Several weeks ago, I mentioned the need to find more quiet space
in my life. This last week in particular has confirmed that; it’s been especially loud both from outside sources and from the noise inside my very own head. It's been a cacophony of what other people think I should do, what I think I should do, what other people say I should think, and what I think I should think.
And half the time, I’m not even sure of that.
In a lot of ways, it’s been like trolling up and down the radio dial (do people other than me still do that?), catching only bits and pieces of coherent communication. Mostly there’s just noise and a lot of static. And in that confusion, I find that it’s really hard to find my way and often I end up simply walking around in circles.
Just like Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy.
In C. S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian
, the Pevensie children are whisked back to Narnia--a Narnia that they don’t recognize--and end up spending a great deal of time wandering about in the forest. Forget that there is a battle to be won, prisoners to be rescued, and a kingdom to be established, these poor souls can’t even find their way out of the woods. It’s only when Lucy finally sees Aslan himself that there is the thread of hope that they might find their way by following him. But instead of following, instead of listening to him, Lucy listens to the voices around her –good voices, close voices, sensible voices—but voices that, nonetheless, drown him out. And the children end up wandering still further, wasting even more time.
Finally, one night, Aslan comes to Lucy in order to lead them out.
“Lucy,” he said, “we must not lie here for long. You have work in hand, and much time has been lost today.
“Yes, wasn’t that a shame?” said Lucy. “I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so—“
From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.
“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway was it?”
The Lion looked straight into her eyes.
“Oh Aslan,” said Lucy, “You don’t mean it was? How could I—I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and I wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with You.”
And so this week, just like Lucy, I’m re-learning a simple truth:
In the midst of all the confusion, in the midst of all the doubt, in the midst of all the noise, being alone with Him is often the only way out.
And wow. Two days ago I posted 15 Reasons Why I Stayed in the Church
despite it’s failures and my own personal disappointments. And apparently—given my Google Analytics report—MANY of you have similar angst. Let me be honest, we’re not used to this kind of excitement around here--juice boxes all round to celebrate!
Seriously though, the post sparked a lot of conversation and even more questions. And because nuance doesn’t tweet, I wanted to take a moment to address the most pertinent one: Are you saying it’s wrong to leave a church you disagree with?
To answer that, let’s go to France.
Back in the existential heyday, when there was a regatta on the sea of human alienation, Jean-Paul Sartre[i]
wrote the classic play Huis Clos
in which he envisioned the worst possible metaphysical hell—three people eternally trapped in a room with no ability to achieve redemption or reconcile their differences. The characters, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, become each others’ torturers and there are overtones of a cruel love triangle—each seeking redemption and love from one who will not give it. The room has no door and no windows. There is no escape. It is human alienation in its essence. To quote Sartre, “L’enfer c’est les autres.”
Now, you’re probably wondering what does this have to do with whether or not we stay in the church?
Simply this, I think for many young people, leaving the church is a way to escape, to avoid the very thing Sartre was describing.[ii]
For many of us, the worst possible hell we can imagine is being trapped with other people in difficult relationships that on the surface seem irreconcilable. It’s having to exist in a place where people don’t agree with us, don’t value us, or simply don’t “get” us. All we can see is a dead end--a dead end to our dreams and what we want to accomplish in the world. It’s why we leave our churches when we disagree; it’s also why we leave our marriages when things get difficult.
Simply put, we are afraid--afraid of the pain, afraid of the loneliness, afraid of the isolation, afraid of becoming impotent.
And so we leave. No, we run, because none of us want to be trapped there. But if we’re honest, leaving is a bit of a luxury, and that’s why I’ve said before that it seems like the easy way out. It can easily be motivated by fear instead of faith and selfishness instead of service because it forgets an essential truth about Jesus--he isn’t an existentialist.
He doesn’t believe that human alienation is permanent. So much so, that He came to reconcile all things in Himself--to do away with the very isolation and oppression we fear.
Early in our years together, my husband and I went through profound marriage problems. (This probably will surprise many of our friends and family—don’t worry, you weren’t being oblivious; we simply hid it well.) And when I say profound, I mean the kinds of things that people don’t usually survive. But there was one thing that kept us together long enough to work through it all—neither one of us believed we had an escape. For good or bad, we had both been raised to believe that divorce was unacceptable, and with that foundation, we HAD to sort through our issues—we had to give Jesus a chance to reconcile us.
