It’s about once a week that I see the latest “Stop Church-Hopping” pseudo-viral post. It has many variations, but the general idea is, “Church isn’t about YOU, get over yourself, stop being a consumer, join a local church.”
And it isn’t that I disagree with them. I’m a firm believer in the sacred work and worship within the local community of believers. I truly do not believe in looking for the “perfect” church – where they play MY music, speak MY words, do all the things in all the “right” ways.
But I want to scream when I see these posts, because they gloss over or ignore something so many of us struggle with: local church is often a place where we are wounded rather than healed. Their message? Get over it. It isn’t about you, after all.
I have this vision of what church can be: a family, a place of safety, a refuge from a harsh world, a place of empowerment and equipping, a place where the Kingdom has broken in. A gathering where we represent God for one another in healing, loving, challenging ways. I hang on to this dream, though sometimes it’s with the tips of my fingernails, scratching and clawing to hang on. I’ve seen glimpses, but through a glass dimly.
The fact is, the local church is sometimes a place of abuse, and we need to stop being shocked when we see it.
For some, it is where you are kept on the outside because you aren’t from the right family, race, or background.
For some, it is where you have to fight off the constant undercurrent of rumors and church politics.
For some, it was where you were molested. Or where your triggers are flippantly used as sermon illustrations by people who can’t really fathom those experiences. Or where you were blamed for what happened to you.
For some, it is a place of rejection, stinginess, and being unseen.
For many, the abuse and neglect feels too much like the life they came from, rather than the family of God.
For some, church feels like the last place you can go because of your baggage, your sins, your life, because church is where you’re expected to have it all together.
And it can feel so much easier and safer to leave than to stay.
I’m all about faithfulness to the Body of Christ. But in too many of the churches I’ve been a member of, the church focused on having all the right programs, all the right systems in place, and getting people in those pews. So when people left, the blame was on them for not fitting in, for thinking it was all about them, for taking things the wrong way. Abusive behaviors inherent in the church were ignored.
Do we see one another?
Are we safe to be around for those who know too much abuse already?
Are we willing to patiently and sacrificially walk through these dark places with people?
Do we pursue with compassion those who do leave, or flippantly accuse them of making church about them?
May our churches be place where the marginalized, the rejected, the hurting, the abused, can come to Jesus and be healed.
A year, people.
Relationships seem like a terrible risk, being known and understood. I’m sure much of it is due to my introversion and shyness (which are not the same thing). Perhaps some of it comes from my nomadic Army-brat upbringing, which has continued (minus the Army) to this day – it’s hard work investing in people, only to move and have it all taken away. Maybe detachment is easier than the pain of an attachment suddenly ripped away. Or worse, complete rejection once they know more about you, how you work, the baggage you carry. So I hang back, I observe, closed off out of fear.
But I know I’m not the only one.
City life is hard, precisely because of the mobility that’s understood here. People come and go, they don’t stay in one place with five generations of their family gathered around them, living on the family land they’ve owned for decades. I see this same hesitation to attach in others, to know one another deeply, to offer up our vulnerabilities in hopes of connecting with another human. If we keep a tight rein on the information we divulge about ourselves, we can control what people think about us.
And maybe it’s safer.
But it’s also lonely.
I’ve always been drawn to the Apostle Paul. I see myself in him in many ways: the pride of his achievements and righteousness before he encountered Jesus, how he is fierce in his writing but timid and trembling and in-eloquent in person (1 Cor 2), the logical progression of many of his letters. So it is challenging for me to read how he opened himself with the people of so many churches.
He speaks of longing for these people, of his fervent and constant prayers for them, of mutual encouragement between them, and that he became like a father to many of them.
And Paul moved around a lot. He didn’t know when or if he would see these people again. No Facebook to check in on them.
And it wasn’t safe for him to widen his circle to these people. He was rejected and abandoned by some of his dear friends in some of the worst moments (2 Tim 4:9-11). He parted ways with his dear friend Barnabas over a sharp disagreement concerning John Mark (Acts 15). Paul surely felt the sting of rejection, abandonment, and of attachments too quickly ripped away.
