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In which the Spirit inhabits the praises of the people

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I stand in the front row of the church – a few dozen of us in a community centre – clapping along to the repetitive and simple praise choruses about the exodus of Israel or the blood of Jesus or repeated proclamation of hosanna. The horse and the rider is thrown into the sea! Three tambourines in a small room make quite a racket. The ladies wave banners, the children dance. (Praise songs are fast, you see, and worship songs are slow, that’s why this part of a Sunday service is called Praise AND Worship.)  I’m overly earnest even for a seven-year-old so I dance when everyone else dances, I know all the words. I throw my skinny child arms into the sky and sing loudly: as the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after you. 

***

I’m sitting on the warm dirt in front of a campfire in Kananaskis Country, I’m surrounded by my friends. I’m leaning back against a boy’s legs, his hand is tracing circles on the back of my neck. We’re all tanned and we smell like sunshine. We are staring into the fire or up into the night sky. One guy is strumming a guitar quietly, without words. My breath is slow, I feel held by the stars and by the Spirit.

***

I’m standing in a gigantic stadium, thousands of people surrounding me. The music is loud, deafening. It’s dazzling – all of this incredible music, all of the noise, all of the anthems. We sing songs of the victorious, the conquering, we are being rallied to a cause greater than ourselves. I am singing along. I feel like crying, feel like jumping, feel like running. I feel alive, every cell thrumming with passion. Look at us, so young and beautiful and blind, testifying to love in three part harmony.

***

The liturgy of the charismatic evangelicals is empty to me now. Dead religion perhaps. Every prayer begins with Father, we just….

Father, I just can’t hear you here anymore. Maybe I never did.

***

I’m laying flat on my back beside a stream, holding hands with the boy I think I’m going to marry. We aren’t talking anymore. My mouth is still filled with his kisses, but my body feels like prayer.

***

I’m standing in my side-yard in Texas, smoking a cigarette and praying in tongues. I’m married to a pastor and every Sunday I want to skip church. I’ll listen to k.d. lang and long for home, I don’t know what to call this season of my life but someday I will know that I was grieving, I was growing, I was evolving. I was worshipping, I was abiding, I was a mess but I was honest at last.

***

I’m heavily pregnant and kneeling at the altar rail in the cathedral. When I couldn’t find my way back to Jesus through the clutter of praise and worship, I found him in the silence.

I light a candle and bow my head. The only sound is the faint noise of traffic from the urban rush and go just outside the narthex. I’m alone here. No one comes here.

I’m alone and I find myself humming, as the deer panteth for the water so my soul longeth after thee. And I raise my hands up in the air and the baby kicks and I cry and cry and cry with relief and longing.

Oh, here you are. I thought I’d lost you. I thought I’d never feel this again.

***

I’m working in an office just down the hall from the multi-purpose room filled with the bravest women I know in my real life. I listen to these beautiful women sing about being redeemed, I know their stories, there is a long road ahead still, and I lay my head down on the cool white Ikea desk and breathe in their faith.

***

I’m standing in church with a toddler on my hip, more children at my feet. I’m distracted, always distracted, during the singing because my life is full of the needs of everyone else. I pass the baby to my husband, hoist a too-big boy up into my arms and sing the songs into his hair. My hands aren’t in the air, my hands are filled with meeting a need. We are the happy-clappy ones singing the Vineyard songs, and I’m so happy I might cry.

***

I’m standing under a canvas roof in the tent city of Port au Prince after the earthquake. Then sings my soul, we cry out, my Saviour God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art. There is a little girl in a blue gingham dress trimmed in printed strawberries and she is singing. She was sweeping a dirt floor just a few moments ago. I’m out of place but my hands are open.

***

I’m holding a sleepy child, my great ministry. We rock slowly in the midnight hours. We are silent together, a small head pressed up against my breast, listening to my heart beat. I’ve wrapped us in a quilt, the rocker creaks, and a small hoarse voice says, “Mumma, will you sing the song?” I begin to whisper-sing into the darkness: as the deer panteth for the water so my soul longeth after thee. You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship thee.

I think, Other children hear songs about mockingbirds, I really need to learn those songs one of these days. The old praise-and-worship songs are the cradle songs of the tinies. When he finally sleeps, I lay him in his bed and stand alone again. I light a candle in the darkness, for the silence, for the other mothers still awake. I stand for a moment. Then I blow it out and go to bed.

***

I catch sight of a woman sitting in the front row of church. She’s old, very old, and she sits in her Sunday clothes and her small hands are raised up in the air, barely. An old Keith Green song. No one behind her would know her hands were up, but I can see her singing quietly with her fists unclenched.

