February 3, 2016

Raise Your Hand

When my son was much younger, he came home one day with instructions from his teacher to review his double-digit addition skills. When we sat together at the kitchen table to work practice problems, he slouched over the page with his pencil hovering over the first problem for several minutes before he looked up at me with uncertainty. 

“Do you need help?” I asked. 

Clearly he did, but he shook his head and continued pondering the problem through the blur of tears filling his eyes. It seemed he thought that the answers would come flooding out if he sat there long enough. I imagined him sitting at his desk at school doing much the same thing, with the hope that his silence and eager pencil would fool his teacher into believing he knew what he was doing.
I gently prodded: “It seems like you don’t know how to answer these problems. Have you asked your teacher for help with this?” He shook his head and burst into tears, telling me he was afraid to ask for help.

I thought later about the reassurance I gave him: “Everyone has to ask for help sometimes.” Initially, it had seemed silly to me that Will chose to sit through an entire class period of confusion and panic rather than simply raising his hand to ask for help. 

But then I considered how much I am like my son. 

When life is emotionally difficult or I am struggling with sin, I’m afraid to raise my hand and ask for help. I’m afraid to draw attention to myself, admit my weaknesses, or confess my need for fear of inconveniencing others or being rejected. I tell myself just to push through it, that I'll figure it out somehow. So often I sit with tears in my eyes and a pencil poised over a problem I don’t know how to solve while the Lord patiently questions why I haven’t asked for help. “You have asked Me for help, but have you asked the loving, wise people I’ve purposefully put in your life? They are my answer to you.”

We all, at some point, are overwhelmed with burdens that are too heavy for us each to carry alone. Sometimes God acts in our lives without using others to meet our needs, but His normal mode of operation is to use wise believers in the Body of Christ—His church— to help us understand, grow, and grieve. The catch is that we cannot receive their ministry unless we raise our hands and ask for help.

We find it difficult enough to ask for help with our children or to ask for prayer, we can't even imagine what it would be like to ask for help from others to name our shame, confess the sin that caused it, and walk through repentance toward healing. We were long ago silenced by our shame, and we've too often determined that we're sufficient in ourselves to mute what screams inside of us or to change ourselves.

There is a woman in Scripture who raised her hand and asked for help: the woman who'd been bleeding for 12 years. Her ask for help seems a last-ditch effort; she simply reached out her hand to touch Jesus' hem and receive freedom from what'd plagued her, believing by faith He could heal. And He did, but not without also persistently questioning the surrounding crowd for the name of the one who'd touched Him. He already knew who it had been, but He asked that she speak it out loud. Speak her name. Speak her request. Speak about her need, of why she touched Him. He wanted her to speak her darkest shame out loud so He could proclaim His healing. It was if He was saying to all of us: "See what I can do? See how far my healing can go?"

What keeps us from raising our hands? We’ve misunderstood the church to be a group of put-together people, rather than a gathering of broken, needy people collecting together to touch the grace-hem of God's. Sometimes we feel the pressure to have everything under control. Or perhaps we’ve experienced rejection and condemnation from those in the church who appear religious, but lack an understanding of their true brokenness and need. Mostly, I don't think we know that healing comes from naming out loud and from reaching out for help. We might rather drown in our self-sufficiency than admit we need something outside of ourselves.

But the help and healing are available when we raise our hands.

January 27, 2016

When the Internet Says Your Life is Small

I have had a terrible time with the internet lately. The monster within is rising again, I suppose, screaming at me through others' beautifully blogged words and many-hearted Instagram pictures, berating me at how unimportant I am, whispering words that plant me perpetually on the outside, raising questions of just who I think I am anyway and why am I even trying and what is the point again? The monster is persistent, and the fight is wearying.

When the monster is me, there is nowhere to run.
And when somewhere underneath what is currently strangled by my own ambitious desires for importance and influence is a sure and simple calling from God, I am under holy orders to stay in the fight, to pummel away at thoughts of reach and readership until only worship remains.

The internet makes the world too big sometimes. Big can be good, as the internet delightfully stretches our reach across the globe, enabling us to glimpse what gospel laborers are so faithfully doing in various creative ways.

But then, when our view is stretched out across the world, it is far more difficult to close the laptop and return to the close-up view of our lives. The close-up seems small, like the sluggish feeling of slowing the car to 30 when we've been cruising at top-speed on the interstate. It suddenly seems as if we're going nowhere, doing nothing, at least nothing that would draw attention as a status update.