But still, he opened himself to others, energized and comforted and propelled forward by Jesus, an expert on being rejected and despised.
But how much would our small groups and Bible Studies and churches change if we opened ourselves to one another? What would happen if we knew one another well enough to give and receive grace in the hardest places, loving one another through real, ugly, messy life? What if we prayed with one another over the true hurts and struggles and pain, instead of grandma’s best friend’s golf partner’s busted knee? Would Christians then be known for deep grace and love and friendship, rather than self-righteousness and judgment? What if Christians were safe people to be around?
It’s terrifying to let people in, and I’m preaching to myself more than to you.
But it’s a terrifying thought that we can go through all of life, completely unknown to others, and only loved for what is on the surface.
She sat across from me, fidgeting with her jeans and pleading with her eyes. She had come to me in desperation, unsure if the prayer she’d repeated in VBS, in Sunday School, with her parents, and now with me, “counted” for her. Would she go to heaven when she died?
I thought about my own harbored doubts, particularly as a teenager. I was often encouraged to “remember that day when you were saved.” The assumption was that those who are truly saved:
1) know exactly when they were saved,
2) had a massive emotional experience when they came to Christ, making it both memorable and genuine, and
3) prayed a prayer and really meant it.
My problem, and hers, was that we had both come to faith very gradually, over such a long time that we couldn’t name a day or time, and we therefore didn’t have some dramatic experience of conversion. I had grown into my love for Jesus over time, slowly taking on His life and obeying His commands, but never praying a sinner’s prayer. Well-meaning leaders had even encouraged me to say a “sinner’s prayer,” just in case.
How do we know that we are truly in Christ?
While reading through the Gospel of Matthew a few months ago, I was struck by a theme – there are going to be a lot of surprises on Judgment Day. Not good ones. Religious people who thought they had it, but it turns out, had nothing. People who had called on Jesus’ name, had cast out demons and performed miracles and had done wonderful things in Jesus’ name, but will be pronounced “evil doers” and sent away. How do we know that we are not one of them?
1 John was written “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13). The proofs of life in Jesus that he lays out are:
1) Christians walk in light and not darkness (1:5-7), because they walk with God.
2) Christians acknowledge their sinfulness (1:8-10), and so confess and receive forgiveness.
3) Christians obey God’s commands (2:3-6, 5:2-4), because they know and love God.
4) Christians love other Christians (2:9-11, 3:10, 3:16-18, 4:7-12, 4:20-21), because love comes from God.
5) Christians do not love the world (2:15-17), because love for darkness comes from darkness.
6) Christians do what is right (2:29, 3:10), because they are born of God, who is righteous.
7) Christians do not live in sin (3:5-9, 5:18), because God abides in them, and Jesus was revealed to take away sin.
8 ) Christians have the Holy Spirit living in them (3:24, 4:13), enabling them to keep God’s commands and please God.
9) Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born of God (4:15, 5:1, 5:5, 5:11-12), and God abides in those who hold to that confession.
Surprisingly, many of the ways we are assured of our salvation by well-meaning leaders or friends, are the very things not listed here. It never says to look at what you did – saying a prayer or really meaning it, or having a big emotional conversion. These things are not indicators – only what God has done in us through His Holy Spirit can assure us of His work in us. The proof is in the fruit – which is generated only by the grace of God as we abide in Him (see John 15).
So, if you’ve prayed a prayer and you don’t see the above things in your life, then you have reason to be worried. I think we often want to encourage people that, because they “called on the name of the Lord,” they are saved. But Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.”
We need to stop giving people false hope. We cannot say “Jesus is about a relationship, not a religion,” but then expect that a (magical?) sinner’s prayer will do the trick.
No, I’m not advocating a works-based salvation. I’m saying that we need to take a grace-based salvation seriously. In Scripture, faith and works are never opposites, they are inextricably linked. Dallas Willard once said, “Grace is not the opposite of works, it is the opposite of earning.” You cannot have faith without also having works (see James 1-2). Faith without works is dead – not a “lesser” faith that just needs to be motivated. It’s dead.
