We were worthy of assault

It was the liturgy that first warmed my heart.

I tried to be cautious, not to fall in love too quickly. How long should one wisely wait to call a church one’s home? I still don’t know the answer to that question. I thought the three-ish months of spring 2014 was enough before I posted the first cautious, positive-but-non-committed reference to Plow Creek Mennonite Church (actually, it was just a reference to Plow Creek Bakery) on social media. Then a week later, another post referencing Plow Creek Farm’s delicious strawberries.

But the fact is, my heart was aglow from the first moment one Sunday in March 2014 when I settled into the beat-up metal folding chair with the dark blue Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book sitting on it. In a matter of less than two hours, I tentatively decided there was something good worth at least a second drive of 40 minutes one way to this extremely awkward church of 20 or so hippie-ish farmers in the boonies who worshipped in a questionable-smelling building and ate fellowship meals on the most unsanitary tables I’d ever encountered.

It was love at first sight, despite my valiant attempts to moderate my feelings. Christiana wrote a good post describing how great and un-great we are (were). I don’t feel the need to repeat what she said, but if you want to know more about the church I loved, read it.

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“Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Palm Sunday dance

There were about 18 months of delightful fellowship, during which time some new people joined us. The few Sundays when all 30 of us managed to assemble were great shows of triumph in my eyes. We were the scrappiest little outpost for Jesus’ eternally victorious kingdom. I didn’t think we were perfect, of course, but we were good. There would always be room to improve, sure — but we were doing it right.

I saw what I wanted to see.

Month after month, we shared our homemade bread and juice from the grapes on our land in a common cup formed by one of us. We moved through the nourishing cycle of the church’s calendar, telling each other the story of our redemption and future glory in Jesus Christ, our death-beating God. Our liturgy was not plagued by the “worship wars” — we made room for faith formation old, new and everywhere in between. Our children unwittingly yielded stunning insights about the kingdom we were to inherit. (Precious “kids’ time!” How close you brought us to the New Jerusalem!)

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God gave our kids insights that blew me away sometimes

After those 18 months, I got a new job that allowed me to move anywhere I wanted. I declared my desire to move onto Plow Creek’s jointly owned property. I wanted to take our relationship to the next level. I was courageously scorning the world’s disapproval to embrace the wild, dark, organic-smelling, bug-and-spider-infested, devoid-of-any-good-pizza-places boonies I’d always said I’d never move to. The call of my King was unmistakable, and communion with him was better than anything.

Two years after falling in love, I euphorically pronounced my formal membership commitment to Plow Creek Mennonite Church on Easter Sunday 2016. Perhaps I’ll never have the words to describe my joy, my relief, my passion that day.

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Our Common Building will no longer be ours, but the kingdom for which it stands will never pass away.

And then… I slowly grew conscious of our problems. By late summer, some of the newer people were talking about leaving. I was sad, but had to accept it in the end.

I still remember what I call the last good night: On November 8, 2016 — the night of the U.S. presidential election — a group from Plow Creek and our sister congregation, Willow Springs Mennonite Church, shared communion in my living room, pledging anew our fidelity to the kingdom of God regardless of whatever non-good news the election results yielded. The honor of facilitating our meal and exhorting these beloved people was mine — a memory I’ll cherish for life.

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The leftover bread after communion on election night

On November 9, in the immediate aftermath of the aforementioned non-good news, more of our people announced they were planning to leave our fellowship. This blindsided me. I had no warning. My heart broke, and the resulting pain persisted — through Advent, through Christmas, past Epiphany — until it transformed into numb gloom sometime in mid-February.

During this time, we lost three of our oldest members to literal, physical death. A cloud of death was over us all. There would be no recovery. We were witnesses to the grieving process of our own dissolution. This process included the flow of many tears and sharp words — precious testaments in themselves to the familiarity we had cultivated — as we futilely tried to resist speaking the reality of our ending.

By Easter 2017, we were no longer meeting as a congregation. Only one year after I had joyfully claimed membership, we were effectively finished. Our energy had failed.

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Our last Christmas Eve, 2016

How can I describe the path that led us to pronounce the reality of our undoing? Some things are only for us to try to make sense of. God knows I’m the least qualified to analyze it, since I of all of us know the least about it. The truth is that there were significant problems among us long before I ever sat down in that folding chair. Part of the story is that we were victims of our human frailty. The part of the story I’m clinging to is that we were targeted by enemy forces because we had something worth targeting. And in his inscrutable sovereignty, God allowed them this victory over us, for the ultimate purpose of his glory, the design of which we may or may not one day know. Amen.

Did not God allow his enemies a victory over his own Son? If he then gave Jesus a greater victory, our hope for sharing in that greater victory is in our unity with Jesus. Beloved people, that is something no enemy can take away. Now is the time to demonstrate our faith in that Resurrection victory is real.

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The farm team planning creation care farming operations

I have no hard feelings toward any of us. I refuse to. That would accomplish absolutely nothing, and it would be just one more victory for the enemy. They won’t get that from me.

