What’s Wrong With Me (and Possibly You)

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Gentle Reader,

This morning, I had an epiphany.

For the last several weeks I’ve grown increasingly frustrated. In the last two years I have gone through the loss of all of the “official” areas of ministry in which I was involved. Two women’s Bible study groups, a book discussion group, a church library project and board position.

Vaporized.

Most of the time I know that each of these losses has been intended for God’s glory and for my good, but there are more and more days lately when I just can’t stand it. I look at my husband, at his involvement with our church, and I actually feel jealous. I never thought I’d feel that way toward my spouse! But, yes, jealous. He’s in the worship band. He teaches the pre-schoolers. He leads a men’s Bible study group. He rocks babies in the nursery. He’s the “go to” guy while I sit and wonder if anyone would miss me if I just stopped attending services.

Now, I love my husband. I don’t begrudge him a single one of those activities. His increased activity is, I believe, ordained, just as my stillness is. Trouble is, I’ve had it drilled into my brain for so many years that a “good” Christian serves, and I worry that I’m slipping out of God’s favor. Or that I’m useless.

Chris and I were joking around about something as we each got ready for work this morning. I wish I could remember the context, but he eventually said, very seriously, “You would not be a good manager.” I agreed without hesitation. When I am at work, my focus is on the task. I like my coworkers (most days) and don’t usually have too much trouble interacting with them, but they are not the priority for me. I am kind, but would prefer to be uninterrupted when in the middle of a project.

I don’t like chit-chat. I don’t like wasting time. If there were a word strong enough to convey my hatred of meetings, I’d use that here. The very idea of managing people, of dealing with interpersonal conflicts and ensuring that everyone feels equally valued, makes me want to pull my hair out. I have a good work ethic and will do whatever is asked of me, but don’t make me part of your Human Resources team.

All day long, I pondered the stark truth of my lack of managerial skills. Then, the epiphany.

I have been frustrated in ministry, in finding my place and role within the Body, because I’ve been trying to do something that I’m not equipped to do. Take, for example, leading a Bible study group. If I sense apathy among the attendees, I have no desire to teach the lesson I’ve spent hours on. Instead of a joy, it has become a waste of time. Another pointless meeting. I resent the people I’m supposed to be loving and reaching out to.

This makes me think that there really is such a thing as a “people person.” Yes, yes, God wants us to love everyone. But must we all love the same? Chris never meets a stranger. He’s comfortable in just about any situation. He can converse on any matter of subjects and people feel at ease around him. Where he relishes going to a party, I often dread it.

So, I wonder if there is some way to use the abilities and the passions that God has given me in an “outside-the-box” sort of way. Is it loving to clean the sanctuary so that people are comfortable on Sunday morning? To create an attractive bulletin? To think long and hard about an encouraging word or Scripture passage to write in a card and send to a friend in need?

I’m starting to think so.

I’ll go even farther with this and confess that I limit God. I think we all do. We assume that serving Him means that we must be a great speaker or an amazing singer or at least the guy who operates the Power Point. But who blesses the speaker and the singer? Isn’t the person who brings the water bottler or the cup of coffee just as vital as the preacher or the worship leader?

This is quite embarrassing, for the idea of each person and each way of serving being deeply important should not be so revolutionary to me. I’ve read the passages. I’ve heard the sermon. I’ve got the theology degree. For whatever reason, I never really understood. Today the curtain is peeled back a little.

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How I Came to Faith: These Days

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Gentle Reader,

That dark season when Chris and I both found a new level of intimacy with the Lord led directly to a season of testing. It seems as though the moment our hearts were stolen by Him, He determined to test our devotion. When a non-believer hears something like that, strange visions must arise. Again, there were no burning bushes, no audible voices. The question we were asked is the one that believers have been asked time and again, whatever their era.

Will you follow Me?

For awhile this question made sense in the context of getting our lives on track. We stopped partying. I dove into Bible study and found that it thrilled me. Chris took his medication and went to his therapy sessions. We just kept doing “the next thing,” whatever it was. When your life is mostly about surviving one day at a time, that’s all you can do.

