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Happy-clappy

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When I was a child, I sat in the front row of the church. I danced while the guitar played three-chord songs, kicking my feet in front of me, hopping from side to side, skinny arms outstretched. I learned to worship at the community centre, surrounded by misfit disciples who were on a first-name basis with resurrection. I sang the old songs about the blood of Jesus making me white as snow.

The church ladies would bring swaths of airy fabric, about two metres long apiece. I held onto one end and swung my flag. This was no banner for a war; this was a a homemade flag for a kid in a homemade church to wave. Sometimes, sure, I spun that flag around, hoping for people to notice me, to think that I was spiritual and holy, to think that I was beautiful and devoted. It was prideful at times, self-centred, but then there were those moments that broke through my own childish yearning to be noticed, to please the grown-ups, the moments when I felt the Spirit rush through my body and out through the fabric, like we were one, and I would spin like a star in the heavens, and I swear to you now that I felt the smile of God on me like wind, like water, like chains were falling off before they were even forged. I learned to pray with my body, relentless and free.

Then slowly, it seemed as if no one really danced in church anymore. Dancing with flags became something we made fun of, like duelling tambourines and long services and “falling out” in the Spirit and daring to pray for healing. We made fun of it to domesticate it, perhaps, or to heal ourselves from the abuse of it, but something in my thumbs still pricked, the Spirit isn’t afraid of being ridiculous, after all.

I wandered through other church traditions, traditional, contemporary, liturgical, meditative, mystic, seeker-sensitive, emerging, ancient-future, denominational, mega-church, old church, new church, basement church, no church for a while there: you name it, I found my way there and I found the people of God in each place, I did.

But my roots belong where I was first planted, I’ve reconciled myself to that now. I used to think I could travel far from where I began, but instead, I travelled only to find myself home again, like Richard Rohr says, as if I am only now seeing it for the first time.

We are so beautiful.

We sit in folding chairs in a school gym, one of the great cathedrals of my life. The pine benches line the walls, electrical tape holds the wires for the mics down, the stage can be broken down and set back up again every Sunday morning and Saturday night. This is my familiar place to encounter God.

On Sundays, decades later, I still stand with my hands raised up, my spine straight, my ribs wide open, letting the music run right through my veins, grounding me to the place where I am right now. I haven’t been able to dance since I was a child, not really, maybe I never will again, it doesn’t feel quite natural anymore. Instead I cry and I sing too loud and I let my hips sway. I tip my face to the ceiling because I want to be seen, I stomp my feet because I am here, and if I had a hankie, oh, I’d wave it and shout. I clap at the wrong place because I want to emphasize what I’m singing to myself: “you’ve never failed” clap clap clap “and you won’t start now” and I shout YASSSSSS! I’m that woman.

I love the sacraments, I love Scripture, and I know that my faith, my understanding of God, is cerebral and it’s strong; in my spirit and it’s awake; in my heart and it’s love, but here in my body it’s all earthy and sensual, it’s the catch in my throat when I sing the words I’ve sung a hundred times, in the creak of my knees when I hit the floor, unable to stand any longer, in the tremor of my hands when I tremble, in the strength of my voice singing out ahead of my own life. I could logic it all away, I know I could, but these moments are too much of a gift for me to look at straight on. It’s a party, it’s a dance, it’s a celebration, it’s communal, it’s holy and an undoing, and the breath of God is among us and we move as one, declaring.

I thought I grew out of the flags and the happy-clappy Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs, that I was too wise and smart for such sentimental things but in my maturity now I want to shout out hallelujah and fling myself to the ground prostrate, in gratitude for dirt and little boys, for babies and the lines around my eyes, for Johnny Cash and pine trees at dusk, for the taste of cold water and the vineyard, for the piano and the ones from among us who stand to lead us out into the day singing.

Somehow the flags have reappeared in my life along with the old songs, the same ones that I sing in the darkness over my children. A woman in our church brings flags on Sundays for the kids to use, may it be counted unto her as righteousness.

In the corner of the gym, there are a dozen little girls, a couple of boys, a couple of women, each holding a swath of fabric and they are twirling, spinning, snapping their flags in the face of fear and dignity. I belong here just as much as I belong in the north and in the west, in the place where I began and where I will end, in the books and logic, and in the tears and rejoicing.

Now I stand on Sundays and I watch my own tinies dance, twirling and swirling and singing. I don’t know how to raise them in the faith in any other way than this: God is good, God is Love, God is for you, never against you, and when you want to dance, darling, wave your flag and spin, let the wind of the Spirit move through you.

