September 17, 2014

A Love Letter to My Church (and to Church Planting)

A woman who recently finished reading The Church Planting Wife wrote to tell me she and her husband are moving across the country soon to plant a church. In my response, I said, "Although church planting is one of the most challenging things I've ever been a part of, it has also been my greatest joy!" I never want to sugar-coat church planting--it's challenging, it's hard work, and it will refine you at the very core of who you are. But I also never want to play down the overwhelming joys of having seen it through, especially those first tough years.
This Sunday, our church will turn six years old. On September 21, 2008, ten of us gathered in our living room (five of us carrying the Hoover last name, only one of us a Virginian), where we ate a few brownies, sang a few songs, and opened up the Scriptures. A year later, we had 31 people and a new location for our gatherings, and I felt as if I'd been through an internal war of flesh and fear wrestling against an emerging faith.

On Sunday, we'll gather hundreds strong, and we'll sing loud and clap our hands, and an elder will teach us from Ephesians, and we'll stay after to talk and love, and I'm typing this through tears. How did this happen? When did this become my life? Though the challenges never stop and the responsibility only grows and I'm still not certain I'm good at this church planting thing, I would never give it up, not in a million years. Because I wonder if I ever saw God like this before. I wonder if I had ever walked in faith before this. 

And I'm not talking about God being good because of numbers and the fact that we're still around six years later. I'm talking about the eyes of my heart being opened to things only faith can see. I'm talking about God's bittersweet refinement and discipline. I'm talking about learning to place my security in Christ alone.

But mostly I'm talking about watching God at work in His church.

By calling us into church planting, God pulled out a chair for me in a prime viewing location and continually says, "Watch this!" as He displays His manifest wisdom right before my eyes. I love these people, and I love how He uses us and moves among us.

From where I sit, I see housemates walking with their sister through grief, offering truth and hope all the while. I see young professionals seeking to glorify God in their workplaces. I see pastors and elders working tirelessly and faithfully to equip the saints for ministry and rightly divide the word of truth. I see college students serving sacrificially for the edification of families. I see families serving sacrificially for the edification of college students. I see women eager to disciple younger women in the faith. I see a worship leader who writes songs that teach and give voice to faith in real life. I see children growing up together, coming to faith, and learning to love. I see two who have been with us from the beginning, one of whom gets little public credit for how she's sacrificed but who has been so essential to our church. I see faithful efforts to reach neighbors and co-workers. I see marriages healed. I see people walking in their gifts. I see those with an eye toward the outsider. I see couples caring for the orphan the name of Jesus. Even among the darkness and brokenness of life, I see reconciliation and hope and community and joy.

And I see a pastor's wife who is happy beyond measure. I love these people. And I love the God who has nourished us.

Of course, there are other things that I pray to see and believe I'll see in time. This is real life and real church, after all. And, as you read this, you may be tempted to think about me, or my husband, or our specific church and what we have or haven't done to make this happen.

But that's just the point: six years ago, this group of people as a moving whole did not exist. We exist because God called us into being. And in these six years, the things that we've seen have only been God's doing. I haven't changed a single heart and neither has my husband. We haven't authored faith or reconciled people, and we certainly haven't been the spark and motivation for sacrificial service.

So this six-year mark isn't a moment that I celebrate myself or my husband or any person's work. This is a moment that makes me tear up because I've seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

I love these people, I love this church, and I love our God.

September 12, 2014

What Jesus Might Say About Social Media

We are moving quickly into a day when life is real only as it's captured on social media. A milestone is not momentous unless a picture is posted on Instagram, a life circumstance is not fully experienced until it is discussed on Facebook, and an event isn't fun or meaningful unless it has a cute hashtag. We read 140-character philosophies or follow links to blog posts and articles, but how often do we--do I--evaluate what is said rather than consider how it might actually apply to the deep recesses of my heart?
I recognized how much life is moving onto social media when, on a recent morning, I read about the Good Samaritan and my first thought was, "I wonder if a modern-day Good Samaritan would help the beaten-up guy if the beaten-up guy wasn't on Twitter and, therefore, couldn't tweet about the good deed of the Good Samaritan? Would he only do it for the retweet?" 

