Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Hello Blogging, My Old Friend

It has been a very long time since I wrote a blog post. I wish I could say I've just been too busy living la vida loca to sit down at the keyboard. Certainly, I wish I had some moderately believable excuse to give you. But I don't.

The honest answer? Well, I didn't write because I didn't have anything positive to say. For a while. I've been in a season of life one could describe as "the doldrums" and it might have even crossed into mild depression for a few weeks. It's time I talked about it and hopefully it will loosen up some bonds that might be holding your head under the water, too.

The past eight years of our marriage have had us living away from our support network. The first of those eight years was spent in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the rest were spent in the Joplin, Missouri area. After seven years in one area we had put down some roots. We knew most of our neighbors and had a great set of neighbor kids for our girls to hang out with. The house we bought was coming together slowly through renovations and updates. We had found favorite restaurants and had a great network of specialists, like our pediatrician and pediatric dentist. The girls had gotten involved in a homeschool sports league and learning co-op, plus they had friends at church they really love.

The only thing really lacking was a strong network of friends and family to support my husband and me spiritually, emotionally, and physically. There were no nearby grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins to rely on as babysitters. We never really found anyone with whom we could form a close friendship outside of the church. Certainly we had great congregation members who we feel great affection for and who care for us, but those relationships weren't truly free for us as their pastor. Congregation members need their pastor to be strong, holy leaders -- they don't want flawed human beings who struggle sometimes or who occasionally watch PG-13 movies or who cuss a little. We had very few friendships in the Joplin area where we felt safe to express our difficulties or genuine emotions without fear that it might turn into ministry-killing gossip or betrayal.

The hole in our lives left by a lack of support network left us feeling increasingly strained. We knew that things were changing with our church placement and it looked increasingly like we would be moving away from Joplinland. We began praying that God would open a door that would allow us to be closer to our family and the friends we had from before we moved from the Springfield area. This, we hoped, would give us access to a strong support network and help with some of the emotional strain that comes with being in vocational ministry.

We found out in March that we were going to be changing churches over the summer and we found out in April exactly where we would be moving. The answer wasn't what we had been praying for. (Yeah, I know...God's answer isn't always "yes").

Instead of moving closer to family and close friends, we were placed in a small church located in a small town that felt like it was a million miles away from everyone who loves us. When we found out with certainty that we were moving, we had only three months to sell our house and move our entire life three and a half hours north. There was an intense, exhausting push to finish all the renovation projects we had put on the back-burner -- at a cost we hadn't intended to invest all at once. Plus, I spent most of my spare time searching the internet for all the things we would need once we made the move (new pediatrician, new homeschool sports league, etc.). The renovations finally came together with a lot of sweat and a few spousal arguments, but we got our house on the market and got the offer we were hoping to receive.

The other transition plans, unfortunately, seemed frustratingly stalled. It seemed that no information existed regarding many of the things we needed to know for continuing to teach the girls at home. Where we easily found information about homeschool sports, co-ops, field trip groups, and other support networks in the Joplin-area, none seemed to show themselves in my internet search for our new town. The closest options all involved a 40-minute or more drive.

In a whirlwind, we made the final moving arrangements, said our goodbyes, packed up our belongings, and the mover drove away with almost all of our earthly possessions. I cried for most of the three-plus hours we drove to our new home.

The day we moved in to our new home (a church-owned parsonage) brought us into a house that wasn't ours and didn't feel like home. Plus, it was raining non-stop and our moving van couldn't make it up the long, narrow driveway to the house. Every box and every piece of furniture had to come off the moving truck, where each item was tossed in an unloving manner into church member's covered trailer before being transferred up the driveway and into our house. Boxes were varying degrees of smashed as things were hurriedly moved in this helter-skelter way. Several of my belongings were broken in the process and several boxes brought tears as I grieved the loss of some treasure or another (like the coffee mug my late friend had bought me on her trip to Disney the year she was taking chemo and radiation).

