August 24, 2016

What I Realized on my 40th Birthday

On July 24, I turned 40 sitting by both the ocean and my favorite person in all the world, my husband Kyle. We sifted the sand through our toes, dipped in the turquoise water, and talked nonstop, breaking only to stick our noses in books or watch people stroll the beach.
Every few hours, starting at breakfast, Kyle handed me a small stack of letters--some from friends, some from family, and some from mentors in my life. I'd turn over each letter in my hands, attempt to guess by the handwriting on the envelope who'd written it, and then tear into it eagerly in order to devour the writer's words. Kyle's was a beautiful gift to me, not only because I'm a word person, but because I felt as if I were surrounded by the people I love on a milestone day.

Several times that day, I cried hot, messy tears. I had not an inkling of fear or dread about stepping into a new decade of life, so the tears weren't of that variety. Honestly, aside from a few aches and pains, I don't care much that I'm getting older. No, the tears that came fast and often were simply watery signs of gratitude.

I said, "Thank you, God," dozens of times that day. For my little family. For the people that surround me in everyday life. For the ministry God has given Kyle and I to steward. For the opportunity to write. For the past and the present and all the hope I have laid up for me in the future. It was, simply put, a day of laser-sharp clarity, and I received that clarity as a birthday gift from God Himself.

For the previous nine months, I'd longed for that kind of clarity. Do you ever know so certainly that God is transitioning you in some quiet, unseen way but you are equally unable to articulate or understand what is happening? That was me. It had been going on for so long that I'd started feeling as if I was missing something or not hearing God correctly. I knew God was at work, but I didn't have the foggiest idea what He was doing. I just kept telling myself to wait on Him instead of attempting to figure it out on my own, and I kept bringing to mind the few things I knew for sure: faith, family, friends, and serving people in the name of Jesus.

That all sounds really peaceful, but waiting on God can be anything but. This past year has been a difficult one for me, mostly in ways that I still can't articulate. I've changed in ways that don't necessarily feel right and good. There is a stark self-protectiveness I've built up around myself as I've tried to navigate through, uncertain.

On my birthday, it was if God pulled back the curtain of blurriness and I could see again. And it turns out that the few things I'd known for sure were the main things. What I saw behind the peeled back curtain were the most important parts of my life--my relationship with Christ, my husband, my children, my closest relationships, the ministry to which God has called me--all laid out as gifts before me. Everything else sort of fell away. My heart had been pacing back and forth, waiting, trying to discern what God intended me to give my time toward, but they'd been staring back at me all along.

When all else fell away, I was thinking, talking, and dreaming about the most salient treasures and, yes, also the gifts God wants me to steward. Somehow, I'd made the waiting more complex. In fact, it'd been less waiting and more stripping.

For these gifts to remain the priorities God intends them to be, the activities and relationships not coming to mind were just as important to recognize. I needed to let them fall away, and what I realized is that when lesser things in my life rightly try to fall to the peripheral, it's my tendency to pull them back. God has been trying to change me in a way that honors Him more, and I've resisted it so much that I've created my own confusion. I was looking for more, while God was clearing away to less. I was uncomfortable letting things fall away, when God was calling me to enjoy a simplified, joy-filled life. I was, at the very root of it all, uncomfortable changing. I wanted it all, while God wanted the best, and the best isn't everything.

All those good gifts God laid out so clearly before my eyes are the most beautiful parts of my life, but none of them come easy. They require my sacrifice, my service, my time, my very life. Why am I waiting for life to get easier, thinking I'll know deep satisfaction then? A life of ministry to which the Christian is called is always going to be a surprising concoction of profound joy and profound toil. Struggle and sacrifice (and weariness) don't mean I haven't figured out God's will for my life. In fact, when it's mixed with sweet joy and hot tears of gratitude, it means I very much have.

