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Christianity is not the American Dream

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

I grew up as a pastor’s daughter, an identity that I largely shook when I left home at 18, but which played an undeniable role in my formation. In getting to know other pastor’s kids (PKs) over the years, I’ve found some common threads in our experiences; for example, the pressure of visibility, unfair expectations from certain members of the church community, the learned ability to be whoever we needed to be for the given person in front of us, and stealing the leftover communion bread to wolf down in the fellowship hall (privilege negates sacrilege).

Some PKs seem to resent their upbringing, but for the most part, I enjoyed mine. While nowhere in the bible, my marching orders seemed clear: follow the rules and Jesus will love you — or was it Jesus loves you, so you’d better follow the rules? Either way, for this natural rule follower, it all seemed reasonable enough.

Church felt safe to me because I was good at it. I felt at home in Sunday School and church musicals and youth group and worship teams, and always knew I had a big group of people who loved me and were rooting for me. I had the answers to the questions, and prayed fervently over life’s most dire concerns: algebra tests and my future husband. After leaving my hometown to study music at a Christian college, I went to work full-time at a large Presbyterian church. For the first 25 years of my life, I coasted on what was largely an inherited faith — one that served me well as long as I stuck with like-minded people, followed the rules, and did everything right.

In other words, it was only a matter of time.

The past ten years have been a process of disintegration as I began to discover that the “faith” of my upbringing was largely circumstantial and hardly personal. Not only could I not keep up with “the rules,” I realized that I didn’t want to — because as it turned out, no amount of rule following prevented babies from dying or parents from divorcing or bodies from breaking or hearts from shattering. For all I had given God — that is, my deeds, my schedule, my proclamations — how dare he not come through on his end of the bargain? The bargain being, you know, keeping me and everyone I love safe and happy and comfortable. THAT’S THE DEAL, God.

As it turns out, that’s not the deal.

More and more, I’m coming to believe that this is the deal, the only deal: God wants us just as we are, not as we should be, and that we are called to be like Jesus. And if you know anything about the life of Jesus, this means taking our battered and broken down selves and scrapping our reputation in favor of loving the unlovable, welcoming the outsiders and outcasts, sacrificing on behalf of others, forgiving without condition, and suffering. There will be suffering.

In western culture, Christianity has long been sold as a happy, therapeutic path to self-actualization: love God, be a good person, and he’ll give you a great life. But Christianity is not the American Dream. At the risk of being a total killjoy, the true nature of Christianity is costly: join Jesus, give your life away, and die.

Surely this definition would dissuade many from faith. But if churches were more honest about the true path of following Jesus, I wonder if Christians would have a healthier, more realistic view of what it is that we’re actually buying into. I wonder if we wouldn’t feel so entitled to a cute, happy life, and indignant when we don’t get it. I wonder if we’d be more willing to give ourselves away, seeing as how we’re following a man who willingly walked to a brutal death on a cross.

The thought scares me, because who actually wants to live a life marked by selflessness? Here, I’ll go first: I DON’T. I generally prefer a quid pro quo sort of God, one who will reward my faithfulness with recognition and bounty; it’s only fair. And as we’ve already established, I’m amazing at “the rules” — so this kind of arrangement would work out pretty well for me.

But Jesus takes “the rules” and throws them out the window, because he values relationship over transaction. As such, the Christian life is full of paradoxes:

What if death isn’t what we assume? What if death is the pathway to life — and not just the “die and go to heaven” sort of eternal life, but kingdom come life here and now? What if dying up front sets us free to really live? What if being stripped of all falsehood leaves our truest selves exposed? What if the end is the beginning?

If you’re lucky enough to be in a season of life that feels abundant and beautiful, that is a gift and you absolutely should soak it up. But if you, like me, are a Christian who is looking around at all that is passing away and sometimes thinking, “Wait, I didn’t sign up for this,” be encouraged — because maybe we actually did.

Labor Day

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

I don’t feel much like getting up from this bed. My legs are stretched out in front of me and crossed at the ankles, left over right, giving me a good view of my newly pedicured toes. I broke one of them a few years ago – stubbed it on my couch, the one I bought brand new – and it still juts high above the other four, like an adobe hill out of the desert, the kind that gutsy kids use as a bike ramp.

It’s been years since I’ve ridden a bike, even though the Trek I got for my 14th birthday is currently crammed into the mudroom of my house, the front wheel turned perpendicular to the rest of the frame, blocking the doorway. I step over it whenever I go into the backyard, which is infrequent now that Toad is gone. I keep thinking I should put air in these tires. I should ride to work. Or I could try to sell it. Homeowners can always use extra cash.

It stresses me out, money. It always has. When I was a kid, I would pull the dollar bills out of my piggy bank and count them, splaying them across my bedspread, the ones together, the fives. Then I would walk across the hallway to the laundry room, set up the ironing board, and turn the iron to low. The literal smoothening of my money somehow translated, and when the stack of bills was crisp and orderly, so was my spirit – at least, so I thought.

Last night in a church pew, I wrote my September budget on a Post-It note. I had not been to church in – months? It must be. And already, the rhythm of the service felt unfamiliar. Do we really stand for this long? Funny, I went to church nearly every Sunday for 30 years, but take me out for just a few months and all of a sudden attending feels new.

