On Receiving Charity in the Form of a Convertible

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“I’m afraid to get my hair cut or go on a date with my husband,” I confided in a friend of mine. She smiled knowingly and laughed with me at the reality and absurdity of the situation.

Being the recipient of charity from within our church has been an awkward but important experience for me. Last week I found out that my car (the reliable car that I took out a small but manageable loan five months ago for my new job as a pastor at the church) is going to need about $2,000 in repairs. My husband and I have done a pretty good job at building up our emergency fund to $1,000 but $1,000 isn’t that useful when it’s only half of what we need.

Last Monday when I dropped the car off at the mechanic, he warned us that it might be a gasket issue. 8 hours later, when I picked it up, he confirmed that it was. I don’t really know what gaskets are, or what they do, but I know they’re critical for keeping your car running and not overheating and that they’re buried deep within in the engine and repairs cost about $1,800-2,000 because of labor.

And so I cried. I hate that I cried but that’s what I do with overwhelming car problems and, for me, most car problems are overwhelming. And then I prayed. I prayed really pious (and honest) prayers that God would be glorified in the midst of this crappiness and that he’d help us figure out what was next

Within an hour and a half of getting the news (and crying) the pastor in charge of benevolence at our church walked me out the church parking lot and showed me a car that had recently been donated to the church. It was a 2005 Sebring convertible (a maroon Michael Scott car). He said we could have it and that we could either use it or sell it and use the selling price to repair our Subaru. I thanked him, told him that I’d talk to my husband and let him know within the next day or two, tried to keep my emotions together and headed inside to another meeting.

Here are my honest thoughts about this process is no particular order.

1. It’s just not fun being the one who needs help. It’s not fun to be in your mid-thirties, to be relatively responsible with your money and still struggling with finances. My husband and I have both chosen careers that don’t pay well and don’t offer a strong hope of ever paying well. We’re not in poverty; we have everything we need (except, apparently, the ability to fix our car) and we’ve been getting better at building financial margin. It is disheartening when that financial margin is repeatedly exhausted with unexpected car repairs, medical bills and other financial surprises.

2. I’ve heard that if you can’t accept charity when you need it then you’re probably judging those you try to give charity to without realizing it. If I can dish it but I can’t take it then I’m probably a hypocrite. If I’m judging myself for needing and accepting help, I’m probably judging those I offer help to whether I realize it or not. This is one of the main reasons I believe I have to be okay with receiving this gracious gift of a car even though it makes me uncomfortable.

3. A convertible seems so over the top. The convertible is worth about the same as our (fixed) Subaru is but no one makes jokes about you being all rich and fancy with a 2003 Subaru Forrester. And we have already gotten (lovingly) teased about “upgrading” to a convertible and becoming snooty.

4. There are so many people who need money and a car more than I do. The worst was when we went to pick up the car and ran into a couple of friends. One had just been ripped off in a business transaction and had dropped about $1000 into his own car. The other had recently lost her job and has debt that she’s working to pay off. I don’t know if they needed it more than we did, but they certainly could have used it! Why should I get this blessing when so many other people are struggling to make ends meet? I think this is like survivor’s guilt…I’ll call it blessing guilt. I know that there will always be people better and worse off than more, more and less qualified than me, but it still feels awkward. I have not yet figured out how to reconcile this.

5. I’m afraid of being pitied (and/or judged). I’m a pastor at the church that gave us the car. I’m pretty sure everyone on staff knows that someone donated the Sebring to the church (we all saw it parked in the small parking lot for a week or two and wondered whose car it was) so if they see me driving it then they’ll know it was given to me. Then they’ll wonder why I got it and they’ll assume, rightly, that we were struggling financially and then they might pity us. And being pitied is not fun. They may not actually pity us or judge us because they’re awesome, nice people, but these are my fears. Because of these fears, I’m tempted to drive our ancient Volvo to work and let my husband drive the Sebring. But, let’s be honest, he probably won’t mind driving a convertible around for a little while.

