November 15, 2017

Hope Versus Hope

There are certain verses in the Bible that, in their beauty and phrasing, snatch my attention and curiosity every time I read them. One of those is a portion of Romans 4:18: In hope he believed against hope. The "he" in the phrase is Abraham and the "hope" to which Paul refers is that Abraham would one day see, with his 99-year-old eyes, a son to call his own.

In hope he believed against hope. Over and over, I read and repeat it to myself under my breath, letting it settle deep inside. That phrase, it seems to me, describes the very essence of what it means to be a Christian. There is one hope, and then there is a very different hope, and they contrast and even contradict each other, fighting for prominence in our hearts. The Christian life is one big fight: hope versus hope. To which hope will we turn in belief?

Abraham believed against earthly hope. In other words, he didn't believe in what he could see or touch or make rational sense of. He could have. He could've considered his physical body, his wife's womb, his circumstances, or his past life experiences and pronounced judgments on what could or couldn't or would or wouldn't happen. A 99-year-old producing a baby? This baby producing nations? Ha.

If Abraham had hoped in the things of this earth, he would inevitably come to hopelessness. Hopelessness is the end of earthly hope. Hopelessness is actually a form of hope, because it causes one to place his or her full weight on faulty hopes, find those hopes crumbling beneath them, and then believing with certainty that hope doesn't exist at all.

Abraham's age may have actually helped him believe God, because the promise of a child to a 99-year-old was so absurd that it was laughable. It often takes us a lifetime to recognize and admit that our earthly hopes are crumbling beneath us and have always been crumbling. But Abraham had lived a lot of life, and he knew that earthly hopes couldn't hold him.

So Abraham chose the absurd hope. He didn't look to himself or to his circumstances; he instead looked with spiritual eyes at God, the one "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." He hoped in what he couldn't see with his physical eyes, because he hoped in an unseen God.

Hope versus hope.

We have this same choice every single day and in every thought and situation: by which hope will we live? I've faced it recently in parenting. In light of what I desire for my children to become, I can hope in their education, in my own efforts to teach and discipline them, or in trying to keep them safe and protected. I find myself most often placing my hope in control. If I can control everything they see and do, or if I can control their circumstances, I believe I can do a supernatural work in their hearts and grow them up into godly men.

But this is no hope! I am, figuratively speaking, a 99-year-old barren woman. I have no ability to produce spiritual crops in my sons. I am not my own hope.

And you are not yours.

This is the fight of the Christian life: to get our hope off of ourselves or our circumstances and onto our unseen God.

An earthly hope is crumbling, forever slipping out of our grasp, destined for hopelessness. These feelings I've wrestled with of restlessness, of worry, of fear--these are the feelings borne from the wrong hope.

But hope in God breeds faith and security. It is not the hope we speak of when we say, "I hope I'll get to see my friend tomorrow," as if it might or might not happen. Hope in the Bible is a sure thing, a guarantee. True hope--a hope that will hold us--is a guarantee spoken by a God who doesn't lie.

The guarantee is that we've been given a Son to call our own. In him, we have forgiveness of sins. Through him, we have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven. By him, we have help and power through his indwelling Spirit now in this time. We are never without hope.

Earthly hopes will seduce us away and promise us things that they cannot give. Our own flesh will cause us to doubt the very forgiveness Christ promised. We are prone to falling back into the pride of believing we're able to produce spiritual fruit or correct the injustices in this world, that our hope is in ourselves.

What will we choose? Will we in hope believe against hope that God is at work now and that one day we will see him with our own eyes? We now look for him through a glass dimly, but one day hope will fade away completely, because hope will no longer be needed.

We will have a Son to call our own. And we will see him with our own eyes.

October 30, 2017

NEW Friendship Resources: Bible Study Guide, Leader Guide, Discount Code, and More!

It's always a thrill to hear from women who are reading Messy Beautiful Friendship and finding it helpful. One of my favorite responses was from a reader who passed the book along to her mom, who also read it and was prompted to reconcile with a friend after many years of silence between them. Praise the Lord!

In addition to individual responses, I'm always so happy to hear that women are reading and discussing the book together. I truly believe so much good can happen when we talk openly about how we've experienced friendship, what its joys and difficulties inherently are, and when we consider together how we might approach our relationships with one another in a more biblical way. If you think about it, friendship is the one of the key relationships within the Church and in how we reach our communities with the gospel. We need a solid understanding of how God designed us to befriend others and receive their friendship! Here's a picture sent to me by Dana of her Houston book club:
As women have been reading together, many have requested a discussion guide. I'm happy today to answer that request! Not only have I written a discussion guide for leaders, I've also written a Bible study for readers that is meant to prepare them for group discussion. And in celebration of all of this, I'm passing out party favors!