Nonetheless, for me — I can’t speak for the others — there remains a sense of shame. Particularly because my job and all its accompanying networking centers around the church. Summer is church convention season, so I’m meeting all kinds of church people, and naturally one of their first questions is, “What congregation are you from?” And again and again I have to pronounce the hideous confession, “Well, I’m church-homeless right now.” And then, particularly because of my age, I feel the urge to clarify that I’m not one of “those millennials” who’ve “given up on church.” So then I have to say, “My church is dissolving.” And as long as I don’t really think about what I’m saying, and the questioner doesn’t press too much, I can get through it. But the fact is it’s a humiliating admission that doesn’t look good.

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Our prayer group petitioned earnestly for spiritual renewal

Deeper than that, though — even if my job were unrelated to the church — is the fact that being the church is central to my identity. I love Jesus. As part of his church, I’m betrothed to him. To be out of fellowship with any congregation is to be outside of his plan for us. The alternative is the desert. I know what it’s like — I’ve been here before. It’s terrible. My spirit recoils at being lost out here again.

Yet here I am, in the church-homeless desert. I’m disoriented and demoralized. I don’t know where I’ll get communion next, and that not-knowing is a poverty to my soul. To add to the upheaval, Plow Creek’s dissolution has precipitated the sale of my house, so I have to move from my physical home as well.

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Love in action: Chopping wood to keep each other from freezing in wintertime

It hit me tonight that I’m moving out in one week, and this means separation for real. A last good-bye is coming sometime this week. It hit me hard. I wept hard. But what’s really been impressed on me this past week is that this is the church’s story, past and present. Our story is one of being assaulted and torn apart. My little story is (so far) one of the much milder ones. I wrote in a previous post how our counselor, Allan Howe, compared our experience to that of the martyrs.

It is really disappointing to see people disappearing and dying. It’s a heavy time; there’s no denying it. It’s very tough. I’m helped by looking over Christian history and seeing others who went through something like this. When I first saw this kind of church, I felt like I had met what I believed in. I was fresh out of college and could hardly believe what I was seeing — sharing solidarity week after week. We’re in the heritage of the martyrs and folks who were very lonely and sometimes killed. That happened in renewal movements like the Anabaptists and lots of other Christians. We’re in very good company.

At the time, I thought he was being a bit hyperbolic. Maybe he was. But also maybe not. Revelation 12 is our story — not our full story; thanks be to God — but it is our story.

So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:13-17)

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You can destroy us, but you can never undo our story.

Over the past several months, I’ve been writing a lot about our assurance of victory. I’ve been clinging to that because I need to. And it’s all true. But equally true is the present darkness arrayed against us. We are at war, and our history all too clearly displays that we’re the weaker party. Whether by brute-force extermination, schisms and heresies, sedation to complacent inertia, or strength-sapping exhaustion, our enemy has gotten plenty of victories. And the more we love Jesus and pursue fidelity to him, the more we become a target for the enemy. That is our reality right now.

I absolutely believe we had something good among our weakness, something rich among our poverty, something precious among our simplicity — some kingdom-y excellence our enemy wanted destroyed. Just think of how many victories we must have come away with in our time to warrant that kind of attention. It makes me smile a tiny bit as I feverishly wait to taste the body and blood of the Lord through a mouthful of desert sand.

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Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

Why I’m upset right now (the short version)

Here’s the bottom line: I want to live near my family* AND be part of a theologically/ethically solid (English-speaking) Mennonite church, and I’m really upset because it seems I can’t have both things.

*Also, I need to find myself some kind of family who’s going to be there for me when my parents are gone, but I’m not willing to become sexually active in order to find commitment. 

I was talking with my brother, Frank, about my relational frustrations, and he said, “It sounds like what you want is heaven — the New Jerusalem.”

Yep. Someone gets it.

At some point I need to blog more extensively about these things, but I just don’t have the energy right now.

  • I have to move in the next few months. I don’t know where.
  • Being church-homeless is horrible. I have no idea where I’m going to participate in the Lord’s Supper from month to month, and that uncertainty is … I’m running through my mental thesaurus now and can’t find the word I want to describe it. It’s very bad and sad and hurty. And debilitating and demoralizing and hungry and deserty and screamy. (Not to mention the various other ways church-homelessness negatively affects my access to/enrollment in other church-centered things.)
  • Outside of my parents, there’s no one I can really count on to be there for me in any kind of committed way. And that’s also debilitating and demoralizing and screamy.
  • As of this morning, I weigh 95 lbs., the lowest ever in my adult life. I don’t have the energy to do the things my spirit wants to do.

You bet I want the New Jerusalem. I feel more and more ready every day, and I feel halfway there already. Any time.

‘The good Christian woman’s life’

I woke up around 3:30 a.m. Sunday, May 10, 2015, to the loud beeping of a text message. Normally I silence my phone when I go to bed, but I had just gotten a promotion at work. I was one of the newsroom editors now, and even though no one had told me I was obligated to be on call 24/7, I felt responsible to be ready to handle major breaking news over the weekends.