Which led me to consider what Jesus might say about social media. Like most things, social media is a fairly neutral medium, but it's a medium that reveals our hearts so accurately. Social media has been a considerable gift to me in that it's helped me stay connected with friends, follow great writers, and hopefully encourage others through my blog. But it's also been a source of discontentment, pride, comparison, and envy; it's revealed my heart. Above all, it's shown me how difficult it is to remember that life is what happens off of the screen, not on it. 

What might Jesus say to us specifically about how we relate to social media? Perhaps this:
  • But when you do a charitable deed, do not let the hand you hold your smartphone with know what your other hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
  • But when you text, let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no', 'no.
  • No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and social media.
  • Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your blog, what you will write about or who will read it. Is not life more than the comments you receive on your blog? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
  • Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you on Facebook, do also to them.
  • A good Twitter feed cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad feed bear good fruit. Therefore by their feeds you will know them.
  • I say to you that for every idle word men may tweet, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.
  • These people draw near to Me with their Pinterest quotes and honor Me with their Instagram pictures, but their heart is far from Me. 
  • If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains millions of followers, and loses his own soul? 
  • Whoever desires to be great among you, let him use his online presence to be your servant.
  • O Jerusalem! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under wings, but you were not willing because you were distracted by your phone!
  • The thief does not come except to steal joy by drawing you to live life only online and kill you with comparison. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. 
He for sure says this: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:29-30).

God uses the internet, no doubt, but the internet can also be a wearying place for the heart. It doesn't always place an easy yoke and a light burden upon us. So perhaps it would be good for today to be still instead of swiping, read wisdom in Scripture instead of typing on little screens, listen to the Spirit rather than finding another blog to follow. We don't need another DIY treasure, we need Christ, "in whom is hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3). 

Today, I challenge you to still yourself before Him, resist distraction, and dive deep into that treasure. Give your heart a break from what can quietly weary you and go to the One who can truly recharge you.

That's where I'll be today. I hope you'll join me. 

September 9, 2014

What People Who Are New to Your Church Want You to Know

In the 14 years we've been married, my husband and I have only searched for a church home one time. It was during our seminary years, when we were first married and he had not yet become a pastor. After that season, he was hired by a church and then, 8 years later, we started one, so we've experienced church a little differently than most. 

But I will never forget being a visitor and, honestly, the experience has shaped almost everything I do in our current church. 
As a visitor, I remember being nervous and uncertain, but mostly I remember being eager--eager to find our "family", make friends, hear the Word preached clearly and powerfully, eager to worship, and eager to belong. When we weren't spoken to Sunday after Sunday, our eagerness deflated quickly. It still makes me feel uncertain when I think about it. 

Until you are new, until you're a visitor, it's difficult to understand what it's like and to put yourself in a visitor's shoes at your church, but it's so important to try. A warm, welcome, and helpful environment is one of the most essential ingredients for a person to become a follower of Christ and grow and connect within the church.

A sweet friend of mine just moved away to a different state this past summer. She wrote and told me of the loneliness and uncertainty she's feeling, especially in her and her family's efforts to connect to a local church. This is a woman who loves the Lord and, while mothering young children, sacrificially served in our church. She is eager not only to connect but to serve where God has taken her. She wrote what she wished others could see, which I'm sharing with her permission:

"It is the first day of Bible study. I am in a new town and have had a hard time making new friends. I have looked forward to today, to an opportunity to meet some sisters in Christ, hoping to find My People in the midst of a storm. Please make me feel welcome.

I come to the steps of the church. I have a child on each side, and a stroller. You all say hello, then watch as I try to lift the stroller up the stairs. Please help me.

I am in a new place. I don’t know where to go and don’t see any signs for where to bring my children. Please direct me.

After dropping off my children, I meekly walk back toward the main entrance. I don’t see any signs directing me where to go. Good! There are some moms behind me! I will wait for them, smile, and ask if I can go with them.  I try to make eye contact. They continue with their laughter and conversation and walk around me. Please just say hello.

I finally find the sanctuary, yet I don’t feel safe. I see all these sisters in Christ. But they all seem to know each other, and are not interested--or at least don’t seem to be interested--in making a new friend. Please help me find a place.

I bow my head and pray. I ask the Lord for the strength to get through the morning, and that I will now respond to others the way I wish someone had responded to me. Please, Lord, let me feel your presence when I feel so alone.  Let me find my place at Your feet.

I see a friend, the one person who has reached out. She smiles and makes room. Thank you for being like Christ and showing love."