Here are the new resources on friendship and the ways you can interact with them:

Study: A Five-Week Bible Study Guide
Download a free, five-week Bible study that will guide you through passages and questions related to friendship, such as how God designed friendship and what kinds of attitudes and mindsets we need in order to navigate friendship well. The study is best used as a group study and is designed to be completed as you read Messy Beautiful Friendship, but it can certainly be used by an individual as well.

Download your free Reader's Guide here.

Discuss: A Six-Week Group Gathering Guide for Leaders
Perhaps you want to use the Bible study guide in order to discuss friendship with others? Download a free, six-week guide to gather and lead others through the Bible study guide and the reading of Messy Beautiful Friendship.

Download your free Leader's Guide here.

Give: Gift a card and/or personalized copy of Messy Beautiful Friendship this Christmas!
If you've already read Messy Beautiful Friendship and want to gift it to your friends and family for a birthday or Christmas present, I've set up shop online where you can purchase books and detail how you want them personalized. For U.S. addresses only at this time.

In addition, download some free cards inspired by the book to go with your gift, such as the one pictured here. Or if you aren't purchasing, simply download and use the cards for your note-writing and gift-giving. Fun!

Purchase a signed copy of my books here. 
Download free "friend" cards here.

Listen: $5 Audio Version of Messy Beautiful Friendship is joining in the fun by offering the audio version of Messy Beautiful Friendship for only $5 when you use the code "FRIEND" through November 3! Grab your download and listen while in carpool or driving to work or folding laundry.

Grab your download here.

I pray these new resources serve you and your church well! As you use them, I'd love to hear what you're learning. Share your thoughts and group pictures online using the hashtag #messybeautifulfriendship, or just drop me a line. Love to you!

October 25, 2017

How to Diagnose Your Discouragement

We sat in the sun and its heat beat down in the same way my heart beat up. I felt sunny, as if my heart were strolling along and whistling back at the optimistic blue sky. But my friend was a different kind of blue, and she told me why, and her tears sprang easily. I could see so clearly how God was using her and moving in her and gifting her and loving her, but her heart was clouded by that constant and persistent enemy: discouragement.
The questions I asked my friend and the words I spoke over her in response to her discouragement came in quite handy, for within the day the clouds rolled in on my own sun.

Discouragement feels much like an overcast day, doesn't it? Heavy, foggy, and cold. The clouds rolled in on me for various reasons--someone found my work distasteful, a child dodged (again) the wisdom I'd tried to impart, the endless demands kept endlessly demanding of my best energy and attention, several seemingly insurmountable obstacles jumped into my view.

I always know the clouds have rolled in when I find myself jumbled and uncertain, wondering most of all if what I'm doing for the Lord is worth the effort.

We all face the cloudy days. Though it is a worthy conversation, I'm not talking about depression or mental illness here; I'm talking about the days when we question if our lives matter, if what we're doing counts for anything, if God is at work. I'm referring to what Hebrews 12:12 calls "drooping hands and weak knees": the discouragement that comes with simply living.

The Christian is not immune to discouragement. In fact, because the Christian life is a fight against sin and flesh and all their wayward children, we may often find ourselves knocked down, weary, and needing to get back up again while feeling we lack the strength to do it.

This time, when the clouds rolled in, I thought back to my friend. She'd ask me, "How do you get out of your funks?" And I'd been so certain of my answer on that sunny day. Now, on the cloudy one, I needed to put into practice what I'd offered her. I needed to go back to the questions I ask myself in order to diagnose my discouragement.

What is Actually Happening?
Emotions easily rise to the surface when the clouds roll in, but they aren't always truth-speaking. I may feel discouraged or restless or that my work is pointless, but are these feelings true? My first step in diagnosing discouragement is to prayerfully dig down to the root issue that's causing me consternation. I ask myself these questions:

  • What am I actually wishing for or hoping for in this circumstance? Is it a certain outcome or result? And is that outcome or result concerned with self-glory or God-glory?
  • What was I doing in the moments before I recognized my discouragement? Was I comparing myself to someone on social media? Was I attempting to control a situation and not getting my way? Was I scrolling through an internal litany of worries or possibilities that make me anxious?
  • Am I focused on being faithful or rather on how I (or my children) appear to other people? Am I doing what I'm doing for the Lord or am I rather looking for some form of validation?
  • Where is my gaze? Am I staring hard at my discouragement, feeding and fueling it? Or am I making intentional efforts to respond to it with a God-ward response?