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Continue Reading · church, faith · 15

Searching for Sunday

As I’ve travelled and met so many readers over the past two years, I kept hearing one question, over and over from people in every context, every denomination, every city. Obviously, we would talk about Jesus Feminist or writing or whatever I had just finished preaching about but then after that, every time, there was one subject everyone wanted to talk about: people want to talk about how I’ve managed to hold onto my faith or what gives me hope as part of the global church. People want to talk about how my faith changed, evolved, and yet strengthened somehow.

Specifically? people have wanted to know why I still go to church.

Usually people ask with tears in their eyes or anger in their voice or a story on their lips. (And if you’ve been at any event where I’ve spoken you already know that I’m a total crier and a hugger so we end up having a big old cry and hug.)

After all, I’ve been open about my struggles and questions with church over the past ten years. I have left church over and over, only to return. I’ve been angry and hurt, I’ve felt excluded and shamed.

And yet I am committed not only to the Church globally but actually really committed to a local church body. Yep, I go to church and the more I go to church, the more I wrestle with church, well, it seems the more I become committed to these small outposts of God’s grace and mercy and kingdom-living.

My greatest wounds have come from church and so it makes holy sense that my great healing has happened there, too.

Imperfect and glorious, frustrating and transformative, I’m a local church girl and I think I always will be. And that baffles some people.

I get that.

I think that’s why I write so much about church here on the blog. I’m still wrestling, still figuring out my place, still figuring out what it means, still reclaiming my heritage while rewriting and trying to live prophetically into what God is doing now.

Like so many of us, I’m still searching for Sunday.

So today I want to tell you about a new book releasing today – Rachel Held Evans’ new book for other searchers, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.

Rachel has not only been a dear friend to me but she’s saved my faith a time or two (or eight). I believe that her influence and voice in the Church is not only needed right now but, in the future, many will celebrate and honour her as the revolutionary woman of valour she truly is. She’s one for the history books.

Three or four years ago, I happened to hear about a book called Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions.

Humph, rather weird title, I thought. I clicked over to the author’s blog. Well, hello there, Rachel Held Evans, nice to meet you.

Little did I know how that one small click would enrich my life, challenge my faith and intellect, spur my own writing career, introduce me to new thinkers and believers, and  bring the gift of a true professional-and-personal friend.

I started off as a commenter and reader, and every comment I left was some variation of “Oh, gracious, you, too? ME, TOO!” Somehow, Rachel found my little corner here on the Internet, we began to correspond, develop a relationship, and now, I consider her a friend and an ally. We often write about similar topics – womanhood or church, for instance. She even wrote the foreword to my little yellow book.

When we met in person last year in Nashville, it was like a reunion.

Yes, we re-enacted a Thelma and Louise photo in the washroom because we’re cool like that.

Rachel and Sarah

On the outside, our current daily lives and histories are very different, and yet we had a soul-connection and theological sisterhood. (And a shared snarky sense of humour. And views on marriage.)

Rachel has always genuinely cheered me on with a generous heart. Anyone who likes to harp on the intrinsic jealousy of women needs to meet my friend, Rachel. She’s unselfish and truly believes that her influence comes with responsibility; she makes room for other voices, other experiences, and celebrates freely. She makes me work harder at my craft. She believed I had a voice that was worth hearing, and then she gave me a bit of space on her platform. She makes me think. She makes me laugh. She makes me feel less alone, and less crazy. She points me to Jesus. She’s witty, wise, loyal, and fearless.

I am so blessed by her friendship – professionally and personally.

searching for sunday

And as I read her new book, I knew I was in the presence of a great teacher and thinker, contemplative and minister.

I’m not over-stating things when I tell you that this is Rachel’s best book yet—and that’s saying something.

In this beautifully honest, hopeful and wry book, Rachel speaks for so many of us. I believe that her hard-fought words will heal many wounds.

It is a must-read for all who love Jesus but struggle with loving or understanding or finding their place in the Church.

And today is the day Searching for Sunday releases to the world!

I can’t recommend it highly enough and so I’ve decided to give away three copies here.

To enter to win one of three copies of Searching for Sunday:

1. Leave a comment on this post about how you’re searching for Sunday yourself. It can be as long or short as you like, just share a way that you’re finding “church” as you understand it these days.

2. Make sure you leave an email or a way to contact you if you win!

This weekend, I’ll choose three random winners and send you a copy of Rachel’s new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.

Eshet chayil, Rachel! Woman of valour!

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Continue Reading · book review, books, church · 185

Palms

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It’s Palm Sunday, I remembered only this morning. This season of Lent has passed me by, seasons do that sometimes. My baby girl is three weeks old today and so we did what we do, we took her to church.

By the time we dashed into the school gym through the pouring rain, everyone dressed with their teeth brushed, I was fully expecting someone to meet us at the door with a medal. “Here! You made it! Congratulations!” So I became ridiculous and greeted every other mother with a babe in arms with dead-serious props: “You made it, good for you! Good for us! Look at us, we’re doing it!”

