I love it when God speaks to me through a serendipity. He often does it through repeated words or phrases that reappear in pairs or clusters - for a day, a week, a season. Some people might argue that my experiences are coincidences or that my mind is finding patterns because that's what it's hard wired to do. Oddly enough, that's exactly what makes yesterday's serendipitous moment profound to the point of transcendence...because it was all about the brain and spirituality, or as the book that started this whole thing calls it: "neurotheology."
About three weeks ago we were on vacation and stopped into a thrift shop where I found a copy of Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I vaguely remembered having read about it and being intrigued, so I was pleased to score such a deal on a relatively new book. Initially, I was captivated, both by the subject matter and the author herself - a "mainstream Christian" (whatever that means) NPR religion reporter on a paradoxically personal and objective quest to explore the relationship between the brain and God.
About halfway into it, though, I struggled with going forward. Two things were happening: 1) my specific belief system was challenged (much like the author herself) by the fact that people of all religions have the same kind of brain activity when meditating or praying; 2) spirituality was defined as having mystical experiences, even though that is not the stuff of day-to-day faith, nor do most Christians (pentecostals aside) have other worldly conversions or supernatural seeming encounters. In fact, many never do.
Still, it was a fascinating topic and I wanted to finish the book, so I kept reading. Yesterday I read about brain scans that scientists studying neurotheology performed on "spiritual virtuosos":
Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the [Buddhist] monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.Newberg calls this "orientation area" because it orients you in time and space: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, 'God permeating my being' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt a "deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there was never a true separation at all." (p. 174)
Later that day, I received some books from my Amazon wish list that I had ordered using a gift card from my birthday. It was a little like Christmas, getting these packages several days in a row. That night, I took a stack of my new books up to bed, and decided to a read a chapter from each - sort of a literary nosh, if you will. In the introduction of one of them, SoulTypes: Matching Your Personality and Your Spiritual Path, I read this passage:
A group of scientists interested in exploring whether there are brain-based differences that determine our religion are using the type of prayer described there to define who is and isn't "spiritual." In all religions, these neuroscientists say, mystical, spiritual moments happen when parts of the brain (parietal-lobe circuits) go quiet, turning off your ability to distinguish between the body and its surroundings. Without sensory data, you feel a sense of being part of infinity or, for the religious, being "one with God." They use SPECT scans to determine whether the person is having such an experience. Building on this research, books such as The God Gene describe how we either are or aren't wired for faith. Kenneth L. Woodward, a religion journalist for Newsweek, points out the problem with this approach:
"The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the experience of divine presence."
As I read that, I had an emotional experience - not of the presence of God, but of excitement over him having clearly communicated with me. He didn't do it through my feelings, an audible voice, or a supernatural sign - he did it through my life. He did it by leading me in one day to two books dealing with spirituality, which otherwise were totally unrelated, yet intersected at this one specific point, from whence they each went in very different directions. God used the second book to reassure me by validating/confirming the very thoughts that had come to my mind while reading the first book. It was especially powerful because it was merely a sidebar, so to speak, in the second book, and I therefore had no way of knowing that topic would be addressed, let alone that I would discover it just at that time!
Why is that during the most serious part of the church service, I feel the most silly? Well, it came to an embarrassing crescendo last Sunday...
It started months ago with the big pieces of crackers. I didn't mean to grab the one the size of Texas, but there I was crunching away for what seemed like an eternity. The generous portions of matzo continued, and my husband and I started noticing that not only were they the size of large states, they were the shape of them also. So naturally we had to show to each other - "I got Florida." "Mine looks like Utah." "Giggle, giggle, quack" (okay, there were no duck voices - I just know way too many children's book titles). Sometimes we played it safe and had small half moons of gluten-free rice wafers.
Then there was the wine - ruby port actually - encircled by its non-alcoholic counterpart. Having only ever experienced Baptist flavored churches where all we got was Welch's grape juice, and only once a month at that, as soon as we joined a Presbyterian church last year, I knew I would always choose the real deal, just like Jesus drank at the last supper (don't let the teetotalers fool you). Probably because it's still new, it makes me a slightly giddy, like tee hee, I'm drinking *real* wine in church. Silly, I know, but I'm that girl.
