Valley walkin’

“We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of selfish rage” – Rich Mullins.

It seems the hardest thing about walking through the valley is holding on to what you saw on the mountaintop…or, if you’ve not been to the mountaintop yet, what you’ve been told awaits there. There’s a line in the movie “The Shack,” where God (Papa) tells Mack, “When you’re surrounded by nothing but your own pain it’s hard to see Me.” So very true.

This isn’t a novel concept, of course; through millennia people have struggled to see and remember that they are not alone when walking through the valleys.

What’s hard to me is to speak, maybe even speak with faith, the promises I think are true but can’t see for the fog right now. It’s hard to sing, hard to read Scripture (except for some Psalms maybe), hard to pray. I do those things because they’re habits, thank God, but as the hours of the day pass burdened with worry and anxiety and fear and uncertainty, I feel my heart straying, inch by foot by mile, into the Land of No Trust, the Land of Amanda Takes Charge Now. (It’s not a pleasant country, believe me. Full of potholes. And dead ends.)

My heart is like a dog on one of those retractable leashes, and I keep having to yank her back, out of the thorn bushes, away from the pile of poop on the sidewalk, back to the road that must be walked in order to reach Home.

I say the lines, I quote the Scripture, I check my attitude, I sing the songs, I keep going to church on Sunday, I go through the spiritual discipline motions, I ask trusted friends to pray for me. And still my heart wanders like one of those sweet but stupid sheep Jesus talked about. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”

It’s the living sacrifice of faith: clinging to promises, constantly urging your mind and heart to believe the Scriptures. The living sacrifice of praise is the singing and worship, raising my hands in adoration of the Father, when I really just want to prop up in bed with a bowl of popcorn and a Downton Abbey binge.

Valley-of-the-Shadow-of-Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

(What doesn’t help: clichés, truisms, pat answers and well-meaning but condescending pats on the head. Anybody who’s ever walked through a valley will tell you the most helpful thing is having someone walk through it with you, even sit down in the muck with you for a little while if needed.)

So press on, sweet stupid sheep heart. Hold on to that rope that goes to the top of the well you’re in. There IS Someone holding the other end, and He will lift you up and set your feet upon a rock (Psalm 40). He will set you in a spacious place (Psalm 18). He will work all this nastiness for good (Romans 8). Hold on. Hold on.

And when you can’t hold on to Him, He’ll hold on to you.

Pinky promise.

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Published in: on September 14, 2017 at 1:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Brookwood Road

Brookwood Road: Memories of a home

by Scott VaughanBrookwood Road

a review

Norman Rockwell, meet Jerry Clower.

The three Wilcox brothers of Brookwood Road are an utterly delightful fusion of these two: the innocent Americana of a Rockwell painting with the homespun Southern humor of Jerry Clower.

As a still life, they embody all the earnestness, patriotism, and full-on WASP/Pleasantville aspects of a Rockwell illustration. It’s no stretch to picture 8-year-old Frank, the oldest brother, dropping his bicycle on the grass next to the steps of the country store, a deck of baseball cards sticking out of his back jeans pocket, clean haircut, the face of a young man on a mission for his mother.

As a video, however, the Wilcox brothers are full of as much mischief as Clower’s Ledbetter boys ever were. It’s no stretch to imagine them whispering huddled behind the bushes at their grandmother’s house, passing ammunition (an industrial water hose) from one muddy hand to another as they lie in ambush for the mean boys from down the dirt road. I half expected to hear that Mississippi twang: “Knock ’im out, John!!!”

Utterly. Delightful.

Reading Brookwood Road is like the catching up that happens at a wedding or funeral, after all the guests have left and all the family is sitting around with ties loosened and heels off and the leftovers long left on the kitchen counter. It’s comfortable, familiar, funny, poignant, filled with both laughter and easy silence.

Brookwood Road chronicles the early years of the Wilcox brothers (Frank, Jack, and Wayne) when they and their parents lived next to the hog farm owned by their grandfather. It’s full of family, school, church, pigs & other pets, and all the adventures and misadventures you’d expect of three young boys on a farm in the rural South in the 1960s. There’s a raccoon, a tree house, a wall of dirty calendars, a secret hideout, revival services, a funeral, bullies, chiggers, tallywackers (really, Scott??), and lots and lots of baseball: baseball games, baseball cards, baseball equipment, baseball players, baseball statistics, and baseball fantasies. Naturally.

It’s not a page-turner full of eloquent profundities and drama. But it’s a warm and heartwarming, funny, entertaining, beautiful story of a childhood rooted in honest love and laughter. If you need a reminder that life is good and Jesus is love, read it; you won’t be disappointed.

