as I’m offering them to others as a gift, I don’t have to worry about the success that others have.

That feels like the kind of cliché line a loser writer believes when he can’t measure up to “successful writers.” However, I always have to remind myself that someone will sell more books and achieve more success. Comparison is its own never ending punishment. You can only break out of it by writing out of a sense of conviction and always improving your work because you’ve been called to do your best as a service to others, not because you want to hit a bestseller list or ten.

As with most things, there’s a fine line here. Every writer needs to read in order to improve. I’ve flipped through memoirs and novels and marveled at how a particular author wove the various storylines and characters together. Those books challenged me to become a better writer.

However, if we aren’t rooted in God’s presence, calling, and strength, we’ll move from disappointment to envy to self-loathing over and over again.

We each have to sort out our own paths to peace and contentment within the callings God give us. What works for me may not work for everyone else. But I do know what has failed me over and over again. I know what other writers have shared with me.

The envy and jealousy that comes with comparing ourselves to others minimizes the work God is doing in and through us. God can work through us, but sometimes we have to turn our eyes away from what everyone else is doing so that we can say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

 

My Post for A Deeper Story: When Toddlers and Spiritual Practices Meet

I’m writing over at A Deeper Story’s Family Channel today about the disconnect I’ve experienced between the advice of spirituality experts and the reality I face as a parent of small children:

 

“For every act of spiritual renewal I’ve attempted, it feels like there’s an equal and opposite reaction from my children.

That’s not a solid law. It may not even be true.

It just feels like that when you’ve gone to a spiritual direction event for two hours, and you take your kids home, and all hell breaks loose. They’re off their schedule from the car rides and misplaced naps and meals. They struggle to settle down and get overtired and hungry at all of the wrong times.

And so the baby is screaming on your shoulder because he needs a bottle and a nap, but you can’t do a thing until the toddler goes down for the nap he desperately needs. However, the toddler is pitching a fit because he wants to read two books rather than the customary one before his nap.

So you beg and plead with the toddler who will not be reasoned with. He refuses to be denied another book. So you bounce the baby a bit more and read through the book as fast as you can. But he keeps flipping back to the page where the ducklings dive into the water to point and say, “Waa!!!”

That means “water.”

I beg him to stop flipping back. I ask him to help daddy. Daddy really needs his help. His brother needs his bottle. But of course my words are wasted because he’s a toddler who wants his way and cannot see any reason why it should not be so.

So I’ve grown angry and frustrated by a situation that is simply out of my control. Part of me wishes that going limp on the floor and screaming is an option for me too. In fact, I read a story once about a mother who got her toddler to stop pitching such fits in public by imitating her in a few department stores. I’m tempted.”

My Own Columbus Day Celebration: Seeing God’s Blessings in a City I Hated

columbus-ohio-day-home

I used to really hate Columbus, Ohio. When driving from Philadelphia to my college out in Indiana, it was the last major obstacle on a trip that lasted between 11 and 12 hours.

After weaving my way through the terribly maintained Pennsylvania Turnpike and then rumbling along the pothole-filled Pennsylvania section of I-70, the rolling hills of Eastern Ohio provided a welcome respite of clear, easy driving. I made excellent time and had minimal close calls with trucks or reckless drivers until I hit Columbus. Everything was always terrible in Columbus. At certain points a series of merges and exits led to one traffic jam after another along I-70, and if I wanted to doge the center city traffic, I could take the longer 270 by-pass option that added time but minimized merging and traffic jams.

Either way, I always lost time around Columbus. If my drive ever extended longer than the twelve hours predicted by Map Quest, I could usually blame Columbus. I used to sneer at its skyline.

And who would ever want to live in such a city? Nothing about it made any sense to me. There were no mountains, no oceans, and no major lakes to speak of. Columbus was just a smattering of skyscrapers and traffic jams surrounded by suburbs and cornfields.