I never really want to go to church. I just don’t. I’d rather stay home in my jammies and have a lazy Sunday. I like podcasts and books. I have a lot of weirdness about the Church as a whole, too: questions and accusations or frustrations, perhaps. I’m just built that way, some of us are. And I will choose quiet over crowds any day. But every Sunday that I push through that, I never regret it, I’m always to glad I actually got ready and put my children in the car and we went to church to remember that we are the church. I am always so thankful that I went – so thankful for the chance to pray for a friend and for familiar faces, for singing and teenagers in buffalo check shirts, for Sunday school and loud kids, for the way we stand to read the Scriptures in declaration over each other.

I think someday when I am old, I will conjure up the sight of us in the fourth or fifth row on the right hand side just to see us on these imperfect Sundays. I’ll see my gigantic husband delicately twirling our three-year-old in the aisle as she dances to the hymns and the anthems alike. I’ll see him lifting her easily up into his arms, how her flowered dress hung over his plaid-shirted arm and she stuck her chubby arms up in the sky like all the grown-ups around her, singing “hall-le-lu-yay!” and how she leaned out of his arms three times to kiss me SMACK right on the lips and then grin. I’ll see myself swaying with a sleeping baby at my breast, rhythmically patting her bum with my left hand, my right holding the hand of a tall and sensitive six-year-old boy who sings along to the songs. I’ll see my eldest daughter with her BFF colouring at our feet, turning the provided picture of a leper rejoicing into a couple of chicks with carefully designed clothes on and black crayon eyelashes, praising God. I’ll see how we were back and forth up the aisles at least three times with someone who needs to pee or nurse. I’ll see our friends and the folding chairs, all familiar, how I sang out over my life with my palms wide open.

And I’ll fall in love with my life from that distance, over and over, because I will love the sight of us, distracting and distracted and yet somehow doing it, the thick of our life together. I will see myself singing the words of the Psalms into my babies’ hair, I’ll see how we touched each of them, rubbing their backs, brushing their hair off their foreheads, holding their hands, loving them is just as much a part of our worship as anything else.

Hosanna in the highest. We’re not a liturgical church but I’m a liturgical woman. I always long for liturgy on the big days like this, I want the big church-y words and communion and prayers, the same every year. But my people are the school-gym dwellers, the flag-wavers, the “God has a word for you” ones and so I stay, I’ll always stay.

I spent much of the sermon in the mothers’ nursing room. I used to wonder why I bothered going to church when so much of my time was spent in the hallways with a fussy baby or toddler. But then I realised that this is part of church, too, the way that we talk in the halls, the way we sit on scratchy old couches in the staff room of the elementary school nursing without covers on, the way we sway while we talk. If I came to church just for the sermons, I would have left long ago.

But I admit that sometimes I go to church just to sing. I love to sing. I’m not a snob either. I have friends who poo-poo anything that’s not a deeply and rightly theological hymn, not me. I love the hymns and I love the big hairy worship anthems, I love singing Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs and Scripture songs, I love simplistic choruses and I love when they play the piano and tell us to just pray to ourselves and the way that the melodies of our own mouths rise up, I’ll sing in the tongues I received as an eight-year-old.

Great is thy faithfulness, our Father and our friend.

It was a wonderful sermon this morning. Brian heard the whole thing, lucky duck, and he said that sermons like that remind him why he’s given his life to this, why we believe, why it matters. Maybe that’s what good teaching does, it gives us language for our minds for what our hearts already know or suspect.

This is what we heard: There is nothing against us or in us that can stop us from clinging to Jesus, from turning to redemption, over and over, turning again and again. And whatever happened on the cross, however we impose meaning and narrative and metaphors onto it, however we try to explain or understand it, this is the truest truth of it all: it was enough. The cross was enough and is enough, we are only responding to the abundance of redemption.

Hand me a palm branch, the King is coming.

 

photo via lightstock. used with permission.

Continue Reading · church, community, faith, family · 33

Confessions

Pride is a tricky thing, it makes liars out of us. If we don’t ever admit to our stumbles or our failings, our weaknesses and struggles, then how will we know when we’ve found our people?

I limped back to my community this week. It’s been a long year filled with work and travel, unblogged challenges and changes. In the push to finish this book before the baby arrived and roughly seventeen other complications over the past year for us, we haven’t been as present or involved at our church as usual, particularly over the past couple of months.

I’ve been ashamed of this, feeling as if I’ve sacrificed my local life to just keep swimming. What use is all this thinking about church and community (or for that matter, any of it – justice, beauty, mercy, grace) if we’re not actively involved in living it out in our real lives?

I needed to sing out ahead of my exhaustion so I did. I’m interrupted a million times in church – three tinies will do that to a woman – but I keep circling back, keep jumping back into worship, refocusing again and again and again. I need to hear my own voice singing promises. And I need to be with the ones I’ve chosen as my people.

