February 22, 2017

Friendship Across Racial Divides: A Story

Last July, at the height of the visible racial unrest in the United States, my husband Kyle preached a sermon about the very real problem, in light of who God is and what his gospel says, of racial division in our nation. In it he voiced the words I'd been whispering to myself and praying to God: "I want to do something, but I don't know what to do." I'd written about it on my blog, and I'd had a few conversations with African-American women online and in my personal life where I asked questions and listened, but I generally felt helpless.

There was a girl at church that day, sitting near the front. Her name is Macy. After church, she said to Kyle, "I want to do something." She wanted, she said, to partner with someone in our community who is working toward racial unity. Kyle said, "I don't know who that is or what is already happening, but I do have the card on my desk of an African-American pastor I recently met. Why don't you call him?"

So she did. This little firecracker of a girl made an appointment with Pastor Lehman Bates at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a 125-year-old church in the heart of our town, and said to him, "Whatever you're doing, I want in."

This is where I need to stop and tell you about where I live. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. Most people don't know where that is or anything at all about our city, so I don't blame you for your blank stare. Charlottesville is in the mountains of central Virginia and, for its relatively small size, stars in much of our nation's history. Charlottesville was touched by both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Three U.S. Presidents built their homes here: James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson.

As the writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson certainly stands out; he is our most famous citizen and continues to loom large over our town. The elite public school he founded, the University of Virginia, thrives still today. His home, Monticello, sits atop a mountain overlooking the city and draws thousands of visitors each year, where they hear about his ideas and his genius. At the local bookstores, one can purchase The Jefferson Bible, the Bible with the miracles removed, just as he thought it should be.

This is the history everyone talks about. I've been to all the president's homes, traipsed around the courthouse where Jefferson practiced law, and read books about Lewis and Clark's expedition from Charlottesville. I've toured UVA and viewed Edgar Allan Poe's dorm room on the Lawn. I can tell you the history of this place. Or at least I thought I could.

I can also tell you the general history of the churches in our community. I can tell you about how Vacation Bible School started at First Baptist Charlottesville and how Lottie Moon was saved and sent out from there and how the founder of Southern Seminary pastored there. I can tell you about the founding of the large Presbyterian church and about the church plants who came before and after us. I can tell you the church history of his place. Or at least I thought I could.

There in the heart of our city is Ebenezer Baptist Church, and I didn't even know it was there, much less that it's been there for 125 years. It sits behind the Jefferson School, a building that used to house a segregated school for black children. And from its door step, one could look up toward the mountain where Monticello sits and imagine the slaves that once lived there, owned by Thomas Jefferson himself.

It seems there is a lot of history we don't like to talk about.

And so little firecracker Macy found herself across the desk from Pastor Lehman Bates, and after their conversation, he said, "How did you get my name?" She said, "My pastor. He just preached a sermon on racial division, and he gave me your name."

Pastor Bates didn't remember meeting Kyle, didn't remember giving Kyle his card, and didn't recall having heard the name of our church. He later said, "I knew the Lord had called me to answer every email or phone call that came my way from people wanting to talk about racial unity. Most never amount to anything, but my job is to answer every single time."

So little firecracker Macy started a fire because the Holy Spirit was a fire in her, and the Holy Spirit was a fire in Pastor Bates, and the Holy Spirit was a fire in Kyle.

Pastor Bates called Kyle and they got together to talk. Pastor Bates said, "I hear you preached a certain sermon, and I want you to preach it at my church." And Kyle said, "Maybe you better listen to it first." So he listened, and we were still invited over, and Pastor Bates was invited into our home and our church, and somewhere in there, the Holy Spirit started a fire of partnership and friendship between pastors and pastor's wives and churches and people.

The first time I went to Ebenezer, I sat in their sanctuary and listened as their 88-year-old Chairman of deacons, Mr. Page, began the service, and as a little girl, probably about 8 or 9, read Scripture at the microphone like she owned the place. The women in the choir sang so joyfully and so loud, their voices could have filled an arena. We were asked to stand and introduce ourselves, and the church called out greetings of warm welcome.

I looked around at their historic building and suddenly thought of how we've lived here all of 9 years, and how our church is a baby, and how faithful people have been tilling soil in Charlottesville long before us. Kyle was there to preach, but we were really there to listen and learn. We were there to extend and receive friendship.

Afterward, Mr. Page showed me the baptismal where he was baptized as a child, and I met a woman whose mother was the first black teacher to desegregate a local elementary school. I thought about all the history of Charlottesville I thought I knew and how, really, I had so much still to learn. I'd driven past buildings and schools for years and had not known their histories. Worse, I'd walked past people for years and not really seen them. My own short-sightedness and ignorance had kept me from seeing beauty, and I'd missed the bigger picture of what God was doing in our community. To be invited so warmly into a sacred space was pure grace.

The Holy Spirit is meeting the prayer in my heart with fire and water. That's what it feels like. The story is just beginning, but it feels like a fire has been lit, and I want to protect it so it doesn't flame out. However, I get a strong sense that this is a fire that God is protecting and even fanning.

And that's why it also feels like water, because we're all simply riding a wave of something God is doing. He's taken our little boats of boldness and thrown us into a current. He's up to something, building a partnership in our community to meet needs together and serve together and worship together and, I plead in prayer, to show the love of Christ to our city together. His work has only just begun.

He's up to something, and I'm just trying to take it all in. I'm trying to learn the full history of this town. I'm trying to ask questions, even the awkward and uncomfortable ones. I'm trying to see things to which I've never paid attention.

I'm trying to ride this current as far as God takes me.
Friends, there is so much to this story that I have had trouble putting it into words, but this is why I wanted to tell it: I want to encourage you to follow the Holy Spirit's leading in your life. If you have a prayer on your lips for racial unity, ask God to illuminate the path for you to walk toward real people in your everyday life. Learn the full history of your city. The Holy Spirit makes us bold, as He did Macy, Pastor Bates, and Kyle. He also humbles us and helps us love and listen, however imperfectly. I hope you'll pray today and ask God for boldness, as well as a tangible direction for that boldness. Will you also pray for us as we seek to love and serve one another here in Charlottesville? Pray for Ebenezer and for Pastor Bates and the work they're doing in our city, as well as my husband and our church. May God write a beautiful story with each of us. 

February 13, 2017

The Greatest Hindrance to Friendship (and Announcing Preorder Goodies!)

Do you long for deep and lasting friendships? Do you crave connection and vulnerable relationships with other women?

Instead of experiencing deep friendship, however, do you often feel alone, insecure around other women, and uncertain if you're getting this whole friendship thing right?

If you have both the longing and the difficulty, you're not alone. I have certainly experienced these things in my adult life, and in my conversations with women who are in all different ages and stages, I've discovered that most women crave relationships but also find friendship unexpectedly complex and confusing.
Through those conversations, I've also discovered something else: I think we have a wish-dream about friendship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, describes this wish-dream as, "a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be," and a persistent attempt at realizing it.

Even now that I am all too aware of my tendency toward idealizing friendship and what I think it should be, my wish-dreams resurrect themselves: I want to keep friendships static; I don't want people to move or change or make decisions that hinder us from getting together. I am a mother hen, trying desperately to gather my friends in a little cozy cage and keep them there forever. Lovingly, of course.

I want the sugary-sweet, easy-come community where we flit into one another's homes without knocking, laugh deep into the night, know each other and are known without effort, and never exchange a cross or challenging word. I typically envision dinner parties and game nights, vacationing together and talking on the phone every day, which is strange because I don't even like talking on the phone.

It seems this is a common idea of what friendship should be. And this idealistic wish-dream is by far the greatest hindrance to the very thing we want. The dream fuels bitterness toward God and others, isolation, insecurity, and dissatisfaction with the people God has purposefully placed in our lives as potential friends.

Bonhoeffer seems to be saying to us that friendship is a good and right desire, but it is only able to be given and received as God intended it to be given and received--and He deals in reality rather than a dream world. We aren't asked to give up our desire for friendship, only the immature version of it--that all will be hippy-skippy perfect, that relationships will be forever fun and easy, that we can sit back and wait for others to come toward us, and that all of our needs will be met through other people.

We need to let our wish-dreams die and, in its place, take up a fresh, biblical vision for friendship, one that makes room for imperfection and bearing with one another and, yes, even conflict.

That's what my forthcoming book, Messy Beautiful Friendship, is about: a new vision for friendship, one based on God's Word and reality, not some idealistic wish-dream or picture-perfect Instagram picture.

In the book, I address the wish-dream, explore the common threats to friendship, and then I offer practical ways you can develop friendship, be a friend to other women, and receive friendship shown toward you. My goal in writing was both to challenge you to release the wish-dream and to give you helpful, biblical perspectives and tools for nurturing your friendships.

Are you ready to go on this journey with me? Preorder your book today so that it's in your hands on release day! And for those who preorder before April 11, I'm offering some super fun goodies meant to enhance the message of the book. Check out what you get:

So, to summarize, you get to start reading the book right away, and you get to hear Jen Wilkin answer questions about what she thinks are the biggest mistakes women make regarding friendship, what her biggest mistake has been, and if there are times when certain friendships must come to an end. In addition, watch a video where I ask my husband Kyle about helping our husbands develop friendships with other men, and a video with some of my real-life friends. Of course, there are other fun digital goodies as well.

Don't miss out! To claim your goodies, here's what you need to do:

  • Preorder the book from any online bookseller, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christianbook.com, or Target
  • Head to the Messy Beautiful Friendship book page and enter in your information (including your bookseller receipt number) on the preorder form. If you've preordered the book prior to today, no problem. You're in! Simply find your receipt and follow these steps.
  • After you enter your information, I'll send you an email with links to all of your goodies!

If you desire deep friendship, you're who I wrote this book for--Christian women who need a fresh perspective on friendship, who need to know they're not alone in the wrestling, and who want to know how to navigate relationships in a way that honors God.

Do you know others who crave friendship like you do? I'd love it if you shared this post with them and invited them to read Messy Beautiful Friendship along with you.

Together, let's discover how friendship is messy, but even in its messiness can be beautiful indeed!

P.S. I will soon be releasing information about a Messy, Beautiful Friendship launch team. Subscribe to my blog by email or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to be the first to know the details.

February 1, 2017

When You Feel Spread Too Thin Relationally

When we moved to Charlottesville to plant a church, we knew one whole person: our realtor. Soon after, we met our neighbors, who when we cheerily explained why we'd moved in, stared at us, speechless, as if we were aliens from another planet. Apparently church planting was going to be harder than I'd envisioned.

And it was. 

We started a Bible study in our living room and despite how desperately I wanted our little church to grow at the time and how much fear I felt, I sometimes look back at those days with longing. We had no idea what we were doing, but we could invite our entire church over for dinner, and we were a happy little band of brothers and sisters.

Then the church began to grow. As we passed certain milestones, I began feeling pulled in many different relational directions. We could no longer have everyone over for dinner at one time, or even everyone a handful at a time. People were coming to us faster than we could know them all, but still we tried to know them all, even as we tried to maintain relationships with those we'd known and loved since the church's inception. From year 3 to year 5 of our church's existence, I lived in perpetual motion. At the same time, I couldn't figure out how to navigate all of the relationships, I constantly felt guilty that I couldn't be all things to all people, and my new normal became various levels of bone-tired.
The truth is that I didn't want to admit to myself that I couldn't do it all. I didn't want to disappoint people, so I searched for some magic formula that would enable me to do all the things and have all the relationships. More than anything, I didn't want to have say no. As a result, I became spread so thin relationally that I lost track of God's voice beneath the persistent human voices and felt devoid of purpose and joy.

I think many folks in ministry feel this way at one time or another, especially if they're leading or serving in a growing church. In a church plant, there is a low-grade pressure to be and do things how you've been and done things from the beginning, even when the church has evolved entirely.

When I looked around at my life during those years, all I saw were good things. A happy family and marriage. A growing church full of absolutely wonderful people. Opportunities to serve the larger church through writing and speaking. Personal relationships with women I adore to this day. In other words, all I saw around me was abundance. So why was I struggling?

One day my husband used the phrase "stewarding the abundance," and it stunned me with its accuracy. We'd been given an abundance of relationships, and we'd need to consider how to navigate them all in a way that honored others but also didn't move us away from what God had originally called us to do.

Perhaps you too feel spread thin relationally. Maybe you feel like you're juggling or you're trying to keep up with all of your roles and responsibilities. Know that God intends you to steward the abundance He's given--not resent it or fear it or worry about it. Steward it. Steward means making choices, saying yes and also saying no, and being purposeful and intentional in all the yeses and no's.

I needed to learn to discern God's leading again so that I could separate "best" from "better" and "good," relationally and otherwise. I had to go through the excruciating pain of learning to say no when I'd just been saying yes, yes, and yes. Here are a few things I've learned along the way:

Praise God for Abundance
If your ministry or your life has vitality, praise God. If you have relationships and friendships, praise God. If you have more coming at you than you know what to do with, praise God. Thank God for the influence and opportunities He's given you. Don't allow your heart to become embittered because of the pulling and pressure that come with the abundance. Don't allow yourself to swell with pride, thinking that you've done something to earn this abundance. God and God alone have given you what you have.

Check Your Heart
Are you spreading yourself too thin because of self-idolatry? This has been the case for me far too much. When I set myself up as a god to myself or others, I believe things about myself that are an affront to God and I act in ways that are detrimental and harmful. I will actually try to be all things to all people (omnipresent). I will try to fix everyone's issues (omnipotent). I will also seek glory for myself in the form of respect, admiration, and appreciation. When I recognize my position before God, I'm humbled and able to embrace my limits. I'm encouraged to trust God for my own needs, as well as the needs of others. I'm also reminded that my life is not my own but is to be poured out for God by serving others.

Clarify Your People Priorities
Ask God to give you laser focus on those people in your life He wants you to cultivate relationships with. After spouse and kids or roommate relationships, who are the people He most wants you to invest your life in? Who do you need to dive deep with? I've heard it said, "Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone." I've taken this to heart in the area of discipleship and leaders within the church.

Say Yes and Also Say No
One way to not become embittered is to learn to say a prayerful yes as well as a prayerful no. I've learned that a slow response gives me time to ask God about it. I'd gotten so used to saying yes that saying no felt uncomfortable and awkward, but when I knew it was a no from God, that made the discomfort worth it. And when it was a yes, it was an enthusiastic, joy-filled yes! (I highly recommend the chapter "Saying No" in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown for thoughts on how to say a gracious no.)

Cultivate Intersections Rather Than Being a Cul-De-Sac
Be a connector. Use your opportunities and influence to connect people with each other, with small groups, and with ministry opportunities. Widen the circle. 

Plan Ahead for Friendship
Plan ahead for time with those you consider heart friends. Get those plans on the calendar ahead of church and work and whatever else demands of your time. Choose friends who encourage you to trust God and to rest but also to serve and work as unto the Lord. Deep friendship is jet fuel for the life-layer-downer. 

None of this is easy, my friends. However, being intentional with your time and relationships, paces you for a lifetime of ministry to others. 

January 26, 2017

Friendship After College

I remember exactly where I was when I realized friendship had become a struggle. I was sitting in my car, at a stand-still during rush hour traffic on I-75 in Dallas, Texas. Exhausted from a long day at my new job, fresh out of college, I only wanted to crawl into bed and sleep instead of grocery shop or pay bills or accomplish any number of the necessities screaming for my attention.

This whole real-world adult thing wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped.