Columbus also marked the beginning of the really flat part of my drive. As much as I wanted to escape the East Coast for a season, I really missed the rolling hills and mountains outside of Philadelphia. They’re no great shakes compared to what you see in the Northeastern states like Vermont or New Hampshire, and they’re like speed bumps compared to the Rockies, but it can be jarring to leave something that has surrounded you for most of your life.

Columbus marked the point of no return before the unrelenting Midwestern FLAT that persists until Colorado. As much as I looked forward to college, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad once I hit Columbus. It marked the point where I definitely didn’t feel at home, the point where I didn’t belong.

Fast-forward about ten years from my college graduation and my last trip through Columbus as a resident of the Midwest…

My wife and I took a walk along a country lane in Connecticut outside of the town where we’d been living for the past year.

She was a student at a nearby university, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for her area of study. She had applied to a few schools, and the best opportunity had been offered by a school in Ohio—a school right in Columbus. While the details of the program sounded amazing, I couldn’t fight off the sense of dread. I would have to make Columbus my home for at least four years, maybe longer. I figured that I’d at least get cheap hockey tickets to see the Blue Jackets.

We jumped into our move with both feet, and have tried to find our place in this city that had been my enemy for so long. For the most part, it has worked.

After three years in Columbus, we’ve certainly missed the mountains, lakes, and oceans of the northeast, but we’ve also found a great church, fantastic friends, excellent activities for our kids, and some decent hiking outside the city. There is a great local food scene, even pizza that approaches the quality of NY style joints, and those cheap hockey tickets.

It’s strange to tell people that I’m “from” Columbus. I still think of myself as someone from the northeast. But there’s no denying that God has taken an unlikely place that I’d completely written off and caused life to blossom. If Columbus was my wilderness, God has tapped open a rock and sent streams of water flowing. I’m as close to thriving in this season of life as I’ve ever been.

I have no idea why a landlocked city in the Midwest with a puny river running through it got named “Columbus.” Why name a city after a European explorer? I have no clue. It’s as mysterious as our ongoing celebration of Columbus Day. It’s been well-documented that Columbus was murderous, cruel, and responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions of native people.

It’s hard to find much of anything to celebrate from his legacy. So perhaps it’s our role to bring new stories to life that celebrate what’s actually worth remembering.

For my own Columbus Day celebration, I will remember who I was and I what I thought of this city. I didn’t see Columbus, Ohio as a place where I or anyone else could thrive. If I ever heard of someone living in Columbus, I always thought to myself, “WHY?”

Now, I get it. I have seen God bless us with friends, community, and a new life. It’s not the Promised Land per se, but it’s been a land full of new promises and hope. It’s been the scene of significant new life for me as I’ve confronted my anxiety issues and discovered a deeper experience of God’s love and mercy. I didn’t have to move to Columbus in order to make those steps, but I can see how key people and moments in Columbus have been a part of that process.

God has been guiding us through this season and changing us. Perhaps the smallest of these changes is my view of this city. God can bring blessings in the places we least expect them. God can take a poorly named, horrendously situated city and create no end of new life and opportunities.

Does Everything Today Rely on Coveting?

coveting-consumer-culture-car

There are days when I feel like my fragile income as a writer gives me superpowers that see through some of the worst parts of our consumer culture. At the very least it functions like immunity to the frantic “Buy! Buy! Buy!” of commercials. If you don’t have extra cash to spend, the majority of commercials are irrelevant!

For instance, I’m watching a bit more TV this month because hockey season is here. It’s that time of the year where I swap my time in the garden with a bit of time doing housework while watching hockey (especially when my wife has a grad school deadline). The commercials regularly remind me that there’s a whole other world out there.

This alternate reality thrives on sex, booze, and spending money to get the hottest car, the sharpest appliances, and the most exotic vacations.

I don’t mean to play the part of the fundamentalist prude here. I’m talking about commercials that thrive on shameless overindulgence in otherwise good things.