My sweet friend is in a time of transition, as are many people at the start of this new school year. We will all more than likely encounter someone new in our churches and our neighborhoods this very week. Let's ask God to give us eyes to see the outsider, the new person, the lonely. Let's push through the awkward and interact with them. Something as simple as a helping hand or a warm welcome can show them the love of Christ and invite them into a community of believers. We may even have the opportunity to introduce them to Christ Himself.

September 2, 2014

When You Wonder Who Is Thinking of You

Last Sunday, I got up before the sun, poured my coffee, and snuck out to the porch to welcome the morning and to give my husband, who had risen long before me, a quiet house for the last of his sermon preparation. In another hour, the house would be loud with children and breakfast and finding shoes and all the things that fill our Sundays, but for a blessed moment, I sat in stillness with my warm cup.
These first Sundays of the new school year tend to be overwhelming for me. Hoards of students, many of them new First Years at UVA, descend upon our church, which is an incredible blessing and opportunity. And then there are the new medical residents and law school students and the countless number of new families and young professionals moving to our city. Again, we count this as an incredible blessing and opportunity to have them with us, and I absolutely love greeting each and every one of them as they walk through our doors and into our lives.

So as I sat on the porch watching the sun rise, I began mentally preparing for what church held for me later that morning. I prayerfully walked through each part of the morning from the time Kyle walked out the door to the moment I corralled my kids in the car to come home after church. I knew I would get to talk to tons of new people and hug the old-faithfuls. I knew I'd need to be prepared to be patient and gentle with whatever my children needed. I knew I'd be praying with folks brave enough to ask, and I knew I'd be answering questions and connecting people with one another. I breathed a sigh of relief when I recognized that I'd also be able to worship the Lord in song and be ministered to through the preaching of the Word.

By the man sitting in our living room.

And that's when I stopped thinking about what my morning would be like and thought about his.

Because sometimes on Sundays, in those early morning hours before my children are awake, I think ahead about what is to come that day and my heart is sullen and quick to complain. I love being a pastor's wife, but some days I have to choose to love it. On those days, it's typically fighting the feeling of being alone--getting the kids ready alone, going to church alone, coming home alone. Those thoughts can so easily turn into resentment toward my husband. Who is thinking of me today? Who is helping me today? That's sometimes what I'd rather think about rather than supporting my husband, worshiping God, and loving other people.

But I know where that trail of thought leads me--it is a trail of tears. And I've gone down that trail so many times and to the detriment of myself and so many others; I know how futile and frustrating it is to fight for my rights. I don't want to fight to be seen anymore. I want to fight to remember my opportunity, my joyful perspective on my husband, and the truth that God has given me.

This is my opportunity: I am a pastor's wife, which is a huge privilege. Yes, this means many difficult things, and my trail of tears will have me only focus on these. But oh the opportunities! I have opportunities to speak life and grace and love into so many. I have opportunities to use my gifts and my home and my story to display the beauty of Christ. I have opportunities to know and be known at the deepest level.

This is my joyful perspective on my husband: I am a blessed woman to be married to a man that pursues God and faithfully preaches Christ. Yes, it means he can't help me with the kids on Sunday mornings and that I attend church alone. But he is doing incredible work, and I get to join in that work by something as simple as parenting my children on Sunday mornings (and many, many other seemingly small ways I support him). Although it can be invisible, I have perhaps one of the most important jobs in the church: influencing the one who influences so many.

This is the truth that God has given me: "I do not count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:24) and "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:35). The trail of tears is thinking of myself and looking for others to give to me. The trail of joy and blessing is thinking of God and others. The fight that so often happens in my heart happens because this isn't a natural response, but it is possible by the Holy Spirit who resides in me.

I've found that these truths are applicable to most areas of my life, especially in motherhood, work, and friendship. It's so easy to think of myself, my needs and my wants. Who is thinking of me today? Who is helping me today? This is the flesh's pulsing question, and it draws us down a trail of tears. The freedom of self-forgetfulness, as Tim Keller calls it, is only possible, however, when we realize that there is someone who is thinking of us today, there is someone who is helping us today. We don't have to think of ourselves when we know that God is always thinking of us and helping us.

Knowing this, believing this, it's true: we don't have to count our lives dear to ourselves. We can give them away.

