7 Reasons Why I’m Not Faking Illness and Skipping Church Today

7 Reasons Why I’m Not Faking Illness and Skipping Church Today

I actually did think about it while I was peeling the potatoes for our soup last night. I could take a ‘mental health day’ and skip it. “Or, maybe I’ll get lucky and wake up with a headache.”

But, it’s 4AM on Sunday morning and I stumbled out here by the woodstove to write down my reasons for going. I smiled when I sat down in my chair and saw the full moon shining down at me through one of the loft windows. Once, I wrote a story about how the church loves like moonlight- a gentle reflection of the full sunshine glory of the love of God. So, here I am in this stream of morning moonlight, feet in my slippers and warm by the fire, to tell you why I’m not skipping church.

  1. My pastor has been working all week on his sermon. He has lost sleep and time with his family and fought personal battles we won’t see when he’s preaching. Those forty minutes he’ll be standing in front of us are the condensed blood and sweat of the long hours spent studying and praying and the squeezing of his own heart. And, this man isn’t a professor; he’s a shepherd. This isn’t a message he’s come up with to share his smarts with the world. This is a message for the people he’s prayed over and wept with. This is a message for me. I could fake illness and listen to a great online sermon, by a super mega-church preacher. That would be like heading to McDonald’s for dinner when a home-cooked meal, made with love and thinking about my tastes and nutritional needs, had been placed on my very own table. I’d be crazy to leave what has lovingly been prepared for me, with great sacrifice and love, to eat alone food that’s mass produced. So, I’m going to go local, pull up a chair and listen with ears to hear what this man has to say.
  2. My kids need to be there. They need me to be there. They need to hear their daddy and mommy’s voices singing, together with the church, their love to the One who is bigger and stronger and wiser than us. They need to see us pray. They need to see us be hugged and give hugs. Our children have seen our church. They’ve seen meals being shared and babies passed around and wood being stacked and boxes moved. And, they have seen, for almost every single Sunday morning of their lives, that we gather together on Sunday mornings. That this is more important than resting up for Monday or running those errands we didn’t get to on Saturday. Because something happens when you just show up week after week after week. It’s this miracle of belonging. My kids have the security that comes with being connected to, and part of, something bigger than just us. Here are people they trust and will go to for help or advice when they get older and would rather not come to me. Every Sunday reinforces that they are loved and called to love big because they are part of a really big family.
  3. My church connects me to historical, Biblical Christianity. We still recite creeds and confessions of faith at my church and some of them date back to the early centuries of the church. Something happens in me when I stand up and hear our voices speaking the truth that has been spoken by those that have come long before. It grounds me. I’m small. But this is so big. I’m drawn up into that great cloud of people who have been and still are confessors of God’s mercy and grace.
  4. Also, I am a natural born idolater. I have one limited mind that filters truth through my own personal experience and knowledge of the world. If left to myself, I’d create a God that fits with what makes sense to me. I’d put God in a little Lara-understands-now-box and put a tidy lid on him. Make a personal idol that sort of looks like him in some ways, but is my own twist on what divinity should be. When I go to church, I’m brought in contact with doctrine that has passed through thousands of years’ worth of brains, living in different cultures, times and places. This is not my own personal Christianity, this is a Christianity I need to personally come to and have my mind be sharpened by. And, my ideas are also challenged by the contemporary saints. Those sitting and standing around me during our morning service, with lifestyles and politics and parenting methods and perspectives on the world that are different from my own. The church isn’t like a club where we pull in the people we have a lot in common with and keep out the people who make us feel insecure. It’s more like the emergency room, where we find ourselves stumbling in with a diverse group of people sporting their own aches and pains. We’re brought together by our need for the same Physician. Our differences also sharpen us, scraping off the edges of personal preference and clearing our eyes to see what is at the true heart of things, which is Christ and faith working itself out in love.
  5. People will know if I don’t show up and I’d have some explaining to do. That week after week showing up, and being known, means that I have accountability in my life. It means if I’m struggling, and would like to stay in bed with the covers over my head, I can’t do it in secret. I’m going to church because if I skip it I’m just prolonging the question, “How are you doing?”, and will have to answer for it anyway. This hasn’t always been true. In college, before marrying ‘the man who will never skip church’, I was less consistent. I would bounce around some and take little church sabbaticals. I’d head to the ocean with my Bible and call it good. Call it better even. But, that meant that people weren’t always tuned in to where I was and I could hide under the radar. And the funny thing about hiding is that it starts out feeling safer than being known, but it ends up feeling like you are forgotten and uncared for.
  6. Going to church is a way that I love others. I need to be there to notice and see the faces of this church family. If they are going to experience a hug, and tangible love, it has to be arms that are present to embrace them. If they are going to hear a word of greeting and encouragement, there needs to be a voice there to speak it. My arms and my voice and my eyes are needed there.
  7. Going to church is a way I experience the love of Christ and renew my faith. Our church passes the bread and wine (err… grape juice) every single Sunday. It makes the service ten minutes longer. Every week. It means I’m trying to balance a cup of grape juice and trying not to spill it while handing crayons to my restless kids. Every week. But I need this. Every week. This broken body of Christ, for us. This new covenant in blood that speaks a better word, for us. Every week, I ask myself a question. “Is this really true? Can this really be for me, Lord?” And it’s by faith that I give thanks. It’s by faith that I take this bread and juice in my mouth and swallow it into my own flesh and say “Yes, Lord, this is for me”.