And I’m wondering how things would play out in our local congregations if we had the same concept there? What would we do differently if there were really “no exit?” How would we be forced to love better and work harder if we had no way out?
Of course, the human brokenness would still be there—the sin, the selfishness—all of it. But I think the thing that might change is how we understand that brokenness and how big we think Jesus is. Because right now—by leaving--we’re saying that Jesus isn’t big enough to reconcile such diverse people into His body. And we’re also saying that we can’t imagine anything worse than being trapped in that body.
Trust me, I’m not saying we simply overlook sin or problems in the name of “unity.” And I’m not saying that there isn’t a time to leave or start new churches. I’m not Catholic and I don’t think the Reformation was necessarily a bad thing. But this is my point: we only leave in order to further reconciliation, in order to promote unity in Christ’s body.
We don’t leave because we don’t feel accepted. We don’t leave because we feel unloved. We don’t even leave to make a statement per se. We leave in order to return.
And that is something profoundly different than leaving to escape difficult relationships. Yes, sometimes sin has gone unchecked in our churches—even for generations—and yes, sometimes we MUST remove ourselves to highlight the seriousness of that sin. But in doing that, we cannot forget that the sin was the thing causing the division in the first place, and that the goal is always, always redemption and reunification with other believers. Just like the goal of every separation should be to get the marriage back together, not simply as the first step in the process of divorce.
Of course, leaving a church is extremely nuanced and personal. We must be led by the Holy Spirit and engage in it with fear and trembling. If we don't, I'm afraid, we'll simply end up introducing more sin and trap ourselves in our own selfishness even as we try to escape. [i] “Did you hear that young Jean-Paul got sent home from the school rafting trip? Apparently he showed up without his compass or his paddle.” [ii] If I had written Huis Clos, it would have taken place in an eternal committee meeting, with three of us planning a baby shower trying to decide whether to go with the Noah’s ark or the Precious Moments’ theme – Jean-Paul, you’ve got nothing on me, baby.
So today, after nine months of polite blogging, I’m finally going to get controversial.
And it’s all because I read this post
yesterday from Rachel Held Evans. Now, I’m no stranger to Rachel’s blog. And while I can’t claim to be a “fan,” I do find Rachel’s writing witty, engaging, and in a way, courageous. She says things that a lot of people are thinking but won’t say out loud--and I’d venture that’s exactly why so many people follow her faithfully.
And although we’ve never met, I feel a bit of kinship with Rachel. Her story and mine seem to have run parallel courses. We were both raised in conservative Christianity; we both excelled in that context (i.e. we were “good” girls, unafraid to eviscerate anything opposed to the expression of Christianity we knew); we both attended Christian colleges that originated out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s; and we both studied the liberal arts.
But after college, Rachel says that she began questioning her upbringing, and her faith took a decidedly liberal turn. The funny thing is that after college, I started evaluating my faith too. But I ended up nowhere near where she is today. Yesterday Rachel revealed a bit more of her journey in her post Fifteen Reasons Why I Left the Church
, and after reading it, I had to stop and reflect, “Why did I end up staying in the church as I knew it?”
Because if anybody had a reason to leave, I did.
Imagine the worst case scenario of church politics; add to that having to live on government support because the church won’t pay your husband (the pastor) enough to support you and your three children ("Nobody asked you to have another kid.") Throw in some deputation experience and seeing first-hand how we’re often simply franchising American Christianity via missions. Stir until you reach mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion, and you’ve pretty much got our story covered.
And yet we stayed. Even more, we subject our children to the weekly routine of church life (despite the fact that my five-year-old pouts every Sunday morning about having to go.) To top it all off, my husband just accepted a position as a senior pastor of a conservative church only a little more than an hour away from an evangelical Mecca
So why have we stayed unlike so many of our peers? I hope it’s not because we’re co-dependent or that we’re blind to the problems. And I hope it’s not because we haven’t evaluated our position or because we lack critical thinking skills. Actually, to be honest, it’s probably those very things that have kept
us in the church. So here’s my list in no particular order: Fifteen Reasons Why I Stayed in the Church
- I believe that there is no such thing as Church (with a capital “C”) without church (with a lower case “c”)--as messy and as difficult as that may be.
- I want to be the change in the world that I seek. And that means engaging the problems closest to me. Like in the next pew. Like in this pew. Like in my own seat.