I like being married to my wife quite a lot, but I’m not super interested in watching the Labatt’s Blue bear slip into a tent for a threesome. And I like our reliable Subaru wagon (I also know that I’m guilty of being branded because Subaru most certainly targets people like me), but then there are the luxury car commercials that show people making out in the rain and black cars zipping around unrealistically empty urban centers with nary a red light. The message is unmistakable: INDULGE.

I don’t know, call me crazy, but it all rings quite hollow to me. The fact that I don’t have the money to spend on excessive amounts of cheap beer, fancy liquor, the latest appliances, the most amazing vacations to the tropics, or the sleekest super sex machine luxury car automatically means I’m watching these commercials as an outsider.

I’m not the first person to notice that our consumer culture thrives on creating discontent. I could see that line running through each commercial for sure. However, there was something a bit more sinister at work as well. These commercials took that discontent a step further. They were actively prompting viewers to covet something: more sex, more speed, more booze, etc. That points to an uncomfortable question for Americans:

Where is the line between discovering you have a legitimate need and coveting something from a place of discontent?

This is something where we can’t necessarily point at someone’s station in life or choices and determine whether they’ve crossed from a healthy decision to a discontent spirit of covering. At the risk of sounding like an evangelical preacher: it’s largely a “heart issue.”

For all of the time I’ve worried about not having enough money, it has also been a blessing. I have been slowly peeling back my captivity to the discontent and indulgence of our culture. I can see with tremendous clarity just how enslaved I’d been to “keeping up appearances” when we owned a home. There was always something else to change or add or renovate.

Having less money has mercifully pulled me out of that hamster wheel of keeping up appearances, cultivating discontent, and constantly coveting one… more… thing.

What is driving my desires?

I wonder if we begin with discontent, and then that discontent frees us to begin coveting. It’s a slow movement from one to the other.

So perhaps our commercials try to tap into our discontent and build it. And when that discontent builds enough, we start coveting. And that’s where we start cultivating the really destructive habits of indulgence. If we give in to those desires frequently enough, we become bound to them whether out of routine or because of a deeper spiritual battle that requires deliverance.

At the risk of sounding like my prudish fundamentalist friends again, discontent is a “slippery slope.” Indulgence gives way to more indulgence because it is never grounded in something meaningful or sully satisfying, and it’s terrifying to give yourself over to something so empty and unfulfilling. It’s far easier to keep going than to admit you’ve made a terrible mistake.

Sometimes it takes a little thing like the threat of running out of money to expose the terrible powers of discontent and coveting. As often as we feel trapped by not having enough money, it has advantages. There is freedom that comes from having less. Having less money reminds us that we’re just one financial windfall away from wrecking our lives with empty, endless consumption.

 

Hope for Those Who Have Been Wounded by the Church

exit-from-church

I had the uncomfortable sense that Broderick would end up in therapy one day because of ministry. He had the look of a kind-hearted, well-intentioned lemming on the brink of charging off a hill—a hill called ministry. He asked people to call him, “Brod,” because he wanted everyone to treat him like best buds.

He was like a kid on his way to Middle School who expected everyone to be his forever friend. Brod only saw the upside of church—he was passionate about a career in ministry, committed to teaching the Bible, and putting relationships with others first. I could see how a church could leave him battered by the side of the road.

Burned out and weary from giving so much of myself to the church only to find that you end up stepping on toes and meeting opposition for even your best efforts, I’d long been disabused of the hope and enthusiasm that Brod exuded. Having swung to the opposite, more cynical side of things after several damaging church experiences, I thought to myself: you’ll see… some day you’ll see.”

I have no idea what became of Brod. As for myself, I’ve given up on any future ministry plans, but I’m finally hopeful again about church and what it can be.

When we expect church to be a place of healing, community, acceptance, and growth, it can be devastating to stumble into a series of personal turf wars, theological battles, vendettas, popularity contests, and power struggles. On the other side of things, it’s hard to see how things could be any other way. If you get a group of 200 people in the same room, any 200 people, and try to find music, learning styles, and activities that suite them all, you’re going to lose your mind. It’s only our cultural expectations and previous experiences of church that reign in our preferences and create a starting point when we gather together for worship.