My husband, who is funny ninety percent of the time, mentioned to me that he likes taking the communion cup in the exact center of the tray. So I began noticing whether it was there or not when we would get up to the front, and every so often, I would take it just for fun. We'd have a silent chuckle over that - or if he got it, he would give me those smiling eyes and nod of victory.
As if it weren't enough with all the whispers and stifled giggles between us, my mom and stepdad started sitting next to us during the service. They volunteer to prepare communion, so she has the inside scoop on details I would have been better off not knowing. For example, when I showed her the ginormous piece of cracker I ended up with one morning, she told me that it's really hard to break up the matzo. This is funny in itself, but moreso because we're Jewish by birth. She's also the one who told me that it's not kosher wine (I had thought it was Manischewitz) but port that they pour into the tiny plastic cups.
Well, one week ago today, the humorous energy that had been gradually intensifying reached critical mass, and the amusing details combusted into utterly uncontrollable hilarity. I went up to receive the elements, and as I always do, I made eye contact when the person holding the "bread" tray said "His body broken for you," but as I grasped the cracker, I realized I had two pieces. For a split second, I thought of putting one back, but they felt stuck together, and I had already touched them...and I couldn't hold up the line, so concealed my double portion and my amusement, took the cup and looked up for "his blood shed for you," and made my way back to my seat, grinning widely.
I couldn't help but show my husband and my mom the extra cracker, which they also found funny. My mom then mentioned that there are always lots of leftovers, so not to worry, and that my stepdad drinks the extra wine. So there I got this ridiculous visual of him guzzling these tiny glasses of port in the church kitchen, and I could feel the laughter welling up in me. I tried to suppress it but suddenly I noticed all these white crumbs on my black pants, which I battled to brush off of me. A few seconds later, I saw my mom doing the same thing - dusting her lap with her hands.
It was all just too much. My body began heaving and I had to bury my quivering face in my hands, my head shaking and tears beginning to escape the corners of my eyes (later I was to discover I had raccoon eyes from my smearing my mascara). My stomach suppressed the hysterics, but I faintly emitted a sound like sobbing, which is what I sheepishly wished people would think I was doing instead of laughing!
It took me the rest of the communion time to pull myself together, and only just barely. I wish I could say it was holy laughter, but on the surface at least, it sure seemed carnal. I had, week by week, let my mind wander into these trivial details - the literal aspect of the ritual - rather than staying focused on the symbolic significance of the Eucharist. Not that I hadn't tried, mind you, to shut out these distractions (and, in fact, they occur throughout the whole service), but I had not forced myself into submission. In a way, I see what happened as evidence of grace. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I also felt a sense of release and relief - both emotionally and in terms of not being able to project any sort of pious image. That's me, people, showing you that I don't have it all together, not even in the moment when I "should" be closest to the throne of God. Then again, who's to say that in his presence, in the fullest experience of the most important release of all - from sin to freedom - there wouldn't be uninhibited rejoicing? Tears and laughter are made of the same stuff, I've heard it said, or if I didn't, I'm saying it now.
Afterwards, a lovely woman (who happens to be the director of children's ministry) came up to me and said she just had to ask what made me crack up. I told her the whole story (well, not as detailed as this) and we couldn't help but laugh together. Apparently joy is contagious - I almost wish I had let it all out and that the whole room had burst into laughter, but that will probably have to wait until heaven..."therefore, let us keep the feast"...and our sense of humor.
Eleven years ago I began reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. That spring, my literary and spiritual appetites had been whetted by my time at the Mount Hermon Writer's Conference in the sanctuary of the Redwoods along the central California coast. God speaks truth through beauty and I had heard Him there, so I went searching for more in my favorite place to look - books. In the fall, however, he met me in an altogether different way. My heady reading fell to the wayside when I was led into the children's literature section at Border's on my first date with my husband, who read me aloud, "Oh, the Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss. What a prophetic moment that turned out to be. Instead of embarking on the path of disciplined grace, I was swept off my feet and carried away to the manic maze of marriage and motherhood, all but erasing from my memory banks the first four chapters of Celebration of Discipline and 200 pages of War and Peace. There was much celebrating and warring over the next decade, but not much peace or discipline (except of my own children).
