Category: The Church

Ask me, I’ll be your witness. I’ll shout it out when you try to get out of your way and let God in. I’ll testify that you’re a new person. I’ll let it be known that you are not the same person. Just ask me.

If it’s true, if I know it, I’ll be your witness because we all need one some days. The days when your strength is gone and you’re not sure you’ve got an ounce of faith left, I’ll remind you. I’ll tell you, you aren’t the same person who walked through those doors. I’ll tell you I remember the day you came in with a hollow face and soul. I saw you sitting in the day room with that vacant look. I remember.

 

But then, then, you got some rest. The good kind of rest that comes after a shower with the water streaming long and hot to wash all that you’ll allow slip down the drain.

Then you slept on a bed for you with clean sheets. You ate and your belly was filled with good food and the dope sickness begins to pass and your hands stop shaking and, miraculously, you feel more human than you remembered in a long time.

It’s taken a while. I saw it when you got anxious and thought you were going to leave again like you have before. That time you thought you felt human and could do it this time, all by yourself.

But you stayed. You listened to someone. Maybe God spoke to you through the big book or through a counselor or, maybe even from the sacred word you hear read each morning. Yes, God was talking to you, I saw that too. I’m your witness. You listened.

Everyone needs a witness and I’ll be yours because your life is a witness to a God who works miracles.

We are his witness. All of us who’ve let him in to reshape us. We’re witnesses to His restorative power, to His redemption and grace.

Everyone needs a witness. I’ll be yours.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. Hebrews 12:1 NLT

faith hope The Church

Preston Yancey writes in the Coming Clean Austin Outtakes that he wasn’t “raised in a house where alcohol made a showing. It wasn’t actively demonized, but it wasn’t given favor.” He was recalling the night Seth came clean to a group of friends, came clean about his recent acknowledgment he was an alcoholic. Preston and others there had a drink in hand. It gave him pause as he considered his shift from being raised in a faith that were squarely abstentionists.

Preston goes on to write: “I see now the icons of bourbon and gin for what they are—
not signs of community, but signs of otherness…I still haven’t gotten beyond the impulse to see alcohol as secretly and seductively insidious. It’s an icon of rebellion. Not by its doing, but my own.

Rebellious years. They are as common for those of us raised in the church as anyone. Sometimes I think perhaps more. It’s like the fruit in the Garden of Eden. The one that is forbidden is the one we want to taste.

Have you noticed that diabetics have an especially sweet tooth? Or that when you have to fast before a blood test is a time you are hungriest?

For me, Preston’s words reveal a side not seen. Beer commercials portray drinking as community. It’s an easy one to buy in to. But for me, the rebellion would be my motive and that doesn’t create community. To call it otherness is right. As he says, not be the doing of the drink but by my own.

We recognize wine as being the most common drink in bible times. We’ve all heard the stories that it was more available, and healthier than water. The bible speaks little about drinking specifically other than to say don’t drink to drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18). It espouses drinking wine for the stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23). There was that embarrassing incident of drunkenness with Noah which sounds more like drinking stories of today.

photo from Pixabay
photo from Pixabay

 

Earlier this year, author Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog about her decision to quit drinking:

I grew to love the imagery of wine in Scripture, to see it as an emblem of the New City and of heavenly banquets. I liked the sophistication of wine, the theology of wine, the metaphor of wine, the community around wine at the table. I liked the celebration of champagne, the warmth of a cabernet, the summer light of chardonnay.

Without noticing, I was drinking almost every night now. It didn’t bother me in the least.

Yes, the Scriptures provide us with beautiful portrayals of wine. The first miracle Jesus performed was turning water into wine. It was, and can still be a sacred drink.

What’s a Christian to do?

For Sarah, it began with what she recognized as a prompting of the Holy Spirit.

“I am always grateful how the Spirit isn’t harsh or overwhelming but rather how at the right time and in the right moment, we know it’s time to change.