Published in: on May 20, 2017 at 4:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Why can’t we be friends?

So we read Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  holding hands

And we’re great, as a Church, when we see those barriers fall. We love to see blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians all worshipping together. We love to see Israelis and Palestinians joined in worship. We love to see rich and poor together, the celebrities and the anonymous together, Republicans and Democrats, the happily married and the thrice-divorced, the young and the old and all in between, the men and the women….

Oh wait. ’Cept not that last one. THAT barrier must needs stand.

Because (thank you Freud) we all know that, at our most basic, men and women are just sex drives with legs.

So it’s awesome – we stand and cheer – when a black pastor and a white pastor become close friends. It’s outstanding when avowed Republicans and avowed Democrats are also avowed friends, and serve others alongside one another, with compassion and selflessness. It’s superb when the hedge fund manager and the homeless guy go on a mission trip together and end up becoming good friends. (I’m assuming – optimistically & probably naively – that’s happened?)

Unless, of course, any of these friendships are between a man and woman who are not – nor plan to be – married to each other.

Then it’s not okay.

Never mind that Jesus had women following him everywhere when he was on earth. Not just following, but financially enabling his ministry.

Never mind that Jesus apparently disregarded all social custom and in fact seriously endangered his reputation as a minister when he did the first century equivalent of letting a call girl lavish him with kisses at Billy Graham’s house (See “Prostitute visits Jesus at Simon’s house,” Luke 7).

Never mind that Jesus entrusted his closest male friend (John) with the complete care of his mother (Mary) – who was only about 15 years older than John. (See “Jesus gives Mom to John,” John 19.) Gasp.

Never mind that Jesus was alone with a woman – and a committed immoral one, at that – in a public place. (See “Samaritan woman,” John 3.) Gasp again.

Never mind that Jesus’s first appearance after his resurrection was to a woman. Alone. In a garden. Oh my.

Contrast this with the teaching and counsel of the church today. Here are the rules. If you’ve been in church any length of time at all, you’ve heard these or some close version of them. And you’d better believe these are RULES; they are not recommendations.

  1. You may not be alone with a person of the opposite sex in public unless you’re related or dating.
  2. You may not be alone with a person of the opposite sex in private – unless you’re related or dating.
  3. You may be friends with a person of the opposite sex, even if one or both of you are married to someone else – but the friendship should be carried out in group settings, and it should NEVER get intimate or deep.

To stray from these rules is to put yourself on a “slippery slope,” to “play with fire,” to “unwisely test the boundaries.”

Do we not see that, at its most dumbed-down (which doesn’t take long), all of these rules are based on the assumption that, again, at our most basic level, men and women are sex drives with legs? These rules have a stain of “protection” (of marriage, ministry, and witness), but underneath the stain is crumbly particle board.

Can you imagine Jesus saying to a woman in today’s church, “Love you, dear, but we can only talk at the church office with a big window in the door”? Can you imagine Jesus saying to a man in today’s church, “Yeah, I see you have a potentially rich friendship with this woman, but since you’re already married, you’re gonna have to nip that. Too risky”? Can you imagine Jesus saying to the lifelong singles in our church, “Sorry, real oneness is reserved for married people, but don’t worry, it’ll all be okay in heaven”?

It seems to me we’re okay with Jesus breaking down every barrier but this one. The male-female divide, we’re basically saying, is just too deep and wide for even the blood of Jesus to bring unity and peace to.

Because, you know, we’re “wired” for sex.

Thanks a lot, Freud.

Balarkey.

Jesus came to destroy barriers, to demolish walls, to bring peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were already near. How can we think that Jesus can bridge the vast, immeasurable chasm between sinful man and holy God, but is unable to help men and women be genuine friends? Really?

Now, I know all the reasons the contemporary church gives for all these rules and boundaries. Do these sound familiar?

“Protecting the sanctity of marriage.”

“Protecting the reputation of Christians and especially ministers of the gospel.”

“Protecting the witness of the Church in a world that sees sexual scandal in the Church at every turn (sometimes for real, sometimes just rumor).”

And of course those lines about slippery slopes and playing with fire.

Yes, yes. But look at those phrases and those defenses. Every one is based on fear, distrust, and suspicion.

We are afraid of our own bodies, and others’. And the church reinforces this.

We are afraid that any time a man and woman forge a close friendship, it will inevitably end up in the bedroom. Or at least they’ll want it to. Freud said it, the world believes it, and now the church reinforces it too.

