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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: church

Love the Church. Because Jesus does.

Ben Goshow

Donald Miller, popular Christian author (Blue Like Jazz) and blogger has recently acknowledged he doesn’t go to church. (Check out his post here if you haven’t read it.)

I’ve read neither of Donald Miller’s blog posts – not the confession of truancy and not the follow-up to the backlash. I know of them from two sources: Twitter (whose feed, on good days without traffic lights, I blissfully ignore) and Facebook (because I belong to several writers’ groups, and we talk about these things).

I am obviously NOT the one to specifically address what Donald Miller has and has not said, but if you’re curious, here is a good critical piece in response: Donald Miller and the Culture of Contemporary Worship by Mike Cosper. (Anyone who cites James K.A. Smith and his book, Desiring the Kingdom, is ok in my book.)

I cannot speak directly to the Donald Miller brouhaha, nor do I want to. In fact, I think Donald Miller is a great writer, and I'm thankful for his voice. But I do want to say this.

You need the church. I need the church. And she is beautiful.

End of story.

But let me also say that I understand how our experience of church can be incredibly hard. Though I have not been among the most seriously wounded by the church (and mourn deeply for those who, at the hands of their pastors and fellow Christians, have suffered egregious sins), I, too, know the difficulty of church.

Years ago, there was, I believe, a sin committed against me and Ryan by the leadership of our church. I wish it were the kind of sin that love could have easily and quickly covered – but it wasn’t. There is no point to the details now. In fact, though it wasn’t immediately forgiven and is still not forgotten (I don’t always think forgiveness has to work like that), it has, by God’s persistent and redeeming grace, healed.

And it healed because of the church. What happened years ago in the leadership of another church has been restored by the leadership of our current church. And I marvel at this: that all those wounds, all the self-doubt that scarred over years ago, they are healing because of the church.

Wounded by the church. And restored by her. This is the reality of Church today, in a world that is suspended in waiting – waiting till Jesus returns and “presents the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish,” (Eph. 5:27). Church is messy and impossibly human, but I love her and believe that we cannot understand ourselves apart from the Church.

Which is why Donald Miller has it wrong.

We need the Church.

It is a great sin that bloggers commit against their readers when they pretend that they can do what only the Church can. And we are implicated in their sin by attempting to nourish our spiritual lives through blogs and podcasts while week after week, we avoid the local gathering of God’s people.

You need the church more than you need Donald Miller or Rachel Held Evans or fill-in-the-blank blogger/author/online pastor whose podcasts you adore.

And you need the church for more than the electricity you feel when the worship sets are good and the pastor preaches well.

You need it for so many reasons I couldn’t begin to explain here. (But how about just one?)

You need it to learn to love God – because your love for God will be proven most real (or most tenuous) as you interact with his people.

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen,” (1 John 4:20).

I don’t know about you but I love God so well when the children are off to school, the house is quiet, and I’m writing words like these. Ooooo, the good feelings and the certainty that I’m in the spiritual groove.

But then it’s Sunday morning, and an important children’s ministry volunteer has arrived late (despite numerous reminders). Because of her terribly insensitive actions (which I rehearse indignantly in my mind), the Sunday morning program runs askew, and instead of attending the service (which I’ve missed the previous five weeks), I’m putting out fires behind the scenes.

For the past six months, since I took the position of Director of Children’s Ministry at my church, I’m often not in church in the most traditional sense. It’s not likely a position I’ll do long-term for any number of reasons. But I can say this: it’s been a great way, for me, to put my money where my mouth is.

Love the Church. Because Jesus does.

* * * * *

“It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I got a job

Ben Goshow

This is my big news. I'm officially employed (15 hours/week). This does NOT change my intention to write. In fact, I'm hoping the work I do enhances what I write.

I find there is a delicate balance to the writing life. On the one hand, you can let life get so surly that it forces you to relinquish the discipline of quiet so critical to the writing life. You become too busy to attend to the deeper questions and curiosities that (well, at least for me) drive these words. On the other hand, you get become so isolated in search of quiet that you have little to nothing to say. You wax eloquent about real world problems when the only real world you experience is the view from your desk into your backyard. (Annie Dillard once explained that writers write so often about their childhood because it's the only "real" experience they can remember having.)

I suppose I didn't need a job to keep my life from getting too isolated. And true, there is little fear that I have too much quiet in my life, at least not now, not with summer days and a house full of children who's newest game is running through the house, using the intercom system on our cordless phones to play a version of hide-and-seek where the ultimate goal is to keep hidden from the five-year-olds.

And still, I need my writing life to find a backbone of praxis, or practice, which can give these words meaning. God forbid I dole out advice that I myself refuse to follow. God forbid I become the noisy gong or clanging cymbal of the blogosphere that has fallen in love with the sound of her voice and forgotten the real reason we ever speak at all. God forbid I write and forget to love.