We begin to sense that this Thing that used to be okay is no longer okay. The Thing that used to mean freedom has become bondage. The Thing that used to signal joy has become a possibility of sorrow. The Thing that used to mean nothing has become something, perhaps everything.

Or at least that’s what happened to me. It was fine, everything was fine. And then I knew it wasn’t going to be fine for much longer.”

That’s the thing. For some, it won’t be fine much longer. Can you be honest enough to recognize if this is you? It is not easy to give up a habit. It’s not easy to change in front of your friends. It’s not easy to say, “Just water please” when your friend’s glasses are filled with temptation.

After a long day, when all you want to do is unwind, what do you reach for now?

I’m thankful to Seth and Preston and Sarah and the others who are writing publically about something about which the church has said little. There’s no right or wrong answer. There is a discussion that needs to be open and filled with grace. It needs to be true. And the Church needs to be a safe place to have it.

If you or someone you know may have an alcohol problem. find a Celebrate Recovery or AA meeting in your area. Today. Reach out. Speak out.

faith The Church

photo from Pixabay

There has been a geographic divide as well as denomination divide on alcohol use in the church. Evangelicals in our northern states have generally been seen as moderates on the subject with Evangelicals in the south being abstentionists.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Seth Haines’ book, Coming Clean: a Story of Faith has been well received, earning an Award of Merit in the Spiritual Formation category from Christianity Today. Seth fits squarely into the young evangelical demographic who embraces the religious freedom to imbibe. His book is the account of his first 90 days spent in counseling for alcoholism. Like most, Seth didn’t come to this admission quickly or easily. He didn’t take heed of the troubling signs his drinking had become a problem. His wife didn’t say, “Oh, honey, I didn’t notice.” Alcoholism doesn’t work that way.

It can be silent to every outsider. Admitted by the family or not, they know.

In Heather Kopp’s book, Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up With a Christian Drunk, she shares her story of slipping further and further into the numbing power of alcohol. Heather bravely writes about the help she got from attending AA and how she considered it being her church. She and her husband were Christians, church folk, but AA had shown her something she found missing in local congregations. Sober Mercies merges the two, church and AA, in a comfortable space.

In early July 2016, New Spring Church, the largest church in South Carolina, fired their lead pastor, Perry Noble for his “alcohol abuse”. I read the headline in Christianity Today with some surprise. Only, perhaps, that it was a recognizable name. We’ve become accustomed to the fall of those standing in the pulpit. I’ve heard Perry speak and found him to be engaging in his style of presentation and authenticity. A couple of years ago, he talked openly about his bout with depression, another area where the church is too silent.

So what does all of this mean? Can you drink? Should you drink?

Maybe the question is, why are you drinking?

To be continued…

recovery The Church

I was raised in a church where alcohol and tobacco use is not allowed for its pastors and members. We come from a Wesleyan background where this was more commonly adhered to at one time.

This being the only church I’ve known, imagine my surprise when as a child, I saw a priest smoking! I knew with certainty that I’d spied something not meant to be seen by others. Later I learned smoking and drinking were acceptable for Catholic priests and parishioners.

***

The commercial featured a boy who was a picky eater. A bowl of cereal was put in front of him. His expression of disinterest unchanged as his friend said, “He won’t eat it. Mikey hates everything.” A pause, and then he takes a spoonful while the friend exclaims: “He tried it. He likes it!”

When it comes to alcohol, my stance is if you don’t try it, you don’t have to worry about liking it and the accompanying responsibilities.

***

I also grew up with stories of drunken uncles whose arguments erupted into brawls. These stories were told as funny with laughter accompanying each one. Why do we laugh at this behavior that leads to anger expressed in physical harm? ‘Oh, they were drunk. Ha ha ha.’

