Monday, February 20, 2023

Messy Churches are Growing Churches

When I first started going to church, I did not know the church culture or church etiquette. My lack of knowledge caused me to be extremely self-conscious and hyper-vigilant. I tried to dress like everyone dressed and tried to act the way I saw others act at church. I remember sitting in the little church near my house on one of the first hot days of the year. I was in night grade, and I remember getting so hot that my face felt flushed, but I was afraid it would be wrong if I got up and opened a window. I sat there until someone in the choir motioned for me to open the window. I opened the window because an adult said to, but I felt awkward and embarrassed, thinking I was being a disruption. 

Many years later, I read Mike Yaconelli's Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People, which quickly became one of my favorite books. In it and some of his other writings he talks about the little church he pastored. He had a young gal in the church, who like me was not familiar with church culture, but she handled it way different than I did. If she had a question, she would not wait until the sermon was over, she would just blurt out her question. Mike said the first time she blurted out a question, he was taken back because we simply don't do that in church. But he grew to love her impulsivity, because it revealed her thirst for knowledge of God and he chose to give up his preconceived ideas of what his church "should look like." I admire her and wish I would have been more like her. I wanted to learn like she did, but as a youth I simply sat on my questions, afraid to even open a window to make the building more comfortable. 

My husband and I have been a part of a large church for over twenty years. Even though I am a small-town-girl at heart, I've grown comfortable in the church and know when to stand, when to sit, when to bow, when to sing, and when to listen. Because of its size and location, our church tends to have people that are a lot like me in it. I am short in stature, easily distracted, and a relational person so I have convinced my husband to sit on the second row so I can see the pastor and worship leaders up close, which helps me stay more engaged and to feel connected to what is going on. Over the last couple of years, several different people our age who claimed the chairs directly in front of us have come and gone.

When our church opened up after covid, we quickly reclaimed our usual spot, and soon a young man named Travis started coming and sitting right in front of us. Travis is an exuberant person who has a learning disability and because of that he is not like the others who have owned the seat before him. He sings loud and he dancers big during worship, sometimes requiring my husband and I us to take a step back to avoid his moving arms. He blurts out things to lets the pastors know when he loves what they are teaching about Jesus. And he has made some connections with a person he feels safe with and sometimes turns around when he hears something in the sermon that he likes and loudly state his excitement to his safe friend.  

I confess I was overwhelmed by Travis at first and have felt compelled to check my heart for the expectations I have of what I think church should look like. Thankfully, I have slowly developed an appreciation for our seat mate who sits so faithfully on the front row. I have grown to love his passion for the Word, His exuberant worship, his loud verbalizations where maybe Amen might be shouted from the congregation in a church more charismatic ours. I even appreciate his sweet desire to connect with his safe friend around the Truth because that is an eternal connection that will never die. 

A couple of weeks ago, Travis was there and participating as big as ever in worship, but after worship he got up and left. When he left, I realized I was sad that he left. I was also quietly proud of myself for having adjusted and being able to appreciate him. The thought that maybe I had learned the lesson God wanted me to learn from Travis crossed my mind, but just as Travis exited down one aisle another man entered and walked all the way to the front and sat down in Travis' seat. He was an older gentleman, wearing tattered clothes that a homeless man might wear. He had a baseball cap with what I had thought was a handkerchief underneath the cap to cover his neck like farm workers often wear to protect their skin. I was okay until I turned my focus to the pastor who was starting to preach and noticed the scarf on his neck wasn't a scarf. It had a waist band and was fully visible on the side of his head. Realizing the scarf was boxer shorts, made me uncomfortable like I was seeing someone in their underwear. I didn't know where to look, because if I looked at the pastor, the underwear on his head that were in my line of sight. So, I tried to keep my vision on the large screens so I could focus on hearing the sermon, not the neck covering. When the sermon ended, much to my delight, the man sang the closing songs much like our Travis would. Loud, passionately, with lots of hand motions that accented the words of the song perfectly, and his voice cracking as he sang about Jesus calling him friend caused my eyes to leak a bit. 

As I think about these two men James 2:1-6 comes to mind, "My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and Heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love Him?" If Travis's and the gentleman's passionate worship and exuberant responses to the sermons is any indication of their faith, then they are both men who are way richer in faith than me! 

I am hoping God will continue to bring more people like Travis and the stranger who took his sit for that one mourning. They will challenge us in good ways to love those who don't look, or sound like us. It will teach us to appreciate passion that causes some to listen loud, sing passionately, and dance big, and vocalize amens in a lot of different forms. This will free us to give the gospel to people who don't look like our churches look. I believe God is moving in our big church and I want to be someone who grows as a result of His movement. I hope our church becomes more and more messy as a result of God's movement because it is the messy churches that are growing churches. 

Building a Life upon the Rock

In Matthew 27:24-27 Jesus tells us that everyone who hears His words and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. That the house stood against the floods and the winds that beat on it. The house stood because it had been built on a solid foundation. He also tells us that everyone who hears His words and doesn't do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. And that house on sand was not able to stand up against the floods and the winds that beat against it. As I think about the times we are living in, I think Jesus words are significant and deserve some deeper contemplation. 