Now, as I still sit by the fire, that full moon is setting red and rich behind the hills to the west. The sun will soon be rising.

And, before long, I’ll be off to church.

Blessings on you today, friends.

Lara

Faith Hatching: God, Depression and Our Broody Hen

Faith Hatching: God, Depression and Our Broody Hen

I’d never actually seen a hen go broody and hatch out chicks. We’ve always tried to collect the eggs before a good cache formed that would tempt a motherly chicken. Anyway, most of our girls were bred purely and heavily for egg production and don’t have strong instincts left to do anything other than let us take their eggs away each day. But, this spring, my daughter needed a science project and her beloved bantam hen seemed desperate to raise a family. So, we let the hen collect some eggs and we let her sit.

A chicken changes when she goes broody. She has a job to do and she takes it very seriously. Her body stops making eggs and she needs less food and water. Her usually placid temperament can become fierce. She is immovable from her nest. For twenty one long days she is focused on nothing but keeping those eggs and the chicks growing within, warm and close to her breast, her feathers fluffed out as a covering.

Yesterday, we arrived home after a long day of activities. My daughter came home with a friend and, both being chicken loving gals, the first thing they did was run out to the coop and check on the hen. To their joy they found that the four eggs were perfectly pipped and zipped and four beautiful little chicks were nestled under the mother hen.

I went out to meet the new additions and I was surprised at how much this new life stirred up in me a sense of wonder. Maybe a hundred chicks have made their way through my hands to the coop or broiler pen and none of them have struck me with quite the same awe. Those chickens all arrived in boxes, a day old, after having been hatched in an incubator and shipped from some industrial producer. These ones appeared as if by magic, from the very ordinary eggs that make their way to my kitchen each day. Only, there was one significant difference. They had been tended. They were chosen and set aside and given the loving, all-consuming care of a broody hen. These fuzzy little chicks with bright eyes and strong beaks appeared out of the ordinary, miraculous event of being brooded upon.

I had the thought after stroking the back of one of those soft baby chicks, that I can be like that mother hen. There is potential for life all around me but the things that will grow are the things that I tend.

As I put more words to my thoughts I realized that this is a pondering that’s already been done by some other English speaker. Hidden in our language is proof that someone else watched a hen and her chicks and saw the power therein. We humans are brooders, too. We take thoughts and we nestle them and coddle them and keep them fresh and warm in our minds. Life grows out of our broodings.

I took this old English truth and I felt guilt creeping in with its accusations. Its own kind of brooding.

That struggle with depression, it’s all your fault…

You just need to think on what is true…

Memorize more Bible verses…

You need to control your thoughts and make them happier and more thankful…

I remember as a teen in Maine being chosen as a delegate to the American Legion’s Girls’ State. Girls from high schools around the state spent one week learning about government and how to be a patriotic, good citizen.  One of the first things the older ladies taught us (and the only thing that I remember) was a little chant: “To be enthusiastic we must act enthusiastic. Oh, boy, am I en-thu-si-astic!” I thought it was the most ridiculous thing in the world.

But how often do I feel guilty for not living this way? I should just get out of bed in the morning and act enthusiastic. Just Be Happy. Make thankful lists to brood on. Count it all joy, baby.

And on the days when I just want to collapse from exhaustion and sadness, let’s add failure to be en-thu-si-astic as topping on the self-hate sundae.

Last night I sat with dear people, in a sweet little circle, as we gathered for our church’s community prayer time. And, I prayed maybe the least en-thu-si-astic prayer ever. It was good and long but consisted of something like, “Lord, life feels super hard right now. Would you please bring joy into these things? But actually, I don’t even know if you want to answer that prayer, because you might just want things to be hard. So, anyway, I guess I trust you. Amen.” Thankfully, the saints picked up where I left off, and they hoped and they had faith and we prayed, together. They even prayed for joy. Like the real thing. Not the en-thu-si-astic kind.

Earlier this week, recognizing that low place I am so prone to sink to lately, I pulled out Martyn Lloyd-Jones old book of collected sermons entitled ‘Depression’. Cheery title, eh? Sometimes cheery isn’t what is needed. This is what he said about depression and I would guess at least the start of his take on ‘brooding’:

“The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’- what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’- instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’… The essence of this matter is to understand that this self of ours, this other man within us, has got to be handled. Do not listen to him; turn on him; speak to him; condemn him; upbraid him; exhort him; encourage him; remind him of what you know, instead of placidly listening to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you.”[1]

In the throes of feeling down and depressed, there are a million thoughts that run through my mind and want to sink me. Most of them are related to how much of a crummy failure I am. Lloyd-Jones says during those times I need to take myself firmly in hand and speak truth. There are a lot of true things we can speak, and be thankful for, like how comparatively good our life is (because it is extremely good when looking at the rest of the world’s struggles, right?). Being thankful and counting blessings are great acts and like exercise, strengthening even if we don’t immediately feel the benefits. But sometimes, if you are like me, counting blessing when you are feeling really low can produce an immense amount of guilt over not feeling more en-thu-si-astic. How crummy do you have to be to feel so crummy when life is so good? Let’s just crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my miserable, blessed head for a while.

But, according to Lloyd-Jones, the truth we are to speak is not about ourselves and our circumstances but about God. Not me. Not life circumstances. God.

Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.

But, honestly, this morning, when I thought about these words, and went to brood upon the truth of God Himself, it was hard to get there. It felt a little flat because my faith in the reality of God was kind of shaky. This is what happens sometimes, when I start sinking. It was hard to feel genuine while thinking about God and how good He is.

But… I could think about chickens. Throughout the day my daughter brought me updates on what those little chicks were doing. And, with a full and genuine heart I thought about those little miracles of tender care. I thought about how small they are and how their mother is keeping them covered with her wings. I brooded on the sweetness of that relationship between the helpless chicks and their passionate mother hen.

And that is when a miracle broke into my heart.

Suddenly, it hit me. My hope isn’t in my ability to brood over God; it is in the truth that He broods over me.

The first verses in Genesis describe God as hovering over the earth before His work of creation. Did you know that this word can also be translated as ‘brooding’? The same word is used later on in the Biblical narrative to describe how God cares for his people like an eagle hovering over her young.

“In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.”[2]

The very first image of God, the first story He tells us about Himself, is that he is brooding over His creation. We were born out of that hovering and when he calls us his children we know that he is hovering over us still. God loves us with the immovable love of a broody hen; a love that sacrifices and a love that tends and protects. He loves us with a love that waits us out, and sees us break through the hardness and walk into new life. His tenderness is mighty. A two pound little bantam hen will puff herself up and with fierceness chase away a full sized dog when she senses her chicks are in danger. Our almighty God is hovering over us with all the passion of that hen with her brood.

I shall yet praise Him!

God’s people once sang a song praising his faithful care and again, called to mind the image of a bird protecting her young. Psalm 91, verse 4, says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” In talking about this Psalm, my sweet friend, Brooke, writes about being so close to the Lord that she is “smelling the feathers.”[3] Isn’t that a beautiful image? Can you breathe deeply and smell his pinions that surround you? What if you are in a desert land, maybe even the barren and howling waste of depression and anxiety? Can you smell them then?

I breathed deeply today and I could smell the feathers.

When I couldn’t quite manage to chant my way into being en-thu-si-astic and when even my praises seemed flat, God met me exactly where I was. He met me in the chicken coop. I love this God. I’m so thankful for the reality of His hovering presence, and I pray that you would know it wherever you are and however you may be feeling today. Praying you, too, would breathe deep and smell those feathers.