We are afraid of the world’s censure. Because there has been so much sexual scandal in the church, and the world (rightly) condemns it, we walk on eggshells around people of the opposite sex. Especially those of us in church leadership.

As an aside here, may I remind us that the world will never understand the unity Jesus can bring among his followers? The world is shocked when victims offer forgiveness to perpetrators (see the families of the Charleston Nine). The world is shocked when reconciliation happens at the nation-state level (see Rwanda). The world is shocked when Israeli and Arab believers come together. The world is shocked when black and white worship together. The world cynically dismisses it all as political posturing.

Does this mean the Church ceases to seek reconciliation between historically divided parties? Not at all!

Unless, of course, again, we’re talking about the divide between men and women.

In that case, the Church not only is not really seeking reconciliation, it’s actively counseling against it.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be married. Not just married, but to your downright absolute one-and-only soulmate. (Is there such a thing?)

Didn’t Jesus come to bring peace among his followers? Why do we think that stops at the male-female wall?

Can you imagine what the world would say if the Church began to encourage genuine, close, intimate friendships between men and women, regardless of marital or eventual-marital state?

I can imagine. It would go something like this: “Look at those Christian men and women, thinking they can be tight friends without the sex card getting in the way. Either they’re hiding their affair, or they’re suppressing their desires.”

But what if believing men and women continued to live in the unity that Jesus does offer? What if they served and worshipped and played and worked together, year after year, with never a hint of sexual involvement? (Yes, it IS possible. We are more than our sex drives, y’all!) What then?

Is it possible an unbelieving world – just a few of them – might take notice and say, “Well, hmm, maybe there is something to this notion that Jesus can bring reconciliation. I mean, I know these Christian men and women who are really tight friends, and there’s nothing sexual about it, but they are seriously tight and it is cool and I wish I could have a friendship like that with a person of the opposite sex.”

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Wouldn’t that be reconciliation on a beautiful level?

Oh, and this isn’t purely theoretical to me. I have male friends I once was dear friends with – back before we both got so into church and things got weird. I mourn the distance and odd boundaries between us now. I am sad at the loss of what used to be an intimate friendship.

And I have male friends now with whom I distinctly sense the possibility of deep friendship – if only we weren’t both part of a culture that would look with such distrust and suspicion on its development. I am sad at the loss of that.

I need all the meaningful friendships I can get – don’t you? Don’t we all?

I want the unity Jesus died to bring. I want the freedom to pursue rich and meaningful friendships with my brothers and sisters of different skin color, different cultural background, different voting habits, different socioeconomic status, and, yes, even with those of the opposite sex.

We are more than our sex drives. We are brothers and sisters in a family created by the sacrificial shed blood of Jesus. How I long to live in true community, walls down, barriers gone, freedom and grace given free rein.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

Published in: on September 24, 2015 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Contemporary Worship is a Performance

at the women's retreat“Redeemed Performance”

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and swims like a duck….

“Contemporary worship” – you know, the drums and guitars and keyboard, the lights and the production team – is a performance.

There. I said it.

In the churches where we have this style of music, we cringe at the term “performance.” We insist, loudly and at length, that it’s not a performance. Performance is what One Republic does at the arena, or what a local band does at the local tavern. Performance is done by piano students, bands and choirs, ballet companies, symphonies, theater troupes, performing artists of all stripes. Hence the term “performing” artists.

We don’t like that term in church, though. We’re not standing on this stage playing or singing to draw attention to ourselves, get our 15 minutes of fame in for the week, revel in the glory. We’re here to lead others in worship, to draw ourselves and those listening (maybe even participating) into the presence of Jesus, where we seek to corporately praise him, thank him, state our surrender to him, pledge our best and our all to him.

We’re not here for us. We’re here for Jesus. So don’t call it a performance.

But here’s the thing: any time you play an instrument or sing into a microphone, any time others are listening to you or watching you – you’re performing. That’s the definition of performing, hello.

And at a lot of our churches, it is a serious performance. There are production teams – and we don’t even pretend to call them anything else. There are bands – we call them worship teams. (Don’t even get me started on what a sadly limited view we have of worship; in this culture, “worship” equals “music.” WHAT??) There’s a rehearsal. There’s a lead singer and some harmonies. There are lights, speakers, big hairy screens, sound systems (some worthy of rock star status).

There’s a stage, for Pete’s sake.

What exactly is it, if not a performance?

(As an aside – this did not arrive with the “contemporary” scene. Church choirs have been performing for years. It just wasn’t a major discussion.)

