Sacred, Safe Places

in a recent post i narrated
a journey of pew to prose
[read: pendulum heart]

in this post you will find more context and reflection
on my past few years and season of church

the question is not

are you a christian
if you’re not going to church 

but are you a christian
if you’re not being the church

it’s not uncommon to hear the saying:
the church is the people not the building

this notion seems
to manifest in our minds
to permeate our language
but not to transform
how we do church

last year i was in a season
where church looked different

my church-attending christian folk
were concerned that i wasn’t going to church

there was an emphasis on image
the appearance of being godly
a legalistic expectation
of performance over presence
of serving over sanctification

there was more concern
as to whether i’m going to church
rather than being the church

there was no ask after my heart condition
the state of my soul or spirit:

is my spirit content or crushed?
is my heart aching or full?

there was only an ask
after my church attendance

as though that is the key to my salvation
the red-amber-green traffic light
the benchmark, status, pulse, report
‘insert metric here’ of my faith

the season was strange
because after being burned and hurt
i had no energy or desire to go to church

it wasn’t my flesh
reigning over spirit
it was my spirit
choosing freedom:

where the spirit of the lord is
there is freedom
(2 Cor. 3:17)

the where is not limited

the spirit of the lord
is not only found in church

the spirit is alive and well
the spirit is here, in us, with us

the spirit makes a home,
a dwelling place in believers

where the spirit is
there is no chains, no bondage
no strongholds to an institution

where the spirit is
the law of grace is

in this letter to Corinth Paul speaks
of hardened minds, of veils unlifted

there is a juxtaposition of:
old covenant vs new covenant
ministry of death vs ministry of Spirit
ministry of condemnation vs ministry of righteousness

Paul speaks of glory and hope and
the confidence, the boldness we have in Christ

in Christ there is the removal of the veil, the blindness,
there is the end of the law carved in stone
and the ushering forth of the law written on hearts:

the law of grace

my desire was to live in light of this freedom
but my experience told a different story

church was no longer a place
where i was reminded of this truth, this grace
it had been a place of condemnation

when i had attempted to re-enter
community and fellowship
i came with bruises and fear

fear ruled over freedom

so i opted for church online
for dialling in on sundays
hidden, protected, safe

i wasn’t shying away
from community
i was still meeting
with a small group

where two or three
were gathered
there was less
fear, shame, judgement

there was no risk
of being misunderstood

there was only a heart
willing to heal

my heart has always been
for soul nourishing connection
for fellowship and relationship

my heart has always been
for the church
i’ve craved to be among
the broken and hurting and questioning
those yearning for truth and life-changing love

but i could no longer bear
pharisee perfection and performance
righteousness rated by service

if church is a hospital for the broken
then why do we expect
the broken to come to us

as i met on week nights and weekends last year
with those who didn’t appear in church pews all the time
(like me in that season)

i noticed
the same heart
the same desire
the same questions

the common thread
between those i communed with in that season
was an absence from church and presence of faith-wounding

here were hurting hearts, crushed spirits, broken stories
here were those who felt abandoned and misunderstood

their brokenness was safe in sacred places
where two or three are gathered
where smaller fires can be fanned into flames 

their brokenness may be welcome
in the church building
they may be shown warmth
by those serving or on staff
they may be filled with the word

but when they leave
we often let them walk away broken
and hurting and asking for connection

sometimes the barrier
is not attending and showing up
the deeper barrier is relationship

sometimes our
presence with God
and presence in community
is scarred by light

light exposes our fears

and to find redeeming light
we need safe places
to share our faith and fears
for seeds to be sown
for words of life to be spoken
for fruit to be borne

glorifying God and pursuing holiness
is being set apart
this shouldn’t mean
from the body of Christ
but it may look like
for a season
a need to seperate
from the church
in order for healing
to be found

sometimes i fear
that we miss Jesus’ mission
when we seperate ourselves
and create church chambers
that ostracise, exclude, isolate
those who are broken and questioning

i have received “interventions”
into my spiritual state
for choosing my place of ministry
to be the corporate world

i have received warnings from sisters
who have questioned my friendships
and those i choose to socialise with

i have seen judgement instead of Jesus
i have seen mindsets of narrow-mindedness replace the narrow-way

i spent years on the welcoming team at church
because i didn’t want anyone feel alone

yet with hindsight, i see that my surrender
led me to be the one that was lonely

most Sundays was spent talking to someone new
and as an introvert this always left me spent from socialising

after seven years i realised how disconnected i felt
the deep connections and community i was craving
i wasn’t able to find during Sunday services

there are some people who love socialising
extroverts who gain energy from seeing people post church
but i was never one of those people
i’ve always preferred the intimacy of one-on-ones,
the opportunities for vulnerabilities
where two or three are gathered

what truly wounded me
was the accusation
of performative vulnerability

it has taken many years and tears
for me to reconcile:

that vulnerability and brokenness
require sacred, safe spaces

and that some churches cultivate
a culture of pharisee-performance

earlier this week my partner and i
were reading the letter
to the church of the Thessalonians

the Jews were driving out the believers
hindering them from reaching the Gentiles
and this was said to be displeasing to God
[read: 1 Thes. 2:15-16]

if this displeased God
imagine how more
displeased God would be
to see believers driving away believers
in the church culture we live in today

in that context, the religious leaders opposed the believers
there was no desire to reach those who were not yet saved

and so we see the believers encouraged:

“may the Lord make you increase
and abound in love
for one another and for all

the call to love here is clear
it is to be extended beyond the believers
it love that is to increase and abound
to overflow and be poured out

to reach those who have not yet been reached
to fill those who are not filled

one of the harmful beliefs
i have seen in the church
is that believers should not
associate with non-believers

the origin of this belief perhaps stems
from 2 Cor 6:14 and Eph 5:7-8:

“do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.
for what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?
or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

“therefore do not become partners with them;
for at one time you were darkness, but now
you are light in the Lord. walk as children of light”

now on the surface these letters
seems to contradict 1 Thes 2:15 – 3:13

however, the nuance here is about how we walk:
when we walk with those who do not believe
when we walk alongside those facing darkness
we do not walk the way they walk

the imagery of yoke, in the sense of livestock:
is to be pulled by a rigid harness,
to be locked together in a consistent direction.

now imagine you harness together, “yoke”
two different types of livestock, e.g. an ox and a donkey
this was forbidden in the Old Testament law (Leviticus)
a bond of such kind would not allow a plough to be pulled
the difference in the livestock is their strength and size of legs
but more important is their natural instincts and traits:
the ox is a submissive beast of great strength
the donkey is independent, prideful and quick

by understanding the nature of these beasts
(wild, domesticated, dominant, submissive)
we understand the nature of this passage

an unequal yoke then, is plagued by power:
the relationship of submission and dominance/arrogance

the joining together here is a reference to spiritual life
when we are followers of the way, we walk in the light
the direction we are going is clear, for Jesus is our way, truth, life

if we were to walk with those who diminish our beliefs,
those who seek to destroy, devalue, and domineer

that is not a sacred, safe place

the warning is not to be lead by the lost

Jesus has come to save the lost
[read: Luke 19:10]

we cannot save them
but we can love them

Jesus sought after the lost
Jesus met with the marginalised

where? on the streets, on boats, in homes
where? outside the temple

Jesus was not afraid to go where others would not go:
he went to the sheep gate at the pool of Bethseda [John 5]
where sheep were brought to be slaughtered as sacrifices in the template
where the disabled people would lie – the lame, paralysed, blind

when Jesus performed a healing in that place
he was condemned by the religious leaders of the day
Jesus was a rule-breaker, not limited or defined
by the law of death, but the law of grace

Jesus was condemned for making himself one with God [John 5:18]
we too will be condemned for this oneness we are called into [1 Cor. 12:13]

for those who do not know God
will not know why we do what we do
will know why we say what we say
until revelation comes to them

and we can be confident in this saving work
for Jesus declared to the religious leaders:
“my Father is always working, and so am I”
[read: John 5:16-onwards]