6. I’m afraid of being watched and judged. I’m afraid someone will think, or say, “She just got her hair highlighted? Oh, my gosh, she needs to set her priorities straight. She’s clearly not poor if she can pay for that kind of pampering,” or “I just saw her post on Facebook that she went out to dinner with her husband and friends. It looked like a nice restaurant. Why does the church need to help her out?” I begin to feel like I have to justify how I’m in a bad enough financial situation that I can’t afford a $2,000 car repair but I can afford frivolous things. (I won’t even point out that spending the $25 I had in the budget for a night out would do almost nothing to close the $1,000 gap between what I have and what I need and that that $25 purchased a whole lot of sanity after a VERY busy and stressful week and that, yes, of course, we’re cutting back on expenses because our priority will be rebuilding the emergency fund and being prayerful about what we should do with the excess…or maybe I will begin to explain that because I feel like I need to justify myself, because I’m afraid of being judged).

7. I am Grateful. It took me a while to be grateful. The shock of a really expensive car repair and the frustration of dealing with car issues again had to be fully felt before I could appreciate the gracious gift that the car is to us. I was frustrated that there was a need for us to be given a car. But once that wore off, I was so grateful. I knew that God would take care of us, he always has, but to do so in such a big way in less than two hours? That’s a crazy good gift. On a related note, I’m afraid of people thinking that I’m not appropriately expressive about my gratitude.

8. Convertibles are fun. As showy as it feels to be driving around town with the top down it’s been so much fun. This weekend was unseasonable warm—sunny and mid to upper seventies—perfect convertible weather. It was super fun to drive around Art Prize with our friends, eating ice cream fully experiencing the night air.

Overall, I realize that being on the receiving end of charity brings up a lot of awkwardness and fear for me, which, I think, indicates that I struggle with pride. I’m committed to not live in this fear and to confess and repent of the pride and judgment, but I have to fight for this. I suspect many people on the receiving end of charity feel that way. I also know that owning my own neediness along with accepting the good gifts from God allows me to live a more free and untethered life. Sometimes it takes being “in need” to make us wrestle with our pride so we can come to a place of recognizing that we are not more than or less than others, that we are interdependent (God never meant for us to go it alone and he often mediates his good gifts and his grace through others), and that we all stand before God, and before each other, as equals.

Perfectionism

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When I introduce myself at Celebrate Recovery, I usually say something like, “Hello, my name is Jen. I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with overcommitment and anxiety.”  Because that’s how we introduce ourselves at CR: our name, a statement that indicates our primary identity is found in our relationship with Jesus Christ and an indication of the particular issue or issues that we are struggling with or are finding victory over.

I started working with Celebrate Recovery because I wanted to help other people and, as part of the training all potential leaders have to work through a 12 Step Study.  That step study took my group over a year to complete and radically altered my inner world.  The issue I had chosen to focus on (my “hurt, habit or hang up” to use CR language) was overeating.  Pretty early into the process God revealed to me that overeating, like anxiety was a symptom of a deeper problem, overcommitment, which was itself a symptom of a more complicated problem of where I found my worth and how I determined my value.

Last night at Celebrate Recovery, Adam shared his testimony* that centered on the issue of perfectionism.  In his story, he shared how perfectionism had once served him well (as our addictions and unhealthy habits often do) by helping him to achieve in school and in relationships.  Excelling and the desire to excel are not inherently bad things; in fact, I think most of the time they are good things.  But like any good thing, it can be misused and can be come a tool of destruction in our lives and relationships.  As it did in Adam’s life and as it has in mine.

In the book, The Gifts of ImperfectionBrené Brown defines perfectionism as “the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.”  She also says, “Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports).  Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.  Please. Perform. Perfect.  Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve?  Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?””

So, from a young age we are trained to look to others to judge us and determine our worthiness.**  “What do they think?” becomes the standard by which our value is determined and perfectionism becomes our shield against pain as we strive to measure up to the judges in our lives.  As a result, we thrive in areas where we know there are clear standards for judgment and we try to be perfect, or at least better than everyone else in the areas where we know we can succeed.  We don’t need to be perfect in every area, as Adam pointed out, we just need to be perfect in some area. And we will sacrifice things that should not be sacrificed (important relationships, physical health, spiritual health) to pursue this perfection.

Brown points out that the opposite of living like this (shielding our brokenness with perfectionism or other destructive habits) is wholehearted living that is based on a sense of personal worth.  In what I’ve read of her work (which is only two books incompletely) she doesn’t attempt to explain where this sense of worth comes from, just that it exists in people who live wholeheartedly.