The foundation of our faith is built on the Word of God given to us through people of God's choosing. It includes history that tells us of creation and of our own origin. It tells us of the Fall of man and its consequences that have stretched down though all of human history. It tells us of God's promise to send a Saviour. It includes the Law of Moses, which continually pointed to a coming Messiah, who would save His people. That Messiah ended up being Jesus--the ultimate perfect, sacrificial Lamb of God. It includes the books of poetry that show how relational, how compassionate, and how loving our God is. It includes words of the prophets that pointed out Israel's repetitive failures that drew their hearts away from the very God who radically loved them. And sadly, we are no different than them. It includes the gospels that tell the story of a God who left glory, took on human flesh and rubbed shoulders with men and women in desperate need of grace and then who performed the ultimate act of love--the laying down of His life purchase our redemption. It includes the book of Acts which reveals what life looks like when God's people are indwelled, filled, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It includes epistles written to believers, who needed reminders of who God is and what He has done so they could learn how to trust and obey Him and to lean into Him in the hard as they are being purified and built into building of believers. The believers who are living lives of growth as they are continually sanctified by His blood. It includes the book of Revelation that reveals to us bits of Heaven, encouraging us to live with our gaze on Jesus and our hearts set on eternity.  

Lett's think about the foundation of a building for a minute. When builders lay foundations, they lay them to bear the full weight of all of the building materials. The ground must first be leveled and dug out so that footings can be spaced just right so that the building will not fall. There will be layers of rocks and wires and rebar placed in preparation for the concrete to be poured. With out these the foundation would not be strong enough to hold the building. Maybe the groundwork before the foundation could picture the Old Testament. 

Then after the concrete is poured, it will need to be spread, smoothed, and pressed down so that it fills every nook and cranny of the prepared foundation. This will remove any bubbles and thin spots that might weaken it. It will then be tended to for several days so that it can set up perfectly and not become crumbly. No construction will be done until the foundation has completely set. The foundation is a great picture of our Lord, Jesus. As He walked this earth, Satan tried to tempt Him, offering Him counterfeit kingdoms. Satan tried to discourage Him by stirring throngs of crowds to persecute Him and spew hatred at Him. Satan also tried to stop God's plan through discouragement, which sent the Lord to the Garden of Gethsemane with a breaking heart where He pled for another way but the cross, while at the same time yielding Himself fully to His Father's will. And it was Jesus' resolve to yield that makes the foundation of our faith strong enough to build upon. 

We sometimes forget our salvation rests solely on Jesus and His Word. Some of us think our good works, our kind words, our service has somehow helped us merit becoming a part of the house of God. But our good works are only as good as our worst work, our kind words are only as good as our most hurtful words spewed in anger, and our service...well that is only as good as the service we don't render to the one we didn't feel worthy enough to even glance at. A foundation built with any part of us in it is a shoddy foundation because we are a perfectly imperfect people. The foundation has to be built on Jesus and Jesus alone. He is the only one who perfect enough to have died and paid for sin--his resurrection proved that, and we enter into a relationship with Him by faith and faith alone.

The Word tells us that as we are saved so we shall live. That means we live daily, hourly, moment by moment by faith. If we, as individuals or as congregations, let stress, trials, temptations, business, hurt, or failure take our eyes off of Jesus it is like building a little shack on a massive, glorious foundation. But if we are intentional about keeping our eyes on Jesus, a glorious house will be built that will reflect the Saviour to a lost and dying world. 

It is important to think about what a life of faith looks like. When stress comes, it means remembering who Jesus is and holding on to that so He can dispel the fear and the hesitation that grows so easily in our hearts. When trials come our way, it means remembering that the God who endured and overcame every kind of trial we could ever face indwells us and can strengthen and empower us if we trust Him. When temptations come, it means holding on to Him as long as it takes like Jacob did as He wrestled with God and his own the personal weaknesses.  It means remembering that because of the sealing of the Holy Spirit, we are no longer slaves of sin, we are free to walk in victory. When business comes, it means spending time on our knees, asking Him to purify our hearts and motives and trusting Him to order our days so that the use of our gifts and passions are the most fruitful they can be. And when hurt comes it means, remembering that by Jesus' stripes we are healed. He sees what is done to us. He hears the things said to us. He notices the times we're overlooked, ignored, or pushed aside. And those stripes He bore in His body constantly remind us that He, too, suffered trauma in order to love us well. He is for us, and He is offering us Himself. And when failure comes (and it will because we are human) it means keeping our eyes on Jesus and leaning into Him through confession, knowing His blood alone is and always will be enough to cover our sin. The building will still stand in our imperfection because the foundation is perfectly strong--the foundation is a rock. 

As we learn to live by faith, we will learn to live fully in His grace and that will enable us to learn to we learn to love as He loves, which will enable us to come together to build our lives upon the Rock. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

You Are Essential to the Family of God

 I was given an opportunity to speak to a beautiful group of ladies comprised of women who have been widowed, gone through divorce, or who were singles who have never been married. Our church calls them the Cheerleaders. I have always viewed this group as a ministry of presence, caring, and perseverance as well as a ministry filled with great wisdom that comes from women walking with God together through really hard stuff. In this post I am sharing with you, some of the words I shared with them. 

