June 11, 2019

We Need to Talk About Friendship. Here's How.

I tell people all the time: I wrote a book on friendship because it was a book I needed for most of my 20’s and 30’s. Through those desperate years, I hadn’t known how to think about friendship in a healthy, biblical way. I just knew I felt lonely and frustrated and insecure around other women—feelings that gathered like an avalanche and buried me in my own confused isolation. 

So I finally took a good long look at friendship. I searched Scripture. I talked with other women and observed those who seemed to do it well. I learned that I had an idealistic (read: unrealistic) idea of what friendship should be, so I chose to approach friendship in a different way—a way that left room for imperfection and missteps and the risk of vulnerability. A way that starved the idolatry of finding my security in a “tribe,” finally finding “my person,” or endlessly searching for effortless friendships.

I love talking about friendship. In fact, last weekend, I got to teach a group of women what nuggets of truth I’ve learned. But even as I drove to that event, I was wrestling in prayer over my real life friendships, uncertain and feeling needy. In other words, I’m still prone to seeking security in my relationships and being frustrated when they aren’t exactly as I’d like them to be.

And I’m finding that in each season of life, there are new friendship complexities to explore and work through. Here’s what I’m learning about friendship in my 40’s: women my age are carrying the most responsibility we ever have. As we swirl in activity, we must be extremely intentional about making time for face-to-face friendship. But also? By this point, I’ve been friends with folks long enough that we know each other well, faults and all. The command of Scripture that we should bear with one another and overlook offenses comes more and more into play. In other words, we must love each other intentionally and not give up on one another.

Friendship is so important to our sanctification and faith. Easy? No. But important, nonetheless. I wholeheartedly believe we need to be talking about friendship from a biblical perspective, so we can be intentional about our relationships and be willing to work through the hard stuff when the hard stuff comes along. Because it always does.

Summer is great time for this, and I want to help you have these conversations! I’ve put together a free 6-week Bible study and discussion guide that corresponds with my book, Messy Beautiful Friendship. So gather at the pool while your kids swim or on your porch in the evenings and dig into what the Bible says about friendship!

Download the Participant's Guide here.

You in? I can't wait to hear from you regarding what you're discussing this summer! Tag me on social media and use the hashtag #messybeautifulfriendship to share what you're learning. 

May 15, 2019

The Gift is Not the Greatest

Before I get to my blog post for today...
A few weeks ago, a friend asked if I was going to continue with my podcast after the season on friendship, and I was very confused by the question, because I did continue: I'm currently in the middle of a season on serving by faith. Then it dawned on me that she'd probably been listening to By Faith directly on my website rather than a podcast platform, she'd missed the announcement that I'd no longer be sharing the podcast episodes on my blog, and if she'd missed it, many others likely missed it as well. If that's you, I apologize! I'd loved to have you join me for the current season, where I've invited guests to help me explore what it means to know and use our spiritual gifts in our unique contexts and seasons of life.

The best way to receive new podcast seasons and episodes is by subscribing through a podcast platform like iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, or Spotify. Once you subscribe you'll receive notice through that platform when a new episode is available. (If you're technologically challenged, feel free to email me so I can send you instructions on how to subscribe.)

You can also listen on you computer directly on my website or on the podcast website, which is helpful if you'd also like links mentioned in the show.

Finally, if you're on social media, I post about new episodes when they release. Come find me on Facebook or Instagram and give me a follow.

Now, on to the blog post for today...

I played the flute in high school, both in marching band and in what we called symphonic band, which was basically non-marching season.

Every year, without fail, the guys that filled out the brass sections--the trumpets, trombones, baritones, and tubas--consistently poked fun at my section, reminding us that no one could really hear us from the stands. In other words, we didn't much matter during marching season. They were the most important, because they were loud and, more often than not, they carried the primary melody for whatever song we played.
In some ways they were right. Unless we flautists transitioned to piccolo, we couldn't be heard in the stands above the brass and the pounding bass drums, except for when the songs turned briefly dirge-like and our flutes could rise up in the quiet.

But did that mean we didn't matter? Is being heard what makes something matter? 

During symphonic season, everything changed. We played different kinds of music than we did during football season--no longer the rousing, crowd-pleasers, nor the fight songs we could high-step to. The snare drummers put away their rat-a-tat-ta drumsticks and picked up timpani mallets instead. Some of our clarinet players pulled out their oboes and bassoons. For large sections of some of our pieces, the brass players would just sit there, not playing a note, while the flutes and clarinets took center stage.

To be honest, I loved marching season far more than symphonic season. At times I wished I'd chosen an instrument vital to our marching season show, perhaps the snare drum or the trumpet. The brass sections were right: as flutes, we didn't much matter to the show. We only mattered in boring, old symphonic season that no one much cared about.

I've been thinking about this lately in relation to spiritual gifts. Because I'm passionate about each person using their gifts for the benefit of the greater good, I have a tendency to elevate gifts as if they are ultimate, as if they can be possessed and harnessed at will. I tend, in other words, to be a trumpeter, blasting loudly and secretly believing the music couldn't go on without me.

Until it did.

In the past year, God figuratively moved me from trumpet to flute, and I suddenly found myself indignant that I would be asked to play a part that didn't much matter to anyone but him. But God, I wanted to say, look what I can do at trumpet! Don't you see that I'm needed? How will the show go on without me?

That's when I began to see how I've elevated my supposed gifts above their appropriate place. It's as if I believe my one instrument is more important than the music on the page, the band as a whole, and the director's will. What's more, I didn't know it until I was handed the flute, but I've believed I was above a quiet, unseen part in the larger show.

When it comes to spiritual gifts, we don't possess them. We use them at the direction of God, according to his Spirit's power. Sometimes we sit quietly, waiting for that direction, while God uses others. Sometimes we're very visible. Sometimes we act in ways that are unseen or seemingly unimportant, but whether seen or unseen in their use, he wouldn't ask us to use them if it weren't contributing to the edification and building of his Church.

No one instrument is more important than the other.

The gift is not the greatest.

Being used or seen in our gifts is not the reason we use them.

God is the greatest. And the music he makes through us collectively is beautiful. That's the purpose of our gifts, and our very lives.

Don't miss the latest conversations I've had about serving on By Faith with:
Trillia Newbell on the Fears that Hold Us Back
Carolyn McCulley on Women, Work, and the Church
Anna Perez on Church Planting
Greg Gilbert on Living and Serving From Grace Rather Than Guilt

May 7, 2019

On Bitterness

The Lord is gracious to give me perspective regarding my everyday life when I actually step out of that everyday life for a day or two. Blurry thoughts become clear. Mountains are seen as only molehills. Priorities fall into laser-sharp view. Renewal, so desperately sought, comes instead like a whispered surprise. I remember how to smile and dance and sing silly songs again. 

I went away with childhood friends last week, and being the gracious God he is, the Lord renewed. The path to renewal, however, began with recognition. What I've labeled happening to me over the last few weeks as weariness and discouragement has really been bitterness building in layers over my soul, untouched and hardening like plaque.

Bitterness is deceptive, because it points blame at others when really there is unacknowledged hurt and fear within. But bitterness is more than that: it's acid eating away at joy, cynicism that wants to take everyone else down with you, and exhaustion born from carrying compounding negative emotions.

I told one of my friends I was filled to the brim with cynicism, and she said the wisest and simplest thing she could've said: "Take it to the Lord."

I hadn't considered confession. I hadn't thought of telling the Lord that my heart felt so hard that no amount of my own thinking, rationalizing, or work could break apart my brittleness. So I did as she suggested and took it to the Lord, and a wave of hope hit almost instantly. The hope wasn't that I was suddenly free from bitterness, but that he would do the necessary work on me, that I didn't have to stay in my sin.

Not coincidentally, I've been in Hebrews in my daily Bible reading, and I saved Hebrews 12 until I got back home--back in that everyday life that can exhaust and choke with sameness and work and burdens. I savored the familiar phrase that I love so much: "Lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith." Later the writer specifically mentions bitterness as a weight to lay aside: "See to it...that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled." I suppose bitterness is more like a vine that springs up and wraps itself around us, tripping us up, stalling the race.

Confession and repentance are gifts from God. He uses them to clear our blurry eyes, refresh our hope, and make soft our hardened hearts. He's done so for me, and this one who's been redeemed is saying so. I'm happy to report that I'm up and running my race once again, eyes off myself and on my Jesus. 

Perhaps you too recognize bitterness hardening like plaque inside you. I'll tell you what my friend told me: "Take it to the Lord." He'll receive you gladly and trade your hardened heart for renewed clarity, hope, and joy.

April 3, 2019

When You're Dissatisfied and Restless Regarding Your Purpose

I am a "purpose" person and always have been. I remember as a teenager reading about spiritual gifts and the design of the Body recorded in 1 Corinthians 12 and feeling a sense of joy washing over me. If this is true, I thought, this means each person is designed by God for a purpose and, when found in Christ, gifted with supernatural abilities in order to fulfill that purpose! How incredible to consider!

I still find it terribly exciting that every single one of us is vital to the work of God in this world and in his Church. Even more wondrous to me, the Holy Spirit initiates the specific work God has planned for us, empowers us to do it, and then brings fruit from our work. Who are we that God would allow us to cooperate in his kingdom work?
So, yes, I'm a purpose person. I've enjoyed discovering how God has gifted me, and I enjoy helping others know and walk in their gifts.

However, in this passionate pursuit of mine to serve and work according to my gifts, I've continually experienced bouts of dissatisfaction, frustration, uncertainty, and fruitlessness. Even recently I've found myself reconsidering just about everything I thought I knew about myself and my place in God's work. Because the ground underneath me is constantly shifting, and I feel a sense of restlessness, as if I'm trying to grab onto something for stability that keeps moving just out of my reach.

That language sounds familiar, doesn't it? The writer of Ecclesiastes describes our human pursuits carried out in human wisdom as an attempt to grasp vapor in our hands--it's foolish and futile. The writer has come to this conclusion after methodically testing various human pursuits and finding himself, in the end, empty and restless.

He tells us repeatedly that human pursuits carried out in human wisdom lead to our dissatisfaction.

I've lived long enough now that I can see how this is true in the pursuit of wanton sex, money, self-indulgence, and worldly glory. But I struggle to see so clearly when it comes to serving God, to doing what's right and good for him, because I so often want to use my purpose and gifts in ways they weren't made to be used.  

Even godly pursuits carried out in human wisdom lead to our dissatisfaction.

What is human wisdom? This is wisdom birthed from the self--what we can understand, see, create, and devise. This is also wisdom focused on self. Human wisdom always seeks its own reputation, honor, and glory, believing we're completely self-made people. Human wisdom tells us we can figure out what God is doing from beginning to end and that we, in self-agency, can set our own agenda for how we'll use the skills we have.

When we layer our Christian lives and service with human wisdom, we find ourselves grasping for vapor. We won't find satisfaction in our labor, and we'll be endlessly frustrated when we view our lives, limits, and opportunities in light of the lives of others. In our human wisdom, we bristle , believing God withholds good from us personally and is limited in his long-term vision.

So I'm learning to interrogate my dissatisfaction.

The bouts of dissatisfaction I feel are often, if not always, from my attempts at replicating through my own wisdom and efforts what only God can do. Only God can make my service and work purposeful and significant. Only God can give satisfaction and peace. Satisfaction in my service is a gift, not something I can attain or earn.

The writer of Ecclesiastes, after noting his unhappiness and even despair that's resulted from his pursuits through human wisdom, says, "There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy" (Ecc. 2:24-25).

Who can eat? I can.
Who can work? I can.
Who can know joy in these everyday tasks? I can, but only when I do what I do for God, with God, and depending on God. The joy is a gift God gives in my union with him.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "There is nothing better." We can't improve on God's wisdom with our own: we'll only find purpose and satisfaction in our godly pursuits when suiting ourselves is not the end goal.

Our gifts aren't from or for us.
We find life when we live it for God and for the benefit of others.

Friends, Season Four of my By Faith podcast is well underway, and I hope you've had a chance to listen. With the help of my guests, I'm exploring what it means to serve God by faith. Whether you're serving in obscurity, out front in leadership, or through creative gifts, my prayer is that by listening you'll be encouraged to press on. Perhaps you don't know what you spiritual gifts are or how to begin cultivating a gift you think you might have. You'll want to listen to Jared Wilson share how we know our gifts, Christie Purifoy share how she began to see the value of what she calls placemaking, and Melissa Kruger share the unlikely way she started learning to teach the Bible. And don't miss two powerhouses, Lori McDaniel and Russell Moore. They gave helpful insight on leadership and perseverance that's still got me thinking. If you don't want to miss out on this season (or past seasons on friendship and suffering), subscribe to By Faith on on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, or Spotify.

March 27, 2019

Every Hard Day Will Be Beautiful One Day

I was recently reminded of this post I wrote for Desiring God about this time last year. I'm not sure I ever shared it with you, dear reader. I share it with you today, as we wait for Spring to become fully realized, in hopes of encouraging you in whatever lingering winter you're in.

I hadn’t opened the old shoe box in a decade, but lifting the frayed lid, I laughed in delight at the faces of dear friends and family staring back at me. For hours afterward, I sat on my closet floor, poring over stacks of these pictures that held constant vigil for happy college years, newlywed days, long ago ministry events, and first days home with babies.

My heart filled with wonder at being able to see so clearly in the present as I peered into the past. A friendship that began in college through a chance meeting has, in time, grown into one of deep joy and importance. The man who’d become my husband, pictured still very much as a boy, whom I’ve seen grow more and more into who God’s made him to be. The little baby, the object of several lifetimes of my worry, who’s now matured and overcome. Looking at time past, I marveled at how the pictures gave me the gift of sight, and how this sight affirmed the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Even in what I could never have imagined becoming beautiful, God had proven himself good.

You Don't See the Whole Picture Now
But then I turned back to my present moment, the very day I was going through old pictures, and I tried to wrap my mind around that day’s gifts: the already teenager and the almost teenagers, taking up more space in my home and heart, eating their way through life. I tried to squeeze every ounce of thankfulness from my heart regarding my husband and the state of our union, and I ticked through the church we planted, friends, extended family, our health, the opportunities and influence God’s given.

I couldn’t enjoy today's moments like I could the past, because the present was so difficult to see without fear creeping in. What if my beloved is taken from me? What if this boy of mine never learns from his mistakes? What if God asks us to say a gospel goodbye to the church we love? It’s as if my heart wanted to protect itself, belying the deeper question at the core of my fear: What if God isn’t actually at work, bringing all things to the beautiful end he’s promised?

We’re told by our culture, seemingly on repeat to live in the moment, to be present, and I know there is good in this charge, but living in the present and especially grasping what God is doing in the current moment is like looking through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We cannot fully see nor can we comprehend the shape of what God is making and the tools he’s using to bring all things to the beautiful end of redemption. We “cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and on a smaller scale, we can’t grab hold of a present moment with joy unadulterated by sin and darkness. We must not chide ourselves over missing the moments if we can’t grab hold of their fullness as they pass.

There is a better way to live in the present. The old box of pictures helps us understand how.

What We See in Old Pictures
Why are we often more moved by old pictures than new? One reason is that when we look back, those memories are informed by a longer and wider perspective. We're able to view them through the filter of God's goodness, without the fear or uncertainty we might have experienced in the moment.

We see this same phenomenon in Scripture. In the Old Testament, God repetitiously required his people to build altars, recall stories of his acts to their children, and celebrate feasts that marked the miracles he’d done on their behalf. Over and over, he said to them, “Remember.” They were to remember how God made freedom from slavery and provision from lack so they’d trust him in their present darkness.

And then, through the prophets, God’s refrain became, “Look forward.” They were to look forward to a perfect deliverer and forever rescuer, when God would make beauty from their ashes, so that they might trust him with those ashes in their present state.

The Goal for Our Present
We also see this in the New Testament. In the moment of Christ's crucifixion, everything appeared horribly bleak. Now we're able to look back on his death and resurrection and see unparalleled beauty, the kind that fills us with joy. This perspective fuels our hope as we look forward to seeing the promise of his second coming. 

Looking back at the past and forward to the future helps us walk by faith in a promise-keeping God in this present darkness. For many of us, both the past and the present are pockmarked with pain. Our hope in this life is set on God’s ever-present help, and on the reality awaiting us when Jesus sets all things right and all our pain is transformed into glory. Beauty awaits everyone in Christ.

The goal for our present, then, is not grasping the moment as it passes or seeing clearly what God is doing at every turn. The goal for our present moment, though seen dimly for what it is, is faith-- believing that God is with us, helping us, working in us, and hurtling us toward a beautiful end.

What You Can't See Today
God has designed us to comprehend and value the true beauty of his work most significantly over time. As an artist pulls the cover off a portrait in dramatic reveal, as the hiker’s perspective of where she’s traveled comes into view as she steps onto the mountain peak, one day we will see the scope and beauty of our redemption in full.

More importantly, we’ll see God, and in our first awestruck glimpse we’ll see beauty that John, in his Revelation vision, struggled to compare with anything we currently call beautiful. As we take him in, and as we take in a broader horizon of time and God’s work in time, our understanding of his beauty will come into far greater focus.

Perhaps then too we will follow the pattern Scripture gives: looking back with eternal eyes, seeing God’s goodness in every point of history. A heavenly shoebox of joy waiting for our unending discovery. And what will we look forward to in the future? In heaven, the future is one of joy’s eternal increase, every discovery of God’s handiwork a new facet of his beauty.

We do not need to see or understand all that God is doing on our hardest days. We just need to know that God is behind this, and in this, and that he will make it beautiful in time.