Me and the American church: still off the map

4 September 2011

Several years ago, a Christian teacher named Graham Cooke delivered a message entitled “Walking Off Your Map.”  The basic premise was that if you  follow Jesus for any length of time, there will come points when He will lead you beyond anything you’ve ever experienced — and often, beyond anything the people around you have ever experienced — into new areas of life and maturity in Him.  He made no bones about it being stressful, even frightening — but argued that it was necessary for continued growth in God’s will.  As he put it, “you don’t know where you’re going … but you can’t go back, because that’s killing you!”  It’s move on, or die where you sit.

“Off the map” is where I’ve been for awhile now.  And as far as many people I know are concerned, I’m “off the deep end.”  I’m not a member of any institutional congregation.  I haven’t been to a Sunday morning service anyplace in … (lemme think) … well, at least two years.  I’m bucking the trend of almost the entire American church setup.  And yet I know, with every fiber of my being, that I am where God wants me to be.

Not that that means it’s easy …

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False gumbo, or, the joy of leftovers

26 August 2011

At my daughter Charlotte’s request, last night I made up a big pot of my “false gumbo.”

I call it that because I’ve had real, honest-to-goodness, Cajun-style Louisiana gumbo — and mine isn’t.  My family won’t eat really spicy food, and I’m not that fond of it either except once in a while.  Which means no andouille sausage, no Cayenne pepper, no okra.  Also no crawdads, since in northern California they’re not real easy to find.  Instead, I go with ingredients more friendly to a fragile palate.

So it isn’t real gumbo, it’s false gumbo.  But it’s mighty tasty.  It’s not just my family that thinks so — my wife Nina (the Supermodel) was volunteering at our son Sean’s school yesterday and told his teacher what I was making.  He expressed interest, so this morning I brought him a small Rubbermaid container of it to sample.  He loved it.  So there you have it — rave reviews!

I’ll tack on a rough recipe (rough because I don’t measure out ingredients precisely — consider all amounts approximate) at the end of this post, in case you want to try it for yourself.  But as I was in the process of making it, it got me to thinking …

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A two-point sermon from my MP3 player

14 March 2011

I got really convicted by my MP3 player a few days ago.

I don’t have a very big MP3 player.  It’s a little SanDisk Sansa 4GB job, about the size of one of those old Zippos your grandpa used to light his cigarettes, and I’ve got maybe 300 songs loaded on it.  Mostly contemporary Christian songs (what can I say, that’s my joint), and all of them upbeat, since I originally got the Sansa to use while working out.  (I haven’t had much energy for that lately, but hope springs eternal …)

More recently, I’ve used it while giving my son Sean his baths.  See, Sean may be still recovering from Leigh’s disease (and for that recovery, Lord, much thanks!), but in many ways he is a typical 7-year-old — such as hating to take a bath.  He can’t speak, exactly, but he moans the entire time, and in a small echoing space (like, say, our bathroom) that can really wear on the ol’  nerves.  So rather than turning into Jack Nicholson from The Shining, I pop in the earbuds, drop the body of it into my shirt/pants pocket, and sing along to a) drown out the moaning and b) hopefully keep the Seanster Monster entertained.

And it was Friday, during bath time (specifically, while drying Sean off) that God, via the Sansa, hit me with a heckuva two-point sermon.

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One line that says so much about the American church

5 March 2011

It can be difficult sometimes here at Outside-the-Camp — my name for the location of all of us (a growing number) who belong to Christ and want to serve Him and His people, but can find no home in the institutions of American Christianity.  (See Hebrews 13:13 for the source of the name.)

Not that I don’t see the pluses of my current location.  For one, it’s where I believe God has specifically called me for the time being, so that’s big.  There’s a great freedom involved — to seek Him wherever and whenever, to fellowship with Christians of all stripes, to do whatever one believes He wishes — without having to worry about the pressure of those who’d rather criticize others than follow themselves.  I no longer have to sit through two hours (or more) of religious observances every Sunday that bear little or no relation to Jesus’ call to love God and our neighbor — that in fact give little opportunity to interact with, let alone love, either one — or really anything else in the Bible.  When God told me to stop seeking a home in an institutional congregation, it allowed me to leave a LOT of burdens behind.

