Sunday, February 22, 2009

Going to church: an eye-opening experience

Due to our children’s participation in a youth program with an organized church outfit, we attended a service there this past weekend (the youth sang several songs and passed the offering plates). It had been some time since we’ve even dropped in on a service, and it’s interesting how my perspective has changed.

In some church services we’ve visited and attended over the years, it would have been a much more pleasant experience if we could have just skipped the pastor’s sermon. This was no exception. The music was nice. The people served us a nice potluck lunch. We know a few of them slightly and I’m sure they’re good people.

This pastor gave a sermon on making sure you attend "church." We’ve all heard the admonishments. Do not forsake the gathering. I shake my head at how unimaginative and unchanging these IC messages are. They are all variations on a theme: Come to church, preferably ours. Otherwise, something bad is sure to happen to you.

This pastor told a story that years ago I would have thought a clever illustration. A young man was backslidden; had stopped going to church. His pastor came to see him one evening, of course to check up on him and bring him back to the fold. The young man let the pastor in and the two sat by the blazing fire, not speaking for several minutes. Finally the pastor took the fireplace tongs, removed one ember and set it on the hearth. The two watched as the coal cooled, finally becoming completely cold.

The pastor turned to leave without a word, and the young man followed him with tears in his eyes and said, "I’ll be in church this week, pastor. Thank you for a wonderful sermon."

This story was enthusiastically received by the rest of the audience. Of course, the institutional interpretation of Hebrews 10:25 was admonished from the pulpit. Then several more comments from the pastor and the others in the congregation: "Go to church. Your fire for Jesus will eventually die out completely if you stay away from the group. You will become a 'dead coal.' We need each other. You need the fellowship. You need the accountability."

After witnessing this whole scene, I was left with several questions and ponderings of my own. Like:

1. Does this sort of thing really happen, just as told? Are born again Christians who quit "going to church" EVER truly backslidden? Is there really even such a thing? Or is this an oxymoron?

2. If the fire just dies, away from the group, what was the source of the fire in the first place? Real love and passion for the Lord, or group dynamics at work? Ever notice how a group of kids can get your kid to do something they’d NEVER do at home, be it good or bad? Ever notice how YOU have done things with a group that you’d never do alone? How can a PERSONAL relationship with Jesus possibly fit into this mentality? I know the Bible speaks of encouraging each other along in good works, but I’ve discovered that the average person doesn’t understand the difference between encouragement to do what you were made to do, and pressure to do as the group wants.

3. Most importantly, if a person is experiencing genuine love, acceptance, encouragement, and edification by participating in a group, why in the world would they ever want to leave??! I can really only imagine, but I have a hunch that if the church was functioning at even 75% capacity of what Father has in mind for us, they wouldn’t be able to barricade the doors of the gathering house strongly enough to keep folks out! I wonder if it would ever occur to this pastor (among many others) what a glaring indicator of something seriously amiss in the gathering, for the people of God to need an admonishment to "come to church."

4. The pastor was, essentially, telling the people that if they stopped attending 'church,' Jesus would leave them. I shake my head in sorrow that some people sit in pews and listen to this sort of teaching their whole lives. The lady sitting next to me mentioned she was 90 years old. That's a long time to live with fear that your Lord might leave you! Do some institutionalized Christians know true peace in the Lord in spite of such teachings? I hope so.

The whole "backslidden" idea doesn’t even make sense to me. Why would anyone experiencing an uplifting, authentic time with God and his people find sin or staying away more appealing? Even if they are struggling with sin, I think it’s more likely that they left because the IC is not a safe environment to reveal their struggles.

Yes, fellowship is important. Gathering in Jesus’ name is important. And this is where it gets sad. When the service was over I sighed with relief. Then I went to the ladies’ room and prayed. It saddens me to this day how far away I feel from most of my brothers and sisters. What are the answers, traveling down this long and often lonely road outside the box?

I have found some of them. I know that Jesus can and will keep me spiritually safe anywhere, anytime, in any circumstance. He is much bigger than the club house and their accountability program. I also see what Old Testament mentality so many Christians are stuck in. I see many reasons WHY "going to church" was largely such a miserable and frustrating experience for me. The main one being I never heard the simple and untainted gospel there! I know that I could never "go to church" again and I’d only long to know and love my Lord more.

