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.
As I was washing the dishes tonight, I realized something profound. I'd like to call it a "God moment." I try to do a lot of things in my own effort, by sheer willpower you might say. Sometimes that works temporarily but ultimately I'm inconsistent and resentful. That's why I want to practice self-control instead.
So what's the difference?
Willpower is not eating anything. Self-control is eating a little.
Willpower is holding in my emotions. Self-control is holding back my emotions.
Willpower is deprivation. Self-control is moderation.
Willpower is an oxymoron. I am inherently selfish (we are all born into sin), so there is no power in my will. My will is exactly that. Mine. me, me, me. My will is the very thing I must yield. I must give myself to God's control in order to be self-controlled.
If I try to get by on willpower, I won't grow. Instead, I'll shrivel up as my strength is sapped. I'll become hard and prideful...and eventually disillusioned and full of despair.
Self-control doesn't originate with me. It comes from the source of life. My creator. When I cast all my cares on him, he cares for me (2 Peter 5:7) and his spirit living in me, which entered when I invited Jesus into my heart, will enable me to exercise self-control. But it is a daily practice--even hourly, and sometimes moment by moment.
It is not a making up of my mind or of whipping myself into shape or of duct-taping my mouth. It is a letting go and a resting and an obedience rooted in love. It hurts but only for a moment and then it passes and is replaced by a gentle yet exhilarating sense of wonder and peace. It is losing the battle to win the war.
Doing those dishes was a minor act of self-control. I felt like putting it off until the morning but if I had, this wouldn't have dawned on me, because it was only by submitting myself to a menial task not requiring the use of my intellect that my mind was uncluttered enough for just one moment to hear that still, small voice of the maker of the universe.