September 30, 2014

When Your Instinct Is To Defend and Protect Yourself

In my Bible study we've been studying Job, which is, I think, not a book anyone naturally gravitates to for personal encouragement. Job is a discomforting book, and Job's life experiences are beyond discomforting to me.
Then last week, after ruminating in Job and his despair upon despair, one of our elders preached at church about God's power being made perfect in weakness and suffering.

I felt an overwhelming sense that I needed to sit up straight and pay attention, that God had something to say to me, which immediately shot fear straight up my spine. God, are you going to ask me to suffer for You? I thought about His response to Job in chapters 38-40, where He highlights His perfect sovereignty. And I thought about Paul's lesson learned in suffering, that His grace is sufficient. I realized that He was reminding me that, come what may, God is sovereign and sufficient. I knew He was asking if I'd trust Him no matter what. Those are the times you kind of don't want to say yes because He really might test you.

That sense of foreboding has been hard to shake, because it's led me to fear suffering. But it's also taken me to prayer and to the Word, and I see God's intention was to teach me the opposite: to not fear suffering. What He's teaching me is to respond to my sense of vulnerability with faith rather than fear.

Because this is what I am recognizing: the older I get and the more the Lord calls me to walk forward in faith, the more vulnerable I feel. The three major ministries He's called me to--parenting, church planting, and writing--require me to hold my heart out in the most vulnerable position where it can be trampled, rejected, evaluated, and broken. Sometimes I discern rumblings of attack and I feel that my heart is too much on the line, that I'm going to be hurt or that these three things that I hold so dear are going to be damaged.

My instinctive response to this sense of vulnerability is to defend and protect myself and what I care most about. At those times, it would be easier not to care. It would be easier to draw my heart back and cup it away from hostilities or perceived hostilities. And that response tends to lead to anger, bitterness, feelings of failure, isolation, a lack of love for others, and insecurity. That response carries with it a strong feeling of helplessness, weakness, and--here it is, folks-- a fear of suffering.

So the Lord was addressing my fear of suffering, but He was really getting at my tendency to defend and protect myself. If His power is made perfect in weakness, He can only show that power when I lay down my defenses, remain vulnerable, and let Him be my shield and defense.

But let all those rejoice who put their trust in You;
Let them ever shout for joy, because You defend them;
Let those also who love Your name be joyful in You.
For You, O Lord, will bless the righteous;
With favor You will surround him as with a shield.
Psalm 5:11-12

I am not my own strength and defense and when I try to be, I only feed a fear of suffering and a distrust of God. The only way I can walk forward in faith and do what God has called me to do is to walk forward with my heart out in the open, soft and vulnerable, trusting that God will defend and protect as a shield about me.

Does that mean I won't experience suffering? We need only look at Job for an answer to that question. No, I'm not protected from suffering, but I am protected from being abandoned by the Lord in times of despair and need. I am loved by Him, so the arrows of rejection and being unloved cannot pierce that shield. I am allowed weakness, because He is strong in my place. I don't have to fear what may come, because He always goes with me, even into death. Simply put, the ultimate arrows of destruction cannot reach me.

So there really is only one response in the face of fear: I lay down my defenses, because my Defense is already there. 

September 25, 2014

When Someone Reaches Out, Reach Back {Advice for When You're New}

My absolute favorite way to serve in our church is to greet visitors and help new people get connected into relationships and into ministry areas where they can use their spiritual gifts. Every week, without fail, I'm standing at the church entrance ready to pounce on unsuspecting newbies and overwhelm them with love and information.
Doing this for six years has given me a unique perspective on the church and on people. Far above anything else, I've learned what an opportunity we have to connect with people simply by thinking like a visitor, noticing them, helping them, and welcoming them into the church. That's why I recently shared my friend's story of being new and exhorted the Church to consider our visitors.

But I also now have a unique perspective on how people approach visiting churches and trying to connect in them (or at least connecting in ours). I've seen all variety of ways that people approach being new, but I can usually tell on their second or third visit who will be the most "successful" at connecting within the church and who will most likely struggle.

