People Are Expendable: My Root Struggle with Church

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Growing up with divorced parents prompted me to become a reconciler who desires nothing more than making sure everyone gets along. Underneath this way of functioning day to day, I’ve absorbed an underlying fear of the fragility of relationships. I know that things can fall apart dramatically and horribly, and even the most basic things like your family and your home could be taken away from you, either by your family themselves or by a judge.

My two sons enjoy peace and stability where the foundational issues of their parents, their home, or their future are as solid and steady as can be. I write that without judgment of my own history, but there’s no mistaking that the things I worried about and feared as a child are completely different from anything my kids have faced so far. They have a stability that comes from knowing these relationships are steady, permanent, and secure. When I developed nervous ticks in elementary school and continue to struggle with talking fast when my social anxiety kicks in, it’s hard to communicate all of this succinctly to people who say things like, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” or “What? WHAT? I have no idea what you’re saying.”

“Oh, I just spent the first 15 years of my life fearing that a judge would take away everything that I love.”

When it comes to the stability of family, our closest relationships, and our homes, their security, or lack thereof, can underpin so many of our struggles and fears. These are also some of the core issues behind why so many people struggle to commit to a church or feel like they can never return again after a church let them. Issues of control and rejection are a big part of why I still can’t attend a Catholic mass with any measure of freedom or openness.

Put bluntly: in many churches, the people are expendable.

The reasons why people become expendable vary, but the common traits between the churches where I have felt secure and able to belong vs. the ones where I have not have tapped into this deeper need to know that I am not expendable. Those who struggle to belong in churches often sense that they are in some way expendable.

Just as I feared saying the wrong thing in front of my parents, a judge, a lawyer, or a psychologist, churches can foster atmospheres of fear, suspicion, and defensiveness where everything can change after supporting the wrong doctrine or admitting to a particularly taboo action.

Extreme situations aside (such as those involving criminal activity), I wonder if our core problems in the church boil down to how welcoming we are prepared to be. Or more to the point, under what circumstances will we kick someone out of a church or make him/her/they feel unwelcome?

I have seen friends who attend fairly conservative churches with strict doctrinal statements, and these friends struggle mightily because “belonging” means they need to sign documents, take classes, and jump through various hoops in order to be a part of the group. In other words, the message is that being part of the community or even the “family” is contingent on putting a signature on a list of doctrines. If you can’t sign the doctrinal statement, then you aren’t fully a part of things.

The doctrines are essential for churches, but the people are not.

However, these aren’t problems isolated to conservative churches. Anytime a group of people gathers together to form an organization, there is an inevitable struggle to define insiders and outsiders. Those who say the wrong things in a liberal congregation can just as easily be labeled and dismissed.

As our family prepares to move to a new city, we’re going through the rather agonizing process of researching churches in the area. The stakes feel especially high since we have kids who have a very particular, and overall positive, experience of church that is noisy, joyful, and full of freedom to be themselves.

The question I keep returning to about each church is how expendable we would be if we entered into their little subcultures.

Will they value particular doctrines over us when they learn what we believe?

Will they value a quiet service over seeing my son jump around with joy in front of the band?

Will they require signatures on documents and covenants and statements over sharing in our joys and struggles?

Will they demand commitment and service before they even think of inviting us to their homes for a meal?

These tensions may appear to be false dichotomies. Perhaps reading this you think to yourself, “Our church values people AND doctrines!” That could be the case, but what happens when the rubber really meets the road? I admit that I have struggled with this myself. Where would I draw the line personally with someone? Of course there are situations where boundaries are necessary. However, what does it look like to hold out compassion and mercy for people outside of the boundaries set by our faith communities?

I have seen good people in both liberal and conservative denominations fracture when someone comes along who doesn’t fit the mold.

We all long to fit in, to become a part of the group, and to be accepted as who we are. If we make enough investments in relationships, there may even be grace for messing up or believing “the wrong thing.” I suppose the question becomes where that grace could run out. Can grace and goodwill be exhausted or negated?