Be thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please Thee, even if as a result, I must sink into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream. Rise, O Lord, into Thy proper place of honor, above my ambitions, above my likes and dislikes, above my family, my health, and even my life itself. --from The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer

August 29, 2014

How to Have Joy

I read a quote this morning that surprised me in how neatly it summed up my previous year:

Most often our depression is unexpressed anger, and it manifests itself as the sloth of disobedience, a refusal to keep up the daily practices that would keep us in good relationship to God and to each other. For when people allow anger to build up inside, they begin to perform daily tasks resentfully, focusing on others as the source of their troubles...It is usually a fear of losing an illusory control--they direct it outward, barreling through the world, impatient and even brutal with those they encounter, especially those who are closest to them. (from The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris, pg. 43)

I related most closely to "performing daily tasks resentfully, focusing on others as the source of my troubles." Last year, one thing after another hit me where it hurt and my response was resentment and blame. I felt like a spider's trapped insect; I'd untangle myself from one sliver of sin only to get stuck in another. It's no wonder that I felt the firm pressure of God's discipline all year long, and it's no wonder I thirsted for joy.

Though I craved it desperately, I don't believe I've ever in my life been able to completely wrap my mind around joy.

I've tried to manage my way to joy, telling myself to buck up and get on with it. Introspection comes so easily for me, but it can turn morose and unhelpful when I'm tangled in the web. A dark heart is ugly, and I wonder, looking at my own, how joy can breathe under the suffocation of it all. If only I were different, I would have joy!

Like most people, I've often looked for joy in my circumstances, but as we all know, they will never fully get in line with our desires. (I imagine the Von Trapp kids lining up so quietly and obediently upon command.) Squeezing joy from circumstances is a losing game. But if only things were different, I would have joy!

And of course, as Kathleen Norris points out, I look at others and blame them for my lack of joy. (If only others would respond to my authoritative and brisk whistle commands!) Or if only they were different, I would have joy!

It's seemed to me that joy is unattainable in this world. And it's honestly kind of annoyed me that Paul, in his command to rejoice always, wants something from me that appears impossible. I can barely muster up energy to get out of bed in the morning and like it.

But I want joy! Oh how I want it.

God is so good to help when we ask. When I finally admitted my ignorance about joy, He inundated me with help. I already told you about the word study, which helped tremendously. But then--I love when this happens--my husband Kyle preached on joy from Habakkuk and everything I'd been thinking about came together.

We think of sorrow and joy as incompatible, he said, but they can coexist in one's life. Habakkuk faced extreme external pressures. I thought of how I'd considered difficult circumstances as an enemy to joy.

Habakkuk faced internal struggles so profound that today we would characterize him as clinically depressed, he said. I thought of how I'd blamed my personality for my lack of joy.

And then there is the word YET, he said. "Yet I will rejoice in the Lord." Habakkuk is able to access joy even in the midst of suffering.

Kyle then defined joy, which I found most helpful. Joy, he said, is not a feeling. It is not equated with happiness or with burying sorrowful emotions. Joy is a discipline, an intentional savoring of something of high value.

My heart leapt. I wanted to jump from my seat and scream out, because I could see where this was going.

We do not look to our circumstances.
We do not look to other people.
We do not look to our own hearts and our own ability to muster joy.

We intentionally look on God and savor Him, and we intently look on what He's done for us, treasuring our salvation. These are the things of highest value, and these are the things that birth joy.

So when our circumstances are dire, we discipline ourselves to remember. We literally re-member-- reconnect members that have torn apart--reconnecting what we know of God's character to what we're facing in a specific moment.

When our hearts or actions condemn us, we discipline ourselves to remember what God has done for us in our salvation. He has freed us from condemnation and washed us clean with forgiveness.

Reframing joy as a discipline rather than an emotion has been so helpful. When I crave joy, I need only take time to savor God and my salvation. This elevates the priority of actually knowing God's character and what my salvation means, but it also says to me that joy is in reach. It's not as unattainable as I originally thought.

It doesn't matter that my personality is what it is, I can take joy!
It doesn't matter if the circumstances change or not, I can take joy!
It doesn't matter if others change or not, I can take joy!

This is the beauty of turning our attention away from fleshly things that never seem to line up right and on to our unchanging, joyful God!