The kick in the gut came in the following weeks as I realized the girls weren't going to have any nearby homeschool support options or other ways to make friends. We decided that this pastoral move was going to be a very lonely one for them if we continued to homeschool, so we made the decision to place them back into public school. All the dreams we had of travel and field trips and things we were going to learn and the wonderful opportunities homeschooling would bring...well, they were dashed, just like those broken possessions I found in my moving boxes.

All the change, all the disappointments took their toll on me and I began sinking. Everything felt like loss in this move. I stopped sleeping well and was getting only five or six hours of sleep each night. My humor disappeared, replaced with silence as I could think of nothing at all worth saying out loud. Difficult feelings inside my heart and mind made it feel impossible to find anything positive to say to my husband or the girls. Parenting and wife-ing were becoming new sources of disappointment. All I could see was my constant failure at being a human being that anyone would want to be around. I was tired and sad and quick to become angry and even quicker to begin crying over every little thing.

Heaped upon my sadness was everyone else's happiness, which felt like a mockery of my inability to muster joy. Old acquaintances excitedly made comments like "God is going to do such great things in this new setting!" And people we met in our new town perkily asked questions like "How are you liking our little town?" I couldn't see how anything good was possible under the black cloud that seemed to be sitting on my head and I certainly didn't have anything nice to say in answer to their cheery queries. Everything I said was forced and I felt like I was constantly lying by pasting a smile on my face whenever I was out in public.

I am mostly out from under the dark cloud and I have found my sense of humor again. I'm writing some curriculum and using my time on creative pursuits while I try to figure out what the new "normal" looks like in our lives.

I've also done some personal exploration of what might have improved this transition. One pastor's wife I talked to about our move told me "You've got to be made of tough stuff to be a pastor's wife". I'm sure she meant well...or maybe that was just her version of "It is what it is". But, her comment felt like defeat to me. What I really needed someone to validate my feelings of grief and to give me space to have hard emotions about all the loss that was being heaped upon my shoulders. It would have been helpful to see and hear empathy, rather than perky platitudes or comments about the need to "suck it up, Buttercup". I needed to hear someone say "This is a hard thing you're doing. How can I bear some of it with you? How can I support you in this thing?"

If you are in a church where a new pastor is coming in -- especially if your new pastor is moving from somewhere else on the map -- be careful about your enthusiasm and excitement creating unintended pressure on your new pastor's family. Be sure to check in with your pastor and his family to make sure they are emotionally and socially okay, that they are receiving support as they grieve the loss of their previous setting, friends, school, and other parts of their previous support network. Even changing pediatricians can be challenging, especially if your pastor's child has a special medical need. There are several of the Big Life Change events that your pastor and his family are going through all at once -- new job, new home, new school -- that have to be navigated along with their need to make a good first impression on your congregation and community. Give them space to grieve. More importantly, give them permission to grieve. If God has moved them into your church, then joy will follow them....eventually. Until then, pray for your pastor and his family with their grief in mind and look for ways offer your encouragement and support to ease their stress.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Theology for "dummies" (like me)

Confession Time: The past few months have been a struggle for me. I scroll through my newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter and can feel my blood pressure rising. Instead of seeing people's happy life events and funny comments, it seems that too many people are posting articles and comments of a political nature. I, too, have made political posts and comments (since we are being honest here). I don't start out wanting to be political, but I have a hard time not speaking up in response to the strange marriage of American politics with Christian theology that I keep seeing on social media. Those kind of posts send a particular message to the lost -- a message that Jesus only loves certain people. Here is one such post that really got my blood boiling yesterday.

The theology of this political meme is that the immigrants being "banned" by President Trump's recent executive order are no different than the people Jesus himself has "banned" from entering Heaven. It imagines that Heaven has a wall to keep certain people out and that there's some extreme process required to get in.

And I can see where some people might think it's okay to make such a claim, since Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6) It is true to say that you can't get into Heaven without a saving relationship with Jesus. However, it isn't so hard to have a relationship with Jesus as some people seem to believe. In fact, Jesus and the disciples made it clear that Jesus was for all people, not just the Jews who had previously been billed as "God's chosen people". Jesus was for the Gentiles, too (a term which covered all the non-Jewish people). In fact, most of the New Testament was written by a missionary named Paul whose entire ministry was aimed at Gentiles.