We laugh at drunken behavior but whisper about drug use. No wonder we’re a mess.

photo from Unsplash

The freedom of drinking has become more a part of the lives of younger evangelicals. Bloggers write about that glass of wine. (Does wine sound more acceptable?) The 30-something podcaster mentions it and it seems there is a whole generation of young evangelicals who have found the freedom to enjoy alcohol as if putting an exclamation point on grace.

Which also means, there is a whole new generation of young evangelicals where one out of 10 will become an alcoholic. It doesn’t happen quickly. It can take ten years or more for it to become an obsessive addiction. You’ll barely notice the slippery slope of this disease.

I’m not against the use of alcohol. I don’t believe drinking is a sin or that you’ll go to hell if you do. I do believe, for many, they’ve opened something they never had to find out. Like Mikey, they’ve tried it and they like it. Only, they really, really like it and then they need it.

The next few days we’ll look more closely at alcohol and addiction within the church. Redemption isn’t reserved for a group of men in a residential rehab program. As we say in Celebrate Recovery: it’s hurts, habits, and hang-ups and we all have them. Whether it’s a substance, a habit, or hurt, we need the redemption of Jesus.

grace The Church

The two men taking up our Sunday offering aren’t elders or deacons. They aren’t pastors or teachers. One of them probably doesn’t know the bible is divided into Old and New Testaments.

He is the young one. The other man is at the tail end of the baby boom generation. John’s shirt sleeves are rolled up revealing his tattooed forearm.

They move up and down the aisles passing the plate, sometimes pausing to make change. There have been times in both of their lives they wouldn’t be trusted with money and I don’t think this is lost on them.

A band has formed among this group of addicts and alcoholics. It probably started on the smoke deck, one musician finding others. Or maybe in the dining room or when one heard another picking on an acoustic guitar in the chapel. They’re metalheads and rockers and have known little of church and its music, new or old. The first song they played on Sunday was the closest they could find to what they thought would fit in church. The amps and distortion turned up as the lead sang out, “Oooh-oh-oh, heaven let your light shine down”. (Shine Down, by rock group Collective Soul.)

They’ve played Knocking on Heaven’s Door and Tears In Heaven and some original songs they’ve written with words leaning more toward a Saving God.

We’ve been in this area of ministry 13 years and I never tire of hearing them encourage one another. It never gets old seeing their comfort in this gathering for worship that in a traditional setting can easily become rehearsed. I think some may not know what a testimony is when we have this time of sharing but they’ll stand and offer from an honest place both struggles and triumphs.

Though scripture is read, prayers prayed, hymns sung and testimonies shared, there is no official membership in this church. Some who have completed this 6-month program come back to worship with us. They come back to encourage others and strengthen their souls. They come back as one beggar showing another where the bread is. That is the membership required for this fellowship of the broken.

You can read the rest as I join with Lesley at Life in the Spacious Place, sharing God’s redemptive work. 

 

hope recovery The Church

We noticed the small crowd of people in waters about waist high. They were just off the shores of our local beach. My curiosity was raised as I craned my neck to get a look at what was going on. Ah….as I thought…a baptism. The hugs of joy from those on the sand encircled the man, dripping wet from going under these waters made holy.

I was 12 the first time I saw someone baptized. I don’t know what brought my family to this church that wasn’t ours. I remember it being quite large and every pew filled and there she was, in front of friends and strangers, being dunked into this pool of water. Interesting.

My husband and I are from a church that doesn’t practice baptism. This isn’t to be confused with not believing in or accepting of baptism or the sacraments.

 

Ours is not a sacramental church. That is to say, we don’t baptize or have communion in our denomination.

‘Life (ie eternal) does not come by a sacrament, nor is it maintained by a “sacramental substance” but by a Divine Person consciously revealed in us as a present redeeming, life-giving Saviour.’ – Bramwell Booth, son of Salvation Army founder

There are documented reasons for this choice that was made by William Booth, our church founder. He was from the Methodist tradition, a church that regularly practiced communion.

The Oxford Dictionary defines sacrament as “a religious ceremony or act of the Christian Church that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace, in particular”. (Emphasis mine)

A summary of the reasons for this can be found here.

The explanation I was taught was that for many, the outward act became their salvation. We’ve probably heard people talk about their baptism as if it ensures their place in heaven. As if act of baptism is their salvation.  Actions and works don’t save us. Jesus through his gracious forgiveness saves us.

Rather, our denomination suggests we live a sacramental life daily.

Communion is shared around the lunch table with coworkers. Baptism of the soul is evidenced in our character. Our words and deeds are offered as visible signs of inward and spiritual divine grace. Shouldn’t this be the real sign of our salvation?

However, we’ve created our own ceremonial sacraments.

We dedicate our babies and enroll our church members. The church flag is is prominent at each ceremony, emblazoned with the words Blood & Fire.

Our ministers are ordained and commissioned in a sacred ceremony, signing covenants, again under this flag. The outward signs ever present in our traditions, our sacraments.

Is it arguable that we’ve chosen not to practice water baptism and communion? There is always argument in the church.

Will the omission of these two outward acts keep one from salvation?

“We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” Acts 15:11 NLT

Grace abounds for all. For the baptized by water and the baptized soul. For the tangible sacraments of cup and bread and the daily sacramental living. Grace flowing in a figurative daily baptism for all who believe on the name of Jesus.

The tide is now flowing, I’m touching the wave,
I hear the loud call of the mighty to save;
My faith’s growing bolder, delivered I’ll be;
I plunge ‘neath the waters, they roll over me.

verse 6 of O Boundless Salvation
written by William Booth, founder, Salvation Army

faith grace Salvation Army The Church

It would be a safe guess that Jesus Loves Me was the first song I learned to sing. Sunday School songs came long before Romper Room and Mary Poppins. I was raised with the kind of choruses that had motions. We sang about Zacheus being a wee little man as we held our hand out low and then we pantomimed his climb up the sycamore tree.

Our fingers numbered 1, 2, and 3 when we sang about Peter, James and John and we folded our arms in some kind of makeshift sailboat. We climbed and sailed and marched and clapped. We didn’t let Satan blow (insert a blowing sound) out our little light but we did let him sit on a tack.

church stretch

Over the holidays our family played a questions game and one asked what song did we know every word by heart. My immediate answer was Happy Birthday. My son questioned, “not even a U2 song?”. When I gave it a moment’s thought the songs I know every word to are the ones learned in church. Some with motions, most without. Songs seldom sung these days.

Bible stories were taught in these childhood choruses and theology sung in the old hymns. Not all of the theology we sang was sound but stories were told.

When Alzheimer’s was taking more of mama’s mind and she didn’t know me as her daughter, her foot tapped and head nodded as she mouthed the words to the old gospel tunes. Music has a way of working deep into our core. It engages our brain and wraps around heart.

Music has a profound impact on my life. Its melodies and rhythms move me, often literally, and the lyrics instruct, remind, articulate and celebrate so many things in life.

Nearly every Sunday in my daddy’s church ended with the song Just As I am. These words accurately convey the gospel invitation that Jesus wants us just as we are.

The 5th verse says:

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Its old words use to get in my way, the Thee’s and Thou’s, but the meaning was always clear. I’m coming with all my baggage because I believe the promise of God. The Promise that he sent his son into this world to save us, to receive, welcome, pardon, cleanse and relieve us from our sin.

It was a song sung as an invitation. As daddy stood behind the pulpit leading this song inviting people to come forward to the altar or to pray in their seats but come to Jesus. Just as you are.

Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

faith Music Salvation Army The Church

We are sort of like your average church. Our Sunday service outline is basic with slight changes week to week.

Sunday after Sunday will look like this:

Welcome & Announcements
Doxology sung before the offering is collected
A Call to Worship will be read responsively
Congregational song
Prayer
Someone will read selected scripture
Another song will be sung
Sermon
an invitation for prayer at the altar
Amazing Grace will be sung as the benediction every Sunday

Some weeks we’ll have a special music presentation or add a video. We’ll mark special days with the proper recognitions.

