Why You’ll Find Community at McDonald’s Instead of at Church

logoBeing a freelance writer, I get to choose where I work. If I’m hungry and haven’t had breakfast (and if I’m not going anywhere where the odor of french fries on my clothes might offend someone), I head to McDonald’s. Love me some yogurt parfait. And an occasional biscuit. Don’t judge.

In my vast knowledge of McDonald’s locations in the Nashville area, I have noticed a couple of things:

First, the McD’s inside Nashville are way more posh than the ones in the outlying areas, specifically the tiny hamlet of Kingston Springs. You won’t find any faux leather seats or flat screen TVs there. Just hard plastic booths.

Second, McD’s is a place to find community. Three groups of community, to be exact. At least in the Springs.

First, the senior men. They talk about men’s issues—the weather, politics, sports, local gossip. No emotional topics please. And no women, thank you. Another group  gathers on the opposite side of the restaurant—the hunter/redneck crowd. Which allows women, by the way. They’re almost always in cammo, always wear a ball cap, and talk about deer, fishing rods, and football. There’s always time to talk about football when you live in SEC territory.

The third group? The employees.

You might be thinking, sure, they take breaks together. Yes, that’s true, but the members of this circle come to hang out…even when they don’t work that day. These people will actually show up  just to be together—when they could be doing a dozen other things away from the smell of coffee grinds mixed with grease.

The group is a ragtag lot. Most are tattooed at least once. Some have body piercings. Most smoke. Their ages range from pimple-faced teens to senior adults who are working there because they need the income. Quite a conglomeration of cultures.

If you listen to their conversations (which I NEVER do), you might think you were in a normal office setting:

“How’s is your mom?”
“How was your doctor’s appointment?”
“My son is driving me nuts!”

Other times, though, you listen to their stories and realize WHY they are a community:

“My child support…”
“I can’t pay my rent until…”
“My partner and I…” (same-sex partner, that is)

They come to experience community. (They certainly don’t gather because they can’t get enough of the food.) They come because, in that space and place, they find acceptance. As is. They find the much-needed feeling of being understood. Of someone caring for them. Supporting them.  They gather because they’ve shared the same experience of being shunned in other places, even (especially?) the church.

Be honest: Would the gay cashier with his striped socks and funky shirts be welcome in your church—even when he starts talking about how to mix hair colors? What about the barely-adult woman who has had three children by three different men? What about the recovering addict who has to sneak out during worship for a cigarette?

What would you do if you found out if a visitor (or a member!) has a criminal record? Cheated on his wife? Had an abortion? Would you treat those people any differently? Would you invite them in to your community of faith?

Better yet, would you invite them eat with your family (or friends) after the worship service?

These people gather because they all have scars—and they all know it. There’s no need for pretense or pretending because everyone in that circle acknowledges that they’ve messed up and have no room to judge. They gather because they’ve found some sense of belonging in spite of poor decisions and sinful pasts.

In short, McDonald’s provides what the Church often does not—a place of flawed yet accepted humanity.

If Jesus were alive today, I’m pretty sure He’d stop by the Kingston Springs McD’s…

…and He might even eat a biscuit.

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Death: Beautiful, Sacred, and Painful As H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

graveyard

 

I watched a family lose a beloved matriarch last week.

She was a family friend, and here in the South, that means she was more family than friend. Which made her family my family, too. Like those relatives you love but get to see only on rare occasions. Like weddings. Or bedside vigils. Or lottery winnings.

As it so happened, I had gone to the hospice where she was living out her last remaining moments. I wanted to check in on her daughter, who is in my ragamuffin support group called a Sunday School class. Her granddaughter is the resident clown/leader-in-disguise in my youth group. And I went because I’ve been there and I get it. I know the sting of death all too well. That’s a blog post for another day. Or maybe a book.

When I got to the hospice, I made the rounds with family members, casually making jokes and trying to break the monotony of watching someone die. That’s another blog post, too. When someone is in hospice, you know the End is near, but only God knows how near the End actually is. With that framework in mind, I’d intended to stay a bit and encourage as I could. Offer my prayers. And my feet. Run to Cracker Barrel. Get tissues. More Diet Coke.

But then, as life often does, life happens. Or in this case dying happens.

Within an hour, I witnessed the Matriarch’s family standing around her bedside, tears of grief mixed with relief and joy as she took her last breaths. The agony of losing a part of yourself. The relief that suffering didn’t win out and her pain was gone. And joy knowing that she was meeting her Savior face-to-face at that very moment.