“Downtown Utica is on fire. I’m getting photos now.”

I had told Scott, our photographer, to contact me first if anything crazy happened on weekends, because I thought the other hardworking staff should get a break. He had done what I had asked him to do. Even so, I was irritated at being aroused from a deep sleep. Not irritated at Scott, but irritated that this was happening. And scared for Utica. (That poor little town had already experienced a deadly tornado and some awful flooding.) I probably let out a nasty word or two as I adjusted to the reality. I wasn’t raised that way, but — confession time — potty mouth has developed from living alone.

I threw a jacket over whatever I was wearing and walked the two blocks to the newsroom, where I plunked into my chair and hastily assembled a brief story with a photo sent by Scott to put on our website and link to on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

That done, I sat in our empty office, listening to the police scanners as every area fire department was called. I added a few details to the story online and shared another photo from Scott on Facebook and Twitter. I sat back, with the grim satisfaction of knowing I had done the right thing to get up and go to the office. Our story was first. It was flattering when the Sunday morning staff of a Chicago TV news station tweeted us asking for permission to use Scott’s photo.

Yet there was another part of me that couldn’t help but wonder — as I often did — how I had gotten here. What even was this kind of life I had?

After a while, it was clear there would be nothing substantial to add until hours later. I decided I had done what I needed to do. I left the newsroom and walked back to my apartment in a daze, contemplating the upheaval of my Sunday morning. I turned on my TV and soon saw the photo Scott had sent me, with the reporter giving him and our newspaper credit as I had instructed. Good for Scott, I thought. Good for us.

The sky was beginning to lighten, and I began feeling a familiar pain in my lower abdomen. My period had arrived. Then I remembered it was Mother’s Day. Well, of course my period would come today, I cynically scoffed. Because I definitely need a reminder that I’m a not-mom.

I thought of several of my peers from youth group and college. Soon they’d wake up, get special treatment from their husbands, wear cute clothes to church, get acclaim at church, get taken out for lunch or dinner, get beautiful greeting cards, snuggle with their babies and generally get celebrated by everyone who saw them. Not me, though. I was just an invisible not-mom whose weekend was crashed by breaking news and going home to a crappy, solitary apartment. Between sleep deprivation, period-getting and Mother’s Day cynicism, I decided to sleep in and skip church. (If there’s one day to skip church, it’s today — right, my not-moms? I see you.)

At some point I turned off the TV and turned on the Christian music radio station. As I was thinking these things, Matthew West’s upbeat song, “Day One,” came on. I just had to laugh — you can’t make this stuff up. “It’s Day One of the rest of your life.” Day One of my cycle; Day One of the rest of my life. I laughed with tears coming out of my eyes and danced hard around my living room, feeling the Day One pain radiating throughout my lower body. It was just too perfect.

I took some pain relief pills and went back to sleep.

I tell this story because it’s particularly memorable. But I’ve actually had these thoughts recur many, many, many times. The fact is: I love my life. I would not trade it in for any of my peers’ lives. I can honestly say that I think I got the coolest, most exciting, fun and fabulous life with the most perks and options and freedom and epicness out of most people I know. (Sometimes, in my baser moments, I imagine my former friends are envious of me, and I laugh.)

I didn’t always feel this way. It has taken me most of the past decade to get to this point. It has taken years of unpacking, detangling, brutal self-interrogating, self-blaming, self-hating and massive amounts of confusion and frustration.

Growing up, I was taught that being a wife and mother was the good Christian woman’s life. For the most part, I didn’t think to question this. All the nice ladies I knew fit this description, and I grew up celebrating — along with the church community — these milestones in other women’s lives. I (and everyone around me, as far as I could tell) simply assumed this would be my life, too, as long as I behaved myself appropriately to be worthy of this “good Christian woman’s life.”

Behaving myself appropriately? No problem for me. Except… that was the “problem,” but I didn’t get the hint.

I didn’t get the hint when I was 4 years old in a fast food restaurant playing with two little boys, and as they left, one shouted to me about his friend, “He likes you!” I only felt uncomfortable, like there was something wrong with this. “And I like you!” I stated as nonchalantly as I could to the boy who had spoken, trying desperately to neutralize whatever this weird thing was that had just happened. My dad laughed.

I didn’t get the hint when I was 5 years old watching “The Sound of Music” and crying because (spoilers) the Reverend Mother made Maria go back to the Von Trapp family instead of becoming a sister at the abbey. How could she be happier with that gruff man than with a bunch of peaceful, hymn-singing, religious sisters? I didn’t get it. I wanted to live at the abbey. I cried. My dad laughed.

I didn’t get the hint the many times between ages 4 and 8 when little boys my age kissed me, and I hated every single time but went along with it because that’s what you do when you play “house” and you’re the mommy. (I didn’t tell my dad about this.)