The really great thing about the Bible is that there is a lot to wrestle with. We aren't given cut-and-dry answers to all the big issues. I think that's on purpose so that we will never be content with our existing knowledge of the Bible. God wants us to keep reading it and applying it and wrestling with the nuances and re-applying it...until we die.

Because it has so many unexplained nuances, there are different ways to interpret Scripture and what it means for Christ-followers.

One such interpretation of Scripture is called "Calvinism" (named after theologian John Calvin) and rests on five points known as the "TULIP". It says essentially that each of us on earth are totally depraved, meaning that all parts of our humanity are affected by sin and that we cannot, on our own, achieve salvation and oneness with a perfect God. It says that God elected or chose certain people who would have their sinful hearts "softened" to accept the saving message of Jesus. Essentially, Calvinism says that the message of Jesus' grace will be irresistible for those who have been chosen by God to receive salvation. Irresistible, meaning they cannot resist salvation. Even if they tried. And, once a chosen person has accepted salvation, it cannot be lost. Ever. No matter what they do.

Calvinism is the theology that drives some denominations, like Baptists and Presbyterians. Taken to an extreme, it would be easy to say that certain people have been chosen to receive a special measure of God's grace and that other people are not chosen and it doesn't matter so much what happens to them on planet earth because they're going to Hell someday, regardless. We can easily see this theology play out in politics right now as the Republican party is set on keeping Muslim refugees out of America. In their view, the only thing that can come of such a move would be to spread the blessings (financial comfort, democracy, capitalism) of the elect (American Christians) out toward those who are not chosen (Muslims).

But Calvinism isn't the only theology out there. Wesleyan Armenian (named after John Wesley and Jacob Armenus) is the theology that says we humans are sinful from birth, but still have a hint of the divine within us -- we are still image-bearers of God. They would say Jesus' grace is for all people, but that God gave mankind free will to choose to accept salvation. In other words, God wants all of his creation to be in a perfect relationship with him, but they have to choose that relationship for themselves, it isn't forced upon them. To put it in dummies-friendly terms, it is like a guy who asks a girl to marry him. He put the offer out there but cannot force her to say "yes" or to actually become his wife. Even if we believe in Jesus' existence, we still have to be in a relationship with him. Wesleyan Armenian theology would say that having a relationship with Jesus can transform us from depraved individuals into people with the potential to become more and more like him as we spend time with him.

Wesleyan Armenian is the theology that drives the Methodist denomination, among others. This theology would say that all people are potential Christ-followers who deeply need the opportunity to accept Jesus' offer of salvation. In order to accept Jesus' offer, people must first know Jesus and his love so that they will desire to choose -- with their free will -- to be in a relationship with Jesus so their lives can be transformed. A Wesleyan would argue that it's only too late to lead someone to Jesus if they are dead. They would also argue that no people group is off limits with the Gospel (aka: Good News of Jesus) message. Their audience includes people from all walks of life and with all sin backgrounds (including homosexuals).

Both kinds of theology have Bible verses they use to back up their beliefs. And the people who follow the various theologies are very certain theirs is the correct way to interpret God's word. When they read God's word, their theology is the one that drives their understanding of what the Bible says. It becomes the lens through which they read Scripture.

In my personal opinion, the heart of Jesus fits better with the Wesleyan theology. I have a hard time imagining that God would create all of humanity, but only choose to have a relationship with some of them. That would be like a parent who has five children but chooses to only love one of them. It is much easier for me to believe that God wants us all to know and follow him -- so much so that he sacrificed his own son (John 3:16) -- but that we sinful humans don't all choose to love him back.