I have two rules now for church. I may add to them or modify them in the coming years, but for now, here they are:

  1. Look for life.
  2. Commit to people first.

 

Looking for Life in Church

If I look at my previous church experiences, I often stuck around out of judgment or obligation. And if I did step out of a church for a season, I beat myself up with heaps of guilt.

Today my first question about church is if I feel free to worship God with these people, whether in the service, in small groups, or in other settings. Are these people experiencing the life of Jesus and imitating him in some distinguishable ways? Do I experience the freedom and joy of the Spirit with these people? Am I free to learn and be challenged by the Spirit? Do these challenges lead to more life and freedom?

You get the idea. There’s always a temptation to slip into a consumer mindset, but seeking life and “freedom” rather than what feels good is an important, if not fine line at times. We experience life and God’s presence often in the places where we are most challenged and where we are led to seek the deeper experiences of God.

If God’s Spirit is restricted by theology or an order of service, then I have no qualms with bailing. If the Bible is used to control, judge, and prove one side’s superiority, it’s time to jump ship on that church.

I’m not saying you should give up on every church ever. Just that church. There are churches that will guide you to God’s life. Sometimes we are so focused on the meager benefits of a toxic church that we overlook its judgment and harmful theology that could alienate us from God.

 

Commit to People First in Church

If you give up on having an opinion in the church as an “organization” or “movement,” you will eliminate the majority of your potential conflict with fellow Christians. In fact, I dreaded the fate of an optimist like Brod because, as a pastor, he was mandated to have an opinion of his church’s organization and future. As often as we hear about pastors who abuse their authority, there are just as many (if not more) unreported stories of pastors who have been hounded by members of their congregation. In addition, anyone who gets in the way of church members vying for control of their turf will get run over.

As I recovered from a series of negative church experiences, I found it immensely freeing to personally commit to the people rather than the church organization and its ministries. If the church stopped meeting tomorrow, would I still commit to community with at least some of these people?

That means I’m trying to depend on the people around me and to support them as often as I can. I’m not trying to keep the church as an organization going. I’m trying to keep the people going. And I know, I know, I KNOW… the church IS the people. I wasn’t going to say it, but I know someone will… so there.

I certainly have opinions about the church as an organization, but after giving so much of myself to the ministries of various churches, I was left empty and disappointed. The more I’ve invested in people, the more fulfilling my ministry has been and the less I’ve stressed about the songs we choose, the ministries we offer, the topics of the sermons, the facility budget, or whatever else.

* * *

I understand this course may not be viable for everyone. You may feel called to manage your church’s facilities for instance. Have at it. I’m not saying what you should or should not do.

I’m saying that I’ve been deeply disappointed and hurt by the church in the past. And when your source of hope and healing becomes a source of conflict and pain, you need to change something.

I’m sure that therapy could help my friend Brod quite a bit, especially if that therapy helps him face the sources of his pain and move forward with forgiveness. If Brod does need some therapy after working in a church, he may find this post helpful. I believe that we can rediscover community with Christians after a bad church experience. And while a different church can help, a vastly different outlook is actually more important.

When we’ve been damaged by church, the most important changes need to take place within ourselves. Seeking God’s life and supporting people over an organization has worked for me.

What has helped you recover from negative church experiences?

On Learning to Accept the Gift of Free Time

lake hope family free time
“I always talk about the flexibility of our schedules, but when do I ever take advantage of that?”

I said that to my wife while I had my jeans rolled up, my feet dipped in a shallows of a lake, and our son chirping joyfully as he dug at the sand and splashed it into the water with his shovel.

It was the last warm day for a few weeks, perhaps for the entire fall and certainly the last time the nighttime temperature would be warm enough to sleep outside.

It was also a Tuesday.