I didn’t get the hint when I was 10 or 11(?) and, after being seized with a fierce curiosity to know where babies came from, my mom got me a little educational video that contained some of the most shockingly disgusting information I’d never dreamed of. My mom told me not to talk about it. She never talked about it again.

I didn’t get the hint when I was 12, and a neighbor boy said he “wanted to go out” with me. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly. It sounded scary and maybe bad. “We’re too young for that,” I told him. It sounded like adult stuff. I was a kid and I wanted us to have non-scary, clean, kid-style fun until we were 18-ish, when we’d suddenly grow up and be ready for “adult stuff.” I told my mom. “Oh, ‘going out’ — you don’t need to do that,” she said disapprovingly. I congratulated myself for behaving appropriately. I was convinced I was well on my way to being “the best wife and mother in the whole world,” a goal I passionately declared about a year later in my eighth-grade homeschool graduation essay that was printed and handed out to who knows how many people.

I didn’t get the hint as a teenager when my younger brother repeatedly asked me if I “liked” any of the boys at church. I was at a loss for an answer. Not one of them particularly appealed to me. Were they supposed to?

I didn’t get the hint as a teenager when moms routinely asked me to babysit, and I often referred them to my brother, because he actually kind of liked babies, and I wasn’t comfortable with them. Older kids who could talk and use the bathroom on their own were OK, but not babies. The responsibility scared me.

I started to get the tiniest hint when I was 17 and I noticed people younger than I were actively involved in romantic relationships. I was confused. Wasn’t that adult stuff? What was wrong with everybody? Was there something wrong with me? Guys could be fun to talk to and debate with, but they were aggressive and domineering — how could anyone like them? How could my friends like these guys more than they liked me? It didn’t compute. I was depressed and lonely. When I expressed frustration about this, people awkwardly laughed at me.

I didn’t get the hint when I was in college, and I complained to my brother, “How come guys don’t like me?” And he said, “Rach, it’s not that guys don’t like you — but do you like any of them?” I was as dense as a brick. Even when it was spelled out, I still didn’t get it. I was still going to be the world’s best homeschooling mom, though! 😀 😀 😀

I didn’t get the hint the few times in my 20s when guys finally did express interest me, and I enjoyed the ego boost but was still uncomfortable with what they wanted.

(Then there was a yearslong detour of prolonged confusion when I finally liked a guy; he didn’t like me back; I was utterly devastated; I wanted to die; etc. — that’s a post of its own.)

After years of tripping around in this self-dissecting stew, I started to see light. It was only a few months after the aforementioned Mother’s Day fire. I was a in a church members’ meeting, and we were discussing our personal views on our membership commitments, one of which was, “Fidelity within marriage, chastity outside marriage.” I listened in amazement as more than one of these (ostensibly) happily married people mentioned being attracted to people other than their spouses. When it was my turn to speak, I said, “I guess I’m just a chastity guru or something. Where are all these attractive people you’re meeting? I never see them! Where are they? Can I meet them?” They just laughed. I went home beginning to think there was something really different about me.

A few months after that, I finally came to some self-understanding that had long eluded me. I simply didn’t experience sexual attraction. The idea of engaging in sexual contact with anyone disgusted me. I really didn’t like men (outside my relatives) touching me at all, except for professional handshakes. I rarely experienced romantic attraction. I really didn’t like kids very much. All this time I had wanted this “good Christian woman’s life” so badly because I had been programmed to want it, but I wouldn’t actually like it. What I had wanted was “the right thing.” I wanted others to recognize me as good. I wanted to feel good about myself. I wanted to be good.

It has only been in the past year that I’ve finally been able to untangle this enough to say, “I am living the good Christian woman’s life.” The good Christian woman’s life is presently mine because I’m doing what God has called me to do. I continue to yield all I am, have and ever hope to be to the Lordship of Christ, and he’s directing me as he has thus far. The solitude of my life has helped me hear God’s Spirit more clearly and more often. I am pressed to love God more when I pass hours upon hours without human contact (other than via the internet). I would not trade the love and communion I have with God’s Spirit for any other relationship that would distract me. The love we have is matchless, unparalleled and can only grow more and more wonderful because of his faithfulness that is eternally trustworthy. Tell me where else I can find that! Nowhere!

It has taken me a long time to accept and embrace this reality that is so different from the fantasy I was all but promised growing up. My desire now is to see this reality accepted and embraced by the church community so that we stop giving our girls only one option (which is not the only biblical option!) that may not come to pass for them.

Good Christian women on the social margins, rejoice! The word of the Lord in Isaiah 54:1-8 is for us:

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
    break forth into singing and cry aloud,
    you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
    than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
    and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
    and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
    and your offspring will possess the nations
    and will people the desolate cities.

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
    be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
    and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
    the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
    the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
    like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
    says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
    but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
    I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord, your Redeemer.

Thanks be to God, who has welcomed us as equal partakers in the goodness of his kingdom! Instead of highlighting cultural holidays that have nothing to do with Christianity, let’s preach this gospel to our sisters. Maybe we’ll even show up.

