Lifting the Hands that Hang Down

I'm an internal processor and, I suspect like most internal processors, prefer stillness and the ministry of presence when I'm suffering or confused or in pain. I don't run to a multitude of counselors or need to process my feelings with seven to ten friends or even more than one. I don't like hearing platitudes or trite cliches. Getting preached at or rebuked in the midst of pain only shuts me down further. What I desire is the gift of presence. 

This can be a hard gift to give though because we're a fix it quick culture, even within the church. We want to answer, minister, heal, advise, counsel, and find the fastest way through the searing loss. 

A story I've gone back to again and again and again in the past two years is the man who saw men as trees walking. I find such comfort in the half-way healing of a blind man. Jesus completed the healing and it wasn't his intention to leave the man with incomplete sight, but for some reason, he did not heal him completely immediately. I am fascinated with this Jesus. What is Jesus trying to say about himself in that moment? What aspect of his character did he want the man and those standing around to see? The thing I keep coming back to is this: Jesus completes the work, but the timing isn't always what we expect. I've quoted this before, but Zack Eswine says, "It's not our job to finish what Jesus has left unfinished." So much of our Christianese platitudes are just that: trying to wrap up, seal, heal, and solidify what Jesus is still in the process of working in. 

We all know someone today who is suffering in some way. Perhaps a physical ailment, or walking through a confusing situation, or who just lost someone special. I know, for me, the past two years have been rote with suffering and a lot of it was the sort people don't look at as the Real Suffering. Moving cross-country three times, miscarrying, my husband's job loss, confusion about church situations, losing 100k on our house sale, witnessing the shooting of a police-officer and then living in a city where we heard gunshots weekly for a year, it felt like everywhere I looked I saw dimly, mere shapes of what was real, but not anything solid or real or hope-inducing. There was no one thing that I could point to and say, "This is what hurts." Everything hurt. Everything was tender. Everything was painful to touch or even talk about. 

In those spaces, a few friends gave me the gift of presence and it made such a difference for me. I knew the truth of the gospel and the Word of God. What I didn't need was to be pounded over the head with things I knew were true, but which didn't feel true. There were plenty of counselors and advisers and good-idea-givers, lots of times I said things rote with confusion and was met with less than empathy, many moments of sadness and awkward silence. But what meant the most, looking back, was: 

The gift of flowers or a plant.

A note in the mail or under my office door.

An offer to drop a meal off at my house.

A drive out of the cities and into the mountains or country together.

Someone who simply listened, who wept when I did. 

A good, long hug

An envelope full of cards, gift-cards, and money. 

These might have seemed a small thing to the givers, but they meant paramount things to us in the moment. They were the ministry of presence to us in a time when nothing could fix all that felt broken except Jesus—who for our good and his glory had left those things unfixed for that moment. 

Here's my encouragement to you today (and some I gave to myself this morning regarding a few friends): think of a few friends who are suffering, maybe (especially?) suffering silently, and give them the gift of presence. It's really easy to lavish gifts on people who have success, lots of notice, are surrounded by hordes of people, where you know your gift will be Instagrammed and given shout-out about on social media. Something in our flesh loves to give more to those people for some reason. I'm not sure why. But those quiet sufferers might need it more today. That bouquet of flowers showing up anonymously or with a card simply stated they're loved and seen, or that tight hug in a hallway or coffee shop, or the offer to just drive an hour or two away from it all for a bit—these things mean more than most of us can know from our relative place of peace and joy.

Sometimes we can't lift our own drooping hands or strengthen our weak knees, and we need the Church to come alongside us and help. I'm praying if you need that today, someone sees, and if you can be that today, you are. 

Blessed are the Homesick

It is midwinter, or nearly so, and we got a small dusting of snow last week as if God was saying, "It is winter and I'll prove it to you." The windows have been open the last two days though and the air has that damp, mossy scent of midwinter or, in the colder climate of my home, early spring when all the snow has melted. It has been hard to be content here this year and yesterday the day began folding in on itself before it had really begun. It was still dark outside and I was late for an appointment, my keys locked in the car and my husband nearly to work with his set. He met me last night with profuse apologies for locking them in there and I'd forgiven him before it happened. It wasn't him I was so mad at, it was all of the other things that are out of my control and how helpless I feel to change any of it. I read a checklist of sorts the other day, questions to ask when you feel, as the article termed it, dead inside. I don't feel dead inside, not in the least, but I do feel numb and cold and sad and really, really tired in a way I've never felt before. One of the questions was, "How much new are you facing?" I said to Nate later that night, reading that question felt the same as when I queried on social media about good mattresses to buy because we have struggled to sleep deeply this year, and my mother-in-law quipped, "It could have something to do with the fact that in the space of one year, you've had to learn to sleep in three different time zones." It was a moment of clarity for me, and the empathy I've longed for from someone else. "Oh. Three different time zones. I am tired, and it's not a tired a good night sleep will fix."