August 10, 2016

The Challenge of Being a Church Planting Wife: My Conversation with Trevin Wax

It's that time of year when folks are packing up and moving to new cities because of a call from God to plant a church. For brand new church planting wives, there are many adjustments, challenges, and joys ahead. Trevin Wax, who blogs at Kingdom People, asked me about those unique challenges and joys and about my book, The Church Planting Wife. I hope our conversation is an encouragement to all of you church planting wives! 

Trevin: What are some of the pressures and challenges that are unique to church planters' wives (different from the pastor's wife)?

Christine: Without question, both the wife of a minister at an established church and the wife of a church planter are essential to her husband’s ministry. In my experience, however, the church planting wife’s role is more ambiguous than the wife of a minister in an established church. In a church plant, the line between the planter’s family life and ministry life is often extremely blurred. For example, in our situation, we held our church services and all church events in our home for the first six months. Four years in, we do not yet have a building of our own, so I still host many events and small groups in our home. Because of this, I bear many responsibilities that I did not have as a pastor’s wife in our prior established church.
In church plants, out of need, the wife is almost like an additional staff member in the sense that she usually leads major ministries, such as the children’s ministry or women’s ministry, in addition to setting up on Sundays, printing bulletins, helping with worship, greeting, or managing the church website, all while being a wife and mother. When we served in an established church, my ministry was easy to define based upon my husband’s role, but church planting left it very open-ended. In some ways, this was difficult because I had to do many things I wasn’t necessarily gifted for or passionate about for a long period of time. But in many ways, it helped me discern what my spiritual gifts are and learn how to release responsibility for things I’m not gifted for.

These blurred lines and intense requirements create some unique pressures and challenges for a church planting wife, most of which involve maintaining healthy boundaries and priorities that keep the church plant from completely overtaking her life, her marriage, and her family. In the beginning stages, the church planter and his wife are, out of necessity, so intensely focused on the plant that it’s difficult for them to not rise and fall emotionally based on Sunday’s attendance or the success of an outreach event. The church planting wife faces almost constant uncertainty and discouragement. She may wrestle with resentment toward her husband’s calling and struggle with the lack of physical and emotional support she might find if she were the pastor’s wife in a more established church.

Trevin: You put a strong emphasis on the heart of the church planter's wife. Why is it important to remember what God is doing in you - not only through you as you plant a church?

Christine: I cannot emphasize enough how much influence I have on my husband and, thus, the church. I am his sounding board, his encourager, his helper. I am Aaron to his Moses. I am not making decisions regarding the church, but I am certainly influencing the one who does. More than starting a women’s ministry or practicing hospitality in our home, my ministry to my husband is my most important. It follows then that I must take care with this influence, which means I must take care to keep my heart soft and submitted to God. I must daily reorient myself to the gospel, root out anything that hinders me from loving God and helping my husband, and depend on the Spirit rather than my own wisdom. Every church planting wife has this responsibility to God and to her husband.

I’ve discovered, too, that it’s not healthy for me to focus on what God is doing through my service to Him in church planting. Looking for fruit or results is often a futile practice, especially in the early years of planting when growth is slow and the church is young and fragile. But I can always look to God and look for what He is doing in my heart. I can trust that as my heart is soft and submitted before Him, He will use me in whatever ways He chooses.

Trevin: You say that your calling is not to your husband, but to God. Why is this distinction important?

Christine: This is an important distinction for all wives. When Paul tells the Colossians to do everything in the name of Jesus, he follows it up with specific instructions on what this would look like for different groups of people: wives, husbands, children, and servants (3:17-24). He asks difficult things of all of them, such as that wives should submit to their husbands. How? Why? With each group, he answers those questions: “As unto the Lord.” For a wife who misses that qualifier, whose eyes are on her husband, this instruction appears difficult and confounding. But for a wife whose eyes are on God, she always has a worthy and unchanging motivation.