A couple of years ago the world faced a pandemic that initially rocked us to the core. Because there was so little known about it, it was presented to the public in terms that would scare even the bravest of souls. People were only allowed to work if their jobs were considered essential by the government. This hit hard at the core need we all have of believing we are significant to our world. We were told to stay home and isolate from anyone not living in our home. We were told to wash our hands, to not touch our faces, and to wear masks if we went outside. We were told to socially distance at least six feet when we passed someone. That meant we were to follow arrows in the grocery stores and stand on little circles in lines to insure we didn’t contaminate one another other. We were also told to wipe down our groceries when we were putting them away, creating a fear around the very things we needed to survive. 

In the beginning, if we got covid we were told to go home with no treatment and only come back if we couldn’t breathe. Families weren't allowed in the hospital to be advocates for their loved ones and those who died in the hospital, often died alone. And those who had loved ones that passed away found that the normal healthy rituals of families gathering to bury their loved ones were prohibited. Many were left feeling like there was no closure, no final “goodbyes,” and there was no opportunity to share important memories with fellow grievers. 

The American Association of Christian Counselors has reported the pandemic caused a huge rise in people struggling with fear, anxiety, and depression. There are many reasons for this. One of the biggest reasons is that in our isolation our “friends” became the journalists giving us the crazy, scary news updates. Over the last couple of years journalists have also started sensationalizing stories to get more views. We no longer have winter storms, we have bomb cyclones or atmospheric rivers. And now news on social media is presents as, “Breaking News!” or news that "broke the internet." Experts have also found people who have had a history of trauma have been more negatively impacted by covid and its shutdowns. Many have started experiencing triggers and a resurgence of painful emotions from which they had previously found healing. I would not be surprised if this is also true for the women who are in a ministry like Cheerleaders. 

I spent some years working with a Christian counselor who asked me at one point what word I would use to describe how I felt growing up. The word “invisible” immediately came to my mind and we spent some time discussing where that might have come from. I realized the feeling of invisibility can come from many places. It can come from believing we are not being heard by God, because of seemingly unanswered prayers. It can come from believing we are not being heard by people who don’t listen to us, who don’t respond to what we are saying, or who don’t acknowledge the requests we make. It can come from believing we are being overlooked in the circles in which we live. It can come from not being seen in our distress and ignored. And it can come from believing we were not protected by God or others we viewed as potential protectors. And then think about all the things we each went through during lockdowns. These are things of which no one is aware. It just feels so lonely to think about it. 

As I was discussing invisibility with my counselor, I discovered Ann Spangler’s book, Praying the Names of God. In her book, Ann wrote a chapter that radically spoke to my heart about this issue of invisibility. She shared the story of Hagar that is found in Genesis 16. The Old Testament culture is so different from ours and it can be confusing to try to understand the stories we read there. But if we just look at these two ladies in this story as women who are just like us, we will see they both had reasons to feel invisible. 

The infertile Sarai came out of a country known for its worship of fertility gods. She was carrying the shame of infertility even in the face of God’s promise to give her a child. And when years passed, and her menses ceased and still she had no child. She may have thought God wasn’t seeing her or maybe He had abandoned her. So, she resorted to cultural ways of trying to bring God’s plan about, never considering the emotional toil it would take on her or on her servant, Hagar. 

Then there was the servant girl who would not have had any rights who was given by her mistress to a husband who was not her own to get pregnant with a baby that would not be hers. She showed contempt towards her mistress when conceived, resulting in her being harshly treated. So, she ran. She sat down in the desert all alone, feeling unseen. 

And God sees her and speaks to her, telling her to return and to submit to her mistress. He also promised her that her son (Not Sarai’s) would grow up and become a nation of many. She feels seen and, in her gratefulness, she ascribes to God the name El Roi. El Roi in the Hebrew Language means the God who sees, the God who sees me. As I began praying that name of God, I began to believe I was and always have been seen—seen in the good times, seen in the trying times, and seen in the hard, grief-filled times.

We may feel unseen in our circumstances, in our trials, in our relationships, in unresolved conflicts, in our ministries, and in our isolation. And those who have experienced the loss of a spouse through death or divorce or who never were married may also be feeling invisible because we are living in a culture that is both youth and relationship driven. Older women are often overlooked or looked down upon as they age. And those of you who have found themselves traveling through the messy journey of grief and singleness again are wondering where you fit in. I want to remind you that you are a part of an extended family, eternal family and that our Abba, sees you. He has not abandoned you and He is not done with you.  I want to remind you that your wisdom and your gifts are still valuable to the body of Christ. If you are still beathing, you are called to ministry. It may look different than it did once did and that is okay. 

I encourage you to monitor what you are listening to and what you are watching. If it causes anxiety or fear, turn the channel. I also encourage you to serve others by looking for everyday ways to love well.   Maybe a new widow needs your ministry. Maybe she needs you to go with her to a scary doctor’s appointment. Maybe she needs you to share how to navigate paying her bills and calling repairmen. Maybe she simply needs your ministry of presence as she cries. You, who have walked this journey, know better than anyone the pain and the longings she is experiencing, and you will have the wisdom needed to know when and how to encourage her to take a needed step in the grief journey without shaming her. 

