I look for God in the bushes (burning or otherwise), in books, zombie tv, conversations over waffle fries, and in gluten-free communion bread.
I believe sometimes the unseen can be seen. When I catch a glimpse I take notes.
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I See God In...

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A few weeks back I received a message from a young woman I hadn’t talked to in more than a decade. I knew her as a fresh-faced, eager little girl who never stopped talking and never stopped smiling. Even now I can see her thick, bobbed hair bouncing to the rhythm of her delightful chatter.  And yet, here was a message from a woman, all grown up, gorgeous, staring back at me from a small square profile pic.

The message was long, articulate, and hard.

She said she didn’t really go to church anymore. She wrote,

The church has turned into a man-made, self-sustaining machine of sorts, rather than the spiritual sanctuary and meeting ground that I believe God intended it to be.

She made it clear that she hadn’t left God. She just didn’t really see God in His church.

She sent me a link to an article (one of many circulating online recently) about why people are leaving church and asked me to consider it, perhaps to write about the same subject but through my lens. Maybe I could open eyes…

People send me blog post ideas pretty frequently. My dad usually has one for me every time I visit. I’m honored by these requests. When someone asks me to write about something close to his or her heart, they’re entrusting me with something precious.

But this request was different. It felt heavier.

I’ve been thinking about why people leave church for a few years now, reading books and blogs and magazine articles about millenials, reading the contentious comments section every time someone suggests the church (in my circles the Church of Christ) consider changing practices or patterns. Meanwhile, I’ve seen young people I love, men and women I know love God, struggle to hang on in churches they don’t understand and churches that don’t understand them.

I’ve read that young people leave “the church” because our tradition refuses to allow instruments or to encourage women to participate more broadly in our Sunday worship events.

I’ve read that people leave church because we care too much about a slick Sunday worship service.

I’ve read people leave the church because we spend too much time talking about issues.

Because we don’t seem loving.

Because we do seem angry.

Because we speak a language young people and outsiders don’t understand.

Because we don’t like questions.

Because we aren’t authentic.

Because, as my friend said, church feels more like a machine than a sanctuary.

The list of complaints is long.

And I think it deserves a listen. I think we owe these people, men and women who really do want to find God in our midst, I think we owe them a hearing.

In so many cases, they’re spot on.

The church does need to change.

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My husband is a preacher, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the local church. And I have definite feelings about what the word “church” means.

Few things get the Gerhardts more riled up than when somebody says “The church is so…” or “The church never…” or “The church can’t…” Those phrases bother us, because we wonder what exactly people mean when they say them. They’re an attempt to generalize what is actually very specific and personal.

It’s like when we invite friends over to our house for dinner and they say they can’t come but follow up with “Hope you guys have fun!” And we wonder, “Who is this ‘you guys’?” Because if the people invited to the party don’t come to the party, there is no party.

When I was a little girl, I learned early that the church is the people. All the people.

That’s Church of Christ 101. You don’t go to church; you are the church.

So if that’s true, what do people mean when they say they’re leaving the church?

They mean they’re leaving the people.

They may not think that’s what they mean. It’s easier to leave an organization, a hierarchy, a body outside ourselves. But if you root around for long enough you’ll see:

When people leave the church, they leave because of people.

You may think I’m about to launch in on people who leave, but I’m not. I think we people can make leaving the people an easy thing to do.

It’s easy to leave the people of God when the people of God don’t look like God.

  • When they spend all their time talking about the rules for playing the game but never play it.
  • When they say faith is essential and then never, ever do anything that requires it.
  • When they disrespect you or hurt you, abuse you or oppress you.
  • When they look and act exactly the same today as they did ten years ago, not one ounce holier or kinder or more alive.
  • When they talk more than they listen.

Jesus said to judge a tree by its fruit. A lot of people are looking around at the Christians close by, wondering what happened to the harvest.

Likely they’re not looking hard enough.

But should finding fruit among God’s elect require a magnifying glass?

Fruit isn’t hard for me to find. And maybe that’s why I struggle to counsel the leaving. I look around on any Sunday, and I see fruit everywhere. I see parents, exhausted but trying, driven by Christ’s love to get their kids up out of bed to hear stories about God. I see men and women opening their lives and homes to the homeless, abandoned, and lost. I see people taking giant risks with their money and time, risks that don’t even seem like risks through the lens of big faith.

I sit in a circle with my small group or around a table at women’s Bible study, and I watch people grapple with hard questions and hard decisions, totally committed to God’s plan for their lives.

I see God all over the people in my church family. I would never leave it, because I’m not about to leave the living presence of Christ.

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As I strain to offer wisdom, I’m reminded of that Ghandi quote you encounter so often during graduation season; He said, “Be the change you want to see.” I’d change it to this for our purposes: Be the church you want to see.

The church will never change until the people in it do.