The gist of it is this: the people who tend to struggle to connect are those who take a long while to reach out for the hands that are extended to them. I used to get so discouraged about those who remained on the fringe or who gave up coming no matter what we did to include them and reach out to them, but now I recognize that, at some point, they have to reach back and there is nothing we can do to make them reach back. I do think it is the church's primarily responsibility to reach first; a visitor should not feel the primary weight of figuring out how to connect. But if the new one rebuffs the hand that comes toward them, many times people will give them "space" until they're ready to jump in. The new one may then be left to feel that they have to make the first advances.

Perhaps you're the "new one" right now--you're brand new to a church or you're looking for one because you've moved. As a person who often interacts with newbies, here are some encouragements I would offer you:

Ask Questions
I love it when first time visitors ask me, "What are the main things I should know about your church?" or "How can I get involved here?" Every church is unique and it may help tremendously to ask questions, especially in regard to connecting: "What is the primary way I can get to know others?" Most churches have a process or a path of involvement that will, first, introduce their basic beliefs and values and, second, offer you ways to commit to membership, connect with others, and serve. Make an informed choice before committing to a church; once you're fully "in" you'll be more likely to make the effort of reaching back.

Don't try to short-circuit the process.
When you've decided on a church, go with the process or path that you've discovered by asking good questions. I see people struggle when they try to short-circuit the process or sometimes even try to alter the process to match the church they came from. If you're committing to a church, it will be far easier and smoother to engage the process for connecting that's already in place. And by the way, thinking a church will be perfect and meet all your needs without any effort on your part is going to severely short-circuit the process.

Do things that make you feel uncomfortable.
There are easy ways you can reach back but almost all of them are uncomfortable when you're new: approach people you don't know and strike up conversation, greet someone who is alone (and maybe new themselves), respond warmly to others when they approach you, ask questions rather than letting everyone ask you all the questions, and actually go to an event listed on the church bulletin so you can meet people. As I always say, push through the awkward, because it's worth it in the end.

Make yourself available.
Don't show up late and bolt the second church or Bible study is over. No one can talk to you if you do that. And, whether it's intended or not, it gives off a signal that you're not interested in being talked to.

Resist the urge to quit.
Being new takes so much mental and emotional energy. And connecting takes time. So don't give up. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep praying for friends and opportunities to use your spiritual gifts. Make the sacrifices needed to be at small group with your young kids. Don't allow yourself to quit going to Bible study even though you feel uncomfortable. Don't close off from others.

And if no one is reaching toward you, take it upon yourself to reach out first. Be what you want others to be toward you. I guarantee that everyone is looking for the same thing you are: to be loved.

I'm sure there is so much that could be added to this post. How have you been successful at being the "newbie"? What has God shown you about reaching back? 

September 23, 2014

We Mother By Following as a Child

We stand to sing at church; my youngest son grabs my hand and leans his head into my side. I instinctively pulse his hand to the beat of the song and he pulses back, a little game between us.

We sing of following after our Father, and as always happens during this specific song, I want to dance as I imagine running through a forest, holding His hand, laughing as I pursue my God, delighting in the smile on His face and the joy between us.

Instead I swing my son's arm, another little game between us, and, because it's terribly fun, he won't let me stop swinging. I close my eyes to run after my Father through singing, reaching for His hand as I'm holding a little hand at my side, this little hand that He's gifted me.

I pray for this little one. I want to explain to him the beauty of chasing after God, and of catching Him. I want to give him the picture in my head. I want to wave him to come along with me, and as I feel the tug of his hand, I realize that I'm simultaneously following and leading. I'm following my Father as a child and I'm also leading a child to Him.

I lean down to whisper in his ear. "Just now, I was praying for you to know how much you are loved by God. I love you, but He loves you so much more." He cocks his head, as he does when he is considering something that's been said. I can't see his eyes, but the dimple appears in his cheek, and I know he's smiling.

I stand straight again, still holding a little hand, and pray that God will help him know the call on his heart, and help him remember the words that I say in an effort to paint a picture of God, and help him chase after his Father.

And I pray that I will hold tightly to my Father's hand and remember that it's in following as a child that I am leading this child at my side.

This moment with my youngest boy also reminded me of a post I wrote about mothering my oldest son, who has special needs, and seeing God's faithfulness in his life. I hope you'll read it as a companion piece to this post. Find it here: Along This Road.

