October 21, 2014

You Can't Have it All, At Least Not All At Once

Fall is the middle, a shifting. Each brilliant leaf lazily drifting down is a reminder--although I don't care to be reminded, thank you very much--that winter is coming and, with winter, barrenness and stillness and cold. Or as a friend recently reminded me, "Fall is actually a beautiful death." Then, after the earth lies dormant, we will beg, under layers of scarves and coats, to see the little sprouts on trees that announce spring is coming.
After growing up in a place with two seasons (blazing hot and a month or two of sort-of cold), I love living in a place with four distinct seasons. I remember as a child browsing my mom's Land's End catalog and wondering who really wore all those heavy winter coats and snow boots. It seemed like a magical, far-off place. And I now live in that place, a real-life Land's End catalog! 

Four seasons means I've had to learn the necessity of salting our driveway and the art of wearing scarves. We make the annual trek to the apple orchard and enjoy being outside in the not-blazing-hot summer before the hibernation of winter. 

I love the seasons because they break up the monotony, but also because they have taught me so much about life. They've taught me this most of all: 
You can't have it all, at least not all at once. There are seasons for everything under heaven, but you can't have the tulips when it's the leaves' turn to show off. You can't force the trees to sprout when snow is climbing up their trunks. 

We can't have it all, at least not all at once. To believe otherwise is to run ourselves ragged, spinning wheels but never getting anywhere, and definitely not getting anywhere with any semblance of joy. To believe otherwise is to go against nature, the very nature that speaks to the character and activity of God.

There will be seasons of fruitfulness and seasons of barrenness. 

There will be seasons of beautiful, blossoming new life and seasons of beautiful suffering.

There will be seasons when we are filled and able to give and seasons when we are empty and need to receive.

There will be seasons when God appears to be living and breathing everywhere and seasons that are dry and quiet under His watchful care.

There will be seasons when He says yes and seasons when He says no.

There will be seasons when His love feels like delight and seasons when His love feels like discipline.

And what is our response? The response is what I'm really thinking about. Our response of obedience--a yes to God--often means a no to a million other little things. We can't have it all, at least not all at once. Sometimes that feels like the beginning of summer--freeing and warm and wildly satisfying. But sometimes that feels like the tail end of fall--little deaths like each leaf fluttering in the wind. It requires faith that, in the barrenness and stillness, God is preparing a new season of fruitfulness. We must wait. And we must rejoice in the season we're in, not wish for what's next.

October 17, 2014

Living by Scorecards {Is No Way to Live}

I didn't give much notice, but I've started sending out an occasional newsletter. (Occasional is the operative word.) I decided that I'd like to be able to communicate with you, my blog readers, in another way besides the blog, a way that feels a little more intimate, for those who want that sort of thing. Below is the post from the newsletter I sent to email subscribers this past week. In the future, I won't share this exclusive content here, only in the newsletter. However, it offers an example of what you may find in future newsletters, along with book recommendations, links to other blogs that I love, and, eek!, special offers related to the release of From Good to Grace in March. If you subscribe to this blog in any way other than email and would like to get future newsletters so you can be privy to these sorts of things, you can sign up here. I would be so grateful. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Last Wednesday I sat on my back porch with a 20-something girl I'm discipling and we shared with one another the core lies we believe that lead us around life like a dog on a leash. At least that's how it's felt to me lately--leashed, chained, led to places emotionally that I don't care to go.

Our core lies, as the author Sarah Mae says, are based on what we put our worth and value in apart from God. They cause us to self-protect, build walls, and leak venom. And they block us from loving God and loving others.
I looked up at the young woman and spoke my lie out loud. I am only as loved as my performance. My examples could go like this: I must maintain relationships (and I am always the responsible party) or I won't be loved. I must be conscientious or I won't be loved. I must meet the expectations of others or I won't be loved. And my flip-side examples could go like this: If I am responsible enough, I will be loved. If am a good enough friend, I will be loved. If I do what I think others want me to do, I will be loved.