Maybe you can do something like the lady in Shafter who was known as the “cookie lady.” She loved to bake cookies and met kids walking home from school at the sidewalk in front of her house with fresh-baked cookies on a regular basis. I have heard her funeral was full of people who remembered her and were touched by her loving kindness. 

Maybe you can be like the lady who was experiencing loneliness after loss who went to the college campus in her community and put notices on bulletin boards, offering free tea and conversation to college kids. Her home became a safe haven for many who passed through, sharing tea and gaining wisdom and comfort needed to navigate college years. Maybe you could contact the college director or youth director and see if they can connect you to young people who would benefit from knowing you.

Maybe you can do like the couple in this very church who used to invite a group of young people over regularly for dinner and board games. They built relationships with those young people and walked them into adulthood, discipling them through friendship. They were viewed as bonus grandparents by the young adults and every one of those adults would tell you today that they learned valuable lessons about life from their evenings with them. They are also using their wisdom in their marriages, in raising their kids, and in the ministries in which they serve. 

Maybe you can love by becoming a prayer warrior like the woman in the movie War Room. You have the power to defeat the enemy and his lies by praying Scriptures over yourself, over your family, over your church, and over your friends. You have the power to renounce the horrific lies being perpetrated by our culture on our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren. Your voices are needed in the heavenly realms where your prayers will become sweet incense around the throne of God, lasting long after you and I are gone from this earth. A friend told me her mother and her mother-in-law decided to pray together every day. She said how blessed she was, knowing these two ladies daily bathed her family in prayer. You can do this in person or on the phone or facetime. A prayer partner can be a neighbor, someone in your church, or someone in your family. Set a time and be consistent. Together you can move mountains and gain a sense of being a part of something bigger than this physical world and your own grief.

As far as this age thing goes, you are never too old to disciple, teach, serve, or love well. The pastor I had as a young wife and a mom over 40 years ago was a middle-aged man named Nap. He had a small church but had a huge impact on the kingdom of God. I lost track of the number men and women who went to Dallas Seminary and/or became missionaries, pastors, elders, evangelists, teachers and servants because of his ministry. In his early years, Nap started a camp for children and teenagers called Ikthoos Christian Camp. He continued to have camp year after year. Over time some of the younger men came along side of him and began to shoulder responsibilities, but Nap refused to retire and continued to go and serve in the camp well into his eighties. The kids we knew as campers grew up to serve as counselors, teachers, rec directors, and worship leaders at the camp and now their kids are beginning to join their ranks. 

Every year when camp is in session, they post pictures and videos for parents and those of us who pray for them. A couple of years ago one of our friends posted a picture of a feeble Nap preaching and sharing a diagram he had always used to make the gospel crystal clear. His daughters who were there then walked their aged daddy back to his room and told him good night for the last time as Napper died in his sleep. How fitting that his last night on earth was doing what he most loved in a place he considered most sacred because it was filled with children. 

Nap was faithful until the end of his life and his life was not an easy life. No matter what happened, he kept on doing what he knew God called him to do. The next morning when the campers and counselors were in chapel talking to the students about his death, our friend took a picture of what her young daughter was drawing. It was the very diagram Nap had drawn on the overhead the night before. But this time it had added something new. She had drawn a little figure on the heaven part of the diagram and had added his name to it. Her mama was glad she had listened and understood his last sermon and that she was finding comfort in the truth he had presented in his last sermon. 

Nap and his gifts were essential to the family of God until the day He died. His wife and his daughters finished out the week of camp, knowing Nap would have wanted that. Just as Nap and his gifts were essential to the body of Christ, so are you and your gifts. God loves you with a radical, unending love. He has always seen you; He sees you now right in the midst of what you are going through today, and He will continue to see and care about you with what tomorrow brings. Don’t ever forget that each of you is essential to the Family of God!

Monday, December 5, 2022

At This Table

Early in life I developed an eating disorder that expressed itself in many ways. When I realized my dieting was becoming dangerous and my control was out of control, I decided to get help. When I met with my first counselor, my denial system was pretty strong, and I told him I didn't think my disorder was impacting my family. The counselor smiled and explained that if he were doing family counseling with us, the first things he would do is ask my children to draw the family dinner table. He then asked what I thought they would draw. After a long pause, I admitted that they would have drawn the table with my place either empty or with a drink only. I realized in that session the dinner table could be as much about interaction as it was about food. I soon became fascinated by Bible passages that dealt with food and meals.

I had struggled with shame because of my crazy relationship with food. I hated how often my thoughts were consumed with food, dieting, the number on the scale, or the dress size I was wearing. I was also ashamed that food itself was the source of my struggle. As I searched the Bible for answers, I realized the very first sin ever committed was centered around food and that Adam and Eve's choice to eat the fruit was more about what Satan promised than the fruit itself. I also realized Satan's temptation stirred in them a desire the fruit didn't fulfill, and they ended up miserable as they longed for their redemption to be complete. 