I have dedicated the spirituality of my 30’s to rediscovering the God of the Bible who doesn’t turn us away or discard us but welcomes those who turn back to him. We aren’t expendable in the eyes of our loving creator. For some reason, it hasn’t been that hard to believe that he would die for us in the past before we screwed anything up. However, once we start to actually fail, mess up, disappoint people, struggle with doubts, or start to shift our beliefs, it’s easy to believe you’re expendable.

If you’ve been immersed in a church culture with clear lines you can’t cross in order to belong, it’s hard to believe that God would be any different from that. The more I immerse myself in the Psalms each day, the more I confront a God who meets us with compassion, blots out our sins, and shares unceasing steadfast love and mercy with us. I’m also convinced that believing in a God who views people as expendable will create churches where people are expendable.

A missionary friend once shared with me that we must find our homes in God, and I can’t get that image out of my mind because God wasn’t safe or a sure bet for so many years. If I was expendable to God when I couldn’t get my act together, how could I truly find my home in God? Wasn’t this the same kind of insecurity that I endured in my childhood?

Once again, the Psalms describe God as a shelter, a rock, a strong tower, and a fortress. As I reach and grasp for God, asking for help and security, I fail to look down at my foundation. When I reach out to take hold of God, I fail to realize that I’m already being held.

I often think that God acted to save me before I had a chance to mess up, but it’s also true that God saved us before we could prove ourselves worthy—worthy enough for God to keep us around.

The home I have longed for is found in God, even if I still need a home and a place where I belong here on earth.

We aren’t expendable in the eyes of God, and at the end of the day we long for a church home that reflects this. Perhaps the greatest challenge some days is to rest in the love and acceptance of God without letting that reality hinge on what those in our communities believe, do, or say.

Denomination Derby: What Cara Strickland Loves about the ELCA

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This week Denomination Derby enters a new phase that will open it up for way more writers. While I’m still inviting ministers or volunteers (with a bit of expertise/experience) to share about their respective denominations, the series is now open to writers who want to share what they love about their denominations. Today my friend Cara Strickland kicks us off with her journey through a whole bunch of denominations (including a bit of time at the same college as myself!) that landed her in a very different church than the one where she first came to faith:

 

My childhood memories of church are fuzzy around the edges. Mostly, I remember how I felt as a five-year-old in the Vineyard Church of the early 90s in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. I felt secure. I knew that God loved me. God could do anything, and I rested in that.

My parents had been part of the movement almost from the beginning. I met John Wimber as a baby, before his unexpected death.

Sometimes during worship, people would dance in the aisles. Occasionally the order of service would change and people would come forward to be prayed over and anointed with oil. We always invited the Spirit to move, and to do what needed to be done, regardless of our plans.

It was there that I got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, received my first communion, and sang about breaking the mighty “yolks” (when you shout to the Lord).

I was six when we left the church. It’s a chapter of our family history that doesn’t open often, but I know that it was a hard one for my parents. I took our leaving, moving in with my grandparents for a time, and moving to the Pacific Northwest in stride, as six-year-olds do.

When we arrived in Spokane, Washington, we started attending a Presbyterian church. Then, over my middle and high school years, we went to a series of Foursquare churches. These were the places where I began to find the words to talk about faith. I became steeped in the evangelical culture of the 90s, writing in my PB&J (prayer, Bible and journaling) notebook every day, highlighting nearly every passage in my Bible, and affirming that True Love Waits.

The first time I left the church was in high school, just before my junior year. By then, I had spent years at church camp, youth group, winter retreats and church services. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but now I think I was tired of expecting so much of myself. I was already a check-box girl, and the church added further boxes to my list. I served in the nursery and made pancakes for the homeless on the weekends, I gave money, above and beyond my tithe, as I felt led. I had forgotten how it felt to be secure in the love of God. So I left.

I think of that time between sophomore year and graduation as my first desert season. I allowed myself to be held by God without agenda. I got the sense that I could rest under strong, powerful wings. I started to learn how to sing with conviction again, this time about breaking the heavy yokes.

I began attending a nondenominational church after I graduated from high school. Honestly, I think that I wanted to meet a nice Christian boy and start dating. Church seemed like a good place to do it.