If I want to continue writing (and I do), I've decided I need life in its most robust sense: people and their problems, a network of relational obligations, a team to which I contribute. If I want to write (and I do), I have to connect myself profoundly with Christ's body, resisting every virulent strain of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. If I want to write (and I do), I need to fight the lurking arrogance of needing no one.

I can't write alone.

I need the church.

And so it is that I've joined the staff at my church as Children's Ministry Director: the circumstances were providential. If there's time this week, I'll detail them more specifically. But let me simply say taking this job feels beautiful and prophetic and reassures me that I learned something as I wrote my book, Teach Us to Want. I've argued there that praying the Lord's Prayer forms in us holy desire for God and his kingdom. I've written that book - and found that I've grown more deeply into my love for Christ and His church. Thank you, Father. That will have been worth it.

I'll except from the manuscript in closing today.

"To live in and for kingdom is an grace-inspired effort to recycle the blessings of God, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10, 11). Living for the kingdom can be as simple as the willingness to extend a cup of cold water to whomever God wills, and the gospel can be reenacted in our small acts of love .

 The kingdom test—is what I want good?—centers less on the content of what we do. Each of us can live kingdom lives as plumbers and preachers, mothers and writers. A more helpful criterion may be intention: whose name? whose glory? Kingdom is for Jesus, to Jesus, in Jesus, and with Jesus. It’s the way out of Babylon.

And even though each of us has a role to play in the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, it does not ever fully depend on us - thank God. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29). The kingdom is established by God’s work, not ours. We’re just invited to play.

And playing—and praying for the kingdom to come—we learn to want it when it arrives."

The Church and "Crazy:" A Guest Post from author Amy Simpson

jenmichel@me.com

Amy Simpson has recently released a book about mental illness called Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission. Her research recently caught my attention when she wrote at her.meneutics after the suicide of Matthew Warren. "Experts say that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder," explained Simpson.

Suicide is a devastating shadow in my own family history. I was 23 when my brother took his life. (Find that story here.) And though I wouldn't have said that he was mentally ill, I find this a staggering statistic. 9 of 10? Maybe I didn't understood his struggles fully.

We don't talk about mental illness enough in the church, and we just aren't sure how faith impacts "crazy." But we should—because faith is not preventative cure against mental illness, and many people are suffering from it.

Here's a guest post from Amy today, which I hope inspires you to read her book!

* * * * *

Does Your Church Inadvertently Hurt People with Mental Illness?

In April, news outlets revealed a disturbing practice that’s apparently common in Nevada’s State mental health system, and particularly in its largest psychiatric hospital, Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas.

The hospital, coverage revealed, regularly places people with mental illness on Greyhound buses and sends them to other states. In 2012, Rawson-Neal sent nearly 400 patients to 176 cities and 45 states around the country.

The state claims it’s merely helping people find their way back home, but specific cases show this is not always true. Nevada also claims the state is sending people off with adequate provisions, but again, documented cases call that claim into question.

Is Your Church Like Vegas?

Like Nevada, and all the states those Greyhound busses are bound for, churches are full of people who struggle with mental illness. Each year, 26.2 percent of the American adult population suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. At the same time, an estimated 20 percent of children in the United States are at least mildly impaired by some type of diagnosable mental illness. And about 5 to 9 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a “serious emotional disturbance.” That translates to millions of individuals and families directly affected by mental illness. Many more are affected by the symptoms of friends, classmates, co-workers, and the people who sit next to them on Sunday morning.

The church is the first place many people go when they’re looking for help of all kinds, including treatment for mental illness. Among people who have sought treatment, 25 percent have gone first to a member of the clergy. This is a higher percentage than those who have gone to psychiatrists, general medical doctors, or anyone else. Unfortunately, many church leaders are ill-equipped to help people get the care they need. And while 25 percent of those who seek help from clergy have the most serious forms of mental illness, studies have shown that clergy refer less than 10 percent of them to mental-health professionals. On top of that, for every person who seeks help, many more stay silent, afraid to admit their illnesses to themselves or to risk the rejection of the people around them.

With so many opportunities to help people in need, how many churches respond as the state of Nevada does?

Some churches actually intentionally reject people with mental illness. In their theological framework, mental illness has no place among God’s people. Those who manifest symptoms are assumed to be demon-possessed, willfully attached to some egregious sin, or lacking the faith they need to claim God’s healing. When they don’t get better by simply praying or exercising more faith, they are considered at fault and not welcome within the fellowship. Such churches misunderstand the true nature of mental illness and need to revisit their theology of illness and suffering of all kinds. Until they do, they are not safe places for people with mental illness or their families and are best avoided.