August 27, 2014

What I Want to Remember for Next Summer

Our family had a truly great summer this year. We collectively hiked Humpback Rock on the Blue Ridge, spent a June day at the beach with a friend, caught a turtle and frogs and fireflies, saw friends and family in Texas, made stop-action movies with Legos, enjoyed a 70 degree July 4th, spent lazy days at the pool, and celebrated a milestone birthday with square dancing, pecan pie, and Bluebell. There were books, there were friends, there were late nights, and there were slow-start mornings. In other words, there were all the things that make summer so good.
But in May, just as I do every year, I looked ahead to the summer season with a mix of apprehension and relief. Relief because we don't have to rush from the moment the alarm beeps, and because summer in Virginia means great weather (even greater this year!) and lots of outdoor activities after cold winter days. But there is also always the apprehension: what we will do with all that unstructured time? Will I have the patience and energy that I need not just to entertain my kids but to enjoy them as well? And how I will get anything at all done?

As I write this, my kids are knee deep in their first day of school. I'm looking back at the summer with a little bit of nostalgia (especially when the alarm went off at 6 am), but I also feel a sense of accomplishment. We did it! We sucked the marrow out of summer, and it was wonderful.

I want to remember this feeling so that when May comes around next year and summer is fast approaching, I will have only eager anticipation at the joy we have ahead. Here's what I want to remember for next summer:

Linger
Summer means some daily routines are made to be broken. Sleep a little later. Let the kids stay up a little later to catch the fireflies that only power up at 9 pm. Leave the kids in their rooms a little longer in the morning to linger over Scripture with the Lord. Linger with friends. Summer was made for relationships.

Stop Producing
Because summer is made for relationships, the kids are the priority, not tasks. So what if the ring around the toilet has been there for weeks? So what if the kids are a constant swirl of mess? So what if the blog goes dormant? So what if you can't return emails quickly? You are not your production. In fact, you need intense time to be taught and renewed by the Lord. Summer gives that.

Remember Winter
There will be days six months from now when it will be dark at 4:30 pm, it'll be cold and dreary, and everyone will be hibernating inside. Now is not that time, so get outside. Plan outings and simple family adventures. Swim, walk, ride bikes, and sit outside for dinner. Those memories will warm you in the dead of winter.

Boys Will Be Boys
And boys like read-alouds and trips to the library too. Plan in time to pile on the couch with a book, and plan room time for individual reading. (Our favorite book this summer: Wonder by R.J. Palacio)

Legos Come Apart
Those Lego sets that sit proudly displayed on shelves gathering dust? They come apart and also come with instructions, which makes for a perfect rainy day activity. Pick a set to take apart, sort by color, and rebuild.

Teach New Things
Summer days stretch out long. Use the plethora of down time to teach new skills, such as how to ride a bike, unload the dishwasher, mowing the yard, sort the laundry, how to bake, or how to write and make books on the iPad.

A Little Structure Goes a Long Way
It's good to ease up on the structure kept during the school year, but it's also good to keep a little structure in each day during the summer. Let the kids take turns planning "their" day using given building blocks. Let them sign up for short term activities that fit their interests.

A Little Separation Goes a Long Way
Everyone goes a little bit nutty when they're with the same people all day every day. Facilitate family time, but also give them time for different activities. Employ room time for separation, quiet, and rest. Facilitate time with their individual friends.

Find Reasons to Celebrate
Summer itself is enough reason to celebrate. It gives us many an excuse to gather with friends, make homemade ice cream, swim, and play outside. Cultivate the joy of simply being alive and being together. Most importantly, cultivate the joy of being with the kids. These are the days.

As I wrote this list and thought back over summer, I realized pretty quickly that these are lessons that take me into the fall. Certainly, the season is different than summer, being full with school and homework and activities. But I can continue to cultivate what the summer wrought, the joy of being alive and being with my kids. These are the days.

August 22, 2014

Just Listen

I've been following what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri with great interest, trying, without being there in person, to understand it all. There is a feeling in me and it seems in many of us to figure out what we can "do" about it all, hoping that some words or some actions we can take might erase death, bitterness, and unrest. The fallout of division and hatred among people grieves me greatly, but what can I do to change things?

I opened the Washington Post this morning and read about Keith Griffin, a black man and a Ferguson native who is leader in a nearby community. The article says, "[Some of his white friends] probably don't understand the little things that define his day-to-day life. The hurdles he faces renting downtown business property, something he attributes to race. The way he was pulled over last week in another part of town, questioned about whether his car belongs to him. The way he's had to talk with his 8-year-old son about how to deal with cops ("Yes, sir. No, sir.")."