September 17, 2014

A Love Letter to My Church (and to Church Planting)

A woman who recently finished reading The Church Planting Wife wrote to tell me she and her husband are moving across the country soon to plant a church. In my response, I said, "Although church planting is one of the most challenging things I've ever been a part of, it has also been my greatest joy!" I never want to sugar-coat church planting--it's challenging, it's hard work, and it will refine you at the very core of who you are. But I also never want to play down the overwhelming joys of having seen it through, especially those first tough years.
This Sunday, our church will turn six years old. On September 21, 2008, ten of us gathered in our living room (five of us carrying the Hoover last name, only one of us a Virginian), where we ate a few brownies, sang a few songs, and opened up the Scriptures. A year later, we had 31 people and a new location for our gatherings, and I felt as if I'd been through an internal war of flesh and fear wrestling against an emerging faith.

On Sunday, we'll gather hundreds strong, and we'll sing loud and clap our hands, and an elder will teach us from Ephesians, and we'll stay after to talk and love, and I'm typing this through tears. How did this happen? When did this become my life? Though the challenges never stop and the responsibility only grows and I'm still not certain I'm good at this church planting thing, I would never give it up, not in a million years. Because I wonder if I ever saw God like this before. I wonder if I had ever walked in faith before this. 

And I'm not talking about God being good because of numbers and the fact that we're still around six years later. I'm talking about the eyes of my heart being opened to things only faith can see. I'm talking about God's bittersweet refinement and discipline. I'm talking about learning to place my security in Christ alone.

But mostly I'm talking about watching God at work in His church.

By calling us into church planting, God pulled out a chair for me in a prime viewing location and continually says, "Watch this!" as He displays His manifest wisdom right before my eyes. I love these people, and I love how He uses us and moves among us.

From where I sit, I see housemates walking with their sister through grief, offering truth and hope all the while. I see young professionals seeking to glorify God in their workplaces. I see pastors and elders working tirelessly and faithfully to equip the saints for ministry and rightly divide the word of truth. I see college students serving sacrificially for the edification of families. I see families serving sacrificially for the edification of college students. I see women eager to disciple younger women in the faith. I see a worship leader who writes songs that teach and give voice to faith in real life. I see children growing up together, coming to faith, and learning to love. I see two who have been with us from the beginning, one of whom gets little public credit for how she's sacrificed but who has been so essential to our church. I see faithful efforts to reach neighbors and co-workers. I see marriages healed. I see people walking in their gifts. I see those with an eye toward the outsider. I see couples caring for the orphan the name of Jesus. Even among the darkness and brokenness of life, I see reconciliation and hope and community and joy.

And I see a pastor's wife who is happy beyond measure. I love these people. And I love the God who has nourished us.

Of course, there are other things that I pray to see and believe I'll see in time. This is real life and real church, after all. And, as you read this, you may be tempted to think about me, or my husband, or our specific church and what we have or haven't done to make this happen.

But that's just the point: six years ago, this group of people as a moving whole did not exist. We exist because God called us into being. And in these six years, the things that we've seen have only been God's doing. I haven't changed a single heart and neither has my husband. We haven't authored faith or reconciled people, and we certainly haven't been the spark and motivation for sacrificial service.

So this six-year mark isn't a moment that I celebrate myself or my husband or any person's work. This is a moment that makes me tear up because I've seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

I love these people, I love this church, and I love our God.

September 12, 2014

What Jesus Might Say About Social Media

We are moving quickly into a day when life is real only as it's captured on social media. A milestone is not momentous unless a picture is posted on Instagram, a life circumstance is not fully experienced until it is discussed on Facebook, and an event isn't fun or meaningful unless it has a cute hashtag. We read 140-character philosophies or follow links to blog posts and articles, but how often do we--do I--evaluate what is said rather than consider how it might actually apply to the deep recesses of my heart?
I recognized how much life is moving onto social media when, on a recent morning, I read about the Good Samaritan and my first thought was, "I wonder if a modern-day Good Samaritan would help the beaten-up guy if the beaten-up guy wasn't on Twitter and, therefore, couldn't tweet about the good deed of the Good Samaritan? Would he only do it for the retweet?" 

Which led me to consider what Jesus might say about social media. Like most things, social media is a fairly neutral medium, but it's a medium that reveals our hearts so accurately. Social media has been a considerable gift to me in that it's helped me stay connected with friends, follow great writers, and hopefully encourage others through my blog. But it's also been a source of discontentment, pride, comparison, and envy; it's revealed my heart. Above all, it's shown me how difficult it is to remember that life is what happens off of the screen, not on it. 