But most churches do not hold to the kind of theology that overtly blames, rejects, and casts out people whose brains have shown themselves particularly vulnerable to the forces of disease and decay that haunt us all in various ways. Even so, many inadvertently communicate rejection through their policies or culture.

Here are three ways many churches are emulating Nevada, along with some key questions for church leaders.

Uniquely Attractive—and Responsible

As news coverage has pointed out, the city of Las Vegas makes Nevada a unique state: “The city's entertainment and casino culture draws people from all over the world…including the mentally ill.” The trappings of Vegas may be more likely to attract people with mood disorders, schizophrenia­, and other conditions—and the same may be said for churches. Spiritual experiences, promises of peace and joy, opportunities for community and for communion with God…these elements of church life are understandably attractive to many people with mental illness. Churches have a special responsibility to recognize this and respond intentionally.

-       ­Do you make people with mental disorders feel unwelcome? ignore them and focus on the more attractive new people who walk through your doors, hoping they’ll go away and other churches will meet their needs?

-       In sermons, Bible studies, and classes, do you send the false message that Christians should not expect trouble, pain, or sickness? that happy, comfortable, and “victorious” life is the norm?

-       When was the last time mental illness was mentioned in a sermon, in a way that normalized it?

-       Does your community expect people to have it all together when they walk through the doors?

-       Do you expect people to be “cured” before finding a place to serve?

None of us will ever be whole this side of heaven—and many people with mental illness suffer from chronic and repetitive symptoms that can be managed but not technically cured. These conditions do not cancel God’s purposes for them. They do not disqualify people from a place in the body of Christ. Just as much as other ill or injured people, they deserve loving acceptance, clear and consistent boundaries, and grace.

Missing Basic Needs

In at least a few documented cases, Nevada’s mental-health care system placed people on buses without adequate provisions or chaperones. Many churches use a similar strategy, without realizing they’re not fulfilling their responsibilities.

-       If you’re a church leader who doesn’t happen to be a qualified mental-health professional, do you recognize and acknowledge your limitations? If yes, that’s a good thing.

-       Do you refer people to professionals who can help with disorders and provide therapy and medication as necessary? This is also a good thing.

-       But do you then walk away and assume your job is done?

-       Mental-health care is incomplete without spiritual nurture and loving friendship. Does your church push people toward psychiatric care but leave them without adequate spiritual guidance and a kind friend to walk alongside them?

-       Do you provide practical help (hospital visits, meals, rides, financial assistance) to people with other health crises but ignore these basic needs in families affected by mental illness?

Psychiatrists do not provide pastoral care. Therapists don’t make sure the bills are paid and the kids get to school. Medication does not answer questions about why God feels so far away. Just because people receive medical treatment does not mean they don’t need anything more from the church.

 Neglecting Support Systems

Nevada claims it is simply busing people back to their home states and first making contact with support systems at those destinations. But investigations reveal those connections are not always made and plans for follow-up care aren’t always in place. Many churches also fail to consider what they can do to strengthen the support system for people with mental illness.

-       Are you ignoring the families of people with mental illness? My own survey showed that only 56.8 percent of church leaders have reached out to the family of someone with mental illness within their congregation. Have you asked families what they need? Are you prepared to help as you can?

-       Do you consult with mental-health professionals? If people in your congregation are receiving care, you can request that they sign consent forms to allow you to collaborate with professionals and discuss the best ways for your church to support these members’ mental health. If you don’t receive that written consent, you can still discuss the best ways for you to support people with various types of mental illness.

-       As in Nevada’s state mental-health care system, in your church are people getting caught within a beauracratic system with no one really aware of or responsible for their needs? Are you relying on “trickle-down ministry,” focusing on your core leaders and expecting them to lead the next tier, and so on? Is anyone in your church likely to feel responsible for a good support system, or does everyone assume someone else will take care of it?

-       Are you willing to adapt your schedules, plans, and expectations in order to deal compassionately with people in crisis? Or do you expect everyone to follow the same process and grow within the same system?

-       Are you willing to let people with mental illness do ministry in your church? Mental illness is rarely predictable, but it is not a spiritual or relational death sentence. People affected by mental disorders don’t always fit into a tightly scripted service with high production values. It can hard to find their place in a segmented congregation. But with understanding and grace, you can give them opportunities to serve according to the gifts God has given them. Allowing people to engage in ministry when they’re functioning well, and take a break when they’re not, can provide an incredible support system.

A Call to the Church

I wrote my new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, to help the church better understand the needs of people affected by mental illness. I also wrote it to challenge the church­—that’s everyone who follows Christ—to see this as part of our mission in this life.

As I’ve said in my book, “The church should not lag; it should lead the way. We serve a God who calls us to serve “the least of these” as if we were serving him (Mt 25:40). Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mk 2:17). As living temples carrying God’s presence in this world, we must allow his light to shine out from us and infiltrate the darkness that surrounds so many people and drives some of them to despair.”