I considered my new life from various angles as I inched forward in traffic. I was working a job that kept me from attending church services, even though I was actually working at a church. I was living with my aunt and uncle, 60 miles from the seminary I attended part-time. And because it was the prehistoric time before cell phones and Facebook, I hadn't communicated with my closest friends, who were also newly navigating adulthood, in weeks. None of us had the energy to call each other or drive for hours for a face-to-face. I felt so out of sorts, so disoriented, so alone.
I missed college terribly. I hated that I'd been surreptitiously thrust out of its safe, warm cocoon-like environment without so much as a warning that adult life would be this challenging. I hated that my relationships were changing so rapidly because of responsibilities and new jobs in faraway places and engagements. In adulthood, it seemed to me on I-75 in Dallas, relationships were not going to come easy.

I write about that moment and my transition into adult friendships in my forthcoming book, Messy Beautiful Friendship. Here's an excerpt:

------
Looking back, college was the friendship jackpot. I remember that time with fondness, and I admit that I've spent much of my adulthood dreaming up ways to recreate that slice of life. College friendships felt much like my childhood friendships, when community just sort of happened to me, except in college it was with additional freedom, opportunities, and a wider diversity in the types of friends I made. Everyone was on an equal playing field because everyone started as a new student and everyone was asking the same questions about life and the future and relationships.

But then we all became adults. Suddenly we weren't on an equal playing field any longer, because some of us became engineers and some of us chose to get a graduate degree in psychology (ahem). Some of the kids I went to high school with had skipped college altogether, entering the workforce straight out of high school and having to grow up a little quicker. Some of us got married right away and some of us didn't. Some of us were already picking out fabric swatches for the curtains and couches in our newly purchased house while the rest of us went back to Mom and Dad's spare bedroom.

I didn't like that my friendships were evolving, nor did I find this new social territory exciting. Life coaxed me toward making new friends, but I didn't want to make new friends; I simply wanted to figure out how to maintain the ones I already had. I wanted things to be how they used to be.

Effortless.
Carefree.
Fun.

In reality, I had crossed over some invisible line. I was no longer a child, and friendship had become inexplicably and frustratingly hard. The ease of childhood friendship was forever irretrievable.
-----

In my mind, I returned to that moment in the car many times over the next few years, even after I got married and together my husband and I moved to a new city so he could take a college ministry position. Sometimes I returned to that moment because I still longed for my college years, and I remembered with such clarity when my eyes were opened to my new reality. Mostly, however, I've returned to that moment with others to let them know they weren't alone. Former students who had come through our college ministry would call me up about six months after graduation and, almost with shame in their voices, tell me how much they were struggling relationally and how much they longed for what they'd had in college.

I would tell them about my own struggles and then I'd offer some advice, based upon what I myself learned the hard way:

Transition is hard for everyone, so know you're not the only one wrestling with it. Cut yourself some slack. Despite what you see on Instagram or Facebook, everyone is navigating new roles and responsibilities and everyone is a little unsure of themselves. Give it time, even up to two years, before panicking. By then, if you put some intentional effort into your life, you'll have no reason to panic.

Don't try to recreate what you've experienced. You won't find a church exactly like the church you loved in college. You won't have the free time you had in college. You won't experience the effortless, drop-in-your-lap community either. You probably won't live with your friends, and even if you do, you'll probably all have different work schedules anyway. The sooner you let go of what was and embrace the reality of what is, the easier your transition will be and the more open you'll be to new friendships.

Learn to pursue others and make intentional time for friendship. The pace of our lives often pushes friendship to the sidelines as a lesser priority. You're going to have to be intentional with relationships and probably even give up some nonessential pursuits in order to have the community you want. Adult friendship is a different bird than college friendship--you are absolutely going to have to seek it out, pursue friends both old and new, and carve out time when it'd probably be easier to veg in front of the TV. And when you pursue people? Pursue peers, but also intentionally pursue those of older generations. They've walked in your shoes before you and have wisdom to share as you navigate adulthood.

Make decisions that help rather than hinder friendship. Don't discount the idea of choosing a job, city, or neighborhood based upon a church or community. If you have a choice, choose in a way that fosters relationships over money or stuff every. single. time. I see many people choosing in a way that drastically affects their drive time or their ability to join in community-building opportunities and then feel frustrated or even bitter when they don't have the relationships they crave. Choose wisely.