Both in Spokane and in the little Midwest town I moved to for college, I attended big churches, largely filled with an ever-changing population. Every week, someone introduced themselves to me during the “say hi to someone” part of the worship service, asking if I was new. I joined small groups and volunteered. I came to events and made coffee dates, but somehow I couldn’t quite get connected (or plugged in, as the pastors were always saying). While people were friendly on the surface, they didn’t seem to be in the market for new friends.

Part of the way through college at a small conservative Christian university, I stopped going to church again. I had become tired again, and I didn’t have the energy to care about the odd looks I got in the cafeteria when I arrived for lunch in everyday clothes, my hair uncurled, on Sunday afternoons.

Along the way, I met people who seemed to understand my journey, and to be on one of their own. One of those people was my first roommate, and she gave me a copy of Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross. Immediately, I fell in love with liturgy. I soaked up the words, laden with meaning, spoken by so many on any given morning, around the world.

I went to a small Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday. I fumbled through the prayer book, and the hymnal, somewhat self-consciously. But there was something about the church that felt familiar. For the first time since the first church of my memory, I felt safe, secure, and loved. That church became my home until I graduated from college.

I moved back to Spokane after graduation and spent some years floundering between then and now. I went to the desert. I expect that I will return again, from time to time.

But now I drive to a small ELCA Lutheran church in a community you might call “challenged.” I walk past a brightly colored mural depicting trees, people of all races, and a communion table. I slide into my seat next to friends, and my pastor winks at me as she begins the service. She knows my roadblocks to believing in grace.

Here in this place, I have begun to heal from the check boxes of my youth group days. I pass the peace, take in the nourishing Eucharistic feast, and when I allow myself to relax I feel secure. I know that God loves me. I am confident that God can do anything (and that I don’t have to do anything), and I rest in that.

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About Today’s Guest Blogger

CaraStricklandAuthorCara Strickland is a writer, editor, and food critic in Spokane, Washington. She writes about singleness, food, feminism, and the way faith intersects life (among other things) on her blog Little Did She Know.

Come say hi to her on Twitter or Facebook. She likes making new friends.

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. We’re also accepting posts where anyone can share what they love about their denomination. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

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

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Christian Reformed Church

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You hear a lot of folks these days talk about “reformed theology.” Sometimes reformed theology is mentioned with a sneer or an eye roll. Sometimes reformed theology is given a thumbs up, as if it was the greatest thing since Calvin’s Geneva (minus the burning of “heretics” of course). For all of this confusion about what it means to be “reformed,” we have the humble little Christian Reformed Church that continues to surprise me with its vitality and life. Today Paul Vander Klay, who has the appropriate last name for this topic to say the least, shares what he loves about the Christian Reformed Church: 

 

If Ed’s “Denomination Derby” is conceived of as a competitive display of self-promotion the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) will certainly lose. The CRC is fabulously poor at self-promotion. Let me explain.

Unless you’re from Western Michigan or have visited Calvin College you may not have ever heard of the Christian Reformed Church. The CRC has about a quarter million quiet members scattered in around 1000 congregations three quarters of which are within a couple hundred miles of Grand Rapids Michigan. This is not a recipe for church market success in North America.

While you may never have heard of the CRC or know anyone from it you’ve probably heard of a number of her famous sons (yes, sorry, they’re mostly boys). If you’re young and Reformed and you like to read old dead white guys you might recognize the names of Ned Stonehouse, Cornelius Van Til, Geerhardus Vos and Louis Berkhof. If you’re into newer philosophical books you’ll probably recognize Alvin Plantinga, his theologian brother Neal,  Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw and Lewis Smedes.  Church growth lovers or haters of course will know Bill Hybels who grew up CRC.

One of our more famous rebellious sons is Paul Schrader who went on to explore his roots in his 1979 film Hardcore, not quite “safe for the whole family” but yet insightful. Many like him who leave the CRC have trouble fully leaving it behind. Ours is a thick culture.

You might notice that a bunch of your books come from Zondervans, Bakers and Eerdman’s publishers based in Grand Rapids, and if you’re really an evangelical Bible wonk you might know that the NIV translation project began in the Christian Reformed Church in one of her 4 colleges. All of this should indicate that books and education in the CRC is a very big deal. This is why its most famous conference with this crowd is the biannual Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, an institution founded to train preachers for our churches and teachers for our Christian schools.