This isn't meant to be an excuse, though I know it sounds of one. It's more just a reminder to me that I don't receive the grace God gives in the form of common things like sleep or good coffee or a good cry on the back porch or a long bath. I don't receive them without their sniggling sidekick shame.

Last night after Nate's apologies about the keys and after I told him, again, it was an honest mistake (And by honest, I don't just mean not intentional, I mean, they were locked in there because he had tried to serve me by starting the car early with one set on that one snowy day and locking the front door with the other set.), we had a fight. We don't do shouting matches and stomped feet and slamming doors, but last night was the first time in our marriage I wanted to. I felt so misunderstood and unheard and unable to explain how deeply sad and tired I am about some things—things I'd beg you to not assume, because either they're not that complex and the joke's on me, or they are, and the joke's on you. The base of our fight rested on the premise of every fight known to man since those two feuding brothers in Genesis four: unmet expectations.

It is hard to learn the difference between good hopes and bad ones, godly ones and ungodly ones, righteous longings and selfish ones. Even the most righteous hope can be tinged with self-gain and even the nastiest longing finds its roots in the hope for something good and right. We love, Saint Augustine said, in a disordered way. We either want the right thing in a wrong way or the wrong thing in the right way and we press the longing for God farther and further down, until someone asks what we want, and we can't even answer straight because we're so confused.

Nate asked me last night what would happen if I didn't get what I want (in this case, a good and right God-ordained desire) and I couldn't answer. And when I finally did, I sputtered out words about knowing the theological answer but not being able to shake the unshakeable longing in my heart for what I know is right.

I woke this morning with the words from Psalm 68:6 in my head, "He sets the lonely in families," and then I read this from Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), author of Out of Africa, or, if you prefer—as I do—Babette's Feast and more.

Nobody has seen the trekking birds take their way towards such warmer spheres as do not exist, or rivers break their course through rocks and plains to run into an ocean which is not to be found. For God does not create a longing or a hope without having a fulfilling reality ready for them. But our longing is our pledge, and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.

I know there is a home out there, a place where we will eventually settle and be settled, and as much as I long for it to be somewhere on earth, it may not come until the earth is new and the kingdom of God is established on it. This morning, though, I am comforted by Blixen's blessing, "Blessed are the homesick," because there is a promise of God following it: one day, we shall go home.

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Leaving and Loving Your Church

Screen Shot 2016-12-27 at 10.57.34 AM This is a great post in itself, and something Nate and I have been talking a lot about recently. One of the things I loved about it, though, is there is a sentence in it that I recognized immediately. I knew it from memory, and sure enough, it was linked back to the covenant membership document from my home church in Texas.

I loved that.

When I read the words in the link above and recognized them from memory, it's because I said them often, across tables from prospective members, in the membership gatherings, and to myself when I struggled with sin, fear, anger, or loneliness. The membership covenant at The Village Church was my visible and verbal reminder of a spiritual commitment to a messy myriad of mere humans. And it is good and right to miss them, to know that they can never be replaced, to know that God doesn't promise to give us another family like them, but to know also that church membership is more than just a social engagement, a check off list, and what you're just supposed to do as a Christian.

Leaving a church family should not be like leaving Exodus for the Israelites, yet I've heard many people compare it to such. Longing for yesterday. Longing for those people. Missing them deeply and dearly. It seems in church culture sometimes we work so hard on getting people to understand covenant membership, yet when they really do understand it, but God calls them away for a season or forever, we don't have patience for the excruciating pain of separating what was joined together. It ought to be painful. If it isn't, it wasn't really understood.

We miss The Village, and not, though many think, because of Matt's preaching. We both love Matt and the whole Chandler clan, but the gift of Matt's preaching is a tiny, tiny sliver of what we miss about our family there. We miss the community. We miss the culture of confession. We miss the corporate worship. We miss the familiar liturgy of the seasons and series. We miss our elders, men of age and wisdom. We miss our mothers, women of insight and leadership. We miss our counselors. We miss our messy living situations. We miss the many folks we each walked through church discipline with. We miss those we served alongside. We miss the collective page turning. We miss bleeding, crying, binding up, teaching, learning, serving, and submitting.

