Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Can Church Be a Safe Space???

Our church has begun conversations together about gender differences, the goal being to begin to see the church as a safe place to talk about our beliefs and questions and dreams and fears, even when we may not agree. This is a hard process. We come to the meetings with a whole spectrum of emotions.

There are those of us who fear being judged for being completely ready and impatient to affirm and welcome persons of all gender expressions.

There are those of us who fear being judged for being completely convinced it is wrong to affirm and welcome those practicing any other than committed heterosexual relationships.

There are those of us (who probably have not attended the conversations) who are of differing gender identities who fear being judged for being honest about their identities and their questions and their relationship to God.

There are those of us who have friends, relatives, loved ones who have been excluded or have chosen to leave church because of the possibility of being judged for having a different gender identity.

There are those of us who have no close relationships (that we know of) with those of other than heterosexual gender identity, who have questioned the assumptions they grew up with, but have no safe place to talk about those questions in a church setting because of fear of being judged.

And now we come together to try just to talk around tables in the same room and show love to each other, making the assumption that each person at the table, no matter what their position on this issue,

  • loves Jesus
  • wants wholeheartedly to follow Jesus
  • is loved by Jesus
  • is on a journey together with all the rest of the people in the room to love each other and love God as well as we possibly can.
  • believes that the Bible is our truth.

There is holiness when we meet, but also fear. Will this discussion split our church? Are people still not coming to the conversations because they do not feel safe even in this place that we have tried to make safe?

I don't have a lot of answers.

In my own life, the tendency to be like the Pharisees is a huge temptation.

As a child I dedicated my life to Jesus many times, mostly to stay out of hell. I was afraid of a God who was waiting for me to make a mistake. I wanted to have said the right words, prayed the right prayer, done the right things, avoided the wrong things, in order to be saved. I did all of those things. And still, on days when the house was very very quiet, I would go to check on my younger brothers as they slept. I'd been taught that when Jesus comes again the sinners would be left behind, but I knew God would not leave a child behind, so if my brothers were still there, I was safe. That is a miserable way to live, and a false way to see God.

I was not able to feel safe in my relationship with God until sometime in high school when I discovered that God absolutely loved me. God was not out there waiting for me to fail so that he could catch me at it and let me have the consequences for all eternity. God was in love with me, saw good in me, was cheering me on, wanted me to be my best self. That kind of love was something I wanted. Knowing the God who offered it, knowing Jesus who made it flesh, was something I wanted in this life, regardless of eternity.

But throughout my life I have still managed to slip back to the Pharisee side of things.

What is the Pharisee side of things? To my way of thinking, the Pharisee was someone who placed a very high value on worshiping God and on righteous living as a result of that worship. The Pharisee wanted every part of their life to line up with God's values, and so they took the things they knew about God, and then set out rules for themselves in order to stay inside the lines they saw as God's boundaries. Their intention was to honor God. Their practice ended up being a litmus test for who was in and who was out. Keeping the Sabbath is such a good thing that can nurture faith, but it is easy to slide away from keeping the Sabbath until bit by bit there is no Sabbath left. So the Pharisees made rules to help them know. You can walk this far but no farther. You can do this much but no more. It is easy to see if I'm OK or not. It is easy for me to see if you are OK or not.

As a child, I subscribed to this by wanting to say the right words, pray the right prayer, and then to be 'in'. Throughout my life I continue to slip back into it. I want to have a prescription that lines out for me what will keep me in good standing with God and what will edge me out into "condemned" territory. Must I have devotions every day? What if I miss a day? or a week? Does my tithe have to be exactly 10 percent. Am I holier if I give more? Am I still OK if I give less? Does time count as part of the tithe? 

Throughout my life, God continues to challenge this way of looking at life and at faith. 

The apostle Paul was one who spent  his early life doing everything out of a desire for holy living. He followed all the laws and took them more seriously than the average Hebrew. After he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he wrote of his 'resume' for following the law and his rigorous desire to be a righteous Jew as being worthless. Seeing faith this way is something to repent from, for it isn't faith. It is a contract. 