Grace abounds even when we are not pursuing it fervently. That is how I have survived this induction into domestic life and now homeschooling. Lately,though, I have sensed that it's time to start moving from functioning by grace to gracefully functioning. Others farther ahead on the path have confirmed that there will be no reprieve during this season for me to enter a period spiritual retreat and renewal. If it's going to happen, it will be between meals, lessons, sorting out sibling squabbles, emails, exercise, TV shows, park days, bedtime reading...you get the picture. Thankfully, since they were young, I have (and this I see as another act of God's grace) trained my children (and they have cooperated with it) to transition from napping to a quiet time. So most afternoons, I have an approximate two hour block of time to be alone. As an introvert, that has kept me sane. It has also enabled our girls to read on their own while preschoolers (other contributing factors were literary genes and Baby Einstein, but when it comes right down to it, I say that God taught them to read).
So eleven years later, I find myself once again picking up Celebration of Discipline (War and Peace will have to wait), finally responding the Spirit's invitation to the path of disciplined grace, in hopes of it leading me deeper into the presence of God, of receiving more of his grace and overflowing it to others, but Foster articulates it more clearly:
"God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.
The apostle Paul says, 'he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8).' Paul's analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines - they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God's way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God's means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.
In this regard it would be proper to speak of 'the path of discplined grace.' It is 'grace' because it is free; it is 'disciplined' because there is something for us to do."
Someone on the Well Trained Mind Forums (where I've been spending way too much time lately) posted a poll asking whether conservatives thought that people were basically good or bad - it generated a lot of responses. Here's what I said:
Don't have time to read through all the responses, but I think the question is basically flawed...as are people! :) But since you asked...
I believe we're born with an inherent selfishness that causes us to rebel, but at the same time, we were made perfect in the image of our Creator. So to be fully human is actually to be totally good, but we won't get there until God restores his creation when Jesus returns. Meanwhile, we can be born again, whereby we still live with our sinful nature, but it doesn't rule us once we are submitting ourselves to the Holy Spirit. So we still "do what we do not want to do" (the apostle Paul's words) but our response to God's grace (unmerited favor from an unobligated giver) is a desire to love him and thus obey him, in thankfulness and knowing that his ways are the best.
There's also common grace, which is what keeps us all from destroying each other and the planet. So even those that reject the gospel, which is God's mercy and grace (Jesus atoning for our sins and reconciling us to the Father by becoming the perfect sacrifice to satisfy God's perfect nature which demands justice for wrongdoing, no matter how seemingly trivial to us), still bear the image of their creator and have his truths written on their hearts, so they are capable and inclined toward doing good more than evil, but it is a slippery slope without Christ, whereby anyone is able to be dragged down to the depths of their sinful nature, especially with their vulnerability to the deception presented by the devil whom they usually don't believe in, and therefore oblivious to his schemes (see The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis).
Btw, I don't consider myself conservative or liberal - it all depends on the individual issue. I'm solidly pro-life (no abortion or CP). I voted for Ron Paul and would again, though I don't agree with all his views - it's more his character that made me vote for him.
Dinner is ready - pork tenderloin and sweet potatoes are in the slow cooker; cranberry-mandarin sauce is in the fridge. I should be changing loft bed sheets (my most dreaded monthly task), but I'm going to let my husband help me with that, so that while the kids have their screen time, I can have mine (not that I haven't already been online throughout the day). Yesterday I dumped 9 pages of rambling into my journal (the one pictured above). I felt like there were so many ways and angles to approach expressing the epiphany that came to me, but I had to just pick one, and in so doing, I didn't expand upon its every facet of meaning. To do that would have resulted in not just a very lengthy blog post, but an entire series. And frankly, just the thought of that overwhelms me. Rather than polishing my scrawlings into eloquently articulated prose, I merely transcribed them (okay, I ended up totally reworking it), and hopefully you'll find a diamond in the rough, or at least an intact shell amongst the fragments of my mind.