I’m not saying (and neither is John) that these nine things are things that you have to do to be saved. Not at all. They are evidence of grace. If we take God’s grace seriously, then we acknowledge that it is a powerful grace that not only saves us, but carries the work to completion.
Yes, crying out to God in prayer is good. Most people have begun a relationship with Christ by crying out to Him to save them. I’m not against any kind of “sinner’s prayer,” but I am against the idea that if we just say it, it has “worked.” And I’m fearful of what we’re teaching young children when we encourage them to just repeat a prayer without having them articulate the Gospel for themselves. I think it has led to entire congregations full of people who think they’re saved because they prayed a prayer when they were little, though there is no evidence in their life to suggest an encounter with Christ, let alone an ongoing abiding in Christ.
Yes, spiritual maturity takes some time. The day you become a Christian, you should not expect to be fully free of sin. But I think we’ve been trying to pave the narrow road a little wider by making faith a mental assent only. Our assurance is not found in our sincerity, our memory, or our words. It is found only in the grace of Jesus Christ – which works so powerfully in us that it cannot leave us as we are.
So what about my young friend?
Instead of giving her answers, I gave her to Jesus. We prayed together, asking Jesus for love that drives out fear of punishment (1 John 4:17-18), asking for the fruit of grace to be made evident and clear in her young life. I know she was unsatisfied–she wanted a yes or a no, as we always do. She wanted the ABC’s of faith, things to check off so she could know. But I hadn’t seen the fruit of faith in her–yet. So I pushed her to Jesus, trusting that He could bring grace, power, and assurance to her much better than I ever could.
In fact, we know of a lot of things we’ve had to save up for and wait to buy because we don’t have enough. We use the word “poor” for ourselves–I was especially guilty of this in seminary. But on our worst days, my family still hasn’t been forced to miss a single meal–something much of the world knows far too much of.
I have never heard even one sermon about Jesus’ teachings on money that did not begin with the disclaimer, “Now, it’s not a sin to be wealthy or to have money.” That’s an interesting thing to say right away, as if it’s the most important thing to remember. It isn’t. Those who are breathing a sigh of relief that God doesn’t require all of us to give up all of our things are the ones likely worshiping money. We hone in on phrases like “good stewards” and equate it with “responsible spending.” But the widow who gave her last two mites, and praised by Jesus himself for it, was hardly a Dave Ramsey poster-child.
Few of us believe we’ve made money into an idol. We “put Jesus first,” we might even tithe 10%.
Idol is such a confusing term, because in the US, we don’t have them carved up and sitting on a shelf with incense burning to them. Our little gods that have our trust are harder to smash. Jesus understood this.
You cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and money.
It’s a teaching I want to skim past –yes yes, money, idol…now how do I pray? Jesus, I will go to the ends of the earth for you! I am a good, upstanding Christian in my community. Why are you pointing at this passage about money again, we don’t have enough as it is! Don’t you know we’re saving for this and that, we’re trying to be good stewards!
Opening our lives to God’s direction is risky. Even monetarily. Especially monetarily. Just as Abraham obeyed God to sacrifice Isaac right till the knife was in the air above his precious son, so our prized things must be carried to God in obedience. We must smash the idols.
The fact stands that while millions of Good Christian People in America congratulate themselves for their good stewardship and responsible spending, people are dying of starvation all over the world. Missionaries called to the Last Places need funding but cannot convince Good Church People to part with their money for the sake of the Gospel going out into all the world. The needs are great, and we too often close our eyes tight, clenching our fists harder, spewing more justifications.
How do we know we are serving money instead of God?
When our hearts fight against releasing money.
When we join the “bigger, better, more” race. When we find ourselves scrambling to get the latest model of products we already have.
When we are worried that we don’t have the “right” things – clothes, phones, gadgets, vehicles, houses.
When we put our trust in money’s ability to keep us safe, rather than in the Creator of heaven and earth.
This hits me, too. I clench my fists tighter and say, “Lord, but what if I have an emergency later? I need to plan for things!” And His loving hand gestures to this world in an emergency right now, in desperate need of a Savior they have not heard, in desperate need of basic necessities so they can simply live another day. In desperate need of a display of grace and mercy and a Church that looks like Jesus.