I believe that our individual worth is directly derived from God.  In Genesis 1 we see our value connected to God’s special creation of humanity in his image.  Every single person, no matter how broken or sinful, bears God’s image and so has inherent worth, value and dignity.

In his testimony last night, Adam described perfectionism as “needing people to judge me to feel okay,” and shared that part of his journey toward wholeness was realizing that God was the only judge he needed to worry about.  “God is a judge who judges on this curve called ‘grace.’”   It is not the place of other people to judge us and we are incompetent to judge ourselves.

When God judges us, he starts by determining that we are valuable.  And then he judges our works, not to earn merit or assess our value, but to help us see reality and to give us the chance to realign our heart and actions with his heart.

When I judge my value the same way God does, it enables me to face the world from a starting place of worthiness and gives me the freedom to pursue excellence without basing my value on it.  It allows me to be real and vulnerable without needing a shield to protect me from the judgment of others.

This is not to say that my interactions with others won’t shape how I feel about myself. We were designed for connection with others and our interaction with others affects and shapes us.  But this interaction needs to be tempered with truth.  And the truth is that my value is predetermined by God.  The truth is that it is okay to pursue excellence but that my worth isn’t determined by my achievement.  The truth is that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.  And based on this truth I can take one more step toward living a wholehearted life.

* Anonymity and confidentiality are part of the DNA of Celebrate Recovery (what’s said in the meeting stays in the meeting) unless permission is granted to share.  I received permission from Adam to share his quotes and parts of his story and my responses to them.

**For the record, I don’t blame the people who gave us approval or helped to foster these habits and belief systems in us.  I have learned that, often, our interactions with people and the situations we find ourselves in are only part of what shapes our experiences and our reality.  Our experiences are shaped by our inner world and our perceptions of what we experience.  Two people, placed in nearly identical situations may experience those situations radically differently because the lenses through which they filter things.  It’s why I sometimes tell people that even though my sister and I lived together growing up, we grew up in different homes with different families.  The way we processed the situations we were in as children have caused us to have had such radically different experiences in the same house that, to hear us describe our homes, you would likely think we think we grew up in different families in different homes.

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Can my Toddler be a Contributing Part of the Body of Christ?

My testimony usually involves something about how I “prayed the prayer” when I was four but I don’t remember that happening. I don’t remember becoming a Christians and I don’t remember a time before I was a Christian but I don’t doubt that I am a Christian now.

When the Bible talks about spiritual gifts, it talks about how all believers have them and how all believers need to be an active and contributing part of the body.  You need to be the best hand, eye, or whatever that God created you to be.

My understanding of spiritual gifts allows for any “natural” ability to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, as well as including the possibility of supernatural gifting.  I believe that God wants us to rely on him in our weakness but often uses us according to our strengths.  I believe our experiences and personalities often play a part in how God uses us. 

That said, I don’t think I was ever asked to be a contributing member of the body of Christ until I was in jr. high and I got to play with babies in the nursery.   In high school I taught Sunday School to my fellow teens once or twice.  But it’s not like I was asked or allowed to do those things because my leaders knew I was gifted or called.   It was more just that there was a need and I was available and responsible and so they let me do it.

I want more than that for my child. 

She’s only three now, but I want to be discovering and sharpening her strengths now.  I want her to grow up believing she has something personal and unique to offer.  If she’s compassionate, I want her to be begin thinking early about compassion from a theological perspective, I want her to see people with big hearts model setting big boundaries, I want her to know that she can and should reach out to those she sees who are hurting and to walk with her through the process of figuring out what that looks like for her.  If I see a tendency toward leadership I want to help her find ways to intentionally influence her peers and learn how to handle the responsibility of leadership, recognizing that leadership is not about her but about advancing God’s kingdom.  If she might be a good teacher, how can I develop her as a teacher, while she’s still a child?  

A few disclaimers: I don’t want to pigeon-hole her.  I know we all change and grow over time so it’s likely that I’ll seek to develop traits or characteristics that go nowhere or fan in to flame passions that are, in reality, fleeting.  I’m not suggesting we need kids to contribute in order to justify the effort we put into them or to balance the scales in any way.  I just want them to have the freedom to be who God has called them to be in the same way we seek to give adults that freedom.  And I want to give them that freedom now, not just when they’re all grown up.  I also know that God’s call on our lives and his desires for us vary depending on the seasons and circumstances in our lives, but if every part of the body is supposed to be an active part of the body, how do we help toddlers and preschoolers and elementary kids be hands, and eyes, and prophets and teachers and mercy-givers?