This same principle applies to the church planting wife. When her eyes are on a fallible husband, she may quickly tire of the sacrificial demands of church planting that his calling requires, but when her eyes are on Christ, there are deep, holy, lasting motivations to serve, practice hospitality, and care for people. I’m not saying that the wife shouldn’t joyfully help and serve her husband; I’m saying that her motivation for doing so must be her desire to be faithful to God. This is her “unto the Lord”.

In the beginning of our church plant, when uncertainty prevailed and circumstances looked bleak, I missed that “as unto the Lord” qualifier. This created conflict within me and between us because it fed resentments that I allowed to sit in my heart. It set me up against the church, playing tug-of-war for my husband’s attention. If my calling is to him, then it opens the door for me to demand my way or to only give so much, to view church planting as his job and my life as separate from that. It also means I can excuse myself from using the gifts God has given me that I am individually accountable for.

I no longer consider church planting to be my husband’s job or something that I can excuse myself from. I consider it to be our “together calling”, something that works best when we’re in it together and we both look together to God as our motivation.

In the end, it’s a small distinction because as my calling is to God, He will orient me toward helping my husband. But it is an important distinction because looking to God rather than my husband alters my motivations drastically. I can’t build a lifetime of ministry and kingdom impact based on my husband, but I can based on the worth of God.

Trevin: How have you dealt with the pressure of dealing with opposition (both from inside the church and from outside)?

Christine: Fortunately, we have not faced drastic opposition from within our church yet. The beauty of church planting is that we’ve gotten to lay foundations rather than attempting to alter foundations that have already been laid. However, we have faced opposition, some from other churches in our area. (Having said that, we have also had incredible help, friendship, and support from countless other area churches.) The most notable opposition we have faced, however, is spiritually-based opposition: Satan using circumstances to come against us and especially his work to steal, kill, and destroy in the lives of our leaders.

I haven’t always dealt with this well. To be honest, I entered church planting with what I now see as naivete. Instead of expecting difficulty and opposition, I expected that our obedience to God will yield immediate respect, rapport, and results in our community. Instead of being on guard against the enemy, I assumed that we and those near to us would not succumb to temptation. Now, obviously, I know different on both accounts.

I also know now how to better deal with opposition. I’ve learned first and foremost to attribute outside opposition to its original source rather than being easily offended and hurt by unbelievers. I now expect opposition so I’m not as surprised when it comes. The hardest part, however, has been opposition from other believers. I’ve had to forgive, root out bitterness, and learn to pray for the success and kingdom impact of those who have hurt us. This has been a sanctifying process in my heart, which is why I focus so much in my book on the church planting wife’s heart. I pray for thick skin and a soft heart.

Trevin: How do you advise church planting wives to cultivate a peaceful heart in the midst of the struggle of beginning a church?

Christine: It’s difficult to live in constant uncertainty, which is what the first year or two (or more) of church planting requires. Uncertainty, if not taken to Christ, breeds fear. If we desire peace in that uncertainty, it follows then that the lesson in church planting for the church planting wife is to feed faith rather than fear.

How do we feed faith? We go to the Word daily, searching out stories, characters, and verses of faith. My go-to verses in this church planting adventure have been 1 Thessalonians 5:24: “He who called you is faithful and He will do it”, and the recounting of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4:16-22, who “contrary to hope, in hope believed” in God, who “calls those things which do not exist as though they did.”

In order to feed faith, we also must search for and recount God’s faithfulness. Where is He working? How has He worked in the past? A vital faith-feeder for me is remembering how God called us to church planting, how He has provided for us at every turn, and how He has worked in the lives of the people in our city.

In addition, we feed our faith when we meditate on God’s character. He says He is responsible for His church. He says He is the One who changes hearts. And perhaps most important to me personally, He says He is my Father. I am not an orphan; I am a child who is nurtured, led, and provided for. There is peace in knowing I can hide in the shadow of the wings of my good and gracious Father.