How Am I Responding or Have Been Responding?
Noticing and acknowledging discouragement means I must also notice and acknowledge how I've been responding to it. My natural response is often attempts at control: to work harder, to prove myself, and to overcome the obstacles in my life through self-righteousness. This is not a God-ward response to discouragement. In thinking through a response, I must ask myself these questions:

  • God commands me not to be dismayed or fearful or full of worry. He says that I'm instead to "cast all my cares upon him because he cares for me." Am I casting my cares on him or holding them tightly to myself in worry or despair?
  • Am I looking to other people to magically "fix" my situation and, therefore, rescue me from my discouragement? 
  • Am I acting from a belief that if I work harder next time, I can prevent my own discouragement?
  • Am I receiving the gifts of God's care that he's instituted for me: am I getting enough sleep? Am I getting exercise? Am I spending time with friends? Am I taking time off from work? Am I placing myself within the care of the Church through my presence, my commitment, and my relationships?
  • After I've cast my cares upon the Lord, do I need to talk to someone about my discouragement? 
  • What would it look like for me to trust God in what I'm facing?

What is True?
After diagnosing why I'm discouraged, I need lots and lots of truth. And then some more truth.

  • What does God require of me? The answer is always faith and obedience. Am I living from a different answer?
  • Have I forgotten that Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble"? How is my discouragement pointing me to him in order to "take heart" by the One who's overcome?
  • How is God caring for me? How has he provided for me in the past? How does he promise he will care for me in the future? (It helps for me to write down specifics.) Do I believe him? 
  • What do I see God doing in and around me? Am I only rehearsing a litany of my worries or am I purposefully noticing and thinking on the ways I'm seeing and experiencing God's goodness?
  • Am I frustrated with a circumstance that is out of my control? How will I trust God in it?
  • What specific verses or attributes of God speak to my discouragement? 

Friend, if you are in a place of discouragement, may these questions serve you well. I would like to pray for you. Please leave me a comment and I will pray, even if you don't want or need to disclose your specific circumstance.

In addition, I recently taught our women's Bible study on Philippians 2:12-18. God spoke to me powerfully about discouragement in my preparation. May listening to the talk serve you in some way.

Finally, my plan is to do an occasional series in the same vein as this post: a "How Do You Do" series where readers like you send in questions about anything big or small that you have a question about it. Maybe it's "How do you do your Bible reading?" or "How do you do hospitality?" It can be anything! Comment below with your question. 

October 12, 2017

When You're Lonely for a Friend

The sun shone bright in the kitchen the day I realized I had no one I could call. Standing at the counter, slicing a pear into bite-sized pieces for my 10-month-old firstborn, I’d instead sliced my finger. I stood silent at the sink, letting water wash over the wound and watching blood swirl in the basin. After bandaging my finger, I reached down for my son, placed him in his highchair, spread the pears on his tray, and in what seemed the very next moment, I woke up underneath the kitchen table. I had fainted, and it felt as if my brain was rebooting after being switched off. My body felt clammy and weak, and as I lay there, immobile, my initial panic subsided as I heard the happy gurgles of my boy, safe with his pears.

It was then that the thought intruded: Who will I call to come help me? I did not have an answer, because I did not have a friend. The knife had opened my finger, but it seemed to have opened a far greater wound, a wound I’d tried desperately to ignore, hide, and resist--the wound of loneliness.

At that time, I was a young pastor’s wife, a young mother, and young in my understanding of God’s grace. When I picture myself in those years, I think of myself in two places: alone in my home and all tangled up in my own head.

After college, I’d waited for friends to appear, as they’d appeared in every other era of my life--through youth group and band and softball teams and housemates. And they in fact hadn’t appeared. I felt as if I’d forgotten how to do friendship and wondered if I was no longer friend-able. In my insecurity, I remained isolated.

I remember hoping another mother would invite me out after morning Bible study. I remember desiring one of the older pastor’s wives to take me under her wing. After my pear-eating boy received a devastating diagnosis, I remember wishing others would intentionally step into my shoes and walk with me, tell me what to do, or care for me in some way.

I was lonely for a friend.

Many women are, I know this now. Many feel forever on the outside. Many have been hurt by other women, so they intentionally stay on the outside so as not to be hurt again. And many feel their genuine attempts at friendship have produced little fruit.