And still my grip is tight and full of fear, so all I know to do is run to Jesus, who gives grace to us exactly where we are. He says specifically not to worry about the things I’m worried about in Matthew 6. Stop worrying about your life and food and clothes. Seek first my kingdom. I will care for you.
I’m learning that following these hard teachings is a lesson in grace. We hear of a family with a need, we pray for generosity from God’s heart to be imparted to us, and He shows us a painful amount to give. Eyes closed, we trust You Jesus, there it goes! And we find that He has loosened our tight grip on our things just a touch. Another need arises, and we hold our breaths, first ignoring the impulse for generosity, then following it full-force in obedience. The grace that surrounds the whole process–changing our hearts from stingy to slightly less stingy and perhaps one day to open generosity without fear; the courage to give; the care for us in the fallout. It’s all grace, we see Jesus so much more clearly in it all. It becomes less about us doing good things, and more about Jesus imparting His grace to us and the world–and not blocking that grace by ignoring the impulse. We are not good at it yet, but He loves us anyway and that is all grace.
There is so much need every where we look, and it’s easy to get compassion fatigue and just hold on to what you have in fear of not being able to do everything or enough. We cannot care about everything–our hearts are not built for that. But perhaps you can focus on one cause or person or family for now. Perhaps you can simply follow generous inclinations from the Spirit that you may have instead of squelching them as we so often do.
Jesus longs to make us into generous people, into a generous Church. God is the most generous–He did not even spare His Son! He longs to make us more like Him. We are the wealthiest Christians there have ever been in the history of the world, we’re the most informed about the world around us thanks to the internet and globalization. What will we do with it? Will we block the grace He wants to give us and the world? Will we pass up the chance to imitate Jesus in sacrificing for others, to allow our lives to take a cruciform shape?
Jesus, make us more generous. When we cannot smash the idols ourselves–especially this one, Lord–give us grace and power through the Holy Spirit to do it.
Taking the Lord’s Supper was a weekly practice in the generically-Protestant Army Base chapel we irregularly attended when I was 8. Every week, the wafers, juice, and wine would be passed around me, and I knew I wasn’t allowed to take it, but didn’t know why. My mom slapped my hand down when I would reach out in curiosity. After weeks of questioning at home, my mom threw her hands up in the air and made an appointment for me with the chaplain.
I sat in his office, my curiosity tempered by my extreme shyness, but he sat patiently in silence until I worked up enough courage to ask him about the Communion ritual. He told me the story of Jesus, the Last Supper he shared with his friends, his death, and his resurrection. I didn’t know the language to use, the “ABCs” of faith, but I grasped onto this story of the Lord’s Supper and I said, “Wow.”
The chaplain was old and kind, and asked me if I wanted to follow this Jesus. I was baptized a few weeks later with the simple profession of my 8-year-old faith: “God is love.” The Lord’s Supper explained that love in a tangible way that I could understand, and it brought me right to the feet of Jesus.
When we moved to Arkansas and into Southern Baptist churches when I was 11, I was shocked to find that they only practiced the Lord’s Supper once a month or quarterly, depending on the church. According to some, practicing this ritual too much makes it lose its power. I accepted this answer through the college years, through most of my 20s, as I remained in Southern Baptist churches.
Now, I am in a church that takes Communion each week following the sermon. And after five months of weekly Communion, I still can’t imagine this sacred and simple act becoming mundane.You might see me there in the center aisle, walking up to take the bread and dip it in the wine, remembering the first time I heard the Gospel from that old chaplain as the elders pronounce, “His body broken for you” and “God bless you” over me. You might see me weeping and weeping because I can’t believe Jesus loves me this much.
When I despaired after my brother died, tormented by nightmares and feeling abandoned by my church, what pulled me through was a dream about the Lord’s Supper. It was a simple dream, but I understood it immediately–His broken body, suffering for and with me, not some far-off God who doesn’t care.