If you're staying in your college town after graduation, think of it as a move. Because it will feel like a whole new world but you'll try to convince yourself it shouldn't be so difficult. Thinking of it as a move will broaden your horizons and help you notice new people as potential friends.

Make time for the old. If you developed deep friendships in college, you've found a treasure. How can you continue to engage those friends while cultivating new ones? Talk through ideas with your friends and commit to making time for one another. Both my husband and I take separate trips to Texas each year to spend the weekend with our college friends. Over 20 years, these relationships are some of the most important ones we have. I'm glad we've made them a priority while cultivating new relationships where we live.

What did you learn about friendship after college? 

January 18, 2017

Want Deeper Friendships? Do This.

The most important moments in my life have all begun with questions.

Some were questions directed toward me. A friend pointedly yet lovingly confronted me with one that pierced my heart. Another initiated a conversation with a vulnerable question, altering my perspective and expanding my empathy in a much-needed way. And of course I cannot forget the life-upending question God paired with His gospel: "Will you follow me wherever I lead you?"

Some questions, however, were those I've asked of others, and they've led not necessarily to important moments but to significant relationships. An invitation to coffee kickstarted what has become a treasured friendship. A request for advice grew into discipleship. A passing invitation to the quiet newcomer has become a life-giving friendship. A curious interest in another has opened up stories and vulnerabilities and, now, a deeper connection between us.
I've taken note of this dynamic--how questions stand at the starting line of friendships--because I've been shy all my life and even speaking to others has not necessarily come naturally. But I've tested this dynamic (and survived!) and found it to be true. Questions begin relationships and then, as nails setting the frame of a house in place, solidify relationships so intimacy and trust can grow. We know and are known through well-placed questions. We develop understanding for others rather than assumptions and comparison with questions. And we cannot help but grow in wisdom when we ask questions of and listen to the wise. 

Here's something else I've noticed: the world is starving for more question-askers and empathetic listeners. With the advent of social media, everywhere we turn these days we’re bombarded with people sharing their every thought and displaying their lives for all to see. We ourselves are often shouting to be heard online, and when we don’t feel heard, we shout even louder. Perhaps we are so busy shouting that there is not even the space to ask good questions, listen carefully, and think about what we’re hearing. Or perhaps it’s that we’re naturally good at talking about and focusing on ourselves, and asking questions and listening requires thinking beyond our own desires.

Sometimes I try to picture the internet in my head and I see us all as blue dots across the world map, shouting and spouting, but far too many of us feeling isolated and relationally poor. And we don't have any idea why. Isn't talking the way to be heard? Isn't spouting an invitation for others to come toward us?

What if observing, asking questions of others, and listening is really the way to be heard? What if showing interest in others is really the way to deeper friendship? What if well-placed questions are a form of ministry to others that, in time, develop into intimate relationships?

Consider Job and his friends. Job’s friends showed up on his doorstep, sat with him silently for seven days (good!), and then, without asking a single question, started spouting off counsel, all of which came from their own experiences and assumptions (bad!). If they’d only asked a few questions and listened well to Job’s grief, they could have comforted him and offered him hope rather than compounding it.

Job’s friends offer us “what-not-to-do” wisdom and in their lack of questions, we see more clearly that our goal in asking questions and listening well is not to gather information as a busybody might do or patronize the hurting but to develop or further a relationship so that we might serve that person in some way. So much can be helped and so much can be diffused by a simple question.

Although I am shy and although question-asking can often be awkward and uncomfortable, I cannot begin to calculate back to you how questions alone have changed my relationships. If I were to try, I may begin shouting and spouting myself as I show you that map in my head and what a ripe opportunity exists for anyone who will consistently ask purposeful questions of others. They will have ministry opportunities and friendships in abundance.

Do you desire deeper relationships? It is not as simple as a question, but it absolutely begins with a question or two.