I could relate to Adam and Eve as I turned to food, mistaking relational or spiritual hunger for physical hunger. At times I searched frantically for the perfect food to satisfy a craving I couldn't even identify or satisfy. I could relate to them when I thought I would be happier if only I had something more--more pounds lost, more power over life or broken relationships, more freedom from besetting sin, more peace in the face of my perfection and anxious thoughts. Oh, there were momentary feelings of the "more's satisfied," only to awaken to the same cravings again and again.  

I heard a sermon taught by Louis Giglio, called don't give the enemy a seat at your table. He developed the sermon from Psalm 23 and talked about how God prepares us a table in the presence of our enemies and explained that we can choose to give the enemy a seat or we can focus on the Lord and dine with Him, while ignoring the enemy and his plans. I realized food has never been the enemy, but Satan was as he whispered temptation after temptation in my ear. I didn't have to give into his voice, tempting me to starve or binge. I could accept each meal as a gift and focus on the Giver. When I did that, eating no longer felt like a shameful act and I could eat with a grateful heart, praising God for His provision. I could even walk with Him through disordered thoughts and temptations and see God's strength in my weakness. 

A few years into my recovery I was in a freak accident that left me with a noticeable limp. Over time I came to terms with the limp by embracing the story of Mephibosheth who was Jonathon's son and Saul's grandson. It would have been customary for Jonathon to become king when Saul died, but God appointed David instead. David faithfully served Saul as he waited his turn, but Saul became consumed with jealousy over David's God-given abilities, future kingship, and David's victory over Goliath. In that state of jealous rage, he tried to kill David and David realized he needed to leave because the king viewed him as an enemy. This grieved Jonathon and David who were close friends. Jonathon helped David escape, and David vowed to show Jonathon and his family mercy when he became king.

When Saul and Jonathon were killed, Jonathon's son's nurse fled with the young boy. She fell, injuring both of his legs, leaving him crippled. After David established his kingdom, he called a servant to find out if anyone from Saul's house was alive to which he could show mercy. The servant told him about the young, crippled Mephibosheth and David sent for him. I imagine Mephibosheth was filled with fear when he was called to face the king his grandfather had tried to kill, and he humbly bowed before King David. David told him not to be afraid because he had summoned him to show him mercy. Mephibosheth offered himself as a servant, but David gave him a seat at his own table, which meant that he considered Mephibosheth a son. David gave him land so his servants could work and provide all that he needed, which gave the crippled Mephibosheth back his dignity. 

Because of my limp, I love this story and the invitation to eat at the king's table. Each one of us is Mephibosheth. We were born enemies of God and have been crippled by sin that we have committed and by sin perpetrated against us. Since the fall we have been crippled by all sorts of trauma, causing us to be crippled in our ability to do good, to manage emotions, to discern truth from lies, to love well, and in our ability to worship and honor God. Yet, like Mephibosheth, we have been invited to the palace of the King of kings and we come...limping to God's table with nothing to offer, finding mercy in Jesus just as Mephibosheth found in David. 

There are times my ankle gets sore and stiff, and my limp becomes more pronounced. There are times that something happens to trigger feelings of past trauma and I find myself walking with an invisible "limp" that feels as awkward and uncomfortable as my physical one. There are times I experience stress and old eating disordered thoughts and I find myself "limping" awkwardly through the day barely holding on to what is healthy and good, and I know I can either get frustrated and give in or I can choose to remember Mephibosheth, who came to the king's table, and cling to the truth that I, who was once God's enemy, am now seated at His table, forever belonging to His family. I am also reminded that through His divine power He has given me everything I need for a godly life through the knowledge of Him who has called us out of His goodness. 

The music group Selah just released the most beautiful song for Christmas titled, "At this Table!" (At This Table by Selah on Amazon Music - The song, written by Idina Menzer, has such powerful words and I have listened to several times this week. Each time I am filled with peace and stand in awe of God's infinite kindness. How I long for my table to reflect the table of this song--a table where everyone is welcome, everyone is seen, and everyone matters. A table where everyone is noticed, no one is judged, and everyone is free to speak. A place where everyone is forgiven, no one is invisible, and everyone feels like they belong. 

I hope, as God's crippled children, we remember each one of us comes hobbling to the table and yet we are met with lavish mercy and grace that we did nothing to earn. I hope we try our best to extend that to others for at His table we are forever covered with a love shown through Christ's brutal death and resurrection. Maybe, just maybe this is the holiday season that we can reflect that to others.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Prodigals and Pharisees Come Home

I have always loved the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It simply starts out with "There was a man who had two sons." I remember mostly hearing the story with the focus on the younger prodigal son. But the story is about two sons and there are lessons to be learned from both. 

The younger son approached his dad, asking for his portion of his inheritance so that he could leave. The oldest son in those day would be given a double portion, meaning the younger son would receive a third of his father's property. The father complied and the younger son packed up and left for a far away country where he squandered his money, spending it all on immoral, reckless living. He didn't make poor decisions or lose it in business deals, he simply wasted it on things he thought would bring him fleshly pleasure. As a result, he experienced poverty for the first time. Soon  a famine hit the land making it impossible to get food. He eventually got a job feeding pigs, which would have been a shameful position as a Jew. It was a stinky dirty job that seemed to reflect his spiritual state.  