Finally, peace comes when we remember what our success is. Success is not necessarily measured by external circumstances. Faith is success and our victory.

I hope this conversation was encouraging to all of you who are church planting wives. Pick up your copy of my book, The Church Planting Wife, today on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

August 3, 2016

A Heart Mom

My friend Annie has written a book chronicling her journey with her daughter’s congenital heart defect.  They were living in Iceland as missionaries when they experienced the twenty-week ultrasound that changed their lives.  Forced to move and find a new job, their family was thrust into a world of uncertainty and confusion.  Five months later, their daughter was born with half of a heart, even though many people had prayed for complete healing. Annie’s world was rocked with questions about God. Had He really heard? Was He really good? The following is a poem she wrote documenting some of her journey:

I am a heart mom.

I have felt, at a twenty-week ultrasound, floorboards cracking and giving way under my jumping, celebrating feet as the words Congratulations, it’s a girl were chased away all too quickly with There is something wrong with your baby’s heart.

I know the torment of wondering, wrestling, and combating a viscous voice that whispers, This is all your fault…

I know the pain of weeping in my husband’s arms after a baby shower, unsure if my baby would ever wear her new, pink clothes.

I am a heart mom.

I know the fear of labor pains in a cold room, deep groanings of the unknown drawing near.

I have given birth for an audience of more doctors, nurses, residents and fellows than I could count.

I have watched my baby–still wet and fresh–plucked from my arms and ushered to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where she would be sustained.

I have sat in a NICU with brittle, four-pound lives, warm under heat lamps like delicate plants, praying over my baby.

I have guarded my heart, afraid to love something I wasn’t so sure I could keep.

I am a heart mom.

I have held a baby with cords and wires and A-lines and tubes and all the while held my breath and my heart so it wouldn’t scrape.

I have said goodbye to a daughter I just met so she could be delivered to a surgeon…in an attempt to make it whole.

I have endured waiting rooms painted white like faces bleached with fear.

A stomach so nervous it feels poisonous.

The shaking. The waiting. The surgery you can’t be there to control.

I am a heart mom.

I have felt the hand of a little life grab my finger and hold it…asking silently for me to lead her.

I have spent days that turn into nights on the seventh floor, all around me the Intensive Care Unit beeping and humming and pumping and upholding.

I have heard those sounds in my dreams.

I have sat in numb confusion while my baby lived…and the baby on the other side of the curtain didn’t.

I have questioned God and His goodness.

I have brought a baby home–so vulnerable and trusting–with a pulse-ox machine never far and CPR notes within arm’s reach.

I have sanitized people head to toe before letting them enter my home, missed Christmas parties, dinner parties, and birthday parties in fear of the germs in attendance.

I have nurtured a bruised baby with scars in vulnerable places.

I have awoken in the middle of the night to the frantic words, “I’m taking her to the Emergency Room.”

I have watched her heal and witnessed the miracle of recovery.

I have fed her her first bites of food.

Watched her take her first steps.

Say her first words.

I have leaned hard on God and He has proven Himself sturdy.

I have seen His grace.

I have tasted His love.

I am a heart mom.

And my world will never be the same.

To read the whole story of Annie’s journey as a heart mom or share it with someone you know facing a difficult diagnosis, check out her new book HERE

July 27, 2016

Community Requires Vulnerability

For the first 8 years of our ministry at an established church, I didn’t have a friend to my name. In those same years, I birthed and stayed home with three children, and I remember willing myself not to get sick because I didn’t know who I would call for help if I did. Community was something I created for other people, not something I enjoyed myself. At least that’s how I felt.

When we prepared to plant out of that church, my husband gathered prospective core team members in our living room and asked, “When you dream of what church could be, what is it that you think of?” For me, the answer was simple, and I timidly spoke out loud what I’d held inside for so long: “I don’t want to feel as if I’m standing outside of community, helping it happen but not enjoying it myself. I want our church to be the kind where I get to enjoy the inside. I want to have friends.”