It was a sacred, holy experience.

And it still hurt like h-e-double hockey sticks. That’s the Southern way to say hell, in case you’re still working out the grammar.

Even in the visitation and funeral, I kept bouncing between the holy and sacred to “this really sucks.”

I envisioned the Matriarch meeting my father-in-law, who no doubt was planning a practical joke while she was in hospice. I envisioned her meeting my friend, Sara, who passed away all too recently. I thought about my mom, who died from cancer, too. But most of all, I kept wondering what the Matriarch was experiencing. Since none of us knows on this side of heaven what it’s really like on that side of heaven, we are all left wondering. I could only imagine. (Cue Mercy Me song here).

I wondered and I ached. I ached for the family who would no longer see her smiling face or curly hair. For the grandchildren who could only rely on pictures and stories to know her. For my friend who can no longer talk to her mom every day. I ached for myself and my own losses. Her death was a painful reminder of them, too.

Watching someone pass from this life to the next is a sacred, mysterious moment, when deep beauty dances with gut-wrenching, take-your-breath-away sadness. I have felt both in the last week. And I can say with certainty (most days) that when the music stops and the dance is over, even when the grief threatens to suffocate you, life still wins out.

Maybe not right now, but someday.

Until then, I grieve and I hope.

And I eat a lot of chocolate.

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When Us Versus Them Became We: My Dinner With a Gay Couple

tug of warI ate dinner with a gay couple recently.

I met them while on a trip to see a friend. She’s gay, too. Don’t judge. I know you’re tempted to.

In all candidness and transparency, I was nervous about meeting them. I created outlandish scenarios in my head of what the interaction would be like, all of which, I must confess, were of the worse-case variety. I live in a Southern, “religious” culture that has demonized people who do not conform to the expectations of acceptable belief and behavior. Labeled them as weird, sinful, abhorrent, liberal, militant, demanding, and destructive to society. I’m afraid to say that over time, this underlying current of prejudice and smugness has permeated my own thinking, like chemical runoff poisoning a stream.

When the couple first arrived, I tried to treat them as I would any heterosexual couple at a dinner with my husband. I asked questions about their careers (one was an teacher, just like my husband). I asked how they met. I asked about their families and their favorite meal at the place we were eating. I asked about their marriage (in California). While my questions were innocuous, my interest was more like investigating a culture I’d never encountered before, like a sociologist who discovers a previously hidden civilization. Nell meets Star Trek meets National Geographic. It was us (me, the conservative Christian [minister]) against them (the liberal gay). I’m not proud of my attitude. Not then, not now. But the lines were drawn by my assumptions and arrogance.

Then it happened. Us against them became we.

The shift was subtle and unexpected. One of my (seemingly) innocuous questions was “What plans do you have for the weekend?” I was not expecting the answer I got. One of the women had lost her brother just a few weeks before, and she and her partner were driving to a special place to spread his ashes.

In that moment, my dinner companions were no longer specimens in a jar to be observed (don’t tell me you don’t do the same thing); they became we—fellow human beings who are more like me than different.

I’ve lost a sibling. And her ashes have been spread in a special place.

I could identify with her grief and her pain. I knew from experience how she was feeling, weeks after the death, when everyone else moves on with their lives and you just can’t seem to move. She wasn’t liberal, demanding, or destructive. She was hurting. And every human being, regardless of your political or religious views, can identify with that. At least I hope so.

Not long after that, I was listening to a sermon from a pastor in Colorado. The minister (or preacher or whatever the label in that denomination) made a statement that rocked my theology: Whenever we create an “us against them” scenario, we typically put ourselves in a superior position and the “them” in an inferior one. We’re wiser and holier. More enlightened and informed. “They” need to learn the truth, and we are just the people to tell them exactly what the truth is. Think through your “us versus them” labels; none of them makes you the one in need of change, right?

Conservative versus liberal.
Sinner versus saint.
Straight versus gay.
Stay at home versus working mom.
Homeschool versus public school.
Immigrant versus citizen.
SEC versus the rest of the world.

Whatever side we choose to identify with becomes the morally (or spiritually) superior role, and we in good conscious must enlighten and educate (judge) the other side.

Except that we as believers are not called to judge. We are called to love.

Remember when the expert in the Law (i.e., superior morally) asked Jesus which commandment trumped everything else? “Love the Lord your God…and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Luke 10:27). Love Him. Love others.

