Tag Archives: church

Identity

There are days when I go to church and wonder why I bothered.

And then there are days like last Sunday . . .

Let me set the stage. Mr. P and Boy Patriot were camping last weekend. When they camp, I rarely go to church. I am not a social animal on the best of days, and church is often more than I can take. So I really didn’t have any intention of going to church last week . . .

. . . except that I couldn’t get rid of the nagging thought that I should go.

I won’t call it a guilt thing. It was more of just an insistence that I needed to be there. We’ve been intermittent attenders lately, anyway, so it’s hard to say that I was feeling compelled out of habit. I just thought I should go.

I went to bed with the sense that I should go to church, but I set my alarm and figured I’d see how I felt in the morning.

I woke up early.

That never happens.

The nagging thought was still there.

I sighed. “Okay, Lord. I guess I should go to church. I hope there’s a good reason.”

The first song was a favorite hymn–something that set my attitude aright. I think God knows what we need when it comes to worship. And worship isn’t just the singing–it’s the listening and integrating, too. I needed that little reset in order to hear the words offered by our pastor.

And such words they were, too!

He spoke on work–our need for it, our calling to it, our warped view of it, and the rest.

I have long accepted the notion that God created us to work–that we are wired with a deep need to perform some task that brings glory to the Father. And in my head, there are different kinds of work. I’ve loosely categorized them as creative, constructive, restorative, and maintenance. There may be more, but those are my categories.

But although it seems obvious, I never really thought about God as a worker.

It makes sense though, doesn’t it? That God was the FIRST worker in history? He made things. He created. He built and molded and shaped. And when He had finished, He rested. How could He have rested had He not worked first?

So that was a revelation.

But the real revelation was this:

I have identity issues.

My crisis over the past several months/couple of years came on because of idolatry and disobedience, and I do believe that. But what I didn’t realize until Sunday was that my idolatry and disobedience were born of a warped sense of identity.

I forgot Who I belong to.

I am so used to saying “I’m a writer” that I forgot what a lie it is.

I’m not a writer.

I’m a daughter of the King, forgiven and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, given new life and restored to right relationship with God the Father, bought back, purchased, restored, covered, and adopted as a child of the Most High God.

Who happens to write.

I think that my head has been moving in that direction for a while, because ever since I had my little “come to Jesus” with . . . well, Jesus . . . a couple of weeks ago, I have found myself much less bothered by the writing posts of writing acquaintances from my old life. Where they used to feel like a punch in the gut, I can now share them with my own followers on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t know if you can call it jealousy or irritation or pain or just the grief of saying goodbye to something that was so dear to me, but for the longest time, just even reading a post about someone else’s write almost drove me to tears.

And lately, those posts just don’t bother me.

Which, really, is rather ironic considering that I have had zero time to pursue any of my own fiction work in the last two weeks.

But I think, maybe, possibly, I’m starting to remember who I belong to. I’m starting to put my identity back in the Hands of the One Who created, constructed, restored, and maintains it.

And suddenly, going back to working on or sharing my fiction just doesn’t seem all that important.

This isn’t to say I’m shutting the door or saying I won’t work on it, and it’s not angst, I promise. It’s a recognition–a position of my heart–that says that even as important and fulfilling and wonderful as writing fiction was, it pales in comparison to the redemption and grace and mercy and love offered at the foot of the Cross.

I’m 44 years old. I accepted Christ when I was five. You would think I’d get this by now. But I’m still learning.

I’m still learning that He is my treasure and my strength and my source.

I’m still learning that my hope is built on nothing less than His Blood and Righteousness.

I’m still learning that nothing I do in this world–being a wife, mother, writer, troop leader, volunteer, or anything else–can ever get me to where I want to be, because the only place my soul longs to be is in the presence of Jesus.

So.

It’s spring break here, and the ducklings are home. And I’m working again, trying to maintain some semblance of discipline so that I can have focused time to work on rebuilding my freelancing business. Discipline means office hours, free time, and the things that I and the family need built into the day without begrudging any of it.

