on delighting in each other

One of the things we do for fun around here, now that we are Californians again after eight years in the Midwest, is to go to Disneyland. Scott’s parents, Rick and Vonnie, gave us Annual Passes to the Magic Kingdom as a welcome-home present, and we are using them any chance we get. (This means we are frugal, right? We save more and more money every time we go? It’s good for the budget? Even though we find ourselves spending fifty dollars on ice cream and churros each trip? Right?) But I digress.

During these excursions, it’s easy to get annoyed. There are just so many people! Rick said he heard a rumor that Disneyland will intentionally over-sell tickets, disregarding the expensive fine the park is subject to if an inspector from the city were to show up, because the money they make on the extra sales will far outweigh the cost of the fine. I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly feels true when you have to wait forty minutes to ride the Peter Pan ride.

Throughout the day, it is not uncommon for me to get annoyed at bad drivers on the way there, or at people who cut in line, or at people who dart in front of you with their unwieldy double stroller (oh wait, that was probably me), or at people who don’t wear enough clothing, or at grown people who wear clothes with giant Mickey heads embroidered on the front, or at people who make out in public in front of my kids, or at people who curse loudly, or at people who are just innocently ahead of me in a long line, or at a giant horde of teenagers on a field trip with their student government class. If I let myself, I can become a big ball of annoyance.


My favorite memory from the park on Friday happened in the parking lot. We were meeting Rick and Vonnie there, and we saw them walking toward us from a long way off. Evie, my almost-three-year-old, took off running for her Papa at her first glimpse of him. It is so cute how she runs– chubby, shorts-clad legs, the shuffle of someone who is still growing and growing-into herself, her arms crooked at the sides like a PE teacher’s. She ran for a hundred feet, perhaps, and practically sprung into Papa’s outstretched arms.

The scene is familiar. Anyone who has raised a child can resonate with it. Near us that morning was a gentleman who could, and his smile–this total stranger’s–matched Evie’s completely.

There is something quite spiritual about watching other people enjoy each other. After seeing this man’s reaction to my daughter’s run, I did my best to recognize moments of delight that day. And you know what? Despite the culture wars you find on the Internet—mothers and fathers debating everything from breastfeeding to spanking to packing a school lunch– it turns out that most parents really, truly love their children–even the people who are wrong about breastfeeding and spanking and even the people who don’t fashion their children’s bananas into Jedi swords each morning. At Disneyland, their eyes gleam with pride when a child is finally brave enough to try the rollercoaster. They lift up babies on shoulders for a better view of the fireworks. They are more excited than their five-year-old Toy Story fanatics to meet Buzz Lightyear. They can’t stop taking pictures on i-Phones– sometimes stealthily so a teenager won’t object. They lovingly drape arms around each other, they share their water bottles and their jackets, they explain in sweet tones why another bit of cotton candy would be a bad idea. It’s not relegated only to parents, either. Boyfriends and girlfriends, grandparents, best friends, little brothers.

Sometimes, in my petty mind, I wake up and remember how like the final scene of Love, Actually this world really is. When I do, I pray like crazy that this is how God sees us, and I am filled with hope because I believe that God does. I believe it in my bones, and I am challenged, then, to be more like Him, to see more like Him, to love with wild abandon and with a little less of a chip on my shoulder because someone weasled their way ahead of me in line because his son had to use the restroom or something.

To love God and to love neighbor– the two greatest commands, Jesus said. I am startled, sometimes, by how intertwined they always are.


when it comes to sprucing up

We are preparing for a literal sprucing up of the narthex in just a few weeks from now, which is an exciting thing for a church body. Or at least it is for me, an HGTV/design blog junkie. I will admit to staring up at the dozens of defunct hooks hanging from the popcorn ceiling, imagining myself rappelling up there to scrape, to spackle, to patch, to surprise everyone with a pristinely smooth ceiling that nobody but me would likely notice the following Sunday. Then I remember how I should be, you know, praying or listening intently to the movements of the sermon.

If nothing else, this sprucing up will help my spiritual life. Sparkly popcorn ceilings can be a stumbling block for me.

Yes, our little place needs some attention. We’ve got half a dozen bulletin boards that need to come down, more exposed wire than could possibly be up to code, dusty shades covering beautiful stained glass, and mauve, mauve, mauve.

All of this has gotten me thinking about the old debate about exactly how beautiful a place of worship should be. There are many traditions that feel that simplicity is the way to go. In these spaces, few, if any, decorations adorn the walls, the pews are unpadded, the walls are white. The people are happy knowing that all of the money they might have spent on decorations has gone to other, more deserving enterprises. They can manage to sit and worship Jesus in their hard pews, and the white walls make no difference either way.