Check out this playlist I put together for my single sisters and brothers. It’s called “A-team” because our union with God’s Spirit is the ultimate, unrivaled team!

When fellowship breaks

Lately I’ve been thinking about what my ideal relationship(s) would look like, and I keep coming back to two models.

The first is what I call the Paul and Barnabas model, based on the partnership of Paul and Barnabas in the book of Acts. Their relationship is centered around sharing the good news of freedom and restoration available through Jesus.

The second is what I call the Fellowship of the Ring model, based on the group of protagonists in the book and film of the same title (the first part of The Lord of the Rings). Their relationship is centered around their shared quest to destroy the One Ring, a source of great and terrible evil.

LOTR Facebook cover

What I like about these relationships is that they exist for the purpose of something greater than the relationship itself. We don’t read about Paul and Barnabas trying to bond with each other over pizza and entertainment. Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul was an enemy of the church. Similarly, while some of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring knew each other before embarking on their quest, some of them were strangers, and there was some relational tension. The point is, these relationships aren’t primarily built on compatibility of personality or recreational interests.

I never operated well with the mentality that one has to work on spending leisure time with others in order to build friendships. In my view, I should be pursuing something greater than my own pleasure and should naturally form partnerships with whomever is pursuing the same thing. For me, that thing is the kingdom of God. To be honest, I’m really not interested in investing in any meaningful relationships that aren’t centered on the kingdom of God — indeed, that would be impossible for me. The kingdom of God is what I’m all about; nothing else in this world is as valuable or worthwhile. So, no, I can’t just “make friends” because we like the same music artists or sports teams or video games. In comparison to the kingdom of God, those things are meaningless garbage. Apparently, though, I cannot get most people to share my viewpoint in this area. People are convinced the way to make friends is just to “hang out” and talk. That is simply not something I really understand how to do or enjoy. If the conversation doesn’t turn quickly toward the kingdom of God or something of substance that’s related to it, my interest evaporates rapidly.

So I look to these models as a reference to help me explain to others what kind of relationships I’m looking for.

But in the past few days, I’ve been struck by how my “ideal” relationships suffered terrible breaks.

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)

After much journeying together and seeing God’s kingdom grow because of their work, “a sharp disagreement” parted Paul and Barnabas. The narrative doesn’t go into great detail about the disagreement, but if they split up after working so well together for so long, I imagine it must have been very unpleasant.

The Fellowship of the Ring was beset by opposition and internal conflict before it was formed. Dark forces hunting for the Ring as well as disagreements among the fellowship about how the Ring should be managed tore the group apart. I was 13 years old when the film came out, and it influenced me profoundly. Here was a group of people who had joined together for a great purpose, only to be repeatedly assaulted and finally broken. Yet it was my highest ideal for what friendship should be. And amazingly, it still is.

I make a point of watching “The Lord of the Rings” at least once every year (usually in January). It’s my favorite film trilogy. It formed my worldview and still moves me deeply upon each viewing. This past January, the ending of the first film hit home in a fresh way as I saw the same struggles my church is experiencing reflected in the final scenes. “The Breaking of the Fellowship” is the title of the last chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring and the title of the corresponding track in the film score, and it came to mind as I watched the familiar tragedy play on the screen.

I cried. More than usual when I watch that scene, I mean. I saw my own present grief there.

At our December meeting, one of our guidance people, Allan Howe from Reba Place Fellowship, said something that has stayed with me:

It is really disappointing to see people disappearing and dying. It’s a heavy time; there’s no denying it. It’s very tough. I’m helped by looking over Christian history and seeing others who went through something like this. When I first saw this kind of church, I felt like I had met what I believed in. I was fresh out of college and could hardly believe what I was seeing — sharing solidarity week after week. We’re in the heritage of the martyrs and folks who were very lonely and sometimes killed. That happened in renewal movements like the Anabaptists and lots of other Christians. We’re in very good company.

I don’t know. Most of the time it doesn’t feel like we’re part of a renewal movement. I don’t know if we can really be compared to martyrs, either. It’s not like there’s an orc squad chasing us down. It just feels like we’re a bunch of ordinary fallen humans with issues.

But Allan is right — even if our fellowship breaks, we remain in company with a mission greater than we are that goes on after us. It’s the same mission that went on after Paul and Barnabas separated. With hindsight, we know that God used their break-up to double the effort toward sharing the good news of Jesus. We have faith that no matter what happens to us, that mission will continue and was always assured of victory.

In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the final scenes are heartbreaking, but they also contain some of the group members’ finest moments of self-denial and sacrifice. Yet the mission goes on. We know how it ends (If you haven’t seen it, spoilers: the good guys win. Now go watch all three movies!).

And we know how our mission — and Paul’s and Barnabas’ mission — ends, too. It hasn’t reached its end yet. We’re still a part of it. One day we’ll drink new wine with Paul and Barnabas and the martyrs and the renewal movement people, and we’ll laugh about who’s having the last laugh.

