Poison Dart Frogs are some of the tiniest and beautiful creatures on the planet; they are also incrediably deadly. So, why call this blog "Tiny Dart Frog"? It goes back to the old adage - good things come in small packages. We are all created exactly as God has intended - unique, strong, and beautiful.
Whenever my family moved, one of the first things we did was go church 'shopping'. I carried this practice on into adulthood. Surrounded by uncertainly in unfamiliar areas, the church was always a safe place to land. I wanted a place where people would love me (and my children) and people whom I could love and relate to. It really wasn't that much about God per se as it was about what I needed (Yes, I am aware how self-centered that sounds... ).
There isn't a town I've lived in that I haven't had a church home.
When I was in college, I trudged down to the campus church (Yes - I even went to church in college).
As a young adult, well... there weren't a lot of other young adults in church, but... I found one that was young enough.
When I had rug-rats hanging on my sweater tails and wrapped around my legs, I settled into a church that where toddlers crawled under the pews and moms came armed with Cheerios to get them through the worship service.
I'd look for what felt like (or had the promise of being) an extended family. I mean, isn't that what we all want in a church? Family. That's what I wanted.
Heck - If I'm being honest, that's what I still want, but (and now I'm going to sound like a total hypocrite).....
You know what I got as I searched around for whatworked for me?
A bunch of people... Just. Like. Me.
I mean, they were/are lovely people and that's how a family often is:
We look like one another because of genetics or clothing styles.
We act like one another because of tradition or influence.
We have the same interests because of education and exposure.
And - well, that's nice. I'm so NOT trying to demean 'family' at all, but I do not think it's a good model for a church.
A church that functions as 'family' is: Insulated. Siloed. Segregated. Incestuous.
We are not called to birth families; we are called to build cities.
Cities on hills, which will be lights to the world (Matthew 5:14).
Cities which are not hidden or separated from all that is going on.
Cities where there are people who do NOT look like me.
Cities where there are people who do NOT think like me.
Cities where there are people who do NOT act like me.
And maybe even cities where there are people who do NOT actually like me.
That would be hard...
City planners know that everything which surrounds the area and everything within the area must be taken into account. They look at the land, they look at the transportation systems, they look at the job industry, they look at what needs to be preserved (and what needs to go by the wayside), and they look at the people - all the people.
They take into account poverty and wealth; language and literacy; lifestyle and generational dynamics.
Wrestling with all these things - and yes, it's a lot - helps city planners raise up healthy, vibrant cities in the most unexpected of places.
City planners don't look to plan in a place that's already what they desire...
No. City planners look for the rundown city, the unsafe city, the city that the world forgot...
And city planners use the gifts within the city to help shape the city into what those who live there need.
What if that's how we did church?
What if as 'city builders' ourselves we did two things:
1) Don't search for the church that gives us what we want, but land in the church which needs what we can give.
I mean, I'll tell you what.... there are some churches that have finance people coming out of their ears and some that are hoping to just be able to find someone to write checks. There are some churches where plumbing issues are never a problem because there are at least 8 plumbers within the congregation, but there's not a single person who can figure out who to launch a webpage.
'City' churches need all kinds of people. Not the same kinds of people.
2) Don't be a family.
I know. I know. But really... let's think about this practically for one second.
Families allow for many many great things, but they also tolerate dysfunction and unhealthy behaviors. In a family there are those that sit on the couch and there are those that take the garbage out. In a city - everyone works, everyone has ownership... and if they don't, well there are consequences.
I'm not saying that the church become all 'law' orientated, but treating people with respect and expectation means they are integral parts of the system. And well, I'm fairly certain that God actually expects a lot out of us.
Families stick by one another no matter what (at least most of the time) and that can be a lovely thing. But not so much when the family unit becomes more important than finding out what others have to say or what others think...
Find a place where you don't fit....
And you just might find that that 'city' needs you desperately for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven...
Because what's the Bible say Heaven will look like?
And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down from Heaven...
