Why I go to church

I grew up going to church at least three times a week. Sunday morning. Sunday evening. Wednesday night. In between those expected church times there was Good News Club, or rehearsals for the girls singing group I was in, or Christmas program practice, church work days, Vacation Bible School…you name it, I was there.

And I was okay with that.

I knew the building inside and out. I knew where the janitor kept the garbage bags, knew where the extra visitor cards were stored, knew how many choir robes there were hanging in the downstairs storage closet. I even spent happy hours up in the steeple (a fully sanctioned visit) vacuuming up dead flies.

I must admit that I even knew the exact length of time it took for a six year old to wiggle on her tummy beneath the pews down the length of the sanctuary – long enough for Daddy to be able to come down from the choir loft during practice and haul that six year old off the floor and plunk her down on the front pew with dire warnings not to budge until choir practice was finished.

I didn’t mind going to church because it was a place of safety. Of acceptance. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. They encouraged, acknowledged, and probably even reprimanded me. I felt secure there. Loved.

And yes, the stuff about God was fine, too. It was all part and parcel of the warm atmosphere of the building and the people.

I suppose that’s why it was such a shock to me when a friend asked me one day as we were playing if I intended to go to church when I grew up. I was probably about ten years old.

“What?” I asked, puzzled by her inquiry.

“Will you still go to church when you grow up and aren’t forced to go there by your parents?” she repeated, looking down at me through the rail of the loft in my bedroom where we were playing.

I looked up at her, uncomfortable with her question yet old enough to understand that she did not understand why it was that I went to church, why it was that my parents “forced” me to go with them.

I didn’t answer her question right away. I remember pausing to consider my words, thinking even as I did so that this was a great opportunity to explain to my friend why church was more than a building, why God was more than a concept, a cosmic being out there keeping His thumb on the world.

But I wasn’t very old, and I didn’t have the words.

I simply said, “Yeah. I’ll still go to church.”

“Why?” she asked from the loft, looking down on me in more than one way.

“Because of Jesus and stuff,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders.

“Huh,” she said. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

I remember that moment with mixed emotions. I felt like I’d failed God in some huge way, missing out on an opportunity to “witness”, whatever exactly that was. But I also recall feeling sad for my friend. Sad that she didn’t understand the good stuff about church, the nice people, and the truth of Jesus’ love.

I do go to church now that I’ve grown up. I’m not there every time the doors are open – and I sometimes skip meetings that I ought to attend – but I go because I still really like the people I find there. That and I still I love Jesus.

Some people say that religion is a crutch. I prefer to think of it as a hand to hold through the mountains and valleys of life. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. But it doesn’t matter. I go to church not because it’s a habit or anyone is forcing me or I’m trying to make someone happy or it’s the social thing to do.

I go because I believe.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9, NIV.

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Hands

Not too long ago it was my turn to help serve communion at my church. This always makes me nervous. I worry that my hands will shake and I’ll drop the plate. I worry that I’ll somehow be a distraction. I worry that I’m not worthy. Which of course I’m not but Jesus loves me anyway.

Usually we pass the plate from row to row, the servers facilitating the process as we progress up the aisles. But on this particular week our pastor shook things up a little and had the congregation come forward to receive the elements.

I stood, along with three others, at the front of the sanctuary, holding a shiny tray filled with tiny communion cups. I kept my eyes focused on the tray, silently watching as each person’s hands moved toward their chosen cup, seeing their fingers rise above my focus then move past me to the bread.

Seeing the variety of God’s people in their hands.

There were small hands, unlined, unsure, untaught. The owners of these hands hesitated before choosing their cup. Perhaps this one is better? These were hands that wear Band-Aids like badges of honor. That boast ink stains that don’t easily wash off because they used indelible ink even though Mom told them not to.

Where will those hands go, over time? How will they find ways to serve the Lord? Will they always make the right choice? So many possibilities.

There were middle-aged hands, more worn and rough than the previous ones, which reached confidently for their cups before moving on. They had found their place in the world. Found ways to prove their worth through the years, serving God, serving their families, serving communion themselves, in their turn. Sure, they have made wrong choices, but yet here they are, taking communion amongst their peers, knowing that God’s grace covers over a multitude of sins.

There were old hands. Thin of finger and skin, lined and freckled with age. These were knowledgeable hands, slowed by the wisdom that sudden decisions can lead to regrets. They were strong hands, once. Skilled hands. Hands that have seen their skills betray them through tremors and frailty and age. Cool, dry, hands that take yours in greeting each week and give you confidence to carry on.

And there were farmer’s hands. Calloused, they were, and bent. Marked by deep lines and sun. Gnarled. Thick. Strong enough to endure the rigors of life. Scarred and marred by the hazards of their trade.
Not unlike Jesus’ hands, I’d imagine. Scarred. Marked by his trade as a carpenter. Marked by Roman brutality. Yet gentled by the grace of His father.

I wonder, if I held the communion tray and His hands reached for the cup, would I recognize His scars? Would my heart leap as His hands came into view? Would I know, without looking up, who it was that stood before me?

Or would I watch His hands pass by as the others did? Just one more hand in the line. One more face in the crowd. Not drawing attention to Himself. Not wanting to distract. Only wanting to serve.

Yeah, this church thing…it works for me. No, we’re not perfect. Yes, we have quirks and do weird things. Sure, there are Sunday mornings when I’d rather stay in bed, have brunch, drink my coffee out on the deck to the sound of birds chirping and my neighbor mowing his lawn.

But when it all comes down to it, all that weirdness is done for Jesus. All those raised arms and ageless hymns and tiny plastic communion cups. For Jesus. All the committee meetings and baby dedications and Vacation Bible Schools. For Jesus. All the rote recitations and misunderstood motivations. Jesus. He’s why I do what I do.