Because of my own theological choice to follow John Wesley's teaching, I want to do what I can to make sure all people have the opportunity to choose Jesus if they want to. I know that not everybody will, of course, but I want them to know the door is open for them to choose to enter. That means I am not afraid to socialize with Muslim refugees, drug addicts, homosexuals, rednecks, or any other people group who doesn't yet know Jesus as their savior. Someday my love for them and my kind actions might be just the thing that helps those broken, lost friends to walk through the door into a full-fledged relationship with Jesus.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mis-matched plasticware

A few weeks ago I was cleaning out the church kitchen and found what looked like a garage sale had vomited into the cabinets. There were used disposable plastic trays from a catered event that someone had washed and placed in the cabinet along with a myriad of plastic bowls with no lids and plastic lids with no bowls. There was a broken skillet, a rusty stockpot, and about two dozen spatulas in various stages of having been accidentally melted. It was clear that someone -- or several someones, more likely -- had cleaned out their kitchens to donate all the unwanted items to the church kitchen. This isn't the first time I had seen this kind of has-been kitchen collection in a church. In fact, I would wager that most church kitchens have cabinets full of used items that were donated by well-meaning members who had cleaned out their home kitchens.

Why is this a problem, anyway? Isn't it nice to donate things to the church? Don't they need plastic bowls and spatulas and other kitchen items? Isn't a used item better than none at all?

The problem is with the heart of the matter. Why should your church get the useless stuff you don't want? That isn't a sacrifice. Your church deserves the best you have to offer. Jesus offered the best of himself, after all. Why not treat the church building with the same generous spending you would offer to your own home kitchen. Do you have nice utensils to cook with in your own kitchen? Or plasticware with lids? Or cooking pots that are safe to cook with? If it isn't good enough to use in your own home, it doesn't belong in your church. Your church kitchen isn't a reject bin, it's a place where people serve others in the name of Jesus.

The same can be said with treating the church generously in the area of sharing your finances. The church deserves your first share (or tithe) of financial support, not the $5 bill you happened to remember was in your wallet only after you accidentally made eye contact with the usher. Do you believe in what your church is doing? Do you love your church and does it meet needs in your life and the life of your community?  Do you believe that your community is experiencing Jesus through your church? Do you want your pastor doing the work of the church as his full-time job, rather than just speaking on Sundays while he earns a paycheck elsewhere (remember that he and his family have bills, too)? Do you want the church to have working heat, toilet paper, and other amenities when you visit? Running a church requires money. Your money. And it cannot function effectively on your leftovers.

The church can't fulfill its mission with a bunch of broken-down tools and cannot keep the doors open without an adequate operating budget. Are you giving your best to your church? Or are they getting the secondhand junk you can easily spare?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Meat Loaf and Rick Astley

I'm a child of the 1970's and 1980's. There was a lot to the 70's and 80's culture that should be forgotten and never repeated. However, some of the best songs came out of those decades, like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper, "Beat It" by Michael Jackson, and "Like a Virgin" by Madonna.

Two great songs from my childhood have been rumbling around in my brain this week and have inspired some deep thoughts in regards to Christian habits and church commitment.

 The first song that has struck me is Meat Loaf's famous "I'd do Anything for Love (But I won't do that)".

I recently came across a story in Matthew 19 where a rich man asks Jesus what he has to do in order to gain eternal life. Jesus asked the man a few questions and we learn that the man has led a very well-behaved life. Then Jesus drops the bombshell on the man who thought he had been good enough to earn the "Jesus Stamp of Approval" -- Jesus tells him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and only then can he follow Jesus. The man didn't really want to follow Jesus, he wanted eternal life. He wanted the prize! Essentially the man answered: "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that."

The rich man left disappointed because he valued the comfort, security, and enjoyment of his possessions more than he valued the possibility of following Jesus.

I don't know many rich people and I know even fewer who value their possessions over their savior, so I have never seen this kind of dilemma play out in real life. However, I have seen plenty of people tell God (mostly through their actions) "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that."

What won't they do?

I would do anything for love but I won't:

  • Feed myself: in other words, I won't read the Bible or do devotional time on my own.
  • Talk about my faith, even on social media.
  • Invite people to my church.
  • Talk to new people at my church.
  • Take time out of my week to attend a small group.
  • Disciple others.
  • Serve at the church I attend or in the community where I live.
  • Give financially to my church.
  • Invite visitors to try my small group or attend special events at my church.
  • Genuinely love others, including people whose sin looks different than mine.
  • Forgive others.
  • Show grace in my words, even on social media (even during an election year).