Sometimes just thinking deep thoughts makes me tired, let alone trying to craft them into something worth sharing with the world. And that brings me to my epiphany...(forgive the inconsistent tenses, as this is both past, present and future, but all at the same time)
For a while now, I have been questioning my calling as a writer, wondering if that's really how God gifted me, and if he did, if it was just for a season. About a decade ago, a major shift occurred both in the world and in my life, and it has intensified with each passing year. Some of you know it as Web 2.0, which interestingly coincides with my own metamorphosis. As the internet entered its next incarnation, now known as social media, I became a wife, mother, and homeschooler. I went from being a person who spent a lot of time alone and a writer whose online interactions were limited to a static website and occasional chatroom to being surrounded by people nearly 24/7 and part of a virtual world where I communicated with multitudes in real time. While I was making the transition in my identity, the thing which had previously defined me the most was being redefined by a new media world without clear distinctions between writing and written communication. I haven't the time or energy to do what I once lived to do (while pining for the life I have now), but my talents (if I have them) are certainly not missed in a world where everyone with a computer (which is everyone) is a writer. So I'm losing [a part of] myself and left wondering if that's who I really am anyway. Okay, I'm being a little dramatic.
There were some other changes too. I used to be something of a crusader, though my voice wasn't as pious as some. I liked to write about controversial ethical issues. My writing was fueled by standing up for what was right, for going against the flow - you know, all the usual cliches of a Christian girl growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and immersing herself in liberal institutions of education and journalism. Some of my identity was in the facing the challenge of being the odd woman out. I'm still passionate about injustice, but I'm not as black and white or as judgmental (it's the old adage - the more you know, the less you know). So some of that fire that fueled my writing isn't there anymore - I've mellowed as I've been humbled. And I'm also not out there "fighting" because I spend most of my time at home - I'm the keeper and educator of my children now, not the literary Joan of Arc I sort of resembled before.
With this shift in my thinking, so little time to spare for writing and so many words inundating us, I feel even more pressure to say only what is worth saying, that others aren't already saying...and so I have been wondering if I really have a unique voice and meaningful messages that can help others. And if I do, is it even needed? The last thing I want to be is another onscreen distraction from people (including me) living life to the fullest.
It has been humbling to have these thoughts, but it has also brought on an identity crisis of sorts. Suddenly I faced the possibility of not being who I thought I was. And if I wasn't that person, then why did I still have the desire to be her? The compulsion to write wasn't gone - far from it - I'm on the catch and release program with ideas and insights, except that I'm not usually intentionally fishing for them. They come and I let them go. Always with a twinge of guilt. Though I remain convinced that the good ones - if there are any - will return at a time when I can fully grapple with them. So my passion to write has been stifled...or is it just being tempered? My mom (aka my muse) said something today about how when we're held back, God uses that to make it even better when it's fulfilled. But it's natural to also question the whole thing. Which is what I've been doing until now (yes, the epiphany is still coming - you didn't miss it).
On Thursday, I was washing dishes when it dawned on me (and no, I wasn't using that brand of dish soap) that my "identity crisis" was very similar to the crisis of faith I experienced in college. Having grown up in the church for the latter half of my childhood, I began grappling with philosophical questions now that I was out on my own: Was God who I believe he was? Was the Bible really true? There were so many belief systems that seemed to be saying so many of the same things. How was I to know that the religion I had been raised with was the right one? Maybe they were all (or none) valid.
C.S. Lewis to the rescue...I didn't even have to finish reading Mere Christianity before my doubts were assuaged. I continued to read apologetics and other books written by "thinking Christians." Underlying my intellectual struggles with my faith, though, something stronger was there all along. Actually someone. His name is Jesus. He had been with me through a tumultuous childhood (not the churchy one you might have been assuming) and brought me into a flourishing adulthood that would not have been the natural outcome of my upbringing. Prayers answered, provision supplied, path directed, comfort rendered, insights revealed - my life was a series of epiphanies, or theophanies, if you will, of my Creator and Savior walking with me, and carrying me when I most needed him.
That paragraph read like a Christian cliche - from C.S. Lewis to the famous Footprints poem. But there's a reason for cliches. They express universal truths. You can fault them just for being overused.
