Dear Coasting Christians

I realize there are many reasons you stay on the periphery of your faith community. You are burned out but don’t want to stop going completely. You try to be hopeful that maybe someday church will be relevant again. You keep your toe in the water where you are, while you periodically dip your toe into other pools nearby just in case the next one is a bit more to your liking. You stay because of your friends. You stay because you are members. You stay because that place has been part of your identity for so long that you decide it is better to be on its periphery than not there at all.

I understand these reasons because I have been where you are. I reached the point in my community of faith where it no longer stirred me or challenged me or inspired me, but I stayed anyway.

Eventually I did realize the need to move on. Staying, but only on the periphery, was giving me a false sense of engagement. While I might show up, I risked nothing. I offered little. I expected even less. I wasn’t really part of a faith community. I was merely pretending to be. And so I left and went to seminary because I knew what had led me to my church’s periphery is what I needed to better understand. My interest in God and faith hadn’t diminished. But the church where I attended, and many that were just like it, were increasingly unable to adequately and appropriately facilitate an exploration worthy of the 21st century.

The reason I write to you today is to let you know how much you are needed. There are many of us attempting to bring the church beyond it’s defined walls. It is in this space that so many wander. Paradox, honesty, complexity and wholeness dwell here in this space. But the space is not an easy one to navigate. It requires commitment and courage, companionship and endurance. We need you not because you have the answers but because you believe in the work to be done. You know that while faith can be difficult, it is also rewarding. We need you to be willing to be challenged and encouraged so that others who are just beginning to learn the value of community can be accompanied on this journey of faith. We need those of you who already believe in a God of grace to be bearers of that grace. We need you so that the church doesn’t merely survive but thrives. We need you. I need you.

And I think you need us too. I think your soul is tired of the periphery and hungers to reengage in a way that matters, that makes this world better, and you better too in the process.

Find a church – a community that will both love you and challenge you. Pick a place where you will give generously and maybe even sacrificially. We are meant to be in community with one another, and we need a community that will intentionally connect us with God too. It isn’t the savvy services, polished leaders or right programming that feed our souls. It is being known and loved, and doing the knowing and the loving of others. And once you find it, go for it.

With love,

Jen

Killing God with Routine

A friend recently came across a study that showed routine significantly ages a person. The more one settles into routine, the less engaged the brain is. The less engaged the brain is, the slower the brain becomes. Sounds a lot like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them. The takeaway of the study was to continually seek ways to learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. These steps will help the brain not only stay engaged but continue to develop.

Religion is full of routine. We are told what to believe so we believe it. We are told what to do so we do it. We are told whom to love and whom to hate so we love and hate accordingly. This isn’t to say that routine is bad. Routine can provide an infrastructure to keep us plugged in. But when routine becomes the point, when we are no longer being challenged, when we can’t remember the last time our view of God changed, our faith has become solely routine.

The bible is full of movement. The movement is of God pursuing people, and people pursuing God. Sometimes movement is stillness. Sometimes movement is silence. Sometimes movement feels good. Sometimes movement hurts. But it is all movement nonetheless when it is about pursuing what is good, right, and true. The reason movement is critical to the process is because God cannot be contained in one mind, or in a set of creeds, or even in one religion. Truth is bigger than the construct of people because God is.

One can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to make God real. Or one can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to not get in God’s way. I used to fall in the first camp, believing I knew God well. But as I learned and listened and experienced more of God through my own pursuit and through the pursuits of others, my dogma became more of a rudder than my parameters. What I believe to be true helps me navigate, but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing God beyond what I think I know. In other words, I went from walking ahead of God to following God.

Yesterday I thought I was going to lose my dog. The belief could have caused me to act towards that end, bringing her to the vet to be euthanized. Or I could have ignored the possibility and just gone on with my day’s obligations. Instead I stayed home from work to be with her. I brought her water. I carried her outside to relieve herself. I laid next to her and shared my favorite memories with her. I wasn’t waiting for her to die. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what occurred, I was there by her side giving her whatever she needed. It was a difficult day but a good day. Thankfully she is still with us, lying by my side as I write.

