Friday, October 9, 2015

All that the Father Gives Me

I'm going back to the late summer of 2011 to pick up the story. This describes finding and attending the second church. It was at this point that my relationship with Jesus transformed and began to grow into what it is now. I have divided this blog into three parts to help manage the length.

July 18, 2011

We checked out another church on Saturday and will try attending it next Sunday. I'm surprised at how disloyal I feel over leaving a church we attended for maybe a month and a half. Why do I feel as though, since we started attending there, we are now obligated to continue?

I know exactly why. Because that is the way I was taught to feel about church- all or nothing. No quitters. Blind loyalty to those in authority and if it hurts, if it's hard, if it weighs you down, then church must be doing its job. It was understood that one’s whole life was nothing but a ceaseless personal striving in order to attain His perfect standards. We alone had the whole truth, everyone else was deceived to one degree or another. Anyone leaving the church was too weak to be in the company of the Hundredfold, the best of the best.

This baggage is fresh; it springs to life like fungus after a rain. It's discouraging, is what it is. But then, I take a step back and remember that I haven't exactly been able to work through this baggage until now. Naturally it's going to be untouched and the emotions raw.

The whole goal of this reengaging my personal church dynamic is to be able to attend church in a healthy, thoughtful and deliberate way. I like the idea of coming together with other real, imperfect people who all love God and want to worship Him together, each in their voice and gifts.

I'm beginning to grow increasingly doubtful about whether or not I can find that within an actual church building. Right now, we have found one of those super large churches with a full band, digital projections screens, and a Greeting Team at the door. I watched one of the sermons they had on their website, and it moved me nearly to tears, so we'll give it a try.

August 8, 2011

Yesterday we went to the new church for the second Sunday. The worship service is visually stunning. There are colored lights and tall, glinting metal poles and these triangular sail things stretched between them, and the colored lights spin across them. There are two massive TVs that show scenes of space and stars flying pass, with a black cross in the foreground. The lyrics roll by on these screens. They have a full band, with a drum set and a bass guitar and five or so people up on stage who know how to harmonize.

It's impressive, but I find myself steeling my backbone against the deluge. I can't yield to it; it's too obviously seductive. It gives me the same feeling that commercials so often do and I end up resenting the manipulation of my emotions.

I stood there quietly and tried to let my thoughts flow without self judgement- I keep thinking that I'm a terrible Christian for not closing my eyes and lifting my hands and swaying in the semi dark with the rest. I felt Christ put His hands on my shoulders, as though to steady me amid the bewildering whir of sensations within and without.

In the course of the worship time, I did feel some very old fears fall away as, looking back over my life, I realized anew the grace and gentleness of Jesus. What a marvelous thing it is to look back and see that I had found redeeming grace where I had expected harsh punishment and rejection, and purpose where before I had seen only fear and confusion.

August 15, 2011

"We’re church hoppers," Keith said sadly. He mentioned this earlier today, as we pulled out of our church parking lot. We both knew that would be the last time we attended that church.

I feel like such a heretic. It turns out that church is the kind where the desired worship is emotional and physically demonstrated. In this sort of church, if you do not, from time to time, lift your arms and/or sway to the music, it appears as though you are not in tune with the work of the Holy Spirit.

I thought about pretending and tried it. That's easy, but I couldn't sustain it. It just feels so awful, like such a huge step backward. I don't want to go back to pretending with God.

Eventually, I just stood there, wishing that my ears were not being blasted by the music, and wondering what the phrase "God, give us an open heaven," really means after hearing it over and over again, all the while trying to manage my unreasonable panic by repeating the Lord's Prayer to myself over and over again, slowly, because the lights and the volume and the shouting are making one dizzy.

I have had several good experiences at that church. Sunday before last, they unexpectedly played the hymn, Jesus Paid It All. Where I heard it, and saw the words on the screen, my heart was poured out and my arms went right up naturally and I cried and worshiped Jesus. And the pastor's sermon on Christ washing the feet of the disciplines was wonderful.

Today, the pastor starting shouting, and went on shouting, as though he were trying to whip the congregation up to some kind of frenzy. Eventually, a few would clap, or thrust their fist into the air, or shout something, but their response kept falling short, apparently, because he kept on at it.