But it also means remembering–moment by moment if I must–Who I belong to.

Because for all my talk about balance and the work-at-home life and parenting and the rest, I never had the anchor in the right place. I anchored my best laid plans in the work itself, not the One who provided the work.

So maybe I am getting it, just a little bit.

Till next we meet . . .

J M

Advertisements

Connection

Another week down. I am ashamed to admit that I forget I have this blog. I can glean two insights from that truth: one, that I no longer blog incessantly/obsessively, and two, that I am most likely in one of my drawing in phases.

I go through these phases periodically. I find myself just tired. I haven’t been as active on Twitter lately, either. The bulk of my Internet use of late has been the occasional retweet and the habitual pinning of sewing and knitting patterns on Pinterest.

But in the interests of accountability, I thought I should share briefly about my new endeavor. It’s nothing dramatic for most people, but for me, it’s huge.

I joined a women’s Bible study.

[Cue the dramatic music.]

This move was a difficult one for me, especially in the midst of a “drawing in” phase. I didn’t do it because I felt like I was missing out on something or because I have friends there or anything else. I did it because . . . well, I honestly still haven’t figured it out. I guess I just felt like I should. I had some sense that I should be there.

This particular study group has been meeting one weekday morning a week for twelve years, and I’ve always found a reason not to attend–small children still at home, my freelancing schedule, limited emotional resources to pour into something like that, disinterest in the topics, etc. My children are all in school now, and I’m no longer writing (though I certainly have plenty of work to do on American Heritage Girls and other things), so my practical excuses were at an end. I decided that I should probably give it a shot, if for no other reason than the value of accountability in pursuing my own personal time in the Bible.

But there were other reasons as well–ones that are much harder to talk about. This past year has been so painful for me for so many reasons. In addition to shutting down all of my writing endeavors, I also found it necessary to say goodbye (or at least “see you later”) to a lot of people who I found too draining on my spirit and psyche. Many of those people were writers, sadly. I said goodbye to a community, and that was not easy to do, but it was a community where I didn’t feel safe. In truth, I haven’t had a community where I could be safe and “unfiltered” in a very long time. So I guess the point is that I had to go looking for community.

Last week, the lesson focused on how vital it is to be connected with other believers, to be “in fellowship,” to have “koinonia.” And I fell apart. I confessed to this group of women who barely know me that I know I’m hard to love, that I don’t fit the mold of a proper church lady, that I fully expect rejection by the church.

And lest you think that they gathered around me in a big group hug . . . well, no. They didn’t. Which was fine, because I didn’t expect it. There were verbal assurances that it was okay to be introverted and everything, but mostly, I felt like these other women didn’t really understand what I was saying. Mostly I kept hearing that “we need connection, we need fellowship, we’re made for that, blah, blah, blah.” And I tried, in my faltering, blubbering, tearful way to say that I just can’t be that way.

Listen, church. Maybe you don’t mean it this way, but when I hear “we need fellowship,” all I can see is another month full of potlucks. When I hear “we have to be connected to other Christians,” all I feel is threatened by judgments that I know will come down on me once people know me. When I hear “iron sharpens iron,” I hear “your salvation depends on you being with other Christians.”

I suppose all I’m saying is that for some of us, connection doesn’t look like a calendar full of Approved and Sanctioned Church Events (TM). For me, just having five or six close friends who share my beliefs is probably enough to satisfy my need for connection and social interaction. I get teaching online and through reading. Mr. P and I have long theological discussions. I have two or three online friends with whom I can discuss deeper issues of faith and art and the tension that lies in that whole subject. My mom and I are close, and we talk about a lot of the practical issues around raising children to be men and women of faith. And I have a close friend with whom I can discuss those things as well, even though we differ on some things in our approaches.

So why am I there?