After being stretched, after seeing all we see online, we know what can be, and our hearts rumble with craving. For what she has. For who she's become. For her success. For her unique giftings.

The monster awakens, insatiably hungry, driven to find validation and excitement and, really, anything big. The close-up view--changing the diapers, listening to the distraught friend, trying to be excellent at school or work, scrubbing the toilets, holding the tongue--all of it seems of such little consequence, so little that instead of being tiny acts of worship, they become steps toward our frustration and entitlement. I'm better than this. I could be doing so much more. 

The close-up picture of our daily lives rarely comes into sharp focus. We can't see the ramifications of the daily acts of faithfulness, and with most of them we never will. It's so blurry sometimes that we're not sure if God is doing anything with us at all. Perhaps He's forgotten us.

In this day, we can't avoid stretching out to see the world, and we shouldn't try. But must we fight the monster of selfish ambition with every scroll and swipe? Must we inevitably wrestle with comparison, envy, and entitlement? Must we fight for our place in the big world?

There is another way: we can stretch out and look for God. We can look for God in what He's given her. We can look for God in who she's become. We can look for God in her success. We can look for God in her unique giftings. The only way we can look for God working in and through another woman is if we believe that, just as He's asked for our small, daily faithful acts, He's asked the same from her. No matter her success, her influence, or her abilities, no one escapes the close-the-computer moments, and no escapes the requirements of the close-up view: faithfulness.

When the world becomes too big, when we believe our lives are too small, this is our way to worship.

January 13, 2016

For the Struggling Church Planting Wife

It’s hard, I know. The uncertainty, the all-encompassing nature of the work, the homesickness, the discouragement—church planting is simply not for the faint of heart.

Church planting is like taking the leap into marriage or becoming a first-time parent. As much as others tried to prepare you, as much as you and your husband read and conferenced and created strategies, nothing could have truly prepared you for the high-highs and the low-lows of church planting.
As I speak with fellow church planting wives, what I find is that, although we are in wildly different contexts and churches, we tend to have similar highs and lows. We cherish the joys of seeing that first salvation or seeing our husband come alive in his calling.

But we also have similar struggles, struggles native to those the Spirit has called out where fleshly strength is not enough, where faith is required. Sometimes it feels as if those struggles are going to crush us and we can’t see a way out from under them.

In my years of church planting alongside my husband, I’ve found it helpful to reframe what I’ve experienced. Thinking about the common struggles you and I face from different angles enables us to catch a glimpse of what God is up to and to press on. Here are some of the things you may be thinking and the frames through which I encourage you to see your struggles:

It’s too hard.
It is hard. There’s no getting around that.

Reframe: Church planting is hard, but does God have purposes in our trials and difficulties? Absolutely. Church planting strips and sanctifies. Let it. Let it show you your false hopes. Let it show you that you can only have true hope in things that are sure and steadfast. Let church planting be the sanctification that God intends it to be. Embrace the hard, because God will absolutely grow you through it. He will teach you what it means to walk by faith, to serve sacrificially, and to love people. These are incredible gifts that come out of a temporary difficulty.

I feel uncertain about myself and this role.
As opposed to a traditional church, church planting offers you a blank slate in regards to your role, which can be overwhelming when we just want a bullet-pointed job description or a checklist to know how to be the “perfect” church planting wife.

Reframe: This blank slate can crush you in uncertainty, or it can be seen as your freedom. Church planting offers you the opportunity to be involved in various ministries and roles, which in turn offers you the freedom of discovering over time how God has wired you and designed you for ministry.

(P.S. It will help tremendously if you throw off the “perfect” mantle. There is no perfect church planting wife.)

I’m so scared.
I get it. You’re scared about the future, about what church planting means for your family, about financial provision, and about whether or not your church will even exist in three years.

Reframe: But are you not in the perfect position to tangibly observe the faithfulness of God? Not many people get this kind of vantage point! We are among a people who get to “taste and see that the Lord is good”. The place where you’re standing feels shaky, but if you purposefully look for the ways God has been and is being faithful to you, you’ll find Him faithful. If you purposefully look at Scripture each day, you’ll discover that His Word speaks so specifically to where you are. This purposeful looking feeds faith and banishes fear. Engage that process.