Cathedral builders would take issue with this, I think. Cathedral builders spent time. And money. And time. And money. To make those cathedrals beautiful testaments to the love of God. Or maybe they were just trying to one-up the cathedral down the street. It’s hard to tell on this side of history.

I tend to side with the cathedral builders, but not without some qualms. (Qualms are good and necessary for people, I think. They are there to reassure us that we haven’t accidently turned into Kanye West*.) For as much as I love the creation of a beautiful space, those who err on the side of simplicity warn me that some price tags are too high, sometimes motives need to be questioned, and sometimes my love for things pretty or cutting edge or trendy or current oversteps itself. The voices that remind us about being careful with how we spend money are always relevant, welcome voices, in my opinion. They always have a point. However, I have been a traveler who has found a great deal of solace and peace and wonder in the halls of one cathedral or another. One might be so bold as to type that she has seen snippets of God in these places and, though the work was expensive, the years of return on a place that is hospitable, artistic, carefully chosen and thought out, might be worth the money and the time.

The art itself–the creation of something beautiful just for the sake of it being– is a valuable practice, too. We mimic our own Creator when we take time to make sure that a piece of wood is curved in just the right way, or the paint is the right color, or a certain word works in a sentence, or the expression on the subject is exactly what we wanted to capture. (But you probably knew I felt that way.) Art surprises, encourages, uplifts, challenges, dwells within us like fireflies. If we don’t nurture the artistic in ourselves because it’s not the most practical thing to do, we are discounting a fundamental part of what it means to be human–which is, of course, to be made in God’s image. Because, seriously, no one can argue that this world looks the way it does because of practicality alone. It’s filled with reckless color, glorious abandon and just enough “what was He thinking?!?” to keep it interesting, down to the tiniest details.

Our particular church is nowhere near cathedral status, and I don’t claim to be an artist just because it’s my job to pick a coordinating color palette. No. We, instead, are mostly striving to be welcoming and hospitable, less dusty. We want to bring a little bit of beauty to a place– and I am talking about the physical space, here– that has lovely bones, strong roots, and perhaps something vital to contribute to the community.

Luckily, God, in God’s infinite wisdom and fetching creativity, put on the hearts of the leadership of a larger, nearby church, to help us with all of this. Without them, and the volunteers they are bringing with them, these changes would have been a long and major undertaking. It feels a little like someone should shout, “Bus driver! Move that bus!” after it’s all over, and that is a pretty special feeling indeed.

Surprisingly, I found very little in the way of church makeovers on the Internet. For that reason, I thought I’d share some of our choices in one or two follow-up posts which will come, as is my style, whenever I get around to writing them. Photos will be amateur, but I promise to put as much zing into the text as possible. #whosaysapicturesworthathousandwords

And by the grace of God, one of those posts might even be sparkly-ceilingless. But not yet.

*Sorry, Kanye.

in praise of the small church

The first thing you realize, probably, when you join a small church is how integral you are. Just super, super important. Pivotal, really. Entire ministries, and probably the pastor’s general feeling of adequacy, rise and fall based on whether or not you show up. This is not something easily understood by mega-chuch-goers. If you don’t show up at a mega-church, nobody notices. Not one single being. Which is, of course, the appeal of mega-churches: you don’t have to be in charge of the choir, count the money, and serve a two-week-a-month shift in the nursery at a mega-church. At a mega-church, you are in and then, after the service, you are out.  Like you’re attending a matinee at the movie theater, you throw your coffee cup in the trash at the door and then make your way to the car, which is parked in the Donald Duck lot, third level.

Although I’ve only been at my current tiny church for a couple months, I already feel it. In fact, as early as Scott’s interview, before I was officially attending and living in the state, I was asked: 1. Whether or not I could sing, 2. Whether or not I could play the piano,  and 3. How I would feel about re-vamping the children’s ministry? I was ready for these questions, in some respect. I’ve done the small church thing before. I’ve felt the overwhelmedness that comes from attempting to run a church with fewer able-bodied people than a little league line-up.

Now, only four or so months in, I am already on the other side of the conversation; I’m already the one looking around wondering who might be available to bake communion bread next week, and whether or not I could get them on a semi-permanent rotation.

