Sunday Schooled

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Contemplating how much I still have to learn…

This past Sunday I went to a weekly church service for the first time in a long time. Several years ago I left a church in which I had been very active – board chair, elder, various other roles – for years. My departure was painful for me. There’s no need to rehash my reasons for leaving. When people ask me about why I don’t attend any more, I simply tell them it is no longer a good fit for me. My ego is not so big that I need my personal grievances to become theirs. Just because it’s not my community doesn’t mean I need to run it down to people who may need it to be theirs.

STAGE 5: ACCEPTANCE

It was a tumultuous time for the congregation, and several other congregants also left during roughly the same period. For a few years afterward, I led a house church composed of other people who’d left, a few people who’d stayed, and some people who’d never been there. We interacted with other churches in the denomination and community, including the church most of us had left. Eventually the time for the house church ran its course, and it wound down and we dissolved it amicably. For me and others who attended, it was a time of grieving and healing – which, I believe, go hand in hand when we grieve well.

A friend who had attended both my former congregation and the house church invited me a few times to a church she had found. It was only a few years old. She liked the theology and the music. I checked out their web-site, and my first impression is that they are also involved in spreading the Gospel through service. That last bit is important to me; were I ever to consider “joining” a congregation again (I still think of myself as joined to the larger church as part of the Body of Christ), Gospel-centered service is in my top criteria.

I’ll check out a few more Sundays and other events to get a feel for the possible “fit” of this congregation. There’s another one that’s been piquing my interest lately, and I’ll want to visit it for a while also.  I’m in no hurry to make a decision, but a decision is inevitable.

The same friend has on numerous occasions reminded me of something I once said in a board meeting lo those many years ago: “I don’t know how to be a Christian without a community.”

LOST IN THE CROWD

Leadership positions are rewarding, but they can also be exhausting. This Sunday’s visit was the first time in almost ten years I had been in a worship service (this particular community called it a “gathering” in the apostolic tradition) where I wasn’t leading, facilitating in some way, or otherwise known to the congregation. Nobody was interrupting my worship experience by blurring the boundaries between “time to let you worship” and “time to complain about where Mrs. Smith set up the bake sale table.”

Except for my friend, I was completely anonymous. And I’m not sure how I felt about it.

I expected to feel relieved to experience the service in peace, but I also felt more than a little … let’s call it humbled, though it wasn’t quite so benign. These people were able to more than competently pull off an entire Sunday without needing anything from me. That was exactly what I thought I wanted to experience, but I was conflicted. What was going on?

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME

Despite fantastic music and a terrific message, attending the Sunday gathering left me feeling … unsettled. All afternoon I reflected on why this might be so.

I’m not sure I figured it out, but a lot of old thoughts and emotions about my last church resurfaced. Whatever feelings of unease I brought into this new setting were undoubtedly related to my past experiences, but my problems with the old place couldn’t fairly be projected onto this new one.

So what to do? I needed to squarely face my own contributions to the prior experience, so as not to repeat them anywhere new.

Now I hadn’t acted with malice or carelessness. I really believe there’s nothing I need or needed to “confess” about my failings, yet there were some failings. And I think they’re pinned to leadership. More specifically, my suitability for the type of leadership I accepted.

I say “accepted” because it wasn’t anything I sought. In a small enough congregation, being reliable and competent and experiencing a few small successes is all that’s needed to get nominated to any number of positions.  And it’s flattering when people ask you to lead. If they ask enough times, you may even start to think you’re qualified.

But “accepted” is not passive. My initial hesitations were well-grounded, so I should have known enough to decline. Leadership comes in many flavors. Strategic leadership is not the same as project leadership. And if I’m honest with myself, I have some strong project leadership skills, but strategic leadership is not where I shine. There’s plenty of blame to go around when a congregation fractures, and I believe that’s the piece I need to own, the humble pie I need to swallow.

For a while I told myself I wouldn’t be sucked into leadership in any congregation I joined; that doing so was a sure road to dissatisfaction and stress.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now that maybe no one would ask. If that bruises my ego, Jesus and I need to walk it off.

LITTLE JESUS FISH IN A BIG POND

Turns out experiencing a whole Sunday service that didn’t need me was humbling in a good way. It’s not necessarily comfortable, but it’s not the chafe of the ill-fitting strategic suit I’d mistakenly tried on.

Maybe, wherever I end up, they won’t need – or even ask! – me to lead anything. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of opportunities to serve. There will be times I’ll feel called to step up. And I’ll try to live out one of the best lessons I’ve picked up from mission trips: need is about the served, not the servant.

Ego is a tricky thing – especially when it disguises itself as service. The next leg of my faith journey seems to be a detour down Humble Highway.

Think I’ll take my time.

Peace!

Found Wanting or Wanting to be Found?

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Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt, 1637

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Daniel 5:13-30, 1 John 5:13-20 (21), Luke 5:1-11


Jesus knows you are flawed, and loves you anyway. God knows you are flawed, and loves you anyway. People know you are flawed, and some of them will love you and some of them won’t, but none of them are God so in the long run it doesn’t matter. That leaves you. You know you are flawed; how will you deal with it?