Heaven and earth are joined in a City.
A City which shines light not only on a hill, but in the valleys and deserts alike.
In the name of God there is no place where Heaven should not or cannot be raised up.
Does the resurrection not tell us that?!
I'm Lutheran... a Lutheran pastor no-less. Lutherans are all about one thing (well, besides Jesus - I mean we are totally about Jesus) - GRACE. Lutheran theology is founded on this one overarching principle...
That it is by grace we are freed and saved and given life. Namely God's grace.
But, and I mean this in all seriousness, what is grace? I mean, really?
I remember when I was in seminary I was taught a 'working' definition of grace:
Being given more than you deserve.
And juxtaposed with 'grace' was 'mercy'. And mercy was: Not getting what you deserve.
Seems stale to me. Seems like someone left the communion bread out for a few weeks and it started to grow green fuzz. That type of 'grace' just isn't going to 'stick' to my bones.
Maybe that's why Jesus used bread and wine. Something substantive. Something earthy. Something that fills the hollows of your bones.
Last summer I was having a conversation with a very good friend and it somehow must've been about God.... I have no recollection of what we were actually talking about, but I know I used the word 'grace,' because they looked at me and very matter-of-factly asked me what grace is...
Um.... You know - the grace of God.
Um... Like getting more than you deserve from God.
What do I get from God?
Um... Well, everything. Everything is a gift from God. [Blank stare.]
Um... Kindness, you know, grace is the promise of kindness.
CRAP. Grace is not kindness.
Kindness is getting a kitten out of a tree. Kindness is setting the table when your mom asks. Kindness is letting the lady behind you in the check-out line go ahead of you because she only has four items in her basket and your cart is overflowing.
I'm a pastor for God's sake. I should be able to flippin define grace, right?!
Anyway, as I said, this question about grace was posed to me more than a year ago, but this morning I remembered it.
I remembered it as I stood in my kitchen mixing pancake batter, frying up bacon, and making sure I did indeed have mini-marshmallows for hot chocolate later on in the day. See, school was cancelled and the church offices were closed due to a 'significant weather event' (ie. we're getting snow here in DC and we really don't know what to do when it snows), so my boys and I were home for the day.
A whole day.
Me and them.
Pj's and ping-pong.
Snow drippings and red cheeks.
Laundry and movies.
Emails and books.
As we ate a late, leisurely breakfast I thought:
Grace tastes like this - like pancakes and hot chocolate.
I don't know how to tell you exactly what the grace of God is...
But I can tell you how it smells:
Like warm bread.
Like milk, and eggs, and flour, and vanilla all mingled together.
Like dryer sheets (the kind that don't have that heavy perfume-y smell).
And I can tell you how it feels:
Like a fuzzy blanket on a snow covered day.
Like a hot mug of cocoa in red chapped hands.
Like cool, wet lips of a happy child on a warm cheek.
And I can tell you how it tastes:
Like fatty bacon.
Like deep, red wine.
Like licking sticky syrup off your fingers.
And I can tell you how it sounds:
Like deep breaths coming in from the cold.
Like sniffly noses from hard played snowball fights.
Like unrestrained giggling.
I love you.
I cannot tell you what the grace of God is exactly, but somehow pancakes and hot chocolate come close.
Solid theology? I'm not sure. Solidly 'of God'... I'm confident.
Sometimes you inherit strange things...
Like ceramic kittens or gaudy costume jewelry or needlepoint artwork.
And the items sit there and you wonder 'why'...
Recently I inherited a peculiar item.
No. Nobody died in my family.
But, in my professional life I changed positions. I'm still a pastor; I'm just a pastor at a different congregation, which meant I moved offices.
My new office same with all the things you'd expect - a desk, a computer, bookshelves and a couple of chairs. All those are expected....
But I also inherited hula hoops. And not one, but two hula hoops. I ushered the hula hoops to the side of the desk not quite sure what to do with them and certainly not willing to get rid of anything. I figured that they were left over from Vacation Bible school.