While I can think of a few parents who model this kind of intentionality with their kids, I have no idea what this looks like in reality for my own home or for the church.  And when I say “church” I mean the local body of believers and the programming that the local body does.   What kind of language can I use to help call out gifts in our children?  In what ways I can I be intentional to develop opportunities for kids not based on needs but based on strengths?  What in my own perception and biases needs to change in order to let kids be functioning part of the body? 

Thoughts, ideas?  I’ll take them.  I’m just beginning to think through what this looks like.

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Watering & Waiting

ImageSeveral years ago I had a little garden that consisted of five little pots on my porch step.

I planted the seeds with excitement and waited. 
And watered. 
And waited. 
And watered.  
And waited.

Finally, after a couple weeks, small green shoots poked their heads out of the soil.   Then they got taller and leaves appeared so I watered. 
And waited. 
And watered. 
And waited.

When I planted the garden, I thought it would take a few weeks until my plants had grown, filled out the pots and bloomed but it took a few months.  It did not happen as quickly as I hoped and, from day to day I saw little progress.
But I watered. 
And waited. 
And watered.  
And waited.

After several weeks, the shoots grew buds and, finally, they bloomed.  I did the right things (watering and waiting) even when I didn’t see a lot of progress. It took awhile but, eventually, my dirt pots became mini little gardens.  And my mini little gardens made me smile every time I would walk up the stairs to my front door.

I took pictures of the process because it symbolized the process of walking through so many difficult things in life.  Much like planting and waiting, there are many times when I’ve set a goal thinking it wouldn’t take long to get there and, in the midst of working toward the goal I felt like it was taking forever and I would never get to the end.

I’m in the midst of what seems like a never-ending journey toward finishing a graduate degree right now.  I’m writing a six-chapter paper and I’ve been working on the first two chapters for over a year.  Every time I sit down and research or write or edit and make some progress, I’m reminded of how much more progress needs to be made and it can be overwhelming.  Often, I want to quit.  It’s in these moments that I began to believe that people with graduate degrees (or, really, degrees or accomplishments of any kind) are not necessarily smarter (or better or stronger) than people who don’t, they just have just kept moving forward when others haven’t.  They just kept being faithful to the task, to the watering and the waiting, even when they didn’t see the progress.

So here’s to a new day.  Another word on the page.  Another series of edits.  Today I will choose to remember that if I keep doing the right things the plants will eventually, bloom and my thesis will eventually get done, even if it takes longer than I think it should.

Why Ash Wednesday?

photo 3I’m writing over at The Annesley Writers Forum today talking about Ash Wednesday and how it relates to Lent and why I observe these church holidays.

On March 5th, millions of people worldwide will go into dimly lit rooms where they will stand in line so a priest or pastor can wipe oily ashes on their forehead and say, “From dust you’ve come to dust you shall return.”  If you’re not familiar with the broader context of Ash Wednesday, this tradition it might seem creepy and a little morbid.

But about 10 years ago, in a small church in downtown Portland, those ashes were placed on my forehead for the first time. I remember feeling connected to a movement much bigger than me and bigger than the local church where I was observing Ash Wednesday.  As we prayed the prayers, responsively read, and as the ashes were imposed, I felt like I was connected with the millions of believers who were observing Ash Wednesday all over the world and with the believers who, for hundreds of years, had done the same thing in their local churches.

As I’ve journeyed into more liturgical experiences I find the rhythms of mourning and rejoicing, waiting and celebrating to be incredibly honest and liberating.   Quite often Christians focus on the hope of the cross and the joy it should bring but hesitate to experience the mourning, anger, hurt and disgust that necessitate the ongoing work of the cross in our lives.  Lent encourages us to feel a full range of emotions and, in doing so, our view of reality shifts and our relationship with God deepens…

Read more here.

