I live in a city of bridges. Thirteen bridges in all that connect the east side of Portland to the west side of the Willamette River. I like the bridges in Portland.There is the Fremont Bridge, the Sellwood Bridge, the Hawthorne Bridge, the Morrison and the Steel Bridge, a unique bridge that raises up it’s center part when large water vessels need to pass under. My favorite bridge, though, is the St John’s Bridge, which happens to be about a mile from my house.
A few years ago the St John’s Bridge was spruced up with some updates and a fresh coat of paint. To celebrate the debut of the newly gussified bridge, the neighborhood threw a street party and closed the bridge for a while so folks could throng to it by foot, bike and skateboard. My daughter and I were there. We trotted with the rest of the neighborhood down the middle of the bridge, relishing what we knew was likely the only time we’d ever be able to do this. When we reached the top of the slope, we paused to look over the rail at the river far down below.
On one side of the bridge we viewed the cityscape of Portland with watercraft motoring to and fro around the river. We crossed the roadway to the other side and viewed the industrialized areas of the busy river ports below. So different from one side to the other. It was like looking at two entirely different rivers.
My relationship with the body of Christ is so much like this bridge. For many years I hovered in the busy waters of church volunteerism spending a great deal of time and energy in service. I felt that this kind of serving was for a higher purpose, for I was serving the kingdom of God, right? At one point, I became dismayed as I looked at my calendar and realized how many things I was tied into that were church-centered. My faith community at that time had many opportunities to serve and I jumped in on just about anything I could. I was at my church on average three nights a week plus most of Sunday. All of my socializing became church-centered, too. Staring at my kitchen calendar that day could have been the tip-off that I needed to scale back. But I ignored the facts staring me in the face and pushed aside my uneasiness with having built such a church-drenched existence for myself and my family.
One morning in a time of prayer–with all those ministries I helped with I had to keep the prayer tank filled–I heard that familiar small Voice that rings big inside when I’m paying attention:
Unplug from every ministry you are in.
These six words flooded my soul like a spotlight in a prison yard. In an instant I was filled with an awareness of how hard I was working for the love of God. Revelation and wisdom covered me right then and there with her healing power unleashing within me.
I love you no matter what. If you never do nothing for Me again, you are loved.
I am going to prove this to you. Sit down and do nothing.
Tears welled up inside and out. I had no idea that in all of my zeal to serve and overserve, that I had been operating under the tyranny of being performance driven to earn God’s love. I was undone.
And so, over the coming weeks I did just that, I began pulling the plug on the various ministries I had busied my life with. I gave notice to the children’s pastor from teaching Sunday school and leading the children’s missions program; I notified the pastor for the prayer counseling ministry and prophetic team that I was pulling out, and I resigned myself from the early morning prayer meetings and pre-service prayer times that I had been attending. Yeah. I was a prayer superstar.
All of the leaders were gracious and affirming. “We all need time to rest our souls,” they said.
Thus, I began a new journey into being a Christ follower who Does Nothing.
It was alright at first, but within a few weeks I began to realize two things: I was more secure in the love of God than I had realized. I knew with all my bones and marrow that I was among the beloved…no matter what. I knew with everything inside of me that I could not ever be a productive daughter in the kingdom of God again and that the Almighty was just fine with that. “I love you no matter what,” soared like a banner across my life. I was content.
The second thing that I realized was disconcerting. I began to see that I was unnoticeable among my church community when I was not Doing Ministry. My phone stopped ringing. My calendar was a ghost town and my social engagements shriveled up as if I had moved out of town. What the…?
One Sunday one of the ministry leaders approached me. A little hope surged inside of me that perhaps I wasn’t so forgotten.
“Pam, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks, and you?”
“I’m good. So when are you coming back to the prayer team? I need people.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well let me know when you do know. I need people.”
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. - Matt. 11:28 (MSG)
And with that, she walked away. I sat there a bit stunned. The view was getting clearer. My place in this faith community seemed to loom on Doing rather than Being. I was determined to stay out of the matrix though, and really, there was no temptation to backslide prematurely into ministry of any kind.
Over the next months, two other pastors approached me, attempting to recruit me to their ministry areas. One of them offered me a job. Are you serious? For years I had yearned to be on church staff, thinking it would be amazing to earn a salary and be truly involved in a vocational capacity. It was a dream of mine, a small dream, but a dream just the same. As he offered me a job to be his assistant, I leaned my spirit in towards my Father in heaven, silently asking for guidance. Nothing. Not a word. Not a hint, not a clue.
Yet somehow I knew that I could not yet come out of my spiritual rest. With confidence and total peace I politely turned down his offer.
As time passed, my relationships with folks in this community became weaker. Pastors no longer called me to consult with me about their vision; women did not return my calls and Sunday meetings at church began to feel emptier and emptier. It was bewildering and distressing. I loved church! I loved the people! What was happening that I now found excuses to skip church? What was going on?
It finally came to me. My soul wilderness, as I had come to define this season of barrenness, revealed how secure my relationship with God was, but it also revealed how insecure my relationship with the people of God had become. As I journeyed on this bridge from being a workhorse for Jesus to becoming just a simple, inactive pew warmer, my view of myself in the body of Christ became crystal clear. It was true I performed to be accepted and loved… but that performance was not really for my Creator. It was for his created. In my search to belong and be accepted, I had been willing to do what it takes to be amongst the tribe of the church. And the primary way one becomes Amongst is to Plug In.
Over time, I have come to realize how codependent I have been with every single church I have ever been a part of. Every single one. My broken, damaged womanly soul needs to belong. When I serve, volunteer, show up, work, overwork, pray and over pray, I Am In.
When I unplugged, I was forgotten.
It’s been several years now since I crossed the road from my busy industrialized religious life. I’ve been standing at the rail for a long while, soaking up this new view with a mixture of liberty, loneliness and grief. Though my acceptance had been conditional, it was, after all, acceptance. My phone rang. My calendar was a mash-up of Christian chaos. I was sought after and affirmed for my spiritual giftings.
Now, like a wayfarer on a lonely bridge, I am taking my time to recover who I am apart from the machine of ministry. It’s a painful process. My identity was so tangled up with religious activity. And it was good activity. I’ve prayed with the broken-hearted, served the poor, cooked for homeless citizens and gave Sunday school lessons to the next generation. I’ve given money, time, energy and talent to the tribe that I desperately wanted to just love me for who I am and not what I can offer. But like an immature boyfriend who dumps you after you stop putting out, I was left alone with no prom date. I don’t like this, yet I am making amends with myself about it. I’m learning to Not be Amongst the very tribe that was my life for most of my adult life.
The view from here is not so bad. I can see more of the river without the hubbub of port activity cluttering up the waterway. The blue sky blazes down from the Oregon sky. Portland shines in who she is, her thirteen bridges crisscrossing east to west. I respect those who do the work of ministry and succeed at it. I am not one of them. I am just me with my empty calendar and quiet telephone.
Special shout-out to She Loves magazine and the article, Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace that helped prompt today’s blog post. Definitely worth taking a moment to link up and read.