I still don’t know. I’ve gone two weeks now, and I haven’t had any kind of epiphany or breakthrough, really, last week’s blubbering aside. I have mostly spent the last few weeks with my stomach tied in knots in anticipation of going. To be candid, that’s probably what triggered the blubbering–not so much the topic, but the tension in my stomach and my spirit. It’s possible that any topic could have triggered the blubbering.

Yet I still feel drawn to go.

I still haven’t decided whether to go back this week. I can think of a million reasons not to and only one in favor–that I have this urge to be there. It’s possible that it’s just simple obedience. What I fear, though, is that I’m just falling into another checklist theology. I don’t want to be a checklist believer–a follower of Christ who slavishly marks off all the “dos” on her list because they are all “what a good church lady does.” I want to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. And I fear that I will end up resenting the Lord because of random checkboxes put on me by the church, not by Him.

So I suppose the question is . . . are these the church’s checkboxes or the Bible’s checkboxes?

I will admit to having a lot of personal baggage about women’s study groups in general and about interaction with church people. I have just always felt rather like a black sheep or ugly stepchild in the church. So it’s entirely possible that this is just me and I just need time to get over my issues and be a participant in the movement I am called to be part of–this movement based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For the moment? For the moment . . . I suppose it’s just more obedience.

Till next we meet . . .

J M

Audience of One

“We can present beauty without being trivial, evil without being gratuitous, and redemption without being hokey.”

— John Stonestreet, Breakpoint

I have been on a quest of late.

After months of insisting that I could not, would not go back to writing fiction, the gentle encouragement of friends and my husband has begun to break down my self-imposed barriers. I feel, once again, the draw of the Muse, and I long to let the words pour out through my own chipped and battered soul and onto the page, where perhaps some semblance of sense can be made of this world and its fallen nature.

But I have remained hesitant to actually indulge much more than just a cursory re-read or edit of old works. I have been living in fear, terrified of falling too far into my imaginary worlds, petrified by the thought of trying to please an audience again.

When I had my self-published works live and available for sale, I attempted to reach a secular audience. I assumed that most Christian readers would not want to read my version of reality. Aside from the fact that my characters swear and curse, occasionally drink to drunkenness, struggle with temptations of a sexual nature (and yes, occasionally give into those temptations), pursue power, worship idols, and reject the call of a loving God, I also commit another cardinal sin of the artist: I do not accurately represent reality.

You see, I write speculative fiction–more specifically, fantasy. There is a vocal segment of the Christian book-reading population that firmly espouses a belief that anything even remotely touching on “magic” is satanic. (I have still not figured out how that segment justifies reading The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.)

My quest began because I started to re-evaluate the criticism I had received about my self-published works. It’s interesting that I did not typically receive criticism about quality of work; indeed, most people complimented my craft, accuracy, attention to detail, and overall quality. No, the most biting criticism I received was that my work was “too traditional.” Themes of social justice bothered some; they believed that my treatment of slavery, human trafficking, and forced prostitution was “cliche” and “old-fashioned.” They believed that my characters were too clean, pure, and noble. And they thought I relied too much on “old-fashioned” fantasy devices.

Well, perhaps some of those criticisms are accurate. The one that I received most often–that I lacked finesse in building my worlds–was one that, while painful to hear, I could at least understand. I admit that’s my weak spot.

But oddly, those things mainstream secular readers complained about would quite possibly appeal to Christian readers. I think most of my Christian friends love a good, old-fashioned, good vs. evil hero story. Those stories are falling out of favor with mainstream fantasy readers.

The problem is . . .

I have long said that the Christian entertainment industry is more concerned with cleanliness than truth. Many Evangelicals will happily accept watery, shallow, or just plain wrong doctrine as long as there are no curse words and no sex.

My worlds are not very clean, but the truths in my worlds are absolute. I do my best to ensure that even when the worlds I create do not comport with reality, they at least comport with biblical truth. Sometimes, revealing that truth takes a long while. Sometimes, revealing those truths is messy and ugly.