The difference between One Direction or One Republic or One Beyonce, and, say, the band I occasionally play with at my church, lies in motivation. The big-time kids are in it for the dinero and adulation; we’re in it to worship a mighty and worthy and beautiful Jesus, and hopefully bring others along with us.

I call this “redeemed performance.”

The word “performance” has gotten a bum rap among church people. We’re so concerned we’ll be – or be seen as – self-focused musicians, we run from the word like it carries a disease.

But “performance” is okay. It’s a neutral term, in fact. All it means is you have an audience.

When your heart is in the right place – and isn’t worship all about getting our hearts in line? – performance becomes, at a minimum, positive, and at best, holy.

I’m not the only one to have experienced this at bono fide performances. Have you ever been to a symphony – where there’s no intent to glorify God – and been transported into his presence simply because the music was amazing and your heart was in the right place? Have you ever been to a choral concert and felt yourself drawn into the presence of the Almighty, even though the singers could care less? Come to think of it, how many movies have you watched – and we know they were performance – and known you were suddenly in the presence of the Holy?

Worship through music is always about the heart. It’s the direction of the heart that determines whether or not a performance is an experience of worship. Jesus told the Samaritan woman worship was not a matter of location but of heart (John 4:23-24). I submit this is equally true in our context: worship is not a matter of “performance” or not, but of the heart.

I can have an audience and draw glory to myself, or I can have an audience and draw glory to Jesus. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t it great how the Spirit can take something neutral – a performance – and, through working in hearts, turn it into something redeemed and holy and edifying?

It’s a band. It’s a performance. Praise Jesus, when he gets hold of the hearts of the musicians, it’s a redeemed one.

What on earth is wrong with that?

Published in: on May 13, 2014 at 2:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Air Travel Observations

Upon returning after a six-year hiatus

 Two immediate observations while traveling (by air) today:Image

1. Even when things go smoothly, like today (though the last several minutes of that first flight were rather lurchy), it’s still stressful. The rushing and the waiting, then more rushing and waiting. The mediocre food. The over-priced everything. And all of it overlaid with the ever-present suspicion foisted upon us by the TSA and that awkward body scanner, the FAA, and the audio loop over the PA system about watching your baggage…and then cinched by headlines about gone-wrong and missing commercial planes. And, light as the camel’s proverbial straw, at least in my case, the niggling dread of ending up with an obese or obnoxious or smelly seatmate.

2. I spent a full 30 minutes handwriting in a blank journal at an airport diner, and I felt like an absolute DINOSAUR. The few people who weren’t engrossed with a screen (be it three or 53 inches) were talking to each other; a smaller minority were reading something made out of paper; no one but me was using a pen on a blank page. What a world. I think of Julia lamenting the demise of her own handwriting due, pure and simple, to lack of regular employment. Because, outside of the occasional signature, who writes anything anymore beyond what can fit on a Post-It note? A part of me mourns the death of handwritten things (okay, a little exaggerated, I concede); some of me shrugs in resignation.

This new world has some distinct advantages…and distinct losses. Such is every transition. I just pray that I will be teachable, discerning, focused on Jesus (in a Matt. 6:33 kind of way), trusting in him, and ever obedient to whatever role he assigns me in every season of my life.

I walk with Jesus, and if he is my guide even through the valley of the shadow of death, he can care for me in this – in any – fearful world.

Oh what comfort. What peace to a harried heart. Jesus is with us, in us, around us, our light, our path, our center, our all in all. Ever our Rock.

Published in: on April 10, 2014 at 12:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Closet Liturgy Lover?

Max Patch, 2009

Another “Passion Week” has passed without my attending a single special worship service.

And I’m upset about that.

For all my enjoyment at so-called “contemporary” worship services – you know, the ones with the band (excuse me, worship team), the pastor-with-no-tie, the middle-aged parents ill-advisedly wearing jeans, the “relevant” “messages” (don’t EVEN get me started), and the church facility that looks far more like a convention center than a house of worship (another soapbox, another time) – no, really, I DO enjoy those services in those places…

Well, it appears I’m a closet liturgy lover.

I like stained glass windows.

I like choirs – well, okay, only if they’re good, I admit it, I’m sorry.

I like orchestras – same caveat.

I like reverent Lord’s Suppers. I even like calling it the Eucharist, more and more as I learn the history of that ordinance.

Heck, I like the word ordinance. It carries the solemn weight of millennia of church history behind it. I like that heftiness.

And I’m sure it’s partly because I didn’t grow up forced into it, but…I really like liturgy. Call and response, recitation of things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Gloria Patri (still don’t know it by heart), Scripture readings. I like the short choral numbers, and the choral anthems sung in Latin (yup, Latin). I like the insistence upon Scripture readings from both testaments and the Psalms. I like the reassuring order of the service – no surprises, just the comfort of ritual.