Friendship is not as simple as we’ve been led to believe. But here’s something else I now know: loneliness isn’t always as complex as we’ve been led to believe either.

Sometimes Loneliness is a Gift from God.
Whether we’re new to a neighborhood or a church, whether a good friend has moved away or died, or whether a once close friendship has shifted, any type of change or separation can arouse a sense of loneliness and longing in our hearts. In our pangs of loneliness, we long instead for healthy relationships and happy life circumstances that will remain static. We long for deep community and a sense of belonging. We long for the good old days when friendships came easy and we could enjoy those friends without all the adult responsibilities and burdens mixed in.

Longing is not a misplaced desire. In fact, the longing for friendship is a good one. How we pursue or respond to that longing, however, is important. We must remember that perfect relationships, perfect community, and perfect circumstances do not exist on this side of eternity. Knowing that life and friendship will always be imperfect helps us embrace what we do have as grace and gift, even if the current gift is a season of aloneness, and even if the gift comes through imperfect people.

Our aloneness is a gift because it teaches us to turn our desires to the Lord in prayer and swells our hearts with a hope and eagerness for our true home with Jesus. Sometimes God may love us best by calling us to aloneness, precisely so that He can meet us intimately in a time when He has our full attention. We can be at peace with our aloneness, knowing that we have access to a perfect, always present Friend and can cast all our cares and desires upon Him. Because all is gift and grace, we can wait in aloneness with eager expectation of how God might also give us the gift and grace of togetherness.

Sometimes Loneliness is Self-Imposed
Curiously, however, many of us seem to be standing beside one another, holding identical longings for friendship yet resolutely believing we’re alone in them. The truth is we aren’t actually wandering alone; we’re practically tripping over each other as we grasp at our dreams of friendship that is perfect and easy. These ideal dreams of friendship are often created and watered in our loneliness, and these dreams produce bitterness as we begin demanding from others and from God according to our exacting standards.

I certainly speak from experience. As I look back at my twenties, I see a lonely girl with a stubborn wish-dream. I see a lonely girl because of the stubborn wish-dream. A friend, according to my dream, would have been in her twenties (like me), been married and had children (like me), and understood what ministry entailed (like me). My expectations of what friends God might give me were too restrictive. At the same time, I was afraid to ask for help, afraid to initiate, and deathly afraid of being vulnerable. I wanted the gift, but I was unwilling to do anything to receive or unwrap it.

I did pray, and I did cry. And all throughout that time, God was answering. He was good to me in my aloneness; He was the friend who was constantly present. But He was also answering with real people, imperfect people (like me), who lived beside me and went to church with me and who were a few steps ahead and behind me. I see this now, but at the time I couldn’t see past my wish-dream, my standards, and all my bitter longings. If I’d just looked around and if I’d just have been willing to take a few risks of vulnerability and initiation, I would have experienced the answer God was trying to give me. Those answers wouldn't have been perfect, but they would've been good and would've enriched my life deeply.

That’s what I learned that day when the knife cut my finger and opened my heart. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anyone I could call; it was that I was afraid to call. It was that I would have rather drowned in self-sufficiency and isolation than risk reaching out or admitting my loneliness.

Are you lonely for a friend? Loneliness is nothing to be ashamed of; turn to God with your deepest desires and needs. While His love is steady and sure, know that nothing is constant about our relationships with one another--there will be times of abundance as well as times of aloneness. Cultivate a heart posture that receives both aloneness and togetherness as gift and grace. Perhaps this will give you fresh eyes for the women there all around you. 

Perhaps you already know my latest book, Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep and Lasting Relationships, explores this very topic: the joys and complexities of friendship among Christian women. I'm currently working on some new material I will be releasing in celebration of the book's 6th-month-birthday and can't wait to tell you all about it! The best way to know about this release is to subscribe to the blog or follow me on Instagram or Facebook. Look for it around October 30!

October 4, 2017

When Summer Ends and You Realize All of Life is Winter

Around this time every year, there's a tree that I obsessively observe as I circle the parking lot during school pick-up. The tree is a sugar maple, not especially tall but definitely round, with leaves that seem feminine and fragile in some inexplicable way. I don't characteristically know specific types of trees, but I know this one's name, and now that I know my tree is a sugar maple, I notice its relatives all around town.
In the fall, it's hard not to notice the sugar maples. Their leaves turn a delightful shade of orange, something on the color wheel akin to tangerine or melon. But the leaves aren't just orange; they are also yellow with just a touch of neon green. Sometimes from underneath a maple tree, the leaves look one color and then you discover, upon stepping out for an expanded perspective, they look a completely different shade. This is perhaps why I love my maple. Because it plays a sort of game with me, seducing me, altering itself just when I think I've got it photographed perfectly in my mind.