I like it when things feel new and fresh. I also like it when things feel familiar and routine. This desire for both roots and wings is a tug-of-war, and I’m right in the middle of it, and I don’t know if I’ll be pulled to one side or the other or just torn in half.

They – three different friends now – say that they think I’m “on the verge.” Of what, they don’t really know, and it would be silly to speculate. But I feel it, too – the sense that something is almost. I wonder if it will feel like roots or like wings.

So I pray. I think that prayer is important – not so much because I think God will do what I ask, but because it reminds me that I’m not him. Not so much because God is a shelter from the storm, but because I hope he’ll stand out in the rain with me. Not so much because it leads to the absence of pain, but to the presence of love.

Power up

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

I think my nephew missed the point of the Sunday School lesson.

Salvation never tasted so good

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Ever since I moved to Nashville a year ago, I’ve been an active attendee of a fantastic little church called City Church of East Nashville. When people ask me why I go there, I always think of two reasons: we sing the Doxology at the end of every service, and the communion bread is the bomb. Of course, there are many other REAL reasons that I love City Church – community, compelling preaching, a mission with integrity, simple and authentic worship – but the Doxology and the communion bread are my joke answers. Although… sometimes, I think they actually might be legitimate motives.

Because guys, seriously, this communion bread is unlike any other bread I’ve ever had in my life. Someone from the church makes it every week, and I swear that somewhere in the recipe is listed “crack.” Dense and delicious, I kind of wish I could make my turkey sandwiches with it. Every week, I try to focus on the SACRAMENT of it all, but – sue me – there is a tiny (sacrilegious, sinful) part of me that is really excited for the taste.

Like this past Sunday.

At City Church, we take communion by intinction – that is, we walk up to the front, tear a piece of bread off of the loaf, and dip it into the wine before eating it. So there I was, my turn, tearing off a piece of Holy Freaking Delicious Bread that also happens to be the Body of Our Lord, and I realized that I had accidentally torn off a really big chunk. But – too late now, my fingers have already touched it. I HAVE to eat it.

I dipped it in the wine. I said a quick prayer. And then, I opened my mouth so wide that I practically dislocated my jaw, shoved in the bread, and walked back to my seat.

It wasn’t until I sat back down that I realized what a predicament I was in. This hunk of bread was so gigantic that I couldn’t chew it without OPENING MY MOUTH, open shut, open shut, chomp chomp chomp. I was crunching on the bread, making audible chewing noises, and when I leaned over to tell Cara what had happened, all that came out was a crumbly mumble, my words masked by the mass of bread bigger than my tongue.

I missed the closing song. I was still chewing.

H is for Havens and Hymnals

Monday, September 15th, 2008

Confession: I haven’t felt like going to church lately.

Blame it on the fact that this is the first time in my life when I haven’t HAD to go to church. As a pastor’s daughter, and then a student at a Christian university, and then a worship leader and church employee, it’s easy to think that I’ve banked enough Sundays in a pew to be able to coast for a good long while. Here in Nashville, if I didn’t show up, no one would notice. No one would fire me. No one is forcing me to go.

Yesterday, I didn’t want to go to church. I spent all day fighting my own justifications, and trying to find a worthy reason not to go. I want to watch my Netflix? I want to go on a long walk? I don’t want to have to talk to anyone? I haven’t Swiffered my floors in awhile? I need to organize my closets? I need to touch up my pedicure? And I’ll read my bible at my kitchen table, I promise! These were my very serious attempts at “good reasons.”

But if there’s anything that I’ve been learning in the past year, it is the importance of showing up. How can we expect God to move in our lives if we don’t show up? If we don’t put ourselves out there? If we don’t take some tiny step of action? The whole “God can’t steer a parked car” idea.

So at 5pm, I went. I showed up – begrudgingly, at first. But I sang the songs, including a hymn that proclaims that “Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in the time of storm.”

My life has felt stormy lately, as have many of yours. For me, it hasn’t been a hurricane – just the occasional sprinkle of tears and the winds of loneliness, accompanied by the heavy and ever-present haze of self-doubt and insecurity. And my meager efforts at self-protection and security are as flimsy as a plastic umbrella. From Wal-Mart.

But Jesus provides a safe haven, and one of the means he uses is the Church. Say what you want to say about nasty church politics, and the hypocrites within its walls – which, sadly, can be very true realities – but even still, God moves in and through his people when they gather together.

We live in a culture of “What’s in it for me?” and we choose churches based on how they make us FEEL. Is the worship awesome? Do I leave feeling totally joyful? Are there cool people there? Is the service 60 minutes or less, because I’m really busy, you know. Get in, get out – and if you don’t leave feeling completely satisfied, then go some place where you will. I know that I’m guilty of these thoughts.

But I owe everything that I have and everything that I am to Jesus. On my own, I am nothing – he is the one who gives beauty for my ashes, strength for my fear, and peace for my despair. And despite the way that I FEEL, he is worthy of my devotion and worship – which is reason enough to show up at church, even if I don’t have to. He meets me wherever I am. He is a shelter in a time of storm. Amen.

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As a kind-of-related aside, I adore hymns. I love hymns the same way that I, like Greta, love “The Sound of Music” soundtrack – songs that I don’t remember ever learning, but have simply always known. Hymns use fantastic words like “betide” and “sustaineth” and “whereby,” and speak the truth in a way that undoes me. In my mind, they are the meatiest form of art that there is.