Missing your church family is not like missing Exodus, it's missing the taste of the promised land to come. If we have tasted the grapes of God's future kingdom, we ought to never stop longing for its wine.

If you miss your church, for whatever reason God has called you to another place for another season, feel free to mourn with hope, but mourn with reality too. God is building His church, scattered over every nation and full of every tongue, and you got a glimpse, however short, of it. Don't ever forget that, not ever. Hold onto it with hope.

Really, Truly, Deeply? Really?

I read a quote from two of my favorite people the other day: "In a gospel-centered marriage, we can be really, truly, deeply known and at the same time really, truly, deeply loved." I've learned more about the gospel from one of those people than anyone in my life so I'm reticent to push back on this idea, but it wouldn't be the first time I've given him a hard time, so here's my careful pushback to this common idea in the church. 1. Even within marriage you will never be wholly known by one another. 2. Outside of marriage you are still known and loved.

Within earthly marriage, which is a beautiful picture of the gospel, we are still clinging to these earthly tents. We can never be truly known inside any human relationship and indeed we are not meant to be. There is beautiful ahava, a give, a love within marriage. A selflessness, a caring, a joy, for sure. But there is not the elusive juxtaposition of being fully known/fully loved. This only exists within life in Christ. When we say this what we communicate to married people is they're missing something if they don't feel truly known by the other person. And we communicate to unmarried people they can never be really known outside of marriage.

The church should be the place that gently lifts the heads of two people in a less than perfect marriage (which is all of us) and sets their eyes on Christ as the one who knows and loves them fully now, so they can be set free to love and know one another as fully partially as they're able here on earth.

The church should be the place that gently lifts the heads of unmarried people and shows them how men like Paul and Jesus and women like Lydia and Mary were fully known and loved by their Father, but fully misunderstood by the men and women around them—and yet they still pressed forward in love doing amazing acts of church planting, bearing the Son of God, miracles, and writing more than half of the New Testament.

Neither married people, nor unmarried people will ever feel as really, truly, and deeply known as the ache in our hearts tells us we ought to feel. It is so easy to paint the picture within the Church that marriage can be the nirvana of earthly existence—but friends, if marriages quells all the longing inside of you for something more, than your marriage is not actually gospel-centered, but earthly-centered. Marriage should smack of a holy discontent and a fervent desire to be fully known and fully loved by Christ alone, who then empowers us to walk by the spirit in how we love and know others incompletely.

In the same vein, singleness should meet that holy discontent in the middle and know with full assurance that waiting for marriage to feel known and loved is foolish. Start now. First, Christ does it with more ardor than any spouse ever will. Second, the relationships you have in your life right now can be some of the richest you will ever know if you will submit yourself to being known and loved in them. It's an act of submission, to be sure, letting your weaknesses be seen, challenged, and pressed into, but Christ has set a good example for you in His submission to His Father on the cross.

Friend, you may be in the happiest marriage known to man or the hardest, you may be joyfully single for life or you may be limping through every day in your wait, but you are fully known and fully loved now. Go now, and love and know as truly as you're able—albeit imperfectly—knowing the gospel is no respecter of marital status even as it displays the perfect union of Christ and His bride.

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Leaving and Cleaving to the Local Church

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 8.29.24 AMI never thought I'd be the girl without a family, the willingly orphaned. We left Texas in tears, reading our congratulatory wedding cards on the drive to Colorado through weeping and intermittent sobbing. By we, I mean me. I love my church family in Texas, never have I left a place looking behind me as I did there; pioneering is in my blood, forging ahead, new, change, adventure. By the time we came to the end of our time in Denver, our first year of marriage was forged in the fire of unemployment, miscarriages, violence, financial loss, and a church leadership crisis. There was no one reason that pressed us out, but the compilation all the reasons made it easier to leave. We looked eastward and hoped for home.

. . .

When I first signed the membership covenant at my church in Texas six years ago, I did it with a confident flourish. My life had been changed there, my understanding of God rocked, settled, firmed, and set to rest. I would have signed my name in blood if it were an option. This was how committed I was to seeing my family thrive there. Years of struggle, walking through imperfect discipline with imperfect people, rubbing up against imperfect leadership and failure to do things the way I envisioned didn't change my commitment though. Every year, when the time to renew came, I signed the document with joy and confidence. This was my family and family will always fail you, but you don't back away, you press in. I was the church membership girl, her biggest evangelist.