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Sometimes Love Looks Like… or The Last 24 Hours in Review

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Sometimes love looks like telling your wife not to worry, you’ve got a plan for a quiet Valentine’s Day at home.  #thoughtful

Sometimes love looks like picking out cheese for a in-home picnic together and you each pick out your own cheese because the other’s cheese choices are gross. #morebrieforme

Sometimes love looks like leaving work to pick up your wife and daughter so you can drive them to the ER because your toddler might have swallowed aspirin pills out of a friend’s purse.  #shedidnot 

Sometimes love looks like doing the dishes and cutting the apples and bread so your wife can wash off the stress of the day and slip into pajamas #nothingmoreromanticthanpajamapantsandatshirt 

Sometimes love looks like selecting folded up post-it notes, one by one, with each year you’ve been together written on them and remembering your story piece by piece #let’snotrevisist2009forawhile

Sometimes love looks like waking up at 3:30 to lay with your sad little toddler who just wants some good, cold milk and can’t seem to sleep. #sheloveshergoodcoldmilk

Sometimes love looks like taking turns cuddling a vomiting toddler, changing clothes, washing sheets and watching mind-numbing toddler shows with said sick toddler for hours on end in the middle of the night. #gross #that’swhyshecoudln’tsleep

Sometimes love looks like being awake from 3:30 until 10am when you can’t take it anymore and switch shifts. #sotired

Sometimes love looks like laughter when you say to me, “Remember when today was supposed to look differently than it did?” #thiswholeweekneedsadoover #Iwouldhavepreferredthebeachovervomit

Sometimes love means getting dressed and dragging yourself, exhausted, to the grocery store for anything that looks good because you all just need food. #impulseshoppingatitsfinest #donut #bisquick #coke #frozenpizza

Sometimes love looks like treasuring the details of Valentine’s Day in your soul without telling the whole world via twitter, facebook or your blog. #notthisyear

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That One Time When I Felt the Presence of God

Becca picked me up for church today.  My car stalled in a grocery store parking lot yesterday and is now at the mechanic’s. It can be hard and humbling to ask for help especially when your car broke down again so it was thoughtful of her to proactively text asking if I wanted a ride.

“Can I give you a ride to church tomorrow?”

It was easier to say yes to this specific offer than to initiate a conversation with my other friends who had offered, “If you need a ride let me know.”   It is easier to say, “yes,” than to say, “Can I take you up on that ride you offered?”

If I were in Becca’s shoes, I would have offered me a ride simply because Becca is the Children’s Director at our church it was probably easier to drive out of her way to pick someone up so they could teach the Kid City lesson they were supposed to teach that week rather than having to find a substitute teacher or teaching the lesson herself.  But, because it was Becca, I doubt that even crossed her mind.  Or, at least if it did, it added mild motivation to a decision she’d already made to help out a friend because she’s awesome like that.

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When Mike shared about Kingdom First, our church’s capital campaign to help reduce the debt on our building so both the building and our finances can reach more people, he shared a brief testimony about how God had used City Life Church to work in his life.  He explained that last week he was feeling distant from God and asked God for both the trust and faith that he felt he was lacking.  He had prayed about it, shared his desire with our pastor and went about his day.  The following morning his dad texted him saying he felt God had given him two words to share with him: trust and faith.

I was impressed that Mike didn’t feel close to God and asked God for what he was missing.  When people say things like, “I totally felt God’s presence during worship today!” or “Didn’t you feel God working in there?!” (because people do say stuff like that) I usually smile and nod and say something about something but I have never felt what they felt.  I have come to believe I am just not sensitive to spiritual things in that particular way or that my personality causes me to experience things differently. But there was something about the simplicity of Mike saying, “I don’t have this but I want it,” and him simply asking God for it because he believed God cared enough to want to hear his request that gave me courage to ask for something from God for myself.

So during the prayer time during the first service I asked God for a sense of his presence and closeness. Nothing magical happened and, after prayer, I was dismissed, along with the kids, to Kid City.

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All God asked Naaman to do to be healed was to dip himself in the river seven times.  But Naaman didn’t want to do it because he was better than that.  He was too good to dip himself in a dirty foreign river.  He wanted to do something great, to earn, pay for, or justify his healing.  But God, through a servant (he didn’t even get to talk with the prophet, Elisha, face to face!), told him to do something that was basically nothing and it was almost too hard for him because of how insignificant it was.

