Fussin’, feudin’ and fightin’ – Being “church” can get messy.

The topic of “church” didn’t come up that often when we lived at the beach. Generally, gringos (I use that term for anyone not born in Mexico) came to Nayarit for vacations and fishing. The “fishers of men” thing wasn’t a high priority for people just visiting.

It’s different here in San Miguel. Here there’s a large ex-pat population who call this town home, and for many of them an important part of putting down roots is finding a spiritual home base. Virgin Territory How I Found My Inner Guadalupe was conceived at the beach, and is my chronicle of personal wrestling and self-perception along the lines of “where does one lodge one’s faith?” Some people opined that my thinking at that time may have been as soggy as the climate. Well, the search continues in this higher, drier, clearer climate. I don’t know that I’ve reached any definitive answer about what I say when asked what I am, but I’ve been open to exploration.

The town offers a lot of choices. I’ve mentioned before that one of the places I’ve “lit” from time to time is the San Miguel Community Church, but though I recently acquired a name tag to wear at services, I’m still loath to put my name on any dotted line. It does seem that just as I am in search of self-definition, the Community Church is, too. Who knows? Maybe that’s what attracted me in the first place.

My friend Al wrote about this church recently on his blog. His remarks are in response to a “wisdom offering” and ensuing discussion that I led last week at the early service. Not everyone, I am assured, would agree totally with his account of church history. All of this was before my time, but I’m seeing the various stories still inform current perceptions.  If you’re interested, read what I said last Sunday, read what he wrote, and then read the comments after his blog entry. Yeah, I know. It’s messy. But that’s what I titled this piece in the first place!

My remarks at the early service, San Miguel Community Church, March 22, 2015.

“What Kind of Church?”

I’m presenting these categories in reverse order, with an eye toward Easter and resurrection – from the slightly moribund, to the vital and transcendent. Any church can have elements of all four categories. The question is What is the foremost characteristic of an organization? I need to give Leonard Sweet credit for the concept of these categories.

Monument church – we recognize them often by their landmark buildings. We also know exactly what to expect when we enter the door. I think of these churches the same way I think of McDonald’s. I don’t mean that as a disparagement. This is from someone whose car automatically veers to the right when I see those golden arches just this side of Leon. Breakfast at McDonald’s is a ritual when my husband and I drive to the coast. It’s not inspirational, but it is definitely comforting. We don’t have to make a lot of decisions. We are simply given a meal in familiar form to sustain us on our way. That is a good thing, but not transformative.

Maintenance church – This church may well be located in a landmark building, or it may be in search of a place to erect one. A maintenance church is identified by place – whether an actual physical structure or a place within a denomination. Questions at business meetings revolve around how to maintain that place and identity. I’ve heard churches like these referred to as having an “edifice complex.”

Ministry church – This is a church which is all about people – helping them out, comforting them, feeding them, praying for them. The purpose of lifting and enlightening human lives unites the members of a ministry church as much as or more than any particular denominational elements. The primary motivation of a ministry church is service, both to the community and to one another. The Church at Jerusalem, led by the disciple Peter, was a good example. It drew members because of the love they felt expressed there, the individual sense of fulfillment when working as a group.

Peter is the one who Jesus appointed as “the rock,” on which he would build his church. Jesus had asked the question “Who do people say I am?” and after receiving various responses from the disciples, he asked another question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, who was then known as Simon bar Jonah, is the one who blurts out the answer: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”

The response of Jesus is infused with relief. Somebody gets it! And the “it” is a big enough and solid enough concept that Jesus says

“God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am. And now I’m going to tell you who you are, really are. You are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.”

(That passage above is from The Message, a translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson.)

Peter’s recognition of who Jesus really was, the embodiment, the incarnation of divine power, the Messiah or Christ, the tangible evidence of divinity embracing humanity, was the foundation stone, the rock, on which the human organization of Christianity was based. Peter’s glimpse of the coincidence of, that is “the being in the same place at the same time” of God and man, the living evidence of “God with us,” this Christ-power is what lay behind the good works, the healing work that he and members of the Jerusalem church went on to do. They ministered. They healed in the name – that is in the nature – of Christ Jesus.

But still they carried a limited sense of what the life of Christ Jesus meant. They referred to themselves at that time as “people of the way,” a distinct sect of Judaism, limited to those who followed the laws of the prophets and whose men were circumcised. It was Paul, the former Saul whose reputation was made on the many Christians whom he had persecuted, who got an even deeper meaning of Jesus’ message. As Paul he carried that message to the far corners of the Roman empire, including not only Jews, but gentiles, slaves, and even pagans. He trained, educated and inspired others to do the same.

That brings us to the last category, the Message Church. We might even consider it as the Messiah Church. Both words begin with “Me.” This is the church which emphasizes what Jesus said in his response to Peter, “And now I’m going to tell you who you are, who you really are.”

