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Baptism: Bane or Blessing


Baptism is one of my favorite rituals of the church. It is like a ceremonial rite of passage for an infant (in most traditions). The sight of parents entrusting their little ones to God is heart warming. The unexpected response of the babies can be quite entertaining. Even the baptismal clothing, sometimes passed from one generation to the next, is ceremonial.


I love when the pastors and the congregation surround the baby/child in love, welcome him or her into the community and pledge to help form them into God’s best intention for them.


What truly upsets my heart about baptism is the theology that has risen up around it that, in my experience, robs it of its splendor and its original intention. By original intention I mean how Jesus’ baptism is a model for what ours can be.


Two of the predominant theologies about baptism are both related to sin and death. One says that we were born in sin and that baptism cleanses and saves us from that sin (and from destruction). I learned, as a child, that unbaptized babies would go to hell. So much for 80% of all the babies ever born on this planet. The other main teaching regarding baptism is that, as we dip into the water, we are entering into Christ’s death and resurrection. Again, this is death and sin related, very abstract, and not related to Jesus experience of baptism at all. And I cannot connect it with the baptism of a real live baby who is six weeks old, or even a twelve year old.


This born-in-sin theology comes straight from St Augustine in the fourth century. He introduced the original sin idea and, if you ever read his autobiography, it becomes understandable how he got there. His life before his conversion and his mistreatment of his 15 year common-law wife, sending her back to Africa alone, without their son, because his mother had found a wealthy adolescent girl for him to marry, is fraught with confusion about himself and women. His acquiescence to his mother’s dominance all his life seems to speak of his disordered relationship with her and her strict theology. But that is another essay. In this case, I think his theology is autobiographical!


Yes, I do believe in sin BUT I do not believe the shame-based theology that we ARE sin. I believe that sin is anything that separates us from intimacy with our loving God. So some forms of work can be sin; not accepting love because we cling to unworthiness can be sin; unforgiveness of self and others can be sin; staying in an abusive marriage rather than leaving can be sin.


My view of baptism (and I’m aware that no one is asking me and few are listening!) is that it comes directly from God, it is totally based on love, that it is solely a blessing and a way for God to embrace us and then mark us as his beloved sons and daughters forever. The mark, a touch with oil on our foreheads, is a sign that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are present in this moment. And always a family and a community gather around us, promising to accompany us on our life’s journey. Baptism is God’s way of publicly greeting us, inviting us into this life with him and promising to walk with our families.


I base this on two scriptural passages that express my experience and a conversation I had with a wise pastor. I start with Genesis 1: Creation. God created us in God’s image—male and female. And God saw that it was very good. The fall from grace came later but we were created without sin, in God’s image. The second scripture is Christ’s baptism. At Jesus’ baptism the heavens opened, a dove came down as the Spirit upon Jesus, and God said “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” In another version, “This my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus baptism of God’s Spirit surpassed and replaced John’s baptism (even by John’s admission). So a wise pastor friend asked the question, if we need baptism because we were born in sin, why was Jesus baptized? Good question…


What if Baptism is our first personal and intimate blessing from God, his way to love us, to mark us with that love, and show his delight in us too. What if it is just the first of many blessings God showers on us, others being our unique gifts, our friends, our ways of handling loss and disappointments, our intimate partners, our passion for the world, our sense of calling, our gift of faith. What if, at baptism, we also bless and mark the foreheads of the parents and god-parents of the child, placing our hands on them and holding them in love, showering God’s love upon them?


So try this: Insert your own name in this declaration from God and see how it feels to you. “_______, you are my beloved son/daughter, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Breathtaking!


What if, as my pastor friend suggested, the church or its representative or a group of friends was present to us at each major transition, to bless us in God’s name again, to mark us with God’s love, to delight in us. I’ve had a wonderful experience of a community blessing its members when I participated in a centering prayer group for five years. We were what I would call a “blessing group.” Whenever one of us was going through a moment that cried out for blessing, we blessed that person by laying hands on them, waving a blessing wand over them, praying for them and then singing the Amen song. We blessed people who were traveling, facing serious illness, experiencing a death in their family, or the death of relationship, entering new jobs or leaving jobs, and we even blessed people’s new homes or apartments. We went to the space and blessed every room, using candles and bells to invite love into that space. Then we ate and celebrated together. It was the most important thing we did as a group, in my experience.


What if we all created these blessing times in our lives and among our own families and friends? What a difference it would make!


ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2015. All rights reserved.

Jesus’ baptism accounts are in Luke 3:21-22, Mark 1:8-11 and Matthew 3:15-17. Scroll down to see the two responses to my essay from pastors with different perspectives.



Reflections on this essay

What does baptism mean to you?

How do you embrace the fact that you were created in God’s image?

How have you most felt God’s mark of love and blessing on your life?

What blessing do you wish from God for whatever life experience you are facing now?



Two responses to this essay from people with different perspectives


This response is from Rev. Kelly Chatman, the pastor of an inner city multi-racial church in Minneapolis.


My reflection on baptism goes a little different than your essay.   While I am less invested in the idea of sin as God needing humanity to atone for our sins I think of sin as a social/corporate reality.  Baptism is and was a call into a community of faith that stood and stands against the empire.  Baptism is the ritual washing into the body of Christ less about our individual need for sin and atonement and into the reality and relationship with God and away from empire.  Baptism, being God’s beloved is to live into a reality where we know our true selves as children of God and this (sin) is to say there is no middle ground.  We live in relationship with God or empire.  We love God and ourselves or empire.  The grace which comes in baptism is we loose this battle with ourselves and God daily, and yet God forgives us.


I am open to your deconstruction of baptism and sin because I agree that God does not “need” us to wallow in how bad we are.  I do however believe God has investment in us living into how good we can be as co-creators and caring for one another rather than exploiting one another.


When I think about sin I think about the civil rights movement and how this was a manifestation of beloved community and folks living into their baptism.  I also do not think of baptism as a focus on judgment.  I think of baptism calling us into a deeper reality, a new way of seeing myself and the world.  I also thank God for my baptism because it calls me to be in relationship and responsible for people I might not otherwise feel response-able for/to.  With G/L/BB/T it was important to me to imagine that I share the same baptismal liberation with those who are outcast and I therefore am accountable to treat and advocate for them as God’s beloved, just as I am, no better, no worse.


Lastly, the example of baptism with centering prayer communicates to me a more mystical and intimate community experience of the depth of baptism.  I am drawn more to where I experience baptism in tension and struggle.   I think this is partially due to being Black and urban and unsettled with the presence of injustice, poverty and racism.  I feel that sense of fulfillment when I see a child in the neighborhood smile, when an outsider displays enough trust to join the church and when a person of power and privilege commits to be a part of Redeemer Church.




This response is from Rev. Mike McNichols, a pastor, author and a Fuller Seminary professor in Southern California.


I agree that the baptism of Jesus is key to getting a grip on the significance of baptism. John was baptizing Jews, calling them to repentance and submission to God’s rule and reign. Yes, it was a recognition of Israel’s damaged relationship with God, but it was an invitation to come home (so to speak).


When Jesus was baptized by John, John resisted. But Jesus claimed that it was to be done in order to fulfill all righteousness. My interpretation of Jesus’ claim is that in his baptism, he was identifying with all of Israel (and, by extension, the world). He fulfilled all righteousness (as in putting things right) in that identification, coming alongside the human race as brother rather than as condemner. It is then that God speaks, declaring Jesus to be his beloved son.


It may be that the most significant aspect of baptism is that we are now baptized into the baptism of Jesus, not as a qualifier or cleanser, but rather in a way that we now come alongside him, sharing the blessing of the Father as beloved sons and daughters.


That’s my take on it.

 Religion-less Christianity?