When we arrived in Denver I asked about signing something, a promise, a covenant to this new body, but I was co-opted in, it seems, by virtue of being employed there. It never felt right with me, but nothing in my life felt right then, everything was new and different and I didn't know which things were wrong and which were just new. When the email came from my Texas family a few months after we left, telling members it was time to renew, it broke my heart to archive it knowing I was saying "No" to them and still didn't feel like I was saying "Yes" to anything else yet.

Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him," but sometimes that rest comes through commitment to a people and a place, and sometimes it takes a long time to get there.

. . .

Before I got married I would encourage my single friends to not view the church as some sort of social gathering or authority setting, but instead to view it as family, through and through. I believed strongly then (and still believe it for my friends) that if God had marriage for me, then it would come through the family of my church. This was an unpopular view, but I held to it without wavering.

Then, one day, in the foyer of my family's home, with our family milling around us, I met him. It was without incident, without much notice, without care. I noted his beard. He noted my recent travel overseas. We shared a few words of conversation not knowing that less than six months later we'd be sharing everything with one another. I didn't know it, but there, on the threshold of my family's home, I crossed the threshold of my married home.

. . .

We have been in D.C. now for seven months. We live in a neighboring city twenty miles as the crow flies from Capitol Hill. But for the same reason I swore I would never live here, it takes Nate a generous average of three hours a day in travel to go to and from work in the city each day. That travel time is the same reason it has taken us nearly seven months to settle on a church home, and it was not the church home we envisioned when we moved here.

We moved here broken, hurting, limping. We felt the weight of failure in every direction: our ability to hold a job, keep a job, love the church, carry a baby, feel safe, pay our mortgage, and more. No illusion of comfort was kept. We felt the fracture down to our core in a way neither of us had ever felt before. Some thought we were pining for what one pastor called, "Our hot ex-girlfriend" of a church, the thriving family we had in Texas, but the thought of comparing my family to a hot ex-girlfriend, a once and done, a flavor of the week is abhorrent to me. She was my family—still is my family, if we believe there is something spiritual about the church covenant (and I do). But that actually wasn't even what we longed for at all.

We wanted a quiet place, a family that had been pastored for 30 years by the same man who didn't use social media and who didn't care about who you knew; a place that was elder-led by an equality of elders. A still and small place, a local place, a place where we could mourn and not be judged, a place where we could weep in the back row and not be rushed to counseling or medication or quick fixes, a place where we could just say, "Hey, we're broken right now and just want a family." But we couldn't find that place and the searching grew wearisome, week after week our search taking us farther from our local village. Finally we heard about a church that would be planted in the fall and we came to know the pastor and his family. We decided that if what we wanted wasn't possible, maybe God could use us in their lives and them in ours as long as he had us here, while we made plans to relocate to a smaller city. Their friendship is a sweet one, and a needed one. He is pastoral and gentle and vulnerable and fun. She is strong and wise and kind and a friend. We love and are loved by their children. It was not the family we envisioned, but it was the family God set us in for the time we're here. The church is a month old this week.

. . .

I was telling a friend the other day that in all my years of singleness I never once felt my lack of a husband the way I have felt my lack of a church family this year. I wish I could somehow communicate this to my yet unmarried friends—the longing for a nuclear family is not wrong, and there is something beautiful and dear and illustrative of God's family in a nuclear family, but your church family is—I promise you this—a more lasting and better family than the one you envision or the one you have.

I thought I understood this before, but I have really come to understand it this year. I love my husband and would not trade him for anything on earth, he is a gift to me brought in God's time and God's way. But I ache for my church family in a way I never ached for a husband before I knew God would bring me Nate. God does not promise earthly marriage to us, but He does promise family to us, and the Church itself is God's promise of marriage and a family. It is the promise that Christ is coming again to bring His bride home. It is the promise that He is making all things new. It is the promise that on earth we are spotted and blemished and imperfect and terrible at so many things, but He is washing us with the water of the Word and He is coming to perfect us with His presence.

Friends, there are a thousand difficult things about finding a local church, compounded when you're married and you need to agree on those things with your spouse, but as imperfect as she is, and incomplete as she feels, she is God's design for covenant on earth. She is the opportunity to practice what God has made perfect in the new kingdom and new earth. I am still struggling with this reality in ways I haven't in years. Last night Nate and I talked long while the candles burned low, about the ins and outs of church membership and church membership here and there and what God has taught us and is still teaching us and it was good, but hard, but good.

Something that is true of marriage that is also true of life in the Bride of Christ on earth: disagreement about next steps or future living or big decisions don't have to mean division, they just mean you talk a little more, listen a little more, ask more questions, pray more, seek understanding more than you seek to be understood. The church is like any other family in that way: work, but oh what a good work.