The Messiah words of Jesus are central to the Message Church, and just as most of his deep messages were uttered to individuals or to small groups, his words apply specifically to me, and to you, and to you, and to that guy over there. In essence (and this is what I as an individual hear) Jesus says:

“Search the Scriptures. They tell you about me. Remember my words. I tell you about your potential for good, the power you possess as you abide in me, as you follow me. Take up your cross. Give up your former identity. Be made new, be born of Spirit. You have potential for change, redemption. The precious substance of your God-made being has never been touched. This is who you really are. You are more than a servant; you are a child of God.”

The Message was powerful to grow the Christian church throughout the Western world. It still is effective when spoken with heart to those whose hearts are yearning.

What if you had to be strip searched before you attended a church service? Strip searched once more when you left? Anyone who has conducted church services in a jail or prison knows that the essential elements of effective “church” are rudimentary and few. “I just want to hear the word,” explained one inmate to me. “That’s all.”

Monument, Maintenance, Ministry – ultimately it is the Message that moves individuals forward. And it is only as individuals hear and respond to that message that church moves forward as well.

Going Off Her Meds and Heading for Mexico

“Breaking Up With My Meds” is the first post of a new series of incredibly brave articles drolly titled “Going Off.”  Diana Spechler is the writer, and her column appears in The New York Times, under the category Anxiety. The last two paragraphs grabbed me. They talk about our modern society’s yearning “to become spotless on the inside,” a flute tune that resonates with the drum I’ve been beating for some time — our need to reclaim the original definition of virginity.

“I wish I could meet that young woman,” I thought at the time. “She is a real live virgin.” I promptly forgot her name.

It is the magic of the Writers Conference of San Miguel de Allende that Sunday afternoon, yesterday, standing in the gardens of the Hotel Real de Minas, I asked a new acquaintance what she wrote. “I’ve just begun a series for The New York Times,” she answered, “about going off my meds for depression.”

And so begins a friendship, Facebook and otherwise. Diana Spechler. You should remember her name.

What do we call ourselves?

Last night at the 10th Annual San Miguel Writers’ Conference, Alice Walker bemoaned the fact that women still refer to each other in groups as “guys.” Thinking in the shower this morning, what’s an alternative? Gals? Ladies? Women? Think about it. Can you hear yourselves, hum, Ladies, using any feminine term of address that doesn’t have just a smidge or an echo of diminution in it. Diminution? Is that a good word? Maybe I’m thinking “a tone of condescension.”  Maybe I’ll come up with some better term for calling out to a group of my, (oh dear, shall I say it?) gal pals, when I want to get their attention. Gal pals? Yech. That tasted awful on my tongue. Help me come up with something better!

A New Way to Look at Mexico

C.M. Mayo’s “Marfa Mondays” podcast interview with Georgetown University professor John Tutino gives a fascinating new perspective on an old and shared history between the United States and Mexico. Give a listen. It’s an hour and fourteen minutes, so download it for a road trip or have your knitting or Spider Solitaire game handy.


What Are We Really Supposed To Be Doing?

I gave the “wisdom offering” today at the sweet little church that lets me drift in and out. Since I actually wrote something down, I thought I’d post it on my badly neglected blog. Besides, it’s about a Mary. You know I can’t resist a MARY story. Here ’tis:

Most women, if they’ve had any exposure to the New Testament, are familiar with the story of the sisters Mary and Martha and a party in Martha’s house. Luke tells the story. He was a Greek gentile who put together a long account about the life of Jesus, and much of it focuses on the women surrounding Jesus. That is literally true, because it’s in Luke’s gospel we get the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, how she got the news of her pregnancy, and what she thought about it. A physician, Luke must have been a good listener, a guy women could talk to. So it may have been that this other Mary, Martha’s sister, told him about what happened at the party. I doubt if Martha would have told him.

Jesus is the guest, and he’s talking and sharing his ideas. The guys are sitting around listening, asking questions. The women are in the kitchen, doing what women were supposed to do, all except one. That would be Mary, the sister of the hostess. She’s sitting right down there with the guys, listening and learning. She’s not giving a thought to what’s going on any place else. This is not what she’s supposed to be doing!

Martha finally has enough. “Why don’t you tell her to get up and come help me?” she demands of Jesus. He answers her, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled and careful about many things, but Mary has chosen the good part, and it shall not be taken away from her.” See? I doubt Martha would have shared that.

Kathleen Norris comments in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith:

I can hear Martha muttering, her housewife’s meter running, as she is so overrun with the work of hospitality—the cleaning to be done, the food to be prepared and served—that she risks becoming inhospitable. She’s my Type-A side, rushing to get the job done, but at too great a cost. Mary is pure Type-B, the procrastinator and dreamer, the person who knows that no small part of welcoming a guest is the ability to settle down and listen. She is my better self, the one I have to strive for.

I’m drawn to the fact that this author recognizes that each of us has both Martha and Mary elements. I know I do.

A large part of this summer, settling in after a cross-country move, I’ve spent going through files, trying to consolidate a vast amount of paper down to a few file drawers. I am in awe at the meticulous records I once kept. Both my husband and I were always self-employed, as well as owning jointly some rental property. We lived in the litigious and exigent state of California, so we kept each entity separate from the other, separate bank accounts, separate sets of books. I was the Master Record Keeper, the Martha of the two of us. I dutifully filed and retained every tax return and all the material to support them. We kept it all, at least records dating back to the requisite 2003, hauling the whole load with us when we moved to Mexico in 2006. We stored  them in a line of formidable gray filing cabinets.