As we both grew more confident in our faith, ourselves and our relationship, the implications of the question changed. Obeying God began to cost something. Friendships began to deteriorate as we no longer fit into a neat little mold. The worst came when it grew clear that we could no longer remain at the church we’d been part of for nearly four years. We both had serious misgivings about the direction the leadership was moving the people toward. Things began to feel uncomfortable. Theological questions began to arise – questions that we could not get satisfactory answers to.

Breaking up is hard to do. By the time we left, the damaged relationships and the spiritual abuse we experienced were intertwined in ways that shouldn’t have been. I was done. Though quite decided in following the Lord, I wanted nothing more to do with the church. Frankly, I thought most of His people sucked.

He kept on me. Will you follow Me? A friend of mine from high school moved back to the area. He and his wife invited us to attend their church one Sunday. I was skeptical, to say the least, but Chris seemed eager to go and I didn’t feel like arguing (again) about church. We went, heard a sermon, met some people, ate some food. Nothing earth-shattering.

Except, it was. The difference between the two churches was staggering. The one didn’t claim to be perfect. In fact, a certain level of dysfunction seemed to be expected. The very imperfect human journey with a perfect Lord was embraced. The occasional spat was tolerated as long as it led to growth amongst the parties involved. The pastor didn’t claim to have all the answers. Instead, he admitted to his own struggles. His preaching came from a place of brokenness, rather than superiority.

I came to the realization that no dichotomy of perfect vs. fallen churches exists. There is rather a continuum from healthy to unhealthy. The place we left had begun well but had slid into unhealthy territory. Too much power was given to too few people with too little accountability. It became about processes and rears in seats rather than the work of discipleship. This new church, while certainly home to some unhealthy people, strove to be healthy. Christ was at the center.

I have hope for the church today because of the people I know in this little congregation. They are beautiful. The building isn’t. The coffers aren’t overflowing. The singing is sometimes off-key. The pastor gets distracted in his preaching. But there is warmth. There is heart.

There is Jesus.

I am a Christian because of Jesus. There is no more compelling figure in all of history. He steps into the midst of our pain, our sorrow, our confusion, our despair and provides the answer. That answer isn’t us. We can’t save ourselves. There is no golden utopia waiting to spring from the minds and hands of perfect people. Such a people do not exist. Look out your window. Look in the mirror. You know it to be true.

Jesus, God-Man, came into this world to rescue and heal it. Believers exist in the “already” aspect of His Kingdom while history looks forward to the “not yet.” It is only by living in light of His Lordship that life takes on purpose and meaning. Joy – the ability to look beyond the now and into something better – flows as a result of knowing Him. He grants grace, mercy, peace. He changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

I am a Christian because of Jesus. He kept my husband alive. He stopped me from killing myself just a little less than a year ago. I have seen Him work in time and space to such a degree that my father-in-law, after breaking both of his knees, was brought from Europe to the United States by a missionary who “just happened” to be in the area. The only missionary in the area that our church had any kind of contact with. I have seen babies who should have died thrive. I have seen marriages restored. I have seen prodigals return. I have had bills paid and needs met. I have witnessed testimonies of those who tumors have disappeared.

Above all, I have seen love. Real, selfless, lasting love. I have watched people spend money they can’t spare to help others in need. I have known some whose wretched tempers used to control them who are now gentle as lambs. I have seen big men rock children to sleep. I have seen women with nothing in common embrace each other as sisters. I have siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents all across this area because of Jesus.

I could not see Him until my eyes were opened. Again, I don’t understand the mystery of His will and ours. All I know is that I reached a point where I wanted to see. I no longer desired to suppress the truth. And there is truth, my friend.

His name is Jesus.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here

How I Came to Faith: Married Days

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Gentle Reader,

Arriving at an intellectual acquiescence to Christianity left me stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I knew that I could not travel down the roads of other religions or atheism, but I had very little toleration for those who called themselves God’s people. Scripture makes much of the family of God, and I knew that I couldn’t call myself a Christian and not be an active part of that community. How could I reconcile this with the awful experiences I’d had? I’d seen revivals crushed, pastors forced from their pulpits, the Bible used for personal gain. How could I possibly be part of that group?