When Jesus commanded the disciples to go into the world, He commanded them to make disciples, not to judge sinners. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say, “Make sure that people who disagree with your politics, theology, or lifestyle know just how much God will judge them for their sin. And it’s best to do that by making them feel like crap.”

I’m not saying that homosexuality is ok. What I am saying is this: There is no “us vs. them” at the foot of the cross. We are all the same. I have no stone to throw. I have no right to play judge and jury when I am one of the guilty. The gospel is for all of us fallen creatures, and I am not in the position to determine whether my brand of sin is morally superior to someone else’s.

I have long wondered what would happen if the Christian community would rise up and love others with the same intensity and ferociousness that we’ve used in judging them. The addict. The man who beats his wife. The homeless. The Wall Street swindler. The slacker who skips Sunday night church to watch the Superbowl.

James said that mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13).

Maybe, hopefully, one day I’ll be able to see it in action. In my own life.

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I Have a Mental Illness

brainThis week, the world mourned the loss of the irrepressible genius actor, Robin Williams. Typically, the death of celebs leaves me a little sad because I know I will miss their gifts. With Williams’ death, however, I grieved. Not because I knew him personally, although his acting made all of us think we did.  I grew up loving Mork & Mindy, learned to seize the day, and saw the beauty of flawed humanity in his movies.

Mostly, though, I grieve Robin Williams’ death because I am like him.

I have a mental illness. It’s called depression.

I grieved for Robin Williams’ death because I understand his struggle. I know all too well the feeling of drowning in a sea of emotions whose pull drags you to the depths of despair and won’t let you breathe. I understand how easily your thoughts and feelings can become warped by a combination of brain chemicals and difficult circumstances, leaving you unsure of what is true and what is the myth told by your feelings.

I know I’m not alone. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 10 people report a depressive episode at least once in their lives. My symptoms started showing up in seminary. I’ve taken medication for it the majority of my adult life.  Like millions of others, I take the medication because my brain is just wired differently. It’s a brain disease, just like epilepsy or ADHD.

When you see me on a regular basis, you’re not likely to see any signs of depression. That’s because, like epilepsy, it doesn’t shout out its presence. For me, depression can be managed with medication, therapy, and self-care. However, like epilepsy, depression can be triggered by any number of factors, but for me it’s usually a combination of them—stress overload; loss; sleep deprivation; poor eating and exercise habits; working too much and playing too little; having no margin in my life for stillness and quiet; ignoring my needs and emotions.

Unlike epilepsy, when depression is triggered, it doesn’t wave a red flag and say “Hey! I’m here! Deal with it!” The slide into depression is insidiously deceptive. Slow. As imperceptive as a decline down a low-grade hill. If you are not vigilant to notice the signs, some of which are unique to each person, you can find yourself being pulled toward that black hole of despair, and it feels impossible to resist its gravitational pull.

Sometimes the fog of depression is too thick to be able to find our way out. And so we get help. We see a therapist (mine rocks, by the way, highly recommend her) to talk things through. We adjust the medication. We try to take care of our bodies by getting adequate rest and exercising.
At times, though, giving in to your feelings and thoughts—as misinformed as they may be—feels much easier and less exhausting than fighting back.

And on Monday, Robin Williams stopped fighting.

I’m taking a risk in writing this blog. It may not be received with grace, especially in the Christian community, I’m sad to say. I fear the backlash from fellow believers who wrongly assume that I don’t have enough faith or am not relying on Jesus enough (you’d be surprised at how many people think that). Unfortunately, depression goes largely misunderstood. It’s not just a matter of having a rough few days. It’s not a ploy for sympathy or an excuse to lie around the house. It’s not a lack of faith or a sign of sin. People who suffer from mental illness—from depression to anxiety disorders to anorexia—still love Jesus and find their hope in Him.

It’s hard for us to reach out to family and friends. We think you’ll judge us; we think you won’t understand (and you can’t completely unless you’ve been there); we worry that you’ll look at us funny and treat us as if we have ebola. And so we suffer in silence. Talking helps us but we can’t talk. It’s a nasty irony.

Why am I writing this blog? In all truthfulness, I’m not sure. I think maybe because I’m tired of hiding this part of me from my family, friends, and colleagues. I think partly because I am weary of the stigma attached to mental illness and want to destroy its stereotypes, even if just among the few people who will read this.

Mostly, though, I am telling my story because I seek to be authentic and real in my faith journey, and doing so requires that I be transparent about all of my struggles, not just the socially acceptable ones. You know, the fears and worries that are safe to share as prayer requests in church—a sick uncle, a job interview, traveling over the weekend. I want to challenge my fellow believers to stop playing church and start living like authentic Christians, and that means I must model it first.