My annual observation of the tree has begun. Fall's show has not yet come, but I am a watch woman on the wall, eyes peeled. The calendar, however, has already turned, the little words inside the block on September 22 having announced fall's arrival. Outside, it's still warm, not summer warm, but close. The trees' leaves remain green except for the occasional rebel leaves I spy from the highway as I whiz by going about my life.

Fall is coming--the rebel leaves whisper and the calendar stands stoic and unmovable--but sometimes the weather whispers that perhaps summer could last forever.

That's what summer does. With its fireflies and its bare feet in green grass, the season rocks us, lulls us, and convinces us there is no such thing as winter. When we're lazing in the heat of summer, we can't imagine wearing a coat or slushing through snow or needing a heavier blanket on the foot of the bed, even though we've known all those sensations before.

I know enough now. I know to embrace all summer is because summer will come to an end. And there will be a time in the dead of winter when the trees will be completely barren, the sky will turn gray, and I will be so chilled to the bone that, hard as I try, I won't be able to conjure the feel of summer.

Such is life: full on winter, trying to see and remember the hope of spring and the reality of summer.

At some point we all learn that summer isn't forever. Sometimes in the scope of a breath, or in the stopping of breath, or through the words spoken under a breath, summer abruptly ends and fall's leaves start their drift toward their death. We suddenly know pain. We realize we cannot escape what is to come; we must walk through the barrenness, the stillness, and the cold of winter--the death of a life we thought we knew.

Before that breath, we didn't know summer wasn't forever. We lived carefree, everything made sense or could be explained or controlled, everything had a Sunday school answer. We couldn't have comprehended the stark existence of winter. Even if someone had told us--and of course they didn't because they wanted to shield and protect us--we wouldn't have believed life's winter could be so cruel. We couldn't have felt in our bones what we had never experienced. And then pain came.

This summer, my husband and I discussed the breath that changed everything for us. For him, it was early, when words were spoken that fractured his life into a before and after. Suddenly fear entered in, and the knowledge of good and evil, and then the destabilizing realization that security is never quite secure. One moment he was running happily through summer's innocence and then the next he was stumbling, chilled, in dark winter. He was just a child, and though he was shoeless in the snow, everyone pretended it was still summer.

Everyone pretended it was still summer.

We Christians sing our anthem loud: "I once was blind but now I see." We, like Paul after he was blinded on the Damascus road, have had the scales wiped from our eyes by Jesus himself. But then, far too often, we put them right back on.

We pretend it is still summer, that the barrenness of sin, the harsh cold of pain, the quiet of brokenness can no longer touch us. We put words in Jesus' mouth that he never said, promising others and ourselves that Jesus will fix it here and now, that we can escape winter, that life as his disciple should be straight summer. We've been told these lies and we've loved them.

Do we not see that Jesus left the world temporarily unfixed? Do we not recall Jesus' own persecutions and death? The beautiful leaf in fall, after all, is in process of giving its life for the furtherance of the tree.

We Christians must refuse the blinders and see this world with clearest sight, for we know the Truth and the Truth sets us free from attempting to turn winter into summer. This world is showing us its one straight season; the leaves are dying and hearts are dark and cold. But with clearest sight, we can name winter and feel the chill in our own bones because we also have a real hope that all that's tilted will one day be set right. Winter will give way to the light and life of spring. If we don't have that hope, what is the point of being a Christian?

What I'm saying is that there is pain in this world, and it comes for us all. What I'm saying is that to see pain is to grieve pain with the loudest lament we have. And what I'm saying is that we Christians must run straight into the pain of others with eyes wide open and mouths wide open, too. There exists among us death and dying, injustice and oppression, hatred and slaughter. Let us call it what it is rather than pretending it's still summer. Let us weep and mourn with the weepers and mourners. Let us not throw cliches and lies at others when they tell us how cold they are. Let us do the difficult work of loving an enemy, forgiving a trespass, going into the world with the ministry of reconciliation. For we have very real, eyes-wide open Love to offer, and it's not that Jesus will fix it now; it's that Jesus will fix it later. We need to know a hope so real, we can transport ourselves to summer when we're knee deep in snow. We need to offer this transporting hope as well.

Notice the tops of the trees changing. Call fall and winter what they are: pain and death. But beyond that--you once were blind but now can you see?--spring is on the horizon. And all things will be made new.