But it’s not only about the tasks. Whether we want it to be true or not, success sometimes feels tied to the number of bodies that are occupying seats on Sunday morning, and this is especially apparent on Sundays when people are out of town. All it takes is one or two families to go on vacation and it feels like the whole thing is a sinking ship. Likewise, visitors become something of a hot commodity. Have you ever heard someone complain that “Not a single person at that church even said hello to me”? At Santa Monica Nazarene, the opposite is true. You may be driven away by our desperation, but not by our aloofness. In fact, you will probably leave with the phone numbers of people who have volunteered to water your plants if you ever go on vacation, a few hard candies, and maybe a lipstick stain from somebody’s grandmother on your cheek.  A few weeks ago, we had a new couple from around the neighborhood show up, and I had to almost physically restrain myself from hugging them too tightly and begging them to never, not ever, leave me, in the vein of the overzealous redhead Elmyra Duff from Tiny Toons Adventures, who loved fluffy animals so much she veritably choked them to death with affection each episode. So that is a little bit of what I feel for Fred and Valerie.

While all of this might be interpreted as a warning to avoid churches like mine at all cost, it’s far from it.

I first realized this a few years ago when I attended one of the most memorable church services I’d ever been part of. One I shared with only twenty-three others.

The church was my father-in-law Rick’s. It has been around for millions of years, and, if you added up the years of the thirty or so regular attendees, it would probably be in the millions, too. (My father-in-law often joked that he and his wife were the “youngsters” in attendance.) The building itself was beautiful if a little aged—wooden pews, a stained glass of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an old piano, dark wood beams flanking the ceiling.

After the singing, which was just Rick and a pianist, and neither could quite agree on a tempo, came the Scripture reading. It was from Romans—the passage that includes the “more than conquerors” verse. An older gentleman read for us, and he began with a shaky voice and the disclaimer that he hoped he would be able to get through it, as he seemed on the verge of tears. He almost didn’t. He had to pause a few times to collect himself, run his handkerchief gruffly across his nose, clear his throat. “The Word of the Lord,” he said after what seemed like ages. I don’t know whether he was embarrassed by this show of emotion, the stuttering and the pausing and the obvious nose running, because everyone in that arched sanctuary knew what was on his mind.

You see, their pastor, my father-in-law, had just been diagnosed with cancer– and this, the second round. That Romans passage speaks differently to you when you’re faced with circumstances like those. The twenty-four of us “suffered with,” so to speak, in the moments in which the Word of the Lord was read in our hearing.

Rick asked me later that evening if I thought that a church like his was still relevant in today’s world. They were just a bunch of old folks, only a handful of them at that, and, in the interest of full disclosure, that church body is no longer in existence anymore– swallowed up and taken on by a bigger church.

But I suppose that this is my answer.  

This week, I was back with the kids– we’ve got everyone, from our tiniest two-year-old to our most mature teenagers– in one room. I had prepared a craft I was excited about: they were glitter bottles that swirled and twisted and glittered and then, after a few minutes, settled. These bottles are used often as “time out” bottles for kids– watching the falling glitter is calming and peaceful and something to take one’s mind off of all of the feelings he or she might be feeling. I thought we could all use a little of that. Plus, the story that week was on Jesus’s parable of the leaven, which basically says: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. So, yeast or glitter, we were getting mixed up and overwhelmed by that little image. 

I continue to be a terrible planner who is only motivated by the thought of impending doom, so, while I had put together the lesson and the craft only the night before, I was obsessed with making it just right, so much so that I was fifteen minutes late to church because I couldn’t find a store that sold clear glue. (What is the deal with Elmer? Is he trying to take over the world?) Anyway, after the hassle of two days’ worth of searching for stupid clear glue (five stores, to be precise), my kids were the only ones to show up to Sunday School. My kids and three teenagers who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else than listening to the kids’ sermon that Sunday morning. 

Total flop. #fail. #whybother. But you know what? The six of us, plus my mom, who had driven a few hours to help– and who had braved Walmart in search of the blasted clear glue– made glittery bottles together. Some of the teenagers might have even laughed. And maybe that made all of it worth it. Maybe that will be a Sunday morning I will remember for the rest of my life.


why i cried so much

Perhaps part of the reason I’m writing this is to give people at my former church a way to remember me apart from “that girl who cried every Sunday for a full month before she and her husband took off for California.” I can’t help it: I have a sensitive heart. On the Enneagram scale, I am smack dab between a 4 (a melancholy artist) and a 9 (a peacemaking people-pleaser). I don’t even know if this is possible (I may just be doing the test wrong), but what it equates to is a perfect storm of tears whenever change occurs. Anyway, I can’t really say that it’s totally my fault, what with all the candles and beautiful Jesus songs and probing questions like “Hey, how are you?” that go on at that church. I mean, I cried a lot during service before finding out that we were moving across the country, so there was not a great deal of hope for me.