What might Jesus say to us specifically about how we relate to social media? Perhaps this:
  • But when you do a charitable deed, do not let the hand you hold your smartphone with know what your other hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
  • But when you text, let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no', 'no.
  • No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and social media.
  • Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your blog, what you will write about or who will read it. Is not life more than the comments you receive on your blog? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
  • Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you on Facebook, do also to them.
  • A good Twitter feed cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad feed bear good fruit. Therefore by their feeds you will know them.
  • I say to you that for every idle word men may tweet, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.
  • These people draw near to Me with their Pinterest quotes and honor Me with their Instagram pictures, but their heart is far from Me. 
  • If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains millions of followers, and loses his own soul? 
  • Whoever desires to be great among you, let him use his online presence to be your servant.
  • O Jerusalem! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under wings, but you were not willing because you were distracted by your phone!
  • The thief does not come except to steal joy by drawing you to live life only online and kill you with comparison. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. 
He for sure says this: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:29-30).

God uses the internet, no doubt, but the internet can also be a wearying place for the heart. It doesn't always place an easy yoke and a light burden upon us. So perhaps it would be good for today to be still instead of swiping, read wisdom in Scripture instead of typing on little screens, listen to the Spirit rather than finding another blog to follow. We don't need another DIY treasure, we need Christ, "in whom is hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3). 

Today, I challenge you to still yourself before Him, resist distraction, and dive deep into that treasure. Give your heart a break from what can quietly weary you and go to the One who can truly recharge you.

That's where I'll be today. I hope you'll join me. 

September 9, 2014

What People Who Are New to Your Church Want You to Know

In the 14 years we've been married, my husband and I have only searched for a church home one time. It was during our seminary years, when we were first married and he had not yet become a pastor. After that season, he was hired by a church and then, 8 years later, we started one, so we've experienced church a little differently than most. 

But I will never forget being a visitor and, honestly, the experience has shaped almost everything I do in our current church. 
As a visitor, I remember being nervous and uncertain, but mostly I remember being eager--eager to find our "family", make friends, hear the Word preached clearly and powerfully, eager to worship, and eager to belong. When we weren't spoken to Sunday after Sunday, our eagerness deflated quickly. It still makes me feel uncertain when I think about it. 

Until you are new, until you're a visitor, it's difficult to understand what it's like and to put yourself in a visitor's shoes at your church, but it's so important to try. A warm, welcome, and helpful environment is one of the most essential ingredients for a person to become a follower of Christ and grow and connect within the church.

A sweet friend of mine just moved away to a different state this past summer. She wrote and told me of the loneliness and uncertainty she's feeling, especially in her and her family's efforts to connect to a local church. This is a woman who loves the Lord and, while mothering young children, sacrificially served in our church. She is eager not only to connect but to serve where God has taken her. She wrote what she wished others could see, which I'm sharing with her permission:

"It is the first day of Bible study. I am in a new town and have had a hard time making new friends. I have looked forward to today, to an opportunity to meet some sisters in Christ, hoping to find My People in the midst of a storm. Please make me feel welcome.

I come to the steps of the church. I have a child on each side, and a stroller. You all say hello, then watch as I try to lift the stroller up the stairs. Please help me.

I am in a new place. I don’t know where to go and don’t see any signs for where to bring my children. Please direct me.

After dropping off my children, I meekly walk back toward the main entrance. I don’t see any signs directing me where to go. Good! There are some moms behind me! I will wait for them, smile, and ask if I can go with them.  I try to make eye contact. They continue with their laughter and conversation and walk around me. Please just say hello.

I finally find the sanctuary, yet I don’t feel safe. I see all these sisters in Christ. But they all seem to know each other, and are not interested--or at least don’t seem to be interested--in making a new friend. Please help me find a place.

I bow my head and pray. I ask the Lord for the strength to get through the morning, and that I will now respond to others the way I wish someone had responded to me. Please, Lord, let me feel your presence when I feel so alone.  Let me find my place at Your feet.

I see a friend, the one person who has reached out. She smiles and makes room. Thank you for being like Christ and showing love."