As food became more scarce, he experienced gnawing hunger and began to eat the slop he fed the pigs. I can't help but wonder if it was then that he began to miss the lovingkindness of his dad who so faithfully met his needs. Could it be that rebellion tends to lead people away from what their hearts most want? In the midst of slurping down slop not fit for humans, he realized his father's servants were eating better than him. So, he headed home, rehearsing the confession he would make, hoping to be hired as a servant. Little did he know his father was constantly scanning the horizon, hoping to see him. And when he spotted his son, the father ran which was something dignified men didn't do. The father grabbed his son and held him in a tight embrace. When I think of that scene, I think of what my son smelled like when he came home from the pig barns with the stench of pig wafting across the room. The love of that father entered into the messy, stinky life of his son. 
I can so relate to the younger son. The Word tells me while I was still in my sin, Christ loved me and died for me. That means God loved me with the stench of my sin still on me--the stench of pride, of lust, of selfishness, of self-centeredness, of an independent heart that often chose to quietly do life apart from Him, and of trying to fill this God-craving hunger with worldly things. Yeah, I can relate to him. I wish I couldn't, but I can. 

In response to the son's confession, the father calls his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and shoes. These are not the clothes of a servant, they are the clothing of a chosen son! He has servants prepare a banquet to celebrate the son who was lost , but no has been found, the son who was dead, but who is now relationally alive. This father reflects Our Abba! Some of us for a variety of reasons walked away from God and His fold after having made declarations of faith. Maybe we were wounded by legalism or by people in the church. Maybe we simply rebelled, wanting something more. Maybe we slipped so gradually into sin that shame sent us running from God and His people lest they find out. We may at some time have believed the stench of what we have done could never be cleaned. But this parable tells us the Abba is always scanning the horizon for prodigals and He runs at the first sight of their return. And no matter how deeply the stench has been ground into our pours, God embraces us and clothes us in the clothes of His chosen. God knows we must come to the end of ourselves to recognize Him as the perfect Redeemer, Restorer, Reconciler, Healer, our Satisfaction, and Father. 

The other brother who came in from the fields to see the celebration taking place. A servant informed him that the celebration was in honor of the prodigal who had came home. The older son became angry and refused to go in. The first time I read this parable, I thought his anger was a protective anger toward his father who had been hurt by the child that left home in a manor that stated he considered his father dead to him. But when the father came out and talked to the older son, we see the state of the older son's heart. He was angry because the son who left and squandered the inheritance in an immoral lifestyle was being celebrated and while he who had remained wasn't.  

The older son's attitude makes me uncomfortable, because I see me in him and can relate to his judgments. I wish didn't but I do. There have been times I've worked hard and was not noticed, only to have someone new come along and get praised for one project. I resented it a lot. I also used to pride myself on being nonjudgmental, but a sweet lady once told told me that we all make judgments every  da and sometimes judgments help us make good decisions and sometimes they are sinful. 

I was uncomfortable with her statement, so I paid close attention to the thoughts that ran through my head for a few weeks and she was right. I made judgments about food as I classified it as either good or bad instead of thanking God for His provision. I made judgments about the hearts and the worth of others based on the clothing they wore. I judged myself harshly for having normal feelings and being human instead of perfect. I judged a parent by how she handled her kids in public and was convicted because at one time I was a mom of five littles and knew they could be perfectly behaved one day and then the next day I was red-faced, paying for chocolate bar snatched by little hands when I wasn't looking, I judged a homeless person without knowing his story, not even giving him the dignity of a smile or eye contact every human craves. I judged someone's words without letting them finish their thoughts, something I hate when its done to me. It grieved my heart to find there was a whole lot more Pharisee in me than I thought. But facing this truth humbled me and helped me come to grips with the truth that not all prodigals run physically, some of us run even in the staying. It helped me realize how desperately we (me in particular) need God's mercy and grace. 

I also realized I often chose churches because people in them looked like me. Around the time I had the above conversation with my friend, a therapist suggested I find a support group for eating disorders and there wasn't one in my community. She referred me to a ministry for those struggling with addictions and codependency. When I first walked in, judgments were screaming in my head. I wanted to run, but didn't. There I heard stories that melted my prideful heart, allowing God to fill it with compassion and love. There I saw hardened hearts softened and people extending grace while holding each other accountable in such a beautifully balanced ways. I shared my story one night and there were sniffles, the loudest being among the biggest burliest guys, who had originally scared me. I grew to love them because they were so honest, transparent, and hungry for God.

There I realized the years I had spent in church, I had been trying to earn God's love and to cover up my sinful parts and my judgmental heart. I loved the recovery group because it was there I realized God's love was freely given. There was nothing I could do to earn it and nothing I could do to lose it. The fleshly business of trying to earn love was put to death. I also bumped into a friend there who introduced me to her sister, who was covered in tattoos. At first I judged her, but over time I came to love this gal and her big heart and even got a small tatt to remind myself not to judge. 