"If you have your Bible, lift it in the air. I want to see who brought their Bible," he said. "If you want more of Christ, come to the front of the church."

When not enough went, he stopped the entire thing, including the music, and declared that there was a feeling of pride in the church and we had to search our hearts for the pride and sin that was holding us back from an acceptable response. Then he went back to shouting and pacing.

After that, more people went up, but I felt ill, as if I were watching someone manipulate, force and harass other people, and doing all those things in the name of Jesus. It felt like watching a car wreck happening in slow motion and thinking, "I have to go help those poor people..." and then remembering that I was in church.

I was praying, "Dear Jesus, if there is something You are doing here and I am not recognizing it or can't understand it, please don't mind me. Your will be done."

The same song was playing over and over and over and over and over again. I can't sustain my first, genuine emotional response for more than ten minutes of endless repeat. I kept thinking I must be the most carnal, shallow person for just standing there, feeling my hips ache and wondering when will they let us out of the dark room already and would they please, please stop singing that same chorus.

Before the sermon was officially over, Keith leaned down to me and asked if I was ready to go. He'd been restless the entire time, leaning forward with his head down, or playing with the offering envelopes. He took my hand and walked grimly outside with a long stride, looking straight ahead.

I was ready; we escaped together. Outside, through the wall mounted speakers, we could still hear the quavering, sobbing utterances of the pastor as he paced the stage before the worship group, invoking God, heaven, and power.

Outside, it was a bright sunny day. I was relieved to remember that Christ lives in me, and I in Him. It's a very simple and completely miraculous arrangement, and it's unchanging. It doesn't need electric guitars, projection screens, arm raising, curtained windows or badgering to be made more real.

September 26, 2011

We went to Denny's instead of to church yesterday. I'm trying to get some clarity on why it is I want to attend a church anyway, before trying another one.

I have old and powerful belief patterns that tell me that I'm sinful, unacceptable and must put on the acceptable performance to prove that I am not. These beliefs gain power within the church, because frequently, the church's message reinforces them.

Then I remember the two most powerful, rigid and intertwined beliefs of my childhood. The first is that all truth has already been revealed to the prophet who began our church. Anything new or anything other was some form of deception. The second is that, because of this, thinking for oneself about God is unnecessary and dangerous. Holding fast to the revealed truth is all that is good and all that is necessary. Because of this, the very idea that I could come to know God outside the context of religious authority appears blasphemous, ridiculous, laughable and doomed to failure from the start.

Then there is this quieter remembrance- that what I'm feeling isn't conviction, it's condemnation; it's an ancient condemnation that I'll never placate by any action of mine- that these beliefs are not the truth.

I’m beginning to get the feeling that each individual church as an organization wants me to be in submission to it- to its pastor and its unique group dynamics. It feels like the church, no matter which one I attend, wants to play three important roles in my life: to be a direct pipeline to God, to be a translation for His voice and to verify that my actions are acceptable.

As I write that, I feel almost ludicrous, because of course that’s what church does! How bizarre that I should take offense at something so natural. I must have a problem with authority, that I cannot acknowledge and accept these natural and right roles of the church.

When I was not attending church, Jesus began to fill those roles. He was my pipeline to God. He is the Word of God, and through Him my life and my actions are redeemed and directed. This happened naturally and by necessity. Now when I attempt to return to church, I find there is friction between the place Jesus has in my life now and the place the church wants to take.

When I attend church, I participate in a set emotional ritual. I come to church feeling good that I have presented my physical person properly to the church, with the acceptable and necessary equipment.

Once church begins, I feel bad that I have sinned during the week, even if I don’t exactly know what those sins were, I just feel vaguely sinful- perhaps I have not prayed enough, read my Bible enough, or gone to the Wednesday prayer/study group. Or, if I did, maybe I did not pray out loud or I did not read the assigned section in my study book, or that I had doubts or questions that I knew were unacceptable.

During worship service, I should go with the emotional flow. I must work myself up, using the lights and the sounds as props to reach the acceptable fever pitch. Before the emotions have a chance to wear off, they pass around the offering/tithes plate/bag and I give tithes but I feel guilty because I haven't given an offering. Or, I don't give the full tithes and I know that I'm sinning big time.