Not the people in some broad, general sense. The church won’t change, until YOU do.

If we really care about the people who’re leaving, we’ll stop pointing fingers at systems and programs, patterns, and methods and we’ll step up and into our full identity in Christ—becoming people who’re full of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God desires living sacrifices, lives lived entirely under His command, and in those lives He works wonders, the kinds of inexplicable marvels that only make sense in light of God’s power and grace. Ours is a gospel of miraculous transformation, of resurrection and freedom and eternal, abundant life, starting NOW. It’s not boring or stale or irrelevent. It changes the way we live every second of every day.

When we live that kind of life up close to other people, they cannot help but be drawn to the light of our Savior.

People don’t leave a Savior they can see.

I know this is true because I have friends who stuck around when all they wanted to do was leave. They disagreed with the preaching. They didn’t buy into the programs. They felt like progress was too slow. They struggled to connect in worship.

And they stayed. Because they were living among God’s people. Because they were loved and challenged, inspired and accepted. because time after time when they encountered the body, they encountered Christ.

If we want people to stay, we should let God transform us into the image of Christ.

"And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus." I John 4:16-17

Comments should refer to the ideas in the post and be directed toward me, the author. I will delete any comments directed toward or specifically about the young lady mentioned at the beginning. We are blessed by her vulnerability, and I’d hate to see it mishandled. Thanks!

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In the movie The Croods, a kids’ movie released about a year ago now (maybe two), there’s this moment: a family of neandrathal-y cave people discovers something they’ve never seen before, a simple, lovely conch shell. The daughter, more curious than the rest, blows into the shell, producing a loud, full, beautiful sound. She’s mesmerized. Her family is terrified. They tear it from her hands and stomp it to pieces.

It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, but I remember the girl called the shell “new,” and as soon as the word touched her family’s lips, they spit it out like poison.

I worry we Christians act like cavemen sometimes.

Like the Israelites acted when Isaiah prophesied…

Like Herod acted when John the Baptist preached…

Like the Pharisees acted when Jesus healed on the Sabbath…

Lashing out in violence, we break what we don’t understand.

What we haven’t seen done.

What doesn’t fit with the future we’ve planned.

What seems bigger than the box we built to house it.

Or messier and more complicated than we have time for.

If we don’t get it, we humans prefer to smash it.

I have nothing specific in mind as I write this post, no axe to grind, only the knowledge that God likes new—new songs, new things—that God has a track record of surprising those who should have seen Him coming, and that God Himself is a beautiful mystery, impossible to fully comprehend.

I look back over my days, and I know every opportunity for transformation, every step toward Christ-likeness, came wrapped in new—a new, poke-y book or a new, weird friend or a new-to-me passage of God-breathed truth.

Every time I chose to receive a new thought with patience, grace, and wonder, I found that posture rewarded with discovery. I learned something new about myself or about humankind, about nature, about God and His kingdom of light.

I’ve come to realize even the bad ideas get us thinking, discerning, working our wisdom muscles.  Listening (fully listening) to bad ideas, waiting to call them bad until we’ve weighed them thoughtfully and then figuring out what makes them bad—that’s all good, Godly work.

It is work, though.

Stomping is easy. Discerning is hard.

It takes self control and a willingness to be wrong. It takes courage and faith. It takes a lot of thinking, too—thinking with your mouth closed and ears open.

Solomon says in Proverbs 19, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”

Solomon’s saying, “People who discern shut up.”

They do ask questions. But mostly they listen.

And they hold off on destroying what they don’t understand.

May we be a discerning people who welcome the unexpected, who seek new horizons, and who embrace mystery without fear.

This morning London wrote her numbers from 1 to 100. She entered each one into a grid, a grid that would, in theory, open her eyes to the patterns in numbers and eventually lead her to count by tens and multiply. It’s something she knows how to do, but not exactly in that way.

It took her longer than I expected.

When she finished she’d written the correct number in each square, so I praised her. But I also pointed out the numbers she’d written backward, urging her to go back over her work and write them the correct way.

Because she’d taken so long to write the numbers in the first place, she (as my sister-in-law would say) literally could not. She exploded into quick, messy tears.

I said, “London, it’s okay. You’re learning.”

But I was no comfort. She looked at me and said, through sobs, “Getting everything wrong is not easy.” [More sobs.] “I like getting it right.”

She put her head on the table. I ran my fingers through her hair while her tears dripped through the holes in the tabletop and fell on my feet.

And I didn’t say a word.

I wasn’t about to argue. Getting everything wrong is hard.

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like London. I’ve had some low days in my battle for a healthy mind and heart. I know what I should do. I even know how to do it. But the execution… Getting out of the chair, putting down the phone, picking up the sponge and turning on the water, being patient, saying kind words, or (harder still) opening the Bible sitting on the table two feet from my elbow—sometimes every step toward right-living can seem like a marathon. And that’s just the little stuff…

If every small step takes all I have and if every day requires hundreds of steps and a dozen leaps, well, I literally can’t even either.

