Ah, Christmastide. This is the time of year when all of the church activity has stopped and people are home or away visiting relatives ……. and the church ministry staff takes a big breath and relaxes. Every year during the twelve days of Christmas since 1991 I can recall this time being one of recuperation from my annual “big cold.” God gives me the strength and endurance to run marathon-like through all of the special events and services of advent through Christmas Eve and then……wham! my body says: ok, no more running, just let me be sick and get over it or I’ll carry this into January. At 43, I’ve come to know my body and it’s tolerance levels pretty well by now.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m pleased with the way the month of December went with ministry plans carried out and special productions well received by the congregation and visitors. I’m not a big fan of being sick, but it does have its benefits: I get to wear my robe, pajamas or sweatpants and fuzzy slippers all day, I get to sleep as late as I want and go to bed as early as I want. But to me, the best part of being home sick in bed for several days is all of the reading I get to catch up on. I’ve got a pile of books that I’ve collected on my bedside table with bookmarks in various places where I’ve started and stopped countless times during the past year, and I now get the uninterrupted time scrunched up under the covers catching up on my books. You know, before I start adding to the pile again seeing as how it’s New Year’s already.
Right now I’ve got my nose in Michael Simpson’s Permission Evangelism, a book I started in 2006 and got as far as the first chapter. Now that I’m well into it, I’m sorry I didn’t make time to indulge much sooner. Other books in my stack include my nearly-finished David Kinnaman (President of Barna Research) & Gabe Lyons’ Un-Christian: What a New Generation Really Thinks of Christianity … and Why It Matters, and three I have yet to start by Dan Kimball: They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from an Emerging Generation, The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship. Working in music and creative stuff makes me want to know what newer churches are doing that enhances worship and helps attract pre-Christians in ways they relate to to help them find God.
One might deduce from these titles what has been on my heart over the past year. Encountering “unchristian” Christians in the church is hard enough for someone dedicated to full-time ministry like myself, who at times struggles with keeping my passion for Christ focused in the face of rudeness and harsh personal attacks and criticism from the very same people I’m hired to minister to. I know the Bible says that we are to expect difficulties and suffering for the Word of God, but you sure don’t expect it from those who are supposed to be already saved and walking in the Light. Un-Christian is very informative in that I’m the kind of person who likes research and facts, and David Kinnaman writes in a smooth style that presents facts about what those outside of the church perceive the church to be like based upon media and their own personal encounters with the church or, more specifically, encounters of the worst kind with those claiming to represent Christ in the world.
Ouch – I’m a Christian and I don’t want to be thought of as a hypocrite, unloving or judgmental, but Barna Research Group has an abundance of data clearly indicating that today’s society has just that kind of unfavorable impression of Christians and no longer takes Christianity as a faith seriously because of it. This latter part is the one that slaps me in the face the most because part of my job is to be a witness to Christ to the OUTSIDE world. When I’m on the INSIDE and encounter the type of hypocritical, judgmental or unloving experience Barna Research Group has recorded far too many non-Christians and even Christians as having experienced, I want to know what to do to combat that and change it from within. Not to mention stay strong in my own faith and not waver in my convictions because of someone else’s bad behavior toward me.
Simply remembering that I do not get my worth from other people’s approval or disapproval of my calling, but rather from the One Who called me helps me to stay on track, but it hasn’t always been easy – especially earlier in my spiritual walk. The problem, as David Kinnaman keeps pointing out, is that the church is supposed to be a place where the lost and hurting find love, acceptance, forgiveness and a people who have experienced God’s grace and who now aim to be beacons to others to draw them to God’s love – by demonstrating what God has done for them in their words and interactions – but that’s not happening enough to combat the negative impression that has already been made on this generation. Somewhere along the line, we have strayed from our missional calling and in this pluralistic society where truth is no longer accepted as absolute, it’s critical that we take stock of where we are and how we can get back on track asap.