Both as a child and as an adult, church has been a very large part of my life. Shortly after my kids were born, my wife and I helped start a Quaker congregation that was a foundational part of our family’s life. In the last two years, however, my family and I have found ourselves on a journey outside of any formal church. We’re feeling called to experiment with new ways of doing faith community. It has been confusing and lonely at times, and also satisfying and life-giving.


My family is not alone. A recent report says that the percentage of people who attend formal worship services at least once/month is down to 43 percent, from 53 percent in 1983. Yet 57 percent of people said they pray at least once a day, up from 54 percent in 1983.


Many of us are leaving churches, but still practicing faith. We still need community to support that faith, and to support each other. How do we do that?


In his despair with the German church’s lack of response to Nazi atrocities, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer started looking for what a religion-less Christianity would look like. He boiled it down to two essentials–prayer and righteous action. As a Christian who had seen himself as a pacifist, this led Bonhoeffer to the radical act of plotting Hitler’s assassination.


What might religion-less Christianity look like for us? Here are a few hints I’m seeing.


My family has dinner with some family friends every Monday. After we eat, we read a Bible passage from the lectionary and our families act out the passage. Last week my 12 year old son was Jesus just before he was killed and I was a soldier helping arrest him. I felt the power of the story in ways I never had before.


Last month I was facilitating a day-long work event that was a stretch for me. I asked 5 friends that I pray with to pray for me and the others at the event. I felt more relaxed, confident, and trusting in that work than I had before. I felt upheld by their prayers and attention.


I know a man who was homeless earlier in his life and now has a business selling soup. He wanted to give back to the community by offering a free community meal each weekday. A local Lutheran church offered their kitchen and basement for the meal, and it started this winter. Now people in the neighborhood who are hungry for food and community gather each day for lunch. When I was there recently, someone at my table said they were looking for a secretary job. Someone at the table next to ours that we didn’t know said their organization was hiring a secretary and they talked about how she could apply. It felt like church to me.


Janet, our host for this blog, says that church for her is “intimacy with God and God’s people.” I love that definition of church. For me, the essence of church is the ongoing practice of paying attention to that intimacy and following where that leads us.


Organizational churches can support or get in the way of religion-less Christianity. The church that offered its basement for a free community meal is cultivating community without the requirement of religion.


For me, it isn’t as simple as just getting rid of the institutional church. For religion-less Christianity to thrive, it needs many things that churches traditionally offer–space, spiritual education, continuity and tradition, accountability, and more. My journey with religion-less Christianity is very incomplete. I’d love to hear what you are finding. I’ll post an update on my experiments next month on this blog.




Dear Subscribers,

Today is the last in the series of What is Church? Why Church? I offer two last comments, one from me and one from a young man who sings his idea of what church is. I hope these offerings have made you reflect on what church is for you and have brought some clarity.

Why Church?

Janet O. Hagberg




Why church?

It’s a serious question I ask myself from time to time. I used to take church for granted, attending because I had friends there, I liked the ministers, the sermons were challenging and the music was great. I guess you could say that I had a sense of community, being with people who were on the journey with me, doing life and faith together, being there for one another. I had a sense of belonging, a place that felt like home.

While all the reasons I’ve mentioned still resonate in me they are not compelling for me like they used to be. I don’t think this is the church’s fault. It’s just that I’ve changed. My soul now longs for something deep and real to be tapped within me. “Like a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:1). It’s not that I never find that at church, it’s just that most churches are not set up for deep soul work.

So why not just quit attending church all together, as many people in our culture have done? Well, I’ve tried that! And, for me, sitting home on Sunday morning with a good book or going to a coffee shop leaves me feeling empty, like I’m missing something. (I admit, though, that coffee shops are among my most intimate and sacred places, just not on the Sabbath). This sense of missing church does not feel like just a matter of tradition or guilt. What I miss is the possibility of the surprise presence of mystery that I feel is more alive in sacred spaces and with sacred intentions.


What Nurtures my Faith?

Recently I asked the core question, “What do I need most in order to nurture my faith at this point in my journey?” I’ve found that three things are vital for me (all related to spiritual deepening): intimacy with God and close friends, prayer and Eucharist. These are my three highest priorities. When I reflect on these three I am sobered by the fact that the first two, the most vital ones, I find mostly outside the walls of the church, at least for the kind of prayer and intimacy I seek.

The third one, Eucharist, I can only find within the church. And I do. I even plan which church I will attend by when they have Eucharist. I love Eucharist. And for a Protestant, that is unusual. I know Eucharist has a lot of different meanings and it is one of the most contentious issues between different factions in the Christian world. But for me, it is the most intimate moment in the church; Jesus inviting me to his essence, his food, his drink, his love. And all of us rag tag searchers are equally welcome at the table as we trudge to the arms of Jesus.

So where do I find nourishment for my deeper soul needs; intimacy and prayer? This longing is met in various ways, but mostly with my closest friends and in two small spiritual listening groups in which we listen to how God is working in each person’s life. I also find meaning in my daily prayer and journaling time with God…in my spiritual direction sessions…in my spiritual mentoring with young people….in my art studio… in nature… and in my writing. I consider these things to represent a larger meaning of church for me.

While I get most of my needs met outside the organized church, my soul’s longing is further complicated by what I earlier called the “surprise presence of mystery” that still happens more often than not at church. So, just when I get set to check out of the church, when I feel as if I’m hanging on by a thread, I find a spontaneous blessing amidst my confusion and aloneness. When these blessings appear I savor them as gifts that send me back out into the world in a sacred way, kind of like a personal commissioning from God. One time it will come in a challenging question from a sermon. Another time it is the breathtaking musical harmony in the choir. Sometimes it is the touch of a hand holding mine during the benediction or the organ recital postlude.


To Get You Must Give

Some who are reading this might suggest that if I got more involved by giving back to the church my soul would feel more connected. I’ve tried that too! And I find that my soul is crying out for less not more, for depth not breadth. Essentially I need a place where I can be real and vulnerable, not a place in which I teach, travel, serve or attend committee meetings. Not that those activities are wrong. I am just no longer effective in those roles and they aren’t life-giving for me.

What is something authentic that I can offer the church? I’d say the way that the Spirit uses me in my role as an anchoress, a non-anxious presence, is part of my gift to the church, as are occasional healing conversations I have during the coffee hour. Or the support I give individually to the pastoral staff. Sometimes just my prayers or a spontaneous mentoring session is my contribution. I imagine myself as a small and simple gift to the church; like a tiny spark of God in the tumult of life, the tumult that arrives with people each week in church.

But more importantly I think what I give to the church is who I am in the world outside the walls of the church, the person I’ve come to be by God’s enormous grace. I cherish my open heartedness to the needs of God’s children who are so much on the margins of society they will never attend church. And feeling God’s grace in my own daily world reminds me, again, of Eucharist. We are all rag tag searchers, looking for home. We are invited to the table to receive the love, the presence, the nourishment, the essence of Christ. We’re invited home…

Then perhaps, just perhaps, we will be asked to go back out into our daily lives and be that Eucharist for the world.

And that may be enough.


P.S. Several months after writing this essay I decided to try being in a church choir just for the holiday season, since I wanted to give gratitude to God for my life. It became one of those “spontaneous blessings amidst my confusion and aloneness.” I felt so full of joy as a result of my choir experience, I joined for the whole year. So it seems I am always changing and opening new doors.


ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2014. All rights reserved.
For a refreshing look at Eucharist for Protestants, read Shadow Meal by Mike McNichols. Available on


Reflections on this essay

What does church mean to you?

How has that changed in the last several years?

What is most important for nurturing your faith?

Where do you receive that?

What do you give back to the church or to your spiritual community?


