Saturday, August 25, 2007

Change is Always Painful but Sometimes Necessary

We've changed churches enough in the past to see something of a pattern of losing contact with people from those congregations. It is the most painful aspect of changing churches, and the longer we're part of the church the more it hurts to leave. With the first church there was only a handful of people who we stayed in contact with. The next church had a number of people who were leaving about the time we did, and some of them we saw attending our next church as well, which eased the pain of that transition some. From the next church I think there were more hurt feelings. We were part of their missions commission and that was our closest group within it. I think they took it somewhat personally--leaving can make them feel like we've left rejecting them, rather than for other reasons. Each time, there's been something that I think most people would consider a solid reason.
I won't go into this recent one since it's more identifiable, but the first one we left because they didn't teach the Bible except in passing (that was my reason--I was newly saved and had heard on the radio that it was a good reason to change churches), and because Gary had a co-worker who was raving about this new church that was starting up (that was Gary's reason--Gary was not saved at this point--and it was God's provision that this co-worker caught his attention, because otherwise we might still be there!).
The second one we left because they stopped sharing the gospel at outreaches that seemed designed for sharing it, when the opportunity would have been perfect--and when questioned, an elder actually told us that it was because they didn't want to offend anyone. The associate pastor was there and defended his comment, too.
The third one we left because our daughter was in their youth ministry and the stuff they were teaching in there was unacceptable, and too much into promoting "self-esteem" and too little into Bible truth. The pastors also told us at the start of the year which of various behaviors that we would and wouldn't be told about if our teens were engaging in them. So we've attended a number of churches, but each time we've seen a new perspective and become a bit more alert and cautious about the next one.
This recent change is the first one where so many people have tracked the fact that we left. We were told today that one family noticed that we were gone--the first Sunday that we weren't there! This amazes me, perhaps because I'm never that observant myself, or else because I wonder how they'd notice so fast anyway, with so many other people around. They were even able to tell us specifically, this almost two months later.
At any rate, the more time that we invest with a church, the more intense the pain is in leaving. Each time that we see or hear from another family from there, it's like going through it all over again. And I think this congregation seems to care more that we're gone, combined with generally not taking it personally that we have left.
It makes life awkward, though. We have friends who are starting up homeschooling this year, and I had promised to help them and provide all that I could--but they are pretty new Christians, and it's just tough to think of approaching them even with this mundane purpose in mind, without having them wonder about the circumstances of our leaving. Then there are three families who we know pretty well, who we are convinced know we left, but who ignore the fact with us. What do we do about that? I guess we just leave it be and wonder at their silence. With each family it is different. It's frustrating, because it puts a weight where there ought to be none. These are still brothers and sisters in Christ; that will never change. But there's a separation, an awkwardness, a hurdle that should not be there and it's not really our doing. I think these are the worst parts about such a change.
On the other hand there are blessings that only come through this thing. We meet more brothers and sisters that we would never have met. We join a church with new strengths. We are reminded of forms of fellowship that weren't implemented in our old church. We hear the testimony of church missionaries and we see the congregation treated as a family even during the church service, interrupting announcements or whatever other part of the service if warranted to acknowledge one or another member--which I imagine is so much easier to do in a small church. The pastor is able to track what we're doing more, and so we feel not only more under his watchful eye but in his care.
So there is good and bad in such a thing. We left the last church with the claim ringing in our ears that there is no church for miles that teaches the Bible like they should--and we thought we were going to have to compromise to attend a church until we could move far away and find a better one. But God is faithful, and we only had to visit a few before one felt right. Even in the meantime, those we visited were very healing, comforting and refreshing; it was not a negative time in the least.
I realize God's ideal would be that we could all attend one church and get along, agreeing on all the vital things, seeking always to stay faithful to His truth, and loving one another as we should. Still, I am thankful to see that God has this variety of churches in America and not all of them are necessarily going off into apostasy. There are many which accommodate different needs among His people. We are individuals whom God has designed with a unique plan for each, in different stages of spiritual growth. I think God had us as a family go to each of the churches we attended for a reason that had to do with where we were spiritually at the time, and partially to increase our awareness and discernment. This path wouldn't have worked for everyone, but it has worked for us, painful though it was at times.
Looking back, I wouldn't have had it any other way. We wouldn't have wanted to stay at the first one; it wouldn't have taught us anything. I don't think we could have started at the last one; it would have been beyond our patience. Every church has its flaws, and those flaws can work to do various things in a person, to embitter them or to make them better. Every church has its strengths, too (at least those that teach the Bible to their best ability, and especially those that share the gospel with unbelievers and disciple believers). I hope to think every church we saw in the midst of this latest change is faithfully doing its best to involve the Holy Spirit in serving its congregation.
Be sure to keep your church and its leaders in prayer. They have their strengths and weaknesses, and Satan knows just what those are. Keep your eyes open. Handle problems scripturally, no matter how difficult it is; address problems to the leaders who can implement change, rather than leaving in a cloak of mystery, and maybe you will be influential. Don't stay under bad teaching if you have the option to find a better place; remember the following:

Psalm 1
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.