But it was Keith Griffin's words that I connected and resonated with most: "There's a difference in psyche between black and white culture. I guess there has always been a divide. But there's never been a good platform where you could say it. Blacks are too often considered to be at fault."

I immediately thought back to a post I wrote in February that has honestly haunted me. The topic? What it's like to a pastor's wife. I wrote it with a little fear of what might happen if it went viral and was read by people who don't normally read my blog and who don't know where I'm coming from. And what I feared actually happened: lots of people read it and the response I saw from some corners confirmed why I'd thought twice about putting it out there in the first place. I've thought many times about taking it down, but the whole point of the post was to give voice to a group of people who often can't share much of anything about their role without being misunderstood. Do I share that perspective or not? I have since decided to take the post down, primarily because I don't believe it conveyed the truths of what I was saying with as much grace as it needed.

There were others who read my words and responded in a way that said something else: I'm listening and trying to put myself in your shoes. What can you tell me about what it's like in your day-to-day life? 

So as I read about Keith Griffin this morning, I realized that he was attempting what I'd attempted. He was trying to say that he and others who are asking for facts in Ferguson want someone to listen to what it's like to be black in America. He's trying to give voice to a group of people who often can't share about their lives--"There's never been a good platform where you could say it"--without being misunderstood or even vilified. Both the inability to speak freely and the refusal to listen have historically created an unrest that eventually explodes.

I've discovered that when people share with me what it's like to be them, I sometimes feel as if they're somehow making judgments about me personally. I think we all tend to do that. But Keith Griffin is not making judgments, he's just asking for us to listen and try to understand without jumping to old conclusions, just like when I shared about being a pastor's wife. I wanted to bring nuance and reality to a role that most people have made far-gone conclusions about.

That post I wrote taught me things, once I got over my defensiveness and actually listened to the truth in the critical responses. Mostly, it reminded me of the value of every single life. Don't we all have something that makes us different that can make us feel misunderstood? Don't we all desire to be heard? Of course we do. Singleness. Divorce. Illness. Children with special needs. Past choices. Current choices. Race. Nationality. Vocation. A difficult marriage. Grief. We can all name something that we'd like others to understand, so we can all relate to where Keith Griffin is coming from. If, instead of getting defensive and jumping to conclusions about something we think we know but don't, we will only choose to listen!

I am not in Ferguson, so I can learn from afar. But there is actually something I can "do" here. I can take the posture of listening and trying to understand with the people in my life and community, and not just on matters of race. I can, as Trillia Newbell said to me, invite people into my home. I can ask good questions. I can refuse to put up dividers between myself and others because I feel they couldn't possibly relate to my life and I couldn't possibly relate to theirs.

This takes courage and, yes, pushing through the risk of being misunderstood. And we'll likely stumble and bumble our way through, as I feel I did in my blog post. But in the end, it helps us to love one another as Christ loves each person He's created in His image.

August 21, 2014

When Your Soul Needs An Awakening

At summer camp during middle school, I learned the ins and outs of the "quiet time" from my youth minister. Being a responsible and dutiful child, I immediately began the practice of dragging a lawn chair onto the back porch of my house each summer morning, at times working through a little devotional book and at other times randomly opening my Bible for a verse to read. Though amateurish and haphazard, the Lord genuinely awakened in me a desire for Him.
It didn't last-- at least the sense of wonder didn't. What did last was the practice of reading a devotional or a verse each morning, but the awakening of a child-like faith was destroyed by an undercurrent of duty and obligation. I kept it up but the motivation to do so was to meet my own expectations and to manage my own heart.

I didn't see the subtle change, but a bucket of water had been poured out on my heart-on-fire. Embers were left, but I couldn't find a way to light the fire again. I had gone from the Lord awakening my soul to trying exhaustively to awaken it myself. When I felt far from the Lord, as my emotions so often told me I was, I strategized how I might get close to Him again. When I recognized something spiritual I lacked, I worked hard to get it. And when I sinned, I made up for it with good things, or at least I tried. I became an expert at managing myself, but I had a dull heart.