Rick Astley had a better idea of how to serve Christ in life and at church when he said:
     "Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down
      Never gonna run around and desert you
      Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye
      Never gonna tell a lie, and hurt you."

Imagine if we loved Jesus, our neighbors, our family, and our church the way that Rick Astley sings in this song. Imagine if we never gave up on Jesus or our church, even when we don't love the sermon we just heard or even when we disagree with a leader's decision. Or if we fought to protect our church or pastor's reputation in the community? Or if we refused to give up on the church financially or with our service, presence, or other resources?

Even though it's challenging, I'd rather live like Rick Astley's song than Meat Loaf.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Studying for a driver's permit

Leading youth at church means that I am usually around for the big teenage milestones, like first boyfriends, prom, and sweet sixteen. Several of my "kids" have recently been studying for their learner's permit, so that's been a hot topic at youth group. These almost-drivers have been studying their booklets from the DMV so that they can pass the permit exam on their 15th birthday. The kids compare notes about which questions they missed on the exam or which concepts they think are the easiest or hardest to remember. It strikes me as amusing how seriously they are taking this whole business, but I guess getting to finally drive a car is a pretty spectacular carrot. 

I'm sure these students will pass their permit tests (eventually) and will follow most of the rules-of-the-road they learned from their DMV booklet. Why? Because refusing to follow the rules could lead to serious consequences like totaling their car, getting seriously injured, or even death for themselves or others. The DMV isn't trying to ruin anyone's fun; they're trying to ensure that the roads are as safe as possible for all drivers and pedestrians.

The same is true for the laws-of-the-land outside of a motor vehicle. Why don't we murder all the people standing in front of us in line on Black Friday? I mean that would get us to the front of the line faster and out of the store with our goodies in record time. But we don't do that because, aside from being morally wrong, we would immediately be arrested and would probably spend the remainder of our days rotting away in jail. The cost is high when we break the laws of our country and most people aren't willing to take such risks. Why do we have these laws anyway? Is it to ruin our enjoyment of life? To keep us from having all we want or need in life? No. The laws in our country are (mostly) to keep society moving along smoothly and providing a (mostly) fair life to its citizens.

If the DMV (which seems filled with unhappy people) and the government (who seem to love taxing the joy right out of our happiness) can create rules that we follow without much complaint, then why is it so hard to accept God's rules just as easily? Why do God's rules for us seem so tempting to break? Why is it so difficult to follow God's expectations?

When God tells us that sex outside of marriage is a bad idea, why don't we believe him? Surely we see the intelligence behind that rule. I mean, two people who save sex for marriage get to avoid unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, guilt, shame, and a whole host of other lousy outcomes. Or how about God telling us not to be gluttons? How do we not see God's protection of our health and happiness by urging us to be healthy and live a life of moderation? Wouldn't we so easily avoid heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other risks if we avoided gluttony? 

Why, then, do we cringe a little inside when we see verses like Galatians 5:19-23?

19 The wrong things the sinful self does are clear: committing sexual sin, being morally bad, doing all kinds of shameful things, 20 worshiping false gods, taking part in witchcraft, hating people, causing trouble, being jealous, angry or selfish, causing people to argue and divide into separate groups, 21 being filled with envy, getting drunk, having wild parties, and doing other things like this. I warn you now as I warned you before: The people who do these things will not have a part in God’s kingdom. 22 But the fruit that the Spirit produces in a person’s life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these kinds of things. 

Those verses feel itchy and confining; they are seemingly impossible to live up to. Why would God set such a high standard for us?

As we enter this new year, perhaps it is time to look at God's commands and teachings and see if we are following them the way we follow traffic laws -- or if we put our toes over the lines because we think God doesn't really have our best interests in mind.

Friday, December 2, 2016

American Idol

Election 2016 brought Americans an election unlike any other. Modern history has no example of such a contempt-filled, divisive campaign. One unexpected outcome of the election has been the response of the Christian community. In a typical election, issues around abortion and homosexuality generally drive Christians to support the Republican candidate for President, although many Christians are drawn to humane social aspects of the Democratic platform.

