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.

September 14, 2017

Friendship and the Pastor's Wife: A Healthy Perspective

My husband and I have been in full-time vocational ministry since the day we were married. People ask me what it’s like to be a pastor’s wife, and I tell them I don’t know what it’s like to not be one. His calling colors every part of my life in a way that’s difficult to explain and, in a way, difficult to understand even for myself.

Some well-meaning people, wanting to ease whatever pressure they imagine I feel, have cheerily explained to me how I am no different than other women in the church and should not imagine I had to “do” anything. During one such recent conversation, the well-meaning person was interrupted twice as they were speaking: once by a volunteer who asked me to pass along the visitor cards to my husband, and the second time by a new visitor who “just had to meet the pastor’s wife” and had been pointed in my direction. “As you were saying...” I said, hoping the irony had not been lost on them.
The Difference Between Church Relationships and Friendships
The truth is that being the pastor’s wife is not a biblically assigned role, nor is it a job, but on a weekly and even daily basis every pastor’s wife must navigate social scenarios and church situations that arise only because she’s married to the pastor. I’ve mostly learned to embrace this, because I see how God has given me influence and how I can use it to honor Him and bless others. But in all my years as a pastor’s wife, by far the most difficult consequences of my husband’s job to navigate have been friendship and social relationships.

Just recently, my husband told me we’d been invited to dinner at someone’s home, and we discussed whether or not we could commit to the date they’d offered. I felt immediately overwhelmed, because I thought about the emails with similar requests waiting for a reply in my inbox. I’m grateful for the invitations, and I also want to remain open-hearted to everyone in our neighborhood, everyone in our community group, everyone on our staff team, all the parents of the kids on our children’s sports teams, and everyone in our church at large, but the deepest truth is that what I really want is friendship. I’m surrounded by lovely people and countless relationships, but relationships don’t always equate to friendship, and I tend to forget that.

Fellow pastor’s wives, we must have a hearty understanding of what friendship actually is, because after years of ministry, we tend to lose the ability to discern between a relationship and a friendship. We may even feel as if we’ve lost ourselves or our ability to make friends beneath the busyness of ministry. So let me remind us: Friendship always starts with this idea of mutuality.

Many times, being open-hearted to others as the pastor’s wife means being a listener and an initiator, two things I don’t mind at all being. But friendship is not about always listening or taking the lead; friendship is about mutuality.

I think back to the invitations in my inbox. Does the woman inviting me to coffee need counsel or does she want to get to know me as a person? Does the dinner invitation come from a place of desired friendship or from a place of pastoral need. I often don’t know until I’m sitting across the table from others. If there are sparks of mutuality, in which I’m asked questions or there is some sort of interest and care shown toward me as I do for another woman, I may have a potential friend. And I thank God for those women: relationships that have evolved into friendships.

Take Risks
I can practically hear your rebuttal through the computer screen: it’s not as easy or clear-cut as that. Yes, but having discernment is the necessary first step toward friendship. We must allow ourselves the freedom to distinguish friends among the many relationships we have. We also cannot steward or pursue friendships we can’t even name. We are limited people and must draw lines somewhere, whether it’s regarding our time, our money, or our relationships.

If discernment is the first step, risk-taking is the second. I hear from so many pastor’s wives who are desperate for friendship: the mutual care, mutual conversation, mutual enjoyment, and mutual initiation. Too often, however, they’ve been told they can’t have good friends in the church, they’ve carefully crafted excuses that have only served to keep them isolated, and they’ve been hurt--painfully, devastatingly hurt--in ways they usually must keep silent about. Perhaps some have even heard from others that they aren’t allowed to have friends, because it might be showing favoritism within the church. All of these sentiments have made us fearful of taking risks.

For the pastor’s wife, pursuing friendship can absolutely feel risky. What if the friend ends up leaving the church? What if she shares a confidence? What if she doesn’t reciprocate vulnerability because she fears the pastor finding out? What if the friend won’t understand what ministry demands of our time?

But taking risks is worth it, even if some of our fears come true. We need friends in order to help us grow, to carry our burdens as we carry theirs, to help us be whole people who are not stuck in ministry-mode all the time. The benefits of finding friends far outweigh the risks.

To take the risk means being a consistent initiator. I long ago had to get over the fact that I have to be the initiator most of the time. Nursing bitterness about this does nothing to help me make friends. And, anyway, I’ve found that the treasures are often hidden from plain sight: they are women who have a natural empathy for me in my role and don’t want to impose. I can tell from my interactions with them that I really like them, and so I invite them to my home or to coffee, planning ahead with those I want to cultivate friendship with before all the church activities fill the calendar.