It was during my “quest” and over several e-mail exchanges that my friend Laurel suggested that I read Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers. And while the majority of on-screen sexual activity is between a married couple (and it’s veiled, at that), and while there is no cursing (that I recall), I could see why my friend suggested the book. Rivers had no qualms about telling a story that involved child rape, forced prostitution, adultery, even forced marriage. The purpose?

To tell a story about how God woos those who are called to be His own.

The story of Redeeming Love, in my opinion, is not so much about Michael and Angel as it is about the love story between God and Angel. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed it so much. While I love a good love story, I am not typically drawn to the romance genre because I find romance for the sake of the romance rather tedious. But Redeeming Love is about so much more than just Michael and Angel’s romance; it’s about God’s relentless pursuit of Angel to the very gates of Hell, all for the purpose of winning her to Himself.

And so, my quest continued. What responsibility does the artist have, I asked myself, to portray reality? To offer a salvation message? To point directly to God? To do all of those things cleanly, neatly, with nary a hair out of place on any character except the villain, who is permitted to say “hell” and “damn” in only certain cases?

It was at this point that I read this post on Think Christianity, which led me to this John Stonestreet post at Breakpoint and finally to this fantastic post by Philip Ryken at The Gospel Coalition. All of these posts are so very worth reading, but let me just quote one paragraph about how the church discourages artists as summed up by Stonestreet:

First, they said, treat the arts as window dressing for the truth rather than the window into reality it’s intended to be. Second, embrace bad art just because it’s “Christian.” Third, value artists only for their artistic gifts, but not for the other contributions they can make as thinkers and servants with a unique perspective. Fourth, demand that artists only give answers in their work, but never raise questions. Fifth, never pay artists for their work—take advantage of them in ways we would never do with plumbers or accountants. And finally, only validate art that has a direct salvation application.

Can I get an “amen?”

(Also, as an aside, why do so few articles and posts about the arts neglect writers? With the occasional exception of poetry, I have not read much about the arts and Christianity that acknowledges that writing–especially writing fiction–is also an art. Could it be, perhaps, that it’s because those writing the articles are also writers? Do they not see the value and artistic application of their own talent and skill? It must be said, too, that I have read non-fiction works by Lewis, Sproul, Willard, and others that were so beautifully evocative and descriptive that there was no way they could not be considered “art.”)

And so, I come at last to my epiphany. My stories are my art. There is no getting around this. I have resisted this truth for years, but I cannot ignore it any longer. God infected me with these stories for a reason. He must intend for me to tell them. Whether I ever share them with anyone again is up for debate at some future point in time. I think I have to at least write them.

I have said many times that I am not a believer who gets messages by “burning bush.” I don’t have a conversational relationship with God. I don’t know if I ever will. But if this is the talent and the means and the process and the product that He gave me to communicate His truths to the best of my ability, then I must have some obligation to follow that path, mustn’t I?

So why was I hesitant? I think it’s because this was an act of obedience. I was obedient when I put everything aside. I believe that. I believe that I had to recenter myself on what was important. I absolutely had to rebalance my life.

But now, I come to the even greater act of obedience: returning to this thing–gift, calling, what-have-you–through which I can attempt to communicate themes of sin, redemption, forgiveness, love, victory, hope, faith, perseverance, goodness, and all the rest.

I can no longer be bound by worry about what secular readers think of my work. The really hard part is to refuse to be bound by what Christian readers think of my work. I think that, perhaps, I have come to the place where I should have started.

I must write, but I must write for an Audience of One.

Till next we meet . . .

J M

 

Growing?

Recently, it was suggested to me once again that only when I am in communion with the church am I useful to God and able to grow in my Christian maturity. The words were not so blatant as this–they were couched in a “pep talk” designed to encourage an audience to join a “small group” or find a place to serve in the church. And once again, I was left frustrated at the idea that I cannot be useful unless I participate in the Branded and Sanctioned Small Group(TM) with its Appropriate Curriculum and proper amounts of Fellowship (read: potlucks) and Sharing (read: chit chat masquerading as sharing prayer requests).