I understand my role in this world a little more because the teachings we have just heard are now couched in the Gospel as we reenact it through the Lord’s Supper. Do hard things and follow the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit…He has died, is risen, will come again!
When I feel the weight of the world, I come again this week to take his body and his blood, shed for me, covering me, carrying me, suffering with me.
When I feel prideful, I tear the bread from the loaf, take his broken body. I drink the wine, His blood. And I remember that my own sin was upon Him, that He was pierced for my transgressions, and I am humbled.
When I’m tired and feel I have no more to give, I go and have a physical reminder that I receive His life.
When I feel like I’m doing this whole life alone, I go to the Table and am surrounded by saints struggling to find and follow Jesus, too. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (1 Cor 10:17)
When I’ve set my mind too much on the things that are temporary and fleeting, I come to take Communion and my eyes are refocused onto Him and on His Gospel that goes forth into all the world with power.
When I find myself holding on to a sin that I have justified in my mind, I eat the Passover Lamb of God who bears those sins away, and I cannot hold onto this evil anymore. I must hold onto Him.
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?”
Thanks be to God.
In many families, and certainly in the one I was raised in, there is a deep narrative of The Stoic Warrior. Strength is defined as bearing the burdens of yourself, your family, the world, without tears or any kind of emotional show. You are Atlas, holding up the world with all your might and if you crumble, the world falls.
Many problems arise from this, but a huge one is when the Stoic Warrior is also a Christian.
When I was 13, my mom was diagnosed with malignant brain tumors and given a poor prognosis. It all happened very suddenly, and even my memory of that year is dizzy. After the diagnosis, my family never talked about it and pretended as much as they could that everything was normal. My grandparents pulled me, the second oldest of the five children but very much the adult-child, aside to say, “You need to be strong for your mom and your siblings. Be strong.“
Translation: No crying. No breakdowns. No weakness.
And I never cried about it. Not once. My mom was dying and I was barely 13 and I refused to cry.
At 13, I was a perfect Stoic Warrior, battling on for the sake of everyone else, ensuring the world didn’t tumble from my careful grasp. I made chore charts, I did the grocery shopping, the cooking, the laundry, for my family of seven. I threw myself into perfectionism in all things, even still making top grades so as to not stress my mom out. Most of my friends didn’t even know my mom was sick, and when people found out, they marveled at my “strength.” So many teachers and mentors and believers commended my strength and the “faith” that was so evident by the way I cared for everyone without falling apart.
So the Stoic Warrior meets Faith, and they look so similar from the outside, don’t they? Quietly serving and caring for others and not falling apart, because a person of faith doesn’t fall apart, right?
As I entered into college at 18, I felt the Stoic Warrior in me begin to crumble. She had held up through cancer, through the breaking up of my family through divorce, through a year abroad with many challenges. And now, my mother, who had somehow survived the cancer, was in the hospital for months with a staph infection in her skull, eating away bone and brain and personality. Between the chaos of transition, a difficult chemistry course, and driving 3 hours each way every weekend to visit my mom, the Stoic Warrior lost her grasp on the world, and it all fell.
I finally failed.
And I finally cried. And cried. And cried.
And I finally received Grace.
The Stoic Warrior story is a terrible narrative. It’s a fabrication and a lie we tell ourselves. Emotional withdrawal isn’t emotional strength. Carrying the world on our shoulders is not our job, we are not that strong, and deep inside, we know we are not that strong.
I want to grab that little girl-woman by the shoulders and whisper, “Run to Jesus.”
I want to tell her it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to know that you are weak and can’t handle your life right now. Run to Jesus, run to His strength. Shut your ears tight when your family or your church or your own brain tells you to “be strong” because you are not strong, you are not your own Savior, you are not the Savior of your family. You don’t have to pretend anything to bring glory to God – He is so much stronger than your made-up show of faith!
The thing about grace is that we get to be honest about exactly where we are, because Jesus is there with us. He is weeping with us, as he wept for Lazarus. He is pushing the Bread and Wine across the table to us, saying, “Eat and drink, and remember how I suffer for and with you, Love.” He listens to our “How Long, O Lord’s” and is getting ready to make all things new and wipe away every tear.
