February 27, 2019

When You Have Only a Seed of a Dream

Last year was one of the most disorienting I've had since the year we moved to Charlottesville from Texas with the dream in our hearts to plant a church. For ten years, I've carried that dream--nurturing it, acting on it, supporting it, and giving myself away in order to see that dream become a reality. And it has. Our church is a beautiful testament to me of God's faithfulness and goodness.

As all beautiful, living things do, the church has grown and changed over the years, but I haven't always wanted to change along with it. I've never stopped wanting the dream, because I liked who I've been in it,  and I liked forging it into reality alongside my husband.

I've loved these difficult, brutal, sweet years of church planting. But we're not church planting any longer and, in all honesty, I've felt a bit lost for a while now. I've forgotten who I am apart from the dream. I, of course, am still pulsing along in the fabric of who we are as a church, but somewhere along the way, as it often does for church planters and their wives, the reality of the dream became entwined with my identity.

The Lord has graciously and patiently been calling me forward, to a new time and space, while at the same time splitting me from these false identities I've formed for myself. With him, this invitation and splitting is always a call to peace and freedom. But I have hesitated time and again, holding tightly to the glorious days of the past.

Who am I without this dream? 
I am not left without dreams, however. I have a new dream forming inside, one that's incubated for several years now. My heart beats a bit faster when I imagine what could be, and I know the reality of what could be, because I've sampled it already. I sense a growing passion implanted within me by God himself, but along with the passion is a catch in my spirit, a certainty that God is saying, "Not yet." If God wills it so, this dream belongs somewhere in the future. I, however, long to reach out and grab those days and those opportunities from the future and bring them to now.

Who am I without this dream?

I am this person here, that's who I am. I'm here in this place, among these people, with this limited time and these opportunities. I am, in other words, right where God wants me, doing exactly what he wants me to do.

I have not liked this truth much. That is to say, I've resisted and despised the disorientation of it, of seeing one dream completed and the other far off on the horizon. In this in-between, I want to grab on to something solid, something that feels significant, something that feels like a guarantee.

But I'm not promised my dreams. I'm not promised the choice of place and opportunity. I'm promised God. And he is pointing in one direction, over and over and over: do what is in front of you. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's not just that I'm to do what's in front of me. It's as if he is inviting me to enjoy doing what's in front of me. To enjoy the smallness. Enjoy the thinking and learning and growing. Enjoy the everyday acts of faithfulness that seem insignificant. With God, there is just as much fanfare over the small and unseen as the spotlight or the stage, if it is an intentional act of faithfulness done in his honor. He is with me here in this time and space, and because he has me here, I'm in his will.

So what do I do with my dream? I hold it, patiently waiting, for if it is implanted by God, he won't waste the dream or the passion behind it. I also hold it loosely, trusting that if the dream is really mine wrapped up in God language, he will remove it altogether. And I choose to want that if he does.

There is a tension, almost a grief, in the waiting. I feel sometimes as if I'm going backward, as if the best years are behind me or that I missed my chance. Perhaps God has moved on to someone else. Perhaps I get only one beautiful dream becoming a reality, not two.

But I know enough now to know that God doesn't waste anything. The times I've previously been limited by circumstances or graciously held back by God's providence were times of growth, almost like a seed nestled in the soil. I'd have had nothing to say, no gumption to lead in our church if it weren't for those years of smallness. The limits and the obscurity and the lack of opportunities to use my gifts were the very things I needed in order to fulfill the purposes God had for me later.

I know he's doing the same thing in me now.

Who am I without this dream? I am his.

So I nestle myself in the soil, waiting, while he nurtures me.

This post was commissioned by one of my Patreon supporters, who asked me to answer this question: "When God has planted a seed but there is no fruit to be seen yet, how do you wait well?" Thank you, Melissa, for making the "By Faith" podcast possible through your support! If you'd like to join her and others in supporting my work (and discover how you can commission a blog post), find out more here.

February 20, 2019

What To Remember When You Are Weak

There are many days when I feel the weight of my inability to overcome my flesh. Do you as well? It's not a bad thing to know our weakness. In fact, recognizing and acknowledging both our sin and our inability to eradicate our sin is important. This is what the Bible calls being poor in spirit; we're spiritually bankrupt in and of ourselves, and we know it. But what we do at that point of recognition is vital. Do we vow that we'll, by sheer willpower, try harder next time? Do we wallow in self-condemnation? Or do we heed the call of Christ?
The gospel calls us to look outside of ourselves to Christ. When we look to him for our salvation and help by faith, we see how we're spiritually rich. He's taken away our sin, but we often don't consider that he's added to our account as well. In his grace, he's poured into us his righteousness, the inheritance he himself earned, and his Spirit, who helps us love God in return through obedience. 

It's at the point of recognition, when we know our weakness, that we must preach this gospel to ourselves. Here is what I go back to again and again as I fight to remember what exactly this gospel is:

This is the gospel: not that we are right with God because of what we do, but that we are right with God because of what Christ did for us.

The gospel can be twisted so easily, and we have believed the lies of the goodness gospel. It has whispered so convincingly that our salvation was a gift received and the rest of the Christian life is up to us and whatever effort we give it.

But we will be fools no longer; we will not pursue what we already possess. We won’t be debtors, and we will not give our lives over to the fruitless chasing of goodness and image and religious plate-spinning.

No, we will not be obsessed with goodness; we will be obsessed with God. Instead of dictating to him how he should be honored, we will give ourselves to what he says are the most important things: receiving from him each day and letting his love and grace compel us to worship and to love and to serve with joy. Our external actions will mirror and flow from our internal affections.

We believe that God is a singing God, a celebratory God, and that he delights in us. We release our grip on our own agendas, ambitions, and dreams of self-glory so that our hands are free to receive his love. We refuse to stiff-arm the truth of God’s love because we feel unworthy. Christ stands in our place and God loves his Son, therefore God loves us.

We know that the Christian life is impossible on our own merit. We can’t love sacrificially, forgive easily, or obey joyfully without someone leading and helping us. And so we don’t walk in self-sufficiency but rather we depend on the Holy Spirit, our Helper, to lead and empower us. We practice spiritual disciplines as a means of asking for his help and leadership.

We identify with Christ, and our true home is built with the bricks and mortar of grace. Because of his grace, we are free from thinking too much about ourselves and free from thinking too much about the opinions others have of us. We make it our aim to please God alone.

Assured of God’s love, we are compelled by him to love others. We participate boldly in the community of the Beloved, where we sharpen and are sharpened, and we go as Sent Ones to share the love we’ve experienced.

Assured of God’s grace, we give grace to others, with the goal of unity rather than uniformity. We trust God to lead us all, and we know that sometimes he leads us differently on open-handed, secondary issues. Different is quite beautiful, so we use our differing gifts to show off the beauty of Christ and we champion others as they use theirs.

Assured that we possess the greatest treasure, we turn from false hopes that only compound pain and suffering. We fix our eyes on Christ and run hard the race he’s marked out for us. In our trials, we give him our hearts, letting him produce in us character and perseverance and an enduring hope.

In all these things, we live and die and live again, all by Christ. We do not allow ourselves to be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. That makes Christ nothing. We stand firm in grace’s freedom, where Christ is everything.


Friends, what you've just read is a manifesto I wrote to summarize and help readers internalize the message of my book, From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel. Print your own copy of the Grace Manifesto for quick reference as you fight to remember the gospel. You can also read Chapter One of the book for free here.

The best news is that the entire ebook is on sale until February 28 for only $1.59 on Amazon and Christianbook.com and $1.99 on Barnes & Noble! Grab your copy today and let me show you what I've learned about preaching the gospel to myself.

February 13, 2019

Cultivating and Using Your Gifts Takes Risk

At some point, you'll recognize that God has given you eyes to see what others cannot or do not see. Whether in your church or your community, you'll see a need or an opportunity, as well as the hole or the lack, and you'll feel a little nudge inside that perhaps you're the one who God is compelling to meet that need.

That nudge is something to pay close attention to, because it may just be your "for such a time as this." However, recognizing the nudge and actually taking action on it are two different things. Teetering between the thought and the action is great risk and a long list of anxiety-provoking questions.

What if the thought of pursuing this specific calling or taking this certain action isn't from God? 
What if others see me and think I'm prideful, naive, or silly? 
What if nothing comes from it in the end, and I feel like a failure? 
What if my motivations aren't totally pure? 
What if I start and am unable to finish? 
What if it's not the right time?
What if I don't actually have the gifts and skills I thought I did?
We should certainly take our time, prayerfully considering our internal motivations, our capacity in our current season, and whether or not we can follow through on commitments. But we should also consider God and others.

We must first look at God and consider if the greatest hindrance to our service is that we lack faith in his abilities. Most of the time we only consider ourselves. We look at our abilities and determine we don’t have enough. We look at our logistics and can't figure where the resources are going to come from. We look at our circumstances and wonder how we'll get from Point A to Point B. Looking at ourselves doesn’t make us bold, but looking at God and finding our source of confidence in him helps us take risks.

Second, we should look at others, or rather, where God is pointing others out to us. What unmet needs consistently plague you? What do you think everyone should be passionate about? How has God arranged you within your local church and within your local community in order to be a part of his work and his solution? What would he have you do by faith in dependence upon his abilities in order to meet a need?

Perhaps nothing. Perhaps nothing right now. But perhaps something, and this is where we must take a risk. How do we push through the risk of cultivating and using our gifts? 

We discern more clearly what our gifts and callings are by trying what we think he's leading us to do. Only by doing--practicing the use of our gifts--will we begin to see more clearly. For me, trying specific gifts on for size opened up a whole new set of questions and obstacles. But by acting, God had the opportunity to burn away my improper motivations for service, and show me more clearly how he's made me and wants me to serve him.

God gave you the gifts that you have, and so he intends that you use them as an act of worship back to him. In fact, that's how I first began to recognize what God was compelling me to do: I felt as if by serving in a specific way, it was an act of worship before the One who gave me the desire and the skills in the first place.

People may or may not cheer you on as you serve. They may or may not notice. They may or may not wonder, as we fear they do, just who we think we are. However, although we serve for the benefit of others, we're ultimately obeying God's command to use everything we have to bring him honor and to edify the church. God is not pleased only when we're successful or if other people celebrate. He's pleased with the faith it takes to do something for him and believe he will use it as he sees fit. This is perhaps one of the most freeing reasons we risk using our gifts: the results aren't up to us, nor are they requirements for pleasing God. We're the sowers, and God is the grower, and so our focus can simply be acts of service by faith.

New Season of By Faith
When it comes to using your gifts, friends, don't just take my word for it. Join me for a brand new season of By Faith, starting February 19, as we tackle the questions, motivations, and difficulties related to cultivating and using our gifts. I've invited guests such as Russell Moore, Caroline Cobb, Melissa Kruger, Anna Perez, Jared Wilson, and Christie Purifoy onto the show to explore with me what it means to serve by faith.
How are they using their unique gifts and talents in their specific context and season of life? How did they come to know their gifts? What challenges are they facing as they serve? And what are they learning that can help us where we are? These are the questions I hope to answer, with the goal of encouraging, challenging, and equipping you to step out by faith and use your particular gifts for God’s glory.

The season kicks off next Tuesday, February 19, and in celebration I'm doing a giveaway of each of my books on Facebook and Instagram. The Instagram giveaway also includes a $50 Amazon gift card! 🎉 
Enter one or both as many times as you like. Click through to Facebook and Instagram to get all the details and to throw your name in the ring.

Subscribe Today
In past seasons, I've posted on my blog when new episodes released. I'm saving this space for more frequent writing, so I will no longer be announcing new episodes here. Please subscribe today on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, or Spotify so you don't miss out! And of course I share new episodes on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, so come give me a follow. 

Looking forward to launching this new season and sharing these conversations with you!

February 6, 2019

His Vow Came First

Last week my husband Kyle and I went away overnight, and as we always do when we take a step back and view our life together, we marvel at where we've come. We're no longer young newlyweds, young parents, nor young church planters, and the process of becoming not young has been a harrowing journey. There have been hard-won lessons, hard-fought victories, and there have most certainly been tears. There is only one explanation for how we've made it through some of our darkest days intact: there is a God, and he's carried us.
Driving home, the bare trees blurring into gray outside my car window, I thought about our wedding day and the vows I made to Kyle. I vowed to be faithful, and I meant it, and I have been, but I was so incredibly young when we married, and I really had no idea what it would take to fulfill my promises.    

I thought then about what faithfulness is, and how a steadfast marriage is a picture of a greater reality of God's faithfulness.

Because sometimes I feel as if I'm shouldering the world. When I think ahead to what needs to be done, or when I consider what others within my reach need, or when I wonder how I can make the future unfold in just the way I'd like, I feel the heavy weight of my desired faithfulness.

This is me, playing God again, attempting to pick up precisely what he says I should, no must, cast upon him.

I'm learning, however slowly, to be human, and part of the learning is accepting that God himself is not impatient with my humanness.

Because I certainly am.

But God vowed his faithfulness to me long before I gave myself to him, and the treasure of this brings me such comfort. When I consider where I've come in this life, I know I've only been able to remain faithful because he is faithful. He's held me up and together. He's upheld me when I in my weakness couldn't hold onto anything.

The seams of my self--the self-righteousness, self-perseveration, self-focus--have burst open within the past year, and it's been as painful as it sounds. But it's been the sort of pain that's like a high fever burning off what harms the body; it's the good pain of sanctification burning off death, precisely so life might flourish.

God's motion has felt slow at times, but then his conviction comes like driving rain, and in those times I haven't been able to capture all the truth and grace and hold it together as one. I find myself wanting to "get it," to learn the lesson, complete the assignment, move onward and upward.

And there it is again, the humanness like a prison cell, my frantic turning of the key of self-ability as my supposed way out.

However, when I consider the present moment, my humanness so real and constricting, I remember that he is faithful. He will always be faithful to lead me, help me, and move in me, because this is who he is. No matter how weak or frail I feel in my faithfulness to him, he is delighted in the current working of the Spirit in me.

My life is not dependent upon my own faithfulness.

It's dependent upon his, and this is what it means to be a Christian, that his vow of love came before mine.

But God proves his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

January 23, 2019

Love Where You Live

My friend Shauna Pilgreen has a new book out called Love Where You Live: How to Live Sent in the Place You Call Home. Hopefully you heard her on my podcast this past season when she stopped by to talk with me about befriending our non-believing neighbors. Her new book elaborates on what she shared with me, and I was honored to give it this endorsement: 
We often wonder why God has us in the places and roles we're in, perhaps because we believe if we were somewhere else doing something else, we could finally be used by the Lord. In Love Where You Live, Shauna reminds us that whether God calls us to stay or go, we are a sent people, and therefore our places and roles have divine purpose. Through biblical stories and her own story, she illustrates practical ways we can live as the sent people we are. For those who are new to an area, for those needing fresh eyes for where they already are, and for those needing a jumpstart toward loving their neighbor--you'll find this resource immensely helpful.
I meant every word of that endorsement. Shauna has written an incredibly relevant and helpful book, and I recently asked her a few questions about why she wrote it.
In the subtitle, How to Live Sent in the Place You Call Home, what do you mean by "live sent"?

Living sent is a lifestyle, a perspective, not a t-shirt slogan or an employee badge. It’s the way of seeing where you live and what you do and in whose Name you do it in. To dwell in a place because you have purpose beyond the surface. Sent is a move with purpose.

A move typically happens in a set number of hours, days, or months. It's tangible. You can hold the contract, paperwork, packaging tape, and keys. Living sent takes time and it varies from one individual to another. The extroverts out there are hosting a party by the following weekend and us introverts are willing ourselves out the door, hopefully by day 13!

Living sent is perspective beyond the boxes. This heart-intensive philosophy embraces what can take place despite the emotions of a move and the potential of what lies outside the walls of your home. Living sent is a mindset. A willingness to love the place you now call home and receive all that it has to offer.

You’re living in a place that you never expected to be. Tell us how you ended up in San Francisco.

It wasn’t my idea! From my childhood I’d dream of living at the ends of the earth in an obscure village, telling people about Christ. A global US city wasn’t on my list of possibilities whatsoever.

To give you the most vague and most honest answer, we ended up in San Francisco because God wanted us here. And you and I both know from experience, that He doesn’t reveal all the whys on the front end. It’s a dance as I describe it in the book. His move, our move. His move, our move. Working in tandem to trust and obey as He leads us - and it’s no typical dance!

On paper, we moved to San Francisco to start a church. And that doesn’t come with a “how-to” guide either. Every journey is different. For us, we first believed our call was to start a church in a global and strategic US city where the percentage of Christians was low. Then after a lot of research, prayer, conversations and a trip to SF, we took the posture that we would be SF residents in 16 months and did everything we could to learn from afar before the move, so that when we arrived, the edge from culture shock wouldn’t be so drastic. That didn’t happen like I had hoped either. Mentally, I was there. It has taken my heart a while to catch up!

How did you begin to know your city?

My approach would have probably looked different if it were just me and Ben, but we had 3 little boys, ages 2, 4, and 6, when we moved. So imagine a stroller and a scooter leaving an apartment complex, holding a phone with google maps, and making sure I packed enough snacks for all of us, cause there was no telling how the adventure was going to go! I wrote a 31 day guide for us (it’s how I’m wired) giving us something to do every day for the first 31 days. This was every bit intentional. Every bit strategic. I had no clue what I was doing though, especially not the outcome. Some days were intense - we’d board the train which required counting heads and limbs and collapsing a stroller and a scooter in guinness book record time! Some days were easier - we made cards for the elderly home across the street from us.

It got us outside of the apartment, outside of the boxes, and outside of ourselves. It has proven to be foundational. Getting outside and exploring your city, makes you more okay with making mistakes and learning and figuring things out. We get brave! We get curious. We make friends. We become local.

What would you say to someone who is trying to discern if God is calling them somewhere else?

Have an internal and external gauge. This isn’t verbatim from the Holy Bible, but I do think it’s got some biblical backing! An internal gauge has questions like: What do I think of this place? What do I connect to here? What sense do I get in my spirit? Can I thrive here? An external gauge has questions like: Can I find community here? Would I contribute to the needs of this place? Can I see myself living here? Could my gifts be used here? Got family - you’ve got to ask these questions for the whole as this move most definitely affects everyone.

We answered these questions for our kids as they didn’t get a vote- they outnumbered us! But we most assuredly took their personalities, ideas, thoughts, and questions into serious consideration.

I describe this process as the stirring and the urging. Stirring is something that keeps coming to mind that you can’t shake and aren’t always sure where it came from. The urging is like a prompting that often doesn’t make sense, but it’s undeniable the work of the Holy Spirit.

Then I say, find someone to share this with and pray with you. Bringing into the light make it more real and causes you to make a decision.

What would you say to someone about living sent though they’ve never moved?

It means the same for all of us, but looks different to each of us. Moving shakes things up a bit and gives us new perspective, but we can all fall victim to complacency and comfortability and forget the reason why we live where we live.

On the lighter side of this, if you’ve been doing the same thing for quite some time, like you can’t even remember how long you’ve been doing the commute, or using that grocery store, or going to the same gym, or hanging in the same circle of friends - it’s time to change things up. Take a different route, go to the gym at a different hour. Open up your circles to newcomers.

On a stronger note, see longevity as a powerful tool to loving where you live. You bring value to a community because of your years there. I’m 8 years into calling SF home and I see people I know and can linger on the sidewalk in conversations because of living here this long.

The cautionary tale is to pay attention. Don’t fall asleep in your hometown. God is doing a new thing and He wants you to be a part, if not leading the way for those who are moving into your neighborhood.

How has the mission of living sent involved your whole family?
It’s been a family thing since day one. But I’ve talked with families in all seasons and I can say that this lifestyle can start today and it can be for any makeup of the family. We see that everything we do from work to play to church to community as being a together endeavor. We show up Sam’s baseball games and learn teammate names. We make introductions asap with each year’s teachers as their cheerleaders. We go where they want to go, be it a certain park or favorite restaurant. We help set up and host for small group and neighborhood gatherings in our home. We’re not here for dad’s job. We’re here because God has a plan for all 6 of us. We did tell our oldest one night at bedtime that he kinda has to live here until he’s done with high school, but then he’s free to go wherever he wants to go. That it will be a time for him to ask those internal/external gauge questions. But for now, we’re all citizens of SF and that means a whole lot! Our kids have their own circles and quadrants as they get older in the city, but we operate out of the same hub (home) and when that’s the case, we’re the Pilgreen family. There’s strength in living this lifestyle as a family, same is true as a faith community.

Why is observing and understanding the culture of a place important?

Woe to any of us who take our previous culture and expect our current culture to get with it! Recall when God sent His people into exile into Babylon. This place was not like where they had come from on so many levels. God told them to build houses, grow gardens, etc. He essentially told them to move into the neighborhood and learn from their new neighbors.

When does someone feel valued and seen? When we listen and ask questions and learn from them. The fastest way to lose your job is to come and make changes and ignore all the work and history of the company. Same is true with cultures. Listen, ask questions, learn. You will start to make a difference when you know the difference that needs to be made.

What is one step someone can take today to begin to love where they live?

Go for a walk.

Find a new place in town to sit and think and watch.

Take someone out for coffee.

Invite someone over.

Do just one of these today. And then I’m going to ask God to meet you there and help you with the next step! 

Grab your copy of Shauna's book today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Lifeway, or Christianbook.com. Find out more about Shauna and how she's loving where she lives at shaunapilgreen.com.