Pastor’s wife, friendship is possible. And not only is it possible, but it’s necessary. You may navigate social situations that others don’t, but in every believer’s need for life-giving friendships, you are no exception. Take the risk and initiate today.

Want More? Here's an Additional Resource for the Pastor's Wife on Friendship:

I recently chatted with Kathy Litton from NAMB about navigating the combination of ministry and friendship. Click on the image to listen.

September 6, 2017

The Invitation Inside the Feeling of Being Unseen

I first met Sara Hagerty at my friend Claire's house here in Charlottesville. I'd recently moved to the city, and Sara had recently moved away from Virginia, and I remember thinking I'd missed getting to know a treasure. In the years since, our mutual friend Claire passed away, and Sara and I have connected over missing her and over writing. My latest book, Messy Beautiful Friendship, is dedicated to Claire, as is Sara's beautiful new book, Unseen.   

Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves to Be Noticed released just last week, and I'm thrilled to share it with you today. As I've recently written, this past year I've struggled with feeling invisible and overlooked. What a treasure, then, to read Unseen and reflect on the idea that perhaps God has tucked me away for his good purposes and for delightful intimacy with Him. Enjoy an excerpt from the book below and then go grab a copy of the book yourself. It will bless you.

The routine of my mothering days is patterned and circular. Wake, prepare breakfast, clean up breakfast, prepare lunch, clean up lunch, plan for dinner. Set the table for several hungry bodies, clear the table. Reset. The same pair of Eden’s jeans goes from worn to washed to folded to worn multiple times in a week. We empty the diaper bin on the same day the next shipment of diapers arrives.
Some might use a word like trapped to describe such an existence. I confess there are some weak days I might be tempted to also.

Tears of former orphans fall and hearts move ever so slightly and the babe learns a new word—all in the eight hours that no one else sees. But these are just the little minutes between long hours of sweeping floors and turning off lights and tying shoes and wiping up drool.

Is this all there is? pokes at me.
My day might look different from yours, but I suspect the same question haunts you.

At twenty-two, before children, I was telling high school students—future world changers—about Jesus. Stories of transformed lives made the long summer hours in the dining hall and weekday afternoons of ministry administration worth it. My life had purpose, purpose I could measure one life at a time.

Today, with six children, I could coach myself in the same way and find the stories that make the tedium worth it. That point in the afternoon when I catch my little girl at the piano writing a song from her Bible makes me think, Something besides diapers is being changed around here. At least I’m not wasting my time. When I see four of them, with different histories of brokenness, spread out on their backs on the trampoline laughing between fits of jumping and squealing, I forget how long it took to prepare their dinner.

Maybe you do the same. We scout our days, you and me, for these stories that make it all worth it. We’re forever on the lookout for new ways to infuse our otherwise mundane lives with measurable impact. We troll for tiny signs that what we’re doing matters, a mark on the earth, whether in the glowing successes of our children or the business promotion or the ministry we launched. Parenting feels most like it’s worth it when we see our child thrive, and the business or ministry seems to most warrant our outpouring when it’s growing.

But what if our real mark on earth was meant to reverberate in heaven? What if there is a possibility for impact—impacting God’s heart with our hidden devotion to Him—that far supersedes these this-made-it-all-worth-it moments?

The mundane hours can outweigh the one this-made-it-all-worth-it moment in a week if we are meeting God and pouring ourselves out at His feet, there. What if right in the middle of that mundanity we could waste? Like Mary at Jesus’ feet.

Without a vision for what’s available to us in sitting at His feet in the hidden place, we become restless. This restlessness is powerful enough to make us start new projects, sign up to volunteer, begin foundations, delve into new ministries. Many a small group is launched, blog written, and book published by ones who are itching to climb out of the hidden place. All these things can be beautiful within God’s timing. But out of time, they will only perpetuate the restlessness, the craving for the next “soul hit.” We become thrill seekers who miss the biggest thrill. We train ourselves to be satisfied with so little.

And so God whispers to us, Don’t climb out of this hidden, mundane place—don’t start the foundation, run after a new ministry, defend yourself to your critics, start the next blog—just yet. Find Me. Here.

Every single minute of the day is available for us to feel His hand resting, firmly, on the small of our backs and His breath brushing like a breeze against our skin, softly awakening us. His beauty is close, disruptively near.

Every single minute is available for wasting ourselves at His feet. To reach the dwelling place, to see and know Him there, we need to allow for the quiet, the questions. We need to lean into, and not away from, what can come out of the aching hiddenness with God.

We’ve been sequestered.

The closet, the corner, the place where we’ve been hidden from the crowd is where God’s whisper becomes a life-changing brush with His love. All the waiting rooms in life, the wasteful places where the only question is, “When will I ever get out of this place?” are the places God loves to show us Himself.