Jeremy Sims sings A Place Called Grace

A Place Called Grace
It seems I’m longing, longing for a home
It seems I’m wanting, a place to just belong
Where weary souls find rest and are never alone
It seems I’m saving, my heart for just a home
It seems I’m waiting, for a place to call my own
For this weary soul to find rest and never alone
A place called grace, a place called grace
where undeserving find mercy
and overlooked see they’re worthy
A place called grace, a place called grace
where the orphan’s never alone
and the prodigal is coming home
I’m going home to a city with mercy and grace
where I’m known by my name
Come and go with me to this place
where grace runs deeper than shame
(Try this link to picosong to hear Jeremy singing his song)


What is Church? Why Church? Part 8


Today I have included a fairly wide variety of responses to the questions What is Church? And Why Church? First I give you a number of six-word answers from a broad age range. Next a NYTimes article about how atheists are forming communities to share rituals that churches usually perform. And lastly we hear from three different clergy women of various backgrounds. Enjoy and ponder all of this. What would your answer be. Next installment will be my answer to this question!


Six-Word Answers

Community Celebrates Mourns Sinners Forgiven Grace-full

Messy Community Life-Together Dogmatism Hope Interpretation



Walls to break through, and rebuild

Make God visible in sacrificing love

A Place within for personal worship

All that is will ever be


Atheists and Church-like Rituals



Three clergy women answer the question

What is Church? By an African American clergy woman, baby boomer (in her fifties)

Church is the faithful and disloyal me, the strong and the weak me, the refreshed and the weary me, the full and the empty me engulfed in God’s Holy Spirit seeking to hear God’s voice and to do his will.



“ Why church?”  Ellen Duffield, a pastor in Canada, also a Ph.d who is a specialist on women and leadership in the church. Ellen is in her fifties.

Some 35 years into a life journey with Jesus Christ I have so often reflected on this … especially while serving as the (female) pastor of an evangelical church … experiencing first hand how flawed and pain filled/inducing the church is … hearing every reason other’s felt we were redundant.

Having played skeptical observer, enthusiastic participant, struggling leader, disillusioned ‘walk-awayer’ and hesitant returnee I get the spectrum of possible human responses. Yet none of these personal experiences really carries sufficient weight to base, what turns out to be, such a momentous decision upon.

To reflect on church is to reflect on what it means to be a present day gathering of the thousands of years old people of God. To consider what it is to be a community of believers who so often absentmindedly limps along -or worse yet, deliberately and defiantly abuses our potential influence – and then suddenly shows up with compassion, healing power, truth or genuine faith.

It is to reflect on what God could possibly have been thinking when He chose the church as the Body and Bride for His Beloved Son; or designed us such that we need each other’s gifts and insights to fully live the promised abundant life.

It is to seek out world views beyond our individualistic, consumerism and results oriented one…realizing we could learn so much from those who more intuitively create the safety nets of extended families and communities… and the richness of traditions that root and unite us.

And it is to reflect on what it means that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection broke down the dividing walls and that the Spirit, unwieldy stone by stone, is building a home for God and us on that very spot, with those very pieces.

The church stands as the God-ordained opportunity for people of all kinds to come together to remember He is worthy to be praised, and worth loving each other for.

Into our beautiful yet broken world God places the church.  His instrument of reconciliation and redemption. Why? That is well beyond the scope of my limited insight to assess. And yet there it is. And here we are. And God help us be that church.

One thing I do know, it will take all of us using our diverse gifts, ‘cause that’s just the way it works.”



What is Church? Danielle Jones, Minister of Congregational Life, Colonial Church, Edina. Danielle is in her forties.

My parents gave me my very first experience of church.  Both of my parents were committed to church when I was a kid.  We were that family that went to church every single Sunday.  A lot of weeks we even went and served at our church on Saturdays- cleaning the sanctuary, putting cookies on trays for the coffee hour, and helping to prepare things for Sunday morning.  Church felt like an extension of home to me.  A place I liked to be. A place full of kind people in fancy clothes doing things together.

The first place I learned how to really live out church was at camp.  From 4th grade through my college years there was not a summer that went by that I did not spend, at the very least, one week at camp.  To me- camp was a week long experience in church.  It was real, dirty, active, community focused and a whole lot of fun.  I could be myself at camp- playing outside, singing songs in worship, doing silly skits, and asking my counselors honest questions about God and their faith as I tried to figure out what I believed.  Camp gave me a taste for true community.  Living together in a dirty old cabin brought out the best and the worst of all of us with Christ at the center.

The first place I questioned the need for church was when I was in seminary- oddly enough.  My first two years at Fuller Theological Seminary I struggled to find a church.  I visited churches but I often sat alone and wasn’t welcomed by very many people.  Needless to say- this led to a bit of a church crisis for me.  I was after all preparing to go into full-time ministry.  If I couldn’t get connected in church then why would I work in a church?  In that period of my life I realized that for me- church and service are intimately connected.  If I did not have a reason to serve at a given church it was difficult for me to meet people and feel like church was my home.  I was finally able to connect to a church when a friend of mine invited me to help him with the college ministry that he was leading.  This “in” gave me the chance to connect, get involved, and serve.

In these days the place I most like to celebrate church is in smaller gatherings.  Our church serves a meal on Wednesday night and I love to sit around the table, talk to people, and eat together- to me, that is church.  I am a part of a small group of women that share how God is working in our lives and pray for each other on a regular basis while pushing one another to go deeper in faith- to me, that is church.  My husband and I also meet with four other couples monthly to share a meal, talk about the Bible, and ponder tough questions- to me, that is church.

For me- church is honest questions asked and pondered.  Church is sharing a meal and some laughter while encouraging one another.  Church is studying scripture and reflecting on my life by asking the question “where do I see God at work?”  Church is safe, honest and real.  Church is my home.





What is Church? Why Church? Part VII


This week we hear from three women, one in her 30s, one in her 50s and one in her 70s, speak about what church means to them. They all have different denominational church experiences.

The first writer is a Catholic lay-woman, active in congregations throughout her life and interested in the history of the church.

Growing up Catholic, and attending Catholic schools up through my college years, I experienced church as an institution, specifically a Christian organization. I went on to graduate studies and years of work that expanded my view of the world and of the concept of church. To me “church” is a belief system based upon Jesus as the Christ, in contrast to the beliefs that are expressed in the rites of a temple, synagogue or mosque.

Vatican II described the church as “the people of God”, an organization of individuals trying to live the message of the teachings of Jesus. That’s the ideal, but, often hard to see when church officials state that one has to accept dogmas and rules that evolved over the centuries, but have little basis in the teachings or life of Jesus. I frequently have difficulty with the official position of a church, yet I value the opportunity to express my faith, with a group of people who share similar thoughts. I also find the particular rites and ceremonies helpful to sustain my faith.



The second writer, Tamra Koehler, is in her 50s and has a diverse church background. She uses a poetry form, a French Pantoum, to express three experiences of church in her life.

Why Church – Age 14

Mysterious connection with God, not about the people

Spirit leading me, age 14, family stopped attending

Sat in third pew, liked sitting alone, peaceful

Communion was sacred to me


Spirit leading me, age 14, family stopped attending

Walked eight blocks even in the cold snowy days

Communion was sacred to me

The right thing to do in a family of chaos


Walked eight blocks even in the cold snowy days

Sat in the third pew, liked sitting alone, peaceful

The right thing to do in a family of chaos

Mysterious connection with God, not about the people


Why Church – Age 35

Holy Spirit in this place

Voice, there is something here for you

Small group, interior journaling focused

Encountered women on a spiritual journey


Voice, there is something here for you

Silence, intimate encounter, prayer chapel

Encountered women on a spiritual journey

Pastor encouraged me to get a Spiritual Director


Silence, intimate encounter, prayer chapel

Small group, interior journaling focus

Pastor encouraged me to get a Spiritual Director

Holy Spirit in this place


Why Church – Age 51

Not a building, living in me

Fresh presence, in the moment

Intentional, vulnerable, deepening

Love relationship with God


Fresh Presence, in the moment

Communion is sweet

Love relationship with God

Silence, listening, trusting


Communion is sweet

intentional, vulnerable, deepening

Silence, listening, trusting

Not a building, living in me


The third writer, Julie Bringman, is in her 30s and is attending a Protestant seminary, discerning what her future will be in the church.