The Pharisees (and I) wanted to know the definition of being in the kingdom so that they (and I) could be sure to be on the right side. But the thing that happens when we use these prescriptions for right living to order our lives is judgement and self-righteousness. We judge ourselves to have followed or not followed the rules. We judge others as to whether they follow the rules. Then we rest on these assessments instead of realizing we can never do enough to become perfect. 

Certainly many of these practices are very helpful to faith. But when we use them to measure ourselves as to being fit for the kingdom or fit for destruction, we are looking to see who is in and who is out. And sadly, that is what the church in the United States seems to be known for these days. 

The church is already split.

We come to our conversations together afraid that people will leave because we are having this conversation. The thing is, people already have left. They left because we have not had the conversation, or because they could not be welcomed here, or because their friends/family members could not be welcomed here. They have left because we are too liberal and they have left because we are too conservative and they have left because our worship is different than the worship they find meaningful. They left because someone said hurtful things, or they left because no one really made them welcome.They disappeared quietly and they will not be back because they have found faith communities elsewhere, or because they have given up on faith communities.

There are others who stand on the cusp of leaving, sure that God will not be honored if the conversation goes one way or another. The church has become so used to being a litmus test that we can't conceive of being church together if we disagree. This is me too. I have had those thoughts as well, that I can't continue with this or that group of believers if we continue to do this or that expression of belief. I'm guilty too.

Why are we so prone to leaving?

How do we become the kind of church where it is safe and good to bring our hardest questions about life and faith without fear?

How do we become the kind of church that demonstrates the kind of love and acceptance from God that brought me head over heels into the arms of Jesus when I was a teenager?

How do we become the kind of church where we are committed to staying and working through the hard questions together in love so that we can bring up the questions and struggle with the answers without losing our fellowship?

If I tell you that I need you in my church even though we disagree, that I need you perhaps precisely because we disagree, will my needing you here be enough to make it worth it for you to stay? Will you needing me be enough to make me stay? Can we be church together even if we see things very very differently?

Can we talk about our disagreements but also talk about the ways we see God working in each other? Can we value each other's gifts even as we wrestle with our questions? Can we see our love for each other and the goodness in each other every bit as clearly as we see the differences between us? Can we refuse to put each other in a box labeled 'right' or 'wrong' that conveniently allows us to stop listening or caring?

Is there ever a good time to give up on finding answers together and leave to find more like-minded, or more true understandings of faith? Should we bless each other to go and trust each other with that decision and not see it as a failure?

Is it possible to have a church that includes everyone who wants to follow Jesus regardless of every other difference, trusting that we are all on a journey, that we all do not fully understand, that we all need grace, that we are all chosen and loved by God?

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I think I need to get better at living with the questions. If there were answers to the questions, those answers would probably be the kinds of answers we Pharisees would like.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Lenten Practice

As we move through the Lenten season, I'm glad for the thoughts of others on the meaning and practice of celebrating Lent. Paul Schrag wrote for Mennonite World Review about repentance and these words especially caught my attention:

"In a time when disagreements are escalating among Christians and conflict is dividing our churches, what are the sins we need to confess? In our zeal to keep other people's sins always before us, do we fail to see those others as children of God? How might putting our own sins first in our mind improve our ability to get along?"

Since reading this, I've decided to make a daily practice of looking at my day for my own sins. Paul is right and it is too easy to keep the sins of others before us.

Another practice I have been adding to my days during Lent, and hopefully longer, is to be writing at least a little bit that is thoughtful or seeking insight. It can be a journal entry or an email or a thank you note or a blog post or just general writing practice.

And the third practice that isn't necessarily Lenten but seems to be needed during this particular Lent is to be practicing mindfulness regularly. Breathing in and out, aware of the feeling of air moving. Observing my thoughts objectively rather than subjectively living inside them. Letting them go and returning my focus back to my breath. Sometimes repeating a short prayer with each in and out breath. This practice seems to be the best treatment for worry and anxiety, and has eased me back to sleep in spite of many middle of the night worried thoughts.