During Lent, we grieve our losses and weaknesses. Like Boromir, we ask, “What is this new devilry?” Like Sam, we wonder, “How could the end be happy?” But we also look at Jesus’ victory over his enemy and know we share in that victory.

Even ideal relationships break. That’s because there’s wickedness in the world that opposes good things. But there’s also good because of God’s restoration mission effected by Jesus. In him we are built together to become a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22).

Jesus was marked for death at Christmas

While driving east on Interstate 80 to visit my family on Christmas Day, I passed two trees on my right, each marked with a large orange X. It had been many, many years since I had seen such marks on trees. The sight made me recall the time my mom first explained to me what that meant: “The X means the tree is going to be cut down.”

Something about this made me sadder than I expected, so I mused as I cruised. To my consternation, I noticed another and another, and then more and more trees along eastbound I-80 bearing the garish orange X that marked them for destruction. My feelings rapidly de-escalated from consternated to dismayed to crushed.

Why is my heart hurting like this? I questioned myself.

I answered my own question aloud: “It’s because I relate to them!” And then I burst into tears.

There I was, bitterly weeping alone in my car on Christmas Day while zooming past miles of condemned trees, wondering what was wrong with me. I was intellectually aware that whatever sadness I had was augmented by the facts that I had only gotten about four hours of sleep (I had stayed up until 4 a.m. writing my previous post) and that I was at the beginning of my cycle. Apparently it doesn’t take much to make my faith evaporate. I found myself echoing Paul’s question: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

But it was more than mere physical weakness. The thoughts I expressed in my previous post — hunger and humiliation, poverty and loss — were still present, and the image of the trees marked for death with a bloody-looking X was the image that summed up my grief.

The idea of being marked for destruction wasn’t a fresh one for me. It’s actually something I had been thinking of throughout Advent and even before. As I wrote in my previous post:

I’m part of a shrinking family (there have been no births among my close blood relatives since 1994), a shrinking church (we’re losing about a quarter of our congregation) and a shrinking town (there aren’t enough employment opportunities). Depression is a recurring theme everywhere I look.

I didn’t elaborate much on those thoughts, but in my darker, faith-lacking moments (which are more often than I’d like to admit), I fear that I’m cursed, condemned, marked for destruction — that everything I’m a part of is failing or will fail — that I’m all talk, hot air and futility. And not only me, but my family, my friends, my work — we’re all running hard on an open field, and dark forces are conspiring to pick us off, one by one, freezing us all out with a chill wind until we’re undone.

During this past year and particularly the Advent season, these fears have presented themselves with greater frequency and intensity. (Note: These fears are influenced by several external factors, which I won’t get into right now beyond what I’ve already mentioned, because that would be too many rabbit trails to follow. I want to make it clear that these feelings aren’t mysteriously arising for no discernible reason.) I’ve been writing and posting publicly (obnoxiously) exhortations to take heart and to hope in the promised liberation to come. It’s been #Advent #Advent #Advent clogging up my friends’ Facebook news feeds. I’m doing it to boost my morale, and hopefully others’, because I need to.

At the same time, I worked on a not-yet-published project — some fan fiction based on the video game “Chrono Trigger.” Into this I poured my darker feelings. In the story, the character Janus spends his life trying to undo the fall of the grand kingdom he was to inherit. Arguably the most powerful human being in history, he works to fight the evil force that ruined everything, but in so doing, he becomes history’s most wicked and vicious tyrant. The scene I wrote features Janus crushed with the realization that all his efforts to restore his kingdom and his family have been utterly futile. From the beginning, the dark force has particularly marked him and his family for perdition, corruption and eternal destruction, and evil has apparently won. Even with all his power, Janus can’t save his mother or sister, and he can’t redeem himself. He can only contemplate his futility and his eventual consumption in the void. His paradise lost cannot be regained.

Intellectually, I know this is not the end of the story. Intellectually, I have not lost my faith. I know my salvation has been effected. Intellectually, I know these fears are demonic garbage I should toss out the window.

But pain and hunger tend to override our perceptions of truth. On Christmas Eve, I was listening to the book of Exodus. In chapter 14, God completes the glorious liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt by drawing back the sea and making a path for them to walk through. In chapter 15, the people rejoice and passionately declare God’s preeminent epicness with singing and dancing.

“The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Ex. 15:2).

In chapter 16, they’ve been a free people out in the wilderness for a while, but they are tired and hungry. They complain to their leaders, Moses and Aaron:

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3).

WHAT? People of Israel, what is wrong with you???

But — I AM NO BETTER. Because not even 24 hours after listening to this narrative, I’m brooding and blogging into the wee hours of Christmas morning, feeling my own hunger and weakness. While writing my previous post, I stopped at one point and asked God, “How did you get me into this? What made me sign up for this hungry, desert-y life?”

True story. God’s patience is matchless.

Anyway, here I am on I-80, crying about condemnation on Christmas Day like the freed yet forgetful and faithless people of Israel. Just like the dozens and dozens of trees awaiting their demise, I and my people and my projects are marked for death, I think.