When this gal passed away. Her funeral was exactly what I have come to desire all churches to be, and what I imagine heaven already is--a mixture of people from all walks of life. A place where addicts sit next to the "church people who appear to have it all together." A place where the poor are seated among the rich. A place where the tattooed are sprinkled among the conservatively dressed. A place where those with nose rings and piercings are scattered among those with traditional jewelry. A place where the wounded are actually tended to, a place where the vulnerable find safety, a place where differences are celebrated, and a place where every prodigal is restored and rejoiced over. At that crowded funeral filled with prodigals we had one thing in common, our friend and when a song was sung all of our eyes were leaking for the one who had overcome big, big stuff and who had loved so big. To me, the people at her funeral represent the death of the conflict between prodigals and pharisaical siblings. 

For me, moving past judgment took my recognizing my own desire to be loved, acknowledged, and accepted was something written on my heart by my Creator and then accepting that God Himself has lavishly and consistently met those needs through Christ! When I rest in this truth I don't tend to wander like the prodigal or sit in judgment like the Pharisaical brother, Instead, I am free to relate to the One who fills my heart with all it needs so I can celebrate those around me. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

From Fear to Faith

 In 2012 one of the pastors who had a huge impact on my life passed away. I wrote a note on Facebook called "From Fear to Faith" and thought I would edit it and share it here as we are living in times in which fear covered in anger is rampant. I hope that may someone struggling with fear might be comforted and find courage and peace in Jesus, just as I did.  

In January of 1977 my husband and I moved to Mississippi so he could get his doctorate from State. Oh, we were young and moving across the country while I was pregnant with our first child. The night we arrived in Starkville, it was freezing cold, and I was very sick with a kidney infection. We followed the hospital signs to get to the emergency room. The doctor kept me in the hospital for several days, leaving my husband to unpack the U-Haul. A guy he had met at a conference happened to drive and see Joel unloading the trailer. He stopped and helped him and then invited him to dinner with some guys from his church. He got there and met their pastor, who was nicknamed Nap. For a year, we attended another church that had more young student couples and forged some great friendships, but after a year most of them were finished school and left. One of the men we knew told us that because I had such a thirst for Bible knowledge that Emmanuel Baptist Church would help me find the answers to the questions I had. We to the little Baptist Church, where Nap taught verse by verse at least four times a week and stayed there for seven years.

When we first attended, I was very fearful, but if anyone would have asked if I was a believer I would have said yes. Maybe I was a believer, but if I was a believer, I was a terrified one. Every time I sinned or even thought I might have sinned, I confessed over and over and asked Jesus into my heart again and again and again. Right after we married, we had heard some preaching on the Book of Revelation, and I woke up several times crying from nightmares about end times. When I arrived at Emmanuel, I was still fearful and trying desperately to be good, thinking I could earn God's love and bet to heaven.

About the time I began to relax and enjoy our new church, Nap announced he would begin a series on the book of Revelation. I was struggling with my parent's divorce so I went in to talk to him about that and during that conversation I also told him about my fear of the Book of the Revelation and told him I wasn't sure I could handle the series. He suggested I read the little book, Come Lord, Jesus by Mark G. Cambron and then come talk to him. I began to see the grace of God in that little book on Revelation and how it matched what Nap was preaching on Sundays. We met many times and talked about the gospel and eternal security and a bunch about the love of God. Over time, I realized I believed what God said in His Word and that Christ's payment for sin was enough to secure my salvation.

I fell in love with Jesus during the time I spent at that church. I hungered and thirsted to know everything about Him and had to have driven Nap crazy with questions, but he was patient and loving and kind to this needy young believer. I loved his bear hugs as they were tight and purely given. I loved his love of the Savior. It never ever waned, no matter what came his way. I loved his love of God's grace and a pure gospel. I loved his style of teaching and answering the questions I and many others had, because his answers were never his thoughts or opinions, they were straight from the Word! I loved the consistency of his teaching; the truth never changing as he moved from book to was always grace. And he lived out that grace even in the mundane parts of his life. He fiercely protected the flock with which God had entrusted him. His heart grieved as many of his flock were moved to other parts of the world, but he still considered us a part of his Emmanual family.

I remember one time he was preaching on the persecuted church, I went up to him afterward and told him, "Nap, I don't have to worry about anyone persecuting me, because I always prostitute myself." He responded with, "I know, Babe!" but his eyes were twinkling like crazy. So, I quickly thought through what I had just said and got embarrassed. I screamed, "NO!" and he chuckled and said, "I didn't think you meant what you said." I typed the bulletin for several years and I often made him special bulletins with funny announcements he could not read to the church. But I knew he saw them when he came out with twinkle in his eye and a great big smile on his face.

The last week I lived in Starkville, I went by to see him one last time and I asked him some hard questions I had never voiced before about God's sovereignty over things like abuse. There were no glib answers give, but as I turned to leave, he called my name and I turned around, "Wendy, God is Good! Don't ever forget He is Good!" And I heard his voice say those same words over and over in my head when I went into counseling to recover from the pain in my past! Nap also listened to my pain when my best friend lost her babies then again when I lost her. I loved the sound of his voice when he taught. It was a slow southern drawl that calmed my anxious heart after someone broke into our home and comforted us as a church when we buried our loved ones.