I’m so tired.
Sometimes we feel bone weary, so tired from caring for the emotional and physical needs of others. Sometimes resentment builds in our hearts, not toward the people, but toward God. We believe that  God has given us a heavy burden and sent us out in the world alone to carry it, but He isn't caring for us. 

Reframe: Every time I recognize this resentment building in my heart, God reminds me of the command in Scripture to take a Sabbath, and then He nudges me to consider whether I am receiving that gift. If we aren't, we are resisting one major way He wants to care for us and nurture us. We do have a Father who cares for us; we have not been left as orphans. He shows that care to us in many ways, but when we are pouring our lives out for others, He specifically asks us to come and receive physical, emotional, and spiritual rest from Him.

So, my fellow church planting wife, how will you reframe your struggles? What does the Lord have for you in the midst of them? I know one thing for sure. He has Himself to give you—His sanctification, faithfulness, rest, and care. He will enable you for what He’s called you to do. Receive Him and He will reframe your struggles.

January 6, 2016

On Productivity and People Pleasing

In the past few months, I have begged to hear from God. You may remember, as I've told you before here and here, that on an otherwise nondescript day in October I came up against a brick wall that left me shattered. It was as if God Himself had stepped in front of me, stopping me in my tracks and jarring me into seeing a stark reality of myself--where I am, where I've been, and where, if I was not careful, I was headed.

That's all very vague and hazy, I realize, and that's what it felt to me too, even though I was the one living it. Which is why I've begged to hear from God.
I knew He was there; He has been all along. I knew He was the one stopping me in my tracks, and I knew instinctively it was His love and care for me that undergirded the movement of His hand. But I couldn't distinguish His voice among the cacophony of this life I've built for myself. I couldn't hear Him, even though I was in the Word daily and praying for relief. I couldn't undo the restlessness in my heart. All I knew for sure was that I was to wait.

Waiting and being still are not my natural dispositions. I am constantly on the move. My mantra, if I had one, would be something about productivity. Onward and upward! No time wasted!

And, so, my prayer to hear from God came from a place of, "What do you want me to do?" Perhaps He meant for me to release a ministry or incorporate something new into my schedule. Perhaps it was a priorities issue or a needed change in focus.

But I have felt His unraveling of something far greater than what is on my to-do list. He has been after something that I've known about for 39 years--in other words, all my life--but that I've felt helpless to change.

My people-pleasing.

I have lived for 39 years for the eyes of others, in all the iterations people-pleasing takes. I've wanted to impress, to be admired, to be noticed, to be loved, and to be liked. But most of all I have not wanted to disappoint. I've done anything to avoid disappointing.

I haven't wanted to acknowledge it to myself, but I have long braided my high-capacity for productivity together with my desire to make people happy. In other words, I've generally been able to keep the plates spinning and perform for the approval of others.

The brick wall was an affront to all of that. My energy fell to a snail's pace. My children, who are generally never sick, have been consistently sick for weeks on end since early November, with everything from pneumonia to consecutive viruses to simultaneous stomach bugs. I had to back out of lots of things, and in all of the backing, face the discomfort of disappointing people and, most of all, disappointing myself.

But this is what I know now: I have not disappointed my God with my lack of productivity. This stopping, this slowing to a snail's pace, has all been according to His sovereign hand. He is not as interested in what I do in His name as He is interested in my heart having its greatest joy: Him.

And so He has forced me to face my twin idols of productivity and people-pleasing, to unbraid what I've twisted together.

I keep thinking I'll reach a point when I'll hear from Him that this has all been about a decision or something I need to release. But there is no destination. I know He is asking me to live in a whole new way.

One day when I was half-asleep, the word "molting" popped into my head. That's it exactly: I am being asked to shed a way of life where self and people are my idols and to live as I've actually been created to live.

I want this molting, even though it has been very uncomfortable so far. On certain occasions, I've literally obsessed over the idea of disappointing people. But if I'm honest with myself, I see that, before the brick wall, I'd reached a point of desperation. I was desperately tired, desperately numb, and desperately desiring to have my joy back. I wasn't enjoying my life--not my children, not my writing, not my ministry, and not even the people I was trying so hard to please.

Idols are lifeless, they cannot inflate us with joy.

Another word that has been on my mind lately is "absurd". One of our elders at church, in his sermon,  said that we don't often hear from God because He asks us to do absurd things, and we don't want to do absurd things. To submit to a quiet waiting before the Lord, to not be productive, feels absolutely foreign to me. It feels absurd. But I know that I know that I know that God is asking for my quiet waiting as a reverential step of faith, because it flies in the face of the idols that want my worship back.