Many years later, I came to understand the subtle change that had occurred: "You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace" (Galatians 5:4). I couldn't have related to this verse any more: I felt estranged from Christ, no matter how I attempted to set things right. And the verse diagnosed why: I had removed Christ from the equation, I had rejected grace, and I had set myself as the manager of my heart. I was an attempter, not a grace receiver.

So I started receiving what Christ had offered me all along, and I grew in leaps and bounds. Grace, when it's received, affects every aspect of life, from relationships to spiritual disciplines to our prayers. And it did mine.

But there has been residue and it's closely tied to my sense of duty and responsibility. Even after grace, I've found that when I've become aware of sin or something lacking, my first response has been to manage it. Do something. Develop a strategy. Make promises to myself and to God. My first response hasn't been, "Lord, do this in me." And so I've tried to be conscious of that instinctual response and immediately go to the second, where I ask God to take the responsibility for my sanctification and submit myself to the process. I've discovered this is more of a falling back into secure and capable arms rather than straining forward to reach a rope to climb. The falling back is grace; the straining forward is managing.

Last week, sitting in church, I recognized that my heart was dull. I was having trouble focusing, and what I was focusing on had scant value. My first thought: Ugh. My second thought: Awake my soul. I said this to my heart as if I was trying to shake my soul awake, but it wasn't responding. My third thought: Lord, awaken my soul. I will wait for you.

It was such a moment of grace, to see where He's brought me, to see that it didn't take me weeks of wading through to-do's before realizing the fruitlessness of managing myself.

What hope, what grace, that we can fall back into secure and capable arms, that we don't have to manage ourselves, that the Lord indwells us and takes responsibility for leading our sanctification.

He is responsible.
Awaken my soul. 
We simply respond.
Yes, Lord, we wait for you and will follow Your lead.
In faith, we fall back into His arms.

August 19, 2014

How is the Joy of the Lord Our Strength?

The conversations we have with close friends are often life-giving and filled with laughter and encouragement, but they are always telling. These conversations tell us, like a mirror reflection, what we're thinking and concerned about most. And because we ease down our guards and reveal more of ourselves to those we feel safest with, they tell on our hearts.
In the spring, my conversations with women who know me best were starting to tell on me. I noticed a pattern developing: when I let down my guard, cynicism, pessimism, and complaints poured out of me like a waterfall. I'm just being real, I'd tell myself, but almost every time I left those women, I felt yucky and convicted and would immediately text or call them to apologize. Unfortunately, I had to do a lot of texting and calling and they were all so gracious with me, but at some point I told myself that enough was enough. My conversations were telling on me, and I needed to listen.

It was pretty obvious what my conversations (and thoughts) were telling on me--that I had no joy. I had weariness, frustrations, and discontentedness in abundance, but I felt so far from having joy that I wondered if I'd ever had it at all. And I wanted joy. I didn't want my words and my life to be overflowing with complaints and resentments. I wanted joy in the Lord each and every day, joy in reading His Word, joy in relating with my children, joy in the work and ministry He's given me, joy in relationships, and joy even in the smallest details of life.

But how does one get joy? Is it a choice or is it given? Is it a feeling and, if not, how do you know you have it? Are there things you can do to increase or decrease joy? These were my questions.

If I know one thing about joy, it's that it is associated with the Lord, so I asked Him to teach me through His Word and to renew my heart in the process. I did a word study on joy, focusing on three words: joy, delight, and rejoice.

As I plowed through the Old Testament, everything was well and good until I got to Nehemiah 8:10: "The joy of the Lord is your strength." That verse is one of those that I've heard a million times and probably quoted a million times but have not had a clue what it means. I suppose, though, I hadn't really stopped to think about it or understand its context.

In Nehemiah, the Israelites are returning from a physical and spiritual exile; they're rebuilding. Ezra, their spiritual leader, gathers them together in one place and reads the Law aloud. They hear, many for the first time in their lives, what God expects of them, and in their hearing, they realize how they've fallen short. The entire nation begins weeping and grieving their sin.

That's when Ezra says, "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow,  for the joy of the Lord is your strength."

In other words Ezra is saying, "Yes, we've sinned, I've sinned, you've sinned. But the Lord has made a way for us. He has rejoiced to make a way for us. The fact that He is a God full of joy over you is the strength you need for each day and the motivation for obeying His commandments."