 

Continue Reading · church, community, faith, journey · 32

In which I think community is worth intention :: or, why I still “go to” church

Why do I still go to church?

Because we drive by the farms on the edge of town and the tinies watch for sheep.  Because I almost always consider pulling over on the side of the road just to take photos of our Sunday drive: the crisp blue sky and the sharp green rolling hills, the turning-red blueberry bushes squatted across the fields, the rise of the mountains in the haze of morning, but how can you Instagram the rush of cold air in your lungs and how it makes you feel so beautifully, so fully, alive?

Because we walk in and Pat will hug me while she hands Joe the bulletin. Because after a week of Facebook and school pick-ups and drop-off lines, a week of writing and laundry, a week of working and to-do lists, I hear my name called out in the lobby and, maybe for just a moment, someone sees me.  Because we laugh with one friend, ask how another one’s health is doing, figure out who needs a meal this week. We exchange quick hugs as placeholders for the conversation that might unfold this week or next, maybe next month. We engage in all the small talk that precedes the heart-talks. I hear about a dear young couple whose baby might be coming home soon and now I’ve got a little tunic to knit for a beloved and longed-for baby to cast on later this afternoon.  Because someone is always glad to see my tinies. Because these are their friends. Because my tinies head for the kid table of colouring pages and crayons just to offer up a high five to their children’s pastor, they are home.  Because we sit in folding chairs in a rather drafty school gym and our tinies sprawl on the floor at our feet or perch on our hips or stand beside us and watch it all, all, all, taking it in.  This is what we do on Sundays, we tell them, we live it with them, we gather.

Because my friend Tracy leads worship, she wears biker boots and sometimes her hair is pink. Because when she begins to stomp those boots on that wooden stage and when she stretches her arms out wide, tips her head back and cries out to God like she believes it, it makes me want to sit down and cry. Because the guy who play the piano sings old Keith Green songs, the same ones I used to sing to my babies in the sleepless nights. Because my son wants to sit in the front row. Because my toddler raises her hands up and warbles and hollers a song, she thinks she’s singing along, and no one gives her a dirty look. Because my eldest is twirling in the back with her best friends, eager for the worship dance class starting in November.

Because that couple over there just got married and that other one has been married for forty years. Because that dad has his arm around his teenage son and that lady took my exhausted friend’s little baby right out of her arms with a gentle smile and said, go on, you go on and sing or sit down, I’ll look after her for a little while, and I saw my friend’s eyes well up with thankful tears. Because this guy is in recovery and that guy is his sponsor. Because all these teenagers like to sing their hearts out and because I can hear babies and restless toddlers making noise without restraint.

Because I love to sing and where else in our lives do we get to sing communally anymore? Because I love happy-clappy choruses and sober hymns, because “I love you, Lord” sounds so beautiful in my own mouth. Because I love to worship with my people, and these are my people.  Because I chat in the always-long line-up for tea and coffee.

Because I sit beside my husband and we whisper back and forth during the sermon, it’s the closest we get to date night some months. Because we know and love our pastors for their humanity, not in spite of it, for their expansive pastoral hearts that make room for all of us, because of the way they show up for us. Because sometimes it’s an amazing sermon and sometimes it’s, um, not. Because we pass the bread and the cup, and we give each other communion and there is room at the table for everyone in this room.

Because I’ll see this little group of people on Thursday night for our Bible study, and that is where we’ll talk about the real stuff, show up, be disappointed and forgive, love each other a bit more every week. We’re friends now, but I see the promise of a sense of family coming.

Because even though the phrase “going to church” kind of bugs me (we don’t go, we are), and even though it’s messy and imperfect, even though I’ve let them down and they have let me down, even though there are disappointments, even though I don’t agree with everybody and they probably think I’m crazy sometimes, too, even though I don’t think we need an official sanctioned Sunday morning thing to be part of the Body of Christ, because even though I think the Church crosses a lot of our self-made boundaries and preferences and gatekeepers, I keep choosing this small family out of hope and joy.  

Because I want my children to grow up with the imperfect community of God like I did.Because I want to reclaim my heritage of faith as worthy of intention. Because I need to receive and I need to give. Because I want the tinies to know that however much I mess up, however much I fall short of my own ideals, I was planted in the house of God because this is where I practice it, learn it, start all over again. Because I want my tinies to know what my voice sounds like when I sing Amazing Grace.

Because at the end of the service, they practice the priesthood of all believers and anyone can pray for anyone else. Just go ahead and pray, go ahead. Talk to each other, you don’t need a sanctioned commissioning, you are already part of this Body so go on then.