Peace to you~

Lara

broody hen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, p. 21

[2] Deuteronomy 32:10, 11

[3] Brooke Mercier, https://smellingthefeathers.com/my-heart/

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

Somewhere in my blood there’s likely pagan ancestry mixed there with the puritan. Far back there might have been grandfathers or grandmothers that danced around trees in the moonlight. I thought of this once, during a time when I was tired. If I were a pagan I could look around at the world and find objects that give me a feeling of wonder, like the ocean or trees, mountains or moon, and I could make them my gods. My gods would think the way I do so their judgments would make sense to me. I would dance to make them do the things I want, like bring the rain or give me babies or heal my loved ones. Yes, I thought, maybe I could be a pagan.

The trees would be the first gods I’d bring to life. For all my love of the ocean, I am a shore dweller. Roots appeal to me and so does the idea of being firmly grounded. When I had my babies, the midwives encouraged me to try water births. But always there came a point when I needed to be out of it; frantically I needed to have my feet on something solid. When in labor with my third son, the nurses let us leave my room and walk in the woods behind the hospital.  It was a warm day in May, and my husband and I paused beneath a hardwood tree with a wide trunk and fresh, new leaves. Leaned against it, breathing deeply, I felt the pain stop as the labor continued. Finally I felt myself grounded, with the roots of this giant tree stretching deep into the earth beneath me. Drawing from the strength of that immovable tree, I felt new life moving through me unhindered. When we went back inside to the hospital room, I tried to bring the strength and rest I felt under the old tree with me. Before long my baby boy was in our arms. My husband calls him now ‘the boy who notices things.’ Yesterday I walked with him in the woods, just he and I, and again I understood why my husband says this. This boy loves the winter snow because of the tracks. He pointed out ones made by squirrels and rabbits. He showed me how to tell the coyote tracks apart from those of the big-pawed black dog romping around us. He took me off the path to see where the squirrels have a hole in the ground to store their food, and the log they sit on to eat in the sunshine, with the debris scattered around like crumbs left on the floor by children. We followed deer tracks and saw where they’ve been biting off the delicate buds of beech trees. He remarked to me, “I am so glad we don’t live in the city.” I smiled with him, and pointed out the trees stretching out as far as we could see up the hill and against the blue-grey winter sky.

During these winter months, when I sit in front of our warm woodstove, I sometimes think of a book I read once called, ‘The Trees in My Forest’, by Bernd Heinrich.

He said, “I’m sure the BTU equivalent of energy captured by a growing tree has been calculated to the third decimal point, but to me that figure provides less meaning than the heat I feel when I burn a stick of wood in my cast-iron stove. Two or three dried split pieces of rock maple can make it glow red-hot, warming the stove and the house. Heat is a form of energy. The source of energy, captured by the trees’ leaves, is the sun. Multiplying the potential energy of those two to three pieces of split wood by the untold thousands of logs accumulating in the trees all around me, I am awed by the sheer magnitude of energy that drives life, passing from one form to the next. The energy captured by trees and other plants will eventually be tapped by bacteria and fungi, by insects and other herbivores, and then passed on to birds and other predators, like us.

Given the constant extravagant input of energy into the forest and into life, it is a small wonder that the evolution of the most extraordinary complex creatures, as well as human civilizations, has been possible. After looking at trees, and heating coffee on my woodstove, it is not difficult to comprehend how life can proceed toward incredible complexity, such as a hummingbird or moth, in a seemingly “uphill” direction from chemical chaos.”

I read those words once, before a walk in the woods. One thing I’ve always had trouble with, in thinking about scientists that don’t believe in a Creator, is how they manage to reconcile the wonder all around them in the natural world with lack of design and intention. But here, I thought, maybe this is it. Maybe they have a way to wonder enough at the world, that the world itself becomes god enough to be its own creator.

On my walk, after reading Heinrich’s words, I tried to share in his wonder; to be an atheist and to still experience awe. Just for a moment, I stood in the snowy woods with that quiet that only winter can produce all around me. I looked around me at the trees. I let myself think deep about the energy in their roots and in their trunks and branches and multiplied across trees as far as I could see in every direction. I tried to let go of every religious presupposition and just feel energy swirling around me. And there, in that attempt to empty myself of faith, something swelled in me that affirmed again that it wouldn’t work. From the core of me rose words that make atheism impossible. At the height of experiencing wonder and beauty and awe, the words, “Thank you,” swelled up beyond my control. I couldn’t stop them. There they rose; reaching beyond myself and these woods toward One my soul has started to know.

Long ago a woman stood underneath a tree, gazing up at its branches laden with fruit, and listened to the lying words of the devil. He planted doubts about the goodness of God in her mind, and she became the mother of all doubters.