Because this was true for the Israelites under the Law, how much more for those of us who are sons and daughters of God under Christ. We've sinned, I've sinned, you've sinned. But Jesus has made a way for us. He has rejoiced to make a way for us. The fact that He is a God full of joy over us is the strength we need for each day and the motivation for following Him in obedience.

His joy--the fact that our God is a joyful God--is the foundation of all our joy. Our joy rises up as we recognize that our God delights in us. Like a father showing off pictures of his kids and telling stories of the funny things they do, He delights in us. Like a mother staring at her child lovingly as she rocks him to sleep, He delights in us. Like a bridegroom amazed at the startlingly beautiful woman coming down the aisle toward him, He delights in us.

"As for the saints who are on the earth, 'They are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.'" (Psalm 16:3)

"For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." (Isaiah 62:5)

Thinking about God as a joyful God who delights in and sings over me changed things for me. All that pessimism and cynicism couldn't stand in light of God's joy. All the resentments at not being loved as I thought I deserved to be loved by people fell away when I saw how God delights in me. My complaining was checked by the Holy Spirit because my God doesn't complain; He rejoices.

As I stopped trying so hard to create joy for myself and simply turned to meditate on God's joy, I found joy. The joy of the Lord really is my strength.

And it's yours as well.

I'd love to share with you more of what I learned in my word study on joy. If you'd like to see and print out my outline, click here.

July 3, 2014

Links for Your Summer

Summer is already in full swing, and I'm enjoying it so, primarily because of the three rambunctious boys that live in my house (four if you count my husband). We've already hiked in the mountains, spotted black bears, lounged at the beach, read books galore, spent time with friends at the pool, caught a turtle, and watched The Lego Movie for what feels like the thousandth time.
Because I want to soak up every moment with my children, and because I want to give my heart and mind space to think and learn and listen to the Lord before the whirlwind of the Yellow Period and the wind up for a book launch, I will be taking some time off from the blog for a bit.

Hopefully you've already had a chance to grab my ebook, Partners in Ministry. When I come back from my blogging break, I'll have my newest ebook ready to offer you, which is called, Partners in Planting: Help and Encouragement for Church Planting Wives. Yay!

In the meantime, below are links to articles I've written on other sites this spring or blog posts that I've continued to think about long past their publication. I hope they are an encouragement to you throughout the summer:

How to Pastor Without Losing Your Wife's Heart (on Send Network)
Although my husband says over and over that I'm his most valuable partner in ministry, his leadership in our home and marriage is equally valuable to me.

A Weak Mother is a Good Mother (on Desiring God)
This is so what I want: to know deep in my soul that a good mother is not one who bakes intricate treats, who schools a certain way, who manages her household within an inch of its life, or who has her children in a million wonderful activities. A good mother is one who acknowledges her need for the power of God to train and teach and change the hearts of her children.

Lessons in Love: Raising a Child with Autism (on iBelieve)
When my little boy turned two, he had no words and we began to worry. By the time he turned three, we knew something was atypical, beyond a hearing issue or a developmental delay. At 3 1/2, he was diagnosed with autism. That night I saw my husband cry for the first time.

Unrealistic Expectations 
When accusation has had its full effect, the enemy no longer has to accuse but watch and goad, because we've taken over for him. We self-accuse.

Clint Clifton of Send D.C. interviewed me about being a church planting wife
I love when a church planter cares about how church planting affects his wife. This interview may help them understand these very things.

Friendship: It's Worth the Risk (on iBelieve)
We need a new definition of friendship, one that allows for awkwardness and risk and fumbling through.

Set Apart How?
What should set believers apart from the unbelieving world? I've still been thinking about what God showed me in thinking and writing on this one...

God is Quietly at Work Always
A little encouragement for those praying for God to answer.

Life After Salvation: Why the Second Half of the Story Matters
The second half of the story is that God has known all along that we'd fail Him, and that we'd continue to fail Him after His sacrifice for us. It's not that our sin doesn't grieve Him, it's just that He made a way to deal with it on our behalf.

Kristen Lunceford: Help for Working Church Planting Wives
I read a statistic the other day about how many church planting wives work full-time to support their families and it was surprisingly high. Kristen Lunceford speaks to the issues these women face.

In Her Shoes: Ministering to Single Women in the Church
This post is well over a year old, but it continues to help me as I develop friendships with single women in our church.

Happy reading and happy Summer!

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