My wife is a graduate student and I work as a freelance writer. We split up the childcare with our two kids, and we try to keep our schedules flexible when she’s not teaching a class. This set up means I get to spend more time with the kids, but my income can also be uncertain from month to month.

I often tell people that being a writer means I get to be really flexible and get to spend more time with the kids even if the income isn’t amazing. And then last Monday we realized that the temperature would drop after Wednesday and it would most likely rain over the weekend. So we debated whether we should go camping on Tuesday evening and spend part of Wednesday at a lake.

I wondered for about an hour if I really should jump on the opportunity.

By the time we stood on the shore of Lake Hope the next day, I was disappointed in myself. Why had I even debated this? True I had to work late on Monday and then had to hustle a bit on Wednesday afternoon to keep on pace for one deadline. But I HAD the flexibility to make a 24-hour camping getaway happen when the weather was most conducive.

Our toddler especially loved sleeping in the tent. I mean, what’s better than shining a flashlight all over a tent and occasionally blinding your father with its beam? And what could be better than having free reign of a beach and lake with a bucket full of digging toys?

This little camping trip was supposed to be the precise kind of benefit to my uncertain freelance career!

Sometimes I’m so focused on my work and my career that I forget about the trade off I’ve made. I try to keep pushing, and I fail to rest, take breaks, or receive the gift of free time. I start to measure my success in terms of my bank account even though I’ve tried to make a flexible schedule a priority for my family.

I’ve tried to give myself the gift of free time. Unfortunately I’ve been so focused on my work that I’ve failed to take it.

How many gifts are right in front of us for the taking?

What keeps us from receiving what is already ours?

 

I’m at High Risk of Enjoying My Life

parenting-gratitude-spirituality

The sun has been shining non-stop each day for the month of September, and we’ve spent almost every morning taking a walk—myself and my two sons in our epic double stroller.

There was a season when I used to think of how much I wasn’t getting done compared to other people because I spend the morning with our kids. When E, our toddler, was a newborn, I used to really resent the times when his naps ended prematurely. When I can’t catch a break with our current newborn, B, there are times when I can hardly stomp my feet hard enough with frustration.

Today was one of those mornings where nothing seemed to be going right.

B needed his bottle during our walk within a half block of our home. Then he needed to be burped. Then he needed a new diaper within another half block. Then he fussed and fretted, whining for his pacifier but not actually sucking on it.

After forty-five minutes of sticking the pacifier back in his mouth repeatedly, I relented and strapped him into the Ergo Carrier where he immediately dozed off. We cut our snail-paced walk short and beat it to the playground where E was eager to kick his ball around on the tennis court.

“Ten-is court!” he said over and over again.

We kicked and tossed his ball around at the tennis court, but he soon transitioned to the playground, lugging his ball along and looking over his shoulder to make sure we were following him as he trucked ahead. The sun continued to blaze in the sky, and I hung back in the shade whenever I could.

He zipped down the slide, scaled the steep steps, and ventured up a ladder. He even climbed a new ladder on the other end of the playground after I encouraged him to give it a shot. B hardly moved a muscle all morning, his docile face still with his hands balled up in little fists that eventually fell limp.

As E scampered from one slide to another, I paused to reflect on the moment. I wasn’t anxious, resentful, or distracted. I wasn’t wishing I could have a steady 9-5 job that paid more reliably than freelancing. I was present for a change.

This is something I’ve been working on.

It’s not that I don’t want to be a dad or to stay home with our kids during the mornings. It’s just that I’ve tried to balance the need to earn some money with my parenting, and it’s easy to let the money side of things win. When my anxiety came to a head last June and I struggled to fall asleep each night, I hit a point where I had to just let go of control.

I can work hard when I’m working, but I also need to play hard when I’m with the kids. Who would have thought that I need to learn how to play again?

I’ve spent so much time wishing I was somewhere else with my life with more stability and with more opportunities that I failed to see all of the blessings in my present. And when I failed to see the blessings of the present, I worried about all that wasn’t going right.