Jesus in my life and Jesus in the Bible might not always feel real, but he was true. Truer than me to myself or to Him. The thought of living without him was more than I could bear. Why would I feel that way if he were just a figment of my imagination? Losing my religion would mean gaining acceptance in the world in the prime of my life - recognition, praise, admiration and reward for my abilities and appearance. The temptation to turn away was strong, but the knowledge of whom I would be turning my back on was stronger. I could not simply forget what God had done for me, nor could I risk losing the fulfillment I had from following him, even if at times, the way was not clear and the guide was silent. He had proven himself over and over, though not in the scientifically observable ways tangible objects can be tested, so to decide it had all been a delusion would be to deny my identity in Christ...and who would I be without that? Without him?
Therein lies the parallel between my crisis of faith and my crisis of calling. I had been questioning my identity in much the same way I had questioned God's, though on a less fundamental level, but still involving both of us, because who God is, who I am, and what I am called to are inextricably linked. This time around, 20 years later, I am, predictably, much clearer about the fundamentals - I know I am a child of God (not that I don't still go through bouts of doubt), a woman (no doubt about that one!), a wife, and a mother. All of that is more than enough. In fact, the first is sufficient. And yet, there is one more defining part of me - my calling to write. God being Creator is enough, but he is also Savior and Lord, and because he made humans in his image, we, too, need to realize the full expression of him in our lives, so that we can use our passion and dreams to carry out his purposes. We are each an epiphany, a manifestation of his love, grace, and truth to the world. If we can do something, we should do it for his glory, even if we cannot do it as much or in the exact way we think we should.
What I realized about believing in my calling is not that I'll never doubt it again - just as I still have times of questioning who God is - but that I can't measure its validity by the state of the world or even my own life. While who I am is tied to what I do, it is not defined by it. Just as God is not defined by my spiritual experience of him. I am in a season of life where I cannot devote myself to writing or theology or contemplative endeavors. Yet those longings in me don't wither just because I can't fully pursue them. Knowing who I am and who God made me, I can trust that what I am doing now - raising and educating my children - will make me a better writer and help me to know God more, so that when this season shifts to a new one, I can bring my experiences, and my more mature self into the next season when, Lord willing, I can use the other parts of me that have been developing through mere living. That may look nothing like what I imagine now, but that reminds me of how it is with our deeper longings, which cannot be satisfied in this life. We envision their fulfillment in heaven but we do that with our earthly imaginations. There is so much we sense yet cannot grasp, so we must hold tightly to what has been revealed to us - who God is, his great love for us, who we are in Christ, and what he has called us to.
"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." ~James 1:17
"For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people." ~Philippians 2:13-15
"But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith." ~Philippians 1:22-25
So all day I was waiting for an epiphany. And it finally came. When I was washing dishes. That would make Brother Lawrence - if he weren't so humble - proud. Although I wasn't intentionally practicing the presence of God, he showed up anyway. An epiphany wouldn't be one without the element of surprise, so it makes sense it would happen that way...and yet, it does fit the pattern of how I usually receive the most profound insights. It's in the mundane moments, when I'm physically occupied by something menial, like showering or cleaning up the kitchen. And there's another theme in there, too - whenever I'm immersed in rushing, hot water, my mind gets an ionic charge (perhaps I've been watching too much Eureka). Or it may just be that because I'm stuck doing something tangibly, I have the freedom to mentally explore.
You see, this is why I don't blog often. It took me 15 minutes and an entire paragraph just to analyze the way the epiphany came. I still haven't even hinted at what it was. And now it's time to go to bed. Sorry to keep you in suspense, stay tuned tomorrow for the revealing post, entitled "Is He Him and Am I Me?"
(bonus: click the picture for a vignette I just wrote about that special sand dollar)
I wrote the following in my prayer journal this summer and I was reminded of it this past week when we attended homeschool day at the Cal Academy of Science, where we watched Journey to the Stars (links to the 27 minute video) in the planetarium. "Watched" is an understatement; experienced is more like it. My 5 yr-old captured it best "I feel like I went on a rocket ship through space!"
Father, are you still creating? You rested on the seventh day, not because you needed to, but because it was an example for us, whom you made in your image and likeness, and so we, too, are compelled to create. With you, Lord, a thousand years is like a day, so does a day, or a millenium or more go by without you creating? Is our universe one of many? Or is every "new" thing here a work of your creativity? From the sun setting to a birth of a child?