Seeing this partial list of notables and accomplishments might lead you to believe that the CRC is a bookish clan and you’d be half right. The other thing the CRC majored in was farming, mostly dairy. The CRC’s parent/cousin, the Reformed Church of America was planted by Dutch city folk while the country folk of the Netherlands who left in the 19th and 20th centuries mostly joined the CRC.

“Reformed” has recently been tied to “young” and “restless” and too often “angry” or “cranky”. A lot of CRC folks have watched this new wave of mostly Presbyterians (more cousins) and it has brought up painful memories. The CRC used to be a lot more cranky about a lot of things but it brought a lot of pain. The most recent painful fight was over women in church leadership. It started in the 70s and lasted about 25 years. When CRC finally permitted it, about 70,000 people left. For a denomination where many folks are related to you, where you play “Dutch Bingo” trying to find mutual relatives, or who were your school mates (CRC folks start lots of Christian schools), these splits are personal and the wounds heal slowly. This is making the CRC fairly avoidant when it comes to what looks like the next big fight over same sex marriage.

If you visit a CRC you’ll probably find a rather shy but friendly group. The pastor will likely be well educated but cautious and not flashy or loud. CRC people have been called the “Jewish Hobbits” of American Christianity. Many like myself actually have Jewish roots back to the Netherlands. We’ve also been compared to Jews because of our comfort with the Old Testament. We’re kind of like Hobbits because we mostly keep to ourselves and can tend to be stubborn. The real difference between CRC folk and Hobbits is that we’re abnormally tall.

What I’m most proud of in the CRC, and why I stay, is that we as a denomination work really hard at trying to be faithful to God while also trying to engage our world. It takes a stubbornness about the Bible and the church, practical wisdom learned in a real zip code and a courage to doubt yourself to try to hold it all together. We read, think, and write a lot but aren’t usually too quick to grab onto something new. We’d rather wait, ponder and pray for a while before making a big change. This usually bothers both sides of a fight. We’re never as conservative as some want, and never as liberals as others demand. Again, think of Hobbits.

I won’t be so bold as to try to sell our church to you. That’s usually just not our way. We love having new folks come and join us. Jamie Smith is one of our more famous recent joiners. He seems to be carrying on in our bookish, philosophical tradition. So visit Calvin College for the Festival or a CRC in some non-conspicuous corner someplace. We’re proud about our institutions and accomplishments, but don’t be surprised if we’re a bit shy and slow about some things. Be patient with us and you might find you’ve made a thoughtful friend.
About Today’s Guest Blogger:

head shot w2Paul Vander Klay: I’m a third generation CRC minister. I grew up in my father’s racial reconciliation church in Paterson NJ. I was a missionary in the Dominican Republic and currently pastor a small, multi-everything congregation in Sacramento CA. I love to read, write, and enjoy the interesting people God has made. I blog at http://leadingchurch.com.

 

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

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

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

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If you think you’re busy, you should talk to Emily Heitzman. She’s been serving as the youth pastor for… wait for it… THREE lutheran congregations in the Chicago area. Emily was one of the first people I thought of for this series because she did an amazing job of explaining what she appreciated about the ELCA to an outsider such as myself since she is originally from the UMC and then ordained in the PC USA. I hope you didn’t get too cozy with the Anglican Church from our last post…

 

I’m a Presbyterian (USA) pastor who serves three ELCA congregations. Though I’ve only been in the ELCA for three years, there is so much that I love about it!

 

The Work of the People

While ELCA congregations vary is worship musical style, most are highly liturgical. The definition of “liturgy” is “the work of the people,” and this is exactly what you will experience in worship at an ELCA congregation.

The ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands.” We use our minds, hearts, mouths, ears, hands, and feet to experience God’s love and grace and share God’s love and grace to our neighbors. When God created us, we were made in God’s image and therefore our whole selves – including our bodies – were made good and are loved by God. For this reason, worship requires the full body and all the senses. We sit to prepare ourselves for what is to come. We stand (as we are able) when the Gospel is read as a sign of respect. We might kneel out of humility during confession and use ancient prayer gestures with our hands. We may bow toward the cross as a reminder of Jesus’ humble acts.