God’s Spirit has a remarkably simple yet rich response: So was Jesus.

Jesus had a target on him from the beginning. The local king didn’t want anyone else calling himself “king” to come around. He wanted Jesus dead. So he decided to kill every baby boy in town. Jesus escaped this massacre, but his little peers did not (Matthew 2).

In the church calendar, the fourth day of Christmas, Dec. 28, is set aside to remember these slain baby boys, now known as Holy Innocents. Yes — possibly the most tragic day of the church calendar is set smack in the middle of the Christmas season. Yes — “Joy to the world!” is proclaimed, yet evil is present and hurting us. These things are true at the same time. Intellectually, I know only one will last, but right now they are both present and real.

The dark forces wanted Jesus dead. They want humanity destroyed. That isn’t the end of the story, but it’s an ongoing part of the story. The hard truth is that sometimes the dark forces win momentary victories. And for those whose baby brothers and sons were cut down, their grief was for life.

Jesus sympathizes (Heb. 4:15).

Christmas was humiliating for God

The truth is, I’ve been writing to encourage myself this Advent season, because I’ve been feeling really… I’m not sure what word I want to use, exactly. I don’t want to say discouraged; that’s too extreme to describe my feelings. I think of Jesus’ phrase “poor in spirit” from the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3)

I never knew exactly what he meant by “poor in spirit,” and I still don’t know for sure. But I think I could use that phrase to describe how I feel. I feel poor; I feel hungry — not physically, but spiritually.

Recently I’ve found myself using the phrase “relational poverty” to describe my current condition. I’ve spent quite a bit of time this year analyzing, untangling and giving language to my experience of lifelong singleness, my calling as a missionary, my difficulties connecting with most people the way I want to, and the desert-like intersection of all these things. Really heavy stuff that is too much outside the scope of this blog post to delve into here.

It’s Christmas Eve as I write this, almost midnight on Christmas Day. The kind of Christmas I’m having today is nothing like what I thought it would be 10 or even three years ago. I didn’t think I would feel this poor — this relationally poor. In an alternate universe — were there such a thing — I could be slipping gifts into the hanging stockings of my two or three children and laying out their Christmas outfits for a family party tomorrow, where glistening photos would be taken and posted on Facebook to mark our milestone of significance.

But no. I’m sitting at the kitchen table staring into blue screenlight, feeling ridiculously thankful to have my roommate while feeling fear knowing it’s possible (and even quite likely) we might not be together one year (or even less) from now.

I’m part of a shrinking family (there have been no births among my close blood relatives since 1994), a shrinking church (we’re losing about a quarter of our congregation) and a shrinking town (there aren’t enough employment opportunities). Depression is a recurring theme everywhere I look.

Yesterday evening, when I realized I would be alone all day on Christmas Eve until our 7 p.m. church service, I felt an acute alarm. I took a few deep breaths and tried hard not to burst into tears as I called up a woman from church and basically begged her — yes, begged; I felt like a beggar! — to let me come over and spend time with her. I was thankful she agreed, but I also felt humiliated. Nice, respectable people do not impose themselves on others except in true emergencies. I had abased myself.

But even now, I hear God’s Spirit reminding me: Christmas was humiliating for God.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Oh… Oh, yeah. Jesus was not welcomed to a party, God’s Spirit continues. His parents cared for him but didn’t fully grasp the significance of who he was. A few odd characters — pagan foreigners and common shepherds — showed up to greet him, but they didn’t fully understand whom they were greeting, either. And it wasn’t long before the local king commenced a baby-murdering campaign in order to hunt Jesus down and destroy him.

Oh, yeah. (My usual awkward response when God reminds me of things I should already know.) Furthermore, humiliation was all around before Jesus’ birth. His parents were humiliated by a pregnancy that appeared to be morally questionable. They were humiliated by an oppressive government’s requirement that they take a long journey to register for a census. They were humiliated by receiving the newborn Jesus far from home in someone else’s garage-barn because all the guest rooms were full.

I get the picture. Jesus wasn’t welcomed the way his peers would have been. No adoring relatives. No baby-shower fanfare. Certainly no “look-how-creative-we-are” hipster photo birth announcements shared on all the parents’-to-be social media channels amassing dozens and dozens of “likes.”

The fact is we can celebrate at Christmas because of God’s self-humiliation. It’s scandalous but true. The Incarnation is Jesus’ “emptying himself” of equality with God and “taking the form of a slave.” And we are told to have the same mind.

When I think about it, it’s easier to “have the same mind” when I’m poor enough to feel humiliated. Maybe I’m actually getting something better out of all this than alternate-universe me would be, despite what the world says. Maybe God is using my relational poverty to make me more like Jesus, which is what I’ve asked for — isn’t it?