This is where my story is leading me.

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28

Who is the Disheveled Theologian?

I like the word “disheveled”. It makes me think of people who aren’t perfect. People who don’t take themselves too seriously. People who accept this about themselves and are the better for it.

I also like theology, though not in a capital T kind of way, a “Let’s have deep conversations about eschatology while we drink black coffee” kind of way. I’m more of a “What have your kids taught you about God recently?” kind of theologian.

That’s because I like stories.

Here’s my story:

I live across the street from Iowa, in the middle of cornfields, and soybeans, where ‘possums slink along the edge of the house, questing for supper, and everybody eats lutefisk at Christmas, or at least they pretend to.

I live with my husband, an engineer, whom I married because I didn’t want to be a starving writer living in a garret, subsiding on nothing but oatmeal and shivering through the Minnesota winters as starving artists are wont to do.

That and I loved him. Love still. Present tense.

We live on a gravel road which sometimes gets plowed in the winter and sometimes does not, meaning that it was a good thing that our youngest child was born two weeks early because otherwise she’d have been born at home in the middle of a snow storm in which neither Iowa nor Minnesota were able to get to our road until three days after the storm hit, meaning that all the Y2K dried milk I had stored up came in very handy.

Just kidding. But we did contemplate using my grandparents’ freeze dried strawberries which they’d bought masses of in the 1950’s to line the walls of their bomb shelter and which we found, decades later, perfectly preserved and ready to fight the Red Menace.

True story.

Like I said, I like stories. The kinds I like best are the kinds where the stories lead to God, and not to me.

Where do your stories lead you?

That’s a question I embrace whenever I sit down to write my newspaper column, The Disheveled Theologian, and it’s a question I have addressed repeatedly as I’ve worked on turning my columns into a book, Parables of A Disheveled Theologian.

A parable is a story with a purpose. My purpose is to show people that God isn’t as far away as maybe they thought he was. I don’t mean that he’s lurking around every corner ready to pounce, but rather that we can be aware of his presence through things as ordinary as rays of light breaking through the clouds or a family of geese strolling along a busy road.

It’s about applying Bible verses to ordinary experiences. About finding Biblical truth in any story we tell.

I have had the privilege of writing The Disheveled Theologian column for two years now and it’s nothing short of a joy whenever people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoy reading it.

Our three children think it’s awkward but cool when complete strangers come up to me and tell me they liked my column or when the lunch lady, in the middle of plopping a big helping of Michele Obama-approved mashed potatoes onto their lunch tray, says, “Tell your mom that I agree with her about the geese,” and they just nod their heads and say, “Ok,” and then they come home and tell me, “You know that lunch lady with the red hair? She likes your stuff.” And I’m left wondering if there’s a secret society of lunch ladies who read the newspaper during their breaks and what would happen if I were to write about how much my children dislike the Obama-approved menu and how I could possibly fit that in with God, maybe, somehow, perhaps.

Because I’m always thinking of good stories to tell from my life and figuring out how I can apply a Bible verse to it. I look at it a little bit like canning. Only instead of preserving fruits and vegetables I’m preserving words.

It is my prayer that those words will always lead to finding God in the ordinary moments of life. Moments like when I accidentally forgot about the sliced almonds I was toasting in the toaster oven and they caught fire and then in my panic I opened the toaster door, thereby making the fire exponentially larger, thereby needing to quickly unplug it and throw it into the (mercifully empty) sink and then, ultimately, into the garbage.

Moments like that. When I can tell the story and then thank God for sparing our entire house from burning down and I can find a verse that applies and give thanks to God for saving us because how would I ever replace my egg cup collection if our house had burned down?

I think that Proverbs 3:25-26 would apply nicely in this scenario. “Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be at your side and will keep your foot from being snared.”

He’ll keep our feet from being snared and he kept my home from being burned by toasted almonds and for that I am extremely thankful.

(And yes, I really do have an egg cup collection.)

My egg cups and I have lived in Minnesota for more than 20 years now, but prior to that I moved around like a crazy person for a few years and before that I lived for 15 years on an island in Washington State.

When I was 8 months old my dad was layed off from his job as a pilot with Pan American World Airways and my parents packed up and moved diagonally across the nation as far as you could possibly go from Miami, to Orcas Island, in the northern end of Puget Sound.

That’s right: We went from one kind of paradise to a very different one. One where hippies reigned. But my parents weren’t hippies. They were regular, church-going folk, fond of gardening and classical music. And they raised my two sisters and me to love God and play the piano because those two things seem to go hand in hand.

We lived at the top of a 90 foot cliff overlooking the ocean, where orca whales roamed past our deck, bald eagles roosted in our trees, and Mt. Baker, on our horizon, steamed from it’s volcanic depths to remind us that we were just little people, after all, in God’s wide plan.

And that’s how I came to understand that God shows up in little ways, all the time. He was with me when we moved off the island to Oregon for 11 months, he was with me when Dad was then recalled to Pan Am, 14 years after being layed off, and we moved to West Berlin, West Germany. He was with me when I went off to the University of Oregon for college, when I moved to the Mid West a few years later, when I went to work at a Bible camp one summer in northern Minnesota, met my future husband, went to Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, got married, moved to Southwest Minnesota, and had our three children.

In the midst of all that regular, everyday stuff, God never stopped showing up. And now, living on the edge of the prairie where whales and mountains are far, far away, I still see God show up in the craziness of everyday life. In the little things my kids do and the little things I forget to do. In the surrounding fields of corn and the 10,000 frozen Minnesota lakes.

And it is good.

And I am thankful beyond words that I’m here getting ready to share my parables with the world.

Thanks for tuning in.