I am aware that we are moving toward the first Easter without our dads. Just yesterday I was thinking about how it was time to assemble the ingredients for paska, and then had sadness. I make paska for Dad more than for myself. It was his mother who made it long before I did. I found it important every year to get a loaf to their house before Easter morning so that their breakfast could be paska. This year he will not be there to eat it.

I rearranged a table in the living room yesterday, removing clutter and deciding what things are important to be displayed right now. This is how it looks.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Clean Hearts

We are learning about the Beatitudes in our children's midweek program at church, and I am privileged to be one of the leaders. An advantage of being a leader is the discipline of attentiveness. Because of the time spent in preparation, my heart is attentive to how other parts of life fit into the truth I am hoping to engage with the children.

We are nearly through the Beatitudes. Our verse was Matthew 5:8, "Blessed are those whose hearts are clean, they will see God."  Other versions interpret the blessing to be for those whose hearts are pure. Either way, a complicated concept for children, or so I thought.

The timing of this beatitude lesson was serendipitous. We had not planned for it to work out this way, but our lesson happened to fall on Ash Wednesday, which this year was four days after Valentine's Day. It was good timing for focusing on clean hearts. We chose to participate with the other age groups of the church in the Ash Wednesday service during the last 20 minutes of our time together.

The children begin with music,  and our leaders, not knowing of our choice to talke about clean hearts, never-the-less chose songs about clean hearts. 

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." 

"Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary for you."

I have no idea how much the children thought about the words they were singing, but the words met a need in me to see that God  was present and active, and that the lesson was more in God's hands than it was in mine.

I had worked long days babysitting in the three days leading up to this lesson and had only been able to give the lesson cursory attention. It was not planned in the way I liked to plan. I did not have the details in my head well enough to be sure that I could convey to the children the questions I had, the explanations that would help them to explore their own faith journey. I came to church with the materials only partly prepared and my heart anxious and frantic. Not a good way to teach. 

During our drive to church, with three little grands in the back who  were tired and hungry, I wondered how the lesson would go. Maybe it was God, or maybe just the wisdom that comes from experience, but my thoughts were turned to the truth that  for the kids, no one lesson ever stands out as pivotal in their faith. Rather it is people who love them, who respect them and nurture is relationship that is pivotal. No matter how my lesson went, I could definitely offer relationship, because I do truly love each of the children who come.

We sat in a circle after music and read through the verse together, talking about our ideas of what it meant to have a clean heart. 

We talked about Ash Wednesday, about Lent, about remembering Jesus fasting and being tempted in the desert, about the tradition of giving up something or taking on something new as a practice to strengthen ourselves spiritually as we look forward to Easter. 
Jesus gave up food and took on prayer. 
They could choose. 
Did they want to try a Lenten practice? 
Did they want to give up sweets, or tv, or video games, or any habit they wished they could be free of for a while? 
Did they want to take on prayer, or gratitude, or acts of kindness, or good habits they had been wanting to try?

There was  active discussion with earnestness mixed with silliness. They took home a Lenten calendar and a small paper on which they could choose to write down a Lenten practice to which they would commit themselves. Some began writing right away.  Others  gave it more thought or laid it aside. Some came to me to share their decision. Some came again more than once to share how they were thinking it through and tweaking their practice to make it something  to which they could give themselves.

We had a snack and then quietly went upstairs to the Ash Wednesday service, where we sat together in the front rows. This is not a quiet group of children, but on this night, as on Ash Wednesday last year, they quickly grasped the solemnity of the occasion and sat in silence, singing or reading along with the hymns, listening to the scriptures, and choosing whether or not to go forward to be given the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads.

One of the scriptures read was Psalm 51, which includes the words of the song we had sung earlier in the evening. Here are some excerpts that were meaningful for me as I listened to the words with children  seated around me.

"Be gracious to me, O God, according to your lovingkindness;
according to the greatness of your compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin....
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which you have broken rejoice...
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit."