Hominy Community church, N.C.

The most beautiful worship service I ever attended was a Christmas Midnight Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, S.C. Oh! That contemporary evangelicalism might recover the holiness of beauty! That it might once again awaken all five of our senses in the act of worshipping our creative God! That it might rediscover the near-tidal power of ritual, tradition, creed, kneeling, the act of responding with one voice in commitment and humility.

Yes, yes, I know ritual can turn into meaningless ritual. I know we can worship with our lips but have our hearts far from our God. I know order can morph into control. I know beauty can denigrate into an idol.

Guess that’s why I’m a closet liturgy lover at a contemporary evangelical megachurch, instead of an outright Episcopalian…God love us all.

Published in: on April 26, 2011 at 2:40 am  Comments (3)  

Homesteading

Made the shortcake on a Saturday....gone by Sunday night. Oh, and hooray for cardamom.

There are nine jars of homemade strawberry jam on my counter tonight. Yes, made by yours truly.

The kids and I went to Cottle Strawberry Farm Monday, where I picked two gallons of gorgeous strawberries while the kids played in the fallen fence wire at the edge of the field. Yes.  Last night I capped them all (the berries, not the kids). And this afternoon I made jam.

What is it about picking fresh fruit that is such a superior experience to buying the plastic containers of it at the store? Have I just read too much Michael Pollan? Lived in Alice Waters‘ backyard (Marin County) or locavore-lovin’ Asheville too long? Bought the Earth Fare/Whole Foods propaganda?

Or is there really something to the sensual – yes, very sensual – sensation of stooping down, warm sun on your back, brushing aside the slightly prickly green leaves, watching like a hunter for the bright red of a ripe berry, grasping that beauty just so, and pulling it with just the right blend of tension, strength, and gentleness to claim the fruit as your own, dropping it with a satisfactory plop into your little plastic white bucket…Oh there’s got to be. You know you feel like you’ve earned that produce, by Jove, not had it delivered to you by some sleepy trucker who picked it up 18 days ago in a town 450 miles from you, where it was picked with tired, under-paid migrant hands.

Never mind that it’s God who makes things grow. And strawberries are, in my little world, always a treat, the sweetest taste of summer. (The sugar companion to cucumbers, the other taste of summer.)

And why was I smiling while I stirred boiling crushed strawberries and sugar in a big pot? And carefully grasped hot jars out of another big pot of water, put the fun blue funnel over their mouths, and soup-ladled the jam into the jars? And extended my handy-dandy stick-with-a-magnet into yet another pot of water to retrieve lids and rings? What exactly is so thrilling about that? Except my mother does it. And probably my grandmother did. And how many countless generations of women and men have preserved fruit in almost exactly the same manner for how many countless decades, even centuries?

I almost felt like there was a cloud of witnesses – primarily women – in the kitchen with me today, watching, nodding, maybe furrowing their brow with puzzlement or disapproval, smiling, and definitely giving me a cosmic, maternal, culinary pat on the back. You go, girl. Take that fresh stuff and hold on to it for months. That’s a good homesteader.

The biggest thrill of all – all evening – is that sweet “pop” emitting from the kitchen, letting me know the lids have sealed. All nine of them now. Remember Meg Ryan’s little jump when she heard “You’ve…Got…Mail”? That’s me.

And since when did this homestead-y stuff get to be in vogue (again)? I don’t know. I have a friend who used to be suspicious – and resistant – to homemade things like this, and now she loves it, makes the stuff herself, wants to raise farm animals, for crying out loud. And so do I!

Take that, Betty Friedan.

Actually I think she’d be proud…I feel less, not more, domesticated when I engage in these terrifyingly domestic (re: “women’s work-demeaning”) activities. Just get me to a field of fresh fruit and I’ll need The Man (his centralized gi-normous farm, his under-paid migrant workers, his mass production and mass-marketing of the sweet innocent strawberry, and especially his big fat gas guzzling trucks) less.

Homesteaders unite…just listen to those jelly jars POP.

Published in: on April 20, 2011 at 3:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Hello world!

My arugula sprouts, two weeks from seed.

Well, right about the time blogs are fading and tweeting is all the rage (sounds like a dance from the 1920s to me), I decide to start blogging (which sounds like a construction task). So here I am, gonna add my profundities to “the cloud,” and see where my Forrest Gump feathers land.

Come with me if you’d like. (Virtually, of course – I’m not actually going anywhere beyond my couch.)

Published in: on April 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment