April 27, 2016

Our Need Points Us to God

Over Spring Break, my husband and I took our three boys to the zoo, where we happily chased peacocks around and marveled at the length of the giraffes’ tongues as we fed them from paper cups.

We also happened by the otters’ cage just as a zookeeper was preparing to feed them. Holding a bucket of fish just out of reach of the otters, she removed one to a side room, began feeding the three left, and explained, “These are three male otters. They beg and eat as if they are starving, but they aren’t. Notice that as soon as they get their fish, they retreat to a private area to protect their food from getting snatched by their brothers.”

Sure enough, as they were each given a fish, they ran to separate corners and promptly masticated their food, smacking loudly, pieces of fish flying, eyes darting around. The zookeeper continued, “We have to remove the mom otter for a private feeding, otherwise her sons would take all the food.” And I’m sure, I thought to myself, all her sanity as well.

Somehow this all seemed vaguely familiar. With three growing boys, I have an ever-increasing grocery bill, and my name to them is not “Mom,” but rather, “Mom, can I have something to eat?” After dinner, there is typically a requested second round of dinner followed by a denied request for a third round of dinner and subsequent claims of starvation. Rather than a zookeeper doling out fish, I’m more like a lion-tamer in the ring, constantly fending off hungry tummies.

At the zoo that day, I was a bit jealous of the mom otter, removed from fish-smackers for a peaceful meal.

It’s difficult sometimes for me to understand my boys’ level of need for food. When the kitchen’s cleaned and closed for the evening, their constant demands can be frustrating. But in the end, I am their mother, and although I don’t fully understand their needs, I want to meet them, because I love my sons.

The fact of the matter is that I am no different from my sons. My needs are just as compulsive — for acceptance, for love, for purpose, for rest, for help — but I have lost the childlike instinct to simply ask my Father for my needs to be met by him. When my sons have a need, they immediately come to me. When I have a need, I veer toward shame, frustration, and guilt.

My boys aren’t above otter-like begging, but I have somehow grown accustomed to muting my needs through attempted self-sufficiency, or berating myself over having needs at all. I am easily frustrated by my own frailty and weakness, believing I suppose that neediness is akin to sinfulness. In fact, neediness is the necessary first step toward relating with and enjoying God, because neediness leads to dependence.

If we let them, our needs point us to God and usher us to his side, seeking an outlet, an answer, a fulfillment in him. In fact, the names he has chosen to call himself in Scripture speak these very things:

  • We all have a need for acceptance and belonging. God is called Father of the family we’ve been adopted into, with Christ as our brother. (Galatians 4:4–6; Romans 8:17)
  • We are satisfaction-seekers. Jesus is called the Bread of Life and Living Water, of whom we can daily partake. (John 6:35; John 4:13–14)
  • We all need outside help for spiritual vitality and growth. The Holy Spirit is called Helper, Counselor, and Convictor, because he enables and empowers us. (John 14:16–17, 26; 16:7–11) 
  • We all need deliverance from the power and weight of sin, along with the shame and guilt it births. Jesus is called Savior and Deliverer and Justifier, removing the curse of sin and making us right before God. (Galatians 3:13–14; Colossians 1:13, 19–22; 2:13–15)

God’s names, in turn, give us new names. He changes who we are. We are no longer orphans seeking our belonging; we are the Adopted. We are no longer thirsty; we are the Forever-Satisfied. We are no longer condemned; we are the Approved. We are no longer helpless and hopeless; we are the Helped.

The best part about the nature of our God is that he doesn’t begrudge our need. As a mother who loves her children imperfectly, I long to give my children everything I can possibly give them. As a Father who loves perfectly, he gives us exactly what we need in exactly the right way. Better yet, he understands our need, having walked in our human shoes of physical limits and emotional and relational pain.

In the face of our great need, the only option for us is to become like a hungry growing boy — or perhaps an otter begging for its fish. Rather than focus on the needs or think ourselves silly for having them, we must let our hunger pains point to the Need Meeter.

When we approach him, our Christ is no lion-tamer, pushing us away in our weariness and hunger and thirst. He instead says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

He receives us with gladness, because he is the very one we need.

April 20, 2016

Pastor's Wife, Don't Just Give to the Church

I'm having lots of fun with Facebook Live over on my Facebook page. Last week, I chatted with church planting wives about their most pressing questions, and yesterday answered questions from ministry wives. I hope to do many more of these in the future, so if you want to know when they're happening so you can join in, follow me on Instagram or like my Facebook page to watch for announcements. 
As a pastor's wife, I'm prone to think of church in certain terms, and it's mostly about how God has called me to lead and serve in ours. In other words, church to me is very often equated with giving: ministering to people in organic and inorganic ways, being available to those who have questions or needs, listening, asking heartfelt questions, helping make connections, welcoming new folks, counseling, greeting, and answering questions. Although I haven't always been able to say so, I genuinely count the ministry God has given me as an honor and a privilege.

But sometimes I am almost so robotically tuned to "giving" mode that I forget how much I need the ministry of the church myself. I don't mean that I forget I have needs; I'm well aware of them. I mean that I overestimate my importance in the church and underestimate the importance others are intended to have in my life according to God's design for the church. This is a dangerous perspective for any leader in the church.

Because here's what happens. When I wake up on Sunday morning after a busy weekend or with a heavy heart and know deep down that I have nothing in my flesh to give to others, it can be very difficult to prepare my heart and mind for church. Rather going to church with a prayerful expectancy to enjoy the mutual ministry of the Body, I'm prone to self-condemnation because of my weakness, grumbling, and hiding my needs from others. It's a self-protective, just-get-through-church perspective, because it requires me to be strong and to give but never receive.

In recent months, I've been thinking about this as God has done a ton of work in my heart regarding my identity, especially about how I try to identify myself primarily as a pastor's wife and how I try to be important and respected by pleasing people rather than looking to delight my Father. One sweet result of all this is that I've seen a renewed enjoyment of our church and a genuine excitement at how God is using people in our church to minister to others, including to me. I find myself going into church on Sundays with a refueled expectancy and craving to sing corporately, hear the Word proclaimed, remember the Lord's death in communion, see faithful men and women serve with their gifts, and hear stories of how God is working in the lives of other believers. I give and I receive, and I glory in the God who has authored and is sustaining this thing called the church.

I recognize that this change in perspective has occurred because God has done a work in me to help me properly estimate both my role in the church and the impactful ministry of the people around me who are walking in faith in everyday ways. I have so much to learn from them.

Like the ones grieving their loved ones both with real emotions and with a very real hope,
And the ones who are forgiving because they have been forgiven so much,
The ones who are soft to the conviction of God,
The ones who are fighting for purity and living purposefully and faithfully in unwanted singleness,
The ones who are seeking to serve rather than be served,
The ones who are living respectfully and faithfully before unbelieving husbands,
The ones who are loving children--adopted children, biological children, fostered children, special needs children, other people's children--as a blessing from the Lord,
The ones who are using their creative skills to put words to all of our doubts and emotions and yet then call us to faith,
The ones who are seeking to be a blessing in their workplaces,
The ones who are meeting tangible needs for neighbors, friends, and strangers,
The ones who are unafraid to step into the messiness of the lives of others, offering counsel and wisdom,
The ones who are seeking to bring the outsiders in,
The ones who are using their every spare moment to prepare Bible study lessons so that others might know and love the Word,
And the ones who are sharing their redemption stories so that others might know how their own redemption is possible.

These encourage me. They serve me. And oh how I need them! Because in their faithfulness and their ministry, whether directed at me or not, my faith is solidified and strengthened.

The church becomes ever more beautiful to me.

April 13, 2016

Three Lessons From the Farmer About Faith

Before we get to today's post, I want to invite you to join me for a Facebook Live Q&A today at 8 pm EST on my Facebook pageThis will be the first of many to come, where I'll answer YOUR questions about some of my favorite topics: ministry, church planting, grace, friendship, and whatever else YOU want to talk about. Today's topic: church planting. All you have to do to participate is like my Facebook page, watch along, and type in your questions in the comment box as we go. I'm so excited about this! Who's in? Let me know if you plan to join the conversation!
My brother-in-law Travis, a farmer, daily dips his hands in the fertile south Texas soil that is his family’s very provision. In the current season, the realized hope of summer harvest has past, and the remnants of harvested crops have been destroyed, and now the soil he sifts in his hands has once again taken center stage. He, along with his farmer-father and his farmer-uncles, has already turned, tilled, leveled, and molded the soil into neat rows and borders, preparing ready receptacles for seeds. These February days are for fertilizing — acres and acres must be covered, and then acres and acres must be implanted with various species of seeds: sorghum, sugar cane, cotton, sesame, or cabbage.
Their work — the daily wrestling with the soil — is circadian and perennial yet has only ever just begun. After planting, they will scrupulously monitor the soil, coaxing it with aeration, searching it for even the smallest of weeds, scrutinizing it for signs of pests or worms. And then they will wait, giving time and space for the sun and the rain and the mysterious and miraculous work of seeds becoming sprouts becoming stalks.

A farmer, perhaps more than most, knows something about faith.

Lessons from the Farmer
It’s no wonder that Scripture encourages us to look to the farmer as an example. When Paul tells Timothy to be strong in the grace of Christ, he points specifically toward the hard-working farmer (2 Timothy 2:6). When he exhorts the Galatian churches toward endurance, he speaks of perennial planting and patient waiting for an inevitable harvest (Galatians 6:9).

In my own life, I recognize my need to look to the farmer. I find myself more often growing weary in doing good as I plant and wait for growth and harvest. My husband and I have been married and in ministry for 16 years. We have parented for 13, with 14 years of intense parenting left to go. We’re completing our eighth year of planting and growing a church, and I’m staring ahead at years of more cultivating, weeding, and watering. I feel like a farmer who has enjoyed a good crop but who is looking at bare fields, preparing to start the planting cycle all over again.
At times, I feel trapped by the everydayness of life and how much work there is yet to do. I stand with the soil cupped in my hands, wondering if my labor matters or will amount to anything in the end. How do I continue in all God has called me to do without growing weary, especially when the work is demanding and the harvest appears so far into the future?

I look to the farmer for answers.

A Farmer Has an Unwavering Commitment to the Harvest
Travis tells me that farming is a way of life, a lifelong commitment. It’s not a typical job, he says, where you can give your two weeks notice and walk away. When you farm, you’re connected to a specific land, and you’ve invested in expensive equipment, a community, and oftentimes to previous generations of your family who have farmed before you. In other words, there is a deep-roots, big picture perspective required. The big picture is this: The farmer is covenanted to his work for a lifetime, and he works his land with the yearly harvest ever before him. Every investment in equipment, every decision regarding the precise planting time, every weed uprooted — all of it is done with the harvest in mind.

This reminds me that I too am called to a lifelong commitment to the harvest, and this lifelong commitment is played out in everyday small acts of devotion. A lifelong commitment entails unrelenting hard work with brief moments of harvest. I’ve believed the opposite about the Christian life — that short-term hard work would produce an unending harvest. I suppose I prefer a simpler, more glamorous way, but Scripture never portrays the Christian life this way. At its very center is a commitment to self-death — to a deep-root, big picture where instant growth, instant fruit, instant reward can never be the goal but rather a steady pace over the long haul.

A Farmer Lives and Works by Faith
Farming is backbreaking work, dirty work, detailed work, and, most of all, it is risky work. There aren’t any guarantees. A few years ago, Travis reminds me, when the crop stood beautiful and bountiful in the fields, ready for harvest, a hurricane blew through the Rio Grande Valley and wiped it away entirely. All that labor, all that grime, all that waiting, for nothing.

What is the point? Why would we invest everything in a risky venture? We might ask this, thinking of our own lives and our own efforts to produce a spiritual harvest and have seemingly harvested nothing or been wiped out entirely.