Jesus is granted life-giving power from his Father [v.26]
Jesus is our advocate with the Father
Jesus offers atonement – for the whole world
[read: 1 John 2:2]

“He himself is the sacrifice that stones for our sins
and not only our sins but the sins of all the world”

this is not an exclusive offer, a limited fellowship
there should be no closed-chamber communities of Christians
this is available to all, this love is for all
for there is no distinction, for all fall short
[read: Romans 3:22-23]

we do not need to fear
darkness, brokenness, yokes, laws
the powers and principalities of this age

all we need is faith:
faith that listens and faith that loves

we do not have the power to save
but we have the gift of the spirit:
a spirit not of fear, but of
power and love and self-control
[read: 2 Timothy 1:7]

let us not fear being his hands and feet
let us not fear darkness or condemnation
let us not fear going to the lost and broken
let us not fear the judgement of man but of God
let us not fear unclean spirits or evil powers in this world

let us walk in faith
let us walk by the spirit
let us walk in love

wherever God leads us

there may be seasons
where we are not strong enough
to meet with the broken

but in all seasons
we are called to meet
however that ‘meeting’ looks

the origins of church
is the greek term ecclesia
a gathering, a meeting of people
the body of the faithful

when the term is broken down
it refers to being ‘called out’
as followers of Jesus we are called
to be different, to love different, to serve different

yet we have created rules, laws
on how to be different, to love different, to serve different

in the book of Revelation we see seven letters to ecclesias
there are instructions, warning

we see the Ephesians commended for their
works, labour, patience, endurance, their non-tolerance of evil,
but their warning, is that they had left their first love

we see Smyrna facing claims of being a synagogue of Satan
their warning, that there will be imprisonment and testing,
but that they are called to be faithful and to listen to the Spirit

we see Pergamum commended for holding fast to Jesus,
but warnings, against false teaching and stumbling blocks

we see Thyatira known for good words, love, faith, service, endurance,
warned for their tolerance of an unrepentant self-proclaimed prophetess

we see Sardis with the reputation of being alive, but really being dead
called wake up, to strengthen what is about to die

we see Philadelphia commended for keeping His word and name,
called to hold fast that no one may seize their crown

and finally we see Laodicia warned for being lukewarm,
reminded that the Lord reproves and disciplines those he loves

all of this is to say, the call to be faithful
is not an easy call
whether we are called to meet
with many, or with few
whether we are called to
one church, or another church
we are all called
to be the church
as followers of Jesus

the common thread in these seven letters
is the call to action, to hear what the Spirit says to the churches
to be repentant, to be watchful, to be faithful

may we find safe places
to repent, to watch, to exercise faith

and when we encounter
those who are questioning, wrestling
with hearing and seeing and believing

instead of asking where they are on Sunday
ask where they are spiritually
ask where their head and heart are at

for a long time i was burnt out
physically, emotionally, spiritually
and that put me at risk

of not showing up
of not being present
for my nearest
 and dearest

and it put me at risk
of not making time
for the broken in my life
who were also not
showing up on Sunday’s

i had to wonder why
there were these patterns
of brokenness
of judgement and shame
of condemnation and blame

i had to wonder why my leaving church
was a blow against the bride of Christ
if Christ has called us to be his hands and feet
to the lost and needy in this world

needless to say
i’m still wondering
and figuring out
what church looks like

Jesus didn’t like the big crowds
neither do i
he invested in his twelve

what if a sunday gathering
meant neglecting my twelve?
the few God had given me?

he didn’t give me many in that season
but i never want to fail
to be a good friend and support
to those he has given me

so i choose them
them he has given me
i choose to put them first
to show up for them
to be Jesus hands and feet

this post is not so much about
pew to prose anymore
but about pew to preaching

the great commission calls us to go and make disciples of all nations
baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
[read: Matthew 28:19]

this is a call to reach the lost, that they may know the Way
that they may be immersed into this oneness
where true belonging and relationship is found

may we never fail to go
where it is not comfortable

may we never fail to go
beyond the church building