When I process this with my husband, he said, "You live for the scorecards. And that's no way to live." That's it exactly, I thought. It's usually subtle and subconscious, but when I'm not doing well emotionally, I perform and then look for the scorecards to go up as a validation of my performance. The thing is, life doesn't offer many scorecards. Life isn't an excel spreadsheet where little formulas make calculations of our worth. Life isn't meant to be performed for results; life is meant to be worship.

I had to think about my husband's pronouncement further. After all God has done in my life, why do I still sometimes live for the scorecard? Why do I still fall for this core lie that I am only as loved as my performance? I mean, I truly have come to a place (a place I never thought possible) where I believe with all my heart that God loves me because of Christ. I believe He actually delights in me, and that He delights in each of His children who have trusted Christ.

And then a sneaky little question rose up in my heart: Is it so wrong to want others to love me?

I could see my heart in that question. I know God loves me, but I fall for the core lie when my desire to be loved by others trumps the knowledge of God loving me. I make idols out of the love of others (not to mention my performance and abilities). And when I make gods out of others, they crumble under the weight of such expectation, because they aren't meant to stand under it, and I grow frustrated and resentful.

But when God's love is my sole desire? When I rest in the completeness of His love for me? What love others give me is such a blessed, joyful gift to receive. I'm able to love and be loved in return, without the crumbling weight of expectation.

Where there are no scorecards to be found.

Let's live as loved by the best Lover today.

October 15, 2014

Who Pours Into You?

Who pours into you? That's the question I get asked most often these days, and it's gotten me thinking. Because sometimes my answer to the question posed is a garbled mess. I know what people are asking: "Do you have an older woman that you meet with regularly who offers you her biblical wisdom and shoulder to cry on?" I've had it before, but I don't have it currently, and for some reason, I feel kind of bad saying it out loud. Almost like I'm doing something wrong.
But that persistent question has gotten me thinking about us all. I wonder if, in all our talk of discipleship and mentoring and "pouring into", we've created for ourselves a culture of entitlement. Do we believe it's a biblical imperative that there will always be a Paul to our Timothy? Should we always have someone "pouring into" us in a linear, hierarchical sort of way?

I don't think so. I think it's more circular than that. And I think to believe that we are entitled to have a personal "pourer" is to cripple ourselves from the growth we crave.

But perhaps that makes my point. Do we actually crave growth? Or do we crave a person who is god-like who can tell us what to do, empathize with our emotions, absolve us of our sins through spoken forgiveness, and guide us through our circumstances? Growth can definitely come from processing our lives intimately with another, but if we aren't prioritizing the growth that happens in relating directly with God, we will be forever stunted.

The Bible speaks of believers making progress by "eating" the Word. Babes drink milk but then grow to maturity and eat meat. A babe drinking milk is in a receiving posture, but when I think of eating meat, I think of how I purchase, cook, and serve it to my children. I am a "pourer" who also feeds myself on the meat I cook. Babes in the faith need pourers, but if we aren't babes in the faith, we must be able to feed ourselves (and are expected to feed ourselves).

Part of growth is actually being the pourer. The non-babes are all meant to be pourers. If we're getting frustrated and resentful that no one is personally pouring into us, we're missing something. Perhaps it is our turn to be a pourer and, in pouring, we find the growth we're looking for.

But that doesn't mean we aren't to be or shouldn't seek to be poured into. It just often looks different than what we expect it to, and our problem is that we stick to only one formula--the hierarchical formula. In fact, God has given us the Church so that we might be poured into. This idea elevates the idea of intimate Church, because we must be open with our needs, our sins, and our victories if we are to be poured in to as we desire. I think we often wait for that one person to open up our heart and life to, but God intended for the mature to open ourselves up in community, so that we have a circular discipleship in which we serve and are served. This doesn't come easy. We have to fight for it.