We hadn’t been at church since before Christmas. My friends met me with hugs and, of course, they asked, How are you doing?

And my pride wanted to say that I was fine! great! never better! living the dream! blessed and highly favoured! (<—old school Pentecostal)

Instead, it was the craziest thing. I cried every time they innocently asked how I was doing. And I made myself say it, out loud: I’m not fine. I’m not okay. Yes, you’re right, I’m exhausted. I’m just so so so tired. I miss my life sometimes. I could use your prayers.

Forget dignity, I need restoration.

Forget pride, I need the prayers of the people who like us.

Forget anonymity, I need to be known even in these moments of emptiness and need.

Church is one of my safe places now. I never would have imagined saying that a few years ago but it’s true. It’s the place I can go when I am the reluctantly needy one. My friends promised prayers, a few even checked on me during the week here and there. I was met with hugs and tenderness, with kindness. It wasn’t much really. Maybe my friends would say it wasn’t a big deal at all, but it was enough for me. I felt seen, I felt like someone who knows me actually cared, I felt their compassion. This is more than enough.

One friend talked to me about arranging for a few meals to brought to us after the baby is born. I wanted to say, No, no, we’re fine, we don’t need anything. I think she saw right through my need to be independent, and she looked me dead in the eye: Sarah, you need to do this. You need to let people bless you. So I said yes, that would be wonderful. Please put me down on the list, yes, bring me food when I have a baby. Why is it so hard to accept help?

And I felt the difference this week, the heaviness hanging over me began to break up above my head, my energy has been slowly returning.

I continue to lean on my community, on the Spirit, and on Scripture. It seems easier to walk away from community for me, easier to be autonomous and anonymous but I find I need the strong three-strand cord more and more.

I longed for this for many years. And yes, our church isn’t perfect and, in fact, it makes me a bit crazy sometimes just like all churches do for all people who show up and put their hearts on the line.

But now, to me, church should be the people I turn to when I am tired, too. My one word for 2015 is Hold Fast, based on Hebrews 10:23, but just a few lines down from my pet focus right now are these words: “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on…”

I don’t think we need a four-walls-and-a-non-profit-status to qualify as church but these people are mine and I am still learning to admit when I need something from them, too. I know Scripture commands us to confess our sins to one another, in order to be healed, but I am also learning to confess my needs, my struggles, even my true state of being. And restoration waits there, too.

So come all you who are weary and exhausted, all you who have poured out of your depths to fill another: be filled, be restored, receive for once. Wherever you find your church, let them be the ones you turn to when you are tired. Let us pray for one another, let us hold fast, let us confess.

 

Continue Reading · church, community, faith, Hold Fast, journey · 24

May God bless you with anger

Last weekend, I was in Winnipeg’s historic west end with the YWAM Urban Ministries and the Little Flowers community. It was a very dear time for me in many personal ways, absolutely, because I’ve been writing alongside of Jamie Arpin-Ricci as a Canadian theological blogger since the dark ages – back in the day when there were only about five of us writing about that stuff online and we were all so a-flutter over the emerging church, bless it – and he’s been very influential in my own life from afar over the years. He’s a bit of a misfit – a YWAMer who is a Franciscan priest in the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition. Go figure, eh? But it works. In fact, the longer and better I know him and his work, the more respect I have – not too many folks you can say that about, I know. So having a chance to spend time with him and his wife, Kim, their son and their community was very life-giving.

But the weekend was more than just my own time sharing about Jesus Feminist and even more than our personal connection and conversations – it was also about justice and community, church and calling, all things that we talk about a lot here in this space, particularly on the grass roots level.

So I’m going to be writing through a few aspects of my time with these folks over the next weeks as their work and posture impacted me deeply – and I want you to know them.  I don’t have a big agenda or timeline though, I’ll just write as I can and look forward to the conversation that may unfold.

***

As you might have guessed from their church name, Little Flowers has been deeply influenced by Saint Francis of Assisi. This past Saturday was the Feast of Saint Francis so we had a conversation about the life of Saint Francis and if, like me, your knowledge of saints is pretty rudimentary at best, I’ll just say that he is way more than the guy on the bird baths and the pet blessings. We’ve domesticated our saints, perhaps, in order to make them fit on our pedestals. A good hint of the kind of man he was – and the order he founded of Franciscans – is to look at the new Pope Francis who took his official papal name from this saint with very clear purpose and inspiration.

Anyway, as a bridge into writing about the ideas that my weekend woke up in me, I wanted to share with you a Franciscan blessing that we prayed together as part of our small Sunday gathering.

And then I dare you to pray it.

franciscan blessing

Continue Reading · church, church planting, community, journey, missional, prayer · 14