This is a sobering psalm; I think I always thought of it as lovely and reassuring to the believer, but there's the flip side. It's a warning to be discerning, and to stay faithful to God rather than man. It never felt good to leave any congregation, but God has nevertheless called us to do so a few times, and has always clearly honored obedience in such things.
He never calls us to leave and refuse to join a church again, as we've seen some do:
Hebrews 10:23-25: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Changes--Passing our daughter along to the Master's care

For the last few weeks (and longer, at a less-frenzied pace), we have been preparing in our family for the upcoming sending-Katie-off-to-college. I think that I have been so busy with that and preoccupied with other things that I haven't really had the opportunity (perhaps I haven't allowed it too strongly) to really ponder the long-term ramifications of doing so. I have been able to consider it happily enough. I don't think I've been as teary-eyed about it as I would have expected, or as other mothers I know are. But I'm not sure whether it's because I'm in denial or because I have been working toward this goal in an inward way for such a long time. I know these mothers trust the same God and Savior that I do, so that's not the difference.
I see Katie receiving all sorts of wonderfully worded sentiments from friends, some even younger than she is (such as her friend Haley). Not being an extremely sentimental sort (well, at least, I'm inconsistently sentimental), I am envious that they were able to express themselves so beautifully and profoundly to her, while I don't do so much of that sort. Why so inadequate in these ways, I don't know. What kind of mother am I, I wonder.
I know I will miss her. Our family will hardly be the same. Katie and I discuss things between us in such a way that we don't with anyone else. That will be the worst part for me. She also accommodates my forgetfulness and stupidity about daily details so that things don't get overlooked, and I know my stupidity will show much more once she's gone. Sigh. She also influences our family for good, in how we eat and exercise (always wanting more success in that arena!).
Yet I am delighting in sending her along, because from the time she was little I have been pouring the ability to learn into her being, and she has learned to love learning. That is better than the pouring in of facts, and I haven't yet succeeded with Tim in this endeavor. Katie was a willing and curious learner all along, and easily directed. It will be exciting to see that more fully developed and utilized in the college environment.
I'm going to miss the comraderie we have between us. We have spent much time together, and know so many little things about each other that others don't; often we come up with the same thought at the same time, the same silly answer to a remark, the same concern over one absent at the same time. It's not just a little scary to think that with homeschooling, perhaps I have influenced her in such a way that she has become a younger version of me. May God be gracious to her in this regard, and may she develop more of her own way, more of her own interests and friends. I am eager considering this to see where He takes her and how much more of her beauty and interest will shine through in a way that had not yet been developed--sort of like a rough stone gone through a tumbler.
I'm also aware that we will still be able to communicate--daily if needed--by way of e-mail, telephone, internet webcam--and that in an emergency I could fly down or she could fly home. Not being one to worry much, and knowing that she goes to a protected environment, I don't lose sleep over it. God is great, and because of His great love for her and capacity to protect her better than I can, there's no hesitation. I know that she faces no greater danger at college than at home.
Still, when we drop her off, I'm bringing kleenex. We have six new boxes of it ready at home.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Shepherding Pastor

What does a shepherding pastor look like? In my experience they are altogether too rare; until lately I would not have been able to readily explain what they are like. I don't normally care for allegory, and when I write it out it sounds like a child's contrived composition (especially since the comparison between sheep and people is only so perfect), but I do see the application of the symbolism of the sheep and the shepherd so clearly when I see the shepherding pastor rather than the hireling, and I think it's worth sharing.
You will never hear the shepherding pastor say that he never really wanted to be a pastor but who will resignedly state that it's where God put him--that would be the hireling, who will never really have the passion, love, dedication and patience he needs to watch over a flock of sheep who need such constant guidance, who make frequent and stupid mistakes and who need so much care. A shepherding pastor is one who has truly felt God's call to be a pastor to the point where he actually rejoices in his flock, and delights to draw them in close and care for them. He will look to his Shepherd for guidance in how to best care for his own sheep. He cares for all his sheep with the same care and concern. He doesn't treat a new sheep with distrust because it is new or because it thinks like a sheep, but instead he talks to it and directs it, guiding it away from bitter weeds to sweet places. He doesn't push the sheep away for fear that if they know him they might see reason to reject him. He looks to his guideBook for every detail about how to care for and train his sheep, and explains the Book to them so they know to live according to the truths that are in it. He pours out new, clean, fresh Water for them on a regular basis that he himself has drawn from the Well, and the Water is good and refreshing, so they will want to drink deeply of it, seeing that he drinks deeply from it also.
He communicates with his sheep often. He prays for them. He invites them for walks and gathers them together often. He tells them his plans for the flock, and asks them to pray with him that those plans will be blessed. He knows when one of his flock is hurting and will do what he can to help it get back to health. He also knows when each sheep is happy, when it is eating right and when it has strayed into the wrong field. If any sheep has a question (yes, these sheep ask questions!), he is glad for it and wants to satisfy the sheep with an answer--so he will go to his guideBook to show them what the Chief Shepherd would say. If something has wandered into his flock that is not a sheep, but either a goat or a wolf, he will recognize it quickly so he can protect his flock.
The sheep that belong to a shepherding pastor will be content. They will get along with each other and imitate the shepherd's care for them in caring for one another. They won't fear to come to the shepherd because he might not want to talk to them, or because their questions might sound too dumb or scary, or heaven forbid, because the shepherd might attack them. They are content because they can rely on his providing new fresh water continually, keeping them from bitter weeds, nasty wolves and unsafe trails.
You have been patient to read this far. I just wanted to illustrate this because I was lying awake when I should have been asleep, pondering it. I think we sheep need to know the difference so we can be properly cared for, content, and safe. Baaaaaa.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Creativity, Fantasy, and Reality