It had been five years since my husband and I started attending Redemption Church. That is a long time in a culture of church-changers. It is an especially long time when you consider that it is just a little less than one-sixth of my lifetime– and it included major life milestones, like having babies and publishing books and earning degrees. But, really, it is not that long a time. The time cannot be the reason for all the tears.

Redemption Church is an exceptionally good church, I will tell you. The people there are generous in the best sense of the word. They are life-generous. In an incomplete list, over those five years they have given me: advice, hugs, meals, free drinks at restaurants, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, hand-me-down clothes and toys for my babies, a book-signing party, donuts every Sunday morning, funny stories that will probably go in future essays, gift cards, recipes, book recommendations, the chance to be generous back to them, free babysitting, fresh-from-the-chicken eggs, a part-time job that allows me to work in my pajamas, friendship, space to vent and complain, casseroles, an apron and a giant bowl that Scott now uses for popcorn (just the bowl, not the apron), Christmas cards, songs, sweaty handshakes, hours and hours of home improvement help, real estate guidance and representation, other small people to entertain my small people, free yearly calendars, a beautiful sendoff and an appreciation for Kevin Bacon’s angry dancing in Footloose. They are such givers that I often wondered if I was up to the task of giving back, and when I compile lists like the one above, I am pretty certain that I never have been.

I admit that I have always been a lover of church. This is not the majority opinon, I’d venture, and I know many people who find it difficult or even repulsive to go to church. I know others who hop around so often that they have never felt settled in at a place. Some people never give it a second thought. Still others have been wounded, often and deeply, by people or circumstances surrounding the church. It’s complicated. I get that. But for me, church has been as much a part of my development as report cards at school or brushing my teeth before bed. It hasn’t been a perfect relationship– there have been jackasses; I have been one of them. There have been disagreements and misunderstandings and much misquoting of Scripture, I’m quite sure. The Church, in the capitalized sense of the word, is deserving of much of the criticism that is flung its way from people, both insiders and outsiders, who wish it was doing a better job of being the people of God.

But I have seen church, too, live up beautifully to Jesus’s commission. I have been loved and supported, forgiven and embraced. I have served alongside, laughed alongside, walked alongside, suffered alongside some excellent friends who became family for us. And never is this been more apparent to me than when I leave a church body.

I have a friend who doesn’t go to church or believe in God, but she and I love to talk about spirituality and faith, and we have a healthy amount of respect for one another, so the conversations are always rich. Once, when I really got going about my love for my church, she stopped me, maybe mid-sentence:

“Wait. I have friends who brought me casseroles after I had a baby, and I’m not part of a church. How is it different?”

It was, and is, a good question. I don’t remember answering right away, but if I did, it was surely a bit lame. The real answer then was that I didn’t know. The real answer then was murky.

Luckily, the murkiness bothered me, so the question stayed with me for two or three years, like a barnacle or something, and began to resurface just as we got news that Scott had been offered a pastoring gig a half a continent away. I began to wonder why it was so difficult to say goodbye to a body of worshiping believers. Was it the same experience as saying goodbye to any other circle of friends or neighbors?

I wondered if maybe I was just sad that we’d now be missing out on the annual church BBQ, where a few guys at church brought in their giant smokers and made award-winning Kansas City ribs and pulled pork on the lawn in front of the church. And then other people–ladies–church ladies– brought glass casserole dishes of potatoes and cheese. And then we’d all eat together and the kids would bounce in a bounce house and not bother me as I ate all the ribs. I’d miss out on the good music and easy conversation and friendships that maybe would have naturally established without a church, anyway.

Part of the liturgy in Redemption’s service is to pray: “Lord, bind our hearts together as a church.” Every Sunday we prayed this innocuous, dangerous little prayer. In all the years that I attended, I never quite shook the uncomfortable feeling that started to creep up when that prayer was prayed. I mean, consider the hearts of some of the people I went to church with. My heart being bound to the hearts of all those rich soccer moms and poor homeless drunks and kooky conservatives? Not to mention the math majors? I’m sure they often felt the same way about their hearts being bound to mine, which is complainy and judgey and selfish more aware of grammar than perhaps a heart should be. So this, like asking God for patience or generosity, is a prayer that one maybe wouldn’t pray if one knew just how much work and effort and pain on one’s own part it would take to truly get close to an answer.