It seems like you finished creation, and I know you will one day restore it to its original glory...in fact, even more glorious...but what about now? You designed this world so perfectly that even in its fallen state, so many things are regenerated, and it seems to happen through the scientific processes you put in motion, so that it appears you are no longer creating in this universe, but I wonder if it just appears that way to us because we are constrained by our five senses - that we cannot perceive your transcendent "hand" maintaining and creating.
Or have you willfully confined your creativity in our rebellious world to the spiritual realm? And so there is decay outwardly, but inwardly, you create life. Your common grace sustains your creation and your redemptive grace makes souls into new beings, a work that is not finished until you restore all of your creation.
You don't operate in time as we do - you always were and always will be - so is everything really happening simultaneously in the spiritual realm? I am groaning with your creation, longing for everything to be made right and to see you make all things new. Amen.
You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you." ~Nehemiah 9:6 (this whole chapter I read today blew me away).
By my 7 yr-old (click pic for whole art poem)
I was tempted to title this "Surprised by Grace" but didn't want it be confused with the new book of the same title, (which I am curious to read). "Changing Churches" sounded too flat, but this is also the story of that.
We spent the past school year immersed in the Middle Ages and I didn't think history could get any better, but then we entered the Renaissance, which literally means "rebirth". It was spring (my favorite season) and we were on the verge of Pentecost, which marks the birth of the first church. Without my realizing it, in his infinite creativity, God was setting the stage for my own rebirth. Something had been growing inside me for a long time and it wasn't another baby.
It was my conception (pun intended) of grace. I had experienced grace from a very young age, but my understanding of it was incomplete. God's grace had always been a form of protection against other people, but not from myself. It took becoming a wife and a mother for me to recognize how inherently selfish and need of grace I was, both to help me accept myself and to give it to others, especially those closest to me - my husband and children.
In the spring of 2009 I re-read Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel. I went through it with a group of women and it invoked a desire in me to grow in the knowledge of grace, so that I could more fully receive and impart it. I pulled every book off our shelves that had the word "grace" in the title. I started to read several of them and liked them, but like so many other ambitious reading projects, this one fell to the wayside. Still, I wanted to "get" grace and I sensed that my desire alone was a prayer that God was answering. He wanted me to get it also, even more than I did. Which is exactly how God's grace works.
And so this spring, as I witnessed rebirths in nature, history, and the church, I too, was born again...again. Like any birth, there was struggle, pain, and fear. But what had been growing inside me needed to come out. I could no longer be part of a church which did not fully illuminate grace, and even muddied it with traces of legalism. Works and service were emphasized and explained more than the person of Jesus and intimacy with him. Fear-based (albeit subtle) turn or burn) invitations to say the "magic prayer" (of salvation) and an authoritarian interpretation of Scripture that refused to consider any other theological position had turned Sunday mornings into cringe sessions for me. Not every week, but increasingly more often. I had long ago lost any desire to invite anyone there, but it had gotten to the point that I didn't want to be there either. Later, when I finally hashed it all out on paper (much more than I've included in this paragraph), the writing was on the wall.
We had been there six years, since we were practically newlyweds and new parents as well. Our previous church had folded and our young unstable family craved security...or at least I did. That church had been the right place for us during those early unsteady years. They had welcomed us and fed us the Word and given us opportunities to serve and be served. And yet as we got to know the church more, and to shape our identity as a family and individuals, I began to sense we were less and less compatible. I started to feel trapped in what felt like an unhealthy relationship. I had defended "us" for a long time, even against older, wiser people who loved me and saw what I wasn't willing to look at for fear of hurting my family. I thought that if only I was struggling, it wouldn't be fair to rip them from our church home, so for several years I was determined to make it work.
The tension was growing inside me, right alongside the grace, and one of them had to go. It was a thistle threatening to strangle the rosebush about to be birthed. The labor of pulling weeds began with communicating with my husband. His resistance was admirable (loyalty, friendship, optimism) until it turned ugly on both our parts (shouting match), but God's grace got us through it and out the other side, though with loss and grief that was more profound for him than for me.