- I believe that reconciling nations and people starts at home. If I can’t work toward reconciliation in my own church, there is no way I will be able to accomplish it on a broader level anywhere else.
- I’m not a militant separatist. I don’t believe that everybody has to think EXACTLY the way I do before I will worship with them. Even if they are more conservative than I am.
- I don’t expect the church to be anything other than it is—a group of difficult, broken people plodding their way to glory. The kingdom of God is coming; it isn’t here yet.
- I believe the church is bigger than political parties even if the people attending it don’t understand that. Even if the people who leave it don’t seem to understand that either.
- I believe Jesus can and wants to redeem Pharisees as much as publicans.
- I believe by staying in the church I earn the right to speak about the problems I see. It’s the old adage that you can criticize your family but no one else can. By staying with “my family,” I can speak about our failures and the doubts I wrestle with.
- I believe that 2000 years of church history holds a bit more weight than my personal experience.
- I have brothers and sisters in Christ who have been imprisoned and lost their lives for doing the very thing that I would be giving up.
- I do not want to lose people I love and who love me and my family. And while there are times that conviction must trump relationships, these relationships act as a grid to help me determine whether my convictions are sufficient enough to risk losing these people from my life.
- I need the church to regularly remind me about the things that I don’t like in the Scripture. Things like God’s anger and my sinfulness--things that if left to myself, I would conveniently ignore or rationalize.
- I am not an island. My choice to leave church affects everyone else in the congregation. Remove one part from the whole and it is no longer the same entity.
- I have children. And while I’ll be the first to admit that it’s dangerous to raise your children in a church that distorts the gospel, it’s equally as dangerous to raise them apart from church altogether. One way the gospel is expressed is in the loving covenant relationship that happens in the church – I want that to be part of the warp and weave of their experience. I want them to know that real commitment means taking the good with the bad.
- Jesus hasn’t left the church. No, of course, I don’t mean this in a sanctimonious way. (If I had, I would have put the word sanctimonious in asterisks.) I mean simply that after he threw out the money changers, Jesus continued to worship and sacrifice in the temple. His work is to purify and redeem, not to alienate or destroy.
Don't get me wrong--I understand that many young people are leaving church because they honestly don't think it represents Jesus well. But I wonder if the reality is that they are leaving because the church doesn't represents THEIR view of Jesus well. Like Rachel said, she and her husband "are struggling to find a faith community in which we
feel we belong."
But I’m not entirely sure that’s the right goal.
Isn’t that the whole point to realize that the brokenness invades everything – even our churches? Isn’t the whole point to model faithful, loving service to people we don’t like—even in our churches? Isn’t the whole point that Jesus came, not only to establish justice, but to save people from their self-righteousness—even in our churches? Like I said, I get this generation’s frustration and I understand why many of them are leaving the church. I’m just not convinced that frustration equals maturity or that leaving equals courage.
In fact--in this day and age—leaving may be the easy way out. (Edited: 3/21/12 10:09EST)
Several weeks ago Wendy Alsup wrote a striking post
about how complementarians (folks who believe that men and women have differing roles in society, the home, and the church) are shooting ourselves in the foot with faulty reasoning and extra-Biblical teaching. It seems that on our way to understanding manhood and womanhood, our generation has started taking some shortcuts--shortcuts that are going to have significant consequences on whether or not we develop a fully Biblical understanding of gender and human relationships. In this sense, the things she mentioned are serious; but even more so is her overarching point: while we may have a seemingly noble goal, if we don’t reach that goal in an authentic and legitimate manner, we undermine everything we are trying to accomplish.
This is not a new problem for us humans. Whether it’s yelling at our kids to be quiet or speeding down the highway to avoid being late to an appointment, we regularly--although often unintentionally--conduct our lives under the assumption that the end justifies the means. Wendy’s post also got me to thinking about how this kind of pragmatism can invade our relationships, specifically our marriages.
Is it possible that in our attempts to reach an ideal, in our progress toward becoming “good” wives and husbands, we could actually be harming
each other? I think it’s more than possible; I think it’s very common. And like so many areas of Christian living, the danger is not so much in what we’re doing, as what’s happening in our hearts and revealed through the process of doing them. And while I can’t speak for the men, here some problematic tendencies I’ve observed among Christian women—they are simply things I’ve heard, things I’ve seen, and truthfully, things I’ve done myself at times.