Because I need to be around people who love Jesus, too.  Because I know Jesus better when I hear about Him from other people who follow Him, too. Because I almost always encounter the Holy Spirit in a profound, sideways sort of way when we’re gathered together in His name.

Because then I leave and I go back out into my world, my neighbourhood, my life, and there is always the promise of next week. Because some of my greatest wounds have come from church and so my greatest healing has happened here, too.

In a fractured and mobile and hyper customized and individualized globalized world, intentional community – plain old church – feels like a radical act of faith and sometimes like a spiritual discipline. We  show up at a rented school and drink a cup of tea with the people of God and remember together, who we are, why we live this life, and figure out all over again how to be disciples of The Way, because we are people of hope.

A repost from the archives

Continue Reading · church, community, faith, family · 42

In which I praise the village

it takes a village

 

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When I was in high school, I  heard the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” for the first time. But it wasn’t in a positive way – oh, no. It was being mocked by someone who had Very Strong Opinions about how a child should be raised.

“It does not take a village,” they countered back. “It takes a family! That kind of attitude just undermines the importance of parents in a child’s life.”

I’ve heard or read varying degrees of that same attitude when it comes to some of the conversations about “biblical” womanhood as people heap guilt on mothers or fathers for everything from choosing public school education to relying on babysitters or daycare, from Sunday School to family structures.

“I’ve seen the village and it is not raising my child!” I get that sentiment, I do. There are parts of our culture that I don’t appreciate or want to emulate in our home but those aren’t limited to sex and violence, it’s often also the consumerism or materialism, the prideful arrogance. Yet not too many of us think that we need to throw our children to popular culture willy-nilly, I can’t think of anyone who denies the importance of a stable and loving family for a child, anyone who thinks that by creating a strong community we are abdicating our roles as parents, not at all. Perhaps this has been a straw-man, political argument, one that doesn’t do us in the trenches any favours.

I spent a fair bit of tears as a young mother on the fallacy that I had to do it all on my own. I didn’t realise how much I had internalized the lie that I should be all things to my tinies until I was unable to do it. That lie made me feel guilty for hiring a babysitter, guilty for using a daycare, guilty for putting the tinies into school instead of homeschooling, even guilty for asking for help from my family when I needed help. Surely, I should be able to do everything on my own!

Our village has made me a better mother.  My old belief that I had to “do it all” myself and that I didn’t need anyone else to help left me exhausted and filled with guilt, drowning in misplaced pride and bad theology. And I didn’t do my tinies any favours.

Praise God for our public school teachers.  I look at my tinies thriving in their little community school and think, “Thank God!” Thank God for dedicated teachers who truly see and know and love our tinies. Thank God for their hard work, their patience. I can’t imagine the tinies’ lives without their beloved teachers. Bless the school principal who knew the kindergarteners’ names that first week of school, who plays the old upright piano at school concerts, who  stands sentry during pick-up and drop-off herself. Bless the teacher who isn’t afraid to say “I love you.” Bless the teacher who has high standards, who says “you can do better.” Bless the teacher who keeps an open door to parents and partners with us. Bless the school Christmas concert which single-handedly restored my faith in humanity.

Praise God for our babysitters, nannies, and daycare workers, for the ones who change diapers, who help with potty training, who serve up lunches, who show up “off the clock” to Christmas concerts and birthday parties, who sit and fold laundry beside us even after “quitting time” just so we can talk the little ones over together. Our two-day-a-week babysitter has become a beloved part of our family, and now we’ve adopted her entire family, too. Praise God for another family who delights in my tinies, for teenagers who serve as adopted cousins for tinies to look up to with big eyes, for another home where they are welcome and loved, for older women who not only care for my children but care for me, too.

Praise God for the church nursery and Sunday school workers, for the young ones without babies themselves (and all of their energy), for the older couples who have raised their babies (and all of their calming certainty), for the other tired parents who take their turn so that they could perhaps listen to the sermon next week. Praise God for the ones who go home from church covered in glitter and Elmer’s glue, who sing Sunday school songs all week. Praise God for them because my tinies love to go to church.

Praise God for the neighbourhood parents who stand outside to “keep an eye” on everyone, who buy the biggest bucket of sidewalk chalk so that all the kids on the street can use it.

Praise God for the aunties, for the grandmothers, for the uncles, for the grandfathers, for the friends who feel like family, for the public health unit, for the community centre, for the pastors, for the music teachers, for the dance teachers, for the hockey coaches, for the preschool teachers, for the carpool.

In my experience, the more people who love our babies with us, the better.

The more people who support us as we raise them, the better.

The more people who make little people feel seen and cherished and beloved, the better for us all.

There isn’t any need for guilt because we rely on our village as parents, because we are part of someone else’s village. This is the way we were created: to need one another, for family, for one another. It’s not something new, folks: this is called community.