What is Church – Why Church

I am a woman in my early 30s, a life-long member of the church, who has worked in ministry most of my adult life, and is currently in seminary for formal ministry training with the ELCA-Lutheran Church.


Stand, sing, sit, sermon, shake hands

At its most basic, Church is the place where we gather on Sunday mornings to do some stuff that people have been doing for generations.  While it can often feel rote or devoid of meaning, it can also be deeply comforting to know that generations of people, since the time of Jesus, have done similar things to connect with God, connect with each other and remember our shared story.


Christ present, bread wine, every week

Church is a place where we are assured that Christ is present – and we get tangible, ritual assurance of this in the Communion elements of bread and wine.


I believe, Lord, help my unbelief

Unfortunately, many people think Church is a place for people who believe or who are confident and secure.  I love this quote from Mark 9:24 where a father, desperate for Jesus to save his sick child, professes belief and unbelief in the same breath.  Church is a place where our belief and unbelief can walk side-by-side.


Stability, security while wrestling with God

In times when I have been so worn down and unsure of what God means in the world and in my life, being a part of the church (a community of people who are called to follow God together) has helped me trust the belief of others.  When I cannot pray, I take great comfort that others are praying for me.  When my worship feels insincere, I am grateful to be surrounded by the singing of others.  When I cannot feel God’s loving embrace, I welcome the hugs and comfort of those who do know God’s love.


Knowing God, others, self more fully.

I find this phrase in much of my writing and talking about church.  Church is a place where we can get to know God, others and ourselves more fully.  Church is a place where all of these things happen simultaneously and buttress each other up stronger.  As I get to know God more fully, I know myself fully as a beloved creation God has made.  As I get to know others more fully, I know the Triune God-who-is-community more.  Each deepening reflects and inspires the others.


What is Church? Why Church? Part VI


This week I’ll post several six-word answers and two longer essays by two people who teach at different seminaries. They are from different walks of life so their take will be interesting. One is a mostly-Irish male with a mixture of religious backgrounds and the other is an African American woman with her own mix of religious experiences. Intriguing…



6-word answers (at least those were the guidelines!)

A community of adherents

I tell my kids that church is a place where people who believe the same answers to certain big questions come together to spend time with one another. I wanted to give them an answer that is respectful of those who attend church, but that left room for me to explain why we don’t. (More than six words but, oh well!)

I’m there on the road with you.

That Which Is needs no walls.

I enjoy pointing out to those immersed in the work of the church, and said to be deep scholars of the Bible, the following: Genesis 4:26 “…at that time, men began to call upon the name of the Lord.” To answer your question in six words, then, from this first mention of organized church in the Hebrew OT: ‘ A community calling upon the Name.’



The first essay is by Rev. Phaedra Blocker, an African American woman who teaches at Palmer Seminary of Eastern University in Philadelphia and directs spiritual formation at a Baptist church there.

What is Church? My answer to that question has been evolving and unfolding over the years. For a very long time I understood it as something you were supposed to do. If you were a Christian, you went to church on Sunday. If you were a good Christian, you also went to Bible study, got involved in activities and ministries sponsored by the church, prayed, and supported the church financially through tithes and offerings. Even the concept of being the Church revolved a lot around what one did. Being the body of Christ was strongly attached to the way that one behaved, especially relative to non-Christians. The places one could go and the places we couldn’t. The clothes one wore. What one read and listened to. Who one was allowed to befriend and who one shouldn’t.

This was the “spiritual worship,” the “reasonable service” (as Paul puts it in Romans 12:1) that you returned to God to begin to pay God back for saving you. Of course, from an instructional standpoint, we were taught that salvation was a “free gift,” but functionally it often felt like the “gift” had strings attached. To be fair, some of the strings were exciting and fun; and others did bring one a bit closer to God. But like any club—membership had its privileges, but it also had its rules. And Heaven help you if you break the rules (pun intended).

This understanding of “church” began to be problematic for me, however, (and Janet’s Stage Theory later helped me understand this) when God began inviting me into a spiritual journey that, necessarily, shattered a lot of rules.

In one sense, the call to preaching and pastoral ministry was the first turn in the road. As an African American woman worshipping in a tradition that has been slow to support women in ministry, I saw few role models who could help me make sense of my call. That improved as I moved to another church and entered seminary, but I was still very steeped in the idea of “doing” church in a certain way and following the “rules.”

In seminary, however, God got “bigger” for me. And the understanding of what it meant to be in relationship with God loomed larger and pushed deeper. God simply refused to stay any longer in the boxes I had been given (or created) to contain the Divine. I began to experience the restlessness and “unsettling” that Janet describes as part of Stage Four of our faith journey. This restlessness continued as I served as part of a pastoral staff in a large congregation, and deepened as I moved on to focus on teaching in a seminary. As God was calling me in to a more intimate relationship, where my places of brokenness could begin to be healed and transformative growth could take place, I found that this journey also encouraged me into revisit my ecclesiology (among other things). It was a Wall place that required me to face some things and surrender many of the assumptions and attitudes that would no longer serve my deepening life-in-God. One of the results of that time was that I find that my definition of “church” has steadily become much more relational than institutional. Much more dynamic than static.

“Church” is wherever I am, relating in loving ways to the people around me. It is also being part of a community of believers in Christ (outside of the local congregation), as we experience what it means to be in the process of being and becoming the image of Christ. It is joining with others to learn and practice what it means to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3) It happens around a crowded dinner table filled with good food, oft-repeated stories and laughter, and it happens over a quiet cup of tea. And yes, “church” happens in the local congregation. I can both be church and do church as I immerse myself in worship and service, sharing in the many forms of leitourgia that turn our collective attention toward God, refresh our spirits, and empower us to become our truest selves that we might then be the eyes, ears, hands, feet and heart of Christ in the world.



The second essay (actually a sermon) is by Mike McNichols. He served for ten years as a pastor and is now Director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Regional Campus in Irvine, California. He is author of Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist, the Bartender, and Atonement at Ground Zero.


The Church as the People of God

The Bible unfolds the story of a world gone wrong. It is a world created and sustained by a creator-redeemer God, one that a nomadic people had come to know through their rescue from slavery in Egypt. These people knew what it was like to live in a broken, hostile world—they were slaves for generations in a uniquely religious culture. Through the long experience of rescue from slavery and wandering in the wilderness of the ancient near east they came to understand that they had a special identity, one that began with the calling out of their earliest remembered ancestor—a wandering Aramean named Abram. They remembered that the calling came from the mysterious God who identified himself only as the I AM—the LORD. The calling was for Abram to have a family that would grow and prosper, becoming a nation of people that would be special to God. They would not, however, be special simply for their own sake, but because they would represent the entire world to God—and they would represent God to the world. They would be God’s people for the sake of the world. It would be through this nation of people that the families of the earth would find blessing (Gen. 12:1-3).

The history of this nation—even after experiencing God’s great rescue from their captivity in Egypt—would be a roller coaster ride of worship, obedience, rebellion, unfaithfulness, disaster, promise and rescue. The surrounding nations would watch as this special people would struggle and wrestle with God—thereby earning the name Israel—acting the faithful bride one day and the sultry whore the next. But even after suffering the devastating consequences of their unfaithfulness—military defeat and exile—the scattered people continued to hear the LORD speak out words of hope and promise, drawing them back into a relationship of forgiveness and faithfulness. Even after the people came home from exile, remaining under the boot heels of a series of conquering nations, they looked for God’s ultimate rescue. They looked forward to the day when God would vindicate his people, scatter Israel’s enemies and restore Israel to its former glory in the unhindered presence of God.