As  we left, individuals still came to me with more ideas about their Lenten practices. It was an evening of grace, of reminders that this is God's  work and not mine. My part is small and God had used others to orchestrate a full and blessed evening  focused on Jesus, and on purifying our hearts as Jesus did.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Worship and Grief

A few Sundays ago the topic for worship was... worship. Our text was Psalm 100, one of the twelve texts our church has chosen as foundational. Our sermon included the truth that worship is active.
  • Make a joyful noise
  • Come before him with joyful songs
  • Know that the Lord is God
  • Enter his gates
  • Give thanks
  • Praise his name
It also included the truth that we worship because of who God is and because of who we are. God is good. God is creator. God loves forever and is faithful forever. We are created, the sheep of his pasture.

Worship is a return to the foundational truth of our lives.

It is good to ponder this when some foundations seem to be shaken by the deaths of our fathers. No matter what happens, these things are still true.

I know that grief is different for everyone. Some find that heaven seems very near when someone close to them has died. That has not been true for me. The most real thing to me is the finality of loss. It doesn't matter how many times I walk into a living room and glance toward a recliner, there will not be a dad in that chair.

I've always been slow to be able to adjust to loss. It seems to be almost organic in the way it happens for me. I know that my mind will fight with reality for a time, and that I can't control how long that fight will last. I know that there will be several days in a row when it seems like that fight is over, and then it will come back fresh. I know that if several days go by without any sadness, that tears will come unbidden even when I'm absorbed in something unrelated to my losses. And I know that when I struggle with sadness or any other difficult emotion, for me it will be a spiritual struggle as well as an emotional one.

This time around, I have been so aware of how wrong death seems. Not wrong as in too soon, for both our dad's lived full lives, but wrong because it is so hard to comprehend it being over, at least in this world.

I know that with our physiology, living forever is not possible and that wishing for it would be wishing for an everlasting helplessness after our vigorous years are over.

At the same time, the change from here to gone is so huge. It is abhorrent.

There is something that fights against it even as I push to accept it.

It is a mystery. Maybe that is all that can be said.

During that Sunday morning worship service about worship, several from the congregation shared about what worship means to them. One thing especially was memorable to me.  “Worship is a place where the distance between heaven and earth becomes small.”

Those words came back to me this week when I had a dream about Dad.

In the dream, I was going to the local private college to hear a concert of sacred music sung by a men's choir. I knew that Dad would be there. As I entered the auditorium I was surprised to see Dad seated in the front row of the choir, with other older men I did not recognize filling the row on either side of him. The rest of the choir was made up of younger men, including my son, who was in the row behind Dad. As the singing began, Dad sang with a smile on his face, enjoying the music. A bird had somehow gotten into the building and as it flew among the rafters, the choir smiled and watched it as they sang. All of their faces brightened, and they seemed to be singing to or with the bird as it flew above us. But mostly I remember Dad's face. It wasn't some ethereal smile or anything like that. It was just him, enjoying singing together while something delightful was happening in the room. I did not have a sense that he was aware of me.

I don't know anything about the interpretation of dreams, but I'm grateful for this one. The bird seems important, as does the smile on Dad's face as he sang sacred music and watched the bird soaring above him. I'm grateful for the dream, and for the ability to remember it daily. I'm grateful for the words of my friend. 

Worship is a place where the distance between heaven and earth becomes small.

thanks to Jerry Jost for sharing his photograph

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Another goodbye

Middle of the night phone calls always catch at the heart. And so it was on January 10, when the phone rang in the night, signalling the end of Chuck's dad's life. Chuck left quickly for the hospital where he met his siblings and his mom, where they sang "Thank the Lord With Bounteous Measure" one last time in the presence of that beloved body, now empty of the soul.

I remained at home, breathing in and out, waiting for the phone to ring again with the news that we were again being plunged into that other reality that is the time between death and the new normal. This is a time of gathering, of being held gently by our community, of remembering, of making plans and choosing how to honor a life, of telling stories, eating food we did not cook, writing thank you notes, gathering photos, and especially in this family, of making music together.