We’re not that different except….except that our chairs are filled with men required to be there (most of them), men who are living in this rehabilitation center. A free program for men who’ve lost their way in life and found themselves with no place to go so they come here. It’s free. It’s clean. They will be fed well and receive many services including counseling but they have to attend Sunday chapel. These weekly services that are conducted like many church meetings anywhere.

chapel

ARC chapel

Except….except when they pray.

It was one of those weeks when we veered a bit from the usual and our time of prayer was going to include them. After the prayer was started, it was open for any of the men to offer their prayers. Spoken for all to hear. And that’s when the ordinary became extraordinary. That’s when I was leaning forward, craning to hear their voices, that’s when my heart filled with gratitude and joy. That’s when I joined them in silent prayers of affirmation as I heard these words:

thank you for waking us up today
thank you for a second chance

save me from myself
give me a long life living right and save me from an early death
deliver us
don’t let us go
when I came through these doors I begged you to take away my cravings and addictive behavior and you’ve done that.
thank you for giving us a new life.
thank you for the brotherhood around me
thank you for teaching us how to love others around us the right way
thank you for showing me it’s not about my performance but it’s about you
thank you for showing yourself to us, you came to me because I never came to you
show me the lesson in everything, in the trials and tribulations, show us the way to live
thank you for the opportunity to make a decision to turn my life and will over to you

We’ve pastored the traditional congregation. We’ve had times of corporate when others were asked to join with their spoken prayers and we’ve waited, and waited, for the first person to utter words aloud. But with these men who are struggling through addictions and battered by self-doubt and bitterness, their prayers poured out one after the other like the water lapping on the shore.

And that’s what their prayers are, water, life-giving water flowing right to the heart of God.

faith hope Salvation Army The Church

Our church isn’t liturgical. I don’t think I knew that word until I was an adult. I thought the ‘church calendar’ was Christmas and Easter, including Good Friday, of course.

To me, Saints were either in the bible or more recent dead people who’d been in church their whole lives. Living saints? A few old folks may have been described in that way. Sinners? Oh yes, we were all sinners- with the tag line ‘saved by grace’.

Our denomination is a combination of Wesleyan and Armenian in practice and theology meaning we can get a little loosey-goosey with how our church services are conducted. Some will have everyone stand when scripture is read and others won’t. Some sit, stand, sit, stand as if it were a Catholic mass but most are more intentional about just sitting there.

Oh, and we clap our hands on fast songs. Yes, yes, we do. There may even be a few timbrels shaking too.

But we don’t follow a calendar that has words like Maundy and we don’t refer to Mary as our mother.

I was an adult before I saw Advent candles in one of our church or had an Ash Wednesday service. New expressions of worship were being brought to our nontraditional Sunday worship.

praise

waving SA flag

ARC chapel

One of my favorite reads of this year was Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. Nadia Bolz-Weber, the author, is a pastor in the Lutheran church. She is an unusual mix of foul-mouthed visual edginess and liturgical orthodoxy.

In her book, she talks about celebrating All Saints Day in House for All Sinners and Saints, the church she pastors. She prefaces by saying Americans “tend to forget our ancestors” except the church where we proclaim the dead are still part of us.

The Bible provides a record of those who’ve gone on before us, who’ve charted the way. The book of Hebrews refers to our “great cloud of witnesses”, those saints who have lead the way and support us still. (Hebrews 12:1)

Our church doesn’t affix the title Saint to the names of the disciples or anyone. We might refer to the Apostle Paul but not Saint Paul or Matthew or Christopher (who I’ve heard is one of the saints in the Catholic church).