And that’s what I got to talk with the kids about today.  About how we don’t earn God’s grace or love, about how it’s a free gift.  There was a multiple choice question at the end of the lesson that asked, “What do people need to do today to earn their salvation?”  Option “A,” which most of the kids chose initially said, “Go to church, read your Bible and pray.” Option “C” said, “Nothing, it is a free gift.”  We talked through why we do these things (go to church, read the Bible, and pray) even though they don’t earn salvation and how salvation is a free gift from God and as I saw the kids changing their answer from “A” to “C” and understanding the significance of the distinction I thought, “Yes!  This is the Gospel!”  The Gospel is that I don’t earn anything from God but throw myself at his love and mercy and find hope and wholeness and belonging.

I thought about how I grew up in the church and had internalized a message that I’m sure my teachers didn’t intend to teach, that I became good enough for God when I did the right things and that when I didn’t do those things, God was disappointed in me and my salvation was at risk.  By answering “A” I suspected that many of these kids were headed down the same road I had and as their answers changed (both on paper and, hopefully, in their hearts) I thought and hoped and prayed that we were doing the real Gospel-work of dismantling that lie before it could take deep root in the soil of their hearts.  Trusting that salvation comes as a free gift, by grace through faith, frees us up to pray and go to church and read our Bibles out of love and from a place of freedom rather than from a place of fear or as a way to attempt to earn our salvation.  May this truth allow these precious kids to live more abundant lives.

And then they ran from one end of the room to the green wall (the River Jordan) and back 7 times because that’s how many times Naaman had to dip in the river…but that was mostly just to get their energy out (you’re welcome parents).

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LaMarcus sat with me in church today.  He’s six and the son of dear, dear friends of mine.  His siblings (he’s got seven of them!) were scattered around the sanctuary with different adults who loved them and with whom they loved being around.  He braided my hair, rummaged around in my pursed and found a granola bar that he politely asked if he could eat and sang along with me in worship.

As our pastor was introducing the prayer time, LaMarcus asked if we could go up.  Our church has an altar where you can kneel and pray and be prayed with.   Though I don’t often (ever?) go up during this time, I had already decided that I wanted to today and I was happy not to have to go alone.  We knelt and prayed together and were quickly joined by friends who prayed with us.  Maranada was on my left with her arm around my shoulder and Rachel sat next to LaMarcus who had laid his head on the upper step and wrapped her arm around him and rested her hand on mine and they prayed and we prayed.

I don’t know why he wanted to go up there but as he held my hand during the prayer and rested sweetly on the steps and as we were surrounded by friends who prayed for us I was profoundly grateful for a love that transcends familial, racial and economic boundaries.

I felt like I was part of a community of people.  My brothers and sisters were standing with me in prayer.  I know some of their struggles; they know some of mine.  Probably they assumed, in that moment, that I was struggling with the fact that our car died again and all the stress that goes along with that –financially, relationally, and practically—but I was asking God to set the feet of my husband and I on solid ground.  To stand us firmly on himself instead of being so swayed by our emotions and circumstances.  Even without knowing this, they prayed beautiful prayers over me and I thought, “You don’t ever have to feel alone if you don’t want to,” because I have these people who are willing to pray with me and step up and love me if I will simply reach out and sometimes reaching out means letting a six year old little boy lead you to the altar.

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The sermon today was about the implications of the Gospel and the DNA of our church.  Specifically, Pastor Christy preached about the practice of equitable relationships.  In the Kingdom of God we are not all the same but we are all of equal worth.  While acknowledging that we have different needs, different resources, different social and economic statuses, she reminded us that the Gospel levels the playing field and we have the job, the often challenging, sometimes awkward job of building real relationships with people who are really different than us.

As she described what this looked like I cried.  The picture she painted, both of the reality of what life is often like and of what the Kingdom of God could look like on earth, in this neighborhood, in this church it was so beautiful that I just cried.

When going into communion, Pastor Adam mentioned the scandal of meals in the early church, where men, women, slaves, masters, children and adults were all invited to the same table.  “May we experience the scandal of the table,” he said as he invited us forward to take communion in pairs and groups, but not with people we knew well.  Instead he invited us to awkwardly share communion with people we didn’t know with the intention of crossing comfortable lines, initiating awkward conversations and practicing equitable relationships. And so I cried even more as I watched people go forward and, instead of forming a single-file line, form lines 2-4 people wide.  I watched friends and strangers share communion together and it was beautiful because it was the Gospel, the Kingdom of God on earth.

