On opening the clenched fist

You know how you can take months (even years) to struggle through an issue, unable to move on or let go or make a decision or whatever the problem is, and then in one moment, the angst is sloughed away? I had that experience recently.

A friend was giving the children’s message at church to illustrate  Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man who wanted to know whether he was doing all he could to get into the kingdom. Jesus loves him — this is an important part of the verse, I think, and one we don’t often focus on, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus loves him and, in a glance, knows him, and knows that he has a problem with the love of money of which he needs to let go.

The children’s message involved a raccoon and a jar.

my great-grandmother's jar

He explained that raccoons love shiny things, and if they spy a shiny object at the bottom of a jar, they’ll stick their paw in and grab it.

sticking my hand in the jar

But then, sometimes, the neck of the jar will be too small and they can’t get their clenched fist out. They don’t want to give up the shiny item, so they don’t unclench their fist — and they’re stuck. All they have to do is let go of the shiny item, and they’re free.

I can't get my hand out!

But they don’t.

This was me. I mean, the photo is of my hand and my jar, but also, in broader areas of my life, I was clenching something tight in my fist and I wouldn’t let go. I was good and stuck. The thing I was holding: the desire to place my novelization of the story of David and Saul with a conventional publisher. Or with an agent who would then find said publisher.

Some of this desire was practical. It’s a novel for young adults, and (as of this writing) they read paper books more than e-books. In addition, being traditionally published can put you in libraries (both school and public), which are a major discovery tool for kids. Besides, lurking around inside me, still, is the girl who wants the gold star: “I’ve done something good — now acknowledge me!” Traditional publication would be a great big gold star.

And then it didn’t happen.

At first, I looked deeper into the story (after whining for a bit), and discovered some holes that needed filling. So I filled them. Still…crickets. While I’m the good student who wants the gold star, I’m also the daughter of an entrepreneur and do-it-yourselfer (long before that term even existed). I read James Altucher‘s blog, who’s such a believer in the idea that he titled a book, Choose Yourself. I’ve been following news about self-publishing for years.

I wasn’t ready. I put off every decision deadline I gave myself, still holding out for that one more chance. Stuck. Unable to get any traction on revising the next book in my stuckness.

Until that children’s message.

I opened my clenched fist and decided to self-publish. Like so many big decisions, there were no fireworks or giant resolutions. Just a quiet, calm, “yes.” Since then, I found an editor who doesn’t know me and sent her the manuscript; as an editor, myself, I know the value of an outside eye. I’ll start talking to cover designers soon (one lives a block away from me). A Calvin Seminary Old Testament professor recently joined my church, so I’ll ask her to look it over (for an honorarium, of course) to make sure I haven’t gotten any of the cultural stuff wrong. I’ve booked a room in Alexandria, VA for 6 days while my daughter is at a youth conference there, to take a writer’s retreat and get cracking on Book 2 — the best advertisement for your first e-book is your second e-book, so I’d like it to come out about 3 months after the first one. That’s my list so far.

Even my fortune cookie agrees. Here’s this evening’s widsom: You create your own stage and your audience is waiting!

Do you have any advice for me? Any areas you’ve come unstuck from recently? Any areas in which you’re stuck?

Flipping the servant worship switch

[My point here is probably better made in the children’s message at the bottom of this post. I understand if you’d rather skip ahead to it.]

I have a confession to make: I have been a moody worshipper, grumbling and getting upset if two songs in a row left me cold. We’ve been at our new church for about a year, but even this winter, I could be in tears about music selection — and my husband was one of the people picking and leading music. I sometimes desperately missed the music at our previous church and that got in the way of my appreciation of other parts of the service. The music at the new church was (and is) good, and I love singing old hymns again, but I was wrapped up in my own sense of what “proper” worship was.

Something needed to change and, conveniently, and predictably, I didn’t think it was me.

And then this past spring I interviewed over a dozen ministers in order to write profiles on their churches (for this project). I asked each one the same five questions, one of which was, “What are your strengths as a congregation?” One of the answers changed my experience of worship — changed it utterly.

Bob Boersma of Providence Christian Reformed Church said that servant worship was one of their strengths. He characterized servant worship like this: “We ask our people to sing along [with songs they may not like] because someone else may need to sing it.” So the act of worship is not just personal, and it isn’t just communal — that is, we’re not each doing our own personal worship all in the same place. Worship as an act of service to the other people in the congregation is more intimate. It requires me to give up (some of) my fussiness about worship, to modify my need to get something out of every moment of the service and my right to be upset if every moment of the service doesn’t speak to me.

I found this glorious. And freeing. But also grounding. Even better, it helped connect me to the church that still felt foreign to me after seven months of involved membership.

It’s not like the servant worship switch being flipped made everything about worship wonderful. It didn’t. There are still songs I don’t like, songs that don’t feel particularly worshipful to me. But now I think to myself, “here’s a servant worship moment,” and I sing with my eyes open (otherwise, I close my eyes), looking around for those people who are getting their worship on, looking for the people singing with their eyes closed, or raising their hands, or bouncing their clapping baby. I listen for the voices of the older women singing their hearts out or the “Amen” from someone in the back. And in those moments, I can be glad that we’re singing that song I don’t like.

This explanation has been pretty good, but I think I said it best yesterday in my children’s message:

I’ve been thinking about children’s worship starting up again soon, and thinking about the songs we sing. Songs like the walls of Jericho song [to the adults, I noted that it was one of our crazier songs]. Some of you love, love, love it. And some of you are kind of scared by the craziness of it. And I was thinking about my 3 versions of Jesus Loves Me. Some of you love the sweet and quiet regular version and some kids love the louder rock and roll version. That happens in grown-up church, too.

I have a confession to make. Can we keep it just between us? That song we did two songs ago, [name of song], I don’t like it very much. I don’t.

But I sang it anyway.

Why do we sing songs that some people don’t like?

Let’s do an experiment. Grownups and kids, I’ll need your help on this. If you loved that song, if it made you joyful, it you felt the love of God for you or your love for God while you sang, raise your hand.

[a couple dozen hands went up]

Look at that. Look at all those hands of people who loved that song, who were really worshipping while they sang it.

So that’s why. But it’s only part of why we sing songs not everyone loves. Here’s the bigger reason.

[did the sign language for love and made the kids tell me what it meant]

That’s right. Love. We are all God’s family here, and because God loves us, we love each other and we want to serve each other. Jesus served the people he loved. Even though he was God, he washed his friends’ dirty, smelly, sweaty, disgusting feet. Serving someone by singing a song I don’t like is a lot more fun than washing their smelly feet.

So that’s why we sing a lot of different songs in children’s worship and in grown-up church: we’re a lot of different kinds of people who love a lot of different kinds of songs who feel and express the love of God in all kids of different ways — and because we love each other, we serve each other by sometimes singing things we don’t personally like. It’s servant worship, and it’s a lot more fun than washing smelly feet.

Let me note here that I am not suggesting that you stay in a church even when God is nudging you out just so you can be of service to the people there by participating in worship you can’t stand. And I’m not saying that all churches need to sing a variety of music — I’ve never met anyone whose spirit soared during every single song that was sung in their church.

I am suggesting that changing how you think about worship — in particular, changing how you think about singing songs you don’t like — can help you feel more connected to your fellow congregants, can give you joy even in the midst of songs you don’t like, can utterly change your experience of worship for the better. It did for me.

And now, because I’m talking about worship, you may commence yelling at me.