I am convinced, however, that a fundamental way that the church sneaks into the folds and fabric of our lives, like a little dog who knows she shouldn’t be on the bed, much less burrowed under the sheets, is because of this very prayer. Most of us don’t hand-pick every member of our churches. I’m sure we’d like to. I’m sure we try. But as in our biological families, we become somehow stuck with people we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. Some of them are easy friends while others… aren’t. And the ones that aren’t usually end up in our small groups. My sister tells me stories about a woman who is in her small group. This woman is a talker, and she has every problem in the book. She is needy, and she decided that my sister is her confidant. She calls Kristina at odd hours, they go on walks together, and my sister listens. She listens to this woman, who also dominates their small group discussions with prayer requests and, let’s face it, complaints, about old lovers and mental struggles and medication questions and spiritual questions and carnal desires and ever-present doubts. Kristina doesn’t fix anything. In fact, this particular person has changed very little in the years that my sister has known her.  But perhaps this is the trick to why church is so important. Because it is not about fixing everyone so they can finally be “successful” or “holy” or “inspirational” or “important.” Nope. The trick is to realize that they already are, even when they are mired in addiction or self-congratulations or depression or just general jack-assery. That somehow, God is breaking through right at that very time, in the midst of the all the stuff that makes up being human, regardless of the sliding scale that we have fashioned for ourselves, and is showing God’s self through that particular mess that you call part of your small group or, more articulately, that you call yourself.

But the unity prayer, as drinking-the-Kool-Aid as it may sound at first, is not about the desire to become uniform or robotic. I don’t think. No, at its heart, this prayer asks for grace as we all chase the beautiful model of life that Jesus set for us. For me, I began to understand it as a prayer that each one of us would discover, from our own collection of abilities and tendencies and failures, a way to live faithfully together, a whole body (arms and feet and, as my dad often reminds me, colons) of Christ who have set one Lord above all others, who have made vows to each other to encourage and love and give and forgive and be, together. Even when we don’t like each other. Even when we disagree.

In some ways, I think my friend was right: we all experience the thing that I’m referring to here as “church.” We all are touched by the grace and goodness of God’s children, because, if you ask me, we are all God’s children whether we step foot into a church sanctuary or not. We are all able to reflect, like tiny shards of a broken mirror, the glory and absolute mystery and profound goodness of God, even if we only do it for a moment and only in fragments, even when we don’t realize we’re doing it, even when we aren’t trying, even when we are actively trying not to. We are God’s own.

I will tell you, though, that I never would have gotten to know Jennifer if I didn’t go to church with her. She’s quiet and humble and unassuming and I’m quiet and not good at small talk or, you know, regular talk. I wouldn’t have said more than hello to Gregg, who is different than me in many ways and not someone I would think to engage if I didn’t see him weekly, but who has ideas about art and literature and what it means to be a disciple of Christ that have, consistently, challenged me. I probably would have been intimidated by Ryan, who excels at regular talk and can express his ideas without apologizing for them. I would have totally missed Janelle, who is like me in a lot of ways and so kind that it would be easy to have had a very superficial friendship with her. I would have never known the depths of some of the people who are on stage– Jess or Jessica or Tim. I would have admired their musical talent without knowing the things that make them real. I would have avoided Jackie or Bob, because they are homeless and I wouldn’t want them to think that I knew that they were homeless. And Tom’s good at money, which freaks me out; Kristin will really LISTEN to you, which freaks me out; Chris tells it like it is, which freaks me out; Jim reminds me of my dad too much, which freaks me out; Bill is just, like, a giant. That doesn’t really freak me out, but I feel very small when I talk to him. All of these people, plus dozens of other artists, hippies, conservatives, dreamers, straight-laced youngsters and crazy grannies, super moms and slackers, givers and takers, doers and don’ters, and all of them– all of us– striving toward unity and love and the ability to remember all the ways that following Jesus challenges the foundations of some of the oldest and most treasured -isms that human beings have ever established.

I have recently read many a blog post about why people are leaving church. Why they are sick to death of it. Why they wish it were different. Why they believe that spirituality can be an individual sport.  I don’t say this to discredit those writers or their opinions or the space in the journey that they currently find themselves. Instead, I point it out because it makes me realize the high high value of the churches who have made it hard to leave, churches who do church well. There are still some of those.

Bind our hearts together as a church. Oh God, how thankful I am for that prayer. Because I got to see Jesus in people very different from me, got to see the ways in which the gospel mattered, got to eat good barbeque on the lawn, our faces dripping with sauce, our plastic cups spilling over, our napkins diving to clean up each others’ messes.