So when I am asked, Who pours into you?, I don't think of one specific person. I think of my pastor-husband who preaches verse-by-verse through the Bible. I think of the elders who provide for and protect our church. I think of the young women who ask me hard questions and cause me to search the Scriptures for answers. I think of the women I'm discipling who in turn disciple me. I think of the staff and elder wives who serve so faithfully and encourage me to use my gifts. I think of my friends who are willing to say hard things. I think of the people in my community group who pray for me. I think of long-time friends who live at a distance and listen and respond objectively to my struggles. And, yes, I think of several older women who help me know what to do in parenting and marriage. This is the Church, and it's a gift to receive. Go grab hold of it!

And if God asks you to walk through a season of pouring without much receiving, know this: He is enough. He will feed you.

October 9, 2014

Help Your Husband Be a Better Pastor {Through Encouragement}

Ministry can at times feel like one big battle against discouragement. If I experience it as a pastor’s wife, I can’t imagine how difficult the battle must be for my husband, who is in the spiritual trenches fighting for souls every day.
Last February was an especially discouraging time in our family and our ministry. My husband, Kyle, and I had the opportunity to go away for a few days and almost immediately upon leaving our city, we were able to get more of a bird’s eye view of what God was doing in our church and our family, and many of them were exciting. I started recounting to my husband all the good things that were happening that we’d been blind to in the everyday grind, and I quickly saw his demeanor change. I realized in that moment how often we talked about what was going wrong and how little we focused on all that was going right, and I determined that if I did nothing else, I wanted to help my husband pastor by encouraging him.

As Kyle and I had that conversation, God reminded me of something He’d shown me in my study of the book of Ezra. In Ezra, a Jewish remnant returned from exile in Persia to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. They were excited; some were weeping because they’d seen the original temple and couldn’t believe they were seeing God’s restoration after a long period of exile and discipline. It is a strong start, a good beginning.

When I read that, I thought back to when we first planted our church. We moved to an unfamiliar place with a huge task ahead, but filled with a sense of excitement and wonder. We felt God’s pleasure at our obedience and faith. Anticipation was high.

While starting something is exciting and glorious, we cannot maintain that same level of excitement. Why? The reality is this: gospel work is not romantic. It is day-in and day-out faithfulness that is largely unseen and sometimes seems unrewarded or unfruitful. And then what happened for the temple builders is what also happens with us: gospel work is always met with resistance.

The one that the temple builders faced that is most like what we face is discouragement-- the Jews’ enemies actually hired professional discouragers to frustrate their efforts. As a result, the restoration work stopped for 15 years. They were paralyzed by discouragement for 15 years. Later in Ezra, we discover that they also lost their joy and zeal for the Lord’s work.

That’s what discouragement does if we listen to it: it causes us to lose our joy and zeal for the Lord’s work. Though we continue working and going through the motions of ministry, our hearts grow hard and building stops on the inside, where God can see.

This is the interesting part, however, the part that God reminded me of as I sat talking with my husband: the building of the temple eventually resumed. What got it going again? The prophets Haggai and Zechariah spoke words of encouragement to Zerubbabel, the leader of the exiles.

We actually have their specific words recorded in the Bible and it’s a lesson in itself to see what they spoke over Zerubbabel.

Haggai drew his attention to the Lord’s constant presence: “Yet now be strong, Zerubbabel, says the Lord...and work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts. According to the word that I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt, so My Spirit remains among you; do not fear!” (Haggai 2:4-5)

Zechariah spoke to the Spirit’s power and the daily effort that adds up to a great work: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; His hands shall also finish it….For who has despised the day of small things? For these seven rejoice to see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. They are the eyes of the Lord, which scan to and fro throughout the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4:6-10)

We may not have these prophet types standing alongside to encourage us as we serve the Lord, but we can certainly be a Haggai and Zechariah for one another in our marriages. Because, certainly, ministry tends to be a constant fight with discouragement, but we always have something to celebrate regarding what God is doing, and we have the same promises that the exiles did of God’s constant presence.

We can help our husbands pastor by encouraging them the way the prophets did: One brick at a time. One person at a time. One day at a time. One sermon at a time. One response of faithful obedience at a time. Eventually it all will add up to the building of a fruitful life lived in honor of the Lord.

This article originally appeared on Send Network, a great resource for church planting.