The only qualifications we’ve held for someone to hold this title is that they are old and a long-time church goer. There is no ceremony and no official title.

chapel

prayer

chapel dance

The past dozen years I’ve found myself in the company of people who have been labeled addict. Some have criminal records, others have done worse crimes but have never been found out. These are the men we ask to read scripture in our Sunday worship. Men who were thieves move up and down the aisles collecting the offering from others who have robbed.

We sit with them at lunch and hug them when needed, or just because it’s Tuesday.

These men are confusing my picture of saints.

Bolz-Weber says, “I want racist to stay in the “racist” box. When they start sneaking into the “saint” box, it makes me nervous. But that’s how it works……I am faced with the sticky ambiguities around saints who were bad and sinners who were good.”

“…it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinner.”

I see these men work for their sobriety, for their recovery. But we don’t have to work for grace. Praise God for his mercy and grace that allows his love to flow through a sinner like me and make this sinner a saint for more than one day.

faith grace Salvation Army The Church

How do you tell them you’re tired? That your smiles aren’t as real as they use to be? That, most days, you have to make yourself show up.

This isn’t suppose to happen. Not to us, not to people who are the ones who hug you when you’ve come back after your last relapse. Not to people who are grace-givers and hope-peddlers.

This isn’t suppose to happen.

But it does. It has and I don’t know what to do with my tired heart and pretend smile.

In the early days I held a little distance between us, between me and the residents of our facility, aka: addicts. I watched and listened and let God soften my heart. I walked carefully into this new ministry, this foreign world on home soil.

I walked through the first few years a bit dazed by it all and unsure of where to make my place. Some of the men called me mom, adding to my unsettled feelings. I wasn’t out to be their mom, but I smiled politely because I was learning.

Time passed and I let the tears fall when one didn’t return home because now I was happy to be called ‘mom’. I wanted to make this place a home where they can know love and grace and mercy and that love and mercy don’t exclude rules for communal living.

God was using this community of residents and staff to show me the real ‘amazing grace’. This was compassion and mercy and love and they will steal your heart and leave you empty and tired with no more tears to cry for the next one.

We pull away, we take vacation, we have creative endeavors, we do all of the things that should keep us healthy and our souls fit for caring one more day. But now, my tears are from feeling numb to it all.

Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: Compassion Fatigue

Where is the renewal of my soul?

around the lake

birdhouse on the lake

around the lake on Lake Junaluska

One of the perks about our ministry is the competent counselors on staff. What could be better than a licensed mental health counselor, just down the hall from my office? I told her I’d lost it. I’d lost the passion and energy and that I had to make myself show up.

She looks me in the eye, listening to my words as well as my heart. Her voice softens and she asks me, again, ‘What about you? You’re a nurturer but are you taking care of you? What are you doing that’s for you?’ You know I am, Marian. You know I’m taking a photography class and that I write. You know I do those things for me.

She pressed on, ‘ But who are your friends? Your girlfriends? The ones you do things with, not your husband, your friends?

Ah, yes. The ones who live in other states. Those friends? The story gets complicated and our talk grows quiet as she knows I’ll walk out her door and nothing will change.

win or lose

beachGate

beach chair

We are wired to tend to the needs of others while ignoring the weakening pulse in our heart. The bible is full of verses about putting others first and serving the least and how the last will be first in the Kingdom. These verses of works walk hand in hand with the faith on which they are built. One without the other is dead so we carry on until we slowly die on the inside.

There is that one verse. The one I like reading in the Message, the one that makes me think of music and the ocean and the graceful rhythms of both.

It’s as if Eugene Peterson was reading my mind when he wrote this paraphrase:
“Are you tired? Worn out ? Burned out on religion?”

Well, yes… yes, I am.

“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Sometimes keeping company with Jesus looks like a phone call with a friend, a heart to heart with my sister or laughing at an 8-year old’s jokes. These are life breaths to suck in deeply, slowly, and hold, ……..then the release, exhaling slower still . The renewal comes in the release. Always in the release.

faith hope recovery The Church