My sweet friend is in a time of transition, as are many people at the start of this new school year. We will all more than likely encounter someone new in our churches and our neighborhoods this very week. Let's ask God to give us eyes to see the outsider, the new person, the lonely. Let's push through the awkward and interact with them. Something as simple as a helping hand or a warm welcome can show them the love of Christ and invite them into a community of believers. We may even have the opportunity to introduce them to Christ Himself.

September 2, 2014

When You Wonder Who Is Thinking of You

Last Sunday, I got up before the sun, poured my coffee, and snuck out to the porch to welcome the morning and to give my husband, who had risen long before me, a quiet house for the last of his sermon preparation. In another hour, the house would be loud with children and breakfast and finding shoes and all the things that fill our Sundays, but for a blessed moment, I sat in stillness with my warm cup.
These first Sundays of the new school year tend to be overwhelming for me. Hoards of students, many of them new First Years at UVA, descend upon our church, which is an incredible blessing and opportunity. And then there are the new medical residents and law school students and the countless number of new families and young professionals moving to our city. Again, we count this as an incredible blessing and opportunity to have them with us, and I absolutely love greeting each and every one of them as they walk through our doors and into our lives.

So as I sat on the porch watching the sun rise, I began mentally preparing for what church held for me later that morning. I prayerfully walked through each part of the morning from the time Kyle walked out the door to the moment I corralled my kids in the car to come home after church. I knew I would get to talk to tons of new people and hug the old-faithfuls. I knew I'd need to be prepared to be patient and gentle with whatever my children needed. I knew I'd be praying with folks brave enough to ask, and I knew I'd be answering questions and connecting people with one another. I breathed a sigh of relief when I recognized that I'd also be able to worship the Lord in song and be ministered to through the preaching of the Word.

By the man sitting in our living room.

And that's when I stopped thinking about what my morning would be like and thought about his.

Because sometimes on Sundays, in those early morning hours before my children are awake, I think ahead about what is to come that day and my heart is sullen and quick to complain. I love being a pastor's wife, but some days I have to choose to love it. On those days, it's typically fighting the feeling of being alone--getting the kids ready alone, going to church alone, coming home alone. Those thoughts can so easily turn into resentment toward my husband. Who is thinking of me today? Who is helping me today? That's sometimes what I'd rather think about rather than supporting my husband, worshiping God, and loving other people.

But I know where that trail of thought leads me--it is a trail of tears. And I've gone down that trail so many times and to the detriment of myself and so many others; I know how futile and frustrating it is to fight for my rights. I don't want to fight to be seen anymore. I want to fight to remember my opportunity, my joyful perspective on my husband, and the truth that God has given me.

This is my opportunity: I am a pastor's wife, which is a huge privilege. Yes, this means many difficult things, and my trail of tears will have me only focus on these. But oh the opportunities! I have opportunities to speak life and grace and love into so many. I have opportunities to use my gifts and my home and my story to display the beauty of Christ. I have opportunities to know and be known at the deepest level.

This is my joyful perspective on my husband: I am a blessed woman to be married to a man that pursues God and faithfully preaches Christ. Yes, it means he can't help me with the kids on Sunday mornings and that I attend church alone. But he is doing incredible work, and I get to join in that work by something as simple as parenting my children on Sunday mornings (and many, many other seemingly small ways I support him). Although it can be invisible, I have perhaps one of the most important jobs in the church: influencing the one who influences so many.

This is the truth that God has given me: "I do not count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:24) and "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:35). The trail of tears is thinking of myself and looking for others to give to me. The trail of joy and blessing is thinking of God and others. The fight that so often happens in my heart happens because this isn't a natural response, but it is possible by the Holy Spirit who resides in me.

I've found that these truths are applicable to most areas of my life, especially in motherhood, work, and friendship. It's so easy to think of myself, my needs and my wants. Who is thinking of me today? Who is helping me today? This is the flesh's pulsing question, and it draws us down a trail of tears. The freedom of self-forgetfulness, as Tim Keller calls it, is only possible, however, when we realize that there is someone who is thinking of us today, there is someone who is helping us today. We don't have to think of ourselves when we know that God is always thinking of us and helping us.

Knowing this, believing this, it's true: we don't have to count our lives dear to ourselves. We can give them away.

Be thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please Thee, even if as a result, I must sink into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream. Rise, O Lord, into Thy proper place of honor, above my ambitions, above my likes and dislikes, above my family, my health, and even my life itself. --from The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
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