Gentle reader, I have no disagreement with the idea that we should participate in corporate worship. Indeed, we are instructed to do so. And though it’s not easy for me, I do attend corporate worship and sermon time as much as possible. I enjoy our senior pastor’s sermons. I like the worship music (though I could stand to hear a few more hymns and some more songs based on actual worship and not just how Jesus makes us feel). I also do not disagree that we should be discipled by more mature Christians, nor do I have any issue with the idea that we must serve. Indeed, as James tells us, faith without works is useless and dead.

No, the issue I have is twofold: that somehow, small group time is necessary for growth in the Christian walk, and that somehow, the only serving that is blessed is that which is church-affiliated. I’ll tackle these one at a time.

As to the first . . . I do not enjoy small groups. I have tried them many, many times. I am not a social person. I am an introvert, and I have a small circle of very close friends, and spending time with people outside of that circle or the circle of my immediate family is unbelievably taxing on me. I have never mastered the art of small talk. I either share too much or not enough. I have no talent for “church speak” or “Jesus happy face.” Too many times, I have offended and hurt and annoyed just by being my plain-speaking self. I find the social dynamic of groups extremely exhausting and overwhelmingly frustrating. When the group leaders try to force additional outside events into the dynamic, I am overcome with a desire to find a blanket and a corner and suck my thumb.

Now, if that were the only problem with small groups, I might agree with you that I just need to get over my issues and force myself to participate. And if there were some compelling reason to do so, I would. But the vast majority of small groups I’ve been part of offered only watery, weak, repetitive curricula. When meatier topics and ideas were suggested or offered, there was often little interest from the rank and file. I understand that iron sharpens iron, but wet noodles don’t sharpen anything. And when I have found a small group that delves into more intense subject matter, the enforced social times push me away. Those groups always seem to include the requirement that we have to grow closer by spending time together outside of the group. Dear Christian friends, please believe me–you don’t want me in your social times. Well, not if you want others to enjoy themselves.

Since I’ve returned to the foot of the cross in the last three or four months, I’ve grown more than I did in the past six or seven years when I tried various small groups. This is not to say there is no small group or study I would ever join; I am just saying that I find it a bit offensive to suggest that I can’t possibly grow unless I’m “plugged in.”

As to the next issue . . . I heartily disagree with those who suggest or say that the only service that “counts” is that which is offered in the church. Mr. P and I both have very active roles in community organizations, and quite frankly, we don’t have the time or energy to serve at church. When we make it to the service, we enjoy a Sabbath time–often the only one we get in a week. But our community commitments bring us in contact with many, many people who are not Christians or are struggling financially or have family problems. We both have many opportunities to make a difference in those lives, and we have both had opportunities to speak truth into lives that are far from it. After all, is this not what the church is called to be–salt in the world? I cannot imagine that salt is very useful if it remains in the salt shaker.

So forgive me, church, if I find the watered down doctrine and enforced social engagement unappealing. Forgive me if I would prefer to be discipled by people like John Piper, Greg Koukl, and R. C. Sproul–mature, clear-thinking Christians who offer meat for someone dying of an all-sugar diet. Forgive me if I use up all of my social energy serving outside the church and do not have the time or inclination to cook for yet another potluck or help spread another “Jesus loves you” message to the proverbial choir.

Some believers are like flowers that grow in vast fields of their kinds, bringing fragrance and beauty for a few months each year before fading under the weight of autumn and winter. Some are more like fruit trees that grow alone in an orchard, not dependent upon the company of others, but enjoying it and deriving benefit from it. It occurs to me that I am perhaps a lone oak tree in the center of a field–a tree that revels in its Maker and drinks the water of life that flows at its roots, that doesn’t seem to need little trees growing at its feet, but prefers to give shade to those who approach its spreading branches. The oak is no better or worse than the flower or the fruit tree; it’s simply different, and it has its place, and it can still grow because it derives its nutrition from the same Source.

Till next we meet . . .

J M