The waste of extravagant love we pour at Jesus’ feet is never squandered. That love expands us, it doesn’t diminish us. We weren’t made to ration our love. We were made for extravagance.

For pursuit.

Friends, I think you'll find Sara's book, Unseen, beautiful and helpful to you in all the hours and days and years when you feel invisible. What I love about her writing is that she always points us back to the One who sees. If you want to know more about Sara or her new book, find her over at www.sarahagerty.net or follow her adorations on Instagram

August 31, 2017

The Day I Learned to Mourn

This summer, as I walked along the beach in Galveston, God invited me to lament the lamentable parts of my life. I'd just been reading a passage in a book about the practice of lament; I no longer remember the passage nor do I remember the exact book, but I do remember my hesitancy at the idea of thinking too deeply about the unchangeable things, the unfixable things, the painful things in and around me.
I walked in silence, thinking, waiting. Why, I wondered to myself, does it feel as if I'd be doing something wrong if I were to voice to God what aches in my heart? The salty mist clung to my skin, the sun's heat I'd attempted to escape with an early morning walk burned hot on my neck. I felt uncomfortable inside and out.

Suddenly I remembered the simple phrases from the psalmist's pen that had kept me afloat toward the end of the spring: God sees. God hears the cries of the afflicted. God has not overlooked. 

The memory of these words was the invitation again, for if he sees and hears me, then he already knows what pains me. He's simply asking me to voice it.

And so I began, tentative at first, brave by the end, telling God what he already knew but what I could only just then admit to myself: mainly that there are costs to following and serving him. There are costs for me in this, I said, looking up at the sky. By that time of the summer, we'd been long removed from our usual routines, and I could see my life back at home with such clarity. The costs scare me, I said. I don't know if I can continue in them, I said, and then I began to name them out loud, one by one, cascading out of me like the waves breaking at the shore.

I've known there were costs to following and serving Jesus; the Bible lays it all out right there in black and white and sometimes red. Perhaps that's why we recoil at the idea of lament, because we tell ourselves we should have known what we were in for and that we shouldn't do anything that resembles complaining. Or maybe we recoil because we don't think being a Christian allows for grieving parts of what it actually means to be a Christian.

What I discovered that day on the beach is that when we get down to the details and the specifics and the realities of what it means to follow Jesus, when we experience pain because of it, an important part of embracing those costs is mourning them before God himself.

I stopped walking, stood where my toes were washed momentarily in the tide, and watched the ocean liners in the distance. As I spoke my costs out loud to God in prayer, I felt as if he was taking them from my hands in order to intently observe, much like I'd done the day prior when my children had brought me a hermit crab they'd found. We'd put the crab in a sand bucket, circled up, and bent over to watch his every move as he frantically tried to escape his plastic container. God too intently and compassionately observed my pains. God sees. He hears the cries of the afflicted. He has not overlooked.

We discover these truths most intimately when we mourn before God, even if the mourning is about what he's asked of us. Without lament, we don't know the richness and the reality of the truths. Without lament, we feel and emote without also inviting truth to reign.

In the months leading up to that walk, I'd felt the costs much more than I'd known the truths of God's perfect care. I hadn't given him opportunity to reach out his hands and take my concerns. Instead, I'd fostered my own bitterness, feeling the costs but assuming I'd nowhere to throw my pain.

With each care I handed him, he didn't remove the costs or rescue me from the unchangeable. But he redirected my gaze by reminding me of Hebrews 12: "Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross."

The weight for me had been the costs of following and serving Jesus, heavy, because I'd tried to carry it without complaint, without shedding a tear, without acknowledging my own mourning.

The sin was my self-fed bitterness, fed precisely because I'd not taken my tears to God.

As a result, I wanted out. I wanted a different race to run, not the one God had clearly set before me.

Only in gazing at Jesus did I see why God had invited me to mourn. Because the one who sees, who hears the cries of the afflicted, who has not and will not overlook the faithfulness of his followers, is one who knows the truest costs of all. Looking at Jesus, as Hebrews 12 tells me to do, I know what he endured will never be asked of me. Looking at him, I see that the costs are worth it. I can lament them before God, knowing he cares for me, but in the end know I'm secure from the worst lament possible.

Following Jesus isn't all about costs. It's also about rewards. Jesus endured the cross in order to have joy. We too know rewards that only come through embracing the costs: peace, purpose, salvation, heaven.

On the beach that day, in the midst of my tears, with unfixable things left unfixed, I began telling God about the rewards of following and serving him. They far outnumbered all that I mourned a few moments prior, and I'd only seen them so clearly after my lament.

I wrote this as a reflection of Hebrews 12 that day. I hope it encourages you in whatever you're lamenting and in whatever race you're running.