I used to think I was building something, creating something big and meaningful that I can leave behind some day. It’s not quite like that.

Yes, my writing work can be quite meaningful. Other days it’s just something to pay the bills. Still, it’s all something that I’m able to do and that I generally enjoy doing. But I used to place so much stock in my identity as a writer and provider for my family that I lost sight of everything else.

I’m trying to see what I’d overlooked.

I am being undone, unraveled, one day at a time. I’m demolishing that false identity that, quite frankly, was falling to pieces anyway under the weight of my expectations and comparisons with others.

I’m seeing the sun. I’m seeing my son’s delight in black walnuts and the way he holds them out toward a squirrel and says, “Yum! Yum! Yum!”

I punt E’s ball as high as I can and he tracks it down before settling it and giving it a kick of his own. These days his kicks are shockingly accurate for a two-year-old.

I’m grateful for babies who nap and who can be satisfied with something as simple as a baby carrier strapped to my chest.

I’m starting to see God’s hand all around me. I’m receiving these gifts he’s given me: the sunshine, my children, and a walk in the park. I’ve stopped looking for gifts and blessings in the future. There’s too much to take in right now.

God is present among us, and I never realized how much my “forward thinking” prevented me from sensing that. I never saw how looking ahead could turn into a steady upheaval of anxiety discontent.

I’ve worried about so many things, but only one thing has been necessary. If I’m not careful, I may actually end up enjoying my life.

There’s theology everywhere—even at the playground.

We See You

Early Morning on Playground

Our toddler, E, is running up the steps and zipping down the playground’s small slide on his stomach. Our newborn, B, is strapped to my chest, a heater pack on a hot fall day wiggling from time to time, threatening to wake up before I have time to run home for his bottle. We need to head home soon.

I hear her before I see her.

When I do see her, I can hardly take my eyes off her.

Maybe five or six years old, she’s running behind her father who is five paces ahead and engrossed in a call on his smart phone. He’s muscular, wearing a perfectly fitted shirt and what I imagine to be designer shorts. It’s as if he’s walked out of a catalogue and onto a playground where a little girl started chasing him.

He only acknowledges her when her shouts are audible for everyone within a few blocks.

“What? What’s wrong?” he demands.

If he’d spent ten second listening to her shouts, he would have known.

“I want you to stay right here!” the girl says as she points at a spot next to the playground. “Don’t walk away while you talk on the phone. Not like last time. You can’t leave me here and walk all the way down the bike trail. I’m afraid of being alone.”

He nods and says, “Yeah.” With that he turns away from her and resumes his phone call. He may as well be a mile away.

Resigned, she stomps over to the swings and glides back and forth on her stomach, staring down at the mulch. A few other kids her age are wrapping up a game of tag and catch her eye as they charge past her.

I see her loneliness and heartache, and I feel the challenge of my position as a man. I don’t want to be that creeper guy on the playground who goes over and talks to random little girls, you know? But her loneliness and perhaps even fear strikes a place deep within me from the past. And I know that pain, and pray out of that pain that God would send someone to see her, to pay attention, and to let her know how wonderful she is.

I want to scream across the playground from where I stand with my two boys, “We see you! We’re here! You can join us! You’re always welcome to play with us. We’ll listen! We won’t turn away or walk away! You’re beautiful and kind and completely right. You should never have to be alone.”

But then B starts to squirm, and E gets that mad dog look in his eyes that portends both hunger and exhaustion converging, and I have to let my boys know that I see them. I have to go, luring E back to the stroller with promises of peanut butter sandwiches and crackers.

The other kids and their families hop onto their bikes or retreat to their cars. It’s as if we’d all agreed to leave once this girl set foot on the playground.

The man continues talking on his phone. E babbles to me about crackers and this sheep bath toy that I know we’ve lost during the walk. B makes a “sqwicking” noise as he settles into his pacifier.

The girl rocks on the swing, back and forth, back forth—alone.