Let’s embrace our calling and shine the light of Christ in the darkness.

* * * * *

 Amy Simpson is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (InterVarsity Press). She also serves as editor of Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership. You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.

 

 

I Pledge Allegiance to the Local Church

jenmichel@me.com

This was my original title for my recent piece at Christianity Today's blog for women. I think it captures something that is tremendously important for me: the church. Church, little c. Church in the neighborhood or city in which you live. The local church: yes, the one with all its baggage and beggars. Because the local church, even insofar as it is beautiful, is also a very complicated mess. As messy, I suppose, as real people are. The tension of the church is the very same tension of our loves: the hope of what will be and the stubborn realities of the not yet.

I have been deeply wounded in the church. Yes, there. It isn't as if I see the church with some kind of Pollyanna perspective that nothing goes wrong in the church.

A lot goes wrong. The wheels fall off our good intentions, and people are hurt as a result.

This is true. And - still.

Still!

The church. I can't help but loving her, can't help falling for the beautiful idea that Jesus has embodied Himself here, in us.

The church. I can't do without her, can't find my place apart from the church.

The church. I think what I'm saying is that I believe I belong here and find my calling in and through the church.

The church. That's the destination of my writing and words.

Allegiance to Christ through the church.

So read the piece that I recently wrote and read the comments.

And fall in love today with the church.

 

Advent's Invitation: Sing a New Song

jenmichel@me.com

I'm reading Silence - and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro, and the first week of reflective readings centers on questions of doubt and unmet longing. We don't often associate doubt with the season of Christmas, but historically, that is the most appropriate way to understand the story. This past Sunday, our pastor took as his text Isaiah 9 and was quick to remind us that Jesus arrived in a time of darkness and gloom. The Miracle of Light exploded over a landscape of despair, and I suppose Advent may be the most appropriate time to speak of our sadnesses and deep disappointments, our doubts and unmet longings. Living with life and its losses can be our greatest invitation into the longing for Advent and the coming of the Promised One Whose name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Okoro reminds us of the gifts our believing community gives to us when we find ourselves in our own private backyard of grief - both chronic and acute. "Sometimes when we find ourselves too burdened by the extent of our longings, too prayed out, or too exhausted with coming before God, we can look to others to bear our burdens prayerfully until we regain our own strength of spirit. A believing community shoulders hope when circumstances seem hopeless. A believing community speaks boldly into despair and longing and suggest that things do not have to remain as they are in the presence ef a holy, imaginative God."

There is incredible tension in that place of worn out, exhausted faith where our own prayers have run out of gas, and it's the prayers of others, which propel us forward. But it can be a beautiful place of expectation. Faith is the looking forward, the believing for new vistas of goodness. Longing and loss, darkness and gloom aren't final chapters in God's story: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined."

And what is to be the result of our coming to Advent with this sense of expectation - and of Advent coming to us in the full brilliance of Christ?

"I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock, making my steps scure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD." Psalm 40:1-3

This Advent, may the LORD give us a new song: instead of songs of doubt, a song of faith; instead of songs of darkness, a song of Light, instead of songs of complaint, a song of gratitude; instead of songs of turmoil, a song of peace; instead of songs of self-pity, a song of praise.

 

 

 

Review of Chris Smith's, Growing Deeper in our Church Communities

jenmichel@me.com

Chris Smith is a great writing friend. He's helped me immensely with my questions regarding all things publishing, shared many of my articles/blog posts, and made some important introductions for me, including to Redbud! I was happy to review one of his ebooks that's recently been released on Amazon as a Kindle edition. Here's the review I published there of Growing Deeper in our Church Communities: 50 Ideas for Connection in a Disconnected Age:

"Chris Smith is right. We want meaningful connection with each other, our local communities, and God, but blinded as we are by our individualism, we fail to see how to achieve it. This book inspires much needed creativity for re-envisioning how to pray and live, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

I'm grateful for the diversity of ideas Chris proposes, most of which are intergenerational. Young toddlers can pick up trash, retirees can tinker with church repairs, singles can babysit, and everyone can share meals together. Chris moves us beyond the sad age segmentation from which many church models have suffered, and the beautiful result is rediscovering church - existing beyond Sunday - as a place where people of all demographic proportions can need and be needed, bless and be blessed. In Christ, we learn to belong.

Growing Deeper in our Church Communities is a book full of ideas I'll be eager to try and share, not least because these practices have been tested and tried in Chris's local church community. But although Chris is a seasoned veteran at the practice of local church, the book never inflates with a pedantic air. Don't worry about failing, he says. It's not about mastery of performance, but about practice and growth."

As you head into your day of Sabbath rest and worship, you should consider buying and reading this book, which is well worth its meager $2.99 price tag.

And as Chris would say, Shalom.