This was to be a stumbling block for quite some time, but I had other problems. I’d done enough reading about historiography and the bibliographic test in particular to accept that the Bible, and the New Testament especially, had been accurately preserved. (If you are skeptical, do some research yourself – using unbiased sources. They do exist.) I was not hung up on the finer points of inerrancy; it did not matter to me if numbers of soldiers had been rounded up or down. The Bible is not explicitly a history book. Nor is it a science book, so I took no issue with a non-literal reading of the Genesis account. It seemed readily apparent to me that the Bible contained things from the mouth of God and things inspired by the author’s relationship to God. What mattered is that this is what we needed to know.

(An important note here: Not everything recorded in the Bible has God’s seal of approval. I grow weary of people pointing to episodes of, say, incest and claiming that God is fine with it. Anything in those pages that goes against His commands is clearly wrong, even if a consequence is not mentioned).

My problem came in a clash between what my mind accepted as true and what my beliefs pushed me to live out. This dissonance showed itself in my hunger to know more about God while I lived apart from Him. I could read a passage and think, “Yes, this makes sense,” and then go out and do the exact opposite. Don’t sleep around, God says. You’ll get hurt and tangled up if you do. I knew in my gut that was true, yet I was so obsessed with keeping my then-boyfriend (now husband) that I rationalized that, somehow, it wouldn’t happen to me.

Again, I was blind to my own hypocrisy and quick to see it in others.

A mental acceptance of the Gospel does nothing. Even the demons believe (James 1:19). I had enough firepower in my arsenal to engage in intelligent, spirited debate – but my heart was empty. My life was hollow. I didn’t look any different. I didn’t feel any different. And I knew, somehow, that this didn’t make sense. I read of encounters that Jesus had with people and how they came away completely changed. Why was I the same?

Why did I resemble those who opposed Him?

The boyfriend and I got engaged on a beautiful summer’s day in his Alaskan hometown. After at least 5 years away from the church, I suddenly felt that we needed to make it part of our routine. Was this God drawing me to Himself or me making a connection between marriage and going to church? I don’t know how the will of God and the will of man works together. I didn’t want to actually be involved with a church. I didn’t want to get to know people or be part of a ministry. I just thought we should go and listen. Put in an appearance, so to speak.

Chris just shrugged his shoulders and went along.

We decided to go to a service at a large, non-denominational church in our area. I can’t tell you what the sermon was about. I can’t even tell you one song we sang that day. What sticks out to me is the realization that I had to either get on the boat or turn away completely, no matter how little sense the turning away made. As we drove home, I looked at Chris. We can’t sleep together on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday, I said.

He was quiet for a long moment. You’re right, he replied.

This was the first, tentative, adult step I made in the faith. I would love to tell you that it’s been nothing but success ever since, but this is not the shape my journey has taken.

I was still consumed with being accepted. Before long I discovered that a gal I’d met in college also went to this church. We renewed our friendship and it wasn’t long before she and her fiancee were the closest friends that Chris and I had. At the time, she had no discomfort with the difference in her professed beliefs and her party lifestyle. Sadly, we went along for the ride. Even now the smell of stale cigarette smoke makes me think of one too many hours spent in one too many bars.

Chris and I began working with the youth group at the church. This had far more to do with my longing to be part of a special group of friends than anything else. I rationalized this crossing of boundaries into the realm of “them.” I told myself that I wouldn’t be anything like the Christians I had seen abuse their authority. While I didn’t use the position I had to hurt anyone, it didn’t take much time for me to see that the partying I was doing didn’t line up with the message I was sharing with the girls in my group. How could I possibly be arrogant enough to tell them that it was wrong to party, silly to be obsessed with shallow things and that their drama would hurt all their relationships when I was engaged in those very things?

One overcast day a little over a year after we got engaged, I walked past a motorcycle accident and a crying flower girl through the doors of a wedding chapel, on my way to become Mrs. I was scared to death. The church had insisted upon premarital counseling if we wanted one of the pastors to serve as our officiant, and that counseling had been disastrous. Some ill-worded advice had resulted in crashing waves of confession that neither of us knew how to deal with. Who could we talk to? Who would help us? Some of these confessions impacted portions of our families, so that was out.

Still, I took as deep a breath as my corseted dress would allow, squeezed all the blood out of my father’s forearm and made those serious vows.