These words--"molting" and "absurd"--are following me into the new year. I find myself online, reading everyone's words and goals and resolutions and questions to end/start the year. (Heavens, we are a productive bunch.) I'm drawn to those same kind of things. I want to do those things. But I know me, and God knows me too, and every time I think I'll tackle them, God nudges me. Just wait. 

I'm starting to get down to the core of things, although I sense I have quite a ways to go. The main thing I had forgotten is that I am loved by my Father, and that forgetfulness has led me into all sorts of dysfunction. In the waiting, in the absurd and uncomfortable molting, I'm starting to reawaken to the truth of His love, and my heart is responding with proper worship.

In the past few months, in any quiet moment my mind would turn restless and searching, almost panicking for answers. But now in quiet moments, I go back to the simple truth and repeat it in my mind until it sinks in: I am a loved child of God. That is all that I need to be.

In that truth I am molting and coming alive to joy again.

December 28, 2015

2015 in Books

I love reading. I sincerely hope there are libraries in heaven, because I simply can't finish in this lifetime all that I want to read. I often find myself riding a reading roller coaster of emotions: savoring a delicious, well-written book, debating whether I should allow myself to give up on a so-so one, the letdown of finishing said well-written book, and the thrill of beginning a new one and instinctively knowing it's going to be good.

This year I've read a crop of great books. As I do every year, I want to share with you my top picks and, if you're so inclined to give them, invite your reading suggestions in the comment section. Please note that these aren't books published in 2015 alone and that they generally fall in line with my favorite genres: narrative nonfiction and biography. Also, fyi, now is a great time to purchase books online. Publishers know you may have gotten an e-reader or a gift card for Christmas, so many books are marked down for a few days. In fact, my publisher has a great sale going on my very own book, From Good to Grace. Grab the ebook version for only $1.99 between December 27 and January 2 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or ChristianBook.com!
On to the post! Here are my favorite books I read in 2015:

Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin
I consider myself a Bible-literate person, so Wilkin's book challenged me in ways I didn't expect. In this easy-to-read book, she helps women develop a God-centered framework for approaching Scripture and then teaches detailed ways of inductively studying it. I have also enjoyed Jen's Bible studies and podcasts that can be downloaded for free online.

The Things of Earth by Joe Rigney
How do we think biblically about the gifts God has given us? How do we love and enjoy them without making them into idols? These are the questions Joe Rigney answers in The Things of Earth, and he does so really well. You'll appreciate the gifts in your life with greater clarity and awe after reading this book.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
I'm not a crazy Apple fanatic, but I do love a good biography, and this one didn't disappoint. Isaacson helps us see the genius behind all the Apple products we know and love and how influential Jobs is in our everyday culture. He also paints a picture of the personal side of Jobs, which I found fascinating and sad.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Weaving British, American, and German perspectives into one story, Larson gives us the historical narrative of the sinking of the ship that led the U.S. into World War I.

Hope Has Its Reasons by Rebecca Pippert 
At The Gospel Coalition conference last spring, Tim Keller mentioned this book from the stage. I subsequently picked up a copy and found it to be a gem of a book. Pippert writes for the skeptic, cynic, and nonbeliever, pointing out the longings we all have and how they point to a God. I found it helpful for understanding my culture.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and Murder of a President by Candice Millard
This type of book is my absolute favorite: a book that focuses on a person in historical context in order that I get a better understanding of both. Millard looks at the assassination of President Garfield, someone I knew absolutely nothing about, connecting his life with another famous life, Alexander Graham Bell, and the modernization of medicine. Fascinating.

The Hardest Peace by Kara Tippetts
Tippetts, a church planting wife who has since died, wrote about her battle with cancer and how her faith applies even in the hardest things.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Sides tells the story of a group of men in the late 19th century who set off to discover the North Pole. If nothing else, this book's subject displays the lengths people will go to in order to stay alive.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
As you can tell from the list so far, I don't read much fiction, at least not many fiction books that stick to me. All the Light We Cannot See is a major exception. The start was slow, but once I got into it, I couldn't put it down. The writing is poetic and made me feel like I was in the story.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarity
This is the "beach read" of the bunch--super light, funny, and with some suspenseful twists and turns.