October 7, 2014

How to Be a Good Sounding Board for Your Husband

Women are influencers. We're relational by nature, so we're often the relational glue within our families, churches, and communities and, within these relationships, we have tremendous opportunities and a great responsibility to use our influence well.

After almost 15 years of being my husband's marriage, parenting, and ministry partner, I am just coming to understand the weighty responsibility of being his greatest influencer and most important sounding board. Because he is a pastor, I affect my husband's perspectives, sermons, thoughts on others, and his decisions. Am I giving him my opinions and trying to influence him to do what I want him to do? Or am I listening and speaking with a heart that trusts him and, above all, trusts the Lord? In other words, how can I use my influence for his benefit and for the benefit of those he influences?

You don't have to be a pastor's wife to have influence. You don't have to be a wife, for that matter, although that's another post for another day. Every wife influences her husband, and most husbands depend on their wives to be their primary sounding board. We color their perspectives on everything: work, manhood, children, friendship, the church, and God Himself. This is a great power and also a great responsibility. How can we do it well? Here are a few things I've learned (and am honestly still learning) about being my husband's primary influencer and sounding board:

Influence Through Listening and Asking Questions

When he has a decision to make and wants your insight:
Immediately pray for the Holy Spirit to help you know when to speak and when to not speak as your conversation begins. In relation to his work, I have learned that is a very rare occasion when I am to help make the decision, but it is often that I am the one that can help him come to the decision through the questions I ask and the ideas that we brainstorm together. Sometimes I want to tell him what to do from the get-go, which is why I need the Holy Spirit to nudge me if and when it's time to give my opinion.

When you have a strong opinion right from the start:
Know your power to influence the situation, but also know that your visceral instincts, experiential wisdom, and especially your preferences may not be godly wisdom. You don't want to influence him according to your preferences but according to God's preferences. Pray for ears to hear the whole of the situation, probing questions to ask to help your husband mull it over, and for the ability to wait for him to ask for your insight. Most of all, ask the Lord to give you His heart for the situation and that it would trump your preferences or instinctual response.

Influence Through Speaking

When he's stressed, discouraged, or overwhelmed and wants to talk about it:
Seeing my husband stressed and uncertain can be extremely disconcerting, not only because I hurt when he's hurting but because it asks me to trust my husband and the situations he's facing to the Lord. Will I trust Him and allow the process of sanctification or will I fear and worry in a way that increases my husband's stress? When I choose to trust the Lord, I am then able to speak truth over my husband and draw him back to the foundational realities that God is trustworthy and will sustain him.

When he is verbalizing his frustration with another person:
Every wife's instinctual response is to defend her husband, but I've learned that when my husband is sharing his frustrations, I can listen but there is no need to join in the sharing. I have the tremendous power of clouding my husband's perspective on people in his life. Even with words spoken in private conversation, I can cause division in relationships and frustrations to grow.

Influence Through Activity

When all you're talking about is one thing all the time (which, for pastor's wives, is often church):
The best thing you can do for your husband is to help him be a whole person. If he is talking about work all the time and that's all you two have to talk about, that is a sign of not being a whole person. A whole person has family relationships, friendships, recreation, healthy emotions, and has varied interests that are life-giving and restful. Influence your one-track-mind husband by encouraging him to pursue activities outside of that one thing and joyfully giving him the time to do it. When he has other relationships and activities in his life, he will have varied things to talk about.

Influence Through Prayer

When heart and lifestyle change is needed:
As a wife, I can help my husband through insight and feedback, but there is one area that I can only influence through prayer and that's his heart. Nagging and spouting off my thoughts and opinions about what he needs to do (even if they're accurate) aren't helpful in influencing any change. I can, of course, respectfully and gently bring my concerns to him, but I find it is always most effective after I have spent considerable time praying about my concerns and praying that the Lord would do the work needed in his life.

It's interesting to look back through this list and recognize just how influential we are and the scope of that influence. And it emboldens me all the more to seek to use that influence for good in my husband's life. What about you? Are you using your influence wisely and for your husband's benefit?

September 30, 2014

When Your Instinct Is To Defend and Protect Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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