In both the deaths of our fathers, gratitude has been the strongest emotion in those days between the time of death until after the memorial celebration is over. Grief is strong as well, but it takes a bigger role afterwards. 

In our case there was gratitude for so many things:

a life lived fully with so much love offered not only to family but to many many friends and acquaintances

small personal jokes between Edwin and so many of the children, in-laws, and grand-children

Edwin's ability to draw others in and include them

the music that Edwin shared with his children, grandchildren, and friends

the faith that was important to him and that he passed on

the ability for such a large group of family members to plan together a burial and a service that honored so well the man they loved

evening time with family spent making the music that Edwin had led us in so many times before

overwhelming sense of how very many people loved Edwin and love us

I did not call him Edwin. I chose to learn to call him Dad. He did not take the place of my own dad but he became a beloved second dad to me. His joke with me, and with other non-coffee drinkers, was to offer coffee whenever we were together. He was generous and affectionate, and those who knew him also knew they were loved. I'm grateful to have married into this family and had the opportunity to call him Dad.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


We have a new dog. That has been more of a mixed bag than I anticipated.

The house was so quiet and I really wanted the comfort of a dog to ease the sad feelings I was having as I grieve the losses. I started looking for labradoodles and it was a complicated process with lots of phone calls, many web sites with puppies, research, more phone calls, discussion, phone calls. It was probably obsessive.

We kind of moved our sites from labradoodles to goldendoodles. At first I wanted to have a dog that had a similar temperament to Harvey without looking too much like him and I got excited about some chocolate colored puppies that cost more than we could afford.

We kept looking. We wanted a dog from Kansas. We wanted to buy from a breeder who spent time socializing the puppies. We finally found a puppy raised indoors by a woman who raises therapy dogs. Both his parents are therapy dogs. They are also smaller examples of their breeds, so this pup will likely grow to be around 50 pounds, instead of the 75 pounds that Harvey had reached. The breeder had begun house training the pups and they knew they had to sit to be petted.

Because of the holidays coming up, that head start on training really appealed to me, although I  was ambivalent about having a smaller dog than Harvey. Chuck appealed to my sense of self preservation by reminding me how hard it was to hold on to Harvey when he got excited about another dog.

We wanted the one male left in the litter but we did not have a name. We had 20-30 names, none of which really grabbed either of us. It was the night before we had arranged to go get the puppy, and I was still stewing about names. Chuck said that he wanted to sleep on it, so we went to bed.

In the morning I was thinking about Dad, and about Harvey, and about names. I remembered the Katzenjammer twins and got up to google them and find out their names. One was Hans and the other was Fritz. I remembered Dad calling us 'schnicklefritz' when we were ornery or silly. Fritz seemed good to me, so I told Chuck about it. He thought about it for a while and suggested calling the pup Laurence Schicklefritz Katzenjammer, Fritz for short. We threw out the list because this was a name we could easily agree on.

Tim came along to help with the driving and Mom came to spend the day with us. We were gone about 8 hours total.

When we picked up Fritz, I had a lot of mixed feelings. He was so small. The woman who raised him was not really a 'people person' and was it was hard to connect with her. What if I wasn't getting what I thought I was getting?

But he clearly loved being held, which indicated that he had been handled a lot. He did sit to be petted. He was soft and fluffy and cute.

Fritz is a different dog than Harvey, more energetic, and also more hesitant about new experiences. He is easily over-stimulated and needs help calming himself. He is cute in a different way, more fluffy and small instead of oversized and clumsy.

So learning to be Fritz's owner has come with its challenges. It is a reminder that there are new things to learn with every new dog. Just as with each child all the things you thought you knew are challenged, so with each new puppy.

I read the training books and watch the videos from Sophia Yin, a wonderful dog trainier who passed away last year. I remember being surprised to hear her say that she still learns more about dogs with each new one she meets. She even has a video of herself working with a problem dog and trying different interventions until she finds one that this dog responds to.