I struggle with depression. And I love Jesus. The two are not mutually exclusive.

____________________

http://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdepression/

 

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My morning: A haircut, super glue, Elmo hands, and ostrich poo

watchI knew my day would require good time management. Yeah, that should have been my first clue.

My “always wants to be at school earlier than the other kids” decided that today was not that sort of day. Behind 30 minutes.

When I took off my ball cap from taking her to school (I know I’m not the only one, so don’t judge!), I had reached THAT point. Getting a trim became a necessity in order to preserve not only my sanity, but the safety of all others around me. So I took the chance and got a trim at one of those fast-cut places. It was fast, but I was still behind another 30 minutes.

The aforementioned fast-cut place did a fair job on my hair, but apparently they don’t do styling this early in the morning, so I had to stop at Walgreens for some quick hair gel so I didn’t look like a total dweeb while eating lunch with a friend. Behind another 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, my thrifty gene kicked in and I chose a travel-size gel I’d never used before. Same brand. Different formula. Like the difference between Elmer’s Glue and Superglue different formula. So I’m sitting in my car with my hands plastered together with goop that only a jack hammer or blow torch could separate. I decide to wipe off the layers of goop onto the closest victim in my car: my favorite jacket. Unfortunately, that jacket is fuzzy. Yeah, you know where this is going.

My water bottle must be sacrificed, lest my hands resemble Elmo. Ten minutes later and an entire bottle wasted, I can at least feel my skin enough to take off the rest of the hair gel by using an entire bottle of hand sanitizer. I have the cleanest hands in the metro area. Ok, my morning has been shot, but maybe I can manage a little work before my lunch date. I get out of the car and circle around to the passenger’s side to grab my laptop for a little writing. Then I see it.

Apparently, ostriches can now fly. Because a herd/flock/gaggle has apparently made its way to Pegram. And apparently, these birds ate something that disagreed with their finicky stomachs. The amount of ostrich poo on the passenger’s side of the car was astounding. Impressive. And absolutely gag-inducing.

I am supposed to pick up my friend for lunch, but I would never subject my worst enemy (well, maybe at Redskins fan) to the sight or smell—never mind the feel—of it because it’s all over the car handle. So, I have to stop at a car wash where I spend 20 minutes trying to power-wash the poo from my car. I think it must be the same consistency of the hair gel. I’m sure my friend will buy me lunch for this sacrifice of time.

If you’ve ever had to power-wash poo from your car at close range, then you know what happened. Yep, blow back. I finally got the poo off, but now the right side of my body is soaking wet and smells like a cross between dish detergent and car wax. I hate to be cold and wet, so the next stop was the nearby McDonald’s, where by the way, I saw the black Elvis selling newspapers again.

I commandeered the hand dryer in the bathroom for roughly four hours (or it seemed) until my clothes didn’t feel like I’d been through a car wash.

Guess what time it is? Yep, time to go pick up my friend for lunch.

Hopefully, the morning wasn’t completely wasted…I’m hoping it gave you a little laugh. And a little gratitude that your morning wasn’t as crazy as mine.

 

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Pride comes AFTER the fall, too

steps2Pride comes before a fall (Prov. 16:18), but it also kicks in after you fall, too.

This past Sunday was just like a thousand before. I alternate duties as minister of announcements every other week, and it was my turn. After rattling off information about the fellowship meal and the upcoming business meeting, I cued the congregation to stand and greet each other. Once that commences, I usually just leave the platform and make my way to my pre-claimed seat in a pew.

This time, my rote routine was interrupted by, well, the steps leading to the stage. I cannot recall how many times I’ve walked up and down them—probably hundreds. This time, however, these benign red pieces of platform jumped up, grabbed me by the heel, and tripped me in my tracks. Either that, or I just wasn’t paying attention. I’m sure that wasn’t the problem.

Some people claim that when they fell, the world slowed down and they saw everything in slow motion. Not me. One minute, I’m looking across the congregation, and the next, I’m at the base of the stairs, sprawled out prostrate like I’m deep in wonder and worship. The fall made time speed up, not slow down.

Remember, all of this is taking place during worship service. In a sanctuary. With people all around. I am so grateful I decided to wear pants that day.

My first reaction was not to check body parts to see if they were all in their right places and in working order. I could assess that after I left.

My only thought was, “Oh, Lord, did anybody just see me do a nose dive off the platform?”