So when I finally realized I couldn’t handle it all anymore, when I finally cried out to Jesus, I found freedom. I was free to tell the truth, to say, “I can’t do this, I’m not perfect, I’m so weak and tired.” I confessed it to a friend, who spoke the Gospel over me and reminded me of our Father’s great love and tender care. I cried through the six-hour round-trip to the hospital each weekend, begging for strength and grace and mercy.
And I can tell you that He is risen, because He was there with me.
I hear stories of saints powering hard through prayer, waking up at 4am and doing knee-work for hours before the day begins. And I’ve never understood it. I’ve acknowledged with my brain that, yes, prayer is important and powerful and necessary…but I cannot will myself to pray like this.
How does this happen? I have been consistently in church for nearly two decades, have attended and led countless Bible studies, had several mentors, and earned a degree in Christian Studies. Did I skip the class on prayer?
I’ve tried my usual tactics: try harder and schedule it. So I sit with my list at the appointed time and start my “Lord be with this person” and “help that situation” and by the tenth one, I’m lost in thought or have moved on to something else entirely. Or I’ve maintained focus and I’m SURE that it has been an hour of prayer only to find that it has been…5 minutes. Rounding up.
So I gave up, leaving prayer at the periphery of my life.
I prayed months ago the request of the disciples, “Lord, teach me to pray.“
And the first thing He did was show me Our Father in Heaven. A Father who loves to give, who wants our best, who is not angry with me, who will not abandon me when I don’t measure up, who knows me. I don’t have to wrestle good things from a clenched hand with this Father.
After so many hard years, my heart had become hardened to His great love. I had become convinced that He was a taker and a withholder, because prayers for my mom’s dementia had gone unanswered; because though I prayed all night for God’s glory in a miraculous healing, He let my brother die; because we faced years of financial stress and rejection and hurt by Christian people though trying to obey Him. Prayer was a drudgery because I didn’t have the energy to wrestle good things out of Him anymore.
But that’s not my Father.
Seeing His generous heart, the One who did not spare His own Son, has completely changed me.
So I read that hundreds of young Nigerian girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram and sold as sex slaves to militant Muslims. And as I hold my own daughter, I weep and an urge rises in me that I cannot resist. I cup my hands in a gesture of expectation, and plead on their behalf. He wants them rescued more than I do. The prayers for the Muslim men just push themselves out, a prayer groaned out by the Spirit for my enemies, because I do not feel love for these men. Oh God, the only hope for Nigeria is Your Son. Send the Light into that darkness! Only Christ can compel them to return the daughters of Nigeria.
And a friend confesses depression and anger, and it wells up within me again, and I cannot help but lay hands on them and pray to this giving Father, this Father who wants life and joy and peace in His child.
And a need arises in my own life and I am unusually calm and not anxious, because I have access to the throne of my Father, and I know He hears me, and I know He cares about even this. My chest becomes tight and I can feel the prayers urging their way out, as if they must be spoken or they might burst through.
Clinging to this loving and generous Father, I am overcome in worship, sobbing and weeping and unable to keep it together because He loves me, and His goodness is far beyond what I had ever allowed myself to imagine. And the whole earth will one day bend a knee to Him and I can’t wait for that day because they need to know who this kind and merciful and generous Father is.
And then I look up at the clock, expecting five minutes to have passed, and a full hour is gone and I’m not ready to be finished. Suddenly, the burden for prayer is lighter than I’ve ever known, because the power and will for it did not come from me.
And so this novice of prayer offers hope for fellow babies: ask the Lord to teach you, and prayer will come as you grow into Him.
The sufferings and hardships have not decreased; they ebb and flow and I am sure they will increase until the Day. But my view of my Father has radically changed. All I know is that the energy and power and will for prayer has not come from me.
(Pssst. For those of you who have prayed for me as I’ve struggled through postpartum depression…I am so grateful to you and to our merciful God. I am in a season of light I have not known in years, where I see Him working in such obvious ways and speaking so clearly. I literally feel like I’ve been brought from death to life. Thank you for carrying me through this hard season, friends.)