This year, many Christians refused to support the Republican candidate because of his moral character. They looked at his ownership of casinos and strip clubs, his history of affairs and divorces, his participation in Playboy magazine, his vulgar language, and his often-questionable business practices as proof that his character was not only unChristian, but also unpresidential.

However, many Christians saw this year's Republican candidate as being the only true Christian in the race and believed his promises to bring Christian values back into government.

Who is correct? Whose position is righteous?

After the election, many voters celebrated loudly that their candidate won, while protestors took to the streets to lament the outcome of the vote. Voters took to social media to make their feelings known.

One sad outcome of this election is its effect on relationships well outside Washington D.C. Throughout the election season and after the votes were tallied, many people unfriended and unfollowed their co-workers, friends, neighbors, and family members over political differences.

Even more tragic is that this election has caused some voters to leave their church because they politically disagreed with their pastor or other congregation members.

The real tragedy of leaving church over a political leader is that it's quite possible the politician or the political party has become an idol whose importance has been placed above God. Allegiance for the Christ-follower ought to be reserved for the King of Kings, rather than any earthly leader. This world is not our home and no president, king, prime minister, or dictator will ever be our true leader.

We must live in this world, so we obey the laws of our country and we pray for our leaders, giving what support we can. But once we are placing our elected officials above our Christian leaders or God Himself, then we may have crossed the line into idol worship.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dealing with the opposition...

I have a child with ADHD. Some of her symptoms are what you'd expect, including about one billion cartwheels a day when she's not on medication. She has a few symptoms that are more frustrating, like being oppositional, angry, and difficult to get along with at times. Her unpleasant behavior comes in waves and life with her is like a roller coaster. My child is sweet, loving, helpful, and fun when things are going well; but when she meets resistance all bets are off and we might be met with eye rolls, complaints, tantrums, snippy comments, and refusal to comply. Resistance, in these situations, can be anything from being told "no" to not getting to sit in the chair she wanted to hearing she got the answer wrong on her math assignment. And it doesn't have to be "no" to a large thing. My child gets unduly frustrated over hearing "no" to things she already knows will result in an answer of "no", like having caffeinated soda at night. Some of her behavior seems to be triggered by her ADHD medicine and we are working on getting the type of medicine and dose right to correct this.

This morning, though, the Holy Spirit gave me a fresh perspective on her behavior. As it turns out, I'm just as oppositional as my child -- and I bet you are, too. I don't throw tantrums when I hear the word "no", but I do get frustrated and sometimes I even complain.  When I'm wrong or receive unpleasant feedback, I try to defend myself and find reasons why I'm not really to blame for the problem. Sometimes I even get angry and become sullen in my frustration. I don't act out or yell, but I sometimes struggle to get over my hurt feelings and it affects my ability to be patient, kind, and loving toward others as I lick my wounds.

My faith life isn't immune to this kind of opposition. I pray for stressful situations I am facing and wait for God to answer. When it seems the answer is "no" or "not yet", I get antsy and then frustrated and then I start to blame God for withholding his blessing from me. Essentially, I behave like a spoiled and petulant child who is demanding her way.

But what if, like my own parenting of my child, God tells me "no" because what I want could ultimately be harmful and I just don't realize it yet? What if God is rescuing me from my own poor choices and I just can't see it because I don't have his perfect perspective? Surely my heavenly Father -- the one who is in control of the universe -- knows better than I do about what will happen if I plunge headlong into doing things my way. He already knows that his way will work better and save me pain and struggle in the process.

Perhaps with my child I need to take God's approach. He doesn't force his way onto me. He loves me, even when I am oppositional and full of complaints and he lets me make mistakes when I just can't accept his answer for my life. When the mistake is done and I'm in the midst of a mess, he doesn't sneer "I told you so" or "you should have done it my way". Instead he helps me stand up, brushes the dust off my backside, mends my wounds, and encourages me to try again.