The farmer looks at his failed crop as a tangible reminder that the harvest inevitably belongs to the Lord. The farmer must be faithful to lay the groundwork for the harvest, but the harvest cannot be forced; it can only happen through the Lord’s providence.

Travis tells me of his cautious optimism as the harvest approaches each year, how at the last minute the weather can change, and how there is nothing he can do to protect his crop. He draws the connection for me to the Christian life:
It’s like parenting. I’m parenting my kids over a long period of time, and there are little moments that show me I’m on the right track, but I know I won’t see the full reward until the end. Even then, I may not see the reward that I want to see. As in farming, however, there are steps you have to faithfully take to get to the harvest. There are things that pop up in the growing season that aren’t helpful or what you want to see. We get rain that we don’t want on the crops. I’ve learned not to go look at the crops on the day it rains, because that’s when it looks the worst. It’s never as bad as we thought after we come through it, though, and even what doesn’t look good is working toward the end goal of the harvest. In the end, no matter what the crop looks like, we have to trust God that he’s going to take care of us.
To focus on fruitfulness is a frustrating endeavor; to work in faith is all we are asked to do. And it’s really all we can do. Our lives, like the farmer’s, are ongoing and various exercises in learning to trust God despite what we can see today.

A Farmer Enjoys a Unique Reward
I ask Travis if he thinks about the harvest every day. He says most days he does. On the days when you’re knee-deep in manure? “Yes.” When the irrigation line bursts? “Yes.” When you’re working sun-up to sun-down in the summer? “Yes, especially then. It’s the time of the year that we work the hardest, but it’s the most satisfying. You’ve made it another year, you’ve grown another crop. It’s financially rewarding, but it’s also the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve put it into the ground and you’ve harvested it.”

The reward is always in sight. There is joy in the harvest, and the greatest satisfaction belongs to the one who carefully cultivated it all along the way. The hard-working farmer, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:6, is the one “who ought to have the first share of the crops.” I’ve taken that to mean that the farmer eats of his labor, but, in talking to Travis, I see that it means so much more.

Joy results from his long-term faithfulness. He is content in his work and in seeing what it’s produced over the years. He has learned the secret joy of trusting in God’s providence and experiencing his constant goodness. But there is also joy for Travis in what he cannot see. He explains how one tiny seed becomes a huge plant that produces a thousandfold of seeds. The harvest multiplies itself and goes out into the world in a way that he will never see with his own eyes. But because he can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

In our work and in our weariness, let us look to the farmer. Let us keep the deep-root, big picture in mind. If we don’t give up, one day we will enjoy the final harvest and its bountiful rewards. Unlike our farming friends, this harvest, one cultivated by faith, is absolutely guaranteed

April 6, 2016

The Four Biggest Mistakes I've Made in Marriage

In March, my husband Kyle and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary. We got married during our seminary's spring break in 2000, went away on a lovely honeymoon, and then settled into a seminary house so small that our couch touched both walls in the living room and we could have a conversation with each other from any two points in the house. Those were the days.

The day we chose for our wedding has proven to be both incredibly fortuitous and incredibly difficult, as one year into marriage my husband became a college and missions pastor at a church, and guess when most college and mission trips are? Yep. Spring Break. We've spent many an anniversary with other people or apart from one another, sometimes even on separate continents. On our second anniversary, we were staying in a hostel in Austria, separated into girls' and guys' bunk rooms, and everyone on the mission team chipped in money so we could stay in a hotel together for a night. On our 14th, I was in Ethiopia, leading a team from our church as we served at a missionary hospital, and he was home holding down the fort. I tried to send him a Happy Anniversary email, but the electricity and internet blinking in and out prevented me from doing so.
The choice of our wedding date may have been our first mistake in marriage, but there have been many more I've made that have been of much greater consequence than how we spend our anniversaries:

Mistake #1: System Shut Down
In the beginning of our marriage, I had few conflict resolution skills. I also had not ever learned how to share my hurt feelings in a direct, unemotional way. My go-to response to these things, then, was what my husband eventually nicknamed System Shut Down: I would speak around my feelings, sending flares up in a variety of disconnected directions, often blaming and accusing my husband. When he inevitably didn't understand what I was feeling--because I never really said it directly--I would, in my frustration, completely shut down. I'd stop talking, forcing him to beg with me for my communication, and punishing him with my silence for not being able to read my mind.