However, I get a burst of pride and accomplishment when I put my envelope in the bag. No else knows what I'm giving, but they can see that I do. In the eyes of the church, I'm acceptable.

Then I prepare to avidly take in what I am being taught. I busily scribble notes in my study guide. I look up the verses in my Bible. At the alter call, I feel how miserable is my state and how far I have yet to go, and how infrequently I feel the presence of God in my daily life, which is full of HGTV, loading the dishwasher and early morning commutes to work.

I repent, but I'm not brave enough to go up to the front of the church. I feel bad, but I pour out my heart as best I can on my own. Or maybe I do go down to the front. I say that I want to receive more of God. I receive the laying on of hands and lots of impassioned prayer.

Then I walk out. I feel emptied, clear and sparkling like a goblet washed with Cascade. By that evening, however, already I feel the film of the world shifting down over me. I read an extra chapter of the Bible or listen to praise music to try and desperately hold on to it.

Maybe I pray longer. Maybe I skip my favorite show. Maybe I get addicted to denying myself things in order to feel good about myself. I go on religious purges like other people go on diets. Maybe I'm immune to all this and I just go to church because I always have.

I have done all this. I have tried all those things and more- all the activities and programs, the special speakers who slay one in the Spirit with loud prayer and a strong thrust of their hand on the forehead, and the goals, the good intentions that slowly dry up over time and then the falling back into habit and resignation, all these surface things overlying a deep bed of anxiety about the future, what I am meant to do for God and who I am meant to be.

Church feels like a club. It has membership dues, initiation rites, and ceremonies. It has inner and outer social circles, written and unwritten rules. We look up over the backs of every one's heads up to the one person who can see everyone's faces.

When I attend church, I'm directly engaging these old, powerful patterns of belief and behavior. It's exhausting and it's stressful. I want to settle the question of what church means and what is my relationship to it, but I just end up with more questions.

September 28, 2011
I had an extraordinary experience yesterday. In the morning, I started using the BibleGateway to look up verses about the early church, and I found some interesting things. However, it was the first time I had read the Bible in a long time. Whenever I tried to read, all the beliefs taught me as a child were layered over the words on the page. I didn’t know how to begin to untangle it. Just the thought of trying was exhausting.

I kept wanting to leave the tangle and go read about Jesus- I was drawn to the gospel of John. I knew I would find Jesus there. For many years, that was the only part of the Bible I could ever read at all.

Finally, I dropped everything else and went to read the tenth chapter of John. As soon as I began reading, I was seeing Jesus as though for the first time, vividly, full of life and passion. I couldn't stop reading. I read John in The Message version of the Bible, which was beautiful. For example:

"Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don't let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own whim but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.

"This, in a nutshell, is that will: that everything handed over to me by the Father be completed—not a single detail missed—and at the wrap-up of time I have everything and everyone put together, upright and whole. This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life. My part is to put them on their feet alive and whole at the completion of time."
-John 6:37-40

Right, yes? Beautiful. So, then I read it over again, with the Amplified version of the Bible:

All whom My Father gives (entrusts) to Me will come to Me; and the one who comes to Me I will most certainly not cast out [I will never, no never, reject one of them who comes to Me].

For I have come down from heaven not to do My own will and purpose but to do the will and purpose of Him Who sent Me.

And this is the will of Him Who sent Me, that I should not lose any of all that He has given Me, but that I should give new life and raise [them all] up at the last day.

For this is My Father's will and His purpose, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in and cleaves to and trusts in and relies on Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up [from the dead] at the last day.
-John 6:37-40

I was captivated. I kept putting my hands over my face; Jesus is so full of emotion! He was angry and tender and loving and frustrated and anguished. Sometimes He's bitingly intelligent and I stand amazed at His wit. Sometimes He seems weird and absentminded, like when He's drawing in the dust, or making a paste out saliva.

Lots of times I can't understand Him. Why would He make the poor, innocent fig tree wither? Could it help that it didn't have any figs? But a god you could completely understand wouldn't be God at all.