When Jesus appeared on the scene, Israel was still a nation in exile. The people were, for the most part, living in their homeland, but remained in a kind of house arrest under the control of the Roman Empire. Jesus spoke repeatedly of Israel’s hope for vindication and rescue but he did so in a new way. He claimed that God’s vindication was at hand, that God’s kingdom had come. God’s rule and reign would put to rest all competing claims for power.

But Israel was still struggling with God. The people were divided within themselves. Some sought to preserve the purity of the nation’s religious practices while keeping political peace with Rome. Others aimed to force the hand of God by cutting as many Roman throats as possible and fueling any number of rebellions. Still others retreated to the desert wilderness to keep themselves pure and separated from all contact with the unfaithful and the unclean.

Jesus understood the uniqueness of Israel—he was a family member. But he also saw the fractious nature of the people and their inability to reclaim the call of the I AM to be God’s people for the sake of the world. Jesus claimed that God’s rescue was indeed coming, but it would not look the way the people expected. It would come only through death and resurrection.

In a very important way, Jesus would stand as the representative of the nation of Israel, about to do for Israel what the nation could not do for itself: Die and then rise again, reformed by God’s intention and purpose.

If we begin to think about how God’s intention to rescue the world was enacted in the life of Israel and fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, then we are able to see the church, potentially, as the people of God who are summoned by God to proclaim and demonstrate the message that in Jesus, God is making good on his promise to bring life and blessing to all the families of the world.


What is Church? Why Church? Part V

This week I’m featuring three early-thirty-somethings who will share some wide-ranging reflections on their church experiences growing up, comparing them with what they experience now.



Joanna Carroll Griffith, a Ph.D, architect, loves to create and advocate for community-enhancing, sustainable design. An example would be a green house that she designed and built with a few of her friends. She is currently living in Hawaii with her husband, Nick and their cat.


“I’ve spent some time thinking about your questions, ‘What is church?’ and ‘Why church?’


Growing up in a small town where I was the 5th generation of my family to attend the same Catholic Church, I still always felt like an outsider. We didn’t go to mass every Sunday so the priest was not happy with us and even refused to baptize my sister because of it. When we did go, it was like I was in the middle of a play but didn’t know any of the words or choreography. By the time I was 7 or 8 we stopped going at all except for weddings, baptisms, or funerals, and that’s still pretty much the extent of my current church attendance.


Through elementary and middle school I tried attending friends’ churches of various denominations. Though they were less opulent than the Catholic Church, I still felt profoundly like I was on the outside looking in. For some reason there’s always been something that I didn’t quite trust about the experience. Maybe it’s because I never found the right church, the right message, the right leader… who knows. I do know that from a young age I would feel God’s presence when I was immersed in the woods. I’ve always instinctively gone to nature to heal, pray, and meditate.


I’ve also had powerful experiences when I’ve gone into churches (when there is no service happening) in order to sit in a pew and feel the sacredness around me. Maybe my issue is with the “middle man”; I have a hard time trusting the guidance of a third party who is between me and God.


I know my attitude towards church can and likely will evolve over time. There have been times, especially recently, when I’ve wished that I had a stronger faith to rely on. But I’m open, and writing this is helping to move me forward.”



Melissa Wells is our second writer. She is a Touch for Health practitioner who knows how the body moves and the responses it gives when it is being stressed by emotional, physical, mental and/or spiritual experiences both past and present. She is also a yoga instructor, an artist and a mother of three. She grew up in what she would call a strict church and has left it, along with several friends, to search out for herself where she most finds God.


“I recently attended a conference called “Pilgrimage for Change” put on by a non profit called Heartbeat. At this conference a group of 40 strangers met to hear from a Celtic Author and priest, a Mohican community leader and sacred sites tour guide, and a female Jewish Rabbi.


For me the weekend was summed up in the symbol of a circle. The Celtic cross and its symbolism of the meeting of feminine and the masculine (left/right) as well as heaven and earth (top/bottom) at the heart of the cross. The Native’s have many circular symbols from the medicine wheel to their sacred meeting formations. As the Mohican leader expressed to us their tradition assumes there are no opposites, male/female, East/West, human/divine. It is all a completion of itself, whole, circular. And finally the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, which states “the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.” The understanding is that One is not a numerical statement, exclusive or narrow. Rather One is everything and everything is God.


Church has become like this symbol of a circle for me. When I was young and growing up in the church my circle was small to fit my theology and experience. As I grew my circle gently expanded. And when I was ready (or not), my circle was blown wide open by circumstance and change.


Now, rather than my circle being neat and pretty with everything in its place it’s wild, creative and natural. I no longer have to try to “fit” new experiences, people or insights in…or out. Church has become an evolving experience, a reoccurring homecoming. Coming home to the true self, the companionship of others and the Greatness of God.


For some this happens inside a church building governed by an organized body. For others, church is hiking to the top of a mountain at sunrise accompanied by (wo)man’s best friend. It could be an AA or Alanon meeting, an hour on the yoga mat or tea with a friend. It could be experienced in places or with people that are difficult. Wherever there is a sense of circling back home to a sacred place of oneness that is church.


So, why church? Because this kind of oneness is what I believe our greatest prophets, teachers, healers, artists and mystics have been calling us to. A sacred place within that in its truest form, is meant to be shared. Like the center of the Celtic cross, the Native gathering traditions and the Jewish concept of One it is circular and inclusive, ever evolving in experience yet anciently relational and deep with understanding. The more we experience this kind of church within ourselves the more we find we come back home to where God is. The more we experience the security and wholeness of God the more we are compelled to live from this place. This place is Love.



The third writer is Ben Lindwall who was the person who coordinated the wonderful conference that Melissa speaks of in her piece. Ben is the Executive Director of Heartbeat, working with author John Philip Newell to bring the spiritual practice of pilgrimage to the next generation. Ben lives in Minneapolis MN, along with his wife and two young children.


How to Keep the Faith by Ben Lindwall


How to keep the faith

after fundamentalism was revealed a power structure designed to subjugate,

raise money

raise structures

raise men

All in the name of Jesus

In the spirit of greed, shame, and tyranny.

To this day, it is no longer natural to say, “I believe in God” without wondering if that means I believe in

Systems of exclusion

Prayer for the purpose of imperialism

Worship of drawn boundaries

Spirituality of capitalism

Politicking pastors and priests

But faith must be deeper than the skin of religion or propositional truths of the West



Do I believe in God?

Ask me while my wife is in labor, at the first breath of a new life

Ask me when my grandfather lay dying, pleading the words “I love you”

Ask me as I put a wooden paddle into the quiet waters of Cedar Lake

Ask me at the twilight call of a loon

Ask me when the homeless man tells me he prays every day, and he’ll pray for me



I believe in the spark that lit this soul

In the very first seed

In whatever it is that binds me to you

In the mystery of prayer

In systems of inclusion

In a spirituality of wholeness, nourishment, and equality

In worship as action on behalf of the oppressed and suffering

which welcomes my own story of oppression and suffering

which will beat every gun into a garden shovel

which will turn every corporation into a co-operative

which will transform every church into a neighborhood pub

which will make fellow Pilgrims out of politicians and corporate executives, religious radicals and heretics, rich and poor,

you and me.

This is the place where I can quietly, contentedly say that, yes

I believe in God.


What is Church? Why Church? Part 4.

Today I introduce three people who have been pondering these questions and have looked at them from a life-long perspective. Katherine speaks of a place to belong. Both essayists speak of the journey, from times of not belonging; of distance, of fragility, of alienation, and then, of love, for oneself and the church.


The first person is Katherine Nicolay, an 89 year-old friend of mine who describes herself as a “free thinking Baptist.” She has been going to church all of her life.

“Church is a place to go where people think like you, believe like you and worship in a way you are comfortable with.”



