And it’s Monday. I know what I talked about last Monday. This is gonna be kind of similar. I read Jonathan Sturm yesterday and he got me thinking. Jonathan linked to this great story, which Dan Bowman pointed me to late last week. But before the link, Jonathan said something else:
I think many of us want to think about the spiritual aspects of our lives and enjoy being able to do so. The problem is, when we seek such at the accepted fountain of spirituality in the west, it’s at church. Instead of enlightening stories, we get lectured at for our sins. And harangued for our money. Not much fun at all. So when we find someone witty, amusing and spiritual, we go weak at the knees.
To this, I want to say two things. First, if you feel harangued for money when visiting a church for the first time, find another church. Or at the very least, don’t give. Never give to a church until you know what its vision and purpose is and whether you’re on board with that. The last two churches where I’ve been a member make a point of saying their offering is for their members, and if you’re a visitor, to not feel obligated to give in any way.
And before I get to that second point, let me ask a question. Why is it that every time I think I’ve brought up Kaycee for the last time, she comes back? Wait. Don’t answer that.
My second point is even more important, though I can’t imagine it being more popular than the idea that when you’re still visiting a church you shouldn’t feel obligated to give it money. If you walk into a church and you can’t feel a spirituality in it, leave. You probably need to give it more than 30 seconds, but I would certainly argue that one service is enough to figure out the degree of a church’s spirituality. Four years ago when I was a reluctant participant in anything religious, I could tell. I found myself at a non-denominational church, and it wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. For one, the members talked to one another. I’ve seen that before, but every church I’d been at before had cliques, and this one didn’t really seem to. And the service was lively. Sure, there was a somber part where we could confess our sins to God, but it was immediately followed by reassurance of forgiveness. And the messages were practical–the pastor might as well have started off each message with, “I know you’re struggling because I’m struggling. Here’s what we all need to be doing.”
Yeah, it was weird. My mom and my sister were always more spiritual than I was.
I’ll be honest. This is gonna be really weird, because this is the first time I’ve written about this aspect of my life and I’m not sure I like it. I got to this place because I met a girl and I was interested in her. As I got to know her, I realized she had something I didn’t have, and I wanted that. And I fell for her, really hard, kind of the same way everyone fell for Kaycee. But probably even more so, because there was a real, live, face-to-face relationship going on there, with lots of time spent going places and doing stuff. And when she turned out not to be what she first appeared to be, I went into a funk that lasted a really long time.
I started getting the idea from two or three people in that church, including her, that you more or less have to earn God’s favor. My good Lutheran upbringing wouldn’t stand for that. Earning God’s favor? You might as well be selling indulgences at the back of the church at the end of the service!
Now, I don’t know that this was the official position of that church. More likely, God was using some individuals to steer me in the direction He wanted me to go. It’s funny how God works that way sometimes.
I knew what I needed, and it seemed to be the same thing God wanted for me. I needed a spiritual Lutheran church. That’s hard to find, since Lutheran services traditionally are scripted, and you know what the service on the Second Sunday of Pentecost is supposed to look like because it’ll look exactly like the service on the Second Sunday of Pentecost last year did, and Pastor will probably speak on the same topic in his sermon. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be spiritual when everything’s scripted like that, but it’s harder to listen to God’s spirit when you’re listening to a committee that met 25 or 60 years ago.
Let’s fast-forward a minute. Here’s my church’s idea of following God’s leading. Or one of them, at least. I help to lead a Bible study that meets every other Friday night. I honestly have no idea right now what we’ll be studying next Friday. I pay close attention to the questions people in the group ask, and to their prayer requests, then I look for patterns. From that, I can get a pretty good idea where they are and what they need, and it’s funny how usually the needs of the most vocal people one Friday night turn out to be what the vast majority needed on the next Friday night. So I don’t do much. I gather questions, hunt down God’s answers, and present them.
Ironically, the questions from Friday are similar to what Jonathan brought up: “When I read scripture, I start feeling bad. I feel like I’m an awful person, and I start wondering whether I’m really a Christian and whether I’m even saved. What do I do?”
The short answer to that question is to be more spiritual, so we went into Acts 2 and Romans 8 to see what a good spiritual life looks like and how to get it. The “how to get it” part is easy. Ask. Just ask.
Just ask. Seriously. That spiritual Lutheran church I wanted? I told God that it didn’t exist. But I asked for it anyway. It turned out God had spent the last couple of years before that building just such a church less than a mile from where I was living.
I was reluctant to move to St. Louis three years ago because I knew I’d miss that church. But I found another one a lot like it. God was looking out for me. More than that, I think He was getting me ready for that church, and maybe he was getting that church ready for me too.
I agree with Jonathan, what passes for the Western interpretation of God and spirituality is lacking, and that’s why so many people have been looking east for the past 40 years, hoping to find Him there. But God is here–we’re just not used to looking for Him. Maybe we’ve forgotten how to look for Him.
And maybe it’ll be hard to find a church nearby where God is alive and active. There are some books I can recommend to help tide you over. First, get a Bible. If all you’ve got is a crusty 400-year-old translation, I suggest you get another one. The whole purpose of the Reformation and counter-Reformation was to put the Bible in language the people can understand, and somewhere we’ve lost that again. Yes, the King James version is beautiful and flows well but chances are you won’t read and understand it unless you’re a scholar of English. The New Living Translation is easier to read. It takes a few liberties that I wish it wouldn’t but none of it is damning. The Message is a modern paraphrase that a lot of people like. I don’t like it so much because the original has distinctive voices–Moses’ books sound like Moses, and Paul’s books sound like Paul, and Luke’s books sound like Luke. In The Message, every book sounds like Eugene Peterson. Being a writer, I really don’t like that. But if it helps you, great. A pastor I know in New Mexico recommends the NIrV, the New International Reader’s Version. It’s written on a third-grade level, so it reads quickly and easily. If you find the Bible as difficult to read as Plato or Aristotle, get an NIrV.
If you’re looking to make all of this gobbledygook relevant, I know of no better place to look than Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby. It’s only about 175 pages and it was written within the past decade. And if you need a pastoral figure and haven’t found one locally yet, check out Max Lucado. He’s written dozens of books, and everything I’ve read of his has been good. His chapters are short and practical.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you want what it looked like Kaycee had, you can get it.
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