One more thing I loved about Nap was that He never said things like, "Jesus, is coming back, you better get ready." He simply lived His life always excitedly looking for our Jesus to return. He was faithful until the very end. Nap was at a camp preaching and sharing the gospel and passed away later in the evening. That very night I was in a worship service, here in California and we sang one of his favorite songs, "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" and my heart was full of joy as it reminded me of Nap and his impact on my faith, not realizing our gracious God was orchestrating that moment in my life at the time He was welcoming him home. I love that Jesus has riches to share with His faithful servant that bore so much fruit in His life.

I have lived in California with a contentment that is still slightly overshadowed by a homesickness for people who had become a loving spiritual family for this homesick, pregnant, scared wife. This last week I have seen a lot of pictures from Ikthoos, the Camp Nap and others started. The kids who were little campers when we lived there are all adults who are faithfully filling his footsteps as they love kids and teach them how to study the Word to lift their beautiful voices in praise.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Still Showing up Differently

I recently read the testimony of a man who was talking about his struggle with addiction. He said he began his recovery the day he chose to show up differently in the world. The words, “I chose to show up differently” deeply resonated with me when I first heard them. That was because God had used several events to awaken deeply buried pain caused by unresolved traumas I had experienced earlier in life.

For years I had masked pain from the traumas in different ways. I masked it with an eating disorder that led me to sway between severe anorexia to compulsive eating. I masked the shame I experienced over the traumas with a hyper-critical spirit that served o focus others’ eyes away from the messiness of my life and soul that could have potentially bubbled over at any given moment. Third. I masked the fear of being hurt again with self-protective behaviors like defensiveness, obsessing over real or imagined offenses, shutting down, or completely withdrawing.

During an anorexic phase of my disorder, I went to get a haircut and when the stylist finished washing my hair, my neck muscles were so weak I couldn’t lift my head without using my hands. The weakness jolted me into seeing my health was in jeapordy. As I struggled, I also realized I was tired of living a life centered around diets, exercise, and self-contempt. Friends and my church community didn’t know how to help, so I made the brave decision in the face of the fear I was experiencing to seek Christian counseling when it wasn’t a widely accepted thing to do. Essentially, I was choosing to start showing up differently in my world.  

I entered counseling, thinking there would be a quick fix. Maybe it would be the sharing of the trauma that would set me free from the pain it caused. Maybe it would be the confession of the severe self-contempt with which I was struggling that would set me free. Maybe it would the acknowledgement of just how out of control my disorder was as I was seeking control over my life, my emotions, and my body. Maybe it would be the tears I eventually shed as I grieved the losses caused by the trauma and the poor decisions that I had made in response to it.

Looking back, I now realize I was looking for a magical decision like the decision to show up differently to be the “cure all.” The “cure all” would be whatever would helped me become like a person who had never been traumatized and who had never developed an eating disorder. Over the course of my healing journey, I grew to accept and then grew to embrace the truth that my recovery wasn’t about a one-time decision to just show up differently in my world. I would have to make the same decisions over and over on a daily, hourly, and sometimes moment by moment basis. I will share a few of the decisions I have made.    

I chose to show up differently when I chose to talk honestly with my therapist about the different traumas I had experienced as a child, as a teen, and as an adult, facing and accepting the real story I had been living.  

I chose to show up differently every week when I was willing to grieve the life that I had been wishing I had had instead of the one from which I was recovering.   

I chose to show up differently when I decided to face the truth of how serious the disorder was and agreed to work with a doctor and a dietician to get my health back.

I chose to show up differently when I agreed to experience and sit in the pain that I had buried instead of numbing it with eating disordered behaviors.

I chose to show up differently every week when I participated in groups with others who had experienced similar traumas and eating disorders instead of isolating.  

I chose to show up differently when I revealed to my therapist the depth of the self-contempt I was experiencing and began to choose daily to believe I truly am who God says I am.

I chose to show up differently when I began to use my voice in relationships by asking directly for what I needed, desired, or preferred and allowing others the freedom to honor the requests or not.   

I chose to show up differently when I quit trying to control everything and everyone around me through co-dependent tendencies that I used to calm anxiety.

I chose to show up differently when I began to explore and embrace emotions God created me to feel and to manage them by identifying and changing cognitive distortions.  

I chose to show up differently when I had a dream in which every woman that I passed had no mouth and dead eyes and woke up begging God to give women their voices and wrote books to help others.

I chose to show up differently when I began to ask the Lord in faith, to show me where He was in all that I had experienced and began to see how truly beautiful and good God was and is in the midst of the ugly horrific things experienced.

I chose to show up differently when I began to rest in God’s love instead of trying to earn the love that He had already sacrificially given to me.

I chose to show up differently when I realized I had been trying to elicit love from other broken people who didn’t know how to love well and began to focus more on how I can love well by letting Jesus’s love flow through me.

I chose to show up differently when I acknowledged the hard all around us every day and chose to believe our God is bigger than the biggest mountain put in front of me, His love stronger than the vilest hate swirling around us, and His spilt blood is deeper than the sin I commit.

To be honest, this list is not exhaustive and is comprised of things that I have to choose repeatedly day after day, moment after moment so that I can show up differently, hoping to reflect the heart and the character of my God rather than a wounded broken human. I remember getting angry when I realized there was no quick or permanent fix. That anger makes me smile now because I know it is in my weaknesses and in the having to choose again and again to show up differently that I have come to experience God’s love and strength the most.


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!