The second person, Jean Leih, is an ordained Baptist minister and spiritual director, in her early sixties, who runs a center for renewal and restoration. I know her as a wise woman who sees beyond the ordinary. I suspect she would describe herself as a “free thinking Baptist” as well.

Church has been a part of my experience of living – not an on-the-side, once-in-a while kind of living, but it has been integral; I have been involved and engaged in every aspect, from cradle until now – from lay person to clergy—from musician, teacher, leader, administrator, preacher, counselor, spiritual director. My experience of Church has been shaped by my experience of church (little “c” in the localized expression of it). How I experience Church today is now broader and more inclusive than much of my experience of church.

I’ll begin with a response that comes from Scripture and that now comes from my heart, that is, what I think the bedrock of the Church is—the foundation for all that encompasses Church. And it is love. “On this rock, I will build my church.” These words come from the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John, chapter 21, when Peter is assured of what Jesus the Christ was and is about. Establishing a movement built on love that endures as a rock endures. Not a person, but the essence of relationship, love. So, yes, a person, but people gathered to work out the practicalities and realities of becoming more loving of God, oneself, and others. So, of course, another metaphor for the church is “the bride of Christ.” That which demonstrates a Church that endures, is that which has an increasing love, passion even, for Christ, God incarnate, and for others. Where does love lie? This question is always before me as a discerning question on ordinary and on pivotal issues that seem to plague the church as we decide how to love.

We have not been left on our own to muster up this love from our own human resources, but we have been created with the image of God imprinted on our soul. It is this “image of God” that ignites into desire for God and as we turn towards God who is love, and in this continual turning we also become increasingly like God. God incarnate again and again through each human person, through God’s Spirit come alive, again and again. This is our capacity for becoming a lover and life-giver as Christ was and is.

After a lifetime, at that point, of living as a Christian and a churched person, one morning I woke up and decided to believe. In that moment of belief I experienced the brilliant light of God, the all-encompassing love of God, and the life-changing grace of God. God has gripped my heart and soul ever since. His Spirit is within me, ignited and enflamed. And yet, I still forget. So I need the Church, others with the same sense of being “gripped” by God who help me remember who I am and whose I am.

What does love look like for the Church? Since I have been a part of organized and institutional church for much of my life and though I now find myself placing an “altar in the world” (Barbara Brown Taylor), I am trying to be much more intentional to listening to how God may want me to be as one who loves, heals and nourishes life in myself and others. It is my question that I now am living into.

I admire and respect the Church. The efforts that are much like Peter’s life, afraid, denying who he was for threat of his life; in his bravado cutting off the ear of the soldier that had come to take Jesus; rushing to be first to the tomb. These seem to mirror the church’s ways of being and inconsistencies as well, much of which I have been and am a part of. Making our way as humans, yet as the bride of Christ, inconsistent in our faithfulness, falsely brave, and yet still here to continue to be something that sustains, feeds, nourishes and heals. The Church is under the same transformational change as my life has been–in process in our humanity, yet attentive and intentional, believing each morning that it matters.

Church is no longer just something that I show up for at an organized and orchestrated time during the week, nor is it something that I show up to for my everyday work as clergy, but it is what I experience when I am with others who are awake to the reality of the presence of Christ here and now. Even if this is not spoken—there is a sense of Spirit energy that emanates—a sweetness that allows intimacy and closeness, and when I have been with another or others like this I sense an aliveness. I have been given a greater sense of Life. This kind of Church helps me remember who I am, and often we share bread and the cup of our Lord Jesus Christ to remember why we get to be who we are. We remember Christ is with us, in us, around us and before us. Sometimes I need help remembering—that’s when I seek out “church” or when Church finds me.

For those of us who know ourselves to be “aliens” in a strange land—longing for home—who, when gathered together take comfort and encouragement with others who also see and long for a different place, and yet find ourselves located for now on this earth and in this culture – we find home amongst each other and find home somewhere deep within our own soul – truly home, yet not at home. When God invited “open the door to your heart, I want to come in and have fellowship with you,” and my life response is a continual “yes,” (Rev. 3:20), God took up residence in me, releasing loneliness and yet increasing my longing for deeper love and intimacy with God and with others. It is because God has made God’s home in me that I walk back into this world alive, seeing and hearing with eyes and ears that carry “home” always with me.

Others who also carry “home” with them become my Church wherever I may find myself, either in a coffee shop, a spiritual direction session, a few others gathered together, an official church service. And it is how I offer myself to others who may also long for and want to find their way “home.” This is Church to me.



The third person today, is Steve Nelson (in his fifties), a lay leader, publisher and lover of two large Burmese Mountain dogs. He’s on a life-long journey with the church and tells his story honestly and cogently.


I chose “Why Church?” because I have thought and struggled with this question over the past decade.


For me, in earlier days and stages in my journey it was never a question. Church has always been a big part of my life. And by “always”, I mean “from the womb!” I was born into rather conservative “non-denominational” church where Sunday morning and evening along with Wednesday evening was considered normal attendance. My folks were committed, involved members and it was just how we lived. We prayed before meals every single time and my dad would sometimes try to get us in the habit of family devotions each night at the dinner table. Thankfully for us fidgety kids that never lasted too long!


So, I guess you could say that I had a rather typical experience of church as a boy. When I came to adolescence, however there was very little there other than the fear of going to hell if I did something unforgivable, or if my receiving Christ as my personal savior, didn’t “take.” In fact that did lead to some anxiety. As a kid, I “prayed the prayer” many, many times just to be sure. But even though I was told Jesus was now inside my heart. He didn’t seem to have much influence on me. I suppose that is pretty typical for church kids.


Later, around age 20 I was energized in my faith by the influence of some charismatic “Jesus Freak” types, and that led to a long period of devotion and more-consistent religious interest. This took me through some years working for religious para-church organizations, Campus Crusade and Young Life, as well as church lay leadership in later years.


Then, all of a sudden around age 50, due, perhaps in part to my son announcing that he was no longer a believer, I started to have grave doubts about my own faith. I decided to think and pray through this until I figured it out. Because if it’s not true, what a waste of time it is.


Over the following five or so years, I journaled and thought and prayed and read and tried to work it out. I never reached a true AHA moment! But I did find out that, for me, I can’t NOT believe in God. I guess I would say that I came to the conclusion that God is God and I am not! And he deserves my worship. Church itself is not as important in my overall beliefs. In fact some of my most dismal experiences recently had to do with my years in lay leadership, trying to sort out disputes with feuding pastoral staff!

I was exposed to fellow Christians who were as un-Christ-like as any non-Christian I had ever encountered! But after the dust settled and I became more comfortable with a pared down belief system, church again became a good place to be. Sometimes I may go for the music, singing and praise, and duck out when the preaching starts. That is actually a pleasant experience and doesn’t give me the slightest pangs of guilt!


The people I know at our church are good friends — some of them dear friends we have known for years — and we enjoy being a part of this congregation. We sometimes participate in musical or drama events. We are also currently enjoying a discussion class that doesn’t shy from controversial topics. These can be quite stimulating and fun! They challenge and lead toward growth, not just complacency or self righteousness.


So, all in all, although one can’t say I have come full circle. I certainly have been on a journey. I’ve survived the guilt, overcome some of the ugly and am now enjoying the peace. Maybe it’s the “peace that surpasses all understanding” promised in scripture, I don’t know. But at the moment, since it isn’t broke, I don’t plan to fix it!



What is Church? Why Church?

Three essays have come my way that all mention AA/Al Anon as church so I share them all at once. Hmmmm. 

This essay is by Chelsea Forbrook, a thirty-year-old who is an “old soul.” She has been thoughtful about her spiritual journey for several years and has taught workshops with me on “Becoming a Whole Woman” and “Spirituality and Sexuality” at a church we both attend on the North Side of Mpls. 