Marriage was HARD. I was living away from home for the first time, in a 450-square foot apartment that reeked of cigarettes, with a man I wasn’t entirely sure I liked sometimes. The tasks of housekeeping itself weren’t difficult; I’d been taught to keep things clean and comfortable. I could work out a system for laundry and make a grocery list. But how in the world was I supposed to live with this person, day in and day out? He liked his showers way too hot (still does), had a loud voice and a big presence. All the little things that had seemed charming while were dating began to drive me nuts.

Worse yet, he was starting to act funny. Chris never got sick, so when he started to complain of an upset stomach and began to lose weight, I worried. He was tired and snappy a lot of the time. He came home from his church men’s group anxious instead of encouraged. Normally a gregarious, stereotypically outgoing person, he withdrew. He didn’t want to go anywhere. Didn’t want to do anything.

Shortly after our first anniversary, we agreed to go on a camping trip. I was surprised, but happy that Chris seemed more like his old self. Perhaps the long winter and the first difficult days of marriage had taken a toll on him as they had on me. Maybe we’d get into a better routine.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here

Excuses

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Gentle Reader,

I like honesty. I like it when someone is willing to own up to the facts, the truth, of a matter.

I can’t stand excuses.

Have I used excuses? Of course. I’m a human being, just like you. When I look for excuses or try and shift the blame, however, I rarely feel justified. Instead an awful, weighted feeling grows inside my chest. I know the truth. I know I should have owned up to whatever it was I needed to own up to.

Really, an excuse is just a lie.

This weighs heavily on me today in terms of our attitude toward Bible study. It annoys me to hear people who call themselves Christians say that they don’t like to study the Bible. Please don’t misread me here. I don’t have a perfect daily Bible reading record. I’ve gotten frustrated or bored with certain workbook authors. I’ve had weeks as a group leader when I’ve neglected to prepare for lessons. The truth in all that is I didn’t want want to do my reading on the days I skipped it, often didn’t want to hear what those authors had to say or didn’t want to set aside time for lesson preparation.

If you tell me that you don’t study the Bible because you don’t want to, I’ll believe you. I’ll say, “Yep, been there.” I’ll respect your honesty. I’ll try and engage you in a conversation about why you don’t want to study. Maybe it’s a “not-knowing-where-or-how-to-start” thing. Maybe it’s a “can’t-find-a-workbook-author-I-connect-with” thing. Maybe it’s an accountability thing.

But if you tell me that you don’t study the Bible because you don’t like it, then I will tell you that you make no sense. You honestly don’t like learning more about the God you say you love? You don’t like discovering wisdom and direction, especially in tough situations? You don’t like being able to discern the difference between truth and a lie?

Pray tell, what do you like?

There are so many different ways to study God’s Word. The reality is that we don’t have any reason not to do it. There are dozens upon dozens of authors who have taken the time to produce study guides and commentaries. There are dictionaries to aid in understanding difficult words and concepts. There are maps and timelines galore. There are audio readings, both straight and dramatized. Whatever your learning style, whatever unique way God gave you for understanding the world, there is an avenue for you to get in there and grow.

Is it true that God is beautiful and arresting in His majesty? How can that be so, but His Word be boring or unlikeable? There are tales of creation and fall, grace and redemption, prophets and kings. Men and women return from the dead. Storms are calmed and earth is shaken. People are taken – alive – to Heaven. Dreams and visions, wrestlings and exoduses. The Lord revealed.

Like it or not, we Christians truly are, as Muslims say, “People of the Book.” Yes, God reveals Himself in creation. Yes, His Spirit dwells within us. But there’s just no getting around those 66 books, nor is there a way to avoid the clear consequences of trying to. In saying you don’t like to read and study the words, aren’t you really saying that you don’t like what God has to say? Or, deeper still, that you don’t care?

My friend, I know that comes across as harsh. If you could only see my face! I am desperate for you to know the truth. Lies abound out there. Something or someone is always going to be attempting to suck you in. How are you going to recognize the falsehoods as being such without a firm grasp of the truth? How will you guard your heart and mind if all you ever fill them with is what the world shoves at you? How will you ever understand that what may begin as an act of sheer obedience may turn into the greatest adventure of your life?

Lies brought me to the edge of death. His Word drew me back to life. I haven’t always cried tears of joy at every word I’ve read, but I have been saved. I am being transformed.

I like that.

My journey to faith. (15)