A true daughter of Eve, I’ve had a tendency to be a great doubter. For years and years my favorite hymn was one that contained the lines, ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…” But somehow, as the days and years go by, I’m forever becoming less of a skeptic. He has loved me with a keeping strength. I feel it working, tilling my heart at times, and the worship that rises from that overturned soil is for Him alone. Long ago, with those first meager glances at the tree of Calvary, He planted a seed in my heart and now even my doubts have become tools to break apart hard ground and let my roots go deeper.

A pastor in Manhattan, Timothy Keller, once said, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

I’ve learned to notice and to lean into my persistent questions and not to leave them unattended. Some wonderful day I trust that all these doubts will pass away forever, but until then they propel me to use my mind and my heart together to seek and to know. Always, so far, these times of honest questioning have given birth to deeper faith.

Jesus has always been willing to listen to and answer an honest question.

When the hungry crowds pressed in around him they asked, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus’ answer was that they must believe in him.

Another time, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said that it was to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

These things aren’t pretty sayings to stick on the refrigerator and feel inspired to be a better person. They are crushing if we know ourselves and we’re left to ourselves. Those who have tried to love anyone, and to love them completely, know this. The only one I naturally love with all my heart, soul, mind and strength is myself. Life has been a long and sobering revealing of that reality. This inability to believe in God and to love Him is at the core of what the Bible calls sin. From it every other sin sprouts as we work to fill a hungry place in us designed for worship.

If it were not for another tree, one without roots and branches, we would all be left to our own means to try to fill that void. We would make our own gods, each a reflection of our own hearts. We’d stay self-worshipers ever growing more self-holy. We would be designing and furnishing our own Hell.

There are so few today that see the cross as beautiful. But some, untangling and pulling weeds of doubt as they walk ever closer, fix their gaze on the tree where Jesus hung, cursed, not for His but for our own transgressions. Here we find the restoration of our worship.

I drew strength the day my son was born from a massive and glorious tree. There was something sacred and holy about that moment as I leaned against its solid trunk.

But hours later, when I held that baby in my arms, it wasn’t to the tree that I whispered my thanks.

There are times when I can almost hear the mountains, waves, moon and the great trees singing a song that causes worship to rise in my soul. But if I try to sing to them my voice is lost to the wind. They have no ears to hear my voice and no words to answer.

In the Bible the prophet Isaiah describes a man who goes into the forest and chooses a strong tree. He cuts it down and with part of it he kindles a fire, warms himself and bakes bread. Another part of the tree he carves into a god and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-20)

About this man Isaiah said, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (Isaiah 44:20)

Over and over again the Bible shows us God’s people falling down before false gods of their own making. Their deluded hearts lead them astray and they feed on ashes rather than on bread and living water. And this is my heart as well.

God has proven Himself faithful to me in countless ways. He has saved me and made Himself known to me. He has met me in prayer and He has opened up His Word and my eyes to see His story. I’ve shared in all of the blessings He’s poured out on His people, most importantly the treasure of being able to be near Him.

I’ve shared in the shame of His people as well. I’ve held lies in my right hand. Even as His child, I’ve had times of turning my back and wondering if there might be some other way. I’ve complained about His ways and tried to provide for myself because I didn’t think He would give me what I need in the future even though he has never failed me in the past. I’ve clung to the people in this life that give me a sense of security while being too afraid to draw near to the God who loves me better than my dearest friend. I’ve been bitter and full of worry. I know what the ashes of idol worship taste like.

But, amazingly, I’ve also shared in the redemption of His people. I’m a branch that has been grafted into the promises.

The passage in Isaiah goes on to say,

“Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!” (44:21-24)

The beauty of these words makes my heart ache in worship.

Once I heard someone ask the question, “Would you be happy if you could have Heaven, with all its treasures of life and wellness and beauty, with reunion with loved ones and all that Heaven contains, if only God were not present?” Like the thank you that rises beyond my control when witnessing beauty, this question forever affirms my faith.

No, I wouldn’t be happy if He were not present; this God that I will never be forgotten by but that I must be told to remember. No god of my creating can replace the God who formed me. Would I rather have a god in my control or a Sovereign who has made my sins lift like the mist? All the energy in the world, most literally, cannot fill my soul as He does. Only the One who has etched by hand and thought, and is the source of all, can fill me with true worship. This breaks forth just as it does with the heavens, earth, mountains and forest- yes, even every tree. My worship is restored through His redemption of my soul and with each remembrance of it. Yes, with the rest of creation I will break forth into singing, “…for the Lord has done it!