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And then I realized that God had answered my prayer to feel his presence, but he didn’t do it magically through a feeling in my spirit.  He did it through the hands of LaMarcus, Maranda and Rachel.  He did it through the hugs of Jacobi and Sharon and Michelle at the end of the service.  He did it through the words of Christy and Adam and the song choices of Nathan. He did it by showing the Gospel transform people through the simple act of getting communion with friends and strangers.  I felt God’s presence through people, indirectly,  in community.  It was tangible, through literal hands not a “spiritual” feeling and, perhaps for that reason, it was the most deeply I have ever felt the presence of God.

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Why I Don’t Want to Read the Gospels in January

If your view God doesn’t line up with Jesus as presented in the Gospels then your view of God is off.

I said this in front of a group of people as I taught at Celebrate Recovery

in early December and it’s been on my mind ever since.  Is my view of God consistent

with what I see of Jesus in the Gospels?  Who is Jesus?  And what would it mean to imitate him?

So I made it my goal to read through the Gospels in January.  Despite the fact that I’ve been pretty good about getting started on my other goals for January I’ve danced around the edges of this one.

Why?  I’m afraid.  And I think I know some of the reasons why:

1.    I’m afraid nothing will happen.

I am afraid that nothing significant will happen in my soul as I read.  I’m afraid that, after reading the 89 chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John my only thought will be, “Huh, well that was interesting,” and I want so m

uch more.  I want to get a fresh glimpse of who Jesus is.  I want my view of God to be shaken up.

I don’t want to feel like I’m reading a textbook, or like I’m reading a meaningless book for the 100th time (like I feel when I’m reading board books to my toddler).  I don’t want to have these grand hopes of meeting Jesus and then feel like a failure when he doesn’t show up because it certainly couldn’t be on God when the Bible doesn’t shake me to the core, could it? I ask this tongue-in-cheek…but I don’t really know the answer to this question and I do know that it causes me to feel shame and to fear failure. I don’t want to fail.

2.  I don’t want to be uncomfortable in unpredictable ways.

I am okay being uncomfortable in the ways I want to be uncomfortable but I don’t want to be uncomfortable in ways I don’t want to be comfortable.  I think I’ve come to peace with the thought of God challenging me to give away my stuff, we’ve already chosen careers that come with low income and, as much as I like my stuff I don’t think it owns me.  And I’m coming to peace with limiting my commitments and being responsible with my food choices.  But I’m afraid he’ll challenge me beyond my introvertedness or suggests that early morning hours are the best times to spend with God or I’m afraid that he’ll tell me that my carefully cultivated values are wrong.  But I’m most afraid of something that I can’t predict.  I guess, I’d just like to be uncomfortable within in the boundaries that I’m comfortable with.  That’s okay, right?

3.  I don’t want to turn this into a checklist or “use” it for something else.


4.  I didn’t know which version of the Bible to use. #firstworldproblems #englishlanguageproblems #academicsnobproblemsWhen I finally started reading Luke last night I didn’t even get through the first chapter because of all the journaling I was doing.  And I thought about different lessons within the overall message of the story and I thought of devotionals that could be written and sermons that could be constructed and…  My mind started going a million miles an hour. I saw echoes back to the story of Abraham and Sarah and thought about Hagar and Ishmael and dramatic foils.  I was impressed with prominence of the Holy Spirit in Luke 1.  I thought of Elizabeth and barrenness and type scenes, and the experiences we bring to the text and hermeneutics.  I thought about SO MUCH.  I got kind of overwhelmed and had to stop.  I want this reading to be about me and Jesus, not writing a devotional for some imaginary congregation that I may someday lead.  I don’t want to get distracted by producing.

Around day 4 of not having cracked open the Bible yet I began to think that I might want to read from The Message.  I know that a paraphrase can help those of us who have read and studied the Bible for years to see it in a different light but it’s just not academically respectable. I didn’t want to appear sub-academic.  But on day 5 I caved and began reading.  Today I read this from Sarah Bessey about defending her use of paraphrase in her recent book, Jesus Feminist,

“I notice when Bible verses are quoted or set apart in books, readers often skim though them or skip right past, already convinced that they know what they say because they’ve read them hundreds of times.”