And yesterday, quite by happenstance I found out about the hula hoops.
The conversation went a little like this:
Co-worker: "Oh I've been meaning to tell you about the hula hoops..."
Me: raising eyebrows
Co-worker: "See when the other Pastor was here she kept the hula hoops and said that whenever we were having a particularly rough day to just hula hoop."
Me: raising eyebrows more
Co-worker: "You know - when all else fails you can always hula hoop."
The past few days there's been a little too much sad in some parts of life - my friends lives, my own life, my professional life. I probably wear my heart on my sleeve a little too much. While I can cry easily, I also laugh abundantly.
Today a hard conversation with someone I respect immensely shook my core and something reminded me of those hula hoops. So I got up from my desk and put that hula hoop around my waist and tried to hula hoop.
I had grand notions of actually making the things go 'round my waist, but apparently I have forgotten the technique to hula hooping...
But MAN did I have fun trying.
Me in my black heels, goldenrod colored wool skirt, and dangly gold earrings in the middle of my office spinning that thing around my waist trying to make it go...
I hadn't remembered that hula hoops make a lovely whirring noise once you get it going. I wondered what other simple joys I forget.
Yeah. When all else fails you can always hula hoop.
It's funny because there are two hula hoops.
One for me and one for whomever else.
Wanna hula hoop?
Hat Tip to my dear friend Sarah Scherschigt who left the hula hoops behind for me.
I'm trying this again...
What's 'this' you ask?
Kicking the habit...not being an addict...
As I write those words I'm keenly aware of the highly-charged liquid 'heaven' which is coursing through my veins. It's one of my 'allowed' Diet Mountain Dews.
Yes. I'm addicted to Mountain Dew.
Maybe you think I'm tossing 'addicted' around lightly, but I'm not. I can drink 9 of them a day. Now... I may not finish all 9, but I certainly pop that many tops.
Nine. Mountain. Dews.
Yes, I believe this makes me an addict.
No, I'm not a smoker; I'm not an alcoholic; I'm not a binge eater (although I've had my battles with not eating enough, which is a whole other kind of addiction); I'm not a drug user.
I am a socially accepted addict.
I don't know if this is good or bad, I just know it to be true. What I say frequently to people to 'justify' my Dew habit is, "Well, there are worse vices I could have."
And that's true. I'm not going to miss work because of the Dew - heck, half the time I feel like the caffeine helps me get to and through work. Mountain Dew isn't going to make me throw-up from drinking too much of it, nor is it going to affect my weight (I drink diet... If I didn't that would be a whole other story).
There are things that are more unacceptable than my addiction.
But the truth is:
I'm basically drinking formaldehyde.
My insides could probably glow-in-the-dark under a 'black light'.
And... well, you've probably read the same reports I have, the ingredients are linked to: cancer, thyroid dysfunction, liver failure, tooth decay, bone loss....
UGH! I have to stop there. There's more. A list, a multitude, a plethora, an abundance of things 'wrong' with Mountain Dew.
And yet.... I've frequently called it: the nectar of the gods.
I love it.
I crave it.
It calms me down when I need a fix (Yes, it has caffeine, but I've been drinking it for so long I no longer get a caffeine buzz).
It makes the world spin 'right'.
It's my breakfast.
Ok, you get the picture. I am an addict. I'll go to the grocery store at 11pm to get a 12 pack if I'm out, but I won't do the same if we're out of milk.
I vacillate between wanting to quit and not having the stamina to quit.
And, well, I tried seriously to quit once before. And I did.
For two months I quit. Mostly. I was down to one a day and I felt like I could live with that.
And then... life got crazy, the world started spinning fast, and...
I grabbed my fix.
Plus, I'm the 'Mountain Dew' girl.
People give me gifts of Mountain Dew.
People give me T-shirts with Mountain Dew insignias.
People give me chapstick flavored like Mountain Dew.
People wonder why I don't have a can in my hand when I walk into a meeting...