But sometimes I do miss being part of the crowd.  It’s only natural; I did spend twenty years after giving my life to Jesus (and a dozen or so before that) in that crowd, doing pretty much what everyone else was doing.  That’s bound to have an effect.  Not to mention all the messages heard over the years about how we needed to be committed to the “local church,” to be “in fellowship,” to bring my tithes “into the storehouse of God,” and so forth.  (I’m not using those quotes ironically; those were the actual phrases I heard from the congregational leaders over and over again.)  All that preys on my mind, and every so often I wonder if maybe I’ve missed the boat and should get “plugged in” (lovely term, that — makes me sound like a home appliance) to an institutional group again.

And then something comes along that reminds me why I’m far better off spiritually where God has me, on the outside.  In the most recent case, it was an e-mail that ran only one line …

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The price of freedom, the reward of freedom

3 August 2010

In April 2009, at the end of my four-month Congregational Journey, God finally got it through my thick skull that He no longer wanted me to try finding a home within a traditional, institutional congregation.  Basically, He made it clear to me that I didn’t belong there, so I should stop trying to pretend I did, or that I could find one where I fit.  Wasn’t gonna happen.

It hasn’t been the smoothest ride since.  It’s been difficult to find a lot of Christian fellowship outside traditional Sunday services (albeit, not as difficult as it is to find Christian fellowship within traditional Sunday services!).  I haven’t discovered a single active “house church” in the county, and the one Christian group I found on Meetup that wasn’t exclusively for singles was already in the process of breaking up when I joined.  I do get together with friends on occasion (one on a regular basis, but he’s going to be out of the country most of autumn), and I communicate with other believers online.  But it’s a subsistence diet at best.

So there have been times when I wondered if maybe I was on the wrong track, that maybe I hadn’t heard God correctly and I needed to strap myself back into a traditional congregation.  Usually I lie down until the feeling goes away, or, failing that, ask the Supermodel how the last Sunday service went where she attends.  (That would be enough to cure anyone of the urge.)  But given the lack of palatable options outside the usual “church system,” I can’t be blamed for reconsidering the unpalatable ones inside it.

Funny thing, though — today I got a solid reminder of why I don’t go back.  And all because I wasn’t sure what to write about today.

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Spiritual lessons from a 9th birthday party

10 July 2010

Last Tuesday, July 6, was my daughter Charlotte’s ninth birthday.  And this year, we did something different.  We had a birthday party.

This is not to say that we never celebrated her birthday in previous years — we did, but as a quiet family affair.  We’d cook a special meal, maybe get a cake or some ice cream, let her open gifts at the dinner (or breakfast) table.  Last year we went to Discovery Kingdom, just the four of us — Charlotte, her parents and her little brother.  But those big events where fifteen kids come over, bury her in presents and tear up the house … we’ve never done that.  And Charlotte has never pressured us to do that.  A birthday is a big deal for her, and for us — but not a big production.

This year, though, we changed the script a little.  In the last several months, she’s become more outgoing, and gotten closer to some kids in the neighborhood, and she wanted to do something with them involved.  So between her and the Supermodel and I, we put together a plan — a trip to the Micke Grove Zoo north of Stockton, followed by a picnic lunch at the adjacent park.  Charlotte was allowed to invite three friends, as that’s what our minivan will hold in addition to her and us (she ended up inviting two), and we informed her friends’ parents that all expenses were paid: park and zoo entrance fees, food, presents, the works (a good move, as their families are probably poorer financially than we are, which is saying something).  At 9:30 Tuesday morning, we hopped in the van, picked up Daniel and Sammy, and off we went.

And I learned a lot that day — not just about party planning either.  There were spiritual lessons as well …

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