What is Church: A Place of Radical Hospitality

When I think about the spaces that feel the most sacred to me, they are intentional places and times when people meet together to practice love, acceptance, vulnerability and trust; a place where friendship is genuine and hope in humanity is restored. Part of this hope in humanity is restoring hope for myself. When I find myself in intentionally loving circles, I see that I too have something beautiful to contribute to the process, that I can learn, and encourage others to be their best selves, even as I am trying to discover what that looks like for myself. The following are a few examples of where I experience this.

Last December, I was breaking up with my partner whom I loved dearly, due to their active alcoholism, which was leading to a complete sense of insanity within me. I was crushed, defeated, heartbroken, and panic-stricken. Feeling like a failure, and with nowhere else to turn, I walked through the doors of an Al Anon meeting on Christmas Eve. I was terrified, not knowing anyone, and not even sure the meeting would still be held on this holiday. Three faithful people were gathered in the dingy church basement, waiting, it seemed, just for me. I broke down and cried, and they just let me talk without judgment. They offered their words of courage, strength, and hope based on their similar experiences with alcoholism in their families. They hugged me, connected me to resources, made me laugh. I knew I had landed safely in God’s lap. I was home. They joked about being the only “heathens” in the group because they didn’t celebrate Christmas, but to me, they were the compassionate hands and feet of Jesus, and they truly saved me that night.

Another place I experience complete acceptance is through my amazing group of friends. From the first moment my friend Ryan invited me over to his house to meet all his housemates, I knew I had found my new family. They weren’t exclusive, and immediately made me feel valued and welcome. The first thing they all asked me was not “where do you work?” but instead, “what are you passionate about?” This caught me a bit off guard, but it spurred a lively conversation that is still continuing to this day. There are no prerequisites or qualifications to be included in this friend group, no certain style of dress or ideology which to ascribe. Everyone is intensely unique, and we cheer each other on in our pursuits and beliefs. Within this large network of friends, I am one of only two self-identified Christians. Everyone else is deeply spiritual, and we learn from each other and are curious about each other’s experience and beliefs. We have found that while our religious affiliations are different, our values are the same, the most important being radical hospitality. This means we welcome and integrate everyone who comes through the door, and we welcome all parts of ourselves and others, even the ugly or embarrassing parts, or the times when we make mistakes or are in a bad mood.

The other place where I find Church is at church (surprise!). I oftentimes struggle with the Church because it has a history (and current reality) of being judgmental and exclusive, of prescribing morality and certain lifestyles as a one-size-fits-all model that is damaging to those of us who don’t find ourselves within this small window. Luckily, I have found a church that truly welcomes everyone. Much of the time, I feel like I don’t need Sunday morning worship, because my spiritual needs are met through other means. But there is something unique about gathering together in a group around a common ritual. I don’t even feel it is a common belief that we share, because I know that the theologies represented in the congregation are scattered across a spectrum. For me, that’s ok. It’s the Spirit in that space that matters. It’s singing the familiar songs that get me so choked up that I can no longer sing. It’s knowing that my pastor knows me and loves me, despite my eclectic and radical theology. It’s taking the bread and wine and knowing that my Best Friend is with me. It’s saying the confession, not as a precaution against hell, but as a deterrent to my self-righteousness and in solidarity with all of a suffering humanity. It’s seeing my friends, and also some annoying people, and committing to be in relationship with them all. It’s having an opportunity to work as a collective force against societal injustices. This type of Church is a great and powerful Mystery.

The last place I find Church is in meditation. It is here that I enter into relationship with my inner being and have an opportunity to practice loving and accepting myself. Just like the radical hospitality practiced in my Al Anon group, my friend group, and my church, sitting in mindful meditation is sometimes difficult. At first glance, there are unwelcome visitors (thoughts based on selfishness, fear, or cruelty), but when I take the time to get to know them, they all have a lesson to teach. There is a house in my heart built for My Friend, and when I dive into intentional contact with my inner self, it is a deeper relationship with God that I find, a God who loves me unconditionally.



This essay is by Rev. Dr. Keith Meyer, a long-term pastor, author and pastor to pastors. He has served in mega churches and small parishes. His heart is all about stretching himself and his flock to be more radical in their love for God and neighbor.


What is Church? Why Church?

I have more of an idea of what church isn’t – but after 36 years of being a pastor or attendee of 6 churches and everything from higher church Anglican to low Mega-church Independent, I have an idea of what it might be and occasionally, I think have experienced it.

As a kid I was taught a fun little hand trick to remember what church is. You took the five fingers of each hand and intertwined them and then closed your hands to make a fist with the thumbs straight up. Your hands now looked like a typical church building with a steeple. You held your little church hand up, a performance art piece, for you and others to see and you recited, “Here is the church, there is the steeple.” Then you opened up your hands and turned them upside down so your intertwined fingers stood up and closed with “open the doors and here are the people.” Is that church? Don’t think so. So what is it?

Church is not a building. Not a gathering of people at 11AM or an organization with programs, or a denominational identity, although they might have these, they don’t guarantee church is there or happening. My sons don’t go to this kind of church. They go regularly to a meeting where other drug and chemically dependent people tell their deepest secrets, practice steps of spiritual growth with a mentor, and cultivate gratitude and humility, and dependence on God and service to others rather than alcohol or drugs. Recently they have been working on emotional sobriety – not being driven by their fears or their pride. I think this is church to the power of what God intended or at least embodies whatever and whoever first thought synagogue in the Messiah could look like. I think you could go to such a group for an hour and grow more than going to a million typical church services.

Church is not the Kingdom of God. That means it isn’t all that God is doing – he is wherever he is wanted. I am really distrustful when I hear a Pastor say that their church is bringing the Kingdom. It is always less than, by a great deal, what it looks like when God’s will is effectively done. And it often means that the Pastor’s organization is a small “k” kingdom of his or her own and is put before God’s actual Kingdom rule.

Church is not a perfect place. Where I think I have been in it…It has wrinkles no one seems to be able to iron out, spots that can’t be laundered and yet, when in spite of itself, it shines with the unfailing love, compassion and Kingdom dream of God for human beings it seems like it is following a calling out of this dark fallen world…and sadly, out of many churches that stifle that calling… to live in the light of God’s presence and power – I think that might be what Paul and the Apostles had in mind when they described what they termed, ecclesia, the “called out ones”. And it may have been what Jesus had in mind for his disciples after his little band of 12 began to go back to bring Jesus’ message to those early and various synagogues, or God-fearing Gentile seekers gathered together. Called out ones…out of hate, fear, death, darkness into Jesus’ light and love, hope, resurrection and a sign of a new kind of humanity.

So, what is church? Why church? Seems like any group of people called to live in the life of the Kingdom of God as best they can by God’s grace, forgiving each other and offering that kind of life to others as a sign of what a new world might be where Jesus would feel at home…even with just two or more, and people thrive and flourish…a family, best friends, and yes…maybe even a typical church.



And this essay is by Frederick Buechner, which is so fortuitous. I read it the same week that Chelsea sent me her essay. I love how that works out. Buechner is an author and chaplain. This is from his book, Whistling in the Dark, pp. 4-5.


AA and Church

Alcoholics Anonymous or A.A. is the name of a group of men and women who acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. Their purpose in coming together is to give it up and help others do the same. They realize they can’t pull this off by themselves. They believe they need each other, and they believe they need God. The ones who aren’t so sure about God speak instead of their Higher Power.

When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, “I am John. I am an alcoholic,” “I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,” to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, “Hi, John,” “Hi, Mary.” They are apt to end with the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. Apart from that they have no ritual. They have no hierarchy. They have no dues or budget. They do not advertise or proselytize. Having no buildings of their own, they meet wherever they can.

Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.

You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the Church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be Big Business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“I am me. I am a sinner.”

“Hi, you.”

Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the Church is all about.

No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an A.A. meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it. That is what the Body of Christ is all about.

Would it ever occur to Christians in a far place to turn to a church nearby in hope of finding the same? Would they find it? If not, you wonder what is so Big about the Church’s Business.