When we think we know who or what God is, when we become stagnant in our pursuit of God and simply judge those who see God differently, we tend to act towards the outcome we expect. We might euthanize an opportunity prematurely, or miss the opportunity altogether. As a pastor of a church that values diversity of thought versus a shared statement of faith, I am sometimes questioned about my depth of faith. But as I journey with people, my experience continues to be seeing more of God and God at work among those who regularly step outside of their comfort, understanding, perspectives, than I do among those who have settled into a routine of faith. Maybe that will change when I get older.

Hot Yoga and a Schmear of Ashes

Ash-Wednesday

Shortly before the New Year, a friend asked me to go to yoga with her. “One month – all the classes we want to take – $40 total.” I had been interested in yoga for awhile because of its benefits, namely flexibility, stability and core strengthening. This opportunity seemed like a great and affordable way to jump start my yoga regimen. “Oh, and it’s hot yoga,” she added. “105 degrees and 90 minutes long.” Wait, what?? I sweat. I don’t mean that I get little beads of perspiration on my upper lip. I sweat buckets-worth. I probably lose a couple pounds of water weight with every strenuous form of exercise. I could not imagine what 90 minutes of exercise in a room that hot would mean.

Being the sucker that I am, I signed on and began my month of yoga fun. The first time was hard, but manageable. I did sweat, a lot. Every bit of me was perspiring for nearly the full 90 minutes. In spite of that I felt good and proud of what I had accomplished. Until the next day when I woke up with the most horrendous dehydration headache I have ever had. It took me two days to recalibrate my system and lose the headache entirely. In my second class, three days later, I could see improvement in my balance and flexibility. But I also found the amount of sweating to be annoying. Really annoying. I had a difficult time holding some of the poses because of how much I was sweating. But I got through another class.  And another. I learned to drink plenty of water before and after class, and include a sports drink of some kind for better replenishment. I wasn’t getting used to the sweating though.

About a week and a half into my month of yoga, I started to feel sick. I woke up feeling hung over, even though I hadn’t been drinking the night before. I was concerned that hot yoga would make me feel worse, so I took a few days off. My friend was patient but as I neared the day I would have to go back, I found myself ruing it. It was hot and long and difficult and required work before and after class. Why was I putting myself through it? Why couldn’t the room be 95 degrees instead of 105 degrees? I went anyway, again, finally. It was hot. And long. And it was 15 degrees outside. But I did it and I have to admit, it felt good.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season for Christians. I grew up in a church that had few rituals. We celebrated communion/Lord’s supper/eucharist. We lifted up Christmas and Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter and all the events in between). Other things were mentioned as they occurred, such as Epiphany, Pentecost, and Advent. But we largely seemed to avoid the rituals that have long been associated with the christian faith. This was not uncommon among protestants who were determined to not look at all like catholics. A thousand years of history replaced with crappy, “contemporary” worship songs.

As I became increasingly frustrated with my ritual-less church, I sought out churches that still incorporated them. Although some denominations had certainly kept the rites and rituals in place, they had not done the work of updating its context. God was always “He” and the hierarchy remained: God -> pastor/priest -> parishioner. I longed for the rituals, but I needed them to be offered with relevance by way of acknowledging the difficulties, issues, and realities of today, not of days gone by.

So back to Ash Wednesday. The day marks the beginning of Lent, which is 40 days plus Sundays leading up to Easter. For the Christian, Easter is the event that reminds us that God is at work in and around and through us, in spite of what we might see/think/feel, and that death does not have the final say. Most scholars believe that the idea of Lent developed in the first few hundred years after the church began. The church rightly saw the need to prepare for Easter, and Lent could provide the opportunity to do so. Time and wounds and quite frankly, everyday life can make it difficult to see how God is at work, and how we might be getting in the way of that work. And so we spend time learning how to hear and see again, how to make more room for God. We reflect by asking questions such as, “How am I really doing?” “Do my values match my priorities?” “Where could I use some improvement?” “How might I strengthen my faith?” “How are my relationships?” We can easily fill 40 days of reflecting, particularly if we aren’t doing much of it in the remaining 325 days.

Ash Wednesday is traditionally commemorated with a schmear of ashes and the saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I know it might sound depressing. But for Christians, it is just the beginning of the journey, not its end. We begin by feeling the somberness of who we are (human), and consequently who we are not (God). We are invited to experience the weight of the world being taken off of our shoulders and to be okay with what we cannot do on our own. And we embark on the 40+ days to ponder this reality knowing Easter is just up the road.