Looking back, I realize I was insecure, afraid to share my true feelings because I assumed they were invalid. I also had never exercised any ability to pinpoint what it was that was actually bothering me in the first place, thus the emotional flailing followed by System Shut Down.

One day I was struck by the thought that my husband couldn't read my mind. He needed me to verbalize as straightforwardly and specifically as possible what I thought and felt in our conflict and communication. Making him fish around indefinitely for my thoughts and feelings as evidence of his love was not fair to him. This realization came with a challenge: I needed to be assured that my feelings were valid, but I also needed to prayerfully consider what I was actually feeling before going to my husband. Prayerfully considering enabled me to not only discern what specifically was bothering me, but whether it even needed to be said at all. If it needed to be said, I could say it directly and without manic emotions, prepared in advance with words and with the intention to forgive, listen, and ask for forgiveness.

Mistake #2: Overnight Mind Change Will Happen
Before I got married, I remember thinking that the struggles I had with temptation in my thought life regarding boys, confidence, physical appearance, and sexual desires would finally be over when I said I do. I was surprised to find, however, that my mind didn't change the moment I got married. As a married woman, I still noticed that other men were attractive. I still wanted to be thought of as attractive. I even struggled with the idea of never again experiencing the thrill of a new dating relationship. I was surprised by temptation, because I believed that an open and right avenue for physical and sexual intimacy (marriage) would instantly negate temptation's power in my life.

At first, I assumed this unforeseen temptation meant something was wrong with me. No Christian woman had ever warned me of it, so I was ashamed at being the "only one". But then I read 1 Corinthians 10:31: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man," and I knew I was not the only one. In considering why I desired to be attractive or to experience the thrill of new love, I discovered that my idols had come with me into marriage. When a godly friend confessed to me that she was thinking of a male co-worker too much because she enjoyed his attention, I knew that I too needed not only godly friends I could discuss this with and who would ask me hard questions, but I also needed to be constantly on guard and take every thought captive in order to honor my husband and honor the Lord. I'd always wondered how affairs got started, and now I knew: they start in the mind. This is where temptation first whispers in singleness and in marriage.

Mistake #3: Marriage is 50/50
I went into marriage believing it to be a two-columned endeavor: one column with my name on it and the other with his. Everything marriage incorporated, therefore, should be divided evenly under those two columns.

Although this works relatively well for chores, housecleaning, and even breadwinning, the 50/50 philosophy doesn't translate to the heart of marriage at all, because it basically teaches me that if he's not doing his part, I don't have to do mine. Scripture depicts marriage differently than this cultural idea. Biblical marriage insists that I not keep a ledger of who is doing what and not respect, submit, and serve only when my husband is loving and leading me. Biblical marriage calls me to give 100% to my husband as a way of loving the Lord Himself. Only in putting to death my self-serving, self-honoring record keeping could I forgive my husband, serve him without looking to be served in return, sacrifice for him when his needs were encroaching on mine, and seek to please him. 50/50 fights for self; seeking the good of the other in marriage is what best displays the gospel.

Mistake #4: Not Believing Him
When my husband speaks encouraging and thoughtful words to me, my first response has often been to negate him in my head. Instead of receiving his words as true and real, I've instead thought of the evidence of why he's wrong. When he says, "You are beautiful," I think of how I need to lose weight. When he says, "You are a great mom," I think of what I need to be doing better with my boys. When he says, "God is using you," I think of how I've failed Him. Sometimes I've even negated Kyle out loud: "Well you have to say that, because you're my husband."

One day, in response to my negativity and my unwillingness to receive his words, Kyle said gently, "Do you think that I'm a liar?" His words pierced me through. Of course I didn't think he was a liar. And his words to me, if I accepted them, could be life-giving, heart-swelling words. Why not just accept them at face value and receive his words as the gifts they were intended to be? It was a wonderful (and simple) lesson for me: believe and receive what he says.