I kept getting blown away by what I was seeing. I kept thinking, that was God. God said that. God felt that. They said that to God.

Like this:
They said, "Where is this so-called Father of yours?"
Jesus said, "You're looking right at me and you don't see me. How do you expect to see the Father? If you knew me, you would at the same time know the Father."
-John 8:15

The Message is the only version that translates it this way, but it broke my heart. I saw Christ in the temple, with His arms wide, saying, "I'm right here. I AM. I am your God, your Creator, standing here in front of you and you don't see Me."

I wanted to be in the crowd, so I could go running to Jesus and throw myself into His arms and I say, “I see You! I see You! I belong to You! I'm Yours!”

I don't think I ever realized that Jesus prayed before He was taken away to be crucified. I read it and I was blown away. My skin was tingling. He was interceding for us; I heard His very words. He prayed for me:

"And now I am coming to You; I say these things while I am still in the world, so that My joy may be made full and complete and perfect in them [that they may experience My delight fulfilled in them, that My enjoyment may be perfected in their own souls, that they may have My gladness within them, filling their hearts].

I have given and delivered to them Your word (message) and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world [do not belong to the world], just as I am not of the world.

I do not ask that You will take them out of the world, but that You will keep and protect them from the evil one.

And so for their sake and on their behalf I sanctify (dedicate, consecrate) Myself, that they also may be sanctified (dedicated, consecrated, made holy) in the Truth.

Neither for these alone do I pray [it is not for their sake only that I make this request], but also for all those who will ever come to believe in (trust in, cling to, rely on) Me through their word and teaching,

That they all may be one, [just] as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be one in Us, so that the world may believe and be convinced that You have sent Me.
-John 17:13-15, 19-21

I was jealous many times- I want to be like the disciple that was reclining with his head on Christ's shoulder at the last supper. I wanted to be able to tip my head up and whisper a question in His ear and have Him answer me.

Except that frequently, I do. Anyone can. Well, not in the flesh like that. But I can lean my whole self into Him and whisper a question and He does answer me.

Sometimes His answer is a loving silence that I can't translate very well in words. As if Jesus is saying, you'll have to leave the answer to that in Me for now; I'll guide you into that further on down the road, but I love that you wonder about it.

Sometimes it's an actual answer- Jesus answers me! He talks to me. Even after I stopped reading, Jesus was still with me. I was dancing around the kitchen on tiptoes as I made spaghetti from the joy of it. I loved all over my husband as soon as he got in the door, startling the poor man with an outpouring of exuberant affection.

I kept waking up last night with this feeling of warm delight all through me and then I would remember again. God was with me. Christ was in me, and I in Him. He was even then present and available. I have my being through Him.

We can't love Christ in person, because His body isn't down here anymore. Obviously. Instead or because of, or simultaneously, we love the people around us here, and loving them is loving Him. Anyway, that's the conclusion I came to. Our acts of service to each other are really acts of service to Him. Or they can be.

I used to read the Gospel and hear nothing but condemnation. Even when Christ spoke directly to the Pharisees, I thought He must be talking about me and my sinful heart, which I was sure was full of decay while the outward part of me looked deceptively attractive.

I thought, I am a miserable creature and cannot come close to Jesus. I told myself it is a terrible covetous sin that I wish to be. How bound up I was in self-hatred! No wonder I couldn't read the Bible. The way I was taught, it was nothing but a lash for my soul. Come to think of it, I don't even know how it was that I got free of that. I still read things that cut, but instead of hurting myself with them, I give them over to Jesus.

Sometimes, He explains them to me. Sometimes I then put the explanation right out of mind, because I can't accept His grace. Other times, Jesus doesn't explain them, but there is a peaceful rest, because He is carrying His own words for me, if that makes sense. He's holding on to them until I can understand them.

I'm so grateful that I'm alive, that I exist, so that I can know Jesus. The fact that God is as He is, and that He made me as I am, is astounding to me. His love of us is beyond understanding.


May we all abound in and be filled with the fruits of righteousness-
of right standing with God and right doing-
which come through Jesus Christ the Anointed One,
to the honor and praise of God-
that His glory may be both manifested and recognized.

-prayer adapted from Philippians 1:11, AMPC