I think Lent is a lot like hot yoga. The benefits are pretty clear. But it is a big pain in the ass. It is hard work. It requires the sacrifice of time and resources. It takes planning and commitment. It needs doses of faith and hope. And if I didn’t have my friend waiting for me, I might just wimp out with a thousand possible excuses. We should take this journey not because the church and religious leaders say so, but because it is good for the mind, body, and soul. I hope you will consider to take a Lenten journey yourself. Don’t forget to find a friend to go with you. Namaste.

Why I Left the Church to Start a Church

I spent most of my life being part of a church.  Growing up, we went every Sunday morning.  When I was old enough, youth group was added.  Sunday after Sunday, and then Wednesdays too, from birth through high school, I went to church.  I did other things such as school and sports, but the majority of my family’s life was connected to the church or people from the church.  Then at 18 I had a brief departure from church life, about four years total.  I was going through a lot of upheaval personally.  I clearly remember thinking that my questions, disappointment, and anger had no place in church.  It was okay to question if you were new to church or not really involved.  But the seasoned folks didn’t question God.  So I did the work on my own and eventually made peace with God.

In my early 20’s, married, and looking for a community, I decided that I wanted to go back.  More than anything else, it was the relationships I was looking for.  But this was easier said than done because I have always had an edge to me – my personality, my humor, my outlook.  I didn’t quite fit in with the “Snow White” types at church, but neither was I a rebel without a cause.  I had a cause.  It was depth mixed with a strong dose of reality.  So I would look and sometimes find that ragtag group of people who took their faith seriously and knew how to have a good time.  These are great people to hang out with because they’ll challenge your mind, warm your heart, and make you laugh.  And they know how to have fun.  Life is too short not to laugh heartily and regularly.

As I got older, I found myself not only growing comfortable with mystery and unanswerable questions, but insisting on them.  I couldn’t profess a simplistic faith in a complicated world.  I encountered realities that made me angry with God and I needed to be honest about that.  And in this process – years of work – something incredible happened: God became bigger.  The benefit of a big God is that this God can handle big questions and big emotions.  The downside is that this God is significantly more aloof.  Assurances didn’t come as quickly, but what I did have I could hold onto firmly.  That is not to say I don’t have days and weeks at a time of doubt.  In fact it would be more accurate to say that doubt is a regular guest at my dinner table of faith.  But I believe the big God can handle it, one of my few assurances.

Along the way, I have learned that not everyone is okay with this kind of God.  Some people need a very black-and-white God, to know who is in with God and who is out, what God requires and what God hates.  Bible passages are picked and contextualized in modern circumstances to support this God.  I have found this to be true in both conservative (right belief) and liberal (right action) churches.  This kind of environment became increasingly unhelpful for my faith journey.  I was aware that either my faith would be extinguished or I would eventually start fires all over the place.  But I found people and people found me, other outsiders of the church, who were hungry for sharing a journey with a big God faith.  Hearing about a God who could handle their shit, and hearing about a follower who had her own shit she was carrying turned out to be good news to people.  I would like to say that it is my personality that drew these people to me.  But I know better.  It was the message I spoke that was resonating so deeply with some.  And so I became increasingly drawn to the faithful and the questioning who lived outside the church, or least were on the parameters of the church, the questioners who were not quite mature enough for church leadership.

In the beginning I had hoped I could do my work in collaboration with the church.  I did not want to be a pastor.  I saw a beautiful partnership emerging in my imagination.  I knew there were still many folks who found the existing church meaningful, and the church could continue to serve them well.  And for the increasing population who had dismissed the church, those were the people I felt called to serve, and I wanted to do so with the church’s help and blessing.  I believed both communities of faith would benefit from the other.  But my church was not interested.  I looked into other churches and talked to many pastors.  Unfortunately there was baggage that seemed to keep getting in the way.  The baggage carried by the church concerned its hierarchy, dwindling membership, and/or fear.  The baggage carried by those outside the church concerned hurts, misunderstandings, and/or apathy.  Perhaps I am oversimplifying but in my experience and the research I have done, I found these threads: the church is insisting on its relevance, and the people outside the church don’t care.  If I stayed within the church walls, I would have to invest time and energy in serving, reassuring, and helping those already part of the church.  Stepping outside those walls would allow me to devote all my energy to those who had no faith community yet desired one.  My decision was an easy one to make.

Next : a reluctant pastor