Faster than any 40-something should, I sprang up and started walking back down the aisle toward my seat. I didn’t look around. I didn’t lock eyes on any one person. I didn’t hobble or draw attention to myself. I just just started walking, silently hoping that my gymnastics tryouts went unnoticed by the congregation that was supposed to be greeting each other “in the name of the Lord.” Whatever that means. Practically jogging, I high-tailed it to catalog my wounds in the privacy of the lobby.

The rest of the morning consisted of my teaching Sunday School with my foot propped up on a bean bag (yes, from the youth room); using a wheel chair to get to the car (our church, being 60% comprised of senior adults, has a fantastic collection of wheelchairs); a visit to the urgent clinic; answering the question, “What happened?; and uttering, texting, and emailing those famous words: “I’m ok. Really, I’m fine.”

I’ve thought about those words: I’m ok. 

I used them to deflect any offers of help because I was embarrassed. It’s hard to accept assistance when you know what caused the injury—face-planting in front of your congregation. Nothing heroic like saving a child from harm or rescuing an injured dog in the road. I missed a step. Or two. I just wasn’t paying attention, and wham, there’s an impression of a body imprinted on the carpet.

I’m fine. Really.

How many times have I uttered those words in pride? Not wanting anyone to know I’m hurting. Not taking a risk to be vulnerable. Not wanting to let down my plastic Jesus smile to admit that sometimes, just getting out of bed in the morning is a miracle in itself.

I know I’m not alone. How many times have you said, “I’m fine” when you weren’t? How often do you (or I) let pride dictate your interaction and connection with others? How often do you utter those words because you think that’s what everyone really wants to hear? Have you ever declined someone’s offer for help because it meant you were in need? And you were afraid to own up to your own brokenness?

Pride sucks out the vibrancy and intimacy of your relationship with God and your relationship with others. When you fall down, and you will, don’t let pride enter the picture. Be honest; be vulnerable; be transparent. Such openness is the door to your healing.

In the meantime, when you’re on the platform at your church, grab the handicap railing when stepping down. Trust me. You won’t regret it.

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Disappointing God

daughter disappointedSince December, my time in solitude before God has been squeezed out. My normally quiet house (during the day) was filled with the noise of a rambunctious 8-year-old on Christmas break. We traveled to Oklahoma. When we got back, we had a major leak in the sunroom—my place to sit quietly before God. Furniture was shoved to the sides to avoid the water. Our couch was literally on its side. Buckets were everywhere. Not exactly a place where you can forget life’s demands to hear from the Holy One. 

I’ve known for a while that my relationship with God has been off-center. Wonkie. Out of rhythm. So what did I do? Nothing. For several weeks, I’m afraid to say, I avoided God as much as possible. I know. Counterintuitive. And impossible. Don’t judge.

I finally asked the question, Why are you running? Why are you avoiding the silence? 

The answer was swift: I don’t want to be still because I know I have disappointed God. 

I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one who has felt this way. More than once. If you were honest, really honest, you’d admit that you’ve felt that way before. More than once. You’ve avoided the Silence because you were sure that God would be unhappy with you, like a disapproving parent who has caught his child in a lie.

Where does that come from? Part of it (for me) is my people-pleasing tendencies. Part of it is the pressure that because I’m a church leader, I’m supposed to have it all together. (HA!)

At the heart of the matter, though, is this faulty idea that my actions (or inaction) toward God will dictate His response to me. Here’s how it plays out: If I have my quiet time, God is happy. If I lose my temper with my husband, I’ve lost God’s favor. If I remember to pray before a meal, God listens in. If I forget, God leans back a bit. Talking about Jesus? Bonus points. Giving into fear? No dessert for you.

In churchy terms? A works-based faith.

Even after 20+ years as a believer, I still forget sometimes that God’s love toward me is not influenced by my behavior, good or bad. The cross has proven that. He is not a punitive God. Grace has proven that.

I know what you’re thinking because I’ve made the same objections: But what about those verses on discipline? What about the idea that God hates sin? What about that stuff about being held accountable for our behavior? 

All of it is true.

But none of it was intended to drive our relationship with God.

Fear is not God’s motivator. Love is.

God is more concerned about in my living in fear of disappointing Him than in my wandering. Fear paralyzes.  I can’t fully and freely love Him and be afraid of disappointing Him at the same time. Wandering still suggests a returning home.

What disappoints God more than my sin is my running from Him.

So I think I’ll turn back toward Home.

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