I also know that the opposite of the "cooled coal" story is true with me. I could not, in my heart, even BEGIN to believe how much God loves me until I got AWAY from the institutional group and went down a less-traveled path with him. While being a 'good little Christian' and faithfully 'attending church,' I was dying inside. I was steadily being strangled with the ropes of bondage that the institutional mindsets had me tied up in. A hundred different Jesuses were propped up before me over the years, and in my heart I was crying, "Will the real Jesus stand up!!" And finally, I am seeing him. He's so simple and pure, it's awesome.

It isn't easy being 'outside the box' in some ways. But I couldn't, for a minute, trade knowing that he loves me, and that IT IS FINISHED just like He said.

Yet some answers are still disquietingly absent. For all their faulty doctrine, the people inside the walls still get to experience a certain degree of structure and fellowship that I miss having. I never really fit in during my days of attending IC, yet I wonder how long will I remain isolated outside? Will I ever get to experience satisfying face to face Christian fellowship as a regular part of life? What purpose does my being different and failure to fit into any church box really serve?? This last question is the heaviest of all on my heart.

I recently had a conversation with Darin Hufford in which he talked about eccentricity being a heart set aside for a special and unique purpose. I know Darin has gone through a lot of rejection and isolation as a result of being different. I also know that what God has done in him and through him is incredible. He has offered hope to many system burnouts who had all but given up hope. He is one of those few and far between Christians who is trying to BE Christ to others, rather than just talk about him.

I am praying for Father to show me that he has special plans for me too, because I am different and set apart for something unique. I will travel as far down this road as Father leads me to if it is truly him leading me. But it can be like traveling through west Texas. If any of you have ever done that you know exactly what I mean. I sure as heck don’t want to be going down this road and not even be on the right road. When you’re traveling through west Texas, you keep a sharp eye out for any road sign telling how many more miles to your destination, otherwise you might start wondering if you just missed it and they’re gonna find your skull next to the one of the longhorn cow lying next to the cactus. I don’t see any road signs and that makes me nervous sometimes.

Father, give me ever-growing perspective. Get me through these times of uncertainty with ever-stronger faith.

"May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it." 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

North and South

Here's a geography lesson for everyone, as I try to work on a more 'serious' blog.

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The North has Bloomingdale's, the South has Dollar

The North has coffee houses, the South has Waffle Houses.

The North has dating services, the South has family

The North has switchblade knives; the South has Lee
Press-on Nails.

The North has double last names; the South has double first

The North has Indy car races; The South has stock car

North has Cream of Wheat, the South has grits.

The North has green salads, the South has collard greens.

The North has lobsters, the South has craw fish.

The North has the rust belt; the South has the Bible Belt.


In the South: --If you run your car into a ditch, don't
panic. Four men in a four-wheel drive pickup truck with a
tow chain will be along shortly. Don't try to help them,
just stay out of their way.
This is what they live for.

Don't be surprised to find movie rentals and bait in
the same store....
do not buy food at this store.

Remember, 'Y'all' is singular, 'all
y'all' is plural,
and 'all y'all's' is plural possessive

Get used to hearing 'You ain't from round here, are

Save all manner of bacon grease.
You will be instructed later on how to use it.

Don't be worried at not understanding what people are
saying. They can't understand you either. The first
Southern statement to creep into a transplanted
Northerner's vocabulary is the adjective
'big'ol,' truck or 'big'ol' boy.
Most Northerners begin their Southern-influenced dialect
this way. All of them are in denial about it.

The proper pronunciation you learned in school is no longer

Be advised that 'He needed killin.' is a valid
defense here.

If you hear a Southerner exclaim, 'Hey, y'all watch
this,' you should stay out of the way. These are likely
to be the last words he'll ever say.

If there is the prediction of the slightest chance of even
the smallest accumulation of snow, your presence is required
at the local grocery store. It doesn't matter whether
you need anything or not.
You just have to go there.

Do not be surprised to find that 10-year olds own their own
shotguns, they are proficient marksmen, and their mammas
taught them how to aim.

In the South, we have found that the best way to grow a
lush green lawn is to pour gravel on it and call it a

AND REMEMBER: If you do settle in the South and bear
children, don't think we will accept them as
Southerners. After all, if the cat had kittens in the oven,
we wouldn't call 'em biscuits.

Agin, from some unnamed clever source on the internet - hope you n' your kin git a kick out of it!