The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White by Henry Weincek
I'm a sucker for book lists, and I discovered this one on the list of favorite all-time books of a retiring long-time Washington Post book reviewer. The fact that it covers a family from my adopted state of Virginia is an added bonus. The Hairstons are a family that can trace their roots back to slavery days, some of them white and wealthy and others black and obviously descendants of slaves and their white masters. An insightful read and a perspective on why our racial relations continue to be so complicated in the U.S.

Want more suggestions? Here are my favorites from 2014, 2013, and 2012.

What are your favorites from 2015? 

December 23, 2015

A Prayer for Us All at Christmas

What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts, 
thine own dear Son, begotten, not created, 
my Redeemer, proxy, surety, substitute, 
his self-emptying, incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.

Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I might become like him.

Herein is love;
when I cannot rise to him he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.

Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
he united them in indissoluble unity,
the uncreated and the created.

Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
as man to die my death,
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me.

O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy, 
and hearing, believe rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
to look with them upon my Redeemer's face,
and in him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the newborn child to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine and I am his.

In him thou has given me so much
that heaven can give no more.

--The Gift of Gifts from The Valley of Vision
Merry Christmas from my family to yours!

December 16, 2015

A Little Trick To Help You When You're Turning Blessings Into Burdens

If you really want to know the truth, I'm an expert at taking the beautiful blessings of life and turning them into cheerless burdens. I can find a way to complain about some of the most mysteriously rich treasures of life, treasures that have so blatantly come from God's hand.

I'm a delight to be around, I'm sure. 

It's true that gifts from God aren't always easy to receive. Well, I take that back. Most are easy to receive but almost all are often difficult to steward. He's all, "Here's a little baby that will need nurture and care for the rest of his life! You will rejoice when he rejoices, but you'll also suffer when he suffers! And sometimes he will break your heart! Enjoy!" 
And that just sort of applies to everything. Gifts from God aren't like finding a toy under the Christmas tree; they require thought and purposefulness and exhausting work and obedience. They require for us to choose to acknowledge them as gifts, or else they quickly become burdens and we quickly become complainers.

We don't like things to be hard, let's just be honest. Sometimes I cross my arms and think/pray, "And how is it again that this (insert hard thing) is a good gift from You?" I like the toy-gifts, not the work-gifts, because I like gifts of the comfortable, me-centered variety.

But I'm starting to notice that God-gifts take a while to unwrap. My kids, with their toy-gifts, take precisely four seconds to unwrap, exclaim over, and move to the next present. The joy is pretty short-lived, and it's a kid-greedy kind of joy, like, "Yay! OK, what's next?" 

I always noticed as a child that my grandparents waited a while to open their gifts, and now my parents do it too. They enjoy watching everyone open their gifts, and then, when it's their turn, they do it slowly, in a savoring kind of way. 

I also notice that my dad tears up a lot more, now that he's getting older and has lived more life. It's like he knows the secret that good gifts from the Father take time to unwrap, that they are to be held and considered. Savored.

I turn my blessings into burdens because I don't savor, I know I do. I'm kid-greedy, already moving on, thinking, "OK, what's next?" But what if I'm missing the "what next"? What if I have the "what next" already in my life? What if I'm complaining about the work of the unwrapping process and it's keeping me from the joy of this exact slice of life that God Himself wants to give me? 

I think my dad tears up more because he's unwrapped more of life. He sees the gifts for what they are, and he probably sees the ones he didn't savor as much as he should've. 

I imagine my Father God is like my grandparents, and now my parents, at Christmas. As all grandparents do, He's gone way overboard in the gift department. He's not over in the corner, looking for His presents, looking to be served. He's looking over to see if I've started to open that present, the one He picked out just for me. And, like any gift-giver, He simply wants me to enjoy it and then run to thank Him. This gift may challenge me a little bit--He knows that--but He's given me this gift after careful deliberation and with so much love. He also knows that part of the joy of receiving the gift  is the thought, purposefulness, exhausting work, and obedience it will require of me.

I do this little trick where I imagine myself in the future without the gifts I have today. I imagine how I would feel if I were unable to write or if my closest friends moved away or if it were us that God asked to move away. I think about not having our church, our friends, our children, our home, our jobs, and our families, and it helps me see quickly and clearly that these aren't burdens. These are blessings.

When I do my little trick, I just sit with them, tearing off a little more wrapping paper, savoring.

They aren't burdens any longer, as if they ever were. They are blessings--my blessings--and I can't help but run to my Father to say thank you.
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