Let’s just file them under: “It’s a bad thing when… 1) You encourage your husband to be a leader… the same way you encourage good behavior in your child or pet.
Many women I know are not truly satisfied with their husbands, but they are “gracious” enough to give them time and space to develop. Much like they are gracious enough to give their children time and space to mature. While waiting, they offer false praise or over-praise them for small acts of kindness or what they consider to be “growth.” This is dangerous for two reasons: First, it is fundamentally condescending. And second, people know when you are not being truthful. What your husband learns is the same thing that any of us learn once we realize praise is false or overinflated: he learns that he cannot fully trust you or worse, that you didn’t think he was capable of success in the first place. 2) You heap massive expectations on your husband to be the god-figure in your home… and then are disappointed when he isn’t perfect.
Perhaps worse than underestimating a husband’s potential is over-estimating it. When a wife looks to her husband to provide what only God can, she sets him up for failure. And there is nothing more damaging to a man’s spirit than failure—especially failing those he loves. When you expect him to be what he in his humanity simply cannot, you set a trap for him. He never even has a chance.
Instead recognize who your husband is and who he is not: he is your fellow traveler, your fellow sinner on this road to glory. Celebrate his strengths; accept his limitations. And love him regardless. 3) You don’t disagree with him… because privately you don’t believe he can handle it.
On the surface keeping quiet when you don’t like what someone else is doing can pass for deference when in reality it can be arrogance. Some women don’t disagree with their husbands simply because they don’t really believe he can handle it. They see his manhood as fragile, so much so that he is in constant danger of emasculation. The irony of this is that refusing to disagree with him has less to with respecting him than it does with feeling superior to him. Of course there are ways to engage in debate that can
belittle and harm another person—but that’s true regardless of gender or marital status. In the long run, disagreeing with your husband (with kindness and a keen sense of timing) may be the best way to respect him because it says that you see them as the mature human being that he is. 4) You pray for your husband to be a better a) father, b) husband, c) leader, d) all of the above… and ask others to pray as well.
Now of course, you should pray for your husband, but there are ways of praying that are actually harmful. (Just ask the Pharisee and the publican.) If you pray for your husband out of a heart of discontentment, you are fundamentally praying a prayer of judgment. You are telling God (and anyone else who is praying with you) that your husband does not meet your expectations, that he is not performing well enough, that he is a disappointment. Instead your prayers for your husband should be like Christ’s prayers for you – prayers of unconditional love, protection, affirmation, and support. They should be prayers directed toward what GOD is doing in his life, not where HE needs to pick up slack. If you are really struggling with a behavior or habit of his, love him enough to actually talk
to him about it. Love him enough to engage him instead of whispering behind his back—even if it’s only to God. 5) You don’t confront him when he sins… and then taking it personally when he fails.
While wives must accept that their husbands are human, they must also accept that God has providentially placed them alongside them as helpmeets in their struggles. Sometimes when a husband sins, his wife won’t approach him out of fear that doing so will somehow usurp his spiritual headship. And so instead of being the first line of defense against spiritual attack, she stands by and watches as her husband gets pummeled. Worse, she takes it personally and feels like he
is somehow failing her.
But our husbands are just as much flesh and blood as we are, and we are best their helpers when we actually…. help them. This is something of what Solomon was referring to in Ecclesiastes 4: Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up... And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him.
Ultimately, we have to remember that simply aiming to be a “good” wife will never accomplish all that God has ordained for us in marriage. It will never make us more unified, it will never make us more sanctified, it will never make us one. That road is a lot harder and there are simply no shortcuts. And it is a road we walk--one day at a time--through honest communication, unconditional love, and large doses of grace.
In our family, introverts don’t stand a chance. It’s currently three against two and given the inherent dynamics, the extroverts definitely have the upper hand. But even so, after all these years of living with me,my husband--the introvert-in-chief--seems to have learned to adapt (living proof that, while I may not be convinced of macro-evolution, survival of the fittest is certainly alive and well). And in response, I’m learning to take better care of my introverts
bit by bit.
But the one introvert I’m really concerned about is my five-year-old son. Sandwiched between an animated (loud) older sister and an expressive (loud) younger brother, he often can’t get a word in edgewise. Combine that with a slight speech impediment, and the poor thing never even had a prayer. You can see it in his eyes during the chaos of dinner time or on the ride to school in the morning—he’s got something really, really important to say, something he just HAS to get out, but there’s simply not enough air space to do it. Quickly his little face clouds with a mix of frustration, disappointment, and at times, hopelessness.