Over the last seven plus years, I’ve subtracted nothing and added more records from our life in Mexico, a paper-loving bureaucracy if ever there was one. If you are an immigrant, there’s even more paper to keep track of than “normal.” Did I mention electric bills? In Mexico you are nothing, no one, without proof that you are plugged in and are paying for it. For good measure I’ve kept every statement, as well as records from Telmex, Telcel, SIAPA (that’s water and sewer), and even Global Gas.

This summer all this emerged. The documents had rippled edges from coastal humidity. Rusty paperclips and staples were embedded in bundles of statements and receipts, each page containing information you don’t just chunk in the garbage. To burn or to shred? Environmentally responsible, I’ve been shredding. It is rote work. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Three bags full. No, five. No, six. More. Evidently I have channeled Martha big-time for a long time, doing what I was supposed to do.

But what I’ve also found in those filing cabinets are records of my many Mary moments – journals and correspondence kept from the late 70’s, mid 80’s, longer entries from the early 90’s. They are introspective, inquisitive, seeking and searching. Sometimes woefully dense or painfully naive, but at other times, dare I say, poetic? These are my “good part.” They tell me much more of who I am and how I’ve progressed than the many bags of now confetti-ed financial records. Here I find letters exchanged with a wise woman mentor as I struggled through the challenges of early marriage. There, I come upon reflections about overcoming cynicism in the face of one war after another. Those are a welcome resource given current headlines! I find thank you letters written to me, when I myself have been the mentor. Oh, those are nice. And here, a long letter to my parents I wrote after their Christmas visit with us in 1991. It is filled with a litany of gratitude for all that they have done, not just for Christmas, but for all my life, for how I have been raised, for the values they have instilled.

My mom saved it! I find it now in a folder marked “SUSAN,” retrieved from her filing cabinets and sent on to me by my faithful sister-in-law, the one who ended up with the brunt of settling Mom’s estate a couple of years ago. Writing that letter was perhaps the best use of time I ever spent. It blesses me now, as I re-evaluate what seems a life time emerging from these ancient Penda-flex files. Could I have ever spent moments more valuable than listening and writing down my Mary moments?

Oh, I will still keep financial records and file returns. I’ve just finished and filed the required one for 2013, in time to swear to myself that this year will be different. I will have records for 2014 in order, and I won’t be waiting until the last minute – again. But somehow, after this cathartic cleaning out, I’m not feeling the mantle of heavy guilt that my silently raging Martha part would impose on me. My “good part,” my Mary part, will probably keep on doing what she’s always done, even if she’s supposed to be doing something else. And that’s a good thing. I have it on the best authority.

“Be who you are,” she reminded him.

One of the things I like doing on this blog is sharing stories of women who show up and make a difference, just by being who they are.  With tongue only slightly in cheek, I refer to them as “real virgins,” because they fulfill that original meaning of the word “virgin,” a term which had nothing to do with physiology. A virgin was someone who was undefined by any human relationship; she was one-in-herself, whole, complete, intact, un-fragmented, un-captured, self-governed. She looked to no other human for authority to think and act according to her highest sense of good.

My friend and mentor (coincidentally, her name is Virginia, but I call her Ginny in my book) posted an entry on her blog today, recounting a story which is ancient, but has relevance today. All these problems in the Middle East — it’s HISTORY, amigos, tribal history. Whether or not one says she “believes” in the Bible, it is a book full of tribal history, history that is verified through other sources and channels. If you don’t know any ancient history scholars, just look to the folks at The History Channel, right?

If you take the time or have the inclination to browse through what Christians call the Old Testament, but is also known as The Hebrew Scriptures, you can  get an inkling of the longstanding nature of the problems still plaguing the “Holy Land.” Plays well with others, was not a prominent character trait in most  tribal leaders. But as Lynne Bundesen makes clear in her excellent book The Feminine Spirit: Recapturing the Heart of Scripture, at every crucial point, showing up at every step of spiritward progress in the biblical narrative, there was always a woman, listening, forgiving, giving counsel, sometimes taking direct action on her own. In her blog today Ginny recounts the story of Abigail, who saved not-yet-king David from the dark side. Abigail was a “real virgin.” The world could use more of those these days. Want to volunteer? Well, read about Abigail first. You can do that here.

Hola, Spain — again

We returned from Spain and Portugal June 2, and I’m just now going through the photos I took on the journey. I sort of disappeared from Facebook after that last post without an adios or a by-your-leave. Fact was that on the third day in Spain, I had a close encounter with a castle floor, so I wasn’t into a lot of commentary or taking of selfies during the rest of the trip. But I kept the camera clicking as we moved through the major sites on the itinerary. It’s nice going back and seeing where we were, even posting a few reviews on TripAdvisor. I’m all fully recovered now, able to speak lightly of the whole thing and ready to start posting more than an occasional lurking “like.” Missed you, FB buddies!