As Christ offers us peace, we pass that peace of Christ to one another through handshakes or hugs. We might process with the cross as a sign that Jesus is constantly journeying with us and leading us. We may walk toward the altar to receive the bread and wine in response to Jesus’ invitation to come to his Table. And we may trace the sign of the cross over our upper bodies as a reminder and sign of our baptism. As a reminder that Jesus died and rose from the dead for us so that we might live.

As a reminder of who we are and whose we are.

Worship is not a place for us to just observe and consume – like when we attend a concert. It is a place where we fully participate as members of the body of Christ so that we might be formed and nourished by our loving God. And every ancient practice we partake in connects us with the Church universal… with Christians throughout all times, traditions, and places.

If you worship with the ELCA, you will likely spend some time in silence. We live in a busy and noisy world. Yet, God calls out to us: “Be still and know that I am God.” God not only calls out to us through words and music, but God also calls out to us and meets us in the silence. We need to be still sometimes. And making space for silence on Sundays helps shape us for how we are to make space for God during the rest of the week.

Most ELCA congregations follow the liturgical calendar (church calendar) and use the Revised Common Lectionary (set readings for each Sunday that covers almost the entire Bible in three years), which connect us with the larger universal Church and enable us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and relive his life and ministry every year.

In ELCA congregations, the Word is proclaimed in numerous forms and is not just the work of the pastor. God calls each of us to use our gifts to proclaim the Word both in the Church and in the world. In most congregations, the Holy Communion is celebrated every Sunday. We believe that both the Word and Sacraments are a means of grace. Through them, God’s presence is made known and God touches us, forms us, and nourishes us so that we might have the strength to go out into the world to share God’s love with others.

Confessing the creeds (Nicene or Apostle’s) every week is an important means for connecting us to the universal Church and shaping us in our theology in ways we don’t always recognize. During youth group discussions, my youth continue to amaze me when they explain important parts of our Christian theology that they know because they confess the creeds every week. The repetition of communion liturgy – which is often chanted – also shapes us in important ways. Just a few months ago, I saw a facebook post from another Lutheran pastor. He wrote: “This week I got a note from a family who heard their young one (age 4) singing Frozen songs, and then breaking into our communion liturgy.” This is the wonderful thing about liturgy: it provides God’s children – both young and old – with words to express praise to God through the every day joys in life… like Disney songs!

 

Living Out Our Baptisms

In the ELCA, we talk a lot about being called to live out our baptismal covenant. We do this by proclaiming the good news of God who came into the flesh, died on the cross, and rose from the dead for each one of us. We proclaim this good news by learning about the story of God’s presence and work in and through us and by hearing about the story of God at work in the lives of others. We are in God’s story and we are called to recognize that others are in God’s story, as well.

We are called to live out that story daily in word and in deed. We live out that story when we worship together on Sunday, when we care for our children, when we visit someone who is ill. We live out that story when we sit with a grieving friend, when we bring a meal to our homeless neighbors, when we stand with others in our communities to call out injustice.

Through us, God is at work in the world: “God’s work, our hands.”

As someone who is new to the ELCA, the more I have been a part of it, the more I’ve grown to love it. There is a place for newbies, myself included. And there is a place for you, as well. So, if you are searching for a new church home, check it out! I think you might grow to love it!

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

unnamedRev. Emily Heitzman is a graduate from a United Methodist seminary and an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor who serves as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households for three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago. Prior to her current call, she has served in Evangelical Covenant, Congregational, and American Baptist churches… Her colleagues call her an ecumenical bricolage. Emily loves hiking in the mountains, attending indie and bluegrass concerts, biking along Lake Michigan, and singing opera and musical theatre. She has a heart for youth, justice, and the Huskers, and can often been seen with coffee or a Guinness. You can find more of her reflections, sermons, and youth ministry ideas on her blog at http://musingsfromabricolage.wordpress.com.

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

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

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