So I’m learning that as a family, we have to work really hard to make sure he’s heard. We have to clear the airwaves, turn off the music, and call for a verbal cease fire. And when we do, when we stop long enough and the noise dies down, when we really listen, he tells us the most wonderful things. He tells us about what makes him happy (The Chicago Bulls are my favorite basketball team
), what he hopes for (When I get a dog, I’m going to name him Galoshes
), and what he loves (I love you, Mommy
And it’s made me realize that communication isn’t only about talking. It's a lot about listening.
It’s also made me wonder how much of our communication with God should be exactly the same. And it’s made me curious--is it possible that God Himself might, at times, be something of an introvert?
Scripture tell us that God is the creator of all things and that we are formed in His image; so I have to believe that in some way, He is the source of our personalities too—all of them, introverts and extroverts included. To be honest though, I don’t usually think of Him this way. Probably like most people, I tend to assume that He’s like me—and so for most of my life, I’ve been imagining Him after my own personality, taking for granted that He is an extrovert like me.
And to be fair, at times, it’s clear that He is—His voice booms across the skies, thunders in the rainstorms, and shouts through the canyons. His Words echoes across the pages of Scripture and there is nothing that speaks so loudly as the person of Christ Himself. But even in this, is there another part of Him that is quiet? Is there part of Him patiently waiting for me to stop long enough to hear Him? Am I missing His still, small voice
because I'm so enamored with the earthquake and the whirlwind?
For the last several weeks, I’m been trying to commit more time to quiet space
, to being alone with Him. It’s definitely been a challenge –life doesn’t simply slow down because I’ve decided it needs to--but despite the difficulty, I’m discovering that the quiet space is a lot like taking time with my son. And in that quiet space, I’m rediscovering an aspect of God’s personality that in my self-absorption, I had forgotten. I’m rediscovering that He is intimate, personal, and sometimes, simply quiet. And He, like my son, has the most amazing things to tell me when I finally take a moment to listen.
10 years, 7 months, and 3 days of marriage, my husband and I are officially looking for our first house. That 10 years, 7 months, and 3 days has included multiple job changes, seven household moves (both interstate and international), and a variety of living situations--everything from rentals, to living in other people’s furnished homes, to a parsonage. But now, after 10 years, 7 months, and 3 days, for the first time in our married life, we are actually on the verge of settling in and putting down roots.
As you can imagine, it’s a high point for us as a family. And it comes with a great job in my husband’s field and a move to a fantastic region that really does offer “all the amenities of city life combined with the tranquility of a mountain arts community.” I’ve also had some unexpected opportunities open up for me personally, and our children are a constant source of laughter, love, and joy. Life is good.
And I’m having a hard time with it.
Something complicated happens when you go through a difficult season like we have for the last several years. In our case, it was an extended period of un- and under-employment, complicated by devastating interpersonal conflicts and private uncertainties. Things were so topsy-turvy at times that we wondered if the world would ever right itself. Thankfully it has and slowly we’re coming out of it. But even as we do, I’m realizing that regaining our bearings isn’t going to be as simple as getting the dream job and finally settling down. It can’t be, because our circumstances weren’t the only things affected in that difficult time. Our souls were too.
I think it’s simply that when you go through hard times, you become so accustomed to being strong, to protecting the ones you love, to being on guard, that it’s easy to see everything as a threat--even the blessing of God. So much so, that when the drought finally ends, when the rains finally come, your soul has become so dry and dusty that the healing water can’t penetrate. Instead, with each drop, with each shower, you find yourself asking, Can I really embrace this from Your hand? Can I really let down my guard and feel again? Can I really trust You?
And you discover that embracing the goodness of God requires as much faith as enduring the time of suffering.
You find that you must actually learn how to bless the Lord as He gives as much as when He takes away; you find that you must learn how to be content in abounding as much as in being abased. And like everything else in this crazy life, you learn that it takes faith. Faith to believe He is good so that you won’t fear His blessings, always waiting for the catch. Faith to believe He is sovereign so you won’t rely on yourself, convinced that you made the rains come. And faith to believe that He loves you, so that you won’t keep protecting yourself, always defensive and aloof.
Ultimately it is faith--that when the blessings finally come—allows you to accept them with an open hand and simply say, “Thank you for this gift! I love it.”