It was in this morose and disillusioned state that we visited a new church - not just new to us but to the area - a church plant of five years (which I had researched online over the previous months), which just happened to have "grace" in its name. As it turned out, it wasn't in name only. Our entire family was captivated that first Sunday. It was like coming home to some place we had never been. It seemingly effortlessly harmonized these paradoxes: reverence and relevance, beauty and grit, tradition and variety, grace and truth (a number of Sundays later, that is still true - I'll share details of the service in another post).
We knew we had to end things the right way at our former church. We met with the pastors and both the angst and understanding of that conversation were confirmation that our time there was over - the associate pastor didn't say a word but he prayed a beautiful and grace-filled blessing for us that felt like God releasing us into a new season.
A few days later, we met with the pastor of the new church and spent a couple hours getting to know each other over Comforts chinese chicken salad, as well as learning all about the church. The phrase "gospel-centered" was a recurring theme, as well as grace, restoration of creation, humans as God's image bearers, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and baseball (I'll save that evidence of God's sense of humor for another post). We talked theology and community and doing away with things like Christian vernacular and an "us vs. them" mentality when it comes to interacting with the culture. His heart was clearly for the people of Marin, and both of us having grown up here, that resonated with us.
An unexpected bonus of this meeting was my husband dispensing with a pre-tribulation post-millenial (a.k.a. Left Behind) eschatology and adopting an amillennial view. Now that he isn't always waiting to cash in his rapture ticket, he can more fully be here, laying down his life to spread God's grace around (and that goes for me too). I'm sure he'll still like John MacArthur but lately he's been more interested in Francis Chan, and we both like that our new pastor calls himself a "winsome Calvinist." Oh, and I apologize for the evangelical-speak - it won't happen again, or if it does, I'll be sure to define the terms, but I'm running out of room here.
And so as we read about the Reformation in our homeschool, entered the season of Pentecost, and watched the first roses bloom in our patio garden, each epiphany of winters past culminated into the spring of my enlightenment. The new things happening in my mind (studying history), my heart (learning grace), my body (experiencing the renewal of God's creation), and my spirit (meditating on seasons of the church year--in part thanks to the Mosaic Bible) all helped to make me grow and step out in faith.
As I closed one door, and God opened another, I felt freedom and joy like never before, as though a weight had been lifted from me. Starting new has its own set of challenges and I'm not naive about that, nor overly idealistic, but I am hopeful, and already encouraged by the vision of our new church home, including what role my giftings can play in realizing it, in harmony with the other members of the church as well as the larger body of Christ (Jesus followers) in our area and beyond.
I remember the first time I was served an amuse bouche. Just when I was trying not to reach for another piece of bread, a tiny plate of fuschia and golden beets sprinkled with smoked sea salt was set in front of me (see picture). Not only was I unaware that beets came in more than one color, but that restaurants (really good ones) sometimes serve a complimentary pre-meal morsel called an "amuse bouche." Literally, it means "mouth pleaser." I'm not big on beets, so my mouth was indeed surprisingly pleased by the delicate and satisfying flavor of this amuse bouche. It also encouraged me that more good things were to come.
I like the quote in the wikipedia entry "The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his ideas in small bites." Spiritually speaking, what if God was the great chef, the gospel was his idea, and your words were the small bites?
Before most people encounter Jesus in a personal way, they will meet his followers - not just in person, but in books and blogs by believers. The old saying "you're the only Bible someone will ever read" could be more hopefully phrased as "you're the first Bible someone will ever read" Christians are obviously not perfect representations of who God is or flawless interpreters of his written revelation of himself to us, but that is precisely how he will use us to reach others. His power is made perfect in our weakness. He has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. And at the same time, God made each person in his image. He loves us and reveals himself to us and through us. Our words--spoken and written--can illuminate God's truth.
Let us then be a living fragrance, so that when people breathe in our words--either aloud or through our pens--it will provoke an irresistible urge to taste and and see that the Lord is good. May his Holy Spirit in us awaken their spiritual senses and pique their palates like an amouse-bouche, making them hungry for Jesus and thirsty for the water that only he can give, beckoning them to the holy banquet where they can be satisfied with the richness of his grace, in the presence of their Creator who has a unique purpose for each human being in bringing glory to himself.