It just… hurts so much. The breaking of my pride, the aching of loss and the fear of likely future deprivation. The fear of one day losing my parents and brothers and being bereft of any real human love in the world positively torments me, yet it is the very likely scenario I am preparing for, with no small amount of tears and terror. The fear of losing the very few friends I can seem to find (this is nearly guaranteed since it’s all that’s ever happened and still continues to happen) gnaws on my spirit and makes me restless, always trying to make the next “good time” happen, yet holding each relationship with an open palm in a vain attempt to make its loss less painful.

But I also can’t deny that everything I’ve suffered has made me better — more compassionate, more compelled to reach out, more open, more yielded, more sensitive to God’s Spirit. And there is no compensation like communion with God. So even as I dread the continued humiliation and grief, I can expect to continue to receive this mysterious, rich grace in direct proportion. That is the kingdom of God, which I exhibit in my life and death.

Following Jesus isn’t about being nice and respectable. Mary may have given up her dreams of being part of the esteemed moms club. If she had had an ideal birth plan to discuss with her midwife and other attendants, she had to give that up. She didn’t even have her own mom and sisters to help her, but was humiliated by accepting whatever assistance (if any) was offered by others. Joseph could have backed out from a marriage with a pregnancy he had nothing to do with. He could have retained his image; everyone would have believed him. But he gave up his image preservation and was humiliated by taking on a marriage with baggage, leaving onlookers to assume his complicity. Really following Jesus is going to relieve me, to some extent, of being nice and respectable, I’m slowly learning.

So, as God’s grace enables me, I’m going to keep living with this poverty and humiliation. And Christmas is the season to celebrate that.

‘Light will chase and find us’

Nearly all of us have experienced that sickening feeling: The power has gone out, and it’s after dark. You know the power is out, but out of habit you switch on the light when you enter a room — only to find it’s fruitless.

It’s a feeling of futility and humiliation. You now have to cope — for an indefinite period of time — with the loss of something so important to your usual functions. You may have to curtail or cancel some of the plans you made before you lost power. You are oppressed by the darkness. And if it is wintertime and your heat source depends on electrical power, you face a more urgent need, as the threat to your well-being gradually increases with each passing moment.

We are in the darkest part of the year here in north-central Illinois. Recently I found myself using the phrase “cruelly short” to describe the length of daylight we have. Sunrise is after 7 a.m. now, and darkness is coming on fast by 4:30 p.m. (And I know the days are even shorter for those north of us.)

Dec. 4 was the second Sunday in the season of Advent, when Christians anticipate the Incarnation of Jesus Christ celebrated at Christmas. It was also the first Sunday of the month, so we were going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as we usually do. For us, the day saw the first snow of the year. Fluffy flakes fell for hours, accumulating to more than 5 inches in our rural area. I (along with others in our congregation) struggled to get my car up the hill to our meeting place without sliding into the ditch. It warmed my heart to see that nearly all of us (with a few sickness-related exceptions) had made it there to worship.

Together we sang about our coming King; we prayed for his restoration according to our faith; we lit two Advent candles; we were nourished anew by the meal he made of himself for us. These are acts of resistance against the darkness — both the darkness outside and the darkness within. And we were not alone, but in concert with hundreds of thousands of brothers and sisters around the world, proclaiming the “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made” to come.

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How we wait for the kingdom to come.

‘Light will chase and find us’

A favorite line of mine in the song “Oh Light” by The Liturgists (in my Advent playlist) is “Light will chase and find us.” In the Incarnation, God has chased us down to save us from our own corruption, to feed us and clean us and make us see again, to redeem us from the darkness we are bound to.

There sure is a lot of darkness out there. The daylight is indeed cruelly short. The temperature has dropped below freezing this week and is staying there, even at the height of the day. More snow is on the way for us on the third Sunday of Advent. The time of year brings sickness to our bodies. There’s metaphorical darkness, too. Our society is deeply divided along multiple lines in the aftermath of an extremely polarizing presidential election. Conflict zones seem to be everywhere as we fight each other to gain or retain power. News of violence and injustices of all sizes perpetually pop up in my Facebook news feed. And the church continues to be assailed by enemies external and internal.

That darkness — apart from the cleansing work of God’s Spirit — is within each of us. We are torn between acting in accord with our natural self-centeredness and yielding to the Spirit. We often fall into sin. We wait eagerly for our full redemption to be accomplished to liberate us from this inner conflict (Romans 8).

On a more personal note, I am discouraged by the lack of resources I have been accustomed to while living in more populated areas. I am discouraged by how few opportunities I have for quality time with friends. I am discouraged by shrinking congregations with low missional vitality. I am discouraged by trends I see within the church toward rebellion against New Testament teaching. I am discouraged by my own powerlessness to change any of these things.

But “Hallelujah! Light will chase and find us.” All the darkness and all my powerlessness is space to see God effect the redemptive change I cannot. This space is hard, but it is momentary — victory is assured on the other side. It is like the moments before the creation of the world, the nothingness before God’s first declaration: “Let there be light.” And there was light (Genesis 1:1-3). So it is OK to sit in this dark space of Advent, being humbled by my smallness and my lack, waiting for God to act and knowing he will prevail.