I'm the 'Mountain Dew' girl. It's my identity.
Um, stop right there.
It's my identity?! THAT is precisely what's different this time. It isn't my identity.
See, I've always understood it as part of my identity. Who would I be if I didn't drink the Dew? But I've been thinking about it differently recently.
Mountain Dew is a demon. At least it's my demon.
Now, before you think I'm a total zealot, let me tell you my 'working definition' for a demon.
A demon is anything other than God that tries to tell me/you who I/you are.
Mountain Dew is a demon because it tries to tell me that I am the Mountain Dew girl and Mountain Dew 'owns' me.
A demon, for me, happens to look like a shiny aluminum can adorned with neon green splashes.
And well... it sorta has taken hold of me.
But, (and I am aware of how corny this may sound)... I am trusting that God's got a stronger hold on me than any silly demon. And yeah - God's got bigger things to worry about than Mountain Dew, but knowing that my identity is actually 'Christine Louise' - Child of God...
Helps me to tell that demon in my head to go the hell away.
I'm gonna drink my cold water and like it (Ok - wishful thinking)...
Go away devil.
I don't know where I theologically stand on an external devil (and his legion of demons) raging against the world. But, I know there is darkness in the world and plenty of evil. I've also seen those with mental health problems or those who have made major mistakes in their lives labeled as 'demonic' or 'possessed' and thereby presumably far from God.... And this is a mistake of the church. I don't believe anyone is too far from God...
All I see in the Bible is Jesus doing battle with demons, throwing them out...
So, my official stance on demons is:
Jesus is battling them, however they look. This seems solidly Biblical.
When I say that, that I have three sons, typically the person asking the question looks at me with a bit of sympathy. I've gotten used to this 'look' and I typically laugh it off and say, "Yup - God knows there's a special place in heaven for me."
Which I quickly follow with, "At least I've been spared from the teenage girl squealing...". To which I can almost always get an, "AMEN!" (especially from moms who have three teenage GIRLS)
Anyway, my eldest IS 16, which means one thing: Driving lessons.
And dear GOD... now I know there is actually a special place in heaven for me, because I may just die in this new venture of parenting.
As I sat clutching the door handle until my knuckles were white (ok - actually blue because at some point I do believe I lost all circulation to my hands) I thought a lot about God - mostly because I was sure I was getting ready to meet Him on a whole new personal level...
But seriously - there's nothing like placing your life (and the lives of the entire neighborhood) in your son's hands as he controls a 4000 pound moving object, which is basically a moving fireball if throttled into the 'right' object.....you know, namely another vehicle or gas pump or traffic light, or....
Anyway - that will make you grasp the fragility of life in a whole new light.
So, things I learned about God while driving with my son:
~The prayer that God actually answers quite frequently: "Dear God, don't hit that car!" (This is actually a prayer that works best if you SCREAM it - at least that's been my experience)
~God is actually INSANE. I mean - God gave us the keys to the car (AKA - freewill and expects us to actually know how to drive this thing called earth)... Yeah. Nuts. The God of the universe is actually certifiable.
~We, in church and society, toss the word mercy around way too easily. I'm pretty sure mercy feels a whole lot more like - HOT DAMN - I am still alive after weaving around the girl on the pink bike, the pick-up truck with tools loaded in the back, the woman raking her leaves, and the dog that - thank God! - (there's a lot of thanking God that goes on...) was on a leash... WHEW... I'm pretty sure mercy feels like that.
~Which brings me to grace....which feels like a parking spot. The car is safely turned off and your teenage son is doing a fist pump because he made it in between the two white lines (almost) and you let go of the door handle for the first time in a half hour. Grace. It also feels like a deep breath.
~There's no brake on the frickin' passenger side. Probably you know this, but as you go just a touch too fast down that hill you are acutely aware of this truth. Pressing your right leg into the floorboard as hard as you can while biting your lip does not make the car stop. Life's scary and there's no brake. Sorry. But there isn't. Sometimes you just gotta let other people drive (this is pretty hard for me, because I'd actually like to be in control all the time, which I think makes God laugh).