I’m a better mother, we’re a better family, because of our village. It takes a village to raise a child because it takes a village to raise each other.

 

Continue Reading · church, community, parenting · 25

In which heaven breaks through

We lit the candles after supper on Sunday, the table covered with the remnants of spaghetti and meatballs. The tinies bickered over who gets to blow out the candles at the end, and we were all “BLOWING OUT CANDLES IS NOT THE POINT OF ADVENT” and I read our devotional off the laptop screen. Evelynn kept interrupting, wanting to talk, too, and so we shushed and quieted and started over and over and over. Moment of peace and reverence, indeed, I huffed. But then Brian asked a few questions, and their eyes were big as they answered: this candle is peace! this one is hope! this one is joy! it’s because Jesus came to give us those things! Yes, indeed, I guess we’re getting it together, heaven forgive me for not noticing it. God, the mess and the reverence all gathered together is so beautiful.

Earlier that day, I had pulled up the school gymnasium and flung open the car doors: run! run! go to the music room! you’re late! Anne and Joe were off like a shot, galloping in their boots for the last kid choir rehearsal before their performance at 10:30 that morning. I parked the car and followed them into the dark gym. It was filled with empty chairs and Christmas lights, and there in one far corner, a gathering of parents stood smack right in front of the risers filled with children in their Christmas best. We bundled like penguins, shuffling shoulder to shoulder, iPhones up to record the actions, DSLRs set on automatic settings clicking away, our feet tapping with the songs we had memorized along with our tinies. I stood in the dark, hugged a few friends, snapped blurry pictures with my iPod because I’d forgotten my camera, sang along “doo-doot-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo it’s Christmas” and became the full sense of sight, drinking the sight of them standing on the risers right into my frazzled soul. God, they’re so beautiful.

We sang for nearly an hour and a half. Oh, there was other stuff, too – a spoken word poem, a dance, a choir, the kids singing, but we sang and sang and sang in the darkness, packed in beside each other with all of the grandmothers and grandfathers and in-laws who came to witness this moment. God, we were so beautiful.

Near the end of the service, a loud hum kicked in right above our heads. We looked up and fake snow began to fall through the blue lights while the girl on stage danced and twirled. The machine kept humming and spilling fake snow onto the low stage. The last song was a loud and boisterous celebration and all of a sudden all the kids, as one, without prompting, just began to head for the scaffolded stage, climbing the step and they began to dance. Joe and his buddies stomping and jerking, trying to imitate the break-dancers, Anne and her friends twirling and leaping in the back, Evelynn and all the toddlers flapping their arms and grinning. It was chaos and it was beautiful, the blue light illuminating the children, the grown-ups clapping along and singing at the top of their lungs while the snow drifted down through the darkness inside to gather in our hair. God, that moment was so beautiful.

My friend’s husband negotiated freedom for wrongfully imprisoned women this week. We talked about it, about the real tangible moment of Jubilee happening right this blessed second – captives! released! exiles returning home! – and we cried together for these women. God, my friend and her husband are so beautiful.

Someone told me about their church holding a Blue Christmas service for those in their community who are grieving and longing at Christmas, unable to fathom the joy perhaps, and so they make space for prayer, for communion, for quiet, to hold each other, to light candles for their grief together for just an evening in the midst of the shopping and the wrapping and the bright tinsel. God, what a beautiful way to minister to each other.

Our Legacy Project in Haiti is still going strong. We’re filling backpacks with hope for a Haitian community and even right now at a busy Christmas season, people are clicking and giving their money away, sowing seeds that will last for generations. We’re already at 50% of our goal. God, generous people of hope are so beautiful.

A hundred times a week, in the small daily moments of my life and the big borderless world of believers, one lighted candle after another, here are the moments when heaven breaks through.

Sometimes every one can see it, sometimes no one sees it but you: the light is breaking through.

I love the phrase “heaven breaks through.”

I love it because it means that we’ve set up an outpost for the Kingdom of God, it means that the God-way-of-life has been established for even just a moment here on earth, it means that for just a while there we saw the way we were always meant to live. Redemption, wholeness, beauty, love, peace, goodness.

It means that for a second everything fit into wholeness and we caught a glimpse of true intended humanity. It means that something rises up in our soul when we see it, and we offer the only response: God, that is so beautiful.

***

I’d love to hear about a moment or two when you found heaven breaking through in your life. Look forward to reading about it in the comments.

Oh, and to donate to Backpacks of Hope, which is part of the Legacy Project in Haiti that we helped to fund last year, you can click here for info.

 

Continue Reading · advent, christmas, church, community, family, Haiti · 27