Now it's your turn. What mistakes have you made in marriage and what has the Lord taught you through them?

March 30, 2016

Out-Of-Control Parenting

I figure that, when it comes down to it, most mothers fall into two categories: those who are pretty proud of their skills and those who are deeply worried that their flawed parenting is ruining their children for life.

Most of us, after a really great parenting day, when our kids have behaved well in public, have scooted our toes across the line to stand in the "pretty proud" category. But then in the next hour, when the children misbehave or we lose our temper, we trudge back into the category where we spend most of our mental energy wrestling with guilt and shame. It's so crowded on this side of the line that we assume it's a normal place to be and even a sign of a good Christian mother who hawkishly watches over her children and seeks to manage every aspect of their lives.

On both sides, the environment is toxic with pretend control.
We talk so often of teaching our children about grace, about how our love and God's love do not depend on what they do or don't do. Obedience doesn't earn love, we say. Obedience honors the love we already have, we say. We pound this drum, for it is the heartbeat of the gospel, the freedom song we long for our children to dance in.

But so often this message doesn't translate into who we are as parents. We try playing a beautiful song of grace for our children when we ourselves are deaf to the music and its rhythm.

I practically whispered to a friend once: "I feel so much inexplicable shame about parenting." My shame is not attached to something specific; I feel instead an aching combination of desire for the good of my children and a sad awareness that the brokenness of this world (that lives in me) will decay them. I want SO MUCH to do this parenting thing right, and I know SO DEEPLY that I am flawed. The flawed part, because it scares me, pounds at me with urgency: do all the right things, plan all the right things, teach all the right things, say all the right things, feed them all the right things! Right things! Do! Do! Do! Plan! Plan! Plan! Control! Control! Control! And what? My children will be saved? My hopes for them will come to fruition?

I can say this because I've learned the hard way: right things don't earn well-behaved children. Right things don't earn the Lord's approval and, therefore, good outcomes for them by the power of His hand. God is not a vending machine, and neither are my children.  

I am but a child myself, poor in spirit, weak in flesh. I have no ability to save, no ability to pierce a heart. My shame wells up at my own inabilities to perfectly direct the steps of my children. It has been born out of a worldly belief that I am in control, that if my plans are well and good that the world can be shifted right again, that I am guaranteed something.

Oh, I see. Standing on this side of the line, wallowing with the guilt crowd, is all about me. Parenting is about me, because well-behaved children look good on me. Bad parenting days are about me, because their poor behavior means I am an utter failure. The guilt is more akin to fear: that I won't have something to show for myself for all this hard work.

The freedom song of God's grace and love I sing to my children shoos away anything that hinders their intimacy with and enjoyment of Him. Why can't I sing it to myself, or better yet, let God sing it over me? Shame over my frailty makes me hide, but instead of turning to Christ, who has swallowed up my every sin, I turn to control and it's fruit: fear and guilt. Pretend control is tiring.

The third way of parenting--the fearless way--is living by the biblical truth that God is in perfect control and that His power is most seen in our weakness. We therefore must embrace our weakness (which is easy to assent to in theory but difficult to face in reality) and beg of God daily that His power will enable us to parent our children according to His will. This is parenting from an identity of Dependent Child rather than from the trapdoor identity of Perfect Christian Mother so many of us are seeking to master. The third way of parenting, simply put, is Out-Of-Control parenting: parenting not to get it "right" according to our own standards or in comparison to others but rather parenting for God's eyes and God's honor by God's power. When we practice Out-Of-Control parenting, we not only become more cognizant of both our powerlessness and God's power to save, but we put our children in the most secure, trustworthy hands possible. We listen intently for what how He wants us to lead and guide our children.

Christian parents, even more than you delight in your children, God delights in you. His will for you is to not to parent out of shame, guilt, or fear. His will for you is to parent out of dependence on His Holy Spirit living in you, who loves you and longs to help you imprint Himself on their hearts. Parent today out of the joy those truths bring. Let's stop playing pretend.