To this is say, “Guilty as charged.”

She goes on,

“My use of The Message is deliberate: I want you to read these words, not skip past them.  And if I have to use a paraphrase to ensure the words aren’t familiar to you, then I’m happy to endure the derision of scholars and purists for that choice.”

So I say to myself, “If using The Message helps you to read the words by ensuring they aren’t familiar to you, then be happy to endure the derision of scholars and your own standards.”  To be sure, when I get really excited about something I read in The Message, I often quickly turn to a trusted translation to see how much interpretation is involved in the paraphrase, but it has been valuable to use a paraphrase, even for just the one day that I’ve actually read from the Gospels.

Four things I’m afraid of. 

Zero good reasons to avoid reading. 

I will continue with my goal of reading the Gospels in January.  Of course I’ll have to pick up the pace a little.  I’ve read ¾ of a chapter in four days and at that rate it would take me over a year and a half to read four books!

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Chicken & Broccoli*

ImageLast night I got chicken and broccoli from a new Chinese restaurant.  I love Chinese food and had not yet found a restaurant that I loved since moving to Michigan almost two years ago. 

It was so good.  

I had inhaled nearly half of it before realizing I wasn’t actually tasting it anymore; I was eating too fast to enjoy it. So I took a breath, set down my fork and waited until I was done chewing before I took another bite.  I wanted to enjoy my chicken and broccoli to the fullest.

When you are studying the Bible for class it can be easy to eat without tasting.  You can get so distracted studying the Bible for class and trying to finish assignments that you miss the experience of meeting God in the Word.  As you are nearing the end of this class don’t miss the opportunity to taste what you are eating and experience as you are reading.

*I had to write a devotional for a fictitious class for an assignment today for a faculty development class I’m taking.  This was the result. It’s speaking to imaginary students, but it’s also a good reminder to me as a finish final grading for the semester to read the words the students wrote and allow God to speak through them to me…as I grade them.

Photo credit: I totally took that picture on my iPhone today. Leftovers were delicious!

Family Planning vs. Family Trying

You innocently asked me if we planned on having any more children.  After nearly two years of trying I realize that I cannot “plan” to have another child; planning involves some confidence in my ability to produce the intended result.  I cannot plan to have another child, I can only hope and try to have another child.

Right now I’m trying and failing.

My daughter’s third birthday is two months away.  I always thought I wanted my kids about two years apart.  Now we’re looking at closer to four years apart, if I get pregnant soon.  One will be going into pre-school while I start the whole tired chaotic process all over again. If I can start the chaotic process all over again.

The questions never bothered me before. I’m a pretty open, honest person and don’t mind talking about my life or the details of it.  But this is becoming different.   Earlier this week, when I dreamed I was writing a blog post about my inability to conceive I realized that there is a lot more below the surface than I had been aware of.  I’m afraid that talking will lead to the dam of emotions breaking.

I tell myself that it’s okay that I’m not getting pregnant right now because I still have 40lbs to loose.  Or that it’s okay because I’m excited about my career moving forward. I tell myself that I’m lucky to have the one child that I do (who is currently singing, “happy birthday to you!” And trying to suction a hook to my shoulder); many women don’t have that.

But the longing is still there and it is growing, right along with my sense of powerlessness.

A few months ago a friend of mine got a new baby.  We went through all of my daughter’s clothes and she took the ones she wanted.  The rest I donated to our church’s garage sale.  I needed to let go of the past.  And, practically, if I get pregnant there’s a chance it won’t be a girl, which would mean those clothes were cluttering my storage space for no purpose. And it’s not like I don’t know a bunch of people who would give us hand me downs if we had a girl so it’s not like our kid would go unclothed.  And if I don’t get pregnant, I don’t want them there to remind me every time I go into that room to do laundry.

It is easy to want what you don’t have, even when you’re grateful for what you do have.

I could find out I’m pregnant tomorrow, in which case I’d feel foolish for posting this today.  But to the best of my knowledge I am not pregnant and it is heavy on my heart and I need to let myself feel so I am writing.  And posting.  And admitting I want another child and that it is out of my hands.

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