~Lastly, and I mean that with the utmost respect, God has a wicked sense of humor... because this feeling - on the edge of your seat, afraid you might just loose your life at the hands of another, while all the while being filled with joy, is what LIFE is. This is the kind of life God wants for us: never knowing what's next and yet always trusting that somehow you will make it around the next curve. Like I said - wicked.
So... those are my God lessons from my afternoon jaunt with my son, who is not only an amazing gift from God, but not a bad driver.
Oh - one last thing...
I'm certain the God forgives the parent that cusses a bit too much in this whole endeavor...
which makes me think God may do a fair amount of cussing as we learn to drive.
I write this for the 11 year old baseball player (and his or her parents) that's been doing their best, trying their hardest, showed up at every practice.... and still never gotten the game ball, still sat the bench, still struck out with two 'men' on and two 'outs' ....still holds fast to the game.... not to win, but for love.)
Recently, my youngest child has started sitting in the front seat....
At least occasionally... When he's the only kid being transported he takes advantage of sitting up front. His two older brothers wrestle over the front seat on a regular basis. He never gets in that mix... always just takes his place in the passenger seat, directly behind me. However, when given the chance to sit 'shot gun', he grabs it.
It's a different view sitting up front.
Nothing blocks your view.
Things are clearer.
It's odd for me, not because he's sitting there, but because he talks to me a lot more. When he sits behind me, he's quiet as he looks out the side window, but seated beside me he chatters....
He seems to get a good view from the front seat...
not just on what's rushing by, or the traffic lights, or the bumper to bumper traffic.
But he gets a good view on life from the front seat (actually, he probably always had this view, he just hadn't stated it).
Yesterday, he climbed up front as we headed to his 6th baseball game in 4 days (the previous 5 had been played over the weekend in a tournament). Since I hadn't gotten to see the final game of that tournament he shared some of the notable hits, the hard ball drops, and the excitement. He also shared the pain... because they lost that tournament in the final inning.
I said something about it being so hard to loose when you give it your all; something about how they had made some good comebacks throughout the weekend and how important it is to never give up. And, of course, since I'm a mom, I said one of the most overused statements by any parent: It isn't about winning the game, but doing your best.
He sat there for a bit, bending the brim of his hat between his hands, looking out the front window. Quiet for a long time....
Finally he said, "You know, there's no difference between hitting a home run and there being a guy on third that someone hits in. Everyone thinks there is, but there isn't."
I don't think he had any idea how much that sentence hit me.
I thought about it the whole time I watched his game that night.
All you need is a hit.
All you need is to step up to bat.
All you need is the front seat view...
That it doesn't have to be grand or memorable...it just has to do the job.
You just need an RBI. Run batted in.
Sometimes you may need a bunch of RBI's if you're down by a bunch... but you don't need a powerhouse hitter, fantastic plays, or even a home run...
It's a whole different view...
NO difference between a single and a home run.
And not just on baseball...
In some ways his view is actually the backseat view...
It's the view of life not being about the glory, but about the simple.
It's the view of life not being about the individual, but about the team.
Hit the guy in...
And if you're on third, run and slide and get dirty.
And if you strike out swinging...
You've got another bat coming up.
And another one after that.
My name is Christine Stephan, although I answer mostly to Mom or Pastor.
I am a Lutheran pastor for an amazing group of Jesus' disciples just outside Washington DC AND a mom to 3 of the best boys in the universe.
I blog here about family and faith and frustrations....That thing we call 'life'.
My boys are passionate about all things legos, anything involving a ball, video games, and chocolate.
I am an avid runner, a lover of interesting books and deep conversation, a very amateur writer, and also a lover of chocolate.
I also love theology (which is weird, I know), but I don't love theology more than Jesus.
This blog is hardly ever profound, but it is real. As a pastor and I mom, I find 'real' to be more helpful in my journey with Jesus than crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's.