I am bound to get a lot wrong. And I like getting it right.

Today, watching London and seeing myself so clearly in her struggle, I realized something.

You see, as the mom, I didn’t care so much about London’s mistakes. Not nearly as much as she did, that’s for sure. I understood that she was learning and growing.

Growing means doing more than we know how to do. It means stepping into circumstances we don’t understand and can’t figure out. Growth happens, not when we already know all the answers, but when we struggle with problem after problem, and, by the end, get it right.

Growing is painful. [I remember one summer when my brother grew four inches in three months. He slept for half of every day (or more), and complained every waking hour.] And like growing tall is hard on the body, growing in love, grace (you name it) is hard on the heart. Mostly because when you’re growing, you’re not yet.

But growing is also progress. When we’re growing, we’re on the cusp. We’re almost…

One of the most exciting and most exhausting things about being a Christian is the perpetual state of growth within which we live. We are “always being given over to death,” “being made holy,” “being built into a spiritual house,” and “”being transformed.” We are always almost and always not yet.

Like a half-full, half-empty glass.

Feeling half-empty and looking for some help, I stumbled across these words from the apostle Paul tonight:

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joybeing confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

At first glance, I looked at those words and saw yet another reminder that, despite the incredible gift of change found in Christ Jesus, I wasn’t finished yet, that I wouldn’t be finished until the day of Christ’s return.

But then I looked closer, turning the words over in my head, and I saw something else. I saw Christ finishing the work. Not me. I saw Christ “carrying” the load of growth and transformation. I saw Christ lifting a burden off my tired shoulders, leading me into something I could never do on my own.

I thought of London, burdened by all the things she didn’t know, forgetting that her patient mother stood nearby, thrilled with her progress and eager to teach.

I imagine that’s God, standing beside me as I cry, running His hand through my hair, not disappointed in my failures, failures He quickly forgave, but rather excited by my progress and eager to help me grow.

Monday I took my girls to the park and gave them assignments. I said, “Find something to draw.” Before I could finish London ran away, pencil and notebook in hand.

Eve was less enthusiastic.

I told her to draw a tree.

Five seconds later she’d drawn a tree. Boom. Done.

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I wasn’t letting her off the hook that easily.

"Eve," I said, "Draw this tree, the one right here." I pointed to the beautiful, long-limbed, wiry, Texas tree in front of us. She sighed and started drawing.

"Hold on," I said. "You need to look first. You can’t draw it until you see it."

For the next fifteen minutes she looked and drew. Her face scrunched up; her eyes squinted, and her eraser worked double time as she struggled to represent what she saw.

This is the second tree she drew:

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If I showed you Eve’s first picture, you’d quickly identify it as a tree. It’s looks like a “tree” in the generic, symbolic sense.

If I showed you the second picture, you’d have a harder time identifying it as a tree. And yet, it looks much more like the tree she intended to draw. The squiggly, wandering lines capture its uniqueness and character.

I think this is a snapshot of something we humans do all the time.

Way too often we settle for the generic picture, because the real picture’s harder to draw and harder to understand. We speak in generalizations and platitudes, communicating in black and white while a world of colors sits untouched.

We do it when we talk about God, reducing Him to a handful of characteristics (the characteristics in our handful largely dependent on our faith tradition). We say things like “God is love” or “God is sovereign” as conversation conclusions (as if those characteristics eliminate mystery or complexity) instead of seeing them as on ramps to further exploration.

We do it when we talk about “the church,” a wildly diverse family of people, all frequently grouped under descriptors like “irrelevant” or “judgmental” or “hypocritical.” Look for more that a moment at what the church actually is, who it includes, and you’ll find something far more interesting to draw.

We do it all the time with just about everything—drawing, speaking, assessing, and evaluating without even a lingering glance, arriving at just the neat, palatable conclusions we expected we would.

This week, tired and pretty down,  I told my husband “I am always _______.”  He smiled and said (very sympathetically) “I know you feel that way right now, but I wonder if you actually ‘always’ feel that way.”

I wanted to throw a shoe at him.

But only because he was right.

My hasty generalization had thrown my whole life into an oversimplified category. And in oversimplifying I’d diminished myself and diminished the story God was telling through me.

When we fail to really look at the world around us—at the people we love, at the people we misunderstand and even at our own lives—we make everything less, even (especially) God.

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In case you haven’t heard, I’ll be leading Field Notes: Austin [a workshop] this next weekend. It’s a workshop in writing to see. Just like I made Eve stare down that tree, I’ll compel participants to take a long look at their lives, relationships, problems, blessings, and God. Especially God.

When we take the time to look, we see more than simple, one-size-fits-all answers. We see the beautiful, mysterious, wandering, wild truth.