Reflections on these essays

Where do you find that place in which you can be real, honest and vulnerable; fully embraced for who you are without judgment?

Where would you go on Christmas Eve if you had a crisis in your life?

How does God’s kingdom show itself in your life?


Six word answers to the question “What is Church?”

I do not list names or ages because these were a response to a face book post by a friend of mine and I didn’t ask permission to print names. Here goes…

A temple in which to consciously receive the holy spirit

Spiritual community for support and growth

Next was a listing of the etymology of the word:-)  (over my head!)

Relationship with the vehicle of God’s love

A very human, God-infused institution!

Human attempt to institutionalize spirituality (with varying degrees of success)   That was 10 words but who’s counting?

Listening, obeying and suffering together (He says this is not original with him)


Essay on “What is Church?” by Barry Thomas who has been a pastor at churches in three states, specializing in spiritual formation and leadership development. He has a background in petroleum engineering and now works in that field. In his mid-forties, he is married and has two college age children. He lives in Texas.

If I were to use one word to describe my relationship with church right now, the word would be disillusioned. Not disillusioned in an angry or rebellious sense, but the kind of disillusionment that results from unmet expectations…expectations of the church providing purpose and fulfillment in life; altruistic expectations that politics don’t exist in church; that all church goers love each other and want what is best for each other and that participating in a church is spiritually transforming.

I grew up in a Christian home where church was a central part of my life. My family faithfully went to church every time the doors were opened: Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. Our friends were people from church; our social activities were church activities. As a result, I formed a belief that religion and spirituality were synonymous. If someone asked if I was a Christian, I would say, “Yes, the church I go to is…” That was the proof that I was a Christian. I didn’t know how to separate Jesus and church because, in my life, they were synonymous. Spiritual growth was measured by church activity, Bible knowledge and good behavior.

With the help of a spiritual director, I started paying attention to my heart and God started working on it. I began integrating emotional health into my spiritual growth because that was the limiting factor to my growth. For many Christians, a study on the book of Romans is what is needed to grow. For me, I didn’t need another Bible study. I didn’t know how to integrate and apply the Bible knowledge I already had. I needed to learn how to identify my emotions and pay attention to what they were telling me about my beliefs. I needed to understand about the parts of myself I didn’t accept or like and learn to bring them out of hiding for God’s love to bring healing. I needed to give myself permission to get angry and to experience grief; to set healthy boundaries on my life and empathize with others. Spiritual growth became the ability to receive God’s love and, in turn, love God and others well. It is measured by acceptance, grace, forgiveness and, of course, love. But how can I love God and love others well if I don’t know how to do these things well?

For me, there is now a distinction between religion and spirituality; between church and Jesus. They are no longer synonymous. With the two separated out, I see that the role of religion is to help a person grow spiritually. In other words, my church experience should be one that helps me experience Jesus and His love in deeper and deeper ways. Religion should nurture spirituality; not get in the way.

So the question is: “What is the role of church in my life now?

As the shift was taking place in my heart (and it still is in many ways), slowly, but steadily, my beliefs changed about the role of church in my life. If it’s all about love, how does the church fit in with that? How do I engage and participate with church now?

The older I get (and hopefully more mature as well), the less my spiritual growth is dependent on church. It is still important for me to be part of a church body. It is still important for me to participate in corporate worship; to hear a message from God’s word; to partake in the sacrament of communion. What have become more important to me (and more formative for me) are the relationships. It is essential for me to be in relationship with a group of believers where I can be known and accepted and loved, and I, in turn, can know, accept and love others.

It is like a parent-child relationship. As a child, I was dependent on my parents for everything: food, shelter, clothing, safety, love, etc. As I grew, I learned to do things for myself: brush my teeth, dress myself, tie my own shoes, etc. One of the primary jobs of my parents was to teach me to be independent of them. As an adult, I am still in relationship with my parents; however, it is different now. My sustenance and safety are no longer dependent on them.

Is it possible that one of the primary jobs of the church is to teach me to have a relationship with Jesus that is not dependent on church? If so, then my expectations need to change. I can’t expect church to still be tying my spiritual shoes when it is something I need to be doing myself.

So disillusionment…what do I do with that?

The disillusionment fades as I understand that my relationship with church changes like a parent-child relationship and I change the expectations I have about the role of church in my life. And as my spiritual growth becomes more independent from church, then it is up to me to create the kind of church environment I need to help me grow. Much of my spiritual growth over the last several years has not come from a program or ministry that my church has organized. It has come from experiences and relationships I have sought out. I have built relationships with people who can be fellow sojourners with me. And at the same time, I stay connected to my church much like I stay connected to my parents as an adult.


Bobbie Spradley is an active lay woman in the Lutheran church. She is a very young 81 year-old, a retired university professor and author, mother of three step mother of four and grandmother of 14. Her recent spiritual quest has been to list as many attributes of God as she can find in the Bible. She has notebooks full of her findings. She writes her answer to “Why Church?

Why Church? My Story

Going to church has always been a part of my life. I was raised that way. It was expected. We went without question. Growing up with that expectation, I learned to enjoy singing hymns, tolerate sermons, participate in youth activities and generally feel surrounded by a faith family who knew me and cared about me.

I didn’t question why I went to church until early adulthood. Newly married, living in new places, the subject came up for fresh scrutiny. Why did I go to church? No one told me I had to any longer. Many people I knew did not go. Yet I felt drawn. Why? Deep within each of us is a God-hunger, whether or not we know it or like it. We’re incomplete until God enters our lives and makes us whole. Church was a means for me to know God. Study of Scripture, absorbing the gospel message, discovering God’s greatness and goodness in new ways, learning the value of prayer, living out my faith in
daily life – all of these were by-products of my being in a community of faith.

There were also opportunities for service. So I continued to go to church.
As time went on, however, many of my reasons for attendance were being met outside of church. Through such things as spiritual direction, work shops, retreats and personal study, my God-hunger was being met in new and increasingly deep ways. Attending church was less meaningful. Still it drew me. I wanted a faith community with whom to worship. Singing God’s praises together, participating in holy communion, hearing the spoken Word enriched and complemented my private devotional life and spiritual
journey. I wanted to be involved in service but my focus shifted toward encouraging others to engage in spiritual healing and enrichment. No doubt all this is a factor of my age and place in my own spiritual growth.

“Why church” for me has now in my later years taken on new meaning. Yes, continuing to participate in communal worship and fellowship is enriching and important to me. However, it can’t replace my need for a deeper spiritual life which is primarily met through private daily prayer and time in Scripture. Learning to know God is a joy I wholeheartedly pursue. So, why church?

I see church now as a place to give. I’m not speaking of giving money or time spent in service. I practice those as I’m able and believe they are important. Rather, I mean looking for ways to give – to reach out – to others. I feel God’s call in this and have asked God to sharpen my awareness and sensitivity to those around me. I look for opportunities to encourage and bring joy to the people I meet. I smile and acknowledge the presence of others as often as I can. I make a point of memorizing names and call people by name as much as possible. The way their faces light up tells me it means something to them.

Being a member of our church prayer chain, I know the challenges many face and am able to ask them individually how their health is progressing, express
sympathy for loss of a loved one, or encourage someone looking for a job. I look for ways to affirm people, compliment them and acknowledge their contributions and efforts. Even a touch or a hug makes a difference. These may seem like small things but expressing God’s love can promote healing and unity. Love shared is love multiplied.

The bottom line for me is that church can mean different things at different times for each of us depending on where we are in our journeys. But the fact remains, we still need God in order to be whole and we need each other to help foster that. For me, that’s “why church”.

Reflections on these essays

Both of these people separate church activities from their inner spiritual life. How do you see that in your life?

Have you made peace with the church? With what it does and doesn’t give you?

What one word would you use to describe your relationship with church?

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