So it is with Fritz. I'm trying the things that worked well with Harvey and finding that Fritz is a different dog with his own personality. It is a good personality. But it also brings me up short sometimes. I'd made assumptions based on fantasy, that I could just repeat Harvey's training with a few fixes of the things I did wrong and everything would be smooth.

Patience is a virtue. Fritz is working his way into my heart. On days when I am most frustrated there will be a new step of improvement, and new understanding on my part or on his. He is a sweet and smart individual and I am learning to love him as the individual he Fritz, while I still grieve the loss of Harvey.

He had been to church with us and has blessed me with the friendship of the children again.
Fritz sleeping on the lap of my friend
I have a new friend. We don't stop making new friends while we grieve the loss of old friends. Hopefully we do not force our new friends to be clones of our old friends. I hope that someday Fritz will become a great therapy dog. I think it is possible. He will be a different kind of therapy dog than Harvey would have been. And even if bing a therapy dog proves not to work out, Fritz will be my good friend.
Tuckeered out from play and asleep on his "spot", adorable and loveable.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


On November 15, 2013 we met Harvey.

I had been wanting to get a puppy while we still had Mattie, because I believed she would have a calming influence on a young dog, and would make training easier. We tried one dog from the local shelter, whom I loved, but who was afraid of Chuck. When we took her back I started looking for labradoodles and goldendoodles. We found a litter of puppies in Hutchinson and made the decision to go for it.

As I was leaving to pick up the puppy I called out to Chuck, "I have no ideas for a name. Do you have any?"

Chuck loves learning Spanish and one of his techniques is to watch movies dubbed in Spanish. His favorite at the time was a Jimmy Stewart movie about a 6 ft. invisible rabbit named Harvey.

He called out, "What about Harvey?"

It was perfect.

Two days after we brought home this big bundle of fun, Mattie woke up obviously in her final hours. We skipped church that morning and sat with her as her life slipped away.
Harvey's first big outing was to Camp Mennoscah for a weekend celebration of my parents' 60th anniversary on Thanksgiving weekend of 2013.
His second trip was a weekend away with us at Red Hills Retreat, owned by Jeremy and Jyl Ewy in February.

We took him on vacation to O'Haver Lake campground, west of Salida, Colorado where he had a great time in the van, in motels, in the campground and on hikes.
H didn't quite fit on a seat in the van but he would try valiantly until it became to uncomfortable and then he would sleep on the floor.

admiring Chuck's catch

Throughout his life, Harvey was a regular attender at our home church, First Mennonite Church in Newton, KS. He was a big hit with the kids, even winning over some who had previously been quite afraid of dogs.

 He was huge, as you can see from the pictures. In the mornings Chuck would often get up first and let Harvey out of his crate and greet him. Then Harvey would make his way to me, still in bed. He would lay his huge head next to me on the bed and wait for his morning neck massage.

I was planning to work with him as a therapy dog and have been actively training him since we got him. He still had some work to do. It took a long time to learn to walk with a loose leash but we finally got that figured out. He still did not know how to calmly meet another dog. He just got too excited and I was still reading everything I could get my hands on to find the training method that would work for him. (I think I found the right book for that particular problem after he died, so I'll have that info for future use.)

We also had not figured out the best way to keep him from getting on the road. He mostly went there when he was following our other dog, who was a car chaser, so we usually tied up the other dog when we let Harvey out. That worked well. 

But when our lives turned toward saying our goodbyes to Dad, our vigilance relaxed. Chuck was on the phone with me, checking up on things when Harvey needed to go out. In the few minutes it took to finish that call, the dogs had taken off after a car. George made it across. Harvey ran into the car. He had lived with us 364 days.

We have a new pup, whom I will introduce sometime in the future. He is great. 

He does not take Harvey's place. We miss him every day. Chuck has been building fences in his sleep every night and has figured out his plan and priced the materials. But his morning run without Harvey is a pretty lonely time of day.

We are grateful for Harvey, and for the way he touched so many lives beyond our own.
Taken a few days before Harvey died.

Invitation to play