King Belshazzar was deeply flawed, and he seemed to revel in it. When he desecrated the temple vessels of the captured Jews, a mysterious hand wrote strange words on the palace wall. Terrified, he brought in the captive prophet Daniel to interpret them for him. Because Belshazaar praised false idols but ignored the “God in whose power [was his] very breath,” Daniel interpreted the words as follows:

 mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; upharsin, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians

Belshazzar was killed that same night.

Peter was also flawed. When he first realized Christ’s nature, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” Jesus replied, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Peter would remain highly flawed throughout his career as apostle and founder of the church, but his attitude of faith and repentance kept him close to God.

Some of us think our flaws put distance between us and God. With this mindset, we worry we aren’t as “good” as other Christians (who are doing their own worrying). When things get tough we don’t want to burden others with our struggles (though they would happily lend an ear, a hand, or a buck). With this mindset, our flawed ego tells us we couldn’t possibly be forgiven.

Not so.

Do not be afraid. Belshazzar teaches us to be aware of our flaws. Peter teaches us not to be so aware of them that we despair. God loves us too much to leave us where we are.

Comfort: God loves you as you are.

Challenge: Love and trust God enough to make you even better.

Prayer: Thank you, Holy God, for the forgiveness and love you offer even though I can never earn it. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like your flaws put distance between you and God?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group  or visit comfortandchallenge.tumblr.com. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Pharisee Territory

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Malachi 3:13-4:6, James 5:13-20, Luke 18:9-14


A Pharisee and a tax collector were praying in the temple. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like immoral people such as the tax collector. He even boasted to God about his tithing and fasting. The tax collector prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus told to this parable to some who were patting themselves on the back for their righteousness while condemning others, and he advised them, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

We all like to think we are like the tax collector, but it’s tough. We can’t just not be the Pharisee. The tax collector – who would have been judged by his fellow Jews for working for the Roman empire – never compared himself to anyone. He simply admitted his sins before God and asked for mercy. True humility goes beyond not bragging, to embracing the idea that we could be completely wrong but still trusting in God’s mercy to forgive us and possibly set us right.

When we differ with people on matters of religion, politics, or anything else, it’s natural and easy to talk about why they are wrong. Mostly we talk about it with like-minded people who reinforce our opinions, but sometimes we gird ourselves for philosophical battle. If that happens, are we more concerned with convincing others we are right (which by definition insists they are wrong), or in finding common ground for mutual benefit? It feels good to puncture the balloons of the self-righteous, but when it is designed to shame or demonize rather than serve and love, we aren’t doing the work of the kingdom, because we’ve wandered into Pharisee territory.

Loving our enemies isn’t going to feel satisfying. At times it will feel downright humiliating. Yet that is what Christ calls us to do. If we are to be peacemakers, we need to let go of ego, and then to let go of the certainty that we’ve let go of ego. We are not justified by triumph in this world, but by faith in the realm of God.

Comfort: God doesn’t love you for being right, but for being faithful.

Challenge: In discussions or arguments about sensitive topics, try to understand the opposing point of view (rather than your preconceptions about it) before asserting your own.

Prayer: O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. Amen.

Discussion: Are there topics you can’t discuss without insisting on your way?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Everybody Talks

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Hosea 8:1-14, Acts 23:23-35, Luke 7:18-35


Right now, somebody somewhere has something bad to say about you. Don’t sweat it: you’re in good company. When John the Baptist abstained from bread and wine, people said he was possessed by a demon. When Jesus ate and drank freely with everyone including tax collectors, people called him a glutton and a drunkard. Neither was true, but that didn’t stop people from talking. One way or another, the same thing happens to all of us.

Wise people realize praise and blame are all the same. Whether someone compliments or criticizes us, we should try to hear it with the same dispassionate ear. Other people’s words should neither inflate nor crush our sense of self. We don’t outright ignore what others have to say, because they may have a point – but they may also have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

While it’s hard not to take such things personally, let’s remember that whatever we do, whether we do it well or poorly, God loves us through it. God’s love for us does not depend on our failure or success, and does not fluctuate with public opinion. Of course we try to live as we believe God wants us to, but when we fall short – and we will fall short – God does not punish us by withholding love. To the contrary, God continues to pour love on us so we can begin anew. Conversely, because God always loves us completely, doing well does not “earn” us more love.

Many Christians can talk about loving others, but find it immodest or vain to talk about loving themselves. If God loves us, who are we not to? Feeling loved by God is how we learn to most fully love others. It’s human nature to criticize other people for the things we don’t like about ourselves, but the more kindly we learn to see ourselves, the more charitably we see others. When we recognize and embrace the divine spark of love in ourselves, we can more easily see it in others, and love them because God loved us first.

Comfort: God loves you. Always.

Challenge: At the beginning and end of every day for the rest of the month, remind yourself out loud that God loves you.

Prayer: God, thank you for loving me, and creating me to love. Amen.

Discussion: Which of your own flaws irritate you most in other people?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!