Don’t get the wrong impression – I’m not bashing the church or the people in it. I love what I do and Who I do it for – a Christian by definition is one who has acknowledged that they fall far short on their own and need God’s help. I’m just saying I totally relate to where the perception problem is coming from and am concerned that it’s on such a grand, grand, grand scale in this country. Epidemically so. As someone on the inside, who has answered the call to a full-time vocation in Christian ministry and intends to stay the course despite persecution, I want to know how to combat this bad image problem for Jesus’ sake. Understanding what the problem is and why it exists, what those bad perceptions of outsiders are and suggestions for overcoming them are things I need to know about in order to effectively share Jesus with others.
I can remember five or six years ago, it seemed wherever I went where there were a lot of people around (I specifically recall two times on the same day at a Home Depot), someone would be standing around waiting for assistance just like I was, would make their way over to me and start up a brief conversation by asking straight out: “Are you a nun?” I remember I was always a little startled and amused and would say, no, why? And the answer was always: “oh, I don’t know, there’s just something about you.”
Now, I don’t know how many women in their late 30s would be flattered to be taken for a nun in the midst of a frenzied marketplace, but I was. The two times it happened on the same day at the Home Depot, it was winter and I was wearing my full-length mink coat, long hair cascaded down my back, size 2 jeans, makeup on and clumpy snow boots. Must have been the cross necklace, because, seriously, what nun wears a fur coat?? Anyway, I know that spiritually, I was feeling very close to the Lord and praying earnestly that He would open the door for me to step into full-time ministry and allow me to pursue full-time the vocation I felt He had anointed me for years earlier. Obviously, that Light shining within me was what those folks saw, maybe in the patience several of them said I displayed, maybe something was showing on my face, because I know I was practicing “pray at all times” and communing with the Lord each time it happened.
Christians are all supposed to let His Light shine in us and through us. And if there’s a problem with why people are falling away from the church or being repelled from ever entering its doors in the first place, then there must not be enough Light shining through Christians to draw them near. I want to do my part to make sure I’m not a stumbling block that causes a fellow Christian to stumble nor a door that slams in the face of one seeking God’s Truth. I also know by experience that the devil steps up his scuzzy efforts to distract God’s workers the more effective those workers are for God’s Kingdom.
So, yes, I am not surprised by outright personal attacks from church members whose friends confide in me that “gee, I don’t know what’s gotten into her, she’s always been such a kind person in the past” and the like. OK, “not surprised” is not the right way to put that. “Not shaken” is probably the right phrase. I’m always surprised. But a very mature Christian woman asked me right after a very bad church experience whether or not someone else’s bad or unchristian behavior in any way shape or form affected my certainty of God’s purpose for my life.
Talk about an epiphany moment. That statement completely picked me back up. And that afternoon (yes, I swear it was only hours later) I got a direct phone call from a large church I had just sent out a resume to a few days before asking to schedule a time for an initial phone interview. I soon shook the dust off of my feet from where I was and within three weeks the Lord moved me on to where He had prepared for me to go. My ministry calling is to encourage the Lord’s people, but my particular venue is through music. Right now I’m in a desert place waiting for Him to open the next spiritual door for me to pass through. I’ve been sorely tempted to revisit in my mind some of the more poignant bad experiences I’ve lived through in ministry, but I’m pressing on and putting my mind to combatting the perception that church is unchristian or no longer as Jesus intended it to be. Must be why my reading pile has amassed a collection of books on this topic. I know I’ll finish at least two of them before Epiphany arrives on the calendar and am trusting that the Lord is waiting for me to do my part and get myself caught up on this subject that seems to have been presenting itself to me for at least two years.
The Lord has always handed to me on a silver platter precisely what I’ve needed at just the right time I needed it. This has been my testimony for over ten years since I first shared it publicly during a worship service I was serving as Worship Leader of, and I know it will continue to be proved over and over to me. Jeremiah 29:11-14 has been my Scriptural mantra for many years:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and will bring you back from captivity.”
I’ve had some ups this past year and some downs, but I’m determined to remain faithful to my calling and to Him Who has called me. No matter what.
That’s what I love most about being sick through Christmastide . . . the clarity of thought and spiritual discernment that comes despite the DayQuil fog.