What I didn’t yet realize is that community isn’t something that comes to us; it’s something that we go toward. We make choices that either invites community or hinders the very thing we so long for. The reasons I’d struggled in friendship were many--my lack of initiation, the very specific parameters I’d placed around what type of friend I wanted and how they would related to me, time constraints that I used as an excuse--but primary among them is that I chose not to take the risk of vulnerability with other women.

God gave me a do-over with church planting, because the difficult nature of the work made it nearly impossible to hide behind carefully maintained facades or self-sufficiency. My spiritual, physical, and emotional neediness pointed like arrows toward asking wise and faithful women for help. And so I did. 

Vulnerability is the spark for us to enjoy and help cultivate true community. Only through vulnerability can we fulfill the “one anothers” of Scripture--pray for one another, confess to one another, forgive one another, bear one another’s burdens--because only then do we know the burdens of others and only then do they know ours.

Vulnerability is risky and must be done wisely. I have learned to move slowly toward vulnerability with others, praying all the way for God to give me wisdom and discernment not only in who I am vulnerable with but in what I share. Who are wise women around me? Who holds confidences well? Who speaks truth with grace to others around them? Who values me as a child of God and not just as the pastor’s wife?

In discerning what I share, it’s important to note that there are just some things that we won’t be able to talk about with anyone in our church community, but I can generally always share about myself. I can share how God is working in my life, how God is convicting me, and how I need prayer. I can even share how I am struggling with church-related things without giving details that are inappropriate to share. Simply put, vulnerability has been key for me in developing community that is not just one-sided but mutual and life-giving.
I look back at those first 8 years of ministry, and I see that I did in fact have fledgling friendships. All those prayers I’d prayed to God for a friend? He’d actually answered it with Kelly, Jamee, Ashley, and Niki, but I’d never taken the risk of vulnerability with them. I’d been more concerned with impressing them than knowing them or letting them know me. As a result, the friendships had faltered before they’d even truly started. I had been my own worst enemy all along.

Dear one, don’t be your own worst enemy. Resist making excuses or thinking of yourself as “other” because of your role within the church. Yes, be wise, but don’t let fear and severe self-protection hinder the very thing that you long for. Take that risk of vulnerability.

And because there is so much more to say about friendship than would fit into a blog post, I've had the privilege of writing an entire book on the subject! Messy Beautiful Friendship comes out next spring, but is already available for pre-order online. Perhaps a present for your future self? 

July 20, 2016

The Conversation Is Open, But Will You Have It?

I grew up in a town stamped and molded by racial issues that were never discussed. On a few occasions, perspectives on race were danced around, touched on with incendiary language that, as a child, made me turn hot and fidgety, or visited with short and fiery bursts of opinion by people I loved and respected. In high school, a student's confederate flag shirt set off a race riot, complete with classroom walk-outs and news media stationed around the boundaries of campus, but I couldn't tell you the details, because I didn't pay much attention. I didn't have to.

In our little town, racial divide was everywhere around but stubbornly ignored at the same time. It seems we believed that if we didn't talk about it, racial division and discrimination wouldn't actually exist. I certainly never acknowledged to my diverse friends in marching band what was happening around us, nor did they to me, and somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that to talk about race was too shameful, too fraught with danger.

My senior year in college, I took a class called Civil Rights Rhetoric. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I sat with my mouth agape, intently listening to the details of the Freedom Summer, the integration of Little Rock High School, voter registration, and nonviolent protests. We watched grainy footage of  speeches and read Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I couldn't believe all of this had happened just 30 years prior and that no one had ever told me about it. I was a 21-year-old adult learning for the first time that there had even been a Civil Rights push in the 1960's.
Photo: Ernest Withers
We were assigned a paper on the subject of our choice. I chose my hometown; I'd heard that my very own high school had been forced to integrate in the 70's after long resisting it. I wanted to know about it, so I began interviewing my neighbors and even the very judge who ruled for forced integration. As I prepared to interview him, my parents pointed out his house as we drove by. It was a house I'd passed thousands of times on the way to church, one that had always appeared shadowy, as if it wanted to hide, closed in by the self-protective bars on its windows. I wondered what had caused the judge to put those bars on his windows, but I didn't have the courage to ask him when we sat for the interview.