On Wednesday, our pastor came to visit us. In the course of conversation he spoke about two of his sons, both of whom are artists, and how creative they are and how creativity is a natural extension and result of faith (though God is gracious to make all people creative to some degree even before they know Him) C.S. Lewis' writings are so creative, and then about various fantasy writers along the lines of Lewis.
Actually, I've never had that great an appreciation for fantasy books, not even Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia (gasp!). I told our pastor that I thought it was odd how many Christian writers chose to write fantasy books. He seemed surprised that I didn't get the connection; he said that it was a natural thing for people to delve into fantasy to try to bridge the gap between the material world we live in and the immaterial world, that so much about our faith is left to our imagination. I'm bemused at our different perspectives. In contrast, I find that faith to be sufficient in itself (not that he doesn't)--how do I explain my point of view? That since the reality is found in Christ (Col 2:17) and He is in heaven, and since that's beyond all that we have ever seen or can imagine (1 Cor 2:9), that I will just find out someday, and it's something to anticipate with eagerness. I feel like it's something like peeking at Christmas presents before Christmas, to try to picture it ahead of time. And then there's the fact that we have been given everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), so as things are, we are fully equipped! So why look to imagination for more? It escapes my practical mind...probably to my detriment, but that's the way I'm geared.
It got me thinking. I'm not into fantasy, but I am creative. I don't generally fantasize about anything, but I might imagine how something might look that I'm planning to make, like a flowerbed I'm carving out or a curtain I'm sewing...but it's all in the realm of reality and near future possibility (always tending toward the optimistic, perhaps unrealistic idea that I might complete the project well, but that's another story). To think up strange characters and strange animals that have never been seen on this earth or described in the Scriptures seems superfluous to me, and yet so many see it in another light. This world has enough strange animals and characters to show any of us God's amazing creative power. I guess creating variations on those things is the way God has geared these authors. They definitely have many good Christian readers who appreciate their writings and their imagination.
I don't generally like reading books that can't be real, so in parenting and homeschooling I never read much in the way of fairy tales or allegory books to my kids. This has had two different results in our two kids--Katie, being more like me, shares my view of literature and doesn't much like fantasy. She was never one to pretend to be something she wasn't, or to play with dolls much. She loves to read the same type of books I love. She has her feet firmly planted in the land of reality.
Tim on the other hand has always been one to imagine, to dream, to have his mind galaxies away. He has always been one to dress up and pretend (to the great delight of our neighbors Dean and Stacia), to set out his various play figures in battle scenes and pirate ship scenarios and have different voices for each of the characters, carrying on long and involved stories among them. Tim also had the benefit of having Mr. Peters read one of the Chronicles books to him in Sunday school, to his delight. He is such a daydreamer that when I talk to him I can only hope that he actually heard what I said and that it registered. Both kids have been brought up essentially as only children, being ten years apart, so being like an only child hasn't had a universal effect here.
In talking to Stacia about this whole subject, she said, "Well, did you ever go 'dream walking' as a kid?" No, I didn't think I did. She described how she and her cousin would walk between their houses imagining the whole time that they were a couple of princesses, and that various things they saw were things fitting for the royal world. I could only relate to it in one way. I remember sitting in the corner or having been sent to my room and fuming over the perceived injustice of it all...and going off into a dream world, imagining myself to be mortally ill, and my mother repenting of all her (perceived) bad judgments against me. (The only frustrating part was that I was never creative enough to think up a way for myself to recover from the illness--I'd be practically dead before I'd get that satisfaction from my mother, and what good was that?!) I think it's a common scenario, because I think Ramona the Pest does the same in Beverly Cleary's books, and so does the boy in the movie, "The Christmas Story."
A person can be painfully practical and still be creative (or vice-versa). I've always been one to create my kids' homeschooling plans, schedules, forms...and anyone who likes to write is somewhat creative. Besides that, a person has to be creative to garden, to sew, to think up a menu, to cook a variety of meals, to paint walls, to plan improvements to a home, to think up new uses for items, to find new ways to save money or time or energy, to fix broken things without going broke. I love being creative in those ways--with varying levels of proficiency, of course!
Perhaps it is the German or Scottish heritage that makes Katie and me practical in the extreme. There's a trace of French in there, too. I think maybe the French are dreamers. Maybe that's where Tim got it. But he got it in buckets, and we didn't. I kind of envy his ability to get lost in imagination, but only a bit. God has blessed me with a reality with which I'm quite happy, and I want to stay here. For now.