Oh, the places I’ve been!

I love the way 2007 began for Bill and I: the pastor of the church we were attending at the time opened the building and made himself available to share communion with anyone who wanted to stop by on New Year’s Eve. The place was lit by candlelight, and he had quiet worship music playing in the background. We stopped by there – the place was almost completely empty – just the pastor and one other person, but God was there, and it seemed just about the best way to end one year and begin a new one.

Though the church didn’t work out for us (that pastor fled the empty building – and the folks who paid the mortgage on it – in the process, snagging a plum position at a Big Box church across town), I value what that evening meant as we staggered into 2007.

* * * * * * *

The wreckage of that “empty building” church launched Bill and I back on the road, looking for a new church. We’d only been there a few months, and slipped out the back door almost as quietly as we’d entered the fall before.

And we found ourselves on the road again. And we didn’t want to be.

This year has been an illustration of a new “ah ha” in my life. It’s occurred to me that people usually find themselves spiritually homeless for two reasons: they’re pilgrims or they’re refugees.

Pilgrims are on a quest for a new thing: they’re responding to the call and conviction of God in their lives and they can’t help but leave the familiar and journey into the unknown. They’re on the quest of their lives, following Him.

Refugees*, on the other hand, are fleeing something terrible, running for their lives. They’re not sure if there’s safe haven “out there”, but they know they’ll perish if they stay where they are.

This year was more of a refugee experience for Bill and I than a pilgrimmage. Bill was more gracious than I about it, but I can tell you that as the year wore on, I felt like I was staggering from one church to the next, looking for safety and not really discovering it in the places I’d expected to find it.

I did find it in the prayers of my husband, the hymns of a hospice nurse, the words of Scripture, the phone calls and visits with friends, the deep connection with God I experience as I write, and in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. God Himself is a refuge, a present help in time of need.

Last week, I told someone that I simply want to feel safe at church. I understand now that those are the words of a refugee. Though God Himself is our refuge, His Bride has been charged with absorbing and mirroring His character. She should be safe, because God is safe. Bill and I are now attending an Anglican church. I cried through most of the service the first week we were there, I think because I smelled safety in the air there. I believe (and I think the Bible bears me out on this) that one of the roles of the church in our lives should be to shape us as pilgrims, pursuing God.

Which is ironic, since a pilgrim’s life can be just as risky as that of a refugee.
(*Note to all refugees of civil wars and persecution out there: I don’t mean to diminish your suffering by using it as a metaphor for a spiritual condition. You are my heroes, and my inspiration.)
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About Michelle Van Loon
  • Anonymous

    The Anglican church can be a refuge because of it’s rich liturgy which is nothing more then Holy Scripture set to music which is deep, powerful, rich, moving, (not the happy clappy type) The historical prayers of the church also help as they are also rooted in the Scriptures. Also a parish which follows the Historic Church year has a sense of rythem to it – you will know the particular themes and Scripture texts as you move from season to season.

    May I also suggest that you and Bill pray the Psalms – they are prayers writen from the heart AND because they are inspired by the Holy Ghost they become the answers to our prayers.

    Your journey – although not yet complete -will be fulfilled when the Savior takes you by the hand and takes you from the kingdom grace – to the kingdom of glory. Until then stay close to Him as He speaks to you through His Word, and His Sacraments.

    To be wrestling means that you are alive, growing. It is through the cross and suffering that we mature in our faith.

  • Eric Nygren

    Michelle,

    Help me to understand what “safe” means. As a pastor I’m always trying to discover why people find their way in and what makes them decide to slip out the back door. Is “safe” a feeling, something you can measure or both (or neither)?

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Hey Eric!

    Great question. I think “safe” is an affective word (vs. a cognitive response); thus, it isn’t something quanitifiable.

    What it means for me in the context of a church includes:
    - a culture of outrageous hospitality, not just friendliness to one’s friends, not “clique-y”.
    - a healthy process of dealing with conflict, rather than tarring and feathering opponents
    - a healthy process of dealing with sin in the camp, versus the usual methods of either sweeping it under the rug or isolating the person without any real means of authentic restoration
    - sermons not based on human agendas, such as “a twelve week series on tithing” or “a look at our proposed gymnasium addition through the eyes of Nehemiah”
    - a committment to the poor and the outsider, not as projects, but because these individuals are loved by God and the church
    - varied kinds of evangelism and service
    - connection and cooperation with other churches, not just we, ourselves and us in our own little congregation
    - a culture of prayer, worship and healing, not just singing songs and making lists of prayer requests, but active interaction with the living God
    - did I mention hospitality? That comes at the top and bottom of the list for me.

    What would you add to the list? What would you subtract or change?

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Anonymous – thank you for your encouragement and kind words.

    And for your suggestion to pray the psalms.

  • Eric Nygren

    Michelle,

    I’m going to chew on that one for a while. I’m now not so wrestling with “what” as much as “how.”

    Let me throw another question out there. You know the old saying “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” How does a person/family know when to be part of the solution and when to get themselves into a healthier situation?

    I’m not sure I’m getting at my question really well. We’ve had people come and go because they didn’t “fit” well. While I’ve honored that, I’ve often thought about the possibility of finding the perfect fit. I tend to think as part of the body we are somewhat responsible for making the perfect fit, not just for ourselves but for the rest of the body, and for future members of the body.

    Anyway, I hope this isn’t a ramble. I appreciate you bringing up the subject, even though you may be adding to my insomnia.

  • Anonymous

    Michelle, Eric,

    I believe any discussion on being church where a parish needs to focus begins with Luke’s description of the 1st Century Church in Acts 2:42…This side of Eden we will not reach perfection but it’s a start. The Church was one in four specific areas of mission and ministry…

    “The Apostles Doctrine” Being one in unity and faith. Basing our lives on God’s Holy Word as He speaks clearly to us through that Word.

    “Fellowship” Being one in the Lord Jesus Christ. Experiencing true joy in Christ. Living at peace with each other and enjoying one another.

    “The Breaking of Bread” Sacramental living. Experiencing daily the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation as Christ comes to us in and through the Sacraments.

    “Prayer” Upholding one another. Taking our needs burdens joys and sorrows to the throne room of grace. Being thankful as the Savior answers each petition.

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Anonymous – great list; Acts 2:42 is a favorite passage to to describe the role of the church and orient my thinking in an often-disorienting church landscape.

    Eric – I’ve heard it said that those who don’t stick around at your church are doing you as a pastor a favor: if they’re unhappy, they’ll cause trouble. There are times this is true, of course, but I think it is a broad paintbrush some church leaders use to ever-so-slightly dehumanize these folks. I believe that if these people are a part of the church universal, God might be using at least some of their comings and goings to communicate something (a diagnostic, perhaps?) to the local church they’re leaving. In your case, it may be possible to ask some of these leavers in one-on-one conversations why they’ve left.

    Enroth’s Churches That Abuse gives some exteme examples of when its time to leave a church. And the most recent CT has a pretty provocative article in defense of church consumerism on the other extreme. The question filled at least a chapter in my (yet unreleased) book entitled The Church For Skeptics: A Conversation For Thinking People. (Let me know if you want to have a look; I’d be glad to send you the chapter.)

    Great conversation, you guys!

  • Matt

    Michelle…I’m not sure your characterization of the pastor who fled actually captured reality of the situation. I think you failed to capture the seeking, praying, fasting, testing that the pastor experienced in the process.

    And as much as “big box” serves an author well…I’m not sure it captures the essence of a growing community of people who are seeking to follow Christ in obedience.

    It just felt a little bit like friendly fire…maybe it wasn’t intended to be, but that’s how it felt.

    Peace,

    Matt

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Hey Matt – The focus of this post was on the idea of pilgrims vs. refugees, not the pastor’s decision to leave. Most pastors I’ve known, including the guy mentioned in the post, wrestle deeply with vocational/employment decisions. No maliciousness intended.

    As for my use of “Big Box” – the phrase captures the scope and physicality of a mega church for me. I’ll always remember driving my kids to a rare visit to Woodfield. As we passed by Willow Creek’s South Barrington complex, one of them asked excitedly if that was the mall.

    One thing our refugee life has taught me afresh is that the body of Christ is far larger, far more mega in scope and diversity, than any single expression of church. That’s a good thing.

    Thanks for your comments! Blessings on your new year – see you soon –


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