When I spoke with adults that I'd known all my life and heard them talk about integration, it was strange. I'd never heard anyone talk so openly about it, but all along a question pounded in my head: How has this not been important to talk about? Why have I not heard these stories before?

I knew the answer. Because in their minds it was "done," done like something we're embarrassed of and want to shove deep in the closet, done like a closed book that we never intend to open again, done like it never happened or is buried so deeply in history that it seemingly has little bearing on the present.

After that class, I quit talking about race again, because my finished coursework seemed to take away my permission to speak and ask freely. Instead, I've quietly read up on it, my interest insatiably piqued by what I learned in college.

However, in the past few years, I've begun having conversations again. They started when a black family visited our church, whom we invited over for dinner. After we finished our meal, the conversation turned toward their church decision. The wife asked, "Is it OK if we join your church?" She wasn't asking for permission. She was referring to the color of their skin. In other words, "Will we be accepted? Will our children be valued and loved?" I was literally speechless, immediately racking my brain for something done or said that would have given them the impression they were unwelcome. And so began a conversation on race, church, and the experiences they've had in their professions, in churches, and with their children. Their openness and honesty gave us permission to ask anything, but even more so, their answers challenged my perspectives and perceptions about race in America.

They joined our church and have since become friends. Conversations with them over the years have taught me how much I still don't know, and they've taught me to forever be a learner.

But primarily they've taught me that race is not only okay to talk about, but that we need to talk about it.

It only took me decades, but it struck me for the first time recently that, as much as we (rightly) love our country, it was founded--FOUNDED--upon institutional sin. The basis of our country's economic success was slavery. We (we, meaning white folks) don't like to think about that. We don't like to look at our country's sin so directly. We don't like to think there could be generational consequences for it.

As a Christian, however, I believe that we can and should take a good look at our sin, because Christ has made a way to cleanse us from sin. We don't have to be afraid to acknowledge slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the existence of racial injustice. To do so isn't to denigrate law enforcement officers--people doing a tireless, thankless job who deserve our respect--or to choose sides according to skin color. As a human race, we are a people who mistrust others different from ourselves, and we must acknowledge at the very least our apathy and indifference to the experience of others. If we desire unity and harmony in our nation, the way it starts is not to wait for the "other side" to agree with our perspectives and ideas but through our own confession and repentance before Jesus. We must acknowledge our nation's sin, weep over it, grieve over what it has done, and confess it before God and one another. Jesus' gospel teaches us that confession and repentance lead to forgiveness and reconciliation first between God and man and then between men.

What is happening in our country isn't about police officers vs. the black community, as if we have to choose sides. What is happening is what happened for me during that Civil Rights class and the dinner with our friends: these events are opening a conversation that we too often resist or don't know we need to have. There is an opportunity springing out of the blood and tears of our neighbors. The question for each of us, especially for Christians who have been given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Himself, is simply this: will we have them? Are we willing to engage the conversations with people who are different than us? Are we willing to ask questions of real people and listen to them? Are we willing to love our neighbor by first seeking to understand them? Are we willing to love our neighbor by reaching out first?

It seems the wound we hoped had healed never actually did. The black community has been trying to say this for a very long time. Perhaps everyone is now ready to listen. So now what? We must do what the wounded do: examine it, clean out the impurities, and address it in a way that brings true healing. The only way toward the unity we desire is through the powerful love of Jesus, made tangible as we seek to